He may have come to public-eye prominence as drummer and singer in Steve Hackett‘s band, a backline frontman if you allow for oxymoron, but in musicians’ circles Gary O’Toole has been well-known for three decades. His rock-solid grooves can be heard as far from rock area as one can possibly imagine, as Gary played – with equal gusto – pop, jazz, you name it, yet, when naming it, don’t forget a soundtrack to an award-winning film. All this goes to show that O’Toole is an entertainer par excellence, although it takes talking to the man, a brilliant raconteur, to experience it in full. And that’s what we did backstage, shortly before the artist, who didn’t stop rehearsing during our conversation as if to accentuate some points, went on to charm the audience one more time.
– Gary, when did you decide to become a singer as well as a drummer?
Oh, I was a singer first. I come from the family of musicians – mum plays piano, dad plays bass – and we would do gigs around North London, in pubs and clubs, right into my teens. But in the course of doing all that, I’d gone through private lessons at music school round the corner from my school, when I was a child. At seven, I started playing piano but I was useless at that: I just couldn’t stick the way they wanted me to learn to read. And then I started doing guitar – I had guitar lessons when I was about ten – and at this point I wasn’t really getting very far because they wanted me to play in a classical style. But that would have been around about ’68, and I needed to start another kind of life, because it was never going to be that much of a future, so I moved on to drums. I played bass with my family from the age of ten until about fourteen, and my dad, being a bass player, said, “We need a drummer.” I asked for it at school, and the teacher said to my mom, “Frankly, Mrs. O’Toole, these kids haven’t got an ounce of musical talent in between the lot, but if your son could whistle the national anthem I’ll be surprised.” She lost her cool and said to him that I was earning more than he did during the course of the week, because we were doing gigs all over the place.
So I was sixteen when I started playing drums, but I’d started singing from the age of four, and I always found it very easy to sing. It felt like cheating, which was just surprising and bizarre, really; I just found that it was terribly straightforward, and I’d always wanted to learn to play drums, so it was a perfect match. From sixteen years of age, I came up against one or two industry types who, by the time I started, I had got anywhere near as good, and I was being told that I was far too old to be studying drums. But by the time I was twenty two, twenty three, I thought that I was much better than I was, and I really needed a slap (laughs) because I wasn’t that good.
– It was very surprising to me, because you’d only drummed on a string of Steve Hackett’s albums and then, all of a sudden, you emerged in a vocalist’s role.
Yeah, it was a fantastic opportunity, and I love being out there and to sing, I really do. It was during the years on his solo stuff: we started doing “Blood On The Rooftops” – I think it was the first one that I started to sing – and he loved what I did with it. And then, I remember we’d do snippets of different songs and I suggested once, “Why don’t we do ‘Watcher Of The Skies’ and I’ll sing it?” Steve said, “It can’t be done. John Wetton told me he was struggling [with it], so it can’t be done.” So I said, “Let’s just try it at the rehearsal and, if you don’t like it, we’ll put it on the shelf and do what you want to do,” – at which point we did it, Steve liked it, and I started singing more songs from that point. Hopefully, in the future I might sing more… or I might sing less, I don’t know, it remains to be seen. What is a fact is I’ll be doing my own stuff, and that means singing, too.
– Among your previous gigs was BIG CHIEF.
When I first started doing BIG CHIEF, probably around 1981-82, I knew Mike Jacques – he was great, a brilliant guitarist and a lovely man – who was so helpful to me: he really, really was. He talked to me about the vibe and then he talked to me about the fact that he knew Stewart Copeland; that’s when I found out about the connection between CURVED AIR and Mike and Tony. With Tony Reeves, we played in a number of different bands together and, funnily enough, he asked me if I’d be interested in doing some work with him. So I went for an audition with Dave Greenslade, but it didn’t work out. It was evident that BIG CHIEF was a band that considered what they did, and Dick [Heckstall-Smith] was unique. [There was] a mixture of musical styles, from a kind of African highlife across to some of the Southern styles, such as Dr John and all that stuff, on some of the songs that they were playing. I remember we actually went to record at the BBC because Adrian [Paton], our piano player, was an engineer there, for years and years and years – but I’m not sure if Dick did anything on that, as he was very sick at that time – and afterwards, I listened back to the sessions and I thought, “That can’t be me! That sounds great! They must have gotten somebody else in. That sounds wonderful!” I didn’t believe it. And what was interesting was, John Fry still runs BIG CHIEF, but it was only in retrospect, when talking to Tony that I found out about his history and then realized who I was playing with.
