Drummer Steve Barney on inspiration, Anastacia and what keeps him behind the kit
Anastacia, inspirations and more
Steve Barney is one of the UK’s most respected and accomplished session drummers, having worked with the likes of Annie Lennox, Sugababes, Jeff Beck, Mike & The Mechanics and Anastacia.
Today, as he is enjoying a well-earned break between what are no doubt exhausting world tours with his long-standing gig drumming for Anastacia, not to mention depping in Genesis star Mike Rutherford’s Mike & The Mechanics, we took the opportunity to quiz Steve on what he’s been up to lately and his own personal sources of drumming inspiration.
How do you see the session world as having changed in the last couple of years?
“It’s really hard to say because it’s not that I don’t consider myself to be in the session world, of course I am - I’m a freelance drummer, but I don’t really have my ear to the ground for loads of work. Anastacia is a gig that I got back in 2009, it’s something that I’ve had for a while, so it’s hard for me to comment on the state of the session scene.
"There are people who are a lot busier than me, or should I say, they do a lot more work with different artists, whereas I’ve worked with just a handful of artists. I think with me being up in Liverpool, while that’s never been a problem, I don’t really have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on with the London studio world as such. But I do think it’s changed: budgets have changed things.
"Ultimately you’ve got new up and coming players who are fantastic and that adds more options for producers and MDs to choose from; so while it gives to one person it will take away from another, which is the circle of life really.
"The live scene seems more popular than ever, while records don’t sell like they used to, artists are not being forced to go out but they are making more off touring and live work, which is ultimately great for us drummers.”
How did the recording of Anastacia’s album work?
“I was asked by her manager to play on the album, then I was sent demos of the songs of where they were up to as far as to what they already had, so they programmed drums and then I guess they wanted a human, live feel on there.
"I wasn’t in a room with a load of musicians, it was actually just me with a track that had been recorded, and I did it all in a day to be honest, it was a quick thing. I played on about six tracks, and four have survived on the album from what I recorded, so that may have been for a number of reasons.
"They may have preferred to have the original demo sounds. I didn’t have much time to learn the stuff because we were touring the UK at the time so I just hired a rehearsal space in Brighton with the demos one day before we had a show that night. I wrote everything out and learned it ready for the session.”
How much room do you have on a big pop gig like that to stretch out or change things up?
“We start off like everyone by hearing the studio versions, and then over time they elaborate on certain arrangements. Some things need to be closer to the original than others, but other things do get changed.
"Sometimes you think, ‘Oh we’re playing this quite straight,’ but for some reason you haven’t heard the original for some time and you go back to it and you realise it’s really changed loads, but you thought you were doing the same version!
"So it’s a mixture of the two really, it’s not like you completely redefine the original record. People do want to come and hear and recognise stuff, but at the same time they want a show with it.
“Over the years, over the four or five tours I’ve done with her, we’ve evolved the set from the year before, but again it really depends on what the artist wants.
"There are some people that you can go and see and the band’s really playing out quite a lot, sometimes I think to the detriment of the stuff, and other times it makes it better. It’s down to what you prefer.
"But Anastacia has been a really great gig, I’ve been doing that since 2009, with a bass player-MD and we’ve covered a lot of ground, it’s been great musically and work-wise.”
You’re playing Natal drums, what is it about that company that you like?
“I’ve got a Bubinga kit, two racks, two floors and two snare drums, and I’m just really happy with how the kit has performed; I was with another company for years, who I was really happy with and I wish them nothing but the best, but it was just a general feeling of wanting to change.
"I guess you don’t know when you change whether you’re going to be truly happy with something until you take them out on the road. But I’ve been really pleased with not only how the kit has felt and been playable for me but also the response I’ve had from the band members, the sound engineers and various drummer friends who’ve come and heard me play, and have been really supportive of how good the kit sounds.
"The support has been great, we’ve been in countries where we’ve not been able to fly our own gear and Natal have been great at looking after us, which is really essential.”
What personally inspires your drumming today?
“It’s the same spark [as always], although things have evolved over the years where it’s become a job now, but that’s not the inspiration… although being a father and a husband you’re going to be inspired to work to support your family. My initial spark was not that at all - it was just playing drums and trying to set your kit up like Phil Collins [laughs]!
