Feel the beat: drums and percussion in dance

Sudha Kheterpal is best known as the percussionist for Faithless but she has also played with Kylie Minogue, Ian Brown and Dido. Andy Treacey is a drummer who has also played with Faithless, as well as with artists ranging from Ronnie Wood to Moby. Young percussionist Joao Caetano is rapidly gaining recognition in the industry and is a member of Incognito. Here they share their knowledge and experience in playing drums and percussion at the dancier end of the musical spectrum.

Can you tell us about your background?

Sudha Kheterpal: "I started out on drum kit at the age of 11 and opened out into the magical world of percussion during my teens. I spent my early professional days playing the Manchester circuit and began sessioning in 1993. The dance/club scene was thriving and I played with some big '90s dance acts as well as getting percussion residencies at clubs like Cream and Hacienda.

"It was during that time I played alongside DJ Sister Bliss and she told me of her then newly-formed band, Faithless. A few weeks later I got a phone call to say that Faithless' Rollo [Rowland Constantine O'Malley] wanted to meet. I went to London to do a session that ended up being a track for the Danny Boyle film A Life Less Ordinary. The rest is history."

Andy Treacey: "It took me a while to pluck up the courage to move to London, when I got the gig with a band called Raw Stylus who had players from Steely Dan on their album. Faithless started with me hearing about auditions for a drummer for Squeeze in 1996.

"I called a good friend of mine, Ash Soan, to tell him about the auditions and to see if he had any info on them. Ash ended up auditioning for Squeeze and getting the gig. At the time he had been playing with Faithless (and had already asked me to stand in for him). He left to play with Squeeze and I ended up getting the Faithless gig. When I walked into the audition, Sudha was there. I knew her from my time gigging in Manchester so that was a nice surprise."

Joao Caetano: "I studied violin for 12 years and went to Chichester Uni to study jazz drums and guitar. I've played percussion since I was five - I practised on the wooden benches we had in the house. When I was about nine or ten I got my first pair of bongos and wind chimes and cowbells. I got my first pair of congas when I was 14 - I went to Hong Kong with my parents to get them."

Sudha Kheterpal, in her trademark hat

How would you describe your style and approach to playing?

Sudha: "Afro-Cuban influenced. I love going to Cuba and playing with some of the great masters such as Changuito, Octavio Rodriguez and Panga. My love of electronic music has meant that electronics have become a big part of my set-up, but being a live player I'm all about using them as a tool for creating exciting new sounds in an organic way. My approach is one of sensitivity. Hearing the sound as a whole and the spaces within, punctuating where necessary, and absolutely kicking-ass whenever possible!"

Andy: "In an electronic music scenario, I try to bring as much 'live' feel to the music as possible while staying true to the track's original spirit. Faithless' music is about textures, tension, release and energy."

Joao: "I'm very melodic because I played violin and guitar. Being aware of other instruments and melody is one part [of my approach]. The other is I love rock music. I love the showmanship of rock musicians. I was into Travis Barker and John Bonham and that element of hard hitting, of showmanship and power is a big part of who I am as a musician."

How important is visual contact between a drummer and percussionist?

Sudha: "Massively! With Faithless, me and Andy have developed a kind of symbiosis, both aurally and visually. Playing with the wonderful Vinnie Lammi for The Spice Girls tour was interesting because he was at the other side of the stage and we had to communicate through the means of a green-screen monitor. Not easy but a good discipline to develop."

Andy: "I think visual contact is important at key moments, for example when you are counting in something that will be played in unison or when you need to hit something exactly together. Apart from that, on the whole listening is important and feeling what each other is doing."

Joao: "I'm always in the middle of the stage with Francesco [Mendolia, drums]. A feature of the Incognito set is the ten-minute solo between Francesco and I. The solo is improvised but also studied - we know more or less what we're playing. It requires a lot of practise and bonding. [Visual contact] is important with our kind of music because it's so dynamic. It's about how the band grows within the song and how we feed off one another."

Joao Caetano's percussion skills get the thumbs up

"Knowing there's power within silence is extremely important" - Sudha Kheterpal

Live and on record, how much work goes into ensuring everyone has their own place in the sound?

Sudha: "For an eight-piece electronic band with such a huge sound it's a miracle that any space can be heard within the Faithless live sound. But a fundamental understanding of when to play and when not to play has been all-important. For me, as percussionist with any band, knowing there's power within silence is extremely important. And doubling up with the drummer at times can be effective too, in that there's less 'clutter' within the sound."