– You’re a very soulful drummer. Where does this come from?
Well, that originated from the fact that I started out being very much a soul jazz drummer. I was being in love with players like Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson, and it got me interested in Art Blakey who I supported at “Ronnie Scott’s” and who I asked about the things that he used to play. He said, “Yeah! Monday! Four o’clock! Be here!” This was only Saturday evening, and I said, “Yeah, fine,” as I knew he would play there. So I turned up at “Ronnie Scott’s” in London, at 4pm that Monday afternoon to find out that he’d called THE JAZZ MESSENGERS in for a rehearsal with me. Honestly. That would’ve been 1986. I sat in and I played, and three of them that sat me on my drums taught me a real lesson, and that was really cool: I got on very well with Terence Blanchard and Mulgrew Miller, bless him. But it was amazing for me to sit down with these guys actually telling me how it is, because it was bass player pushing against me and, instead of staying where I was and letting their tension work, I was trying to stay with him, so I kind of dropped him back, but he said, “No, man, stay where you are!” And then the other guys sat behind the kit and played.
– You like it loose when you’re locking in with the bass, not too tight?
At that point, I didn’t really understand what it was to play in front of the groove, on top of the groove and behind the groove, and it wasn’t until later on that I started to understand what was being spoken about, because nobody in England was able to actually explain that to me. I don’t recall anybody… possibly, Bobby Armstrong did show me, but I don’t remember it; just can’t remember anybody sitting down and saying, “This is how you do it,” and it being clear. It just wasn’t that way. Now it’s easy – I understand that because I sat down and worked, as I’m doing here before the show, and even finding the tracks. I just found the longest so that I’ve got a feeling of where the pulse is and I am able to play with it, and on some songs I play behind it – I can feel like it’s laid-back – and on some songs I play in front of it and I feel like it’s pushing and it’s got more vibe about it.
– Who’s your favorite bass player to be in a rhythm section with?
There’ve been quite a few, so it’s kind of tricky. It’s obviously Lee Pomeroy, and I love playing with Beggsy, Nick Beggs. Also Tony Reeves, because he’s ready to explore, he would go off on a tangent, and it would take it somewhere. And I love the fact that they were always experimenting, they didn’t play something just for the sake of it. So I’ve been fortunate enough to play with some pretty good bass players.
– You played in the “We Will Rock You” musical, didn’t you? Did you play with Neil Murray there?
Yes, but way before “We Will Rock You” I was in a band with Neil I around 1981. He could have been on a break from WHITESNAKE. We were just doing sessions, and I remember rehearsing in a place called Clink Studios, near London Bridge, with this American guy. It was great: we got on greatly, and I really learned some stuff from Neil, and it was nice to see him at “We Will Rock You” as well.
– And how did you find that experience? In Neil’s words, half of the band sat to the right of stage and other half to the left, following the conductor on-screen…
I’d done “Cats” before – I was a regular deputy for that show from 1983 for about twenty years – so I was well used to working with a musical director on a screen, so that was not shocking. Also, you’ve got monitors, and it’s not just a case of going in and having them on the floor: it’s much cleaner if you’ve got headphones.
– What about the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack?
