Cover Image ©Al Bridge
Having spent three years touring in the Troy Redfern Band, more recently Alex Bridge has been working with a variety of artists as a professional ‘dep’ drummer and working in pick up bands, but he originally cut his teeth working the pubs and rugby clubs of the Welsh Marches. Al picks up the story:
“Aged sixteen, after a summer spent stacking tyres in a local factory, I saved enough money to buy my first drum kit; a lovely old sixties Premier Olympic! I’d seen it in the small ads at the back of the Shropshire Star newspaper. It was £100; the equivalent of exactly 100 hours graft in the tyre factory. My mum gave me £10 so that I could pay my mate to take me in his car to go and collect it (The picture above was taken by my Dad when I first arrived home with the kit. I set it up in the garden and properly annoyed all our neighbours!). There were a lot of bands around in Mid Wales at the time, so things moved quickly and I was out gigging straight away really; mainly pubs and rugby clubs. It could get pretty rough in some of those places, but it was a lot of fun travelling around, learning the ropes, making new friends and joking about in the back of beat-up vans. It was a great training ground.
I really got the bug for it and desperately wanted to spend more time immersed in the whole world of music. After a couple of years working at the drawing board at a printers by day and gigging by night, I applied to go to a music college in London. I remember travelling down on the train to be auditioned by session drummer Gary O’Toole; it was a stunning venue for a place to study; on the banks of the Thames near Richmond Lock. I got a place thankfully, but suddenly found myself surrounded by a raft of well schooled, already brilliant musicians! There were the likes of Simon Lee (he’s gone on to play with James Blunt, Ronnie Wood etc), Nathan ‘Tugg’ Curran (he was in the year above and later joined Basement Jaxx & Lily Allen), the members of Reef were also in the year above, I remember the buzz going around when they got signed to Sony. Tom Baxter was in our year too (Tom later went on to great success as a singer-songwriter with Sony, eventually going on to write for the likes of Shirley Bassey) . It was an intimidating situation and I definitely had a hell of a lot of catching up to do if I wanted to get invited to play in bands with these guys, but my self taught skills were stripped back and refined by respected drum teacher Paul Elliot. I was eager to get stuck into gigging straight away, so I started phoning around trying to get support slots from West London promoters. I began by drafting my old mates in from Mid Wales, but then started putting together line-ups with new friends from college. After a little while I was invited by my college mate Sam Burgess to try out in the Southampton band he’d been working with (Sam was an ace musician. He’s now the longstanding house bassist at Ronnie Scott’s). Next thing we were squashed into the back of a tiny van, touring the UK with the indie band ‘Accrington Stanley’, promoting their third album ‘Lovebound’. We had some great times! There was some fairly decent radio play and a dedicated group of fans who would either be listening intently to Dan’s lyrics or pogoing around in front of us like lunatics. We gigged a lot and recorded another couple of albums, then it gradually fizzled out as we all tired of life in London on a low budget. We all kind of drifted away. I headed off into the great outdoors to refresh my batteries.
My planned gentle recharge, rapidly morphed into something entirely different: A massive adventure and a bewilderingly intense year on what, unbeknown to me, turned out to be renowned as the toughest outdoor instructor training course you could possibly undertake! (largely due to the most dedicated, focused and insistent chief instructor plus barely a single day off in the best part of a year – not weekends and not even Christmas day!) There were around 10 of us. We lived in tents and travelled all over in a minibus with a trailer. We found ourselves arriving late at night to camp in places like grass verges on Scottish roadsides, up early to be washed down rapids and over waterfalls in our kayaks, followed by scrambling over steep mountains and yomping through heather and bogs to remote and beautiful wilderness camping spots. (This sort of thing was a daily occurrence 7 days a week.) Or lying in our sleeping bag on the rough granite sands of the Joshua Tree desert plateau in California, looking up at the stars at night, spending our days climbing the massive heaps of granite that rise imposingly out of the desert scrub amongst the Joshua trees. Or waking up in hastily piled up snow shelters in the Canadian wilderness, trying to bring our fingers back to life so that they would work well enough to tie our bootlaces. With crampons attached and ropes over our shoulders, armed with ice axes, we’d make our way gingerly into deep river canyons to climb the beautiful frozen waterfalls. It was incredibly tough, the days were always long, but it was absolutely amazing!
Eventually, having qualified as a mountain leader, I found myself living with my girlfriend in a village by the seaside on the beautiful Dovey Estuary in North Wales, leading expeditions over the rugged mountains of Southern Snowdonia. It was bliss and I managed to keep up with the intense workload and extremely long hours for a couple of genuinely idilic and awe inspiring years. But I’ve never been one to rest on my laurels and eventually of course, I was hankering after a new and completely different challenge.
Having done really badly at school, I wanted to put that right and prove to myself that I could succeed in an academic setting despite the fact that I hated sitting in classrooms. I had my diploma and A level from music college, but those were very practical hands-on qualifications, as was my outdoor education diploma and the various instructor qualifications. I wanted to really go to town on challenging myself in an area that to me was alien and uncomfortable. With all the savings we’d managed to scrape together and a hell of a lot of support from my girlfriend (she is now my wife by the way!) I enrolled on a degree course in Cartography and we packed up, tearfully leaving behind the most wonderful couple of years by the seaside, and headed up the estuary towards pastures New in Oxford.
We gradually got back into city life and I managed to get my Cartography degree (mapping in case you were wondering). I actually enjoyed my studies and did pretty well, even winning an award in the end, much to my surprise! I got a contract with World renowned author, architecture historian and also blues music scholar Professor Paul Oliver MBE (RIP). He was chief editor on a project with Dr Marcel Vellinga who was proposing to compile an Atlas of Vernacular Architecture of The World but they needed a cartographic designer. That kept me busy for some of my time and was fascinating and enjoyable work. After 4 years, we completed the atlas and it was published by Routledge not long after. What was also really great for me, was that I’d had time to get back behind the drums, meeting up and gigging with old mates again and even returning to drum lessons in London with my old teacher Paul Elliot.
