Bridging the Gap
By Michael Aubrecht
At seventeen, an up-and-coming breakout artist named Lorde performed her signature hit “Royals” during the 2013 Grammy Awards. Her single-song concert reached beyond the immediate room to an audience of millions. Standing on a small stage amidst the crowd, Lorde and her two-person backing band drifted in and out of the shadows. Her hypnotic voice was accented by the pulse of electronic drums. One could not help but notice the drummer providing that pulse, while crouching behind a minimal drum kit. His eerie rhythms rounded out the vocal perfectly and provided a perpetual beat for the audience response.
That drummer, Ben Barter, complemented the song much like he does with all of his gigs. Whether backing a live singing sensation or touring with Jarryd James, Broods and doing sessions with Producer Joel Little, Barter is at ease with whatever is required. According to his online bio, “Ben is well recognized for his solid, yet swampy pocket style of drumming. He finds a tone to complement his style of bold bottom end grooves…”
Barter took time out of his busy schedule in LA to share his story.
MA: Let’s start from the beginning. What led you to the drums?
BB: I came from a musical family. My dad played bass. He played in R&B and rock bands while he was growing up. My mom sang too, so I always listened to different types of music. I would go to church and I think it is quite a common story for drummers today to be exposed to drums in church. I was drawn to the drummers. I used to sit on their knees and they would teach me things. I got my first kit when I was five. I think it was called a “Ranger.” I got some lessons from friends and then I got really good lessons in high school from a great drummer Michael Franklin Browne. My parents had a little family jazz band. We’re not talking about Weather Report or Miles Davis, but the old standards. We played in restaurants and book stores. It was a way to make some extra money. During that time, I learned to play very quietly. It was my first shot at dynamics. I played in different bands in high school. So that’s where it all started.
MA: Did your school have a music program and did you participate in any bands?
BB: There was more of a big band scene in school. We played some funny stuff…mixed up big band and jazz. New Zealand is not big on marching bands which is unfortunate. I’m always seeing these players with amazing hands. I guess I’m trying to make up for lost time now. I was into art more toward the end in school. I really liked photography. Of course I still played in bands but my focus shifted in school. I studied architecture, so I went straight from school into architecture. I studied for three years, but as drumming took more and more of my time I started to play professionally. I still worked as an architect for several years. It was always a battle between drumming and architecture. I was lucky that I had great bosses who would let me take off a month to tour. They were excited for me and I think they even got a buzz out of it.
MA: What are some of these early bands that you were doing these tours with?
BB: The one that I started touring properly with was a bunch of good friends who I still play with from time to time. We were called Kingston. It was kind of a power pop style. We were really influenced by The Hives. It seemed to be catchy stuff and we got good enough to get a manager and start touring. Our manager had American connections so we would come over to the States. At first we didn’t do too well on the radio or live but we did do well on TV ads so were able to tour of the back of syncs. We did an album over here and we would come back and tour for three months then go home and then back again. Due to some circumstances, we lost the momentum of the band. From that experience I made some really good connections. The rest of the band has moved to the States as well and are working on projects. It was a really good stepping stone for us.
MA: How many bands have you been in?
BB: I played in some early bands The Royal Christie and Robot Tigers and Kingston, and then the hip-hop thing started. I played in a group called Kidz in Space and another one called No Wyld that is made up of some really talented guys who got signed in New York. I did the hip-hop and alternative thing for a while, jamming with other people. I will still do one-offs, studio work and some touring. Lorde, of course, is my current job.
MA: How did you get the Lorde gig?
BB: The band Kingston’s manager started overseeing her really early on under the managing company Saiko. At the time I was working in different bands and working at an architect’s office. A year previously I was told about this amazingly talented girl. I also knew her producer and I had told them I would be available if they needed a drummer. He said they would be cool with that. I didn’t hear anything back for a year. Then they posted one of her first songs online. Right as she was blowing up she averaged something like 10,000 downloads a week and after a month I think it was over 50,000. I started hearing her on the radio all the time. At that time I was struggling with my direction with drums and architecture. I remember sitting at my desk and getting the call that they were auditioning drummers for Lorde. It was really exciting and I actually auditioned with three of my friends. One of my best friends Jimmy Mac ended up playing synth and I got the drums. I stayed up until 2 am every night that week learning the songs and I remember being really sick at the time. I managed to get it. I played really simple and I had an understanding of triggers. They are an amazing tool. I think a mixture of that and the fact that I played the songs exactly as they had been recorded made the difference. That was very important to her as she wanted to stay true to the music on the record.
