Donavan Hepburn Interview – by Travis Marc – 2013.
Donavan Hepburn is pure session drumming royalty here in the UK. He has played with the likes of Take That, Tom Jones, X-Factor and Olly Murs (just to name a few) and is always trying to improve his game. We sat down with the humble yet confident sticksman before an Olly Murs show to pick his brain on all things drumming…
Hi Donavan – thanks for taking the time to do this interview with us. I’m sure you’ve been asked some of these questions a million times before but for the sake of our readers, I’d like to start at the beginning. Let’s start by talking about how you got into drumming and what it was that initially attracted you to the instrument?
Well, my older brother Martin was really the drummer in the family, he played all throughout his teens with different groups and choirs. I think in about 1984 he bought his first drum kit, which was this beautiful white Pearl Export kit, and all I can remember is coming down the stairs from my room into the family room and seeing this drum kit all set up and thinking that it was incredible. I think that’s really where the seed was planted, but I didn’t actually try to really play until about 1988/1988. Around the same period, Martin and his wife were expecting their first child so he really around that much when it came to playing at the church we attended anymore. One day I plucked up the courage to try give it a go and truthfully they weren’t really that impressed and told me to get off, but I went back the following Sunday, made a mends and kept working on my drumming from there.
It’s a well known fact that you did most of your drumming groundwork while playing at church. Would you say that playing within the church/gospel background helped get your playing to where it is now?
I’d say so yeah, because unbeknown to me at the time was the fact that I was actually starting to develop my ear for music. In some church environments (like the one I’m actually from) often what happens is, people will simply get up on stage and start singing a song and by the time the second verse comes around you need to be playing along. So, my ear was really trained to play different beats and rhythms from those early days at the church and I really think it’s one of the reasons I’m able to pick up rhythms and song structures fairly easy within the music situations I find myself in now days.
Playing at the church really helped me learn how to naturally express myself, and taught me how to comfortable back different singers and choirs so it was a great experience. I general I think that Gospel music is a great genre, it has various elements and similarities of so many other types of music, so it’s great to learn from. The whole Gospel chop thing has definitely become a bit of a craze at the moment which is also great, but the one negative thing about this in my opinion, is that we’re seeing a lot of really great chop type players coming up who sometimes don’t seem to have the maturity to simply play what’s required for the song. Sometimes the ability to simply drive a song with a great groove is sometime that I see getting lost, obviously there are a lot of great players who have an excellent combination both groove and chops too, so that’s nice, but I think that music should be felt and played with a certain feeling rather than just learned because if might be a craze at a particular point in time.
Who would you say were your first musical influences (drummers or non drummers)?
Honestly, and I know that this is such a cliche thing to say, but I’m just a product of music and life man. I really enjoy it all. I mean the latest record I bought was a Larry Colten record, and I buy various different records all the time. I’m a music lover, so I really do love it all, RnB, Rock, Pop, Classical, anything. I like to keep an open mind and therefore try and keep my listening options as broad as possible. I think the moment that you start thinking that you know or have heard everything and stop listening to different things because of that is where it all ends. Music is forever changing, but with that being said it also moves in cycles, that’s why some days you might hear something that you might have heard years ago, but you need to keep it broad.
Moving forward a little, you’ve since played with a list of well known artists, including UK Legends ‘Take That’ and X Factor artist Olly Murs, but what would you say was your first big break before playing with some of the above named artists?
I’d have to put it down to the first memorable pop gig I did, which was with ‘Mis-Teeq’. I remember thinking how amazing is was that I was actually playing for someone who had a top ten record at the time, and it was an amazing experience. So yeah, that was definitely my first ‘big gig’..
You were chosen to perform as the drummer in the house band in the Queen’s Jubilee Celebrations last year, backing artists such as Elton John,Tom Jones, Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue. The event was of course seen by millions of people throughout the world. Can you tell us a bit about the Jubliee experience?
I did a workshop in Leeds a few weeks back and was asked the exact same question. The only way for me to really describe it, is to kind of put it the whole situation into a bit of a football analogy. So imagine you play for your local football club and then one day your phone rings and it’s Roy Hudson (the England manager) telling you that he wants you to start for the national teams next game, and that ‘next game just happens to be football world cup. It was crazy, but so humbling and enjoyable. You’re playing for all these major artists but ultimately you’re also performing in the Queens back garden, and she’s sitting there, it was extremely surreal. I was so proud to be a part of the whole thing and the experience was great. We rehearsed for six weeks leading up to the event and I can honestly say that it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
In regards to working with as many big name artists as you have, would you say that you get your work based on pure reputation?
