Beat it: Drummers hit it off at Michael Jackson’s Irish hideout

What are four of the world’s greatest drummers doing in remotest Co Westmeath?

In Grouse Lodge, Co Westmeath, where the King of Pop recorded, drummers gather to spend a week with four of the world’s finest sticksmen at the 21 Drums camp. Video: Bryan O’Brien & 21 Drums

 

Music is one of the greatest communicators in the world. It’s an almost universal language that can be understood by just about anyone in some way or another. Like any language, there are different dialects.

Think of the dialects as different instruments, and drums – at least on the surface – can sound like the most uninterpretable noise there is. Thankfully, we have the translators.

But what are four of the world’s greatest drummers doing in the remote countryside of Westmeath? Answer: the 21 Drums camp.

Mike Johnston, Ash Soan, Mark Guiliana and Keith Carlock are four of the most skilled and in-demand players to ever pick up a pair of sticks.

Johnston is one of the world’s foremost drumming educators, while Guiliana sits comfortably on top of the pile of contemporary jazz players and outside-the-box sounds, having played across the world with his own quartet and on David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar.

Soan is a powerhouse of studio session and live work, having recorded and toured with the likes of Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor, Robbie Williams and Adele and holding down the fort in the live band on The Voice UK. In a slightly similar vein, Carlock makes a living touring with some of the biggest names in music: Sting, Toto, Steely Dan and John Mayer to name just a few, as well as being firmly on his way a permanent spot in the jazzers’ hall of fame.

Every summer, 21 drummers from all walks of life and from all over the world come to the secluded gem that is Grouse Lodge residential recording studios. A windy, potholed back road leads to the turn-off for the 300-year-old lodge lived in and run by Paddy and Claire Dunning. Down the hedge-lined driveway, and just around from the back of the main house, is one of the finest studios any musician could hope for.

Michael Jackson and Will.i.am recorded the late King of Pop’s final and as-yet-unreleased works here before his death in 2009; Ellie Goulding had been in just the week before. REM, Snow Patrol, Muse, The Frames and Tom Jones have all stayed or recorded here at one time or another.

Big players

Here, the campers learn from four of their idols, up close, in detail and in the footsteps of music’s big players. But there’s much more to this camp than the drums.

Kiran Ponnaluri, an office worker from India living in the UK who was at the first camp in 2015, says it’s also a “place to learn about new cultures and different perspectives. We’re all a cocktail of influences.” It’s an eclectically mixed cocktail too.

Ben Roe from Wicklow uses a practice kit at 21 Drums camp in Grouse Lodge, Co Westmeath. Photograph: Bryan O’ Brien
Ben Roe from Wicklow uses a practice kit at 21 Drums camp in Grouse Lodge, Co Westmeath. Photograph: Bryan O’ Brien

There’s an anaesthetist who spends his day job in Geneva; Ben Roe, a musician from Co Wicklow; and Campbell Phillips, who runs his own equipment rental and entertainment company in Melbourne, Australia.

Weirdly, the key element that sets this camp apart is what happens away from the kits. It’s not a case of “Okay, it’s 5pm and my teaching is done. See you tomorrow.” The tutors don’t just teach by day, they spend time getting to know the group, becoming friends with them and, as Soan puts it, it’s about “constantly being there for the campers”.

They eat three meals a day (home-cooked to perfection by Claire Dunning) with the drummers in the immaculate diningroom, spend all day in a studio with them teaching masterclasses and practicing, and then sharing stories or just hanging out together in the evenings. It’s most certainly the only place in the world where Bowie’s drummer will pour you a pint of Guinness or where you can shoot some pool with one of Sting’s favourite band members.

Everyone wants to learn from each other. It’s not competitive. Drumming is so powerful. It connects us in such a unique way

“Socialising with everyone is wonderful. To be able to talk to them [the tutors] makes things so much easier,” says Phillips. There are plenty of amenities for hanging around, including the on-site bar and the beautiful lodge grounds that create the perfect setting for a campfire.

There’s a welcome lack of hierarchy among the group. There are no professionals in the room; just players of different skill levels. “You never identify as a professional and these guys here think the same. At the end of the day, you realise these guys are as interested and excited as we are,” says Phillips.

