Interview by Jari Asell and Heather Williams
Steel Mill continues Judas Priest drummer series with mighty skinbeater Simon Phillips who was on heavy duty on Judas Priest’s 1977 album ” Sin After Sin”.
How would you describe your drumming style? You are such an outstanding player of all genres from metal (Judas Priest), rock, jazz, classical, just about everything. But I feel you’re more of a jazz guy, aren’t you?
I find this is always an interesting topic – styles! We tend to think in terms of rock, jazz, fusion, reggae when in fact these are all just forms of western music. What about music from Eastern Europe and from Asia. There is so much music in this world to learn about and I love playing and adapting to all these styles.
However I think the main reason I am able to play many styles is due to growing up in the UK in the 60s. If you listened to one radio station there would always be a mixture of music. In the US there were radio stations that specialized in certain styles so there was less opportunity to be subjected to a variation of styles.
As a young professional in London in the early 70s I had to be able to adapt to playing different styles in order to do sessions – which is where I started my career!
You started out drumming but you can also play other instruments like guitar and bass. What made you decide to stick with drumming?
Actually I can’t play guitar or bass! I can play a little keyboards – enough to perform in the studio. I would have loved to have learned to play more instruments but never had the time. I was given piano lessons at age 5 or 6 but as my ear was already developed to hearing jazz harmony, because that’s what was played in our household all the time, learning to play C major triad really wasn’t rocking my world. I just kept staring at my little drum kit. At least that way I could play along to some hip music with great harmony. I was always fascinated by cool chords progressions.
You’ve been playing drums for an amazing 48 years. That’s most of your life! Your father had a Dixieland band and at 12 you started playing professionally with them. Is it safe to say you grew up in a household where you were mostly exposed to jazz music? What was your first gig outside of your father’s band?
Absolutely. Jazz was prominent but there was also pop music of the time. In one day I could listen to Artie Shaw, Count Basie and Fats Waller and then Dave Brubeck, The Stones, The Kinks and the Dave Clarke Five.
During the 4 years I spent with my dad’s band I played with a few other dance bands but I hadn’t played with a rock or pop group yet. That was what I wanted to do so badly. A few months after his death and after I disbanded his band I was so lucky to get an audition for the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. That was my first rock gig!
You’re such a prolific drummer. You played with so many musicians and played so many different styles of music. You’ve played with a lot of notable artists among them Asia, Russ Ballard (Argent, wrote for KISS) Jeff Beck, David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), David Coverdale, Roger Daltry, Keith Emerson, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, Mick Jagger, Judas Priest, Gary Moore, Steve Lukather (Toto), Nazareth, Joe Satriani, Michael Shenker, John Sykes, Pete Townshend, The Who, Frank Zappa, Jack Bruce (founded Cream with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker), King Crimson, John Wetton, as well as hundreds of others! Tell us the overall experience of working with these artists and do you still talk to any of them today?
I have been so lucky to work with so many great artists. Every session was a learning experience – especially when I was very young. I speak to Steve Lukather and Joe Satriani every now and then but haven’t spoken to a lot of these people you mention. Sadly some of them have passed away. I had a close connection to Jack Bruce – he taught me so much!
In 1977 how did you get involved with Judas Priest?
Roger Glover was asked to produce Sin After Sin and when he learned that they didn’t have a drummer he recommended me to come in and play. I had been working with Roger on various projects (David Coverdale, Whitesnake and Roger’s own album, Elements). The band agreed and we got together for a rehearsal to run through the songs and then into Ramport Studios we went and started recording.
Amazing that you were around 20 years old when you recorded “Sin After Sin”. How much time did you have to rehearse the songs?
In fact I had my 20th birthday during the sessions. I think we only rehearsed for one day!
Did you have your own drumming style already before “Sin After Sin” or were you exploring new things?
I believe album ending “Dissident Aggressor” is one of the heaviest Priest tunes, what was your approach to that one?
Well I love playing 6/8 grooves and this one was perfect for double bass drum pattern and changing between a shuffle and the 6/8 groove so it was very natural track to play.
Please tell us how you brought double bass ideas for the songs?
I never really think about it that much – I just play what feels right for the song. Sometimes I just throw around some ideas which are purely instinct playing and then I like to listen to the first take and see what works and what doesn’t.
What is your favourite song from “Sin After Sin”?
You were asked to join Priest but you could not because of Jack Bruce commitments, is that correct ?
Yes that is correct. I had started working with Jack in the summer of ’76 and together with Hughie Burns on guitar (that famous guitar solo on Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”) and Tony Hymas on keys we formed the Jack Bruce Band. We recorded a record titled “How’s Tricks” in September of ’76 and were set to tour for most of ’77. The band lasted for 2 years and we toured the UK, Europe and the US.
What is your favourite Priest song and album beside “Sin After Sin”?
I’d have to listen again to some albums.
Another amazing thing is that you spent almost 20 years with the band Toto. How did you end up joining Toto and what kept you with the band for such a long time?
It’s funny but I had been trying to be in a band since the 70s but for some reason every band I joined or formed just did not work out. Then I got into production and engineering as I felt maybe it wasn’t to be and that was what my destiny was. I worked with Mike Oldfield on 3 albums in the 80s and many other up and coming artists. When the time came to join Toto it co-incided with my move to Los Angeles and it was such a great honor to join them – the musicianship was spectacular – and everything about the organization was perfect. We had a really good run together – 21 years. I ended up co-producing and engineering the band’s last couple of albums before I left.
You also played on several film soundtracks, as well as the Dragonball Z video game series. Your film credits include Odessa File, The Bible, Killing Fields, Boys on the Side, Lion King – Rhythm of the Pride Lands, The Preachers Wife, Pirates of the Caribian by Hans Zimmer…
I also think there is a Pink Panther movie in there – maybe Return of The Pink Panther but I’d have to check. When I was doing sessions in London in the 70s I played all sorts of different sessions and types of music. I was just booked for these sessions. I knew Hans Zimmer when he was living in London so when I moved to LA he very kindly called me for these movies.
Do you ever get to meet the actors/actresses in these films?
No. Their job is done by the time we get to the music.
Let’s talk about your solo albums. The first one came out in 1988 titled Protocol. Was this your first ever solo album? I understand you played all the instruments on this album?
I had been writing music for a solo project for a number of years and was making demos and taking them around various record companies. No-one wanted that kind of music – instrumental jazz/rock – so as I had a studio and some time on my hands I decided to do it myself. I didn’t have a budget so as people were really digging my demos I thought, well, why not just play all the instruments. When I say all the instruments it is all keyboards. I came up with a “guitar” sound that seemed to fool some people – ha ha ha – and I can play a little bit of piano so with the help of a sequencer (Yamaha QX1) I recorded 5 songs for an EP as my first solo release. I printed up 1000 copies and sold them all over the world. A record label in London heard it and signed me. That record company was Music For Nations and they had Metallica and Nuclear Assault at the time.
For Protocol II and III you have other musicians playing with you: guitarist Andy Timmons (Danger Danger), bassist Ernest Tibbs ( Natalie Cole, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight), keyboardist Steve Weingart (Steve Lukather, Chick Corea). What made you decide to take additional musicians onto these albums as opposed to you just playing all the instruments yourself again?
Before PII and PIII I recorded 5 other solo albums which all had other musicians playing on them. I love the old fashioned way of recording. All the musicians in the same room at the same time. There’s an energy that one captures when playing live in the studio and frankly there are not enough records being made like that anymore. I grew up recording music in that way.
Now there will be a Protocol IV. Are you still in the process of recording this one or is it all finished? Will there be a tour to support this album?
All the tracks have been recorded so it’s just finishing up some overdubs and then mixing. The band will be touring Europe, the US and Japan.
After Protocol, 1988, you released your other solo albums: Force Majeure, 1992, Symbiosis, 1995, Another Lifetime, 1997, Out of the Blue, 1999, Vantage Point, 2000. The albums sound similar to the Protocol albums. Why didn’t you name any of these albums Protocol II, III etc? It’s not until 2013 and 2015 you came out with Protocol II and III. What sets the Protocol series of solo albums apart from your other solo albums?
When we were recording PII I realized that it had been 25 years since recording Protocol. I was wondering what to call the project and it had a different feel to the older solo albums. There was much more participation from the musicians than there had been in the other albums and I just felt it was time to bring back the Protocol name.
What was it that prompted you to embark on your own solo career?
I felt it was time and I had something to say musically. Working with Mike Oldfield also really inspired me to go ahead.
You were inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2003 and rightly so. How did that make you feel?
I feel very lucky to have had such a wonderful career and to be given the talent to play the drums the way I play so any recognition like that is a bonus. I feel very honored to join a long list of amazing drummers in the Hall Of Fame.
Do you give drum lessons or have drum clinics?
I occasionally play drum clinics and conduct masterclasses but I don’t teach very often. Mainly due to lack of time but also I feel that being a teacher is a talent that I don’t have. There are teachers who have dedicated their life to teaching and even though they may not be able to play the way us drummers do they are able to analyze and dissect what we do and pass it on in a way that is understandable to their pupils.
You have traveled the globe playing music. What is the country that you found most enjoyable as in the people were friendly, food was good, climate pleasant, just an overall good experience? Any that you found unpleasant or had a bad experience in?
There are so many amazing places in this world. I have favourites of course but I can adapt to most places. The most important thing is the audience and to see how appreciative they are no matter where I perform.
I’ve had a few bad hotel/venue/travel experiences but nothing seriously bad. I’ve always been able to laugh about it afterwards.
Drum talk time… How often do you recommend changing drum heads?
Well that depends on the music and how hard I am playing. Generally I would change the main snare drum head every show. I would change Toms 2, 3 & 4 every 2 or 3 shows. Toms 5 & 6 every 6 or 7 shows. The 10” snare I’d change every 6 or 7 shows. The gong drum every 5 shows. Tom 1 maybe after 20 shows. The Octobans last for a year or two and the bass drums about the same.
Can a marching snare batter head be used on a regular drum? Some people say they sound good but they cause harm to the drum like broken tension lugs and bent rims.
I’ve never tried it!
What would you say is the best way to store a drum kit? I’ve heard stories where drum equipment such as cymbals stored in cold temperatures crack.
Never heard of that one. Drums and cymbals are very resilient so as long as the storage space is dry they should be fine in hot or cold temperatures. It’s the damp that is the worst thing for any instrument.
Can you tell us what these drum terms mean, if there are even such things… Flesh hoop, Collar, Playing surface?
Flesh hoop and collar apply to natural skin heads which us drummers rarely deal with nowadays. That would be reserved for percussionists – conga players for example.
Playing surface? That’s pretty obvious but the correct term for the playing head would be “batter head”.
Do toms of different depths have the same range or do deeper toms allow for deeper tones?
Deeper toms don’t necessarily have a different pitch. That would be down to the tension of the heads. Deeper sound – perhaps – but I have my own theory. If the drum is too deep it actually sounds less deep – or full. That is due to the top and bottom head (batter and resonant head) not moving at the same time. I feel there is a perfect depth for toms. Too deep and they lose their tone and conversely to shallow they sound thin. The deeper the shell the slower the drum will “speak”. However frankly what you see out there is largely due to fashion!
Have you ever broken drums sticks while in the middle of playing a show?
How many drum kits do you have?
I have 10 kits scattered around the World
What brand of drums do you prefer? I know you have a remarkable drum set already but are you planning on adding even more to your kit?
I have been playing Tama drums since 1979. I occasionally make changes to the set up but that depends on the music that I am playing but I have been playing the same basic configuration for years!
Would you be willing to play a musical collaboration with K.K. Downing ? Drummer Les Binks has thrown the challenge to K.K.
Interesting question. It would be fun to have a reunion show with Priest – all the members over the years playing different segments of the show.
Who do you cite as influences in your drumming career?
Some of the drummers who have influenced me: Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Danny Seraphine, Jon Hiseman, Ian Paice, John Bonham, Bill Bruford, Grady Tate, Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Tony Williams, Steve Gadd, Chester Thompson, Ralph Humprey.
I was also heavily influenced by other musicians: John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Don Ellis, Stan Kenton, Jimmy Page, Jan Hammer, Jeff Beck, Terry Kath – I mean there are so many it’s hard to recall.
Where can we buy your music? Where can we find you on social media? Do you have any hobbies, books, favorite foods, movies?
All my CDs are available on iTunes and Amazon. In Europe I am signed to In Akustik; in Japan I am signed to Universal and in the US I release on my own label, Phantom Recordings, on CD Baby.
I’m on Facebook and Twitter
My main hobby was Motor Racing – I love good food – good coffee – making cocktails and I love movies.
After almost 50 years of playing music, have you ever thought of retiring? What does 2017 and beyond hold for Simon Phillips?
I don’t understand the word “retiring”. I cannot see how one can stop playing music so I guess I’ll be playing until I can’t physically. As for 2017 I have some interesting projects in the pipeline but will be mainly focusing on Protocol IV and the new line up!!