September 2003
interview by Ben Gott

Neil Conti is God. Well, he's a god, at least. As one of the UK's most respected drummers, Conti has played and recorded with David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Annie Lennox, Cher, Sting, Deep Forest, Sandie Shaw, and many, many others. His lasting contributions to pop music, however, come from his work with Paddy McAloon and Prefab Sprout. Check out the picture of Neil the biker on the inner sleeve of Steve McQueen! Mouthy's skinniest correspondent, Ben Gott, talked with Neil about drumming, drumming, and the meaning of life.

When did you start drumming? Why did you choose the drums over, say, the tuba?
I was trained to be a classical pianist from when I was about six years old, which is exactly why I didn't stay with it. Children don't take kindly to being told what to like. Then my cousin, Morgan Fisher, became a big pop star in The Love Affair. Remember "Everlasting Love"? And then he was in Mott The Hoople, whose big hit was "All the Young Dudes," written for them by David Bowie because he didn't want them to split up! I used to watch them when I was twelve and I thought it looked like much more fun than doing four hours of piano scales every day. The drummer was the superb Dale "Buffin" Griffin, who's probably one of the most underrated English rock drummers ever. He had a big silver sparkle Ludwig kit, he looked cool and he pulled all the chicks after the gig, so naturally I thought "this is what I want"! To be honest, I've never felt like a natural drummer, just a musician. Music is a language which I feel very comfortable with. It's all I heard when I was a kid, classical mainly. I don't think about drums when I play, I follow the voice or lead instrument. I've always suspected that it's almost unimportant what instrument someone plays, everything they've ever seen and felt still comes through in the emotion somehow. Actually I've gone back to piano a lot recently, and I adore playing bass guitar, it's a nice balance of melody and rhythm. I've always sung a lot and recently taught myself to play acoustic guitar. The resonance makes me shiver! You might deduce from all this that it would be logical to record my own album and you would indeed be correct.

What drummers do you admire?
Diamond of The Ohio Players was an early idol. Buy the Contradiction album and weep. Jim Keltner is an unpredictable genius. Try programming that! Richie Hayward from Little Feat. Total feel, great ballad player. Steve Ferrone was so funky in the early days before he took the rock cash. Steve Arrington of Slave. Massive, massive groove. Al Jackson, who played with Otis Redding. Probably the best soul drummer to have ever walked this earth. John Bonham is like Al Jackson with large biceps. Charlie Watts. One groove, one fill - but it works. Stix Hooper from the Crusaders. The Charlie Watts of jazz-funk. Steve Jordan sounds like all of the above mixed in a kryptonite blender.

How do you decide upon a pattern for a particular song?
I never decide on anything in music. I just close my eyes and jump. Music comes out of me and I hope that the other musicians I play with like it. People often say it's unusual drumming but it sounds totally normal to me.

Do you have annioyingly obsessive fans?
As long as it's connected with the music I'm okay, but I never got on with the screaming groupie thing that happened occasionally in the 80s. I'm actually deeply disturbed by the way viewers become obsessed with any person they see on TV, like Big Brother etc. There seems to be something missing inside us spiritually these days.

With what other musicians would you like to collaborate in the future?
Easy. I want to play on a collaborative album between David Sylvian and Pat Metheny. End of story.

What's your favorite place to play live?
Anywhere where there are musicians who listen. Joe Zawinul was once asked if jazz is the highest level of musicianship. His answer was "No, being able to compose while you play is the highest level of musicianship." Hallelujah.

What are your musical plans for the future?
Well, the first thing to say is that I don't play drums now as much as I used to. Dunno why, maybe it's computers, but I don't seem to be the flavor of the month on the session scene these days, so I tend to play drums on projects that I'm already involved with musically, and that suits me just fine. In fact it has kinda turned out to my advantage and I'm enjoying having some spare time to work on my own album, in between doing a bit of producing and collaborating with various artists from USA, UK and France. I've also been working with Brian Eno a little bit on my new drum sample CD. He's great fun to work with, very impulsive and open. I really must mention my new studio down here in Montpellier, South of France. It's in a spacious farmhouse in a lovely forest and it's specifically built so that musicians can just walk in and play together, instantly. Everything is switched on all the time. I've been fortunate to find a local lad who's a trained audio engineer, so he works as my assistant and looks after all the gear when I'm away. BJ Cole just came down here straight from finishing the Sting tour so we put some drums on his album and started a track together and before him Perry Blake was here to do some co-writing for his new album which is for Naive, a really cool French label. So I pretty much divide my time between here and London these days. It's very quick and easy to go back and forth so I pop back from time to time when there's something interesting happening. I'm very excited about the possibilities of my new studio and perhaps you could mention that I'm always on the lookout for interesting projects to work on here.

What do you think about the current state of music?
I think it was better before I started out! Actually I do believe that there is some good music out there now - it just doesn't get heard. So I guess the answer might be: current state of music: not bad. Current state of the music business: terrible!!

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