Basque Rock Band Willis Drummond – Interview

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Here we are with Felix Buff,  Willis Drummond charming and energetic drummer. Felix Buff and bassist Xan Bidegain are jointly responsible for the groove and feel of music.  The drums and the bass share the role as groove doctors.  Felix has other side projects, and plays with other bands. He also made his debut as a songwriter with a tune he wrote for the band’s latest album A ala B, inspired by the work of American singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt. 

Hey Felix, first off thanks for finding the time to do this interview.  Can you tell us about the song you wrote for Willis Drummond’s album A ala B,  and what attracted you to the work of Van Zandt?

Yes, it’s the first time I wrote something for WD, or for any band. I had some thoughts for some songs, and wrote them at home, but I’m definitely not a songwriter. I’m more that kind of guy that loves song’s lyrics and I really do believe in some songs, reminds me that character from High Fidelity (Nick Hornby’s book). So, sometimes a song can hit me very hard when the lyrics are good, people like Bill Callahan, Neil Young, and in this particular case, Townes Van Zandt,  are a lot of help to me, day to day. It’s kind of weird but it’s what happens. I knew Townes van Zandt through a version from The Be Good Tanyas (Jolie Holland’s first band), it was the song «Waiting around to die » still one of the hopeless/saddest song I know to date. Then I got some TVZ records and felt in love with his music and the guy. He left his life and family and all he had behind, and only took his guitar with him on the road,  and began an incredible journey through the american folklore ;  he mixed blues, country, folk… to create something very personal. And the lyrics are so beautiful, full of truth and despair and joy and everything that makes a human being .. a human. He knew how to speak about strong feelings and use all those wonderful images. Anyway, those WD lyrics comes from two sentences from « Rake » and « Nothin’ » . At that time it made me think about my brother and then I decided to write a song for him about brotherhood. Childhood can be crappy sometimes and at the end you realize that the only person that can understand you is your brother ; it’s the person you know for the longest time, even if you don’t want to, it’s just a fact ! «Time makes brothers. Time is like water, but we are a sea and we can’t notice it passing.»

Could you give us a brief history of the band?  How did you all come together; where did you first get into the music scene; and why did you name the band ‘Willis Drummond’.

Ok, briefly… Willis Drummond was formed in the French Basque Country in 2005, a three piece band at the beginning. Then there was a Rhodes old keyboard, and I joined the band  to play the drums.  We recorded the first album (Anthology) which was released in January 2007.  Then Rafa (current guitar player from Skunk) joined in, and  Pollux (keyboard player) left the band.  The current lineup which hasn’t change since 2007, has Xan on bass, Jurgi on guitar and voice, Rafa on guitar, and myself on the drums . We made three other studio albums, and have played 200 gigs together. All our records are released by an indie label, Bidehuts, a collective from the city of Irun in the spanish Basque Country. We sing in our language, Euskara (Basque). Our latest album, A ala B, released on vinyl, CD and digital format, comes with translations in english, french and spanish.

About the name of the band, Willis Drummond, it comes from the American television sitcom ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ with Todd Bridges as Willis Drummond. We don’t watch TV, in fact no one in the band has a TV at home, but this TV show was the first one with black american TV stars . Like a model of integration of black people into the society and into the TV business. In fact , in the real life, and after the show was cancelled, some of the actors had a terrible fate. After being brought to fame by the sitcom, they suffered legal problems and drug addictions.  It ‘s a good wink, and also a cool name, no ? Our friend Mike from the Monarch band suggested that name for our band.  Thanks dude!

You recently had two LIVE shows, one in Bilbo and another in Donostia, both the same day. What is it like to have two live shows on the same day?

Well, it’s something challenging and at the same time very exciting! Even you’re not totally into the first concert and organization, you know, we like to talk and enjoy with people that come to and organize the show we’re invited to.  So, we arrive,  play, and run to the next show saying goodby and taking that rhum bottle you borrowed to the main artist you played with (thanx Berri Txarrak , haha !) . Then you finish it on the way to the second concert, arrive, play, and then you remember you actually have a body, DAMN! It’s kind of exhausting, but you know the song: « It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock’n’roll » !  Personnaly I like a lot this situation, it makes you feel alive and you play often better at the second gig, you’re prepared and your mind is sharp, double dose of adrenaline[smile]. We don’t do that often anyway.

Do you get much chance to improvise on stage or do you perform in a strict musical environment?

With Willis Drummond, we don’t improvise on stage, and to tell the truth, we don’t do it in the rehearsal place either. We do it to compose and find the right mood for a song, listen the best possible to what happens when we play a riff, or a pattern together. It happened some times when we played with Jurgi or Rafa , but it’s much easier with two people than with four! Anyway, I love to improvise, and do that often with other bands, but I also like the musical composition we do with Willis Drummond, it’s quite challenging and the point is to find the best arrangement, structure, balance with the elements we put together.  It’s pretty hard to play well together and we try to approach our music live this way: playing our parts together to create one band.

