As fans of the band well know, Strawbs has consisted of multiple line-ups over the years since the formation of the original Strawberry Hill Boys. Countless different genre labels have become attached and later discarded along the way (none of which quite seem to fit) and the band's dynamism can partly be attributed to the comings and goings of more excellent musicians than you can shake a stick at. Three different drummers have occupied the drum seat over the years, and the man with the sticks is currently Tony Fernandez, who will shortly be joining the band for a Candian tour followed by a UK tour in November. Tony took over from Rod Coombes (who had previously taken over from Richard Hudson) for recording and touring of the band's "Deadlines" album (released on Arista in 1978) and the subsequent "Heartbreak Hill" album, which didn't make it to CD until 1995 for various reasons. (A far superior form of the album was released in 2006 by Witchwood Media.)
With Tony now back in the Strawbs' fold it seems an appropriate time to find out more about him. Due to logistics (Tony is based on the sunny Portuguese Algarve and I sadly am not) I confess that this is more of a Q & A session than an interview. I confess further that Tony did all the hard work! Thanks to Tony, and also to members of the Witchwood discussion group for supplying a long list of questions, which Tony admirably worked his way through.
How did you first get into drumming, and do you play any other instruments?
TF: My first interest in drumming began when my elder brother's skiffle-type band used to rehearse at our house when I was just a kid. I used to sit there and watch and listen for seemingly hours on end! During the sixties I discovered rock music and would sit at home with a pair of drumsticks thrashing away on the arms of my Mum's settee, or on an old pile of telephone directories. I finally got a complete drum kit at age 17 and had a few lessons. I did not enjoy these as the teacher said I should not play left-handed, but should start all over again learning right handed!! I was not prepared to do this so off I went and carried on learning by myself from tutor books. I went on to college and met a few other musically inclined people and we formed a band. We were not too bad and managed to get ourselves some gigs in various London clubs............and so it all started. As for other instruments......I really love the piano and dabbled at it, but never got to any proficient standard.
Do you consider any particular style of music to be your main influence? What do you choose to listen to?
TF: Rock music was my first and the most enduring influence. I was introduced to the Blues at an early age also, and loved it, but Rock always had the edge for me. I used to go and see bands all the time as a teenager in London venues such as The Marquee, Klooks Kleek, The Country Club, The 100 Club and Middle Earth. The late sixties was a fantastic time to grow up in the city - there was music everywhere and I was fortunate enough to be there in the middle of it all.
One of my major musical influences first struck me on a Sunday night at the Saville Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. They used to have regular "Sunday Night at the Saville" shows and I went there with a friend to see The Who. The venue always had at least two support acts as well, and on this particular night the first band were Doctor K's Blues Band who were good - but then on came Vanilla Fudge! I was transfixed in my seat and completely blown away with the power and innovation of this band!! I had never seen or heard anything like it and loved every single moment of their show. The Who came on after this, but failed to instill anything like the same feeling in me and I was on my way out of the door to see if I could buy anything and everything that the Fudge had recorded! I bought their album and played it to death, bought it again and then bought anything else that they ever made and also went to see them every time they came back to England. Carmine Appice was a huge influence on me as a drummer and remains one of my favourites to this day. Looking back I suppose this is what spawned my love of "Prog Rock" as it is now called, and led to me enjoying playing Rick's music so much.
I still love music that is a bit "out there" so to speak. Avenged Sevenfold are one of my more recent favourites, and the drummer from that band ("The Rev") who tragically died at age 27 some months back was phenomenal. Other bands that I like are Muse, Foo Fighters, 30 Seconds to Mars, Queens of the Stone Age and Audioslave. I still like to listen to some old stuff as well and often have Planet Rock on the radio when I am at home for a bit of music nostalgia!
Who are your favourite drummers, and what style or techniques from other drummers have influenced your playing over the years?
TF: I have many favourite drummers and have already mentioned two, Carmine Appice and The Rev. From my early years I loved Buddy Rich and listened to people like Gene Krupa and Louis Bellson (the first drummer ever to use double bass drums!). Buddy Rich was just fantastic though......a complete drumming genius! I had the great pleasure of meeting him and shaking his hand on two occasions!
The drummers that influenced me most though are the drummers that play "from the hip", such as Carmine Appice and John Bonham. Powerful but clever rock drummers. I love Vinnie Coialutas' playing and Phil Collins' work is always impressive. I could list many more as there are several that I admire.
I feel that drumming has moved on in a big way in the last two or three decades. It has become a study much more than it was in the early rock years. The new generation of drummers play some fantastic things using double pedals and advanced techniques which did not exist when I started playing.............or if they did I had not heard of them! I love to see the next generation taking the art form further onwards and upwards!
You work with several artists, including Rick Wakeman's English Rock Ensemble, Ruthless Blues, and are shortly to embark on tours of Canada and the UK with Strawbs - do you find it difficult to adjust your style accordingly?
