Copeland-approved funk hero
Two days after Gizmodrome played their first London show (and third gig ever) to a packed Scala, we meet with Pete Ray Biggin at his studio in south London.
Many drummers would be intimidated to fill the drum seat in a supergroup led by Stewart Copeland, but Biggin takes it all in his stride. His playing has obviously earned Copeland’s approval as the frontman introduces him to the audience as ‘the young lion’. Biggin may be the up-and-comer in the band of veterans, but he possesses an enviable musical history having played with Amy Winehouse, Incognito, and Mark Ronson.
As a kid, he looked up to Level 42 and their drummer Gary Husband (there’s a clip of a very young Biggin meeting his hero on YouTube). Then in 2010 Biggin was invited to take over Husband’s gig with the funksters and he’s been there ever since. When not laying down the groove with Level 42, Biggin leads his own band, PBUG or the PB Underground, showcasing his songwriting. He has just released his instructional book, Drums At The Front, containing charts from PBUG’s debut album Stand Up, as he preaches the gospel of funk to the drumming world.
When did you have the idea for Drums At The Front? Did Stand Up come first?
“It all started when I moved to London. I was in a band called Rain and then Amy Winehouse came in 2007, I started playing with Mark Ronson, had an idea to start a funk band, managed to pull some gigs in but never started writing. It started off doing Tower Of Power covers, all the great funk stuff. And all the good musicians were like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do the gig.’ It spiralled from there and it got to a point where I needed to write the album and finish it. I got through all that, it took me two years to make the album. Obviously, being on tour, it breaks it all up.
“When you’re 100 percent in the studio, things happen so quick but when you’re touring, you’re breaking it up. I did the album and the band has got a name now and we’re doing gigs. Obviously, you end up knowing every part inside out because I produced it and then I just had the idea of making it into an educational package. What I wouldn’t have given for that as a kid myself - priceless.
"If I could have got Incognito’s album or Level 42’s album without the drums, it would have changed my life. I really think the music and the musicians behind it, the song content, it’s really good. They’re good songs. Then we had it all scored out with the idea of doing it as Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced so young kids can play it, right up to pros.”
Was it a very different experience making your own album rather than being a hired player?
“It’s much harder, because you just can’t let stuff go. The thing is nothing is ever perfect. When musicians produce, it’s not the greatest thing because you’re just battling the whole time - let’s do it better. This is where a producer is good: ‘No, that take is fine. Go away.’ But when you’re doing it yourself, you’re a perfectionist so it actually took much longer than it would have done if I was a session musician, because you just do it and go home. When it’s your thing, it’s your baby and it’s got to be right.”
Where did you work on Stand Up?
“I was starting to gig quite a lot and my girlfriend at the time, we lived in a little one-bedroom flat in Chelsea, living the life in a little shoebox. I was like, ‘I can’t bring my drums here, I need a lock-up.’ I started looking around for one and I found a little room, which is where I started learning to record my drums.
"I bought a little set-up, some mics and it got to the point where I had my kit set up, I’d write some music with some guys: right, we need to get some horns in. Then I had to pack my drums down again with all the mics and the nice settings so the horn guys could come in. I realised I needed a bigger studio.
“I took this studio next door, which has a live room and a control room and literally built it from there. That was probably six years ago and that’s my studio now in Brentford. It’s actually got a really good drum sound in there because I recorded the album with no outboard gear, just straight in dry and then mixing it in the box afterwards.
"I’ve taken my recordings into Abbey Road and all my drums have gotten mixed in RAK Studios and people go, ‘Man, where did you record these drums?’ At my place. No outboard gear. You nurture that. You get to know your room inside out and that’s how it started. I just thought I’d be a drummer for bands. I never saw myself having a successful project, but I realised how the pop industry is really tough on musicians these days. I saw it with Amy, but Amy was my friend. How can hiring a drum kit be more expensive than hiring the drummer? I don’t get this.
“In the ’80s you had to come up through the ranks to get to the big gigs. Musicians came off tour and they bought themselves a house. There’s more money now but there’s less money for musicians. I saw this and I was like, ‘You know what, I don’t see myself in 10 years’ time in the pop industry. I want to set my own project up because this is rubbish. I don’t like how people are getting treated,’ but as a young session drummer, you want that big gig.