MA: Her music is so original and hypnotic. She is truly a groundbreaker. Did you know that you were going to be part of something special?
BB: I didn’t at first. I knew that it was going to be big, but had no idea it would be as huge as it was. I remember the first time we toured the States. She had just turned sixteen I think. We landed at LAX on one of the first trips and one of the construction workers there recognized her and said, “Hey, I love your music.” That just blew us away. We were thinking what on earth is going on when this construction worker knew who she was. I don’t think she had much press out by then. I don’t even think there were any real photos of her at that time. They were using an illustration to promote her that a friend had drawn. From then on it happened so fast that we didn’t have time to think. It was very surreal and it was a crazy and nerve-racking experience. We were constantly put in these situations that we could hardly take seriously. That is how we dealt with it. All of these award shows, television appearances and private parties felt like an out-of-body experience. We held on for dear life and got it done.
MA: It is amazing that you only have a two piece band (synth and drums) and the body of music that comes out of the two of you fills the space behind her vocals. You really support her performance.
BB: Her music is very minimal to begin with and she is really good at controlling her parts. In turn, I think we managed to translate the album’s music exactly to the live show. We also have some minimal things on backing tracks that we have to effectively play with. We do as much as we can until we run out of fingers and toes. I think it is important for an artist like her to be super honest and real about what she does. She has a lot of credibility for having a lot of integrity. We wanted to present that in the live show as well. The live drums contribute their part, but it’s the triggers that make it. Instead of me simply playing electronic pads with a live kit underneath, I am able to bridge that gap between the two. We played live at the Grammys and VH1 Awards etc. They were nerve-racking for sure, but we always pulled it off. It is so rewarding to play live when a lot of bands tend to mime at award shows. Our music lends itself to that environment.
MA: As a minimal guy myself, who favors extremely small kits, I absolutely love your drum set. How did you develop it?
BB: I guess I didn’t need too much in the way of drums. I have added a few things as I needed them, but for the most part it’s been the same throughout. I play Ludwig drums and I wanted the live kick, snare and floor tom to add that punchiness and fill out the bottom of the electronic sound. I never have the kick or snare without a trigger on them, so during the whole show it beefs up the volume during a chorus or bridge part. That’s when I can lay into the real snare and the kick. I also have an electronic KD-9 Roland electronic kick which is to the right of my live pedal. I also use several sample pads. The dynamic between having the pads and live drums works very well. You can marry the softness of electronics with the punch of live drums. I’ve only got hi-hats in the way of cymbals. I haven’t heard the new album yet but I’m hoping I can add some more. I’d love to have some Zildijan effects cymbals as they are doing some amazing things. Sometimes I feel like the laughing stock of Zildijan artists as I only have a pair of hi hats (laughs). My fingers are crossed for this next tour.
MA: You have a unique style that seems to bridge the gap between traditional and hybrid drumming. I imagine that it’s a challenge to fit in with different genres. How did you develop your style and versatility?
BB: I guess when the hip-hop thing came in I was really fascinated by the drums. Questlove for example blows me away how he can play such a simple groove and make it sound larger than it is. Drummers like that can make anything sound good. I am inspired by them and have borrowed as much as I can. I am also very interested in tone as I think that is so important. Especially in hip-hop drumming. The overall sound of the drums is key. I am also obsessed with feel and playing around, before and after the click. I like making those slight adjustments to make things more interesting. I really concentrate on where to place the snare and the kick. It is what brings a beat alive. The drums for Lorde were all programmed. The fills they added were not what a normal drummer would come up with on a kit. It was a great challenge to figure out how to translate them live. I am forced to do things that you would not do naturally. Sometimes it would take me a long time to interpret. I would put on a loop, write out the notes and look at what was required. At times it would be a real brain-buster, but it was also fun and exciting. I had to make programmed beats feel real. I really respect Ted Reed’s Syncopation book for teaching me independence and thank Michael Franklin Browne for taking me through that book. Another thing I strive for is musicality. When you’re young it’s all about having chops, but as you get older you realize that it’s all about the feel. I’ve never been asked at the professional level to play chops, maybe once or twice. I’d estimate that 2% of my entire career has required me playing something crazy. Once in the studio and once live is all that I can recall. Steve Gadd is the perfect example of what it’s all about. Play whatever you play as simple as possible and maintain that feel. Anything other than that has no point to it in most situations.
