Steve Noble is a key figure on the UK improv scene, having played with everyone from Derek Bailey to Wadada Leo Smith, via Peter Brötzmann and Keiji Haino. A masterful force on drums, Noble has developed a unique style that is both muscular and elegant, pushing the boundaries of jazz and rock drumming while simultaneously bringing them together, notably as a former member of post-punk outfit Rip, Rig and Panic, noise/drone band Aethenor, and through notable collaborations with Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley. Earlier this year, the pair released the much-lauded St Francis Duo LP, and Noble is set to appear at Tusk festival in Newcastle in October. Ahead of that date, The Liminal caught up with Steve to discuss his evolution as a drummer, the musicians he likes to play with most, and what he makes of the UK improv scene, both past and present.
Could you please give me a bit of background on yourself? Have you always been a drummer?
Well, yeah. I started when I was about ten. I always wanted to be a drummer, although what does that mean when you’re eleven or twelve? I moved to London when I was 17, worked for a bit to earn money for some equipment, quit the job and knuckled down. I was a bit of a snob. When I got my first drum set, when I was 12, I was given a book about the Paiste Cymbal Company, which included the Roxy Musics and the Zeppelins and all that, but also all the European improvisers, because Paiste existed in an era before everything had to make money. So, the drum magazine I also bought on the same day featured a bunch of people with drum sets that you couldn’t sell. There wouldn’t be three pages of an article about a drummer followed by four pages of adverts, so that relationship was very different. So, this book included the Benninks, the Oxleys, all these people who had very bespoke drum sets. Melody Maker also had a section on jazz, so you’d get this drip feed of other musics. Now, with the web, you know where to find this stuff. People say it’s easy, but it’s not, you still have to find it. I was very much into rock music, like The Who, who I saw once, and even met Keith Moon!
I was intrigued by jazz and improv, even if I didn’t always understand improv. You’d have these huge drum sets. It was people looking for a different route, so I lost interest in rock, although I feel I was a bit of a snob, looking back. I mean, now I look back, and have to say John Bonham was fantastic, I think. With very early Zeppelin, it seemed that Plant didn’t really know what he was doing, so it was just the trio. Now, I’m looking at how I can apply the spirit of improv across the board.
You are considered to be a key figure on the UK improv scene. How did you become involved in that?
Like I say, I was interested in it. It always seemed logical to me, to improvise, and I know that some people think that’s odd. With a lot of musicians, if you take away the music, or the idea of form, then they’re fucked. In about 1985, I put on a festival with two other guys my age, at the old London Musician’s Club in Camden, featuring young musicians from around Britain, and in the improv scene, 40 is young, so we’re talking very young here! On the last evening, Derek Bailey was in the audience and I went up and introduced myself and asked if he’d like to play with me. A couple of months later, the phone rings and he asked if I wanted to go and play with him in Greece. I’ve been joking a lot recently with other musicians that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. It’s difficult sometimes, but I was a bit cocky, an upstart, but if you don’t try… But that was the start of a very lovely musical partnership and friendship.
I actually bought the CD you recorded with him, Out of the Past, when I saw you perform with Wadada Leo Smith at Cafe Oto. It’s amazing, and it’s very interesting to hear him play with so much feedback…
It’s good, isn’t it? It was such a joy to play with him, I must say. But that was Derek… I enjoy sound, I play the drums. Doesn’t matter really if it’s a bit jazzy, or raucous, or whatever, it’s about sound, and I don’t have a problem working with Stephen O’Malley or Gary Smith and Michael Morley, because for me I’ll be working with sound. With Derek, I’ve always loved his sound and his playing. I’ve never had a problem with his playing, and I think a lot of people do. The interesting thing with Derek is that he was one of the top sessions players at one time. Not the elite like Jimmy Page, but in the top, and he (Bailey) saw that it was coming to an end and realised he wasn’t doing what he wanted to do, and to develop that style is magnificent. People like that, like Phil Minton, I mean, where’s he coming from? Beckett? It’s incredible.
A lot is now being written about the UK improv scene, but what was it like being in the middle of it?
Interestingly, there wasn’t the other side of it, which is, to generalise, the noise and electronic side. It was very much a divide where if you didn’t come out off jazz, you couldn’t play and a lot of people were just dismissed, which is all absolute rubbish. I still argue with musicians about that, ones who say “They can’t play”. Well, so what? They’ve got a great group. It’s about the result.
It was a very small scene. There was a little period in the early eighties when there was funding for a guy called Anthony Woodward to do a festival at the ICA, with almost 14 concerts. It helped bring new-ish people, like Diamanda Galas, in, but also the hardcore element of improv music and people like Roscoe Mitchell. But that just fell apart. But now, things have developed, perhaps through lottery funding, and we’ve had an explosion of festivals like Tusk. It’s always been a struggle in Britain. If you look historically, you can perhaps build up [the British scene's] importance, and perhaps it is important, but the opportunities were very rare. It’s not all about funding, but if you’ve got to fly someone in, how do you do that [without funding]? Cafe Oto’s been good, but it is difficult. But things develop, and you’ve got to move on. I’m fortunate.
