Meet The Pros - David Dyson
Thanks for dropping by the WeJam Studio. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself?
Okay cool, I’m David. I primarily play drums as a session musician for various different pop artists or for any sort of live music basically. I started as a Jazz musician, sort of Jazz and Rock musician. I have played for a number of different artists because a lot of people don't necessarily realise that yes, on one hand, you might know of an artist, but on the other hand, they also have a band. And often these members of bands are amazing musicians in their own right, but they maybe don’t write the songs. For instance, Harry Styles has a band, but people don’t know the band. Then I do quite a lot of recording for other various records. Basically, wherever drums are needed, I’m there.
What’s your earliest musical memory?
Earliest musical memory!? Uh, my grandparents took me to a pub and there was this amazing band who were playing covers of Santana and really well-known tunes, they were fantastic and the drummer was actually a member of the house band from Parkinson. So it wasn’t your kind of typical ropey pub band, this was really sick, even now it would be like, these guys are serious musicians. The drummer started playing, and then he saw me like tapping glasses and stuff, and I’d fill them with different levels of water for different pitches and play them with cocktail sticks. He just sort of pulled me over and I was like, sweet, amazing, he gave me a pair of sticks, and I’d never even sat behind a kit. I was like three or four, I was extremely young, and then it kind of spiralled from there really.
Tell us about your musical training
My parents brought me a rubbish kit from Argos that lasted about two weeks, and then I got lessons, then went to even more lessons all around the UK. I did a newspaper round and every single penny that I earned from that went on travel to get to lessons in Manchester. Then I played in orchestras, I played choirs, and then I went to university and studied classical music. Then I really realised I wanted to move to London and play jazz and I totally immersed myself in the scene. I just used to go out every single night to like three in the morning in jazz bars and just hang out, play, and learn. So then I used to go to Ronnie Scotts, and I’d go there pretty much three times a week to like 2:30 in the morning and just watch all of these bands come through, and then they’d open it up for a jam session. There were a lot of international bands like American bands y’know, I’d learn from them, and then I got more into Pop Music.
When I was at college I went to do a post-graduate and at that sort of time I started playing for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra which is like, a big band, and although we were youth we were still like... the age limit was 25, so it wasn’t like kids. But it was paid gigs and we played some amazing places, I mean we did Buckingham Palace which is definitely in the news right now, which is kind of crazy. But we played some amazing venues that I might never play again because we were a national institution, so we were able to do crazy places like The Houses of Parliament. Then it sort of went from there. Playing for various pop artists, having auditions for people, and then the past sort of four years it’s kind of spiralled, yeah playing for loads of different people.
Was there a turning point in your life where you decided to pursue it seriously?
Always, and the thing is actually, from Durham, I think I’m pretty much the only person who actually still plays music for a living. There are a lot of private school music teachers, lawyers, bankers.
Is there a mentor figure in your life or someone that really inspires you?
There are a few actually, there was a guy called Bob, Bob Howes, who’s a percussionist. I remember it was around like GCSE’s and he was like “What does music make you feel?” and I was like “I dunno” and he was like “No no what does it make you feel” and I was like “It makes me feel alive”. Then y’know, obviously there's instability in music, massive instability, because I’ve had years when It’s been unreal and then years when I’ve had no money, it’s kind of mad. But it’s about believing in your passion so Bob Howes definitely.
Then there's another drummer called Donavan Hepburn, I met him on a little course when I was younger and at the time he was playing for all of the massive pop acts, so this was probably about 10-12 years ago. He’s still doing it even now, and he really inspired me; I had a few lessons with him and funnily enough, I actually work for him quite a lot now because he puts bands together for various things.
What does your practice routine look like?
When I was at school I literally just played as soon as I got home from school until I had a curfew at 7:30 (a noise curfew for the neighbours), so I’d play for about three hours. I lived in the countryside, but my neighbours had a very short temper. Yeah I mean I was, I think I was actually obsessed. It wasn’t about anything else really for me. And then I probably practised the most when I was at college y’know, and literally, I’d get in at eight in the morning and leave at six at night. We’d have like one-hour classes but probably only two a day and the rest of the time I’d literally practice, so it would be a good 8 hours practice a day. And sometimes it’s draining, you just get tired and it’s like ugh, you feel, you feel like you’re really shit y’know, but you come out of the other end. It’s a grind I’ll tell you.