It was funny because Marius [de Vries], who was the producer at that time, said, “I’ve got session for you. Would you do a couple of things for me?” and I went, “Okay. Where’s the session?” I think it was that place in Shoreditch called “The Strongroom” – Marius had his own studio there, but he would actually rent out the main studio when he needed it. I got down there and asked, “What’s it for?” and he said, “Would you be fine working with Nicole Kidman on a film?” I: “Oh, great. What is it?” He said, “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.” I said, “What do you want on that track?” And he said, “I want a couple of stings for the rest of the film.” “Fine.” So we played through it: (sings) “Tee-tee tee-tee-tee tee” – we got all the way through the song, everything’s good. He said, “Okay, but can you play a bit faster?” I said, “Yeah, cool,” because that was probably like mid-tempo, around 140 beats per minute. But he said, “Can you play faster?” I said. “Yeah, of course. How fast do you want it?” He said, “How fast can you play?” So I said, “Put the metronome up to 440.” And he went, “Really?” “Yes. I will play it” You can’t get too many fills at that tempo, but you can certainly keep with time. And that’s what I did. He didn’t use those [takes] but he used some of the faster ones, which was probably around 350, for little snippets for the mix in the film, and also the thing where the ringmaster is introducing himself. He asked me, “Do you know the drummer called Gene Krupa?” I said, “Yeah, of course, every drummer knows him.” He said, “You know that thing he does?” I went, “Yeah, yeah, I know which one.” So we just played it, and did it all in one take.
– A Tom Newman session: what was that?
Blimey. That must have been 1979, 1980, 1981, something like that. I was working with this band, and Tom decided to record and produce us, but it didn’t work out, which was a shame. It was a kind of prog band that didn’t do anything at all, but there was a lot talking, a lot of high hopes, but I can’t remember the name of it. But he was great to work with, because he was mad, and I loved it. I haven’t seen him since, though.
– So how did the Steve Hackett gig come about?
I was sitting at home one day, and I got a phone call from Steve Sidelnyk, a friend of mine from when I first started in 1983 and got the gig with CHINA CRISIS which is a pop band in England. We toured and we’d done about six months on the road, and I came off with that, and because that band was from Liverpool, my name was known, and there was a guy called Joe Musker, a local face who put things together, and he said, “Look, we’re doing this thing ‘Drums Cross The Mersey’ which is basically for charity. 48 hours drumming non-stop, with a number of different drummers taking on at different points.” So I went up to Liverpool to do this drum track, and one of my oldest friends in the business Steve White, who was in THE STYLE COUNCIL with Paul Weller, and Steve Sidelnyk had been playing with Steve White, in THE STYLE COUNCIL. So when White had started to do the clinic, he brought Sidelnyk with him, so the three of us went off on a train together: that’s when we met.
Some years later, in 1999, we’d become great friends with White. Sidelnyk fixed it all. He said, “I’ve got this band THE BOMB DROPPERS, and it’s Steve White’s gig but he can’t do it: he’s away. Can you do it?” I said, “Yeah, of course. What’s the stuff?” So he sent me all this stuff, and it was all drum-and-bass. I went, “Yeah, okay.” I set about learning it, and he said, “I want it a little bit more jazzy because I love Billy Cobham,” so I started putting old stuff in all over the place. So we go and do this gig, which was in a club in Holborn called “The End,” which was one of the loudest gigs I’ve ever done. There were three acts on: a singer came on first, and she sang with backing tapes; then it was us; and then it was another band, MANUKA, which was a singer and a guitarist. They were great, and after the gig I got to chat with them. So the singer, Jeanne, says to me, “We want a drummer,” and I say, “Great, when do we start rehearsals?” So we start rehearsals, and about three weeks later ahe says “We’ve got a gig at ‘The End’ on April 9th. Can you do it?” I went, “Yeah, that’s great!” and she went, “Okay, fantastic. See you there.” Quick! Then a phone rings again: “Hello?” – “It’s Steve Sidelnyk.” – “Yeah. – He says, “We’ve got a gig on the 9th” I said, “I can’t do it, Steve. I’ve just taken it.” He went on, “You don’t understand: you’re doing both bands. I’ve just spoken to Jen, and she’s agreed that it’ll be doing okay if you’re fit enough to do it.” So I thought, “I’m really going to be tired after this, I know, but I really want to do it.” We get down there, and Steve Sidelnyk brings a friend of his, which is Hamish Stuart of AVERAGE WHITE BAND, and Hamish sees what I’m doing and hates it, but Jen brought Steve [Hackett] and he loved it. That’s why I’m here.
– You seem to be enjoying playing with Steve if you stayed for so long with him.
