When Ash Soan turned 19, he, like the rest of us, realized that he was never going to be Vinnie Colaiuta. Yet unlike the rest of us, Ash stayed committed and forged a unique playing style that has landed him jobs with the likes of James Morrison, Billy Idol, and Adele. I was first introduced to Ash about two years ago through an Instagram video of him playing some inconceivably funky groove on his Gretsch Broadkaster kit. It sounded miraculous. Afterwards I approached my own drum set with a strong desire to play and re-think my own playing approach, and to give my drum and mic configuration a complete makeover. This right here is the reason why the mighty Ash Soan is such a tremendous ambassador for Gretsch and the drumming community at large. There is just so much inspiration in his positive energy, dynamic soundscapes, and wonderfully-flamboyant style. To watch him play is to really witness someone who is living out his dream, doing what he loves, and making his own reality. His outright command of the shuffle groove and all its variations is indisputable. This groove, combined with his immense ability to understand, record, and process That Great Gretsch Sound, is what makes Ash Soan one of the most interesting drummers of our time. I was fortunate enough to track him down despite his busy session schedule to talk drums, music, and life.
Ash Soan at Musikmesse 2018. Frankfurt, Germany.
Lucas: Has this business always been relatively easy for you, or were there years of struggle, pain, and failure before you found your career groove?
Ash: There were definitely times when it wasn’t as good as it is now. When I started I moved to London and had to do whatever I could to help pay the bills. I did pubs and clubs, a strip joint on a Sunday, weddings, etc., . . . what everyone has to do when they start out. In some respects, I miss those days.
Lucas: When you were 19 and realized that you were never going to be Vinnie, was this a disheartening feeling or did you have a sense of relief now that you could just be yourself with your own style?
Ash: Ha! Yeah, I felt like I’d been working hard on things that really weren’t me. Then when I worked on the stuff that felt more natural, that’s when the work started to flow in a natural way too.
Lucas: You mention your influences, Gadd and Porcaro, as song players who play the song but also add their own magic to the song. What would be an example of a track you recently recorded where you thought “this is a track I can put my signature Ash Soan magic into”?
Ash: I guess the last James Morrison single called “I Need You Tonight” has my signature fat snare sound and the feel is something that I gravitate towards.
Lucas: If you were to suddenly lose everything you had in terms of status, money, network, and drumming skills, what line of work would you enter?
Ash: I love history, natural history, and archaeology. One of those or all three . . .
Lucas: A lot of pro musicians who have young children talk about how difficult it is to get the work/life balance right, because the two worlds are so drastically different. To what degree have you gotten this right? What is the most challenging aspect of getting this right?
Ash: Yeah, it’s a tough one. I’m trying more and more to keep the balance right. I’m lucky to have my studio where I can work which is at my home. That helps.
Lucas: Can you talk about a time when you had a producer steering you in a direction that you knew just wasn’t going to sound good, but you went there anyway and they were happy with the result but you were not? How hard is it to speak up against bad ideas when a producer is paying you to get what he says and play it?
Ash: Well you can’t really. What they say goes to be honest. I’ve been lucky so far not to have had any major clashes. I did a session a few months back and weirdly I think the producer was intimidated by me. He behaved in an odd way but I got the job done and I think the tracks made the album so that’s all that matters.
Lucas: Pino Palladino hooked you up with the Del Amitri guys which really was the beginning of your career. How else has he influenced your life as a musician and friend?
Ash: He really is one of the greats and I’m very lucky when I started out to be able to hang with him. He lived a few doors up from my flat in London. The biggest thing I learned was that we play music and that covers anything that you like. It’s very easy to just play one style of music. Pino plays everything and he gave me the green light to play all the styles I like and not to be worried about liking the Beatles, Stan Getz, Joni, and AC/DC, for instance, equally, if that makes sense . . . I like them all for different reasons and I can play in those styles as a result of feeling open about all music. Pino does that with The Who and D’Angelo and I feel I can play on Jeff Lorber’s album and also Billy Idol’s and be valid on both.
Lucas: Well you are certainly celebrated as a drummer who has played on widely-diverse albums all the way from Jeff Lorber to Billy Idol to the Kung Fu Panda 3 soundtrack. As you grow older and more successful would you like to continue playing with such widely-diverse artists over the decades to come, or would you rather focus more on working with artists who are right in your wheelhouse like James Morrison with his soulful, pop rocky organic sound?
Ash: I would definitely prefer to play as many styles as I can for as long as I can.
Lucas: I heard you mention once that the actual job of playing the drums has been the exact same for decades. Yet everything that is going on around the drummer is changing like a whirlwind. What did you mean by this?
Ash: Trevor Horn once said to me that the drums are just biff baff, and that it’s just the way the biff and baff are presented. We do the same job as the guys were doing in the 60s but the sounds and feels are changing all the time. So, essentially, we need to keep the time and make it feel good.
Lucas: Why do you play Gretsch drums?
Ash: They are the best drums to represent where I’m at as a musician. The Broadkaster kit is the sound for me . . . a modern vintage sound. I don’t have any other kits. Just three Broadkasters.
Lucas: What projects are you working on for the remainder of 2018?
Ash: I have an album to do in Italy (Milan) with an artist named Eros Ramazzotti, then when I get back, an album with James Morrison. I’ve just played some bongos on the new Mission Impossible film which is out soon. I missed out on the kit session sadly as I was working on The Voice TV show. Some clinics later in the year and more sessions in my studio at home!
— Lucas von Gretsch
(Gretsch Generation 5)