Talk us through your preparation for a big show or recording session
Well, it’s actually quite different in terms of a big show and a big recording session. For a big show, in terms of the preparation, I tend to just listen to the tune over and over again, without even playing, so I know the tune. I can literally be like ‘verse 2, pre-chorus, bridge’ in my head. I can sing the whole tune basically, and I can sing the drumbeat, I could sit behind a kit and not have any music and play the beat for the whole song without making a mistake. Which is harder than putting on the music and playing along because there is a guide for you, but you can internalise it all and sing it - you don’t have to actually sing it out loud - but like sing the melody. That's how I’d do it, and then it’ll probably be a week or a few weeks of rehearsals and then a show or a couple of shows. It’s good if it’s a run, if it’s like back to back because then you’re sort of in a rhythm, but say if you’re playing like one big festival and then one big arena show, but there's like a month apart, it’s like Ah. You’re in their routine really - so you’ll remember the tunes but you’ve still got to recap them. I mean even the basic things, like maybe I’ll write a few notes to start when I start learning, or I’ll make sure I sleep well y’know. But the thing is the shows are quite exciting so like you’re always running off a bit of adrenalin. If you’re doing them back to back you’ve got to sort of measure that.
Then for a recording session that really differs, because sometimes you might get someone to send through the rough skeleton of a song in advance, so you could chart it out and come up with an idea. Or sometimes they might send a drum loop of like ‘a sketch’ that’s midi programmed, or it’s programmed like they’ve just found a loop somewhere and they want you to effectively play it again but make it fit the song better. So you are able to prepare sometimes, but sometimes you’re asked to do something like “Oh are you around now to record a tune?” and I’m like “Well uhh okay?”. Load my car with drums, take a number of different snares, take a number of different cymbals, like whatever, and then you would have never had heard the song and they play the song like “What do you think you could do?”.
So it really depends, it’s rare that I’m given much notice for a recording session because they’re probably writing this tune and they’re like “Oh, amazing, let’s get drums on this” so then you get the call. It can be pretty instant, although having said that I’ve just done an album for somebody that I recorded at my studio, and I was pretty much given free rein. That was quite good because a lot of my own creative choices have been the ones - well actually all of them - have been the ones that are going to be used on the record. Approaching a recording session is quite different because you have to think about, like touch and the sound of your instrument a lot more delicately. Whereas in a live show you’re putting on a show, so I guess it’s more performance than it is like about the creative coming up with ideas.
You’ve played with some really big names and at some venues. What have been your standout professional moments?
There’s probably been a few actually, like I think definitely one was when I played with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and Gregory Porter was a guest in Buckingham Palace - that was definitely kind of crazy. Another one would be playing in Manchester Arena with Louis Tomlinson who was of One Direction, that was just kind of crazy because that was our first gig and it’s the biggest arena in the UK. So for instance we rehearsed for a while, and then we had this gig and it was like “Oh crap, this is like… other than Wembley Stadium it’s pretty much like the biggest venue in the UK and this is our first gig” do you know what I mean? Like just walking out on stage it was like I can’t even hear myself because of all these people screaming.
And then I played on a record by Jorja Smith, that was very exciting because that got nominated at The Grammys, so to be part of a Grammy-nominated album was really amazing and the whole creative process of doing that was really fun.
Then another one was my first US tour with an artist called Holly Macve, and we did a Tiny Desk Concert. You have to be good to go on there, there’s no help, it’s just you with a microphone and your band, pretty acoustic. And we did this when it was not very well known, now it’s like the biggest platform for proper new music. That was really fun, we went to Washington DC.
Last thing, well there were two gigs, one for Nick Mulvey which was amazing and one for an American artist called Bea Miller which I was asked to do 24 hours before the show which was absolutely mental. It was an American tour and they were flying that night. They were like “Are you available tomorrow?” and I said “I’m actually not” because it was my parents 40th wedding anniversary which I literally couldn’t miss otherwise I would be dead. But what they meant was it was actually two days because of the time difference, so I was like okay I can just about do this. I basically had to balance my personal life with one of the greatest opportunities and fulfil it. That’s always the difficulty of being a freelance musician, sometimes you’re almost always on call. I can’t be like yeah I’ll definitely have a weekend free because well, maybe something might come in. Things mostly come in pretty last minute. It’s all very well being like yeah I can do it, but I had to know the whole set which was like an hour and fifteen-minute set. She’s a pretty big star in the states and it was now her first European tour. Long story short her drummer couldn’t make it and at the time I was in Bristol and had just come off of a three-week tour. So basically I got home at 4am in Bristol, the next day in Leicestershire was my parent’s wedding anniversary, and then I needed to be back in London for Sunday to start the show. So between Friday and Sunday, I travelled the country up and down and had to learn 13 tunes. And it’s not just learning the drums, I had sample pads and I was actually running the show. Like this was a big deal, like sold-out audiences, it was pretty nuts. Afterwards, I did literally sleep for like three days.
