We recently had a chat with one of the finest creators of metal percussion instruments, the brilliant Matt Nolan. He makes Bat Wing shaped gongs to gongs in the shape of a hand. His works will be available at the London Drum Show to be held at the Olympia in October. In this interview he talks about his beginning, inspiration, the basics of the Cymbal making process and a lot more.
Custom Cymbals Flicker link : http://www.flickr.com/photos/teethrecords/
ID: Hey Matt! How’ve you been doing? You’ve been creating metal percussive instruments for quite a while now. How has the process been over the years?
Matt: I’m doing pretty well thanks. Quite busy right now – several drum shows coming up in a couple of different countries. So I need to make instruments to display and sell at these as well as my regular orders and general experimentation work.
The process is an ongoing one. I don’t think I will ever stop learning. There is so much depth to cymbals, gongs and other metal percussion instruments; the metal alloys, the shapes, the sounds, the way you hammer, the way you heat treat. It is a fascinating journey.
In the beginning, I was limited in what metals I could get – and in what sizes. But this was very useful in terms of finding the limits; finding what sounds you can get from a constrained situation. Over the years I have found suppliers with a better range, and grown my reputation enough that such suppliers will talk to me. Still, I don’t get everything from one source. Several different places for several different metals. I’m using 7 or 8 different Bronze alloys now, Stainless Steel, Titanium, Aluminium alloys, Nickel Silvers, Cupro-Nickels. It’s great. They all give you a different sound world and you find which ones work best for which instruments. It’s a mesh of Engineering and Art.
ID: What was it that made you get into this field?
Matt: Oh, a number of things, over a period of time – they all conspired together: For a while I was playing no drums at all. Before that, I was playing mostly an electronic kit. A saxophonist friend asked me to dep for his usual drummer for a garden party gig – “just bring a snare and a cymbal”. Wow! Just ONE cymbal? Which cymbal would I be happy with for that? I was buying cymbals from Ebay, sometimes cheap, tatty, broken ones. I started to play with cutting shapes out of the broken ones. Then later, I started to add hammering and fire to the mix. Soon after that buying raw, fresh sheets of metal – not starting from an existing cymbal, broken or intact. Then experimenting making gongs.
Somewhere in the middle of this, I bought a cymbal from Steve Hubback. Later on, I met him and watched him work. He showed me a few things. He’s someone else you should interview!
ID: Do you do all the work yourself?
Matt: Yes. I am a one man company. Creating instruments, buying materials, packing and shipping, organising trade shows and drum shows, talking to magazines, doing the accounts and the tax returns, making the tea…
I try to do everything as much by hand as possible. Sure, I use things like electric drills and the lathe that I built, but all the tools are hand guided. All the hammering is done by hand, and free-hand. No machine, no guides, no moulds. Even the cymbal cups are created from hundreds of individual hammer strokes. I believe that this makes for better sounding instruments; instruments with more depth and character. A little bit of human goes into each one.
Matt: Well, I won’t bad-mouth the other cymbal companies. They all make some great cymbals. I don’t like them all, but there’s at least a couple from each manufacturer that I’d rate. I guess what you get from me, or from another solo artisan, is more time invested in the instrument. The cymbal isn’t finished until it is finished. It is not made within a specification window and an allotted time. Each piece of raw metal is different and is tweaked accordingly as I go along. On top of that, you get my sound – it’s down to your own tastes whether you like that or not, or if it suits the music you play.
ID: There are quite a few cymbals you make which have a brilliant dark tone to it. Do you have a personal liking for dark and drier sounds?
Matt: I love dark, brooding, mysterious, smoky cymbals. I don’t generally like them to be to clean, bright or brash sounding. Though sometimes, I do make cymbