Exclusive interview with session drummer Joe Clegg

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Session drummer Joe Clegg talks exclusively with Roland’s own Ryan Jenkinson about touring with Ellie Goulding, living near London and his favourite topic – gear!


RJ: Hey Joe, Huge thanks for finding time to sit down with me and the Roland Blog readers. I’ve just got through reading your recent feature in Rhythm and your story is truly one to take note of for any aspiring musician. Proof that hard work and dedication pays off.

If we can sum it up for the blog readers, you moved to London when you were 20 right?

JC: Hey Ryan, thanks for asking me to take part in your Roland Blog… any excuse to talk gear!

The Rhythm article was accurate up to the point regarding London, I never actually moved into London but lived in Guildford for a year when I was 18 whilst studying at ACM. From there I made the move up to Bristol, which was my base for four years as I toured Europe with a band called Steve. I did spend six months sleeping on floors and sofas though of Ellie’s managers house (in London) in the very early days, but I didn’t properly live in London.

RJ: As a fellow Northerner I’ve seen a lot of my muso friends head to the capital in search of the gigs before. The reality I guess is that it’s a very very tough world out there. How were your first few years looking for work?

JC: My journey from Lancashire to ACM, to Bristol and then back to Lancashire was a story that I’m sure many musicians can relate to. You start with a dream and a whole lot of determination and then realise along the way that sometimes that just isn’t enough. As you said it is a very tough world and nobody owes you any favours. There are so many incredibly talented players out there all aspiring to play on the same handful of gigs, I learnt quite quickly that hard work and perseverance are the most important things.

RJ: I don’t wanna dwell on it too much but you had to move back up North due to lack of money and despite the odds you still found a way to still get the dream gig. Do you think it’s important for aspiring pro musicians to think outside of the “move to London, meet the fixers” box?

JC: When I moved back up to Lancashire, right before meeting Ellie (Goulding), I had nothing – no gig, not enough money to pay rent, and certainly not enough to cover the cost of living in London. I was fortunate that I stumbled upon a music blog and found Ellie when I did, good timing more than anything, even more fortunate that Ellie’s management weren’t put off that I didn’t live in London. We have spent so much time on tour this past five years that the geographic location of ‘home’ isn’t an issue at all. We have guys on the EG team that live in Scotland, Northern Ireland and our LD lives in Belgium. With the cost of living only on the increase I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more young people in the creative industries start to move further outside of London over the coming years. That said, London is an incredible city and if my story had included a stint living in the capital I certainly wouldn’t have complained!

Joe Clegg & Ellie Goulding

RJ: So that covers the past, lets talk about the present. We had a show on our tour where the Metropolis rep had worked your o2 Arena London show the night before. He was telling me that all you guys were truly humbled to have sold the amount of tickets you did. I can imagine that show was a culmination of a lot of hard graft for everyone working with Ellie over the last few years? Can you tell us about the emotions walking out to a huge sellout crowd like that after everything you’d been through in the early days?

JC: That’s right, walking out onto the 02 stage with Ellie was a very special feeling. I met her before she had written her first album, I was there in her first ever band rehearsal and was on stage behind her at her first proper show…playing to a sold out 02 with her was overwhelming. She’s worked hard for her success and it is an absolute pleasure to have played a part in it. Personally it was an important milestone for me, the culmination of years of hard graft.

RJ: …and it goes from strength to strength from there. You’ve just finished a ten week US and South American tour, as well as a month through Australia and New Zealand. Tell us about it.

JC: The girl just doesn’t stop! We are just about to hit the two year mark of the promotional cycle for second album ‘Halcyon,’ which has taken us around the world a number of times. One of the cool things now is that I seem to find myself on more and more arena stages around the world, which is a privilege that isn’t lost on me.

RJ: Right, let’s talk tech then… As you’re not only the drummer you’re also the MD so you have to be all over the gear that not only you use but I guess most of the band. Have you always been a gear head or did you have to make a conscious decision to get involved in electronics etc?

