Jamie Perkins, drummer with female-fronted hard rock outfit The Pretty Reckless, is more than 10 long minutes into a drum solo when it becomes clear that something a little special and more than a little unusual is happening.
A blur of hair under the hot stage lights, Jamie’s pounding the toms and pedalling the double kicks, smashing cymbals and triggering backing tracks for a genuinely appreciative Birmingham crowd who, you would have thought, might be impatient for the return of the band’s beautiful and TV-famous singer, Taylor Momsen – after all this is slap bang in the middle of the band’s only encore, playing one of their biggest hits.
“‘F**ked Up World’ has a percussion break in it,” explains Jamie of the origins of his solo, “so when I was playing it live I was doing a drum break – and the rest of the band was, ‘Hey, you should do a drum solo!’ I was very reluctant to do one, I think drum solos can be hit and miss, I think you can lose a lot of the audience if you don’t do it right.
“So in the summer we were doing a lot of festivals and in the time off in between I worked the solo out, I got together with my buddy, did a track for it that I trigger half-way through… And it was scary, we play ‘F**ked Up World’ as the encore and I didn’t necessarily want to play a solo in the encore, I figured I’d be watching people walk out the door and head to their cars!
"So when I was working on it I really wanted to make it entertaining. Rather than show off chops I really wanted it to be fun for the crowd, and for me and for everybody, so I didn’t see people leave! And, except for New York City, everybody pretty much sticks around.”
The Pretty Reckless is fronted by former TV star Taylor Momsen, previously best known for US teen TV drama Gossip Girl. Taylor is, it turns out, a songwriter with a huge talent for penning hooky, radio-friendly hard rock songs delivered with the kind of dirty, bluesy voice and ballsy attitude that brings to mind classic Joan Jett.
With decades of rock heritage distilled into a sound that is grunge, glam-punk, blues and classic hard rock in equal amounts, Taylor’s onstage charisma and fantastic voice are backed with considerable musical skill by Ben Phillips’ guitar, Mark Damon’s bass and Jamie Perkins’ drums. And Jamie’s impressive and lengthy solo spot reveals a band that are not afraid to pull out all the stops when it comes to live performance.
Serious about rock
Jamie’s love of music from an early age led him to dissect the songs he was hearing – developing a musician’s ear, and eye, that would serve him well later on.
“Certain songs would capture my imagination and I can remember even before I started playing anything I would stay up and watch videos and try and work out what the musicians were doing – does the drummer really use all of his limbs, and how is the guitar player making that sound?”
This fascination led, naturally enough, to taking lessons at school, and Jamie stuck at it long enough that his parents bought him his first kit. From there though, Jamie still had to break into school band, made difficult thanks to a surplus of budding tub-thumpers.
“There were so many drummers already that the music instructor tried to convince me to drop drums and try something else,” he says. “But I was, and am, pretty stubborn, so I stuck with it and in a couple of months I had surpassed my other class members, kind of like, ‘I’m serious about this guys!’” And as for the direction Jamie would head off in once he got behind the kit, there would only be one real calling: rock.
“That’s not to say that I didn’t discover other genres along the way but rock was my first love, and still is,” he says. “I was listening to a lot of guys like Lars Ulrich and Stewart Copeland, and that just sort of morphed into other people like Danny Carey from Tool – and Matt Cameron from Soundgarden became a huge influence.
"I kind of feel like you can pick up something as a drummer from most other drummers, so I really started paying attention to other genres – so all the James Brown drummers… obviously Bonham and Moon, all of them added something to my drumming. Just going bombastic and playing non-stop fills, I can’t attribute that to anybody but Keith Moon! And sitting there trying to bang out a solid but funky rock groove, that’s got to be John Bonham… and if I’m doing any hi-hat trickery it’s Stewart Copeland. You know you look to certain drummers for certain aspects of playing.”
After growing his chops in a number of different bands, Jamie caught his first real break – and one that would sow the seeds for his current gig – when he hooked up with guitarist and songwriter Ben Phillips in grungey early ’00s rock band Famous.
“I had already played in a band with Mark [Damon, bass player] and then Mark had actually quit that band, and Ben was one of the guys he started working with. Things weren’t working out with their drummer at the time so I got a call from Ben asking me to fill in.”
