Over the course of the last few years, there has been an axplosion of young, gospel-influenced drummers into the British session scene powering many of today’s top UK pop artists. One such artist is multi-award winner Emeli Sandé, whose hits including ‘Next To Me’ and ‘Clown’ appear to be playing whenever you turn on the TV or radio. Providing the perfect grooves for Emeli’s live shows is Jonathan Tuitt, who has also performed with Katy B, Ms. Dynamite and Mobo-award winner Bashy.
How old were you when you first started playing the drums?
At the age of six I began playing for the gospel choir in my local church – my musical inspiration definitely came from a gospel background and as time went on I began to work with different artists within the gospel music industry. This experience confirmed my love for music and led me to believe that becoming a session musician was the path that I wanted to go down.
Growing up around a very musical family, I was heavily influenced in music. My cousin Mark Dyer was the person who first inspired me to play drums. I remember going to my auntie’s house and hearing him practising for hours on end in the basement. As time went on and I became older, Josh McKenzie and Jerry Brown inspired me to pursue being a session musician as a career.
Did you take lessons or are you a self-taught drummer?
I am originally a self–taught drummer, however when I got to the age of 13 I had my first drum lesson as I studied music at GCSE and continued it onto A-level.
What music did you like to listen to growing up?
Growing up I listened to gospel music, which is mainly where my musical inspiration is from. The joy of gospel music is that it branches out into many genres so I was exposed to a variety of genres from a young age.
Who are your biggest influences?
Growing up my biggest influence was my older cousin Mark Dyer, who toured with the group East 17, and was also the drummer at my uncle’s church. He later introduced me to drummers like Dave Weckl and Carter Beauford. I began studying videos like Dave Weckl’s Back to Basics and Carter Beauford’s Under the Table and Drumming, both of which were mind blowing.
I was amazed by the speed both drummers were able to move around the drums and the way they interpreted songs and how they were real song players. As I got older and started visiting different churches with my parents, I was privileged to meet other drummers like Josh McKenzie and Jerry Brown. They both have similar styles, both being very passionate and musical players. They both produce very tight grooves that can be felt by anyone listening. During my late teens I came across Teddy Campbell, an amazing drummer who has toured internationally with numerous gospel artists. He was also the house drummer for American Idol for many years. I was amazed at how versatile he was as a drummer and his ability to play a song and complement the singer and song with each fill he played.
My most current influence is Rex Hardy, Jr., who is the MD for Mary J. Blige and the current house drummer for American Idol. As well as being an amazing song player, he is also very passionate in his playing and always makes the groove the most important part. As you can tell, all my influences have many things in common, they are all passionate players and are also all known as great groovers and excellent song players. I am not a drummer who is attracted to chops and fancy tricks, even though they are nice to have, I am more attracted to someone who is able to groove and play a song, as I believe grooving. Holding time and being the backbone of the band are the crucial roles of a drummer.
You are currently the driving force behind Emeli Sandé, how did that come about?
I started playing with Emeli when I was approached by keyboardist and MD Luke Smith, who I had known and worked with for a while. I had just finished touring with Katy B and Luke approached me to be a part of the band he was asked to put together to support Emeli Sandé. Not aware of who Emeli was, I learned the songs they sent over and later supported her on a few sessions like BBC 1Xtra live and small showcases for London fashion week. All parties enjoyed my style of playing and offered me the opportunity to work with Emeli on her first tour, which I did, and I have been with her ever since.
You were also the drummer on the video for ‘Next to me’ – what’s the story behind that?
It was about two weeks after Christmas and a studio I rehearse at contacted me informing me a directing company was looking for a young drummer to feature in a music video for a new artist. A few days later the company called me and asked me to send over my details and headshots to see if I suited the role they were looking for. At this time I still didn’t know the music video was for Emeli, even though I was playing for her at the time. A couple days later I was invited to a studio to audition in front of the directors of the video. It wasn’t until the day before the audition that I found out the music video was for Emeli Sandé. I went through the auditions without letting the directors know I was actually touring with her as I wasn’t sure if it would go against me. I got the part as the director liked me and said I was perfect for the role. Funnily enough, I later found out Emeli only knew the night before that I would be featuring in the video with her.
What are the biggest challenges you face with playing for one of the UK’s biggest artists?
The biggest musical challenge that I faced touring with Emeli was staying current and finding the time to practise. Also being able to be versatile in different styles as Emeli’s music covers a lot of genres. As Emeli is a musician herself, she likes to experiment with different genres and styles, so being knowledgeable is vital. On the recent tours, I found myself listening to different styles of music on the radio and internet just to be at the top of my game. Another big challenge I face as a touring musician is being able to maintain the balance between a career, social life and family life as touring can have you away from friends and family for months at a time.
On your live shows you mostly work alongside a percussionist, how did you go about working on the arrangements?
The key to working alongside a percussionist is never overplaying and always leaving room for them to express themselves. I see a percussionist as the icing on the cake when it comes to the rhythm section. They fill natural gaps in a song and bring effects and moods to songs that a drummer sometimes can’t. Skins, the percussionist for Emeli, is very good at portraying the mood of a song, whether it be creating atmospheric swells on a cymbal or a ghostly feeling on the shakers.
Do you warm up before shows?
Recently I’ve made more of an effort to warm up before shows as I have found it to be beneficial to my playing. The warm-ups have strengthened my wrists and forearms and increased my general speed around the kit.
Where would you like to see yourself in five years time?
I aim to continue touring, maybe not as intense as I do now, but every so often. I aspire to be a musical director with a few musical projects under my belt. I would also like to play drums in a West End musical or some sort of theatre production. As Emeli’s schedule has been quite hectic, I haven’t had the time to commit to any other projects recently, but now that our schedule is starting to slow down I plan to get involved in new projects with up and coming artists and develop ideas of my own.
Drums: DW Collector’s Series
8” x 7” rack tom
10” x 8” rack tom
12” x 9” rack tom
16” x 14” floor tom
20” x 16” kick drum
13” x 7” Edge snare
12” x 7” snare
13″ A Custom hats
18″ Constantinople crash 12″ K Custom splash
19″ K Custom hybrid crash 19″ A Custom fast crash 16″ Oriental china
20″ K Custom session ride 20″ A Custom EFX crash
Toms: Pinstripe (coated or clear)
Snare: Coated Emperor
Kick: Powerstroke 3
Sticks: promark 5A Models
Hardware: DW including 5000 pedals
Cases: Protection Racket