JC: Finally, gear talk! I have been Ellie’s Musical Director since the beginning, and have been involved heavily in the technology we use on the show. When I was fresh out of ACM I spent four years on the road with a band that were really into sampling, playback and gear efficiency. I learnt a lot from those guys, from learning how to use a sampler, to playing with a click track and backing tracks live. We tried nearly every form of playback system under the sun, from hard disk recorders, mini-disk players and running from a second generation iPod with click panned hard left and mono tracks panned hard right. The final tour I did with them we were running an early version of Ableton Live, with MIDI controllers on stage starting songs and using Live and video software to loop sections and change arrangements on the fly. They were important years of exposure to the possibilities and implementation of technology in live music.

I have been into drums for as long as I can remember, learning what specific kit or snare drum was responsible for the sound I was hearing on the record, leading me into a long standing love affair with all things vintage. When I landed my first paying gig I set about collecting the instruments that I had learned about over the years in order to create my own tonal palette as a drummer.

RJ: I’m looking at your setup now and you have the holy grail of drum toys, the Roland SPD-SX. There are so many ways of using it, how do you have it setup?

JC: Ah the Roland SPD-SX, it is a great piece of gear, and the backbone to my whole show. I used the SPD-S for years, loading on my own samples and using auxiliary pads, but it was when I delved deeper into MIDI and the possibilities it opens up to me as a drummer and musical director that it really came into its own.

I use the SPD-SX entirely as a MIDI controller, no sounds come directly from the outputs and no sounds have been loaded into it. There is just the one cable coming out of the back of it… a MIDI cable.

I have built up a thorough database of MIDI cc numbers that I use to control a whole host of things within Ableton Live, from starting and stopping songs, to changing the patches of all the keyboards on stage. One hit of a specific pad on a specific kit will change all the triggers and Ellie’s sampler, all via Live. When you combine the flexibility of midi note control in kit mode with the SPD-SX’s chain function you can really have some fun.

RJ: I know you use the TMC-6 to trigger MIDI using your RT triggers, do you use the SPD-SX to send MIDI or do you use it to send direct to FOH?

JC: I use the TMC-6 for triggers on the kick and snares, with a secondary TMC6 running our entirely electronic B-Kit on stage. The B-Kit is used for a couple of songs and consists entirely of RT triggers on mesh head Gretsch USA Custom shells, along with the trusty KD-7 and PD-8’s. I have tried a lot of ways of running pads and triggers, and have found the TMC-6 to be the most solid piece of gear on the market. It just works, and continues to work show after show.

The RT triggers go via the TMC-6 to Live, from there through to FOH. I have chosen to separate the triggers from the SPD-SX purely for damage limitation – when you run so much MIDI through one source there is always the potential for messages to be dropped. I then separate the ‘drum’ outputs to FOH in a couple of ways; triggers are mainly mono, with Ellie’s sampler and track drums sent as a stereo channel.

RJ: So everything is heading to Ableton including the PD8/KD7?

JC: Everything goes to Ableton from the drum position either by the TMC-6 or SPD-SX, with the SPD-SX mainly being my show control. The TMC also handles the auxiliary pads.

Speaking of the KD-7, I absolutely love mine but we need to get you a KT-10 to play with. Have you seen one yet? It’s a full size foot trigger pedal that is adjustable to how responsive you want it to be.

I really like the KD-7 actually, it has a good response and is discrete enough to hide under the floor tom, making the transition between the pedals seamless. There are moments with Ellie where I go from entirely acoustic to entirely electronic, within the space of a few bars, so the KD7 works perfectly for me. I have seen the KT-10 but haven’t had chance to try one yet actually. Feel free to send one over for me to play with!

RJ: Your RT Triggers then… I ask everyone this question and I don’t mean to jinx anything I promise. 😉 You have two on each snare, so I’m guessing one is a spare? Old model triggers used to be so unreliable in the past but have you ever had to use the spare RT? They have been bulletproof for me and I’ve been known to give em a whack pretty often.

