Alex Torjussen's guide to session stardom
At just 23 years old, freelance sticksman Alex Torjussen – who proudly counts top session player Ash Soan as a key mentor and career influence – has already enjoyed an impressive number of prestigious drumming gigs.
Since graduating from Guildford’s Academy of Contemporary Music back in 2012, Alex has thumped the tubs live for artists including James Morrison, Will Young, Rumer, Jacob Banks and Max Milner, while he’s also cut sessions with Rumer, Lucy Spraggan and a number of notable others.
Torjussen began playing drums seriously at around 13 and he had his musical future pretty much mapped out after just a few years.
“I was into bands but I never kind of fell into having my own band at school,” Alex explains. “My heart was always really set on becoming a freelance drummer. I wanted to play for artists. I knew from when I was about 16 or 17 that that's what I wanted to do, to play for different artists and move from one to the next.
“I think a lot of guys go to college and can get a bit swamped with how much stuff there is to learn. I know I did, but I quickly realised what I wanted to do, which allowed me to focus on the aspects of my playing that I needed to do that.
“I wanted to try and create a niche for myself where people would hopefully say, ‘He’s the guy for that, get him in.’ I would spend a lot of time practising to records, transcribing grooves and playing to a click. I tried to play with other musicians as much as possible. I’d spend time with bass player mates and we’d practise together, playing grooves and playing each other music to check out. It was a great time!”
Find a mentor
After Alex left school, he returned to ACM to take a three-year degree in contemporary music. Upon graduating with a First in 2012, the young drummer knuckled down and “focused on practising and developing his craft” and it wasn’t long before he met his future mentor, session legend Ash Soan.
“It’s a weird story actually because my dad used to tape Jools Holland and, when I was about 11, i used to sit just watching re-runs of it,” recalls Torjussen. “I remember there was a Faithless clip that I used to watch all the time.
“I just thought it was a really cool track and later on it transpired that it was Ash! I first met him at a Yamaha clinic he was doing, then I met him a couple of times after that and then he saw me play.
“I think I asked him a couple of questions because I was doing a bit of work at ACM on something and I sent him a video of me playing, which was a little shuffle-y thing. From then on, we just started to hang out more.
“He actually put me up for my first professional gig in 2013, which was Lucy Spraggan, who was on X-Factor. I toured with her and played on her record [Join The Club] which got to number 7 on the charts.
“He’s done a lot for me actually, putting me forward for various gigs, and I’ve learnt a lot from him. Ash is a phenomenal drummer and a really good guy at the same time. I don’t think there’s many people that would have done what he’s done for me.”
“I think, for me, I learnt a lot just hanging out with Ash. He took me under his wing a bit and used to take me to sessions and gigs and I’d just sit and watch.
“I used to just sit there and think, ‘If I want to get any kind of work, I’ve got to aspire to be at this level... give me another 20 years and maybe I’ll get there!’ The best kind of advice he gave me was without even giving advice directly. It was just letting me be involved in those musical situations and environments.”
Study the greats
Torjussen first started digging into the stylings of individual drummers during his four years of lessons with Stu Roberts, who introduced him to a veritable host of killer sticksmen including Steve Gadd and Tony Williams.
Latterly, Ash Soan’s influence led to Alex studying legends like Richie Hayward, Jim Keltner, Manu Katché and Andy Newmark. These days, Alex still spends a significant amount of time listening to top drummers, old and new.
“It’s funny because a lot of the drummers that I listen to are those guys that we all love,” he explains. “There’s just so much great stuff that they did.
“It would take a lifetime to check out Gadd’s discography or Jeff Porcaro’s. I’m really into Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner at the moment. One of my favourite albums of all time is Grace by Jeff Buckley and the drummer on that is Matt Johnson. I’ve been checking that record out for years.”
