Steve Negus! Sein Drumming in Worte zu fassen fällt mir schwer – sehr schwer. Es entzog sich jahrelang meiner Analysefähigkeit(en), und bis heute ist mir nicht vollends gelungen, all seine spieltechnischen “Geheimnisse“ zu entschlüsseln. Als um 1981 kurz nach Rush auch Saga (als 2. kanadische Band) mein Plattenarchiv eroberte, war es sofort sein genial-mysteriöses Hihat-Spiel – genauer gesagt zunächst der “Sound“ seines Hihat-Spiels - der mich immens faszinierte. Damals wusste ich weder etwas von akzentuiertem bzw. dynamischem Hihat-Spiel noch von Microtime. Aber eines wusste ich: Dass seine Hihat bzw. seine Grooves mich sehr in den Bann zogen… und sich von dieser Anziehungskraft bis zum heutigen Tag nichts verändert hat.
Neben den Scheiben „Worlds Apart“, „Silent Night“ und „Saga“ (dem Debüt), die ich als erste Platten erwarb, war es zweifelsohne jenes Rock Pop Concert in Dortmund von Saga, das 1981 im dt. Fernsehen ausgestrahlt wurde, das meine Drumsozialisation maßgeblich prägte und den Respekt vor seinem Drumming und seinen sehr geschmackvoll-durchdachten Drumarrangements, mit denen er die Saga-Songs veredelte. Einer meiner besten Freunde, Mathias Will, hatte dieses Konzert damals (als Videorekorder noch teuere Luxusartikel waren) glücklicherweise auf Video aufgezeichnet, und so konnten wir wiederholt in den Genuß dieses Konzertes und der vielen Schnitte und Blenden auf Steve Negus-Drumming kommen. Es ist heute im You-Tube-Zeitalter wahrscheinlich nicht mehr erklärbar/vermittelbar , wie stark! ein einziges Konzert bzw. ein einziger Mitschnitt damals für junge Musiker prägend sein konnte. Davon (jenen seltenen musikalischen Sternstunden des Fernsehens) hat man oftmals (ohne Übertreibung) jahrelang gezehrt.
Vieles an Saga war damals atemberaubend. Insbesondere aus der Sicht von angehenden Musikern. Der leicht-unbeschwerte Wechsel diverser Musiker von Saga während ihrer Konzerte vom Bass zum Keyboard, vom Gesang zu frühen E-Drum-Prototypen im Minikoffer („A Briefcase“), der Wechsel vom Piano zum Synthi, Wechsel zwischen Akustik-Set zu E-Drums von Steve je nach Song etc. etc. Die Verwendung und Einbindung des damaligen technischen High-End in Sachen Synthesizer und E-drums wirkte auf uns wie eine Zeitreise in die Zukunft – wie ein Science Fiction-Film. Vieles wirkte auf uns damals „überlegen“. Aber bei Saga ohne Arroganz oder Star-Hype, sondern einfach zweckdienlich im Sinne der Vibes für den jeweiligen Song und noch dazu dramaturgisch-inszenierungstechnisch fesselnd umgesetzt. Auch diese Wirkung kann ich retrospektiv nur noch versuchen! zu beschreiben. Nachvollziehen aus dem Blickwinkel heutiger technischer Möglichkeiten junger Musiker wird man es wohl nicht mehr können .
Aber vielleicht kann man nach diesem Vorwort ein kleines Stück weit den respektvoll-herzlichen Tonfall der Interviewfragen von mir nachvollziehen. Diese 3 Platten und insbesondere dieses „Fernsehkonzert“ haben sich in mein Musikerherz und -gehirn „gebrannt“ und sind ein Stück weit auch „soundtrack of my life“ und zweifelsohne auch vieler Kollegen meines Jahrgangs.
Auch diesmal ist dieses Vorwort von mir bereits vor seinen Antworten formuliert worden. Ebenso wie sonst auch bitte ich meine sprachlichen Unzulänglichkeiten im Englischen zu ignorieren. Thanks.
1.) For the first time I listened to Saga around 1981 (even when I did not know that much about drumming). Immediately I became aware of your unique and outstanding hihat-“sound”. In my first drumming years I thought quite naive “maybe it is a better hihat-model then the model I am playing” . I also thought to discover via video-analysis of the Rock Pop in Concert TV-broadcast of Saga 1981 that you hold the sticks a little different in placement then most drum-books advice. It seemed to me like a "different leverage-thing” . It was several years later then I dropped my first naive theories when I became aware of your very groovy!!! special microtime in connection with great accent-variations and hihat-openings where not everyone would expect the hihat to be opened. Now (many years later) I still fail to discover all ingredients of your magic hihat-playing. Could you provide a little insight in your hihat-playing?
