Date and place of birth: 24 April 1951, Wembley, London, UK.
Drumming has taken Keith Hall to many stages around the world.
SITTING with Keith Hall is an exercise in keeping up with the multitude of jokes and anecdotes filling the air. A drummer since he was nine years old, London-born Hall enjoyed success early on in his career with the popular group Pickettywitch in the early ‘70s. Going on to join one the most famous outfits of all time, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Hall was soon touring the globe once again. Following his time with the band, Hall went on to work with an impressive number of internationally known musicians over the years including a stint in Terry Lightfoot´s Jazz Band continuing an illustrious line of previous drummers that includes Ginger Baker.
In time, his musical interests brought him here to Finland where he eventually settled in 1990. A member of the Antti Sarpila Swing Band for 20 years, he has worked with some of the biggest names in music here, has hosted his own radio programme Playback and has appeared many times on Finnish television.
SixDegrees caught up with Hall one afternoon in a downtown Helsinki pub to hear more about his life and career, and learn just what to say when chatting with Tarja Halonen.
So, what is your best drummer joke?
What’s the last thing a drummer says in a band? ‘Hey, what about we try one of my songs?’
How did you start playing music?
When I was nine years old I built a drum kit. I had a tea chest as a bass drum; I bought a second-hand pedal. I didn’t have a high-hat. The cymbal was the end of a water heater; it sounded crap, but I developed strong wrists. That’s how it started. I had no plans to do this as a career. I was reasonably good at art, and was interested in theatre, lighting and set design. My art teacher suggested doing that as a career, and mapped out a plan. But in my heart I didn’t think I was that good.
Anyway, when I was 15-and-a-half the band I was playing with were offered to turn professional. They were all much older than I was. They were 18 and I was 11 when I started playing with them. It was very difficult to get out of a grammar school then; you were supposed to be in school until you were 18 and then go to university. I had to get special permission to leave. The band lasted a couple of months but I had a taste of it; I had been in a recording studio and realised I loved it and this is what I want to do. I started auditioning for other bands. I played with Ian Gillan in a band called Episode Six before he formed Deep Purple. I auditioned for his band and almost got the job but I was too young. They were off to the Middle East to do a gig and I needed to be 18 and I was 15-and-a-half. I often wonder if I would have gotten [Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice’s] gig if I had stayed with them.
While I continued to audition and realised that I was getting very favourable reports from my playing when doing them. One leading London jazz drummer said that, ‘You are a great player, but you are so young’. I could see my age becoming an obstacle. I didn’t know what to do. I kept on auditioning, and kept on playing when I had the chance.
The organ player of my next band was South African, when the band folded he was going back to South Africa and mentioned that he had a contract in a hotel as a duo with drums and Hammond organ, and was I interested. Well, I had to ask my parents first as I was just 16.
How did they react to all of this?
They were fantastic really; cautious but very supportive. My father agreed to pay my passage out there on the condition that I paid for my passage home. I thought that I would use this time down there to practice, get more life experience and that I would be a little bit older when I came back. Getting a work permit to work abroad because I was so young was beginning to be a problem. I was going to go for three months as a student but I ended up staying for a year. I got to study hard every day to get my technique together and got to work with some great people. It was the height of the dreadful apartheid era, so it was a cultural shock to run into separate bridges, benches, taxis and restaurants for the blacks. It was awful; it was like stepping into the American south during the times of slavery.
I managed to work with some of the great South African musicians. The club I was working in Cape Town was called ‘Spurs’ and was run by gangsters. Tooled up guys. I was like their mascot, this little guy. They loved me and I loved them. They really looked after me. They had another club that they paid the cops off where they had black musicians playing, Japanese, Chinese all kinds of people in the club. It was a huge cellar called The Catacombs. A fantastic place.
How do you absorb all of this as such a young bloke?
I went out there as a schoolboy and came back a man. I started smoking out there which was another thing, learning how to drink a bit and a few Durban Poisons. I learned how to do all of that shit, but I realised very quickly that thank God I couldn’t play anything when intoxicated. What you thought was great when you recorded it, when I heard it back I realised it was not for me. I managed to keep well away from the hard stuff, which has ruined so many musician’s careers.