Play with your mates
“I always keep coming back to certain records and that’s really how I get my inspiration. I just practise by checking out records and transcribing stuff. Recently, I’ve been into Victor Indrizzo as well as a drummer called Joey Waronker, who my mate Freddy Sheed got me into a couple of months ago actually.
“In fact, checking out what some of my mates are doing influences me too. Freddy is on tour in Australia at the moment with this female artist called the Japanese house supporting the 1975 and he’s killing it.
“We hook up when we can and just get into a room and play drums. the amount of stuff you can learn from just playing with your mates and guys that are on the scene is amazing! Freddy is definitely one to watch out for. There’s also a drummer called dan see who plays with Jamie Woon. He’s absolutely ridiculous."
Learn from the artists
One of Alex’s career highlights so far has been touring and recording with British singer- songwriter Rumer. The Love is the answer EP came out in December 2015.
Ash Soan, who’d previously been playing with Rumer, once again put Torjussen up for the gig. Alex certainly feels he learned a huge amount from working with both Rumer herself and her musical director and husband, Rob Shirakbari.
“Being on the Rumer gig was a great experience for me,” says Torjussen. “She’s a proper artist. I toured with her last year throughout the UK and Europe and we played the Billboard Live shows in Tokyo and Osaka as well as headlining the Cheltenham Jazz Festival – some really great shows!
“It’s a real old school approach to playing... no click, no track, just a band and her. Touring with Rob Shirakbari was amazing too. I learnt a lot from him. He’s worked with Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick for the past 20 years or so.
“I’m definitely a better musician now compared to when I first met him at John Henry’s back in late 2014. He’s very knowledgeable about groove and how things should feel.
“The gig was quite challenging as there were a few songs which were similar in style but the feels were totally different. I remember there was this one song, a slow 12/8 groove, and I just couldn’t get it to sit right. I kept falling back on it. Rob said something like, ‘Man, just plough through it like an r’n’b, hip-hop thing and the bass and keys will take care of the rest.’ I listened back to the rehearsal recording afterwards and it was like a revelation!
“There were also other little bits of advice like, ‘play the song like you wrote it!’ That totally transformed how I played certain parts. Those things have really stuck with me.”
Put in the prep work
“Usually, they’ll always send you the stuff maybe three weeks before you actually start rehearsals,” Alex explains.
“But, in any case, if I get a call to work with an artist I’ve never played with before, I’ll always make sure I’ve got all their stuff and I’ll spend two weeks just checking out all of their material, even if it’s stuff they haven’t sent you for the upcoming tour.
“You just never know what’s going to happen. I always want to know the artist inside out and that’s what I did with James [Morrison], when I got that gig last year. I just rinsed all of his records for maybe three weeks so that when I got into rehearsals, I was ready for anything.
“I’ll also check out a lot of live videos and just see how other guys might have approached the gig before me. I know I definitely took some inspiration from how Neal Wilkinson approached things musically with James. It’s important to do your homework. I don’t think you can ever do too much preparation.”
Don't worry about nerves
“Starting rehearsals with a new artist can always be nerve-wracking, but – as long as you’re prepared – things fall into place.
“It’s natural to be nervous in a situation when you walk in and you meet an artist for the first time who’s sold eight million records and you’ve got to do your thing! You have to snap out of that mindset quickly.
‘I did some gigs with Will Young last year and I remember the first day of rehearsals being quite interesting. Playing with a band of musicians I look up to and highly respect was pretty daunting, but you have to relax! I did a couple of the best gigs of my career so far with Will.”
As well as studying and channeling the drummers that have gone before, Torjussen will also always try to add a little bit of his own spin to the tracks of an artist he’s just started working with.
“I always like to start out where previous drummers have left off because you’ve got to remember that the artist will be very comfortable with those people that they’ve been using for years,” says Alex.
“They might be used to a few things feel-wise or sound-wise. You don’t want to come in and just be like, ‘Well, I play like this so I’m going to do it like this!’ You definitely can put your own spin on it but you’ve got to respect what has been going on before.”