"That’s everyone’s dream but don’t forget, guys, you’re not in music, you’re in the music business so sort your business out. And young musicians don’t. These young guys at the labels don’t know any different, they have the musicians by the cojones.
“That’s why I started my own project and I just kept behind it. You’ve got to push something yourself and all that you are is a result of what you think, so I just had to push behind it.
"All the guys that came in and recorded the album believed in it and believed in me, so I had to do it. It’s got to the point now where the band has a fan base in Europe, we do big shows - in Ronnie Scott’s we sold out four shows.”
Who are you aiming the book at?
“I see so many young drummers who are phenomenal, all the chops, but no groove. Guys, no one is going to book you just for your chops. You might be the rare one who has a career from being a solo drummer, there are guys out there doing it but there are not as many as session drummers who work every weekend in function bands. There are millions of these guys and groove is what they get paid for. My point is with this book, these are not uninspiring MIDI tracks. This is the real album.
"Everyone these days has got a laptop, they’ve got some kind of recording facility whether it’s on a phone, with microphones and Logic-X on your laptop, it’s become very easy, accessible and cheap to record. These are the real album tracks, you get to play along to them, film yourself, and listen back to how you sound with real album tracks.
"The recording won’t lie. You sound as good as you sound coming back, so you can only better yourself from this. It’s not a record to just put it on and chop all over, like I used to. If you want to be a session drummer, this is going to help you because it would have helped me as a kid.”
Becoming a band leader
When you put PBUG together, did you have a good network of musicians from playing sessions?
“I just found all these great musicians were playing s**t music and getting paid rubbish, so I just thought, we didn’t get into it for this. I know we’ve got to pay our bills and blah blah blah. I started meeting great musicians when I started playing with Incognito and I was like, funk is my thing. I did a session at Abbey Road and I met the engineer and I got friendly with him.
"We’re talking, I said, ‘I’ve got this idea, man, I just want to put a little band together, get some horn players, like a James Brown project, we’d just go into the studio and press record. Mic us up, just experiment with the mics.’ That got the engineer’s ears going, and I said, ‘But I just need a bit of studio space,’ and the guy went, ‘Well, why don’t you come in next week? I’ve got Tuesday free.’ I went, ‘Yeah, that would be cool!’ So I got on the phone, let me organise this. I got two sets of musicians in and I paid them all £25 each just for expenses. They all wanted to do it, they were all like, ‘Yeah, I’ve just been playing with so-and-so which is boring. Let’s play, man.’
"I just vibed everyone up and they were into it. It literally went from going in the studio that day and getting three instrumentals and then the gigs came in. We did Tower Of Power stuff with the three instrumentals and then the further you go down the line the more it progressed into songs with singers.”
Was it tricky to grade the drum parts in the book into Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced levels?
“The thing is, man, it’s not a busy drumming album. It’s a groove album, so it has been hard to make it really simple because it’s simple anyway. So, we’ve made it even more simple but then the Intermediate, there’s a bit of difference, and the Advanced is just me playing. It’s not me going crazy, it’s just me.
"There is a difference between each one but it’s not that difficult. A five-year-old kid, if they can understand a bit of reading, they can play along to it. It’s very simple.”
Do you enjoy leading a band?
“It’s not just one person. Yeah, every car needs a driver but the driver does not know where he’s going without a direction and when he gets there he’s got a job to do and he needs to take people with him, so it is a teamwork thing for me.
"This band is not just about me, it’s about everyone who has come into it. I’ve had to be the driver but teamwork is key with anything, with a band, with life, teamwork is what gets you where you need to be.”
It looks like a big band, that must bring its own challenges.
“The smallest it can be is 10 pieces. I did not make it easy for myself. Our first gig, there were 17 people in the band. I went four horns, percussions, come on man, then after a few gigs I realised, s**t, how can I pay people doing this?
"We can’t even get out of London now. That was the hardest thing. Usually you start small, the band gets a bit famous, you start adding a few more people because there is a bit more money there. I just went as big as possible and then had to downsize. But also the quality of singers and musicians I wanted to use are also fantastic musicians and artists themselves who have got their own stuff going on anyway so I could never have one singer.