Do you think other countries are more open to improv, or have been in the past?
It’s a bit of a generalisation, but you could say that a lot of the European countries have always had a greater respect for the wider arts, so there’s a lot more money. It’s just accepted. But they don’t necessarily have the same popular music culture that we do, so maybe that stops the funding here. I don’t know. Are we heathens? We seem to generate interesting musicians in any area, not just avant-garde or improv music, but even classical players have to go abroad. Again, the word ‘funding’ is always there. I was playing in France, and I was joking with John Edwards, the bass player, because we looked out and the crowd was made up of a wide range of ages, and 50/50 women to men, and we just thought “This is how it should be”. But that’s just the way it is. If I have to play in front of an all-male audience, so be it… But I know musicians from Austria, Switzerland, Germany who get sent all over by their governments. I’ve had a promoter from Canada come up to me and say “You must be pissed off with me for never giving you a gig, because your government won’t pay for your flight”. You can get upset with it, but I’ve chosen to live here.
You realise that, throughout the mainstream media, there isn’t anything in this country. I’m sure that if you could put a little bit on television, not just jazz or improv, but all areas, and keep it going, the difference in audiences would be phenomenal. Why can’t the BBC realise that they should represent all different musics? I know they have to compete with Sky and ITV, but even on the radio, it’s slipping… That’s why Cafe Oto is such an important place. But even they kept getting asked about Arts Council funding when they were interviewed by The Guardian! It was like reading The Daily Mail!
I read that you studied under Nigerian drummer Elkan Ogunde. What was that like? Were you drawn to the tradition of African percussion, which is of course very different to European or American drumming?
Well, I used to buy Folkways records, which released a lot of African music. There was an advert in Compendium, which was a very good left-leaning bookshop in Camden in the 80s, and this guy was advertising for people to come and drum with him. He was a fantastic drummer, and would perform in kindergartens and primary schools, and asked me to come along. So we’d do these workshops, and then do gigs. His thing was about which drum plays to which part of the body, which was fascinating, and it was a nice feeling to be playing with him at age 18 or 19. But I know who I am and where I’m from so, while it was amazing to do and I learned a lot, I never wanted to try and sound like an African drummer. I can’t do Nigerian drumming, but I can learn from it. There’s a beat in there, fundamentals, that run through music around the world, in Nigerian drumming or Bo Diddley or Cuban music.
Was it difficult to incorporate what you learned with Elkan Ogunde into your own playing?
Not really. When I met the Rip, Rig and Panic people [the post-punk band that Steve worked with that included Neneh Cherry and Gareth Sager and Bruce Smith from The Pop Group, among others], we both went and played with them. I wasn’t trying to emulate what he was doing, it was more a question of “How does he get that drive?” It’s the same thing with Bonham. With his drumming, it’s about triplets, and that the hardest thing to play, because you’re demanding a lot from your body. A lot of rock drummers don’t get that. It’s more about feeling than technique. I’ve loved playing with Peter Brötzmann and John Edwards, and his (Brötzmann’s) strength is amazing, and there’s a lot of form going on, but he steps in and out, so that, while it’s about listening, there’s a lot of freedom, so John or I can step in rather than just follow Peter. It’s a conversation.
You’ve worked with a number of different artists, as we’ve discussed. Do you have a favourite person to play with? I know you’ve done a lot of work with John Edwards…
I think it depends what you’re looking for. It’s not pre-judging, but with John and Alex Ward, the guitarist and clarinet player, and the groups we’ve formed, like NEW with Alex and John, I’ve been looking to play with people who can cover all the areas, whether it’s rhythmic, melodic or abstraction. But if you’re suddenly phoned up to join a group for a one-off, then you do that. I like working with John a lot, maybe because we’ve known each other a long time. I know I can play rhythmically and abstractly, because I’m not looking for him to join my rhythm. I can work rhythmically just by hearing his textures and colours. So there are definitely people I’m more comfortable with, and people I know will give as near to 100% as possible each time. Alex and John are a core group, but there are so many players, and if there’s an opportunity to play with certain players, I’d love to take it. There are some people with whom you don’t have to discuss what you’re going to do, and it’s not just a generational thing. I hope there’ll be other people coming along, although sometimes there doesn’t seem to be!
Maybe it’s because there’s an overload of easy-to-access “indie” rock out there, and new players just aren’t drawn to improv anymore because rock is easier or more easily available…
But if you take Alex Ward, he’s a guy who loves his rock music and always introduces me to new bands. That’s how I discovered Lightning Bolt and thought they were fantastic. I love their bass sound, and the drummer’s great. And I love the voice. But I was asking Alex about British bands and he told me the most interesting ones are coming out of Europe or America, because they’re not trying to “be an indie band” or “cool”.