MA: On the Lorde gig, is there ever any room for improvisation or is everything set in stone?
BB: There are a few moments where we will extend a song such as the bridge. For one part I wrote this crazy soundscape of white noise that we put on the track. Then I played against it. There are a few fills that I can play differently, but for the most part we are striving to replicate the album as closely as we can. Consistency and integrity are very important to her. Sometimes we will do a cover. Often in those parts there are times I can mess around and do different fills. Not that often though. I’ve always been a believer that in a live show, watching a drummer lay it down with a strong groove is better. They may do an interesting fill from time to time, but they are playing for the foundation of the song. That is what catches my attention. Using chops from time to time dynamically is way more effective than playing them start to finish. Contrast matters to me and creates moments in the show which people remember.
MA: Other than replication, what challenges do you face as a live player?
BB: That’s a good question. I like the challenge of adjusting the feel with different bands. Adjusting to what the song requires while maintaining a sense of groove keeps me on my toes. As I said, I love playing against the click. Sometimes you can hear the crowd respond when you slightly change it up. Playing a straight beat and then making it swing or putting a bit of a shuffle on it. You can see how the audience responds to it as they tend to start moving a bit more. It can be a great challenge to maintain the beat of a song and then to know where to deviate from it. When you nail it, things can get quite exciting. Of course all of this takes trial and error. When you listen back to yourself you can judge if things worked or if they weren’t quite right. That is how I practice in my studio. I record myself and then I listen back and critique it. That enables me to be aware of my playing and to see how I am sitting within the beat.
MA: Do you use a different playing approach between the acoustic and electronic drums?
BB: I take all of the velocity off of the pads. Sometimes if there is a specific pattern or a snare swell or a part that needs velocity, I will keep it set on, but for the most part that is the different setting between the two. I try to keep my playing with consistent dynamics, so one doesn’t overpower the other. I do little tricks. Sometimes I like to play my live hats in a manner that mimics electronic hats. On the acoustic kit there is a different approach. I hit the drums differently as there is a different rebound from the stick. I tune them in a manner that they can add depth beneath the pads while giving that bottom end. That may change in the future. They are doing some incredible things electronically with improving range and dynamics.
MA: What drummers inspire you now?
BB: Questlove is obviously one of my favorites. I’m inspired by a lot of the older drummers, James Gadson, Bernard Purdie and Clyde Stubblefield. I’ve always been a huge fan of Matt Chamberlain. I really like Chris “Daddy” Dave who is everyone’s favorite nowadays. That said, I think it is really important at some point in time to develop your own style and do what works best for you. It’s great to have influences, but you don’t want to simply copy them. It’s great to respect them but don’t emulate them too much. Find your own place. Cultivate your own personality. It may take me twenty years to find that, but I hope I am getting closer. I love to practice. I practice for hours a day and it’s always fun for me. I always say to love what you are doing and enjoy the process. It may take time, but it can be a rewarding experience.
MA: Your own skill of bridging that gap between replicating and creating has inspired others to follow your work. I know I am extremely impressed with your versatility and the ability that you have to go back and forth as an independent artist and as a backing musician for Lorde. You essentially take mathematics and turn it into art.
BB: Well thank you.
MA: What kind of advice would you have for up-and-coming drummers who are striving to achieve greater levels of success?
BB: I’ve always been kind of shy so I’m not that good at putting myself out there as far as advertising myself. I think from a drumming point of view, get super focused on what you have to do to get to where you want to go. Chops can help get quick attention perhaps, but working in a studio and on stage requires precision and feel. Have a balance of the two. Listen to Steve Gadd. I got incredibly lucky, but that was because I had a relationship with the right people. Have genuine relationships with the people who can give you the opportunity. Networking is good, but people will see through you if you’re just trying to get something out of them. I’ve gotten all of my stuff from genuine relationships with contacts. As a touring drummer it’s 90% off the stage. You must be able to get along with the people you are spending all that time with. Be chill, relatable and a nice person on the bus. Off-the-stage is so important. You can lose the gig and I’ve seen it happen. Don’t have an ego, and appreciate the opportunities you are given.
Good things happen to good people.
Visit Ben Barter online at:
Zildjian Artist Bio: https://zildjian.com/artists/ben-barter
Ludwig Drums Bio: http://www.ludwig-drums.com/en-us/ludwig/artists/ben-barter