Do you have any funny backstage stories you can share with us?
There was a show in Mayfair which was like a residency in a really nice restaurant. It was the earliest I actually ever got to a gig, so I was just sort of chilling in the dressing room, got dressed into my suit and enjoyed being early. And then it got to five minutes to when we’re playing, I’m all dressed like sweet can’t wait, then I was like where are my sticks? Then I was like shit, I’ve forgotten my sticks, and it was a Chinese restaurant so I was like maybe I can use chopsticks? But they were like no you absolutely can’t, so I was like I could play with my hands but they said no. So I had to find some drumsticks. Ronnie Scotts was fifteen minutes away, a fifteen-minute run. I hoped that because I went there a lot, the people on the door would let me in. Thankfully they did. Downstairs they’d already started playing so I was like shit I can’t go ask the drummer there, so I went upstairs and thankfully they hadn’t quite started. I didn’t know the drummer there but I was just like hey man, I’m in a really sticky situation, all the music shops have shut and I don’t have time to go home, can I borrow yours? And he was like yeah here you go, baring in mind I was running in a suit across Soho with drumsticks, I probably looked like an absolute hooligan. I got back to the gig and they’d already started, so I had to miss ten minutes and joined in on the fourth tune. I was looked after by the universe that day.
What set-up do you use on stage?
For any different gig, I’ll take a different set, I’ll tune my drums differently, I’ll set up my drums differently, I will take different cymbals, I’ll probably play differently. It depends on the style of music and what it needs.
As well as being a live performer, you also do a lot of work in the studio. Can you tell us more about that?
Basically in music, unless you’re the artist, it’s never about you. So you’ve got to serve the music or the song how it is. If you’re playing live and the track has already come out, you have to play how the track is, maybe a few little embellishments, but there’s no point in doing drum fills all over the place because no one cares and no one’s come to see you do a drum solo. So the same with the studio, a lot of it in terms of preparation is about listening to the tune, listening to the sound of the room that you're recording in, selecting mics, mic placement, just so many variables that you just have to see what sounds best.
WeJam is all about getting music lovers of all abilities to experience what It’s like to play in a band. What are the best bits about being in a band for you?
For me playing in a band is about the chemistry between different musical personalities. Getting the blend of influences in creating new exciting material. There's nothing like the feeling of playing music with others, almost like out-of-body sensations at times.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for bands just starting out?
Commitment. To the band but also each individuals’ motivation to get better as instrumentalists and songwriters. There's always someone who wants to do it more than the others. I had this when I was at uni, we had a band that was going quite well, but then none of the others really wanted to do music and then two of them were in the year above so when they left it was like, well now what do we do? When it’s starting out it’s commitment really.
What tips do you have for any aspiring musicians trying to break into the industry – either as session musicians or as solo artists or bands?
Be the best you can and focus. I think a lot of it is about really embracing all styles of music, It’s really important, like being open to influences from any style of music. I just listen to music all the time, and I mean like I properly listen to music actively, and it’s quite exhausting because you analyse it without really realising you're analysing it.
When you’re not working, what kind of music are you listening to?
Anything that makes me move. Dancing but also emotionally too. But If I’m honest, I don’t feel like I ever really don’t work. Even with lockdown, there’s always something you can do in music, like I can practice all the time. Yeah maybe I might not be making any money, but I’m gaining new tools. I’m producing quite a lot of music and I love doing that, It’s kind of one of my new passions. There’s always something to do, you can never be bored.
What’s next for you and where can we follow your career?
I’ve got Instagram which is @daviddysondrums and I’m in an original project called CHILDCARE, Instagram: @childcareband. And then probably at some point, I’m going to release some of my own solo music. Then I’m continuing to record for various artists, I recorded a number of things over lockdown that I’m excited to out and who knows, who knows.