There are two sayings and both are quite true to a point – one is ‘ bad news travels faster than good’, and the another ‘that you’re only as good as your last gig’. Both are true to a part, but your reputation plays a major part in it all and I’d even go as far as saying that 90 percent of what it’s all about is who you are or what type of person you are when you’re not drumming, Are you cool to be around? What’s your time keeping like in regards to being punctual? Do you look good? Do you smell good? Are you friendly? Are you all about the hang or do you also work hard etc? Then there’s the playing side – Do you bring the right elements to the band your working with? Are you playing what’s relevant to the music etc?
I think that I always knew that I wanted to be a successful musician, so I took every gig that I was given really seriously, I never for a second thought approached a smaller gig differently because I was waiting to give my all to the big gigs. I’ve always tried my absolute best and because of this I always kind of thought that it would simply be a matter of time before something came along. The MD who put the line up for the Queens Jubliee celebration, is the same MD for Take That and he originally saw me playing in 2005 when I was still gigging with Ms Dynite. I guess he saw something in my playing that he liked and thought that I could maybe bring something to the table in Take That. So unbeknown to me at the time, he had been checking out my playing and in 2006 he called me up and offered me the Take That gig.
Since I started working with them their music has evolved quite a bit. When I first started with playing for them, they were quite Disco and now they’ve kind of more Rock meets Adult Contemporary so everyone involved has really had to evolve as musicians. I think that you need to constantly grow as a player and evolve to keep working, but it really has a lot to do with your character too because if you play well people will talk, so you need to make sure you are a nice person. Thankfully people said a few nice things about me over the years so it’s been a real blessing. I’m really thankful.
In many drummers eyes, you’re living the dream. Is there a dream gig out there that you’d still one day like to get?
Definitely, I would’ve loved to have done the Michael Jackson tour that he was supposed to do. I’d like to play with David Bowie or Geneses/Phil Collins, Sting, Steve Wonder, man there’s loads. The Spice Girls or Jimmy Paige. Like my listening choices I’m being quite broad with it. You never know what might happen.
More technique related now. Could you tell us if you have any kind of practice routine at them moment, furthermore what are you working on currently?
The honest answer is no, I don’t. If I do any practicing, it’s really in regards to training my ears. I don’t have a kit set up at home because when I’m home I’m a husband and a father, so I’m always listening to music in order to get my musical ear happening. In fact a friend of mine recently asked me how I learn stuff when I’ve got tours coming up and truthfully I sit at home, play the track and write out the arrangements. I learn the songs formats by listening to them. When I am around a kit however, I mainly tend to do rudiment based stuff. I try get into the spirit of the gigs I’m playing by making sure that I tailor everything around the gig the specific gig requirements so that everything fits and feels like it should.
I understand that you still find the time to do some teaching around your busy schedule. What would you say is the most important piece of knowledge that you try to pass onto your students?
I basically have a pool of students that I teach. They all know what I’m up to and when I’m on the road etc, so whenever I have a bit of down time I send out an email letting them know that I’m going to have some time to teach and we make it work from there.. I’d say that my main ethos is really application to music, and trying to show my students that they should try be as relevant to the music as they can be. I usually get them to pick a pop record and then go through how I would break it down and how I would personally add flavour to it etc. In my experience with working with MD’s they really want you to play for the song, while at the same time putting your own stamp to it, you need to be able to create highs and lows and (if needed) bring some drama to it. I try teach things like playing with dynamics, and playing with a click (in front of it, or behind it) and show my students that there are options available to them when recreating tracks. I try and turn them into musicians rather than just drummers. Guys like Dennis Chambers, Teddy Campbell and Buddy Rich were musicians, sure they were great drummers but they were always able to make the drums sound like music rather than just random patterns.
What would you say has been the most important piece of advice that you’ve ever received and who gave you this advice?
It was from a fella in Birmingham called Ray Prince and he taught me the importance of my role within a rhythm section, and showed me that bass and drums have to be united. I was 17 at the time and I hadn’t realised it before, but once I figured it out it turned out to be one the most significant pieces of advice I’d ever received.
If you could no longer drum or do music for a living what do you think you’d do career wise?
I’d have to be in advertising, I love watching adverts and seeing the creativity behind some of them, so yeah it would have to be something to do with that. Or maybe a football coach, I’m a mad football fan!
Any last thoughts or words of encouragement?
Stay true to the music and always be open to critique. Be a team player and always have a heart that wants to serve. Lastly, one of my main philosophies in life is – Have fun! Enjoy what you do and find something that you enjoy in all the music that you play.
Also, because we actually did the interview with Don before Christmas last year, we thought we’d ask him what his perfect Christmas gift would be, and how he’d like to spend his Christmas. Here’s what he said…
Mmmm, the gift would have to be a vintage Ringo Starr Rogers drum kit. The perfect way to spend Christmas would have to be peace and quiet with the family, with James Bond on the TV, followed by Superman 1, 2 and 3 (the originals). Then maybe some dinner followed by Jaws 1, 2 and 3.