"I had to do this featured singer thing, until it got to a point where the band is kicking and now every one of the singers is like, ‘I want to be the singer.’ Yeah, but you wanted to do one song back then, didn’t you? Now you want to do everything! But the car needs the engine, I’m the engine and all the other guys are the other bits around it. It’s at a good stage now. I’m happy.”
When you’re writing music for PBUG, do you start with the drums?
“No, I write all my music from a bass. Everything in the drum book, on the Stand Up album, started from me on bass with either a keyboard player or a guitarist. I’ll put the bass down, then the drums with a little beat and then as we progress I’ll call Ben the bass player, ‘Can you come in and play bass?’ Then they come in and play my parts.
"It’s quite flattering to be honest but I’d rather just let them do it. I think most drummers are great bass players to be honest. I think they come together. Mark King was a drummer and you see him play drums, he’s like Billy Cobham. He’s a monster, but bass took the front seat, he fell into it.
"I always find it a bit tough writing by myself. I like to vibe with people. Like I said, teamwork. You share the load, it’s a lot easier.”
Is everything live to a click?
“Yeah, well, there are some extra little keyboard parts in there because I just ended up filling every gap I could on the album. ‘Oh, there’s a gap there, put some horns in it!’ It was a bit busy. I think the next album will be a little more chilled out.
"Obviously when you play live, I’d love to do the show without a track but it’s just nice, a couple of extra little BVs [backing vocals] in there and now we’ve got Dan on percussion, I’ve taken some of the percussion out of it. Even now, Earth, Wind And Fire, a 20-odd piece band, they’ve got backing tracks. Prince had backing tracks. He had 12 ADATs back in the day, it’s just the way it is.”
Where does your funk come from?
“Your soul, your spirit. Your spirit will always show in whatever music you do. I knew as a kid, when I first heard Average White Band or Level 42 or Parliament, Funkadelic, I heard this stuff and I was going, this is me. I found Level 42 records and they were really tight. I knew I was a funk drummer.
“I don’t think you can say what makes a funk drummer. It’s either in you or not. It’s like, what makes a jazz musician? You’re either jazz or you’re not. I’m not a jazz musician, I can play jazz but I’m not as good as the jazz cats.
"I’m a funk drummer. That’s my niche. You are who you are. When I started playing shows as a kid, I joined this guy Jimmy James And The Vagabonds, he was this American dude who had a hit with Red Red Wine and he did all the Butlins holiday camps, it was all disco, funk, and I loved it because you get all the hot chicks dancing. So I was like, okay, maybe I’m going to be a funk drummer, you get hot chicks dancing.
“Luckily enough I’ve always been in similar bands, my first gig was Amy, that was soulful but after that came Mark Ronson, the Version album, and that was funky pop. I thought, playing with famous stars, that’s fine, but maybe I should do something like what Ronson did but my own project.
"I was starting to meet more players and telling them my idea and as soon as I mentioned the funk thing to great players, they all went, ‘Man, give me a shout, I’ll do it. Forget money, let’s just play.’ Then I started thinking, I should get a studio, so I got a room and started putting some funky drum beats down, some bass, then my mate would come in and put some keyboards down. Then I’d call the horns, ‘I’ve got this tune.’ ‘Oh yeah, we’ll come in!’ I’d say, ‘You do what you want, just write,’ and they’d have their input into it. It’s not a pop session.
"They’re thinking, ‘I’ve got creative control here, I can write my own parts,’ and that’s how PB Underground came about – it was, let’s do what we want. The funk thing touched all the guys. We’re all doing pop gigs, but let’s just play some funk. Over the last five years, I’ve seen it turn around in London. A lot of young bands now have got little funk projects, the funk scene is kicking. I just followed my heart.”
Can feel be taught?
“I think you can teach feel but I think everyone is unique. We all have a different fingerprint, we all speak different, we all have a different spirit and so one man’s feel will never be the same as another one’s. It’s all the spirit.
"You can’t teach time, either. Some people cannot dance to save their life, but they can walk down the street [stamps his feet in a steady beat] - that’s time. Everything we do is time. While we’re speaking now, it’s time. As soon as your brain tries to think, some people don’t have it and some people do. Everything we do in life is a rhythm.