That is a bit of a tough question to answer but let me give it a shot. I have never taken any formal training for drumming so I found my own way to do things. I just did what felt right to me.
Over the years, I discovered that I like the hihat several inches higher than the snare so I could play on the top with the tip of the stick (many drummers set up the hihat much higher and play with the shaft of the stick...this doesn't give the right kind of articulation for me...I play a lot of double strokes and the tip gives the best sound and response). I use pretty big sticks too which makes for a different sound (Vic Firth American Classic Metal). I keep the hihat tightly closed when I'm playing and rock my heel as my time-keeper. When I open for accents the hihat cymbals open just enough to create the accent then close again. I use a lot of "ghost notes" on the snare which gives a groove more dimension than just playing the "2" and "4" accents. Also when I ride the cymbal, I play very close to the bell to get more definition...again with the tip of the stick...but using the shaft on the bell for the accents. I use a 22" heavy ride cymbal (Anatolian) so that there is no "build up" as I play the ride. To me, this technique leaves more room for the rest of the band as you don't get a "wash" from the cymbals or hihat. I do use open hihat for certain things....but even then, slightly open to get the "mash" sound without washing the rhythm.
2.) Saga offered quite a lot marvelous songs which combined the best of both worlds: Progressive elements and also great (sometimes even commercial) hookline-potential. By this you adressed multiple! fan-sections. Devoted musicians, lovers of melodic rock-music, lovers of hi-tech-“mediated” music (because of Saga´s massive use of synthesizers, Simmons-prototypes etc.) and also people that love catchy rock-pop songs. To me in retrospective that´s a great achievement and there are not that many other bands with that broad or “diverse” fanbase. Any comments Steve?
I enjoyed the early years with Saga. It was an exciting time to be making music....we broke a lot of new ground with the sounds of the synths and of course with the electronic drums. I can remember the early days in the studio...there were no polyphonic synths and not even MIDI, so to make chords we would play the minimoog several times to make the chords. Most of the credit should go to the people who were putting together the new instruments...in particular Bob Moog and Dave Simmons. We took what they had created and ran with it. These days we all have computers to make music and as always I embrace the new technology....Steinberg has been putting together great music software and hardware for recording. I use Nuendo and Wavelab in my studio. I started out with Cubase on an Atari computer (remember those?) many years ago. I am currently working in my studio on an instrumental CD which I hope to finish soon and release....my new music is a step forward from my Saga days...I challenge myself daily to be a better player, working out on my Vdrum kit several hours every day.
3.) What about your musical socialisation as a young kid growing up in Canada?
I really think I was destined to be a drummer. I started pounding on the furniture when I was 9 or 10 years old. I got my first drum kit when I was 13 and put together my first band shortly after that. I was listening to "Surf music" at that time....Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys. (The first album I owned was "Little Deuce Coupe" by the Beach Boys.) I wanted to take drums in high school, but it didn't work out...you had to put down a second and third choice for instruments in case you couldn't get what your first choice was. I wanted drums obviously, but they told me I would have to play sax....well......NO!! I then decided to take a few lessons from the music teacher after class....but he gave me a sheet with rudiments on it and that wasn't what I had in mind...so I passed on that. Recently I have gone back to those same rudiments and applied them to my daily drum workouts and I have learned a lot of new and interesting stuff.
4.) As a musician I was always wondering wether there was any connection between the three big Bands of Canada: "Rush", "Saga" and "Triumph". All three were and still are big influences in my thinking of how good music should be written/arranged/structured/played and all are/were based on great artists and musical integrity. Is there anything “in the Canadian air” that leads to great musicians? Do you remember any “cross-references” or personal connections between the bands and their members?
Yes there was a connection. When we were playing the clubs in Toronto as "Pockets" in the late '70s, I met Geddy's wife at one of our shows...she loved the band and invited me to their place to meet Geddy. We got along great and hung out together a bit in those days. We also started doing some shows together....we did a western Canada tour with Rush back then and a couple of gigs at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto for New Year's Eve along with Max Webster. Neil Peart grew up in the next town over from where I lived as a kid...but we didn't know each other back then.
5.) There are several Saga songs which belong to the soundtrack of the life of many people of my age. Could you do me a favour and write down your first association that comes to mind after reading the song title?
“Don´t Be Late”: My playing in this song is quite simple...Jim "Daryl" Gilmour's left hand does all the work in this one.
“You´re Not Alone”: I loved the breakdown in the middle where the audience takes over....was always a magical moment.
“On The Loose”: Considered classic Saga. I remember Mike re-writing the lyrics for this one....it was originally called "Release that Pressure". I always loved the solo section...a real rock anthem song....not to be confused with another Canadian band that released "Turn Me Loose". There have been countless times when someone has come up to me and said..."I love that song that you did" and then they sing "Turn me loose"!!
“Humble Stance”: I don't think I ever did a Saga gig where we didn't play this song....cut-time shuffle....one of my favourite...we even did a reggae version of this on one tour...I loved the confused looks on the faces of the audience when I started this!! This was released (the reggae version) on one of the live CDs... I can't remember which one off-hand.
“Wind Him Up”: Classic Simmons kit song!!! Both Heads or Tales and Worlds Apart were recorded in England with Rupert Hine (and engineer Stephen Taylor). They are both brilliant when it comes to recording technology....we had some good fun putting the Simmons SDS V through its paces. The explosions at the end of that song were created by sending a recorded cymbal through one of the Simmons modules and the keyboard in the quiet middle part were triggered from my hihat.
“A Briefcase” This was always a lot of fun to play and had more of a song structure than just a free-form solo. No one had ever seen a briefcase drum kit before we did this on stage in the early '80s.
“How Long”: For this song I used the "Moog drum" to play the fast 16th note pattern that starts the song and continues throughout. It was tricky because the song modulates up a tone and then back down again....I had to switch the keyboard that was being triggered to set up the next note several times during the song.
“The Interview”: Intro drums are louder than the lead vocal...but somehow it works!!
6.) Concerning the song “The Interview” from “Words Apart” I always thought this to be a good song harmony-wise… but maybe not the best song of Saga. But over the years everytime when I listen to this song again, as soon as the drumming starts I have to rethink my foolish judgement. It seems that especially your drum-arrangement on this song catapults this track into the premium league of drumming and song-atmosphere. The drums steer this song in a quite impressive way. Do you remind any details of your recording session or your approach to this song? Your playing, the impressive ambience room-sound of your kit… all these aspects combined seem to fit perfect!
From a playing standpoint, I don't think there is anything particularly unusual in this song...I do remember at the end of the song I just wanted to stay on the groove and drive it home so-to-speak....Farmyard Studio, with Rupert and Steve had a great space for recording drums...and my kit sounded really good in that room. The rest was just "attitude"!!
7.) The Song “How Long” featured a very time-stable and fast-acting left hand “riding” a synthetic sound. Even way back then, when you recorded this song, early sequencers were around in big studios. But you decided for real playing and against a programmed sequence. Do you remember this "decision" to do it this way? BTW. many drummers fail to cover your flawless drum-sequence. Forgive me Steve… did you ever fail on this part live? Just one time maybe under jetlag conditions? Give us hope!
Well I think we were all a little anti-sequencer back then....especially live...because, if it can go wrong, it will!! We had the Moog drum, which is what I used for that song and originally Jim Crichton would control the sound setup. I remember, we did simulcast in Toronto on Q107 from Thunder Sound Studio. It was the first time anyone in Toronto heard the band and we played live to air on a Sunday night. Jim missed the sustain switch on the MicroMoog and when I went to play the 16s, we got a long sustain note. Months later I met a band in Niagara Falls that were playing some of the Saga songs and had taped that show. When they played "How Long", the keyboard player held down one note where the Moog drum parts would go....they had learned our mistakes!!! I don't think I ever had trouble playing that part...when we were on tour I was playing about 5 hours a day, so I was in good shape. (An hour on my own in the hall, then sound-check, then a two and a half hour show.)
8.) To many music-lovers of my age your earlier Saga drum setups consisted of big double-bass drumkits. Aside the remembrance of optics , it might take the normal music-listener quite some time to discover the use of double-bass playing on Saga recordings. When I first listened to “Mouse in a Maze” I thought (and still believe so… after all the years) that you created an impressive prototypical example what tasty and well-dosed! double-bass-playing can do to a song. “Mouse in a Maze” as an example of how to emphase the final climax of a song in a very effective way –without! overplaying the whole song. Do you remember reactions among bandmembers during the writing process of “Mouse in a Maze” when you decided for double-bass-play?
