Mike Ellis is, in my opinion, the leading authority on Premier drums post 1950. I thought it’d be fun to throw some questions at him regarding how he got into drumming and how his passion has led him to forming Blenheim Drums in 2012. Here goes….
Mike, at what age did you start drumming? What was the first kit/drum you were given.
I was bashing away on pots, pans and toy drums when I was 6, my first kit arrived 2 years later. It was a mix of brands, a pre-war brass shelled Ajax snare drum, a pre-international transition 12×8” Premier rack tom, a 50s pre-international Beverley floor tom and a 60s Olympic marching bass drum. 16” Ajax cymbal and 12” Krut hi hats.
What were your early drumming days like?
I was self taught simply because there weren’t many drum teachers around, certainly no one at school although I did have timpani lessons when I was 11 and did a few school concerts. By the time I was 13, I had learned enough from watching drummers on Top of the Pops to join a local covers band and I was gigging regularly around Manchester instead of concentrating on my ‘O’ levels! At the time, a couple of mates had morning paper rounds and they earned the princely sum of £1.32 a week for their efforts, while I was getting £25 a night 4 nights a week! Martin France lived a few doors down from me and we used to hang out, talk drums, travel into Manchester and loiter about the many drum shops, occasionally we’d set up both our kits in my garage and trade off stuff. He’s an amazingly accomplished player even then and I learned a lot from him.
What was the first kit you bought with your own money and why did you buy it? Where is it now?
I used my first kit until I was 16, I added a 14” Premier tom, got an international sized B&H Edgware floor tom and fitted Swivomatic tom holders and it served me well. Just before I joined Aragorn, I saved up and bought a Ludwig Super Classic (13/16/22) from the drummer of my Dad’s big band and a early model alu shell Premier 2000 snare, I used that kit on the ‘Black Ice’ single. I sold it a year later to Tony Mann Drums in Manchester as I got a endorsement deal with Viking Drums of Jarrow because the band wanted me to have a more appropriate (and much bigger!) kit. The clincher was when my little Super Classic was dwarfed on stage by Nicko McBrain’s monster Sonor kit! He thought it was great and said I should keep it, but I needed the money to buy some more Paiste 2002s!
Tell us about some of the bands you’ve been in, studio sessions you’ve done, dep gigs etc. Favourite moments / memorable gigs / fave tracks you’ve played on that capture ‘you’ / people you’ve played with that you’ve really clicked with?
I started out in a band with a mate who played piano, we mucked about, wrote a bunch of silly songs but I soon moved onto a local covers band. That lasted about a year then I was recruited by a guy called Arthur Kadmon who went on to work with Mark E Smith and The Fall, we rehearsed an album’s worth of material, got signed to 2-Tone (we had one “ski” song!) and were dropped, all in about a week!
Just after Arthur I joined Aragorn and getting signed to Neat Records meant I left school and went headlong into recording and gigging, we opened for a lot of the NWOBHM bands of the day including Iron Maiden, Saxon, Angelwitch, Spider and loads of others. We recorded two singles and an album, but Neat dropped us as Venom were their big signing, we couldn’t place the album with any other label and the band split. I went into sessions then; I recorded for loads of artists including some name bands that I signed bits of paper saying I keep schtum about it!
I spent a few years touring and sessioning in Europe, mostly Germany and returned to the UK to potter about in production and more sessions. I took a long break from music but returned to full time playing in the late 90s, again, lots of sessions and gigs for lots of artists and bands, the most significant being Meggido from 2001 to 2005 and then Avoidance of Doubt from 2005 to 2009. I had another playing break until 2011 then recorded an album with Deezil and I joined Derecho in 2012, the second album is due later this year.
The memorable stuff is really from my early days with Aragorn, opening for Iron Maiden when Clive Burr was still in the band, playing a packed football stadium in Turkey, recording at Britannia Row, lots of stuff.
What about other drummers. Who did you listen to growing up? Who influenced your style the most?
The drummers in my Dad’s big band were important in the early days, other than that pretty much anyone on TV or whoever was playing on the records in the house. I listened to, and tried to copy everything. The biggest influences were Cozy Powell, Ian Paice and Keith Forsey.
And now, who are your top three drummers. Not based on technical merit, but you’re personal 3 favourites?
I never get tired of listening to Simon Phillips play and Buddy too, I really like their natural, fluid styles. And I’m going to have to say Gavin Harrison, having teched for him and seen him playing up close – an amazing player, technical but with consummate feel.