Contributing

Each tutor sits in on the other’s lessons, contributing at times, but mostly learning and taking part alongside the campers. As Carlock put it, “everyone wants to learn from each other. It’s not competitive. Drumming is so powerful. It connects us in such a unique way.”

“Personalities pick the instrument,” says Johnston. “That’s why I think camps for drummers work. It’s because the personalities that play the drums are willing to share information.

“The most important thing I’m trying to get across to the students here is that there’s really no talent involved. It’s just hours [of practice].”

Campers and tutors eating lunch together during the 21 Drums camp in Grouse Lodge Studios, Co Westmeath. Photograph: Glen Murphy
Campers and tutors eating lunch together during the 21 Drums camp in Grouse Lodge Studios, Co Westmeath. Photograph: Glen Murphy

With four beautiful and enticing kits sitting at the top of the room, anyone is allowed jump in and play their favourite drummer’s set-up.

It’s hard to imagine now, but this adventure could have ended before it even began.

The ball started rolling four years ago with John Paul Prior, manager of Dublin-based music shop MusicMaker, asking Johnston if he would he be interested in doing a camp in Ireland.

Johnston’s initial response was a firm “no”. He was thinking of his own camps back in Sacramento that take up 10 weeks of the year and whether one in a different country could even work in the first place. After a little convincing, Johnston was on board and the first camp took place in Grouse Lodge in the summer of 2014.

Johnston was put in charge of picking the other drummers to come along into this new, virtually uncharted territory. He immediately settled on Guiliana and, in the camp’s first year, Robert “Sput” Searight from the fusion band Snarky Puppy.

Guiliana says he doesn’t have much to compare the experience of the camp to, but says that “there’s so much inspiration coming from different elements. Especially from the attendees. I love playing the drums but I love playing with other people a whole lot more.”

I didn’t give myself any other choice. Drumming was what I was going to do. I wanted to play with great musicians making great music

After the success of year one, all parties involved were eager to repeat the event. But those plans were almost scuppered when Searight had to withdraw from the camp in 2016 with just 48 hours’ notice due to passport issues. A quick Instagram DM to a certain Englishman saved the day at the last minute.

“I got an Instagram private message from Mike, who I’d never met, and it said, ‘Do you wanna come to Ireland with me and Mark Guiliana for a week?’” Soan recalls. “And I was like ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ So I turned up here, not really going what was going to happen. And I was hooked.”

New kid

Keith Carlock was the new kid on the block for this year’s event, but that made him no less of a force to be reckoned with. Drumming has been a major part of his life for years and was a driving force of keeping his younger self centred.

“I didn’t give myself any other choice. Drumming was what I was going to do. I wanted to play with great musicians making great music. It kept me focused and stopped me getting into trouble,” he says.

Keith Carlock performing a solo at the 21 Drums clinic in Dublin’s Button Factory. Photograph: Glen Murphy
Keith Carlock performing a solo at the 21 Drums clinic in Dublin’s Button Factory. Photograph: Glen Murphy

This week-long experience doesn’t come cheap, however. It costs €2,385 per person, but the price includes transfers from Dublin to Grouse Lodge, full board in the opulent accommodation at Grouse Lodge or nearby Bishopstown House, and full access to the on-site facilities including a pool, sauna, jacuzzi and gym. Think of it as a normal holiday, except instead of sunbathing (not that you would be doing much of that in Westmeath), you’re drumming.

Topping off the week is the 21 Drums clinic in Dublin’s Button Factory. Here, the four tutors come together for a public performance, showcasing what makes them among the best artists in the world.

A packed room greets Carlock, who opens with a tempo-setting solo that Buddy Rich would be proud of. As the show goes on, there’s an obvious air of enjoyment coming from the stage as each drummer powers through their respective solos, set-pieces and Q&A session with the audience.

The clinic reaches its crescendo when all four tutors, Carlock, Guiliana, Johnston and Soan, play as one for the final performance. Four musicians come together to deliver an earth-shaking solo before it winds down to a gentle finish. The final notes ring out from Guiliana’s metal percussion plates like a xylophone, slower and slower until silence. A perfect cadence to end an unforgettable week for 21 drummers.

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