September 19, 2020

’78 International Musician and Recording World Keith Moon Interview

A good-sized interview with Moonie shortly before his death, discussing his drum setup.


Since International Musician last spoke to Keith Moon two years ago, a lot has happened to him and The Who. This year the band celebrates 15 years together and have just released a new album, "Who Are You." With the purchase of a large part of Shepperton Studios, The Who are finding new creative directions while remaining very active. Their reported decision not to tour again has caused a great deal of controversy. I.M. recently spoke to Moon about drumming and the future of The Who.

Is there anything new in drums which interests you?

Yeah, the new synthesized drums. There’s a company called Syndrum who make a set which comes with a sort of small computer. You can get bird calls and all different sorts of sounds. It’s very good. Obviously, it’s not like the real thing but the effects are quite startling if you use it set up next to a straight drum kit. It’s great to go from one to the other, playing the same pattern, because the way it’s reproduced through the Syndrum gives it a really different dimension.

Have you used them on record?

Yes, only experimentally, really. On the new album, they’re in there somewhere. They’re quite easy to control. When you set them up, you’ve got a chart which you work from. You set the decay and the rest and it’s basically like a small Moog but connected to the drums instead of a keyboard. It can be a bit of a hassle if you’re playing as it can be difficult to turn around and readjust the controls. They’re still experimental, for onstage use at least.

I don’t really see a full synthesized kit. But they’re great to add colour and that’s important. I’ve got 16 drums in my kit and on every song I use a different set of four or five so eventually I’ve used all 16 drums. Sometimes I use the timpani, sometimes the timbale, sometimes I do runs that’ll go right around eight drums and sometimes I’ll just use bass drum, snare drum and hi-hat. I’ve got everything I need there. I can cover from a roar with the timpani right up to the smallest timbale which is about 6". That’s why I have so many drums onstage because, with The Who, there’s Pete who plays a lot of chords and John who plays very intricate bass figures that I work with and we have this empathy between us.

How much of the interplay between yourself and John Entwistle is worked out and how much is spontaneous?

Well, we rehearse the length of the song, whether it’s verse, solo, middle-eight, verse, solo and then ad lib ending or whatever. We don’t sit down and work out fills. Each of us works out own part and then, when we put it all together and start to play, it comes out extremely powerful. You can’t really work things out too much. We do certain things, certain build-ups and things but you can run into a danger of becoming an automaton if you do everything exactly the same each night. You just stop thinking and it ends up the same every bloody night but, with us, it’s different. Sometimes I’ll build up with timpani, sometimes I’ll build up on cymbal or with a roll around the kit. There are so many variations on each effect.

Your use of cymbals has always interested me. Quite often you will start a break on cymbals alone without the bass drum behind it, which is something alien to most drummers.

That gives me absolute top. If you hit the bass drum as well, you bring in some bottom; the cymbal gives you top and with both, you get something in between which is neither fully cymbal nor fully bass drum. Sometimes I do a single-stroke roll on cymbals for a "whoosh" effect. Again, we get back to colour. I believe very positively in colour in drumming. You know, there’s so many drummers that can go through the routine but they don’t add colour anywhere. They don’t paint with the kit. That’s what I like doing. I like painting, adding colour and effects and shocking people. Constantly, while I’m playing, I’m thinking two bars ahead. That gives me a chance to, if I’m in the middle of a roll, to do something I’ve already thought out so I can get out of the roll and into whatever I was already thinking about. Then when I’m there, I’m thinking another two bars ahead.

Having played certain songs for 14 years, do you find it difficult to actually think of new fills and breaks?

No, if I thought about it, I’d be in trouble. There are some parts that just naturally happen and I’ll think of a figure that I’ll put in at a particular point. A lot of them are very unconscious. Sometimes I’ll think of a pattern and immediately forget it and store it subconsciously and then two bars later, I find myself playing it. Sometimes when we go on tour, there might be a number where there is just a guitar and drum pattern or fill and it would be very easy to do the same thing every night but it doesn’t work that way because the atmosphere is different at every place you play and the atmosphere on stage is different so you get different fills happening. I’m very adventurous with things like that. I don’t like to remain static. I know when I’ve played a certain figure before so I try something else.

How much do you rehearse?

