Vol. 1 no. 5
Andre White and Barry Elmes
AW: Where are you from?
BE: Well, I was born in Galt, Ontario, which is now called Cambridge, although it will always be Galt to me (laughs). It's about sixty or seventy miles west of Toronto.
AW: How did you get into music?
BE: I don't know, I was always playing drums. I was one of those kids that sat around nervously playing pots and pans, stuff like that. My parents had very few records, but they had, of all things, this Glenn Miller record, with American Patrol on it, and Ray McKinley was the drummer on it. I thought that song was great; I listened to it all the time, even before I started school. I liked music, I loved parades, I loved the sound of pipes and drums. I was about eight when I got my first drum set; my folks put me into the Kiwanis youth band. We used to meet at the Farmer's Market hall every Saturday morning. There was this Swing band drummer named Dolph Little. I found out later that he was actually a fairly well-known cat, but at that point he was retired and was teaching us all snare drum stuff and reading. After Dolph left, they got this teenage clown in who was sort of a wrist smacker. If the sticks weren't coming up at the right height, then WHACK! He used to beat us up, threaten us, lock us in the closet ... the usual child abuse stuff. Funny, I completely forgot about that guy for almost 40 years until this interview. Fortunately this only went on for a few weeks before I was so afraid to go to the drum classes I quit. I wonder what kind of abuse that guy took at his home! He must have learned to be a sadist somewhere. Anyway, we had the funny maroon marching outfits that looked like they belonged to elevator operators in the thirties, and the silver sparkle Ludwig drums. It was fantastic!
My mother played piano and always sang in the church, still does, as far as I know. My sister took piano lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music and I used to like listening to her practice on the living room piano at home. I thought she was really happening. My father worked in a shoe factory; at work they put together this kind of male chorus, and he really enjoyed that. It was really my mother and sister that were the more musical ones. There was always music around the house. My grandmother was a church organist.
AW: Did you play in the high school band?
BE: Yeah, that's a funny thing for me, because I went to high school in the mid sixties, and in our area they had just started a music program. I was at least a year younger than all my classmates in grade nine, yet I was already playing in bands; rock bands and dance bands. The idea of the new school program was to get kids who didn't have any experience, didn't play instruments, into something. The music teacher was on some sort of a mission trying to prove something and get a track record going. He wouldn't let me in to the band! In his bizarre outlook I could already play an instrument, so I didn't deserve to take music. That was a setback in a way. I didn't know that much, and anything I'd ever done was by ear. I could read only a little bit. A year or two later I was invited to join a small ensemble that travelled around with the school orchestra as a feature. We played tunes by the Tijuana Brass. It was something else. We dressed up in sombreros, shawls, and in my case, being the youngest, a fake handlebar moustache. Our band was billed as The Marijuana Brats.
AW: Now, just for the record, you are a left handed drummer?
BE: I'm a left-handed person who plays a left-handed set of drums right-handed. I play the drums right-handed and left-footed. I don't know why I started playing right handed. By the time I started studying with Jim Blackley, he kind of scratched his head and said, "We're going to have to try and make this work." It's really a stupid thing to do, the way I'm playing; I didn't realize it, I didn't know any better, but the way drums have developed, most important is the association between playing the ride cymbal with your right hand and playing the bass drum with your right foot. It's the same side of your brain; you're playing time on the ride cymbal and you're going to catch some of it with your bass drum. Try and do that when you play the ride cymbal with your right hand and the bass drum with your left foot. When I studied with Jim and he started me on simple cymbal phrases, I tried to do it and the flams were unbelievable. It was so hard. Every now and then and I'd take my left foot off the bass drum pedal and switch to the right foot and I'd be able to play them instantly. For some reason, I could never get to the point of making the switch permanently.
Physically, how I approach a fill or how I achieve certain sounds is different; the matched grip thing is much better, more even, playing this way. The location of things; I like to play things between hi-hat and ride cymbal a lot, and for me it's just a matter of flicking the wrist. Also, playing the hi-hat, I've never had to cross arms. I found learning to play conventional figures on the drums very hard. I can play all kinds of figures between hands and feet, just not the ones that have been developed over the years for the conventional setup. I thought for a while that I had reached my plateau, that I wasn't going to be able to learn how to play.
The setup thing doesn't seem that important to me. When I first came to Toronto, Norm Villeneuve was using two hi-hat pedals. Nobody asked him if he had a third leg. I set up the drums backwards and all of a sudden it's a big deal. The fact of the matter is Daniel Humair plays the same way as I do, Lenny White plays left-handed on a right-handed drum set, Billy Cobham plays left-handed on a right-handed drum set. I didn't do it for any reason; it goes right back to when I was playing in the Kiwanis Youth Band. They used to let us bring the instruments home; I'd bring home two or three marching snare drums and use them as tom toms up on chairs. My Dad had made me a bass drum out of an old sawed-off laundry tub, and had even devised a pedal. It would go down but take about three seconds to come up. Eventually I got a hi-hat pedal that said, "Rajah Turk," whatever that meant. It wasn't much better than the bass drum pedal my father designed. I didn't know how to set up the drums. I remember the Ed Sullivan show was on then, and Gerry and the Pacemakers were going to be on. My Dad said, "Look you've got these drums at home now. Sunday night you can watch and see how to set these things up. " I rushed upstairs with the drums during the commercial and set them up in front of the TV screen. This is very embarrasing; I only saw the drummer for a few seconds, so I positioned them to match the drums therefore, completely backwards. I have set them up that way ever since.