It was a very exciting time. Incredibly long hours but it was fabulous. I never thought then or even nowadays, ‘Oh shit I have to go to work’. I mean, I have worked very hard to improve and I’m still learning. I’m the eternal student. Nobody knows everything in this world. Even the best drummers in the world are pretty humble guys. There’s always some unknown guy in some little village somewhere who’s doing something amazing rhythmically, and you are like, ‘What the hell was that?!’.
It is a question of variety. For me, playing lots of different kinds of music has been a huge bonus. I’ve never said that I’m just a rock drummer, or a jazz drummer or anything. I’ve done theatre work, I’ve worked in London’s West End and I’ve done a lot of studio work. I’ve played with a classical orchestra. All of these experiences are extra tools that you put in your toolkit and bring them out when you want to use them. It’s very handy, a musical palette if you will. It’s like if a painter had only one brush, he’d do a pretty good job; if he was Michelangelo he would do a great job! But if he had a few more brushes he’d have more variety of strokes, more colours and so on. That’s how I look at it. A lot of jazz musicians don’t get it; they say I played in a rock band. To me I don’t see any harm in that – it’s all music, why specialise in only one thing. I don’t get it. If it’s well played, it’s great. In fact many of today’s leading jazz drummers started out playing rock.
Are you comfortable getting up on stage?
Absolutely. I am more comfortable getting up on stage than I am sitting here talking to you. It’s my home, the office. I’ve been lucky enough to perform at Wembley Arena and Madison Square Garden in addition to thousands of clubs, concert halls and theatres. Those legendary venues you don’t forget those in a hurry. It’s amazing. The excitement and joy of playing music; the travelling is tough sometimes. Relationships within bands are like marriages, mostly loving and supportive, but sometimes cranky or bitter. The aim is, hopefully, to grow as a person as well as a musician. I was a bit of a bastard when I was a young guy. Hopefully I’ve gotten a bit more laid back and a bit more reasonable. It was only because I was striving to be where I wanted to be musically.
There’s this belief in Finland that you need to have a degree to really achieve success. How does this relate to playing music?
There weren’t those kinds of opportunities when I was growing up. I studied privately.
Is it necessary to study?
Yes it is. It helps you understand the history of what has gone before and how to utilise your talents in the most beneficial way. In the end you have to be your own man, your own player. Reading music is another tool to have.
But are we in danger of becoming robotic metronomic clones all playing the same style then?
I hope not, even though lot of stuff nowadays is done with click tracks and loops. The danger [with music schools] is that the teachers have fairly strong musical opinions – not always correct – which influence playing style and even holding the sticks in a certain manner. This tends to permeate down through all the students. I’m not saying that this is wrong, it’s produced some very fine players, but it’s not the be all and end all, you are not getting the whole picture. There’s a lot more to just that. Life is the best schooling; understand different cultures and understand that we are pretty much the same, with the same hopes, dreams and fears as everybody else.
So, what eventually brought you here to Finland?
I came by accident. I had a very good friend who was a bass player in England. He called me and said there is a lady from Chicago called June Harris who is working currently in Norway and she’s had some problems with the band and she’s moving on to Finland. Would I be interested in doing it as a trio? When I was with Gerry and the Pacemakers the first gigs I did with them were in Scandinavia, but we never came to Finland. I thought it would be fun. It was May 1987. We had a great time and came back again in 1988; it was a very good trio. Through that I met who is now my wife Titvi Ikäheimo, a wonderful fashion designer. She came to check her display case in the foyer of the venue. She heard the music, came up to thank us, and over a period of time we got to know each other. Then it got to be serious. We got engaged in 1989 and I decided to move here in 1990.
The same evening when I first came here to live we went out to eat with some friends. We were talking in English for the first hour and then they started talking in Finnish. Of course I was sitting in the corner thinking that, ‘Shit, if this is what it’s like. I’m not actually going to stand this’. A couple of days later, I enrolled at Helsinki University. I studied Finnish language for two years because I could not stand being out of the loop, not knowing what’s going on. Now I’m a Finnish citizen, with dual citizenship. But I’m probably never going to be a real Finn, I absolutely hate Finnish tango! This is the Lederhosen tango capital of the world. Tango, for me, should be Argentinian, romantic and sexy. The Finnish version is too rigid and sung with this terrible false vibrato!
I have a fantastic group of Finnish friends here, both men and women. They are some of the most beautiful people that I have ever met and have kept me sane and smiling for most of the time!