Do you play to a click live?

Sudha: "As a general rule, I prefer to leave the click-playing for the drummer and for me to lock in tightly with them. With Faithless, even though Andy uses a click he plays fluidly around it and I think this combination for both percussionist and drummer has allowed for a band that isn't just another generic dance act. Within the band we've all had the flexibility to move around musically within a strict electronic format, which has made for a more raw, edgy, punky element."

Andy: "Most gigs I do now have some sort of click track. I have played with click tracks for so long I don't really listen to them when playing. It's almost as if you develop a different part of your listening to monitor the click while you mainly focus on the music and groove. When I first started playing with click tracks it was the opposite - all I could hear was myself in relation to the click. Eventually you realise the click is mostly just a guide, unless there's a very tight loop or sequence you have to lock in with."

Joao Caetano onstage with Incognito

"Playing with Incognito taught me to think about what I'm going to play, then play it as solidly as I can" - Joao Caetano

How much freedom is there on stage to jam?

Joao: "It's very natural for us to play with each other now, so it's natural to jam during soundcheck. When we play live, however, we're very strict. Incognito has taught me to mature my playing and hone in on groove. Before I joined I was experimental in trying to put new grooves in but Bluey - and playing with the guys generally - taught me to think about what I'm going to play, then play it as solidly as I can."

Sudha: "Nearly all Faithless tunes contain an element of programming so it's difficult to steer away from those arrangements. While locking down is important, there's always space left within the arrangements for me and Andy to create something different each night."

What is your current set-up?

Joao: "I play fibreglass Natal Classics. The sound is dry and crisp. I have three full sized congas, which are tumbas in essence, and a quinto on the side. I then went even bigger and played all the tumbas, which are the 12". It's harder to play slaps and stuff; I like to be challenged! I use all the Sabian effects cymbals and live I always use the 16" O-zone."

Sudha: "Natal Classic quinto, conga, tumba, bongos; Natal 10" stave bubinga snare; Sabian AAX X-Plosion fast crash 15", HHX Evolution mini-Chinese 14", AAx El Sabor picante Hand crash 16", HHX Evolution effects crash 17", 6" cymbal disc, APX 0-Zone crash 18", AAX O-zone crash 16", HHX evolution crash, Radia cup chimes 9"; LP 13/14" Tito Puente bronze timbales; various cowbells, agogo bells, jam bells, granite blocks, chimes/bells; gongs, shakers, hand percussion and sound FX; Yamaha SPX effects unit; Roland Handsonic HPD15, SPD-S sampler and PDX8 pads."

Andy: "My current set-up is a stripped-down Natal kit with 22" kick, 14" snare (Ludwig 402), 13" rack tom, 16" floor. Two crashes, Zildjian K dark thin 18" and 19", 21" K custom dry ride, 16" K light hats. I often use an MPC 4000 or do any programming in Logic, then commit the stems to be played on an Alesis HD24. I use a Roland SPD-30 linked to a receptor for triggering samples with a few Roland V-drum pads for myself and Sudha to trigger extra sounds and samples."

VIDEO: Faithless - Insomnia (Live at Glastonbury 2002)

Dance music is about energy. How does that translate to your playing?

Sudha: "If you've ever seen a Faithless gig, you'll know that energy is what it's about! Before going on tour with Faithless I train intensely so my fitness levels are top-notch. The energy Andy and myself expend during a Faithless show is immense and what drives it. It's what makes for a hugely intense, exciting show and it's how I got my nickname 'The Flying Percussionist'!"

Andy: "In terms of my playing, it means approaching things with bigger brush strokes. With a huge band like Faithless on a huge stage, sometimes the little grace-notes and subtleties can get lost. If you try to play them as well as trying to sound bigger you waste energy."

Andy Treacey, mid-set

"Try thinking about the drums and percussion as a whole, not just your own part" - Andy Treacey

Finally, what's your top tip for creating an intuitive drums and percussion partnership?

Sudha: "Listen and give space to each other. It's a bit like a relationship really, it takes attentive attunement but it'll be worth it in the end! "

Andy: "Try thinking about the drums and percussion as a whole, not just your own part. Try out different parts. I often ask Sudha to try and play/think like a drummer on the percussion rather than a percussionist. Just experiment and don't be afraid to ditch something that doesn't work."