Paul Clarvis - Percussion

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“I like old drums because they go pong rather than ping”, says Paul Clarvis. “I look for the warmness rather than just the top end.”


Clarvis remembers being completely mesmerised and obsessed by music and drumming from the age of eight. “I did things like taking a radio to the playground to listen to the Top 20. My parents weren’t musical – but they really encouraged me to do music and took my kit around to friends’ houses to rehearse. Looking back on it, it was a really important part of my development.”

A combined Christmas and birthday present presented Clarvis with his first kit. “It was a white Woolworths kit that had been damaged in a fire and it came from the Houndsditch warehouse. I think they were £40 at the time and father managed to get it for half price. It was a small bass drum, tom-tom and small cymbal. For another birthday a few years later they bought me a hi-hat. But I didn’t get my first ‘real’ cymbal until I was 14 or 15. Mum and dad bought me a Zildjian cymbal and I remember my mother wrapped it in cotton wool and then when I was 20-odd and went to buy my own cymbals, I was disappointed because I thought that they were all wrapped in cotton wool!”

His next kit was a second hand Premier in red. “I’d worked in the Matchbox Toy factory – the only proper job I’ve ever had – over a school holiday and earned £80. So my father matched that and we went up to Denmark Street. The chap in the shop was really helpful and threw in a very good cymbal which I had until recently.”

After playing in the Boy’s Brigade, the Silver Band and his school’s Dixieland jazz band as well as the Enfield Young Symphony Orchestra as a tympanist, he finally won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. “But it was very difficult to get teachers who related to what the drums did to the music,” he says.

“You could get technical teachers, but I was always trying to get the right feeling when I was playing – the right sound. I remember going to a lesson with Dave Hassell who was the guy who really showed me the way. He was creating that feeling that I wanted – ‘the sound’ – and he was very relaxed when he was playing. He pushed a lot of music on to me. You should listen to this or that. He created a way in for me. I felt I could listen to what he was suggesting.”

At 18, Clarvis progressed on to a Gretsch kit. “It wasn’t a Round Badge, but had the same shells, with a brass snare drum”. Like many drummers, Clarvis then went through a lot of kit. “I had a Ludwig stainless steel, some Round Badge and some WFL ones – so much so that I had to start getting rid of them. I also had a Ludwig Black Beauty. I’ve now paired it down to about four. I have a Ludwig Club Date that Dave Mattocks got for me. Then there’s the Gretsch Round Badge that I’ve kept – a very rare one and then a Radio King kit from the 1940s. But my favourite is the one with the Woolworths bass drum.

About 15 years ago, I managed to purchase another Woolworths 16-inch Audition bass drum with just a couple of good heads on it which sounds great, because it’s old wood. I managed to pick up the tom-toms for it from James Blades’ estate, which a friend of mine was looking after. They were used in the BBC dot-dot-ditty morse code that was broadcast to encourage the resistance in Europe in World War II.”

Clarvis owns at least 40 snare drums. “The one I take out most is an old Leedy from the 1920s. Like the bass drum, it has Evans heads, because I find that they’re very reliable. The toms have calf heads.”

Zildjian A cymbals are Clarvis’ favoured fare. “I find that the Ks can get into the area of pianos, congas and guitars – they can be quite low. I like cymbals to be thin, but also bright and silvery – like the very thin 13” hi-hats that Dave Hassell gave me. Obviously I’ve got Ks, but there’s something I’ve always liked about A Zildjians. An A Zildjian will take up less space and will sit there in the top register – it will create space rather than take space up. I have to say that the people at Zildjian have been really good to me and have copied a lot of my cymbals for me, customising them. Usually it’s making the factory models thinner. That’s the other important thing I’m looking for in drums and cymbals – they need to blend with each other and the musicians that I’m playing with. Warm, fat and mellow is what I’m looking for and it’s important that everything works over extreme dynamics because I like to play both quiet and loud so the sound is of limitless possibilities. It’s wide and open rather than cluttered. I also like the drums to sound real and honest.”

When it comes to sticks and brushes Clarvis uses a lot by Vic Firth. “But I like the old Ludwig brushes from the 1960s for the thinness of the wire although of course these are now like gold dust.” He also likes old drummers such as Zutty Singleton from the Louis Armstrong band “because he made such a lovely warm, dark sound”. Like Singleton, Clarvis doesn’t use many drums. “I generally just take out the bass drum, snare, one tom-tom, one cymbal and a hi-hat, so it’s important that everything I use does more than one job. It’s also important that a cymbal isn’t just a crash cymbal. I need to be able to do anything on it – ride, crash, whatever’s needed. You know I almost forgot to mention Dave Payne, he calls me the Antiques Roadshow with all this old gear but he keeps me on the road with all his little modifications, things to stop the drums moving like bass drum spurs. The old Ludwig stands from the 1960s that I use because they are so light but so solid Dave replaces the wing nuts when they go. Without him I think I’d be back in the garage spending my life trying to mend things.”