Well, as you know, I don’t practice on my own. When we’re going out on tour, we usually rehearse for three or four weeks and that’s about three days a week, so we probably have about eight or nine rehearsals spread over a period. If you rehearse every day, you start getting clichéd and you end up like an automaton, you can rehearse it to death. As far as we go, as long as we have the bare bones of a song, that’s the way we rehearse. It’s just to get the bones, the verses, solos and the general framework of the song. Then, within that framework, we’re free to experiment. It’s rather like plasticine, you’ve got the thing there but it’s malleable. You can actually shape it and stretch it but you’re still left with what you started out with.

Do you tune your drums yourself?

Yeah, I do. I work very closely with Bill, my roadie. I’ll go around and tune the drums and then go out front while Bill plays them. I just tell him, "Use the blunt end and whack it as hard as you can." I get the tuning right and if we have three or four dates and we can’t get to the hall in time for a soundcheck – I can’t really walk on stage in front of the audience and start tuning the bloody things up – Bill knows how it should be tuned and he tunes it for me. After a show sometimes when the crew are breaking everything down, I occasionally go up and have a look around the kit and see if any heads need changing or anything. That happens quite a lot. We change the heads on every second show because I play very hard. What happens is the skin itself tends to lose its resonance after a couple of shows. You’ve thrashed the life out of it and it just gives up, really. We don’t change all 16 drums, only the tom toms, snare drum, bass drum and one of the floor toms that I use a lot. The timbales are usually OK, but I suppose no skin stays on longer than a week. They do lose their tone after a while and I do tend to hit them hard.

Do you have to work hard to keep fit?

Yes. I’ve just joined a health club because basically it’s a question of keeping your stamina. You have to psych yourself up to it. I used to belong to a health club when I lived in Beverly Hills and I’d go there for a sauna and ride bikes and do press-ups and things. It is important to keep the muscles going. You need a lot of stamina to keep up a two-hour show. A drummer has to use more parts of his body than anyone else. I mean, it’s not so important for John Entwistle to keep in top physical form because he just sort of stands there and basically just uses his hands. (laughs) He does a lot of hand exercises – a lot of wristwork!

Your kit has grown since last time I spoke to you. How and why has it gotten bigger?

Well, I added some timbale. The kit changes really as an act changes. When we’re doing some stuff from Tommy, there are some really big heavy drum breaks where I bring in timpani and the big floor toms and some timbale for light and shade, so you’re not confronted by a big rumble. That can sound very dull, so I use the timbale mainly for accents. You have to hit them hard but then I hit all the drums pretty hard anyway. They’re miked up through the P.A. anyway and, as long as I’ve got the kit sounding good, it’s O.K. I have my own P.A. system virtually so I have to check the sound that comes out of the drum P.A. Bill will go round the kit and I’ll listen and see what has to go up or down. So, it’s not that important to whack ’em hard although I do whack ’em hard. I’m a very physical drummer. In fact, we have to use special mikes for the drums because the amount of air, from hitting it so hard, would produce this "popping" sound – like someone blowing into a mike. So they put windshields on and that helps the tonal reproduction.

Is there a nucleus of the whole kit that you tend to work from?

Yeah. It’s obviously the bass drum, tom toms, snare and hi-hat. You see, with double bass drums, I have the hi-hat locked in a half-open position so you get a "swoosh." I don’t actually use it as a hi-hat. Both my feet are on the bass drums. So, basically I get a good ride, hi-hat sound. They just bring in the crowbars! Everything is tightened down and nailed and strengthened with extra screws drilled in. Everything is double braced so I can get up, as we do at the end of the act, and actually stand on the kit without breaking the fittings or ripping them away from the wood. Inside each drum I have a metal plate to support them so I can actually stand on top of the kit. The whole thing is solid as a rock.

What other drummers have you been listening to recently, or do you listen to other drummers?

Not really, I’ve been down to a couple of places like the Vortex and the Marquee and it’s very odd because I see a lot of myself reflected in their styles. A lot of the atmosphere and a lot of the things they play. It’s a bit brash, which I love. I think it’s great, just thrashing away, but a lot of the drummers have not developed a definite style. That’s something that comes from years of playing. I’ve picked up bits of Elvin Jones, Krupa, Philly Joe Jones – they were the sort of people I listened to for drumming.

The whole big band scene?

Yeah, mostly big band drummers. They’re very dynamic, really wild.

Do you listen to the super technicians like Cobham, etc.?