What have been the LIVE highlights of your band so far?

I remember a great show in d’hiver rock festival in Tournai, Belgium, like three or four years ago, great energy with people that didn’t know about our music and the Basque Country, etc.  We also had a good experience this year in Azkena rock festival.  We opened the festival , which most of the time is very complicated, but at the end of the show there were like 1,000 people enjoying and some screaming for another song, it was great, really!  Then we played Apolo in Barcelona, EHZ festival, Rock Kitchen in Madrid with Berri Txarrak, and 200 other places, some bad and a lot of good ones,  these last five years.

About the global financial-economic crisis,  and whether the crisis is good or bad for musicians, there are those who think that the shortage of customers are forcing many venues (pubs, clubs, bars…) to shut down. Others argue that the crisis has also prompted many remaining venues to provide new means of entertainment (especially LIVE music) in an attempt to draw crowds.  Is the global crisis affecting the average gigging Basque musician in a positive way or is it just bad news for everyone?

I don’t know, there are many sides to the crisis, different effects and impacts, it’s true. But I can tell there are less people going to live shows than before. People won’t pay 5 or 10 bucks to come and enjoy a concert they’re not sure they will enjoy, or at least they’ll think about it twice. Nowadays, I think about it twice, you know, to pay for gas, admission, drinks, parking, etc. often means spending about 30euros, more if you’re partying a bit! So, in my opinion, yes , the global crisis is bad news for everyone. I feel that there has to be a huge crisis ultimately – economic crisis, political and social crisis, artistic crisis, identity crisis, and it has a lot to do with globalization, ultra communication, savage capitalism. I don’t want to be pessimistic, and actually and strangely I’m not (most of the time), because there’s also a change that’s needed in the next years. And I think we’re gonna go through big changes in our societies. There’s something exciting about that too, no?

Playing music to a LIVE audience takes an incredible amount of skill and effort that most musicians seem to agree should never be underrated, undervalued or undercut just to get that slot in a venue, or have the opportunity to play for free with a famous artist in order to get more exposure. The moment we are told we have to gig for a ridiculous pay or to play for free beer and if we don’t like it there are many more artists out there to take our place… is this the moment we lose our dignity? 

You’re right in bringing that up: playing live music takes a huge amount of skills, yop! After many years of rehearsal and playing with your best friend, you have to confront your fears (some lucky guys don’t have this problem) playing on stage for an audience and work on it each day you play! Then, it’s normal that you have to play for no money (or few) the first times, but at a certain point you should get paid for playing. You never get something when you play for free. The promoter (often a bartender) wont make promo for your gig, just because he’s not getting paid to do it.  You’re just a «perhaps somebody will come and have some drinks at my bar because someone plays live». It sucks, definitely. You’d better find someone who really likes your music and play at his place, it’s always better and most likely he’ll do his best to make things go well and you will play in a place you feel comfortable. Here in the Basque Country, we make some free concerts for the political prisoners (euskal presoak). The money goes to the families to help pay for travel costs to see the prisoners that are often far away from their families. It’s a good thing to play free for a cause. But to answer your question, when you star playing music, you have to play for a ridiculous amount or free beers, it’s a good start and I think it’s needed, just because nobody knows you, and it makes it a good experience. Everybody does that! But if you have something to say and people are coming to see you and enjoy the show, just don’t do it! It won’t deserve you well, and that guy will do it with another band, and another. I wouldn’t  play for a guy who tells me that you can be replaced  by a cheaper band.

Your latest album ‘A ala B’ (A or B) was released last November. How did you decide on the material?

It’s what we got!  We always record what we have done at the moment we’re recording. If we finish a song and if that song passes successfully the band test, we keep it, and as a freshman graduate student, it has the right to be on a Willis Drummond album.  Most of the time, it takes a long time for us to finish a song and we work hard on it until we’re happy with it. Even if with some new ones, we’ve done it in less time than before.  Have we become better composers?  No, just more prolific!

Did you have complete songs when you got to the studio, or did you shape them up at the point of recording them? Where the songs cut in order of the album or shuffled around to find a flow?

