CoreTalks: Will Haywood Smith – The Drummer’s Tale
Making a living from making music is not easy but Northumberland-born drummer Will Haywood Smith has succeeded where many have not. He’s a working musician based in New York, has recorded sessions with a wide range of bands, toured in the US, Europe, Asia and South America, and co-founder of the innovative band Plural. On a recent visit home he did some teaching at Northumbria University and a masterclass in Hexham, where Core Talks sat him down for a cup of tea and a chat.
It’s been a long journey from his first lessons as a 6-year-old in Corbridge to the international stage, and one that owes much to the help available to promising students during the 1990s. The Northumberland County Music Service – now part of Music Partnership North (www.musicpartnershipnorthnewcastle.co.uk), a joint enterprise with Sage Gateshead and Newcastle City Council – supported some very good music teachers and several orchestras and bands. The repertoire was largely classical but jazz was developing fast, creating a thriving environment in which young people could learn and perform. “It felt like I was playing with some good people,” Will recalls.
“The UK drumming style is not particularly
refined – it has a hard-hitting,
anti-establishment feel founded in
rock. It’s more physical, louder.”
He followed the usual music grades pathway but felt he was learning to perform set pieces rather than play the drums. All that changed when, aged 13, when he joined a band playing Nirvana, Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins. “US music has its roots in jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues and American musicians have impressive technique,” Will says. “The UK drumming style is not particularly refined – it has a hard-hitting, anti-establishment feel founded in rock. It’s more physical, louder. There’s definitely an edge to my drumming from playing pop and rock but I don’t identify as either a British or American drummer any more.”
After A levels at Queen Elizabeth High School, Will won a scholarship to study at Boston’s elite Berklee College of Music – one of several students from Northumberland to have done so. He was surprised and intimidated in equal measure by the high standard of musicianship among his fellow students: “It was definitely in at the deep end, I wasn’t expecting it,” he says. Matching that level of performance proved a challenge, not least because he was trying to play jazz while not sharing the passion of his classmates. After eighteen months he found his niche with lessons more focused on fusion and rock.
“My old drum teacher told me, ‘Just keep going.’”
Graduating from Berklee is a major achievement and a feather in the cap of any musician but Will tempers his pride with a pragmatic appraisal of his skills at the time. “College is about learning the techniques that enable you to be creative when you leave,” he explains. “We didn’t really know what we were doing when we left Berklee. We could play stuff on the drums but were not very good at being musicians”
When he moved to New York, Will knew only five people. He taught at Manhattan’s School of Rock and had to hustle and network to get jobs, being in the right place at the right time to pick up gigs. He landed a 3-week tour of China and started a functions band with his friend – the USP being they played only British music. “The more you play, the more people you meet, but it took a lot longer than I expected,” he says. “My old drum teacher told me ‘Just keep going.’ It takes a lot of time and effort just to get to the stage where you can make it work.”
He was playing a wide range of styles within his chosen genre. “Music channelled me to where I am now,” he says. “You find yourself moving towards a target though you’re not aware of it.” A musician can follow two paths, he continues. “You can play in a band but the odds of success are quite small. Or you can aim to be as good as you possibly can be to take advantage of the opportunities when they arise.”
“There’s plenty to look forward to – I’m
just waiting for the ice to melt.”
Now it’s paying off. Will says 2018 was his best year yet. “There’s plenty to look forward to – I’m just waiting for the ice to melt,” he says (it was minus 13C in New York when he left). There’s the possibility of another couple of tours and he is looking forward to composing more with his band Plural, having released an EP in November 2018. Being a composer brings a different mindset compared with performing other people’s music. “Most people don’t write songs with a tricky drum part,” he says, “when you write your own stuff, you can do that. It’s great having an original project, it changes how you play with other people.”
Will has given lessons since he was 15 but has now rediscovered his love of teaching and plans to offer some part-time tuition until the Spring. His experience has shown him how valuable a good teacher can be. “It’s hard to do it by yourself so find people who can help you,” he advises. “I had a lot of help – parents, drum teachers, older students, the high school music department.” It takes a lot of work just to get to the start line but, despite his evident success, Will says he never felt he had more drive than anyone else.
“It’s hard to do it by yourself so
find people who can help you.”
Aspiring musicians can watch many great players via the likes of Instagram and YouTube and Will says he still learns by watching videos to deconstruct a drummer’s playing. “Inspiration, not hero worship, that’s the key,” he adds. There are so many good drummers about these days that he struggles to suggest just two. “Mark Guiliana (www.markguiliana.com) doesn’t easily fit into any category,” he says, “and Jojomayer’s band makes music built around his drumming (www.jojomayer.com).”
That doesn’t mean that the upcoming generation of drummers has it easy. “The musical bar is already higher than when I was at Berklee,” Will says. “Young people today have a very high level of musicianship – the downside is it’s harder to find something new to do.”
YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/willhsmith