“I’m inspired by so many things, I still love to go and see concerts and I’m lucky that by being in the industry and knowing a lot of people in the industry I can get myself on guest lists, and so I’ll end up seeing shows that I maybe wouldn’t have seen if I didn’t have that opportunity.
"I still like to go and see gigs just to check out what’s out there because I think it’s important. I’m inspired by stuff I see, by the drummers that I hear. I’m inspired by every drummer I’ve ever seen or heard in one way or another, even if you’re not into a particular drummer’s style or you can’t play like that, I think there’s merit in what you see and hear."
Are there any drummers you’ve seen lately that have inspired you?
“I really think Dexter Hercules is an incredible drummer; his star is rising massively in quite a short space of time, he inspires me because I’ve seen him play and I really think he’s extraordinary as a drummer. To see people like that, you really get inspired by them.
"And the older I get, I’m inspired to see some older drummers who are still working! I’m not going to say who but people whose names you see out there, it’s inspiring to think that there is a pedigree, some older guys who are still working – I’m inspired by that! I guess I’m still carrying the same spark that got me into drumming in the first place!”
Becoming a better drummer...and musician
You must get inspired by the artists you play with as well?
“Yeah, I’m definitely inspired by the artists that I play with and the various artists and set-ups that I’ve played with have made me a better drummer… they have actually made me a better musician. I think I was maybe a better drummer years ago, but I’m a better musician now than I was. I was so lucky to play with Annie Lennox on three of her solo tours, the musicians in that band, and Anastacia’s band... it’s just been incredible.”
You had a brief period a couple of years ago where Anastacia’s health caused her to have to cancel her tour and you found yourself without a gig. How do you inspire yourself in those situations when you may have lost a gig?
“If you have one particular gig as your main income, it’s a good thing because you commit and you’re loyal to that artist. But should that artist either cancel doing something or fall ill like Anastacia did in that 18-month period we’re talking about… her cancer came back so everything we were going to do was cancelled, for completely understandable reasons. But that left me without my main gig, and at the same time my own dad had leukaemia, which is now in remission thankfully… so there were a few things going on.
"It wasn’t just that people stopped ringing me, it was that the main gig that I had disappeared. And I suppose my main advice regarding that would be that it’s important to stay in touch. It sounds a bit cliched, but as far as networking is concerned I think it’s important even when you are busy with an artist to always keep your ear to the ground and stay in contact with people on other gigs because you never know what might happen.
"With any gig. Every artist has got the right and the choice to change the band around, even if you’ve done nothing wrong, just to get a fresh approach to the songs, it’s happened to me on other gigs in the past.
"As a professional man or woman it’s never a given that the next tour is yours. Anastacia is going out next year and I’d like to think that I’ll be involved, but I don’t take it for granted that I’m doing it until I’m sitting on the bus! Maybe on the one hand that’s me being protective of my emotions, but at the same time I know how the industry can be and nothing’s guaranteed.”
How do you inspire yourself to get behind the kit, particularly in those situations where you may have hit a wall with your playing or your drumming career?
“I’ll be honest, during the time that I just shared with you there, I didn’t play much at all! And it’s bad to admit, but I’m not someone who spends days and days shedding at the kit; on the one hand you can say that’s lazy, which it possibly is [laughs] but then I’m inspired when I know I’ve got something coming up and I’m really focussed and I put time and effort into it.
"Like, say for example, a tour, I spend lots of time playing leading up to that. But I think it’s good for people to spend some time playing every day or as much as they can, even just to an album that they love; just play along to that. When I was learning you would just play along to your favourite records, and imagine you were that drummer you were listening to on that record.”
Do you find inspiration in drum education and in learning more about yourself as a drummer?
“I like to think I’m still evolving, I don’t know if it’s just the maturity in my playing, but I’ve never been a chopsy drummer, although some of the gigs I’ve done, arguably Jeff Beck and stuff like that, it definitely wasn’t watching-paint-dry music! But I am inspired to keep evolving on the drums but hopefully more in a musical sense with a sensitivity to what’s going on around me.
“I like to think that - maybe not necessarily in terms of my own chops - I’ve become a better musician by playing with other people. And I think that one of the best things you can do as a drummer is to play with as many people as possible, that really can help your playing and development.
"Playing with other people makes you play differently. Everyone’s got their own personality and I think that every musician I’ve played with has helped me in my drumming, because of the way you respond to people that you play with.”