No, I’m not really into technical drumming. I don’t play a technical drum at all. That Billy Cobham kind of control and discipline is incredible, beautiful but it just isn’t me. Then again, I’d be lousy at playing what he does and he’d be lousy at playing what I do. I don’t really get off on being able to do so many paradiddles. It doesn’t impress me too much. I feel much more at home being very brash and spontaneous.

A few years ago Chris Welch said you deserved an award for "revolutionizing rock drumming."

Well, you see, the drummer was always at the back and was very rarely photographed, the least interviewed. When The Who started, I began playing a constant drum solo throughout the act and Chris Welch saw us and probably thought, "I’ve noticed the drummer for the first time." In that era, nobody ever took any notice of the drummer. It was all guitars and singers. When I started twirling the sticks and standing up and those kind of things, nobody else did that kind of thing in rock. I’m a total extrovert, I love to be involved. I don’t like this great big kit in front of me and the audience. I envy the guitarist who can go over and get that much closer to the audience. I can’t do that, I have to sit at the back, so I acted in a different way and started to draw attention to the drums in a different way by acrobatics and all the tricks. So, a lot of people used to say, "God, look at the drummer!" So I suppose there was a certain amount of revolutionizing the drummer’s role. Actually bringing the drummer out as an integral part of the group. The group wasn’t just made up of a singer and a lead guitarist. You used to watch pop shows on TV and they’d just show the singer, the rest of the band being just a backup group and nothing else.

When I started showing off a bit, the directors would notice. There were two great directors, Mike Lindsey-Hogg and Mike Mansfield and they started getting the camera on the drums. "Ready, Steady Go!" and "Top Of The Pops" really treated the band as a whole and, up until then, it was just Billy Fury and his group or Adam Faith and his group. Most of the TV in those days was only a couple of cameras, one trained on the front of the singer and the other getting a side shot of the singer and they never bothered with the rest of the group. They were always there as part of the furniture. It wasn’t until Townshend started smashing guitars and I started smashing up the drums that the producers of the shows began to realize that there was more than the singer in the band. They’d actually line up a camera for the drums, which was a first. People started to actually notice the drummer.

What’s in the future for you and The Who?

Well, films basically. We’ve just finished "The Kids Are Alright," thank God! We’ve been working on that for two years. We’ve already started pre-production of "Quadrophenia," the casting and that kind of thing and we’ve got the money for it at last. That’s the biggest headache – getting the money to do the picture. Roger’s doing the McVicar film which will be done down at Shepperton and Pete’s been working on the Lifehouse project for quite a while. There will also be soundtrack albums from these plus the studio albums. I often get asked about when The Who will be going on the road and the simple answer is, I just don’t know.

Do you miss going on the road?

Not really, because I’m still involved in so much Who. Everything I do is still all to do with The Who. I enjoy going out on the road. I still get up now and again and sit in with bands and play but as to putting together another road show and going out on a big tour we’ve been doing that for 15 years and you can get a bit bored, especially when there are so many new directions opening up for us. We’ve toured and we’ve done our bit as regards live tours. I mean, let’s not count it out but let’s not put it too high on the agenda. There are no plans at the moment for a live gig. You have to look at it very carefully. If we do one here, we get insulting letters from America saying, "You do one in London but you won’t come to New York. We’re just as big fans here as they are there!" You’ve got to be fair and go to New York, you can’t just do one-offs.

The Who, unfortunately or fortunately, once you decide to go on the road, you’re committed to doing everywhere. If we were to do it, it would mean rehearsals, a new act, and we’ve got such a lot on our plate at the moment, it’s impossible. For years, all we did was tour and now we’ve got the opportunity to turn Shepperton into a real working project with films, commercials, video theatres, rehearsal stages, our own production companies and all of that. That’s as exciting for me as being on the road. I love playing drums but there is more that I can do. Playing drums got me in the position where I can now do other things but to go on the road again, I don’t see it as being viable for quite a while.

Can The Who exist without live gigs?

Oh, yes. Very much so. The Who are still working but we’re working in a different way. It’s very difficult. You spend a lot of time on the road and people start screaming for a tour – you just can’t win. You asked me last time about couldn’t The Who do small clubs unannounced and the fact remains that it wouldn’t work for us; if we went back on the road, we’d go back as THE WHO. It wouldn’t be fair to the fans to do a small gig. I think you should do a gig in a venue where everyone can see you. You should give all the Who fans the same chance and not go to some out of the way place. You’d get people saying, "Bastards, what’s so special about that place?" I don’t want that kind of criticism. You can see why it’s so difficult. We’ve just got so much to do first.