"Rhythm is the strongest thing in music. Stronger than any melody because if you’ve got melodies, a melody is a rhythm to start with. Rhythm is the key.”
Have you started work on the next PBUG record yet?
“I’ve done little bits over the last year but I haven’t been in the studio for that amount of time where I’ve got into it, bang, bang, bang. I’ve definitely got some great ideas for tunes, so it’s just a case of putting them down.”
What were some of your main funk inspirations?
“Do you remember that video by Dennis Chambers, In The Pocket? There was John Scofield and they did Cissy Strut and all that sort of stuff. If you look back at The Meters, they’re the dudes who brought that stuff. I found The Meters later, when I was in my late twenties and I met guys in London.
"I hadn’t heard Herbie Hancock, Chameleon, until I was about 25, because bless my mum and dad, my dad was a rock’n’roll drummer so he showed me the only things that he knew, which was the Average White Band.
"I didn’t pick up on Earth, Wind And Fire until I was 18, 19, even the Stevie Wonder stuff. I knew Average White Band and Level 42. I met other musicians who were like, check this, check this. That’s when I realised I’m a funk drummer. Dennis Chambers, all the technical guys like Dave Weckl, I loved all of them, but I think Chambers was the funky dude for me: In The Pocket. We had no YouTube then. I had my three videos, In The Pocket, Dave Weckl’s The Next Step, and Zildjian Day. That was my schooling.
"But I liked the funky Dennis Chambers more. I’ll tell you who else is a cool dude, James Gadson. And the way he played, he’s so funky, the way he touches his drums quietly when he plays. The soulful side of it came with the funk, I think they go hand-in-hand. I started checking Marvin Gaye out in my early twenties, ‘What’s Going On’ and I Want You.
"Then after that I came to work with the guy who wrote I Want You, Leon Ware, I did some stuff with him, just hearing all the stories about Donny Hathaway and Marvin. Soul is a big side of it as well as funk for me, but generally when I play soul I’m still funky with it, always. I can’t help it. I play rock, I play it funky. It’s just in there.”
What makes a beat funky?
“It’s your swing, man. It’s your personality, it’s your soul that makes that swing. We can all play a 4/4 beat but it’s played different by every player. For me, what makes things funky is the little ghost notes and the linear side of things with accents.
"Two ghost notes in a bar groove can make it sound really funky. I used to play a lot of ghost notes, I don’t play so many these days. When you come to record it, it’s like, okay, take them out.”
Are you after a particular sound from your kit for funk?
“Again, it depends what sort of band you’re in. Do you want old-school sounding drums? Do you want the toms dead as hell or do you want them ringing out like Billy Cobham had? I think these days everyone is going for that nice dead sound and I’ve always loved that.
"I used to love the old toms with no heads on the bottom, they used to mic the toms from underneath. It’s all down to you, what do you want? There are traditions of funk drumming but there are no rules.
"That’s where you stand out with your identity. We’ve all got fingerprints, we’re all different, so do that on your instrument. Be unique.”
Is the foundation of funk the triangle of bass drum, hi-hat, snare drum?
“Yeah, it is, isn’t it? Kick, snare, hats, all the way. It is in most music. Apparently. That’s what singers say, ‘All you need is kick, snare, hats.’ But it is. Groove pays the bills, that’s my little saying.”
Where do you sit on the beat: behind, on the beat, or in front of the beat?
“Those are the three ways. When I teach about click tracks, drummers should always practise with a click because, what I said about foundation earlier, no one should be able to mess with you.
"There are three ways to do it, behind, on it, and in front. I’m generally a pushy drummer but when I play with a click, I’m on it. It depends where the tracks are but it’s down to you, your personality. If you’re a laid back cat, you’ll just be sitting back laying it down. If you’re more like me, I’m a bit hyper so I’m a pushy drummer.
"It’s always been a struggle for me when I’m playing, I really want to sit back but my personality is I’m a pushy person so that’s been my struggle all my drumming life, to try to sit back on it. But it’s down to the songs you’re playing.
"What do the songs require? It’s teamwork, it’s not just you. How can I make this song groove? How can I make this song feel good? Shall I push it? Shall I lay back? Shall I sit on it? Should I let the bass sit behind? That’s your job as a drummer. I have to make this feel good so everything that comes on top is right.”