Right, let’s talk drums…
You’re held in high regard by vintage drum enthusiasts and collectors, cited by many as the leading authority on English vintage drums post 1950. Your knowledge and passion for Premier drums specifically is second to none. Tell us how that interest started.
Because I started playing when I did, British drums were pretty much the only choice, US drums were too expensive, Japanese drums hadn’t really arrived yet so there were tons of old Premiers, Olympics, Edgwares, Carltons and Haymans knocking around drum shops and junk stores. Being of limited means in the early days, I quickly taught myself how to buy a knackered drum and get it play worthy. I was the same with toys and anything I could take apart. I’d dismantle it, satisfy myself how it worked and then leave it for someone else to put back together. But taking a drum apart, repairing and rebuilding it was something I pretty much did from day 1.
So when did that develop into reciting part numbers in your sleep and moving into restoring drums, building drums, sourcing parts for others?
Like many other ‘drummers of a certain age’, as a lad, for hours I’d pore over the brochures for all the drum companies who’d send me a catalogue and I was always more fascinated by the hardware sections and the permutations of accessories. It was my Meccano! Premier drums were the most widely available and drum shops always had a new pricelist, newsletter or flyer almost weekly and they were taken home, studied, memorized and filed.
I was talking to someone the other day about what it was like sniffing out vintage drum lovelies pre- internet. Was it more of a buzz? Has eBay killed it a bit? Any memorable ‘car boot’ or ‘garage’ finds?
I really don’ think so, if anything it’s made life easier to find elusive parts, prior to eBay, the only real choices were local papers and 2nd hand stores. Having said that, I miss the old style ‘proper’ drum stores with acres of old kits and parts. They’ve all gone now, there’s a few new ones popping up again now but the long established stores with 40 year ‘new old stock’ in the basement are long gone, sadly.
About 15 years ago, I was doing a session at a north London studio that had been in business for years. The new owner was having a clear out and when I mentioned I was into old drums he pointed me to a store room which had a number of dusty old drum cases in it. He said I could have them and the contents for £40, I peeked into one and saw a 14×8 Premier tom and handed over the money. When I got it all home I had bagged a load of Lokfast and Rogers stands, a full Premier kit, some Carlton snare drums and a Ludwig keystone acrolite amongst many other odds and sods.
You owned/ran DM drums for a few years, and then worked at Baskey, tell us about that.
DM was started primarily to be a custom drum company, there weren’t so many UK drum builders around at the time and I wanted to make new old style drums but it ended up dealing more or less only with Premier drums and reproductions. I did a few Ludwig and Slingerland repros as well as bespoke kits. For various reasons, I closed DM after 5 years and shortly thereafter was invited to join the team at Baskey to develop products and marketing. During this time, my playing was on hold by and large and early in 2012, after I had a spell in hospital, we parted company.
You’ve recently gone solo and launched Blenheim drums. Tell us about your new venture, aims, future plans.
Blenheim Drums is a small part of my activities these days, specializing in Premier components, spare parts and repair – restorations rather than drums and kits. It’s not just finding and supplying bits but also making conversions with hardware to suit client’s specific needs, Premier is great for this as virtually all the old stuff is interchangeable and ‘inventing’ new holders just takes a little imagination!
I’m noticing a trend back to vintage drums for younger players. Vintage Premiers, Beverleys and Haymans popping up on TV alongside the more famous American brands recently, whereas until fairly recently it was all modern kit endorsements. On a limited budget, in your opinion, what would be a great entry level vintage kit?
When it’s a balance between budget and quality, Olympic drums from 1976 to 1980 and then Premier Club kits from 1980 to 83 are the best choice. The prices are still quite low, even for good condition examples and you are getting the equivalent of a good higher mid range modern kit. The Olympic and Club kits used the same shells as the upmarket Premier kits, they had steel hoops instead of die cast and smaller lugs – which many drummers prefer. From 1976, the Olympics shared the same spurs, tom holders, legs, and lugs etc as the Premier Elite and Soundwave ranges and were wrongly perceived as being “cheap”. One of those with some modern stands and you’ve got a kit as good, if not better than many new kits costing hundreds.
And with that your teching knowledge what advice would you give on getting it to sound great?