This band would later form the backbone of The Pretty Reckless, but it seems it wasn’t all quite written in the stars, and a clash of personalities could have derailed it from the start. “I was hesitant,” admits Jamie of his chance to work with the guitarist, “because I didn’t know what to think of Ben at first. Ben was very outspoken, and very critical… I was very used to being one of the leaders of the band, and with Ben he was the leader and it was the first time I had to listen to someone else, the first time I’d had to step down from that role. But we figured our stuff out.
"It was the worst when I was playing the stuff they’d already recorded, but once we started to work as a band on new stuff I think we came to a better understanding of how we could help each other out.”
Famous put out one album in 2005, All The Wicked, packed full of big, grungey rock anthems in the vein of Soundgarden, a solid enough sound that they would take into a second recording session with producer Kato Khandwala… but fate would lend a big step-up in the shape of Taylor Momsen, who had written a bunch of rock songs and was looking for a band to help her realise those tunes.
“She basically just joined our band and became the singer and took over!” laughs Perkins.
A fortunate turn of events
Taylor Momsen had already made a name for herself as a child actor, starring in Jim Carrey Christmas film The Grinch, and later landing a big role in teen TV drama Gossip Girl. She was also a model before she quit all that to focus on her main love, rock music – and having made a connection with Famous producer Kato Khandwala, it was only a matter of time before she was introduced to guitarist Ben Phillips – and it seems they immediately clicked. Recalls Jamie, “Taylor heard the Famous album we’d made with Kato and said, ‘Well that’s kind of what I want to sound like, why don’t you guys just become my band? And we did. It was a very random but fortunate turn of events…”
The transition from playing in Famous to becoming The Pretty Reckless was fairly seamless, with one key extra ingredient in Ms Momsen.
“I’d [always] stay out of the way of vocals, but I never really concentrated on them – I was concentrating on rhythms and what was happening with the band, and when we started playing with Taylor it very much became, ‘Do not get in the way of the vocals.’ Which is great, because it forces you to be creative in other ways.
"But as far as adapting we didn’t really have to adapt too much, because she liked what she heard so she wasn’t trying to change anything – it was, ‘We’ll just become this band now.’”
But while vocals still take precedence, Jamie says that, “It’s less that than us trying to play as an ensemble now, trying to balance ourselves musically and stay interesting without slaughtering the song – and it’s still definitely let Taylor shine while she’s singing. But they’ll tell me if I’m doing a fill they don’t like!”
With Jamie having played with Ben and Mark before, it’s obvious that the three of them lock in extremely well as a band. This evidently proves vital when it comes to arrangements. With so many hooks from the guitar parts and vocal melodies, it’s a real trick to stay out of the way as a drummer, especially live – to accent and enhance, without trampling all over the sonic space needed for the other instruments to shine when they need to. But that has proved no problem for Jamie – Rhythm witnesses a band performance that’s raw and rocking, with enough enjoyable live interaction between the guitars, drums and vocals without distracting from Taylor’s perfectly-crafted songs.
“It’s instinctual,” says Jamie of knowing just when and what to play, “it helped we’d been a band for a few years and done a ton of touring so we kind of knew how to play off of one another, and the main rule was never get in the way of or distract from the vocal.
"If I can play something to that vocal line and not get in the way or interrupt the groove then I will, but for the most part that’s the golden rule. And honestly [in terms of the studio] a lot of the guitar lines hadn’t been flushed out yet when I recorded the drums – it was lay it down, get the general feel of the song then Ben can work out his stuff later. Then live if we play it and he comes up with something I can accent or play along to then I will – live you can spread your wings because that basic outline of a song is there, it’s already been recorded, then you can kind of go off and make it your own.”
So while there’s room for the musicians to jam things out live, Jamie has his head on straight as far as his core role in the music is concerned.
“There’s obviously places where we stick to the arrangement of the song but live we try and stretch our wings a little bit and do whatever – I think they wish I would go off a little bit more playing those parts, but we’re a rock band and I want to keep it solid. You’re the anchor as a drummer and I’m more interested in us staying together as a unit than me showing off my chops. So I try to balance that.”