We always have songs prepared when we come to the studio. And we try each time to prepare as much as possible the songs we are going to record, the way we’ll make it , how many guitars we want on each song, what arrangements, even the order of the songs we record. The studio is not a fun  place for us, I don’t know why.  So for this last album, we did two or three recordings before getting into the studio. Like one live in our practice room, to work on the vocals. Then one live in a studio with our friend Txap (Karlos Osinaga from Lisabö) with vocals and all arrangements. And then one at home again each one recorded separately for practicing and see if it will work that way in the studio. At the end we came to the studio to do the proper recording.  My God, I’m telling you that, I don’t know why we’re doing it that way, in some way it’s just exhausting. I hear stories about bands that made a record in one afternoon and it’s just great! I can tell that if you dig playing with your band mates, and are satisfied with the songs after such hard work, it’s OK, you did a good job ! Also, to find a flow in the studio requires a long time in the studio, and we can’t afford that much time in a studio at least for the moment. But I’d really like to have one day enough time in the studio to jam, make mistakes, redo another song after finishing the recording, etc … It would be awesome but at this point I think it’s a dream.  For the moment, recording with Willis Drummond is a race against time.  Every recording, we do it better, we know each other better and we know when to go out to smoke a cigarette or just disappear.  But every time it’s a bummer.

It’s been said that great songs are 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, and that when music is being made the arranging process is just as important as the compositional one. What is it in the arrangements of ‘A ala B’ that makes them work

Depends on what you think an arrangement is. We still play two guits / bass / drums / vocals / backing vocals. What you hear in the CD is what you get live.  Except some 2ble guitars for the sound or some percussion. We get our arrangement on the riffs and the way we’re playing them. It’s often the two guitars inter-playing to create one riff (Munduari Kondenatuak). Fugazi does that often, or the bass is making some harmonies to make you believe that the guitars are different (the title track A ala B, and  Menperatzen dut), Jurgi likes it a lot! [laughs] We do also, it’s ok. But you’re right, the real challenge is getting the right arrangement for the a song, the greatest bands found something special to arrange a song, and that’s what that turns them into a unique band. So far we’re still searching, and we try  to come out with different ideas everytime. I can’t find two songs we made that work with the same arrangements.  We don’t have that Willis Drummond « secret weapon ». But I hope that we’re recognized for our sound anyway!

The lyrics of Willis Drummond’s new album cut right through you. Some are visceral and visionary; others convey a feeling of apprehension, anxiety, inner turmoil and even the anticipation regarding a concrete threat as in the track Munduari kondenatuak (Condemned to the world), a reflection of the times. Is this your most emotive album so far?  The process of producing and recording can be very emotional. Did you end up with the record that you set out to make?

As I said, we had a very good idea of what we were doing in the studio. We produced the record, so we ended up with the version of the album we played in that studio. The sound is good, because it’s Burke Reid (The drones, The mess Hall…) that mixed it and Iñigo Irazoki and Karlos Osinaga that engineered it.  And yes, as usual the recording process have been very emotional, but the songs remain the same.

Unlike CDs, records are enduring the digital revolution, and sales are soaring again.  What made you decide to release the new album on vinyl?

Well, there were people coming to our shows and asking for vinyls. They were like « Man , give me a vinyl please » « don’t have any, sorry »  « alright, I’ll buy you a vinyl later, bye ». Now we have one, where are you guys? No, seriously people were asking us for a while but we didn’t have sufficient money to make them. We chose making some vinyl records for this album and the sound is just wonderful. Mediums are clearer, you hear bass ranges and the guitars are sharp and sweet, awesome! Neil Young was saying that the CD sucks in 83 ! This guy is always right, whatever he says !

Your album cover image is eye catching, it captures the essence of the music it promotes. Who designed the cover image?  In your opinion, what is the importance of cover design?

Ramon M. Zabalegi made the cover and artwork of this record. He did also the last one « Istanteak ». He’s a great artist from Irun, everytime I can work with him, I do it. I really like his drawings and covers. For this one he used a quite original process: litography. He made some originals on « arches » paper and then did a scan for the cover. Ramon works with the songs, the lyrics, and the mood of the album, and then creates his vision of the album. The original interchangeable «A and B» sides is Jurgi’s idea, but we let Ramon do whatever he wanted with that. I think that’s the key for making something with personality, let the guy do what he wants. It’s a risk, but if you like the way he does his art, let him do it ! But you’re right, some great albums are more known also for their great cover. It’s something important that shows people what kind of persons you are as musicians and artists. It’s something important to me.

In this age of downloads and declining CD sales has the Internet helped you get your music out there or has it in some way hindered it by websites offering free downloads?

I think it’s a very good thing if someone can listen to my music for free. It really helps people to listen to a lot of music. I hate the idea that some people in the music industry have it that people are downloading music just because it’s free, you know, as if people were downloading just for fun. I think that nobody will download your music if he’s not interested or curious because he heard about your band. So it’s just a way to invite people to listen to your music. Then if he likes it and has money to spend, he’ll buy your CD at a show or on your website. Perhaps for some people it’s a bummer, but for a band like us, and bands I’m listening to, it’s just great.  I discovered so many bands by downloading. Now it’s more controlled, I miss the time you had everything really easily.