A decent set of heads is half the battle, since they have the old style re-ring shells with round bearing edges, Remo coated ambassadors or Evans coated G1 heads will get the best of the toms and something an Aquarian Superkick on the bass drum. Check all the bearing edges for dings, cracks or unevenness, someone like Gareth at Highwood Drums will do a top quality and sympathetic recut – if he has time!
I mentioned teching; you’re the ‘go to guy’ for many ‘names’ when it comes to drum teching (Mike Dolbear/Craig Blundell/ Gavin Harrison to name a few). Tell us about some of that work, how it came about, and some memorable / favourite moments.
Well, I started teching when I was about 12! I’d pack down the drummer’s kit in my Dad’s band, earned the princely sum of 50p a night! I did a bit for bands my sister was sound engineer for too but when Aragorn took off; I had to concentrate on my own drumming! I didn’t really do any teching until 6 years ago when Mike Dolbear asked me to do the Thomas Lang UK tour and since then it’s been a big part of my working life. One moment that sticks in my mind was the first date of the Gavin Harrison/O5ric and Tony Levin Stickmen UK tour last year, we were in Manchester and I’d just had a state of the art security lock fitted to the tour bus back doors. They told me “no-one would get past it”. What I didn’t realize, it included me! Even with a key, the lock would not open and we were stuck in the rain, outside the venue with both band’s gear firmly locked inside the bus. A locksmith came and took about 90 minutes breaking into the lock and left me a couple of hundred pounds lighter.
Most memorable was teching for Mitch Mitchell and doing Mick Taylor’s Blues Festival at the Royal Festival Hall. At the rehearsals, I’d set up Mitch’s kit, tuned it, selected some cymbals from about 3 box full that Zildjian had sent, Mitch came in, rattled round the kit, didn’t adjust anything and just said; “Lovely”. He had me up on the kit so he could hear it from out front, no big deal apart from the fact we had Mick, Terry Reid, Max Middleton, Jeff Beck and various other rock gods looking on. I stumbled round the kit for a few minutes; a small ripple was forthcoming when I finished and Mitch came over and said to me; “Not a bad drummer aren’t you?” Great praise which I treasure. When the gig was over and we were all leaving, Mick came over to me and said he thought I should be playing not teching. He gave me a big hug saying “You should play, you’re a great drummer!” Who am I to argue?
All the guys I have teched for have been great fun, Aaron Spears especially is a funny bloke, and you’re never far from a laugh with that guy. Jojo Mayer’s magic tricks had us all flummoxed, great fun to have a night or two out with him.
Right, some quick questions…
fave kit sizes?
13×9”, 16×16”, 18x 16”, 24×14” and 14×6” snare.
Snare drum – metal or wood?
Your house is on fire, you can grab one snare drum – which one?
My Highwood HH 14×6”. And my Premier HR9. And my Premier 2003. And…. Oh all of them!
Favourite Premier kit?
The kit I’m using with Derecho now, 15×12 instead of a 13×9”, but sizes as above, in red sparkle lacquer by Scary Designs, all custom built from the ground up by me!
The Holy grail in your opinion? The drum that has eluded you so far, or have you finally sourced it?
To be honest, I have everything I want; anything more would just be greedy!
Phone rings, you’ve got ½ hour to throw a kit in the car and do a dep gig.. What’s your ‘go to’ kit?
Probably my Eddie Ryan WMP kit in 13×9”, 16×16” and 22×16” with matching snare. Lovely kit that musicians really like the sound of.
Best story you’ve heard/read about yourself?
I’ve had some rather libelous things said about me in my time, but early in my career Kerrang said I played the drums with all the finesse of a nuclear warhead. I’m not convinced it was a compliment.
Doughnut or pot noodle?
Oooooh….. Pot Noodle.
Your dream gig?
I was talking about this at this year’s Young Drummer of the Year, my mate Tim Brown was there and last year he toured with Don Airey from Deep Purple and I caught up with them at The Cambridge Rock Festival. I was really chuffed for him for getting the gig but deep down inside I was green with envy! He now knows this! He’s cool though, I lent him my Paiste 2oo2 20” power ride for the album he recorded with Persian Risk last year, if I can lend him more and more gear, eventually it’ll make sense for me to be the drummer!
And finally, what every vintage drum enthusiast want to know… what’s your favourite type and flavour of crisps?
Golden Wonder cheese and onion, in a GREEN packet!
Thanks for your time Mike!
If you want to see some more of Mike’s kits, or are in need of some spares, restoration or even advice, click on the links below.