Everything suddenly changed for me one night seeing a ‘Bays’ gig in Oxford, specifically seeing Andy Gangadeen play the drums. I’d always loved his drumming since I first saw him sitting in for Pete Thomas in Jonathon Ross’s house band, he’s since toured with Massive Attack, Chase & Status, Lisa Stansfield, The Spice Girls, Jeff Beck etc, etc. Seeing him live in Oxford that night totally blew me away! There’s something about Andy’s groove and dynamics that make his drumming absolutely mesmerising! Not fast and complicated, more hypnotic but with a unique feel for the time and space. The next day, I was so inspired that I simply had to do something about it. I felt driven to seek out the man who taught Andy: Bob Armstrong. I knew of Bob, every British drummer knows of Bob! I did some research, then filled in an email form, then waited… and waited. I really didn’t think I had a chance of going to Bob for lessons as his students were so good, but I had to try. After six months on a waiting list, I got a call from Bob’s lovely wife Charmaine and I was finally invited to meet him. Following a nervous drive around the M25 to his studio in Romford at the time, then a lot of detailed questioning and a bit of drumming (way more questioning than drumming), Bob finally said; “Yes, I think I can teach you.” and the fortnightly lessons and daily practice regime began.
I ended up studying with Bob for nearly 9 years over a 12 year period. There was a break-in the middle when the recession hit, where I went back up to Snowdonia for work, then back down south to sign the official secrets act and join the Defence Intelligence and Security Centre training soldiers in cartography at the Royal School of Military Survey. In all honesty this was a difficult period, moving around the country in to job situations which weren’t going at all to plan, and having to move away from my wife and our new baby son – really bad timing. Thankfully I soon made it home and back to music and crucially, back to Bob! His expectations were very high and he made it clear there was no magic wand and there would be no short-cuts. He insisted you put the work in, no excuses! It got really tough after a while, especially with a young son to look after, But with Bob’s absolute passion and the fear of the roasting he’d give you if you hadn’t practiced enough, you almost always managed it somehow. He technically re-developed your feel for the instrument from the ground up, firmly instilling confidence in you and encouraging you to work hard and believe in yourself. Within six months, my drumming was starting to completely transform. Not complicated or mesmerisingly fast, but more grounded, more consistent and it began to feel more graceful – it was a fantastic feeling! I’ll always be grateful for having known Bob. (R.I.P. and thank you so much for everything Bob!)
As my feel for the instrument had began to develop, I wound up joining a great Power Pop trio in Oxford called ‘The Anydays’, and things started to take off a bit. We were getting requests to gig all over the place. But the best thing was recording an album in Liam Watson’s legendary Toerag Studio in East London. (a museum-like studio full of discarded relics of famous 1960’s recordings. It’d been thrust into the limelight by the White Stripes after they recorded ‘Elephant’ there, which won a Grammy). We had various brilliant engineer/producers including Mike Oldfield’s son Luke, and the results were really good! We sent some stuff into BBC Radio2 and it turned out Mark Radcliffe was a bit of an enthusiast for the Toerag sound and he loved our singles, so he started playing them.
My drumming continued to develop under Bob. Then after a chance meeting back on the Welsh Borders, I ended up part of Troy Redfern’s touring band (Troy Redfern.com). (I’d known Troy back in the Welsh Marches days when we were in a band together. But bassist Ben and I moved to London and guitarist Joe Gooch hooked up with rock legend Leo Lyons to become the new frontman for the reformed Ten Years After. Troy carried on gigging in Mid Wales but got stuck into learning production, plus gradually developing a unique slide guitar style that started to get noticed). Troy was signed right after I joined him and we toured continuously for three years, building momentum and developing a very raw, intense and energetic show. I had to develop a style a bit like Mitch Mitchell for this gig. They were tough but fun gigs with improvisation sections in many of his songs and spaces for soloing. We were lucky to be invited to support some great artists; Bad Company’s Mick Ralphs, Thin Lizzy’s Eric Belle, Deborah Bonham (sister to John!), Dr Feelgood, Cyril Neville’s (the Neville Brothers) Royal Southern Brotherhood, Skinny Moly, The Stevie Nimmo Trio, Laurence Jones, we even found ourselves following Robert Plant on stage one night! (see photos below)
Bringing things right up to date; recently, at a vintage drum show, I got chatting with UK session drummer Neal Wilkinson (Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, Joan Armatrading etc). We were talking about Bob Armstrong and Neal’s connection with Bob was that they both studied with Max Abrams as young men. The upshot of that conversation is that I’m now studying with Neal, although on an add-hoc basis due to Neal’s session work and touring commitments. I have also taken the plunge into working as an independent drummer. This has been a really enjoyable challenge and it’s been fantastic to work with people such as Alabama singer/guitarist/songwriter Amy McCarley, Nashville artist Angel Snow and Ben Welburn’s CASH ‘payin respect to the man in black. Alongside taking on various ‘dep’ work, I have been involved in developing a new show called the all new Rock n Roll Revue, an event featuring Oxford Rock n Roll band The Quarry Katz. The first date sold out six weeks in advance, so more shows are planned! Also I’ve recently joined my Anydays rhythm partner Niall and friends in starting a brand new indie pop group Jody & the Jerms which has been getting some great radio play and online music news coverage. Onwards and hopefully upwards?? Give me a call if you need a drummer…”
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