TF: Well, all three types of music are very, very different and need a different approach from the drummer's point of view - but the basic requirements always remain the same - timekeeping, dynamics and a sympathetic ear to what the music requires. Rick's music is the most complicated of the three, involving many different time signatures and sometimes complex arrangements. It can be challenging but is most enjoyable to play once you have got your head around it!
Ruthless Blues' music needs a straightforward, simplistic, powerful approach.....a "heads down and see you at the end of the number" attitude! Not too much space for fancy stuff in there!! Great fun to play and you do get a good sweat on!
Strawbs' songs generally are powerful pieces of writing (musically and lyrically) and stand up for themselves when played acoustically. It is often the case that "less is more" when it comes to the drum part. I try to imagine the song (or piece) as a whole and construct the drum part accordingly to rise and fall with the arrangement. I have always gained great enjoyment from playing Strawbs' music and am looking forward to the run of shows we have in Canada and the UK immensely.
Playing different styles of music is something you have to get used to and does not cause me a problem..............just don't put me in a jazz band!
How did you come to join Strawbs? Were you aware of their music prior to joining? Do you have a favourite Strawbs song? How does it feel to be touring with them again after 30-odd years? Is it difficult to get back into the swing of it all?
TF: When you have enjoyed doing something as much as I enjoyed working with The Strawbs, then going back to it is as easy as falling off a log! Sure, you have to jog the memory banks in a big way to take you back the years and get the "muscle memory" going behind the kit to remember how you played things, but it all comes back with a bit of perseverance!
I joined Strawbs in 1976 to the best of my memory. Dave Cousins and Chas came down to the Rock Garden in Covent Garden to see me working with another band, and at the end of the night asked me to go and meet with them later at the Speakeasy Club, which I did. We proceeded to get very drunk until 3 am or so and they then asked that I come to Twickenham the very next morning to discuss future possibilities. So it was that with a very sore head (and probably still too drunk to drive!) I weaved my way across London to Chas's house where we sat and chatted for a while and came up with a plan for me to rehearse with the band by way of an audition some weeks later. We then retired to the local and had a few beers! The rest - as they say - is history. The rehearsals went well and I joined the band.
I had of course heard of Strawbs through the years and also knew a bit about them through the Rick connection. Hud was a near neighbour of mine for some time when I used to live in North Finchley - I used to bump into him in the local park while I was walking my dog and he was on his daily run! We played squash together and would share a pint or two in the pub.
As I mentioned before I am really looking forward to these upcoming shows and the intervening years make no difference to me....I can't wait to get started!
Favourite songs?? There are many, but "The Hangman and the Papist" has always been a strong favourite as has "New World" ............and of the newer material the "Heartbreak Hill" track is great!
Do you have any particular memories of your time on tour with Strawbs in the 1970s that you'd like to share?
TF: Now this question could take days to answer............there are so many tales that I could relate! It seems strange to me that the majority of my recollections are from the recording projects rather than the tours. I suppose this is because we spent much time on recording and usually would use a "live in" studio such as Startling Studios or base ourselves somewhere as we did for the Deadlines album, when we moved to Dublin! The tours were usually short affairs.
Our time at Startling, while making the Heartbreak Hill album, was great fun. We worked hard and played hard. We decided the band needed to get fit so we arranged that each morning we would have a communal run around the huge grounds surrounding the studio. I seem to remember that this lasted about one day, as one or other of us would wake up with a terrible hangover and be unable to make the "roll call"! I remember Dave C. going out for his run and getting back even before the kettle had boiled for morning tea! We would spend many evenings at the local pub and stay for the ritual "lock in". It was after one of these that we returned to the studio at about 1am and some bright spark said "let's go into the studio and try to put down that piece we were having a problem with today". So we found our way into the recording room and I stumbled around to get behind behind the drum kit, and we recorded the middle section of "Starting Over". Amazingly it worked! The result is there to be listened to on the album, as played by a drunken band!!
Robert Kirby's death was a very sad loss - do you remember much about working with him in the Deadlines era?
TF: Robert was a great personality and an excellent musician. I used to get on famously with him and we became good friends during the Deadlines period. I have a wonderful memory of an evening in Dublin when he and I had finished at the studio and decided to walk home to the hotel at Balls Bridge. The walk became a pub crawl hitting every bar on Baggot Street and beyond! We arrived many hours later at the bar in the hotel and joined the rest of the band, where Robert was challenged to a drinking competition by a drunken Irishman. No Contest! The poor chap was found the next day laying where he fell................Robert had literally drunk him under the table.
After Strawbs' 40th anniversary concert at Twickenham last year I sat and had breakfast with Robert on the Monday morning, before we all went our separate ways. We parted company having exchanged contact details, with the promise of staying in touch. The tragic news of his death came as a total shock. He will be sadly missed. A lovely man.
Following Strawbs' 30-year reunion concert in the grounds of Chiswick House in 1998 you were spotted in the backstage area. I believe you weren't able to play because there was no time to set up the drum kit "left-handedly" for you - were you disappointed not to be able to play that night?
TF: Of course I would have liked to have played at the event, but circumstances dictated otherwise. If I had been asked then I would have brought my own kit and set it up myself just to have been there! But I did get up on stage and make my singing debut as backing vocalist during the encore!!!