I don't recall anything specifically...most of the time, I would look for the simplest things to play. Then, when I did something fast or dramatic, the effect would be stronger. So I didn't play a lot of 16ths on the double kicks but that song called for it, so I did. Quite often in Saga, the drums are the thread or "glue" that ties all the counterpoint keys and guitars together. I would usually look for rhythmic themes for the songs.....Don't be Late, On the Loose and Wind Him Up are all 16th based, so I would use that as my theme when looking for "spice". With the drum kit, sometimes it is as simple as removing something...snare, kick, or hihat to change the feel....with Mouse in a Maze, I added the 16th kicks and the band never said anything (that I remember!!).
9.) What is your daily warm up routine as a drummer, if there is any?
Well, on tour, as mentioned earlier, I would play for 4 to 5 hours a day. Now that I'm not touring, I play 2 to 4 hours a day at home. I went back to the rudiments and have been evolving those into new grooves. I play everything leading with the left and then the right...I'm working on playing hihat grooves with my right hand and reversing my feet as well. I also spend a couple of days a week working on my new solo recording....at the moment....writing. I am recording an instrumental CD which is very time signature intensive....fives and sevens and nines etc. I take ideas from my drum workouts into my control room, program what I was playing, then work on writing music based on that. My ideal goal is to be able to play freely in all the odd time signatures but I'm not there yet. In most popular music, you work with a four bar phrase as the basis and then you learn to stretch the boundaries from there. I can phrase in many time signatures but I'm still not as free as I would like to be. I'm working on this every day!!
10.) What was the most bizarre (concerning strange circumstances or equipment-failures) gig you had to master?
I had to give this some thought. Nothing immediately comes to mind, which is probably because you realize that anything can happen on any given night and that is all part of what you do...that's Show Biz!!! One thing I do remember...we were playing in Holland and the hall had no circulation...the lighting guy used a ton of smoke on the stage that night and I wasn't getting any oxygen. As the show progressed I got weaker and weaker...I managed to make it through the show, but I was white as a sheet, started hyperventilating and was really close to passing out and couldn't play the encore.
11.) Of course your recorded drumsound over the years has changed. Even between earlier records, even between 1- 3 years of recordings like “Images at Twilight”, “Silent Knight” or “Worlds apart” quite remarkable changes in drumsound(s) are “detectable” to the trained ear. How far were you involved in the making of your drumsound in a studio-setting? Do you remind any recording-experiments or placement-anecdotes in search for the perfect drumsound?
Well I think you are always involved in your sound....the way you play, the way you tune and set up your kit...choice of heads.... and then....there is the room!!!
Every room sounds different as does every drum kit. My sound changes with every studio, and with every gig. I've learned not to worry about that...quite often I make changes in the tuning of the kit to suite the room. One trick I discovered years ago is offset tuning. (That's what I call it!!). I can control how much ring I have, particularly in the snare by loosening off the tension rod farthest away from me....then, using the closest rods to bring the drum back up to pitch...this works great!! The key to a great drum sound is the overhead/room mics. With some compression these can make the kit sound enormous. Earlier in this article I talked about my cymbal/hihat concepts. In order to get the big drum sound, you have to have your cymbals under control. As an engineer, I appreciate that with the drummers I record. It also re-affirms the validity of my approach as a player.
12.) Back to drum-techniques: Maybe I´m totally wrong here. But I always had the impression that you play flams with a little bit more latency between both sticks then some other drummers. I always loved this really FAT and mighty flam-sound you created. Do my ears fool me on this one?
That very well could be. To be honest with you I hadn't noticed. It could be how hard I hit the flams. I use flams to accentuate and with the big sticks it certainly does the job!! I also start a lot of fills with flams to reverse my sticking if I want to come out of a fill on a "push". Also the fills feel different with your hands reversed.
13.) Maybe this topic is a bit sensitive… forgive me. You were sometimes in and sometimes out of the band. As far as I know on records or concerts you were always “replaced” by marvelous drummers. Great musicians without a doubt. But to me I never heard the real and unique “Steve Negus-Groove”. Also sadly to me the “Negus-Hihat-Magic” was missing - even if the original grooves seemed to be played note by note. It may sound a bit close-minded – but whenever Steve Negus left the band my interest in Saga dropped immediately (although again… always great musicians seemed to be involved on all “evolutionary Saga stages”). What do you think?