Who inspired you to start playing the drums and why? What age did you start playing at?

I started to play the drums at the age of 6; i started that early because of my father, he’s German, so it’s kind of a tradition in my family, at that age, you don’t choose to play music or not, you just choose one instrument. I wanted to play the trumpet, but needed to read notes, etc I was pissed off so I took the drums and managed to pass solfege, ha ! I’m really happy with that choice now [smile]

Then, I remember my first strong taste at the age of 10 was Nirvana, and I still like this band a lot. So, the first drummer I really digged was Dave Grohl! He hitted the drums so strong and it was simple drumming but a fine ones. Also Ringo Starr, in fact I always listened to the Beatles at home, from the age of 6 or 7 ’til nowadays. So I assume Ringo Starr left some drum patterns in my subconscious!

Where did you go about learning all your skills? Any particular memories for us locals?

I learned at some official schools, but after graduating, I was pretty sure to get into music and to be a musician, so I started learning the drums hard (some 6/8 hours a day) in a french school (Dante Agostini) for 3 years, they made some books and it’s a great school, I remember crossing Mario Duplantier (from Gojira) in the doorway [smile] That guy helped me a lot and I learned all my stuffs there, we also exchanged lot of music, mainly Jazz stuff, we shared the same tastes in Jazz, it was great to leave school with 5 records for the week to listen to! In fact it was an incredible period in my life: listening to 3 records a day, discovering jazz, pop, classical, contemporary, metal, rock , free music, world, punk, everything I could listen to! I had a very good friend that made me a listener, she worked in a record store and still has a passion for music.

Is there any specific ritual you do besides warming up before a show?

No, warming up sometimes, it helps, I do it more often ultimately, for tendonitis, sometimes I suffer hard with that shit.

What three main qualities do you think makes a drummer a good drummer?

Three? Let’s see: A good listener of what happens in the band, each instrument; working abilities, you  have to work a fuck lot to express yourself with the drums!; and just have something to say with your drums and your music! Lots of people just chit chat with their drumming, I don’t understand what they say, music is just like speaking, you can speak hard, soft, be annoying, or interesting, if you don’t know how to speak, people won’t understand you, it’s the same with music.

What advice, tips, would you give to younger kids who are just starting out on drumset, or just want to get into drumming?

Sing all that you play,  sing also the beats on a song, try to figure out where the beat is, then you’ll never get lost. Do it simple, then learn some stuffs. I don’t have a very good technique, I stopped school in the middle of the career, like medium II, something like that. But I felt that I wasn’t expressing myself. Just doing some exercises all along. Then I wanted  to stop learning and just express myself, involve my body and soul into the music, instead into the drumming. It was (very) scary but challenging, then I started to develop some vocabulary and I’m still searching new things, searching for new vocabulary.

Who are your current influences? Your past influences?

Paul Motian was very important to me. He was a jazz musician, and he introduced me to free music, he died last year, was a sad day for me. But as I said to you, first influences were Dave Grohl, Ringo Starr. Present influences? Glenn Kotche, Mike Noga, Ralph Molina, Jim White, Phil Rudd… I like Patrick Carney of the Black Keys a lot, he’s got a nice feeling with the songs!

Do you have any favorite grooves/rhythms or anything of that sort when playing? If so, what are they?

Good question, I don’t know if it’s a favorite, but ultimately I dig playing that typical tutupa tutupa in « Menperatzen dut » ! Ha!

Who is, in your opinion, the drummer with the greatest hand technique?

Oh, I don’t know, I think it was Buddy Rich, he was also very funny!

Is there any band(s) you would like to collaborate with?  If yes, why? 

Uff, there are so many bands I would like to collaborate with, but we’re all diferent on that point I think, so it’s hard to tell, let’s see if we do some collaborations in the future.

Where would you all like to be this time next year… and in five years’ time?

Next year I’d like to be playing in Europe. We have people here that come to the shows and give us lots of energy and support, and it feels good, but I’d like to be able to play in other settings, for other cultures, and to have that experience.  We’ll do it! In five years time?  Rock in Rio, baby!, haha! No, I don’t know, step by step, like we always did.

2012 has been a good year for Willis Drummond so far. Are you happy?  What are your wishes for 2013?

2012 has been a busy year for Willis Drummond and I’m happy to get through all that. This record took a lot of energy from us, as we didn’t stop playing while composing and recording We even had gigs on the week end we recorded!  We are happy with the album. I hope 2013 will be an extension of  the work we did last year, and I hope we’ll get the fruit of our labour.

Anything else you would like to add?

Thanks a lot Ainhoa.  It’s a long interview, but interesting and different! THANX and hope to see you soon !

Thanks Felix, it’s been a pleasure doing this interview with you.  You’re a very nice guy!

You’re a very nice girl!

AA 🙂

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