Yeah. It’s very easy to just be a sideman and take off every now and again, but really simply if you like music – and it’s part of my heritage – it just makes sense for me to stick with it. And I haven’t noticed the years go by, I’ve been busy doing other stuff as well – from teaching, tutoring occasionally with one or two other people, because I still work with a big band in London and play with them fairly regularly, but a lot of guys there are members of NYJO, National Youth Jazz Orchestra in bygone years, so they want to keep their chops up. So I still like to go and play jazz with those guys, because the chops that they pull out are really very, very tricky, and it’s good for me to keep on and be fresh.
– Where does this discipline come from that enables you to be a teacher?
Initially, honestly, I’ve got involved in teaching because I thought it’s been a way to earn a few quid, a few pounds, but after a while I realized that I wasn’t that good. And I wasn’t that good because the information that I had wasn’t solid, so I started to re-evaluate it, and number of years later I went back to it. The thing that I realized was that I actually loved it, and at the time I was studying kickboxing – I was training and I became a teacher in that – a part of the team that taught four world champions, so I know what I’m doing in that thing as well. When I’ve gone back to being on the road, I probably put some weight on, because it’s like last night: sitting in the room, having a beer, watching a film, eating a pizza. (Laughs.) It’s probably not the best way to keep fit on tour.
But yeah, I loved the idea of being able to talk to someone because in my life there were certain challenges, and early on I wasn’t able to understand how to face them, but by taking on a certain subject, in my case music, I started to understand how to overcome certain obstacles, and by taking on another subject, martial arts – they’re disparate areas that didn’t really seem to be connected: my life, my music and martial arts – but actually, they’re one and the same. Once you know how to punch, once you know how to kick, then you start to learn combinations; you wouldn’t do that in a fight because it’s a challenge. If somebody knows what you’re going to do, they read the position they read that you’re going to come with a front kick next, and they can side slip as we say, which is to move your body away from the strike that’s coming in and then move them inside. So it becomes something that’s much more spiritual, just like jazz, just like writing music, where you’re open for improvisation, and in life we’ve got to have that improvisation, too.
– Does your love for martial arts somehow inform your playing style?
I think everything that’s inside of me informs the other. I feel the improvement as far as my drums are concerned, I feel that I’m much more in control these days, and I’m happier with what I play, and that comes from understanding what we’re trying to play, what we’re trying to express. As Tony Williams said in the interview that I’ve just read, it’s not about just playing something day in, day out; it’s much more about coming up with a fresh side of it that will give you some kind of melodic direction. In terms of martial arts, that direction is like landing a punch, but in terms of life, that direction is what you’re going to do next and where you’re going.
– Teaching and martial arts are serious thing but, and Steve agrees with me, his group is a band of merry pranksters. How do you balance it all?
(Laughs.) Once you get to a certain level I feel that you are able to bring yourself up, that can be that you just become much better technically, but that’s got nothing to do with music: that’s technique, that’s a means to an end – and, fundamentally, money is a means to an end – but some people get so wrapped up in technique that they never see the wood for the trees, they don’t think about the actual music. But once you consider music and you know what you’re doing, you got space. When you start teaching and have somebody play: tam-tam-tam and, say, (drums) – that’s a paradiddle – that’s a bit fast, so you have to slow down and show it to them, and then they go away and work on it, and then they think it’s too hard because they’re physically trying to feel that they’re doing it, whereas an actual fact is, you’ve got to bounce the stick, and it takes a little time for them to understand it; otherwise, they stop putting all sorts of strength into it, and that’s where the tension and other problems begin. I think once you’ve overcome that and you allow yourself to relax, all of a sudden there’s a lot more space around every single note that you play; and in life, if you get two things, you get caught up in the moment and you can’t make a considered decision about it until you’ve relaxed – and once you relax, it’s easier to see what it is you’re going to do. So with our humorous side, one fits the other.
– So what’s next for you?
I’ve got two things: I’ve got to concern myself with building up my music school in London and reasserting my personality, which I neglected to do for a while. Also, I plan to go into ny studio and record stuff that I want to do – possibly with my wife, who’s a singer-songwriter, too, and a few friends who want to work with me, so there’s a few different situations I may drop into.