What struck you about Finland when you settled down?
It was a bit of a time warp actually, I have to say. Not quite as bad as New Zealand where you set the watches back 200 years. The first time I went to New Zealand with Gerry and the Pacemakers we were on the front page of the newspaper as they had opened up a club that closed at 1:30 in the morning. It was scandalous.
There’s a small town mentality here in Finland that I find most annoying. They boast about the smallest things: the Finnish guy who came 12th in some competition somewhere in South America. It’s extraordinary. But many countries with small populations and short histories have this rather inflated national pride.
The one thing that does work extremely well here is the rubbish collection. Going back to London now it’s a total nightmare. This rubbish goes out on one day, that on another and your recycled stuff on another. The water is brilliant here; the tap water is out of this world. The public transport too. There’s a lot of stuff that’s great. But there are only five million people in a country the size of the UK. The needs are different; there’s space for everybody.
When I first came here it was still in a bit dark, DDR period, still shaking off the Russian influence. It wasn’t long before I arrived that women weren’t allowed to be in a restaurant on their own. You couldn’t just go in and have a drink, you had to order food. Those cultural shocks were a bit of an eye opener, including the politics concerning alcohol. The Finns always make the excuse through shyness, but they – the men mainly – are socially constipated. There is very little eye contact. Of course, once they have a few drinks they are off. This head down thing is very strange to me. There is a lovely story of that goes ‘How do you know when you have made a new Finnish friend? He stops looking at his shoes and starts to look at yours!’ I know that we Brits use it sometimes too much, but a little small talk makes the world go around.
In the 22 years I’ve been here, places like Helsinki have definitely become more international. Many places are open to four in the morning. Try and find that in London without knowing some private numbers. I think Helsinki is a great city in which to live and the only place where I could live in Finland. Having wonderful places like Seurasaari and Suomenlinna on my doorstep is a real privilege, and the sea of course has a big influence.
So it’s a good thing that it’s becoming more international?
Of course it is. It has to. It can’t shut itself away. Finland needs to come out of the closet. They have tended to put all of their eggs into one basket. They are very proud of their achievements, like Nokia, Marimekko, KONE. They tend to publicise those to the exclusion of smaller companies that need support to rise up. In order to have a future you can’t just invest in the same old companies. What about promoting new designers? Now, when the golden goose Nokia is going through some deep problems it’s a bit embarrassing. I hope they pull through, I just hope that they haven’t left it too late.
Competition is fairly new here. It’s always been Finnish companies competing against the rest of the world. In many instances they have performed extremely well. When it is competitive within their own boundaries it’s another thing. There is a lot that still needs to be done to improve the quality of customer service here in Finland.
If you arrived to Finland now, would it be any easier? Would you do it any differently?
The reason I came here to live was for love, so in that sense no. I don’t regret it. It’s a high price to pay, missing family and friends in the UK. I miss them terribly and of course the language and the humour. On the other hand, I talk to people over there and they say that it’s good that I got out when I did. The grass is always greener.
If you come to live as a foreign musician in Finland you have to bring something that they don’t have. There’s certainly some jealousy here. Normally with musicians I love it if someone is a great player. When musicians knock you out with their playing, I go over and tell them. Here there’s quite a bit of talking behind the back. Is it a cultural thing? Maybe so, I don’t know. Jealousy is something I’ve never felt. Maybe when I had my first girlfriend and she talked with someone else. That was the only time I felt jealous, when I was nine or ten. I don’t envy anybody, I don’t give a damn if you’re rich or poor, what type of house you live in. I don’t judge people by their worldly possessions; maybe that’s why I have known many of my friends for over 50 years.
You were the first foreign musician to be asked to perform at the esteemed Linnan juhla. What is it really like?
Before being invited to perform there, I had always thought it was so boring; I said to my wife that this is the world’s longest queue. I have to admit, when you are actually there, it’s a lot of fun. I did it twice, the first time for President Ahtisaari in 1999 and the second for President Halonen in 2009 . Actually, I screwed up one time a few years ago at Pori Jazz with Tarja Halonen. She came to an outdoor concert we were doing and called me over when I was leaving. She said, ‘Thank you very much for your wonderful drum solo’, so I said, ‘Thank you very much Mrs President, you have excellent taste’ [laughs]. I got that Queen Victoria ‘we are not amused’ look!