“Drummers,” Deirdre O’Callaghan writes in the foreword of her new book, “are underrated and underappreciated.” And yet from the back of the band, they drive the rhythm and keep the whole thing together. Deirdre was fascinated by this apparent contradiction and this fascination grew into her super-impressive new book, The Drum Thing, for which the Irish photographer shot 98 world-class drummers.
From Tony Allen, Travis Barker and Dave Grohl to Cindy Blackman, Ringo Starr, Lars Ulrich and Jack White, the book captures these musicians in their homes and studios, lost in music (as you’d expect) but also away from their kits. This combination – of the intense moments of them playing and the intimacy of them just hanging out – elevates the book into something very special.
Like many brainwaves, the idea first came to Deirdre over dinner with friends (one of whom was Jim Sclavunos, who drums with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). Initially Deirdre, who was part of the original team at Dazed, envisaged it as a magazine feature, but as she started shooting the scope and ambition of her project expanded.
“I couldn’t stop,” she explains. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh I’ll shoot another two,’ and it went from there. It was turning into a very big magazine feature, and as it went on I realised it was going to be a book.”
Along the way, the nature of the series changed too. Originally the book was to focus on the drummers as drummers, shot at their kits. “I was concentrating on their set-up and style of playing, but I realised there were only so many ways you can make that interesting.
“When you start a project, you have a really clear vision for how you want to do it. But as you start executing that, you’ve got to be open to other ways of making it interesting. It’s about finding stuff you haven’t shot before, or looking for a completely different way to shoot something you have shot before.”
She decided to shoot the drummers in environments they were comfortable in, and focus on these settings as well as their musical talents (most memorably this led to pictures of Greg Fox’s parrots). As the project evolved, Deirdre also started interviewing everyone she photographed as well, using these written insights to complete the fullest possible “portrait” of her subjects.
“The type of personality who chooses to be a drummer really grabs me,” she says. “You’re the first person to get there to set up, and the last person to leave. It’s not an easy thing to be transporting around when you are starting out, so there’s a huge dedication to an instrument like that.
“They sit at the back but drive the music. When you meet someone who is really introverted and shy – and then you see them on stage and they just go nuts – I find that really interesting. You transcend yourself when you are playing.”
That desire to capture the drummers in full flow actually posed a creative challenge. On stage they are used to letting go in that way, but it’s strange to recreate that in the more artificial setting of a photoshoot.
“I obviously wanted to shoot them in their zone, but we had lights set up everywhere, and me and my assistant were there, so I needed to make them forget all that and just get into playing,” Deirdre says. “That’s my job, but I could feel them adjusting to that.”
Another challenge came in whittling down thousands of photos into a coherent series for the book. Along with designers at Big Active, Deirdre spent hours poring over the images she had collected on her hard drives.
“There were so many stages of editing,” she laughs. “What you really loved at the time of the shoot changed by the time we came to do the final edit of the book.”
One of the breakthroughs was to use big quotations in block capitals to break up the rhythm (sorry) of the book. “The idea was that they were like the crash of a cymbal,” Deirdre explains.
She also spent hours transcribing the interviews she’d recorded and did every one herself, whether on planes or during a memorable trip back home to Ireland, where she was able to immerse herself in the transcriptions. Interestingly she found this humdrum task actually became very evocative.
“It was so moving,” she says. “Sometimes you’re so wrapped in the bigger picture, working with the designers and editing the text, you have to remind yourself – wow, I have had so many incredible moments throughout this project and it’s such a privilege to have been in these people’s homes.”
She certainly succeeded in capturing drummers, and drumming in a new light. And in doing so The Drum Thing reminds us of the primal reaction we have to the sound of drums. As Dave Grohl tells Deirdre in his interview, “Ultimately the reason people are shaking their asses is you: it’s not the lyrics, it’s your backbeat.”