The world vs The Pretty Reckless
The band released their debut album, Light Me Up, in 2010. It was an album packed with hooky, melodic rock tunes that already displayed a songwriting maturity from Momsen and solid rock guitar and drum parts crafted carefully around the vocal hooks.
'You Make Me Wanna Die’ and ‘Miss Nothing’ are backed with power but restraint from Jamie, but it nonetheless confirmed that here was a band with real identity and potential. But it wasn’t easy getting the world to accept and recognise a real band fronted by a known actress-model; a double-edged sword to the band’s career.
“There’s a lot of both [pros and cons],” admits Jamie. “I think the pro is that we had a built-in audience, there were people that would check us out that were curious, and hopefully liked what they heard and kept coming back. The biggest con is that people are sceptical when they hear about a celebrity starting a band, they don’t necessarily think it’s legit, or it’s a vanity project, so you’re battling that cynicism towards your band kind of from go.”
And indeed going in to record the first album, Light Me Up, the pressure was really on the band and Taylor to deliver the goods right off the bat.
“There was a good amount of pressure recording that album,” says Jamie. “There were a lot of expectations on Taylor to succeed musically: the spotlight was on her, she was just getting out of acting and so many people are sceptical when they hear an actor is making an album – and I have to admit I was one of those people [laughs]! Ben sent me two demos, ‘Since You’re Gone’ and ‘Make Me Wanna Die’, and I said, ‘How doctored is this? Is this actually what she sounds like?’ And he said, ‘It’s not doctored, these are rough demos,’ and I said, ‘I’m in!’ They just sounded fantastic, and after that there was no scepticism because I saw the potential from those first two songs.”
At this point, and with a different touring band waiting in the wings, Jamie and his Famous compadres were essentially still session players hired for a studio date.
“[Taylor] hadn’t gotten the idea of us being a band yet, we were going in to record the album because she’d liked ours, but the recording of it went well enough that I think she was just like, ‘This is ridiculous, why don’t you guys just become the band?’”
When it came to album number two, the band had gelled as a unit and lessons had been learned in performing live. “With Light Me Up there was more production,” says Jamie. “There were string arrangements and backing vocals everywhere, and when we went to play all of it live we realised that we didn’t want to do tracks, we wanted to be a traditional rock band – so we kind of realised through the course of learning how to play the songs on Light Me Up that live, to make up for all those missing bells and whistles, we just had to rock out – just turn up the guitars and go for it.
"So coming in to Going To Hell we tried to make it more of a band album and strip away those bells and whistles and let it be a band so it could translate musically into the live setting.”
But, disaster struck, literally, in Autumn 2012. The studio in Hoboken, New Jersey where the band were recording the album was hit by Hurricane Sandy as it ripped up the East Coast of America.
“The vibe was really good and the studio was set up specifically for us, it was going well, then Mother Nature wiped us out of commission,” Jamie tells us. “We were recording and next thing we knew our studio was under 10 feet of water. We lost a ton of equipment, we lost all kinds of stuff. The songs we recorded after that just wound up being a little angrier. We were pretty bitter about it, ’cos everything was going great.”
But great things can come out of adversity, and Jamie now says that the first track written after that, title track ‘Going To Hell’, is his favourite, drum-wise, from the album.
“We were all under pressure recording that song and we were pretty down in the dumps,” he recalls. “‘Going To Hell’ was the first song we recorded after the hurricane, so we had to go to another studio, everybody was pretty bugged out, trying to finish the album; we felt a little defeated by the whole process. But we had this new song and we really liked it – but it was definitely a time when we had to focus and come through – and I feel like I did.”
Pearl Reference: 12" & 13" toms, 16" and 18" floor toms, 24" kick, 14"x61⁄2" brass snare (“I always use 14"x61⁄2" and I prefer brass, I feel it has both of those qualities of having that fat backbeat but still having that ring and attack.”)
Paiste: Signature Precision & Signature Reflector heavy crashes, 18", 19", 20", 19"; 20" ride; Signature hi-hats.
Pearl hardware; Roland SPDS-X; Tama Iron Cobra kick pedals; Vater Power 5Bs