JC: The RT’s are my favourite triggers on the market, and I’m not just saying that because this is for a Roland blog! Seriously though, the piezo pickup is solid and well manufactured, with the housing as hard as nails.

Well spotted that I have two on each snare drum! I actually use the spare in a couple of ways. Firstly, it acts as a spare if trigger one goes down, but for the rest of the time it is routed to FOH for use controlling the snare drum gates. Our engineer Joe Harling then has very precise control over the gate he uses on my snare drums, allowing him to pick up the ghost note nuances as well as the two and four. Quite clever really.

Roland acoustic drum triggers

RJ: Have you ever used the SPD-SX for Acoustic TV/Radio sessions or mini setups when time/space is tight? An SPD-SX with a couple external pads makes a great mini Electronic kit.

JC: Yup! I actually travelled around the US last year on a radio promo tour with Ellie using an SPD-S, KD7 and a condenser microphone built into one single stand. I was using Live to build real time loops, using the microphone for shakers and acoustic claps, along with kicks from the KD-7. I set up the SPD-S to open and close individual loops with a hit of a stick, with a Novation controller giving me realtime access to filter and FX controls. Lot of fun.

I actually used the SPD-SX with a KD-7 on a Radio 1 Live Lounge session earlier this year with Ellie… sat on a regular Cajon with a big old 808 via the KD-7 (via the internal SPD-X sounds) to give me something different. Sounded great.

RJ: Us drummers normally get the responsibility of pressing play on the track. As MD have you delegated that on to someone else or are you still the man with the finger on the button?

JC: We have a talented keys and MIDI tech on the road with us, Will Sanderson, who watches the rigs during the show and keeps an eye on all of the MIDI. Will never presses play though, that all comes from me and the SPD-SX.

I have pads assigned on the SPD-SX to give me access to show controls, such as start/stop and one bar count ins and triggering specific sections, which I feel is most intuitive when controlled by me on stage. I’ll be honest, I just like to be in control!

Joe Clegg; session drummer for Ellie Goulding

RJ: With regards to the playback, again as MD you get to decide what goes on there. Are you ever tempted to stick something on track that you would normally trigger just to give you a rest for a song?

JC: Well, the process of going from receiving the finished record as multi-tracks through to pressing play on mixed and finely tuned live track elements is a long and arduous process. I like to play as much as I possibly can live, often giving one of our other musicians a drum or two to play when needed. With Ellie I use the triggers for one shot samples rather than loops – there has to be a balance between playing everything humanly possible and everything that is necessary just because you can. Everything I trigger is also specific to the song and sampled directly from the record, the snare triggers for instance aren’t just adding a layered acoustic snare sample, quite the opposite.

The bigger picture of how our show sounds at front of house is my upmost concern, which sometimes means putting my instincts as a drummer to one side in order to hear the show in the broader context. The goal for me is to give the people that have bought the tickets the best possible representation of the Ellie Goulding songs that they know and love, as true to the record as sonically possible, with added detail and energy from a talented and enthusiastic live band.

RJ: Looking to the future then, you’re part of the furniture with Ellie so I can imagine it would be difficult to think of playing for anyone else now. If you could play with any band alive or dead for one show though, who would it be?

JC: Haha! Well, it has been almost five years of working with Ellie, which has been an insane journey. That aside I am always interested in working on projects that I find musically stimulating, whether that is MDing projects without touring them, or playing on more album projects. I also run a small production design company on the side of my work with Ellie, which keeps me very busy! My desire to tour the world playing music that I love hasn’t gone away just yet, in fact I’m hungrier than ever to keep on improving and contributing to great live music.

I’m gonna leave it at that then Joe as I know what a busy man you are! Really wanna big you up for finding time for a Team Roland hangout with me and the blog readers. Enjoy the rest of the US Tour and I’m sure we’ll get to catch up in a field backstage at a festival this summer. Beers on me…

It is definitely your round mate!


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