What do you recall about the two Strawbs gigs when Roy Hill took over from Dave Cousins to fulfill contractual obligations?
TF: I do not remember much about the gigs but I do remember that I was not convinced we were doing the right thing. I think the least said about all of that the better!
Strawbs have you taking over the drums on the forthcoming tours, and also John Young taking over on keyboards - have you ever worked with John before?
TF: I have never met John Young before and I only know a limited amount about his background. It seems strange that our paths have never crossed. From what I hear he is a talented musician and very good MD. I look forward to meeting and working with him!
Your association with Rick Wakeman also goes back a very long way - how did that first come about?
TF: I had been touring in America with a band called "Ross" and the keyboard player was a chap called Frank Wilson. We came back from the States and that particular band folded up. Frank was good friends with the guys from Rick's band and knew they were looking for a new drummer. He recomended me for the job and I went along for a meeting, not feeling sure that this was the right gig for me. Having met the band and then Rick I decided that I was very interested and went off to prepare for the upcoming audition. At the audition it was obvious that I had done my homework and learnt the material well as I breezed through most of it, so Rick decided to throw me in the deep end. "We will do Anne Boleyn!" he said............a complex piece from the Six Wives album that I had not even listened to!! Somehow I managed a valiant attempt at getting though it and after the audition I was offered the job immediately. That was in 1975 and the relationship is still ongoing. In between times Rick has gone off to rejoin YES and do all sorts of other projects, as have I, but whenever "Rick Wakemans English Rock Ensemble" were required I would always get the call. We have become best of friends over the years and been through thick and thin together. He was best man at my first marriage and I was best man at his third...........but who's counting? We have toured all over the world through the years and done countless recording projects.....................and there may still be more to come!
What was it like to play sitting perched high onstage at Rick's Hampton Court spectaculars last year (which were incidentally opened by Strawbs in their "acoustic" three piece line-up)?
TF: Hampton Court was one of the great spectaculars for which Rick is renowned. A hugely costly event that most people in their right minds would shy away from...............but not Rick......you are talking about the man who did "King Arthur on Ice" at Wembley and floated giant dinasours around the lake at Crystal Palace!! It was a fabulous event and the backdrop of Hampton Court Palace, with the light show and the staging, was truly fantastic. It is always very special to be involved in something like that and this was no exception! We had a great band and I got the chance to work with Ray Cooper for the first time - someone who I have always admired as a musician.
...and how was it to play Cropredy Festival this year with Rick? How was the weather?
TF: It rained...............and it rained.....................and it rained! The crowd were not bothered by it and they were all geared up for the weather as if it was the most natural thing! There were 20,000 plus people in attendance at this year's festival, and the organisation was superb. I would have thought Rick's music was a bit of a divergence for the Cropredy faithful but they gave us a great reception and were shouting for more at the end of our set, even while the MC was announcing the next act!
(CLIP FROM CROPREDY WITH TONY DRUMMING FOR RICK, 2010)
The previously-mentioned Roy Hill said some rather outrageous things about you during Strawbs' 40th Anniversary weekend at Twickenham Rugby Ground last year – could the feeling be mutual?
TF: My good friend Roy! Oh - how we all love him!! I was in the audience listening to every word that he said and was howling with laughter. I went looking for him after the show to try and show him a novel trick with my drumstool minus the seat cushion but "Elvis had left the building"!!!
The feeling will always be mutual until he gets a round in!!!
You now enjoy the good life on the Algarve in Portugal - when did you move over there? Do you play at all locally?
TF: Jackie and I moved to Portugal in 2002. It was a lifestlye decision and many people thought us brave or foolish, or both! We sold up everything and took the plunge without knowing for sure what we were going to do here. Fortunately things have worked out well for us and our Holiday Rental and Property Management business, which we started, is doing well. I still find the time to continue with music, working with Rick when he has things to do and playing gigs with Ruthless Blues every now and again................. and now Strawbs!
Music in the Algarve is a bit of a no-no unless you want to play in a local bar to a bunch of drunken tourists for 50 euros! Not my preference, so my playing here is limited to a bit of teaching and sitting in my drum room thrashing away at the practise kit!
Any ambitions, musical or otherwise?
TF: Ambitions? Hmmmm! None really, except to stay healthy and happy and play music for as long as my arms and legs will allow! That is probably ambition enough!!
I was just about to thank Tony for being so helpful in satisfying our collective curiosity when the aforementioned Mr. Roy Hill posed two more deep and insightful questions for Tony:
How does Tony feel about making my life a living hell when he was in the Roy Hill Band?
TF: He should have asked the band about THEM being in a living hell!
Has Tony ever calculated how many drinks he forced me to buy him?
TF: NONE. (nb - refer to earlier question re Strawbs' 40th Anniversary weekend!)
And on that errr loving note I left Tony in peace to carry on packing in readiness for rehearsals and Strawbs' run of Canadian dates, followed by a lengthy UK tour in November.