Professional drummer Tom Atherton has toured the world, playing live shows for an assortment of bands including De Profundis, Ali Azimi, Ajam and Thing Collective. Here he talks to Mandy News about studying music, how he started out and the realities of life on the road.
Tom, where are you from, what do you do and when did you decide you wanted to work in music?
I’m originally from Kent/South-East London; I compose as well as perform as a drummer and percussionist. By the time I’d hit 13 and started taking drum lessons, I was fairly sure that I’d be doing it for life!
You grew up in a musical household, right?
Yes! My Dad’s always been a keen guitarist, so I grew up surrounded by instruments. My Mum was always on the am-dram stage as I was growing up, so I’ve actually got a pretty comprehensive knowledge of musicals for a rock drummer!
How did you go about learning your craft and studying it as a career? You did a PHD in music, right?
Other than taking lessons when I started playing, I’ve done a BA in composition, an MMus in Performance and am currently undertaking my PhD. I’ve always learned on the job as well and I started gigging within my first year of playing (mainly pubs, parties, etc).
Tell us technically about the work you do and how it differs from other genres as a drummer. Did you/do you play other genres or has heavier stuff always been your thing?
I’ll start with the last bit as it’s probably easier! I’ve always been into heavier music - the energy and aggression always appealed to me. What kept me interested until now is is that so much of it is just great music; harmonic, melodic and rhythmic twists and turns from guys that can really play. Scratch the surface and it’s all there, whichever bizarre sub-genre you look at.
Other than playing with De Profundis, I play with a few Persian artists (Ali Azimi and Ajam presently). I also run my own project called Thing which is connected with my PhD research; I actually play tuned percussion in this, so it’s quite a departure! Other than this, I play in orchestras, theatre pits and all the other usual gigs.
In terms of technique, I play a lot of the usual stuff - double bass, blastbeats, huge fills; I guess where I differ is the elements of prog, latin and jazz I bring into the fold. I’ve studied, performed and written in a number of genres that all find their way into my playing. The fact that I play so much additional percussion (particularly tuned) and compose also has a huge impact on the way I approach drumming.
What was your first gig and how did you get it?
Hmm…probably a New Year’s party when I was 14/15? I was largely playing to friends at a house party in the garage. I got the gig as the party was at the bass player’s house! We were doing a couple of originals with a bunch of Metallica, Nirvana and Green Day - all the usual stuff. It was great as the party only got going when we started playing! I seem to remember someone being sick in my shoes at some point though…
And what was the key to getting work from there?
The good thing about playing to a bunch of your peers (and doing a reasonable job) is that you become first choice for playing at their events, so I was able to gather experience. I involved myself in everything I could at that age; for example, where I was involved with amateur dramatics, I made sure that they knew I was a keen and capable player. It wasn’t long before I was getting asked to play on productions and getting my first few quid from it.
I’ve always been good at talking to people and found that if you can connect, and promote yourself without forcing it, the work will find you. I’ve always tried to help out other artists too and this attitude often comes back round in a ‘karmic’ cycle!
You’ve performed on TV, film, pubs, clubs and more – tell us how those experiences differ technically, schedule-wise etc, for those that don’t know.
Massive question! The TV/ film gigs are generally less pressure on the playing side of things as you can always do another take, but will often be more intense and less flexible as you can’t organise your own gig dates/ rehearsals, etc. Pub gigs can often be hard work as you need to win the audience over, but I do love the atmosphere of these generally! The club gigs do tend to be more about the artists (particularly outside of the UK), but can miss some of the rawness.
Importantly for me, I prepare thoroughly for each and every gig, whether it’s for a grotty pub gig or a Hollywood film. I firmly believe in the old cliche that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. This might involve writing drum charts or just having the music on repeat in my car, but there’s no room to go in half-arsed.
Tell us what an average gig day or tour week looks like for you.
Well, any musicians reading this will be the first to confirm that there’s no such thing as an ‘average gig day’! I’m lucky enough to have gigged and continue gigging right from the grass roots level upwards. Even touring is a mixed bag; I’ve done the sleeping in the van, self-drive tours right through to the 5 star treatment where a bloke has your name on a card at the airport (often with minimal spelling errors).
Generally speaking with a tour, your day starts remarkably early as you start your journey to the next gig! This might be for an early flight or just to start covering the mileage. Depending on how far I’m going, priorities are usually to find the hotel or the venue. Then it’s on to enjoy the catering (usually excellent as long as it’s outside of the UK) and to the stage for soundcheck. Once this is done, there’s usually a collective effort for social media promotion.
Whilst ’rock stars’ are supposed to get on with the sex, drugs and sausage rolls at this point, it’s often a case of having a kip for an hour or occasionally having a look at the city you’re in. I’ll generally try and watch some of the sets from each of the other bands after this, though this is usually the point where you’ll get to meet local friends or interviewers. At about this point, you might even get to do what you originally set out to do and play some music!
Depending on the gig, it’s now that you get to meet people, sell merch, maybe even sign something if you played well. After which, you’ll either have to get on the road for the next show, have an after party…or just head to bed. The lifestyle isn’t glamorous and is truly hard work for most of us, so you learn to enjoy and cherish every good experience that finds you.
What advice would you give to an aspiring musician wanting to do what they love for a living?
Tough one…firstly, you have to be DEDICATED to what you are doing. There are so many fantastic players out there that you won’t compete otherwise. Also, be careful about measuring success; if you only want to make money, you’re in the wrong industry! The days of multi-million pound record deals are long gone and this is about the worst way you could imagine to try and make a quick buck.
Also, be open to other styles; you don’t really know what will be interesting to you until you’ve given it a go. I’ve had so much pleasure (and work) from orchestral playing - I’d never have discovered that unless I said yes to something out of my comfort zone. Keep learning and challenging yourself.
And what advice would you give to other creatives or tech folk in creative spheres regarding working well with a percussionist (whether that be for a sound engineer, songwriter, promoter or more!)?
Never ask your drummer to turn down! We play a noisy beast and a well curated gig will recognise this - at the same time, promoters, please don’t book pretty venues that have a ridiculously low limiter just because they look like a hipster paradise! I’ve worked with many a great sound engineer; the best listen to the drummer’s needs as a happy drummer generally means a happy band. Personally, I find that you can never have enough kick and snare in your monitor.
Songwriting is a slightly different matter - firstly, never underestimate your drummer! In this day and age, they have likely studied all elements of music to a high standard. Trust in them! A good drum/ percussion part can make or break a song, so give the artist the credit they deserve and have some faith in their abilities. Occasionally there’s an attitude from a songwriter that writing drum parts doesn’t warrant compositional credits, but this is an essential part of the song of course!
What current projects have you got on or coming up at the moment?
Recently I performed with De Profundis in London - it was a pretty big one as it’s celebrated 10 years since the first album came out (the venue was where the first gig took place). I’m not the first drummer in this band and it was great fun learning some of the older material! The band were recently signed and are working on the release of a new album (the first featuring yours truly) as well as planning further touring.
I also played a few gigs with Ajam across the UK, with more in the pipeline as we speak. I'm also about to hit the studio again with Ali Azimi and the Need - it's been a few years since the last record, so I'm looking forward to getting back to songwriting and touring!
Other than that, I am currently recording another album in conjunction with my PhD; this differs from the first Thing record in that it is based mostly on arrangements from Sci-Fi films – a subject close to my heart! I won’t say too much, other than that I’m a big Arnie fan!!
Follow Tom's travels on social media.
Tom Atherton's website.
Thing Collective on Facebook.
De Profundis on Facebook.
Ali Azimi on Facebook.
Ajam on Facebook.
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