When I saw you perform with Keiji Haino at Cafe Oto, you used a lot of small cymbals and singing bowls, which evoked the Gamelan traditions of Asia, and the wider field of Asian percussion. Do you have an interest in the wider range of global percussive styles?
Very much so. I’ve always had an interest in what I guess most people don’t term ‘World music’ because that suggests the pop music of a country, but as I said, I used to buy Folkways records and so on. When I arrived in London, there were a lot of late-night cinemas, so you’d go and see a late-night movie after a gig. Fellini’s Satyricon was one of the films I saw, and it’s just full of this “ethnic” music. In the end scene, with the Minotaur, there’s a Balinese monkey chant, and I didn’t know what it was until I saw The Pop Group live one night. They always had great music over the PA before their sets, stuff like Pierre Henry, and on this occasion they were playing that monkey chant. So, you slowly understand, by buying music and making mistakes, that there’s this incredible range of music out there. There’s great music everywhere and I’ve always enjoyed listening to music from everywhere, and it’s even easier with YouTube nowadays.
We mentioned the Keiji Haino gig, which was very heavy, and earlier this year, The Liminal reviewed the St Francis Duo album you recorded with Stephen O’Malley, whom you also perform with in Aethenor. Do those guys, and others, perhaps bring out your inner metal-head?
Not really. I’m not going to go back and piledrive the beat for ten minutes. When I got the call from Daniel [O’Sullivan, keyboardist in Aethenor] to come and play, what I liked about Stephen is that he was Stephen. A lot of people think “Oh, this is improv, I’d better play like Derek Bailey”, but Stephen’s thing, for me, is sound. We’d have a couple of soundchecks where it was just him and me, and we’d just do what we do, and it works. After the first night of that duo at Cafe Oto [for St Francis Duo], I told Stephen that I liked him because he’s a slow guitarist. He was a bit taken aback by that, but I it’s not a criticism. The best way I can describe it is that it’s like circles, and whilst mine is very fast and small, his is much larger, so I can work with it because you don’t have to hit the same point all the time. There are a lot of people who are technically very good, but you’re not quite drawn in by their sound. Again, I’m not hung up by people’s technical ability – that’s bullshit. With Stephen, I like that sound, those huge chords that dissipate slowly while you’re capturing them.
It comes back to that American thing. There were some great British groups in the post-punk days, that I grew up around, bands like This Heat and The Pop Group, and you just think “What went wrong?”. It became the New Romantics! It’s astonishing… Maybe the politics changed. And that’s gone.
You mention the politics, and of course in the eighties Thatcher came along and it became the “Me generation”, but a lot of improv artists tend to come from the Left. Do you think there’s a political strain running through the improv scene and what you do?
Maybe. But I played with Iancu Dumitrescu, the Romanian composer, for a gig was organised by the Association of Musical Marxists, at Conway Hall, and hardly anyone was there. The organisers told me they’d done lots of publicity, with flyers handed out at political events, and you think “Well no wonder you haven’t got an audience!” I think the people in politics don’t necessarily like avant-garde music. And I don’t think you have to. Generally, there is a political element, because if you’ve got four musicians onstage improvising together, they’re all equals. Everyone’s the composer and the lead player. It’s not a hierarchy. But I prefer not to look at it as a political statement. I’ve always wanted to shy away from that. It’s too easy to make pat statements and, as you grow up, you realise there are good people everywhere. I’ve never wanted to align myself with that, but you’re right that, particularly in the seventies, there was a lot of it. But that’s the good thing about Oto: it’s not aligned to anything. It’s just about contemporary music.
What should people expect from you at Tusk? Will you be doing a solo show?
Good question! No, I’m going to be playing with Michael Morley [of Gate and The Dead C], who’ll be playing as Gate, and Gary Smith, the English guitar player. I did a couple of private sessions with him a few years ago… I don’t know Michael, but I’ve seen a couple of videos on YouTube. Will I do more? I don’t know. It’s great that the tradition of putting people together is there. I think they’ve done that before, when [Chris] Corsano did a set with two guitarists. It’s a nice venue: small, intimate, good sound… I think it’ll be loud, and I hope it’ll be a blast.
Finally, have you got any records coming out, or other future plans?
Yeah, I’ve just finished mixing a NEW album, that’s Noble-Edwards-Ward, for a guy who was making a film about British improvised music. He came over to London and recorded us at Oto in January, and hopefully some of it will be in the film, but then he also said he wanted to release it as an LP. There’s another Oto recording coming out by Decoy, my other trio, with John Edwards and Alexander Hawkins on Hammond organ, hopefully by December. I’ve got a few others in the can, including a duo with Alex Ward. You know how it works: these days you print 500 or 1000 and get them out!
Photo courtesy of Dave Knapik