Well, I think it is hard for any drummer to walk in and capture the feel of the tunes the way that I played/recorded them. For whatever reasons (probably because I'm self-taught), I don't play like other players and you can't expect the "new guy" whoever he is, to reproduce all my idiosyncracies. Any drummer coming in, will want to make the songs his own. I would say it is up to the band to find the right guy, and secondly for the drummer to be sensitive to the "spirit" of the groove and not necessarily learn every fill (although I know that the fans would like it if they did!!).
14.) Which song of Saga or other music-projects you were involved in represents your drumming best?
I don't think I have an answer for this one. My favourite Saga CD is Generation 13 although Worlds Apart is a close second. I enjoyed everything I did at Farmyard with Rupert and Steve including "The Getaway" with Chris de Burgh.
15.) Please share your greatest musical experience or the greatest music-related event you were part of with us. What comes to mind first?
I would have to say, one of the most emotional moments for me was watching Chris de Burgh in Munich (Nokia Night of the Proms) performing "Don't Pay the Ferryman" with a huge orchestra and choir. That was truly incredible!! Playing-wise it would have to be Rock am Ring in Germany closing the show after Elton John. That was indeed a special night! Also, my last official show with the band (Saga) in Munich...the fans were so great...I had tears in my eyes that night.
16.) Some Songs of several bands over the years sound somehow dated or a bit dusty. Sometimes with years in between I re-discover a song of a certain band by listening to it again. In several cases I think… “yeah the harmonies are timeless and great… but the song arrangement or the drum arrangement in particular could have been made different”. With my Saga records to me it is totally different. Again and again I discover further small “drum-gimmicks” and trademarks of Steve Negus which I might have not recognized in younger years. And even more interesting: Although earlier Saga drumrecordings may sound not that punchy or transparent as many nowadays-recordings, your drum arrangements still fit perfectly to the songs. So there must be a certain approach of yours. Can you share something about your philosophy when creating a drum arrangement for a new song? I´m quite sure you did not record in 1981 and decided: “Well… I have to make a drum arrangement that will work also 30 years later for listeners”. I can not believe that “Nostradamus-Style” of concept did happen.
Sometimes it is really hard to interpret your actions and totally understand why you do things or don't do things. I think I have a process with learning playing and writing music. Firstly, you have an idea, secondly you figure out how to play it, thirdly, you apply the idea, then you fine tune it. When I am recording, I'm always looking for the simplest most effective way to play something..."less is more". Also, I think about the drum kit as being a group of sounds and just as with an orchestra....all sounds do not play all the time. Saga's music lives on in the hearts and minds of the fans because it is based on the commitment and integrity of the band to be musically different and certain songs are tied to events that were happening in people's lives at that moment. Timeless? Maybe....but it damn sure was fun!!
17.) You were and still are a galleon figure for combining acoustic drums and e-drums in a rock-based bandsetting. I´m not quite sure wether you may imagine how many musicians in the eighties were talking about Saga and Simmons, Saga and “The Briefcase” etc. Even in later years you featured Roland products many times (although playing a real snare – sure for good reason).. So it was “Negus does it – so it must be possible to replace acoustic drums with electronics”. Quite frankly: Did you never suffered of limitations in dynamics, latency-problems, trigger-“artefacts” (hearing something you never played or have played something the trigger did NOT "carry" to the soundmodule)? There are still today not that many groove-drummers around using mainly e-drums. Honestly, I´m a big sceptic .
I play my Vdrums every day and I'm happy to have them....I can put on the headphones and play at 3 in the morning if I want to...and quite often do. I really think the key is not to look at the shortcomings of anything...mainly yourself. New instruments give birth to new ideas....then you just have to figure out how to execute them live.
18.) What is a typical day of Steve Negus in 2012? I'm working almost every day in my studio, recording, writing, mixing, producing and playing for myself and for other artists. As I mentioned earlier, I'm working on an instrumental CD with a couple of musician friends, and when it is finished I'll put it out. Most of the fans have figured out that I am accessible via facebook. If you want to drop me a line, you'll find me there. I check that daily. I feel very fortunate that I can spend most of my day making music in one capacity or another. Life is good...that's all I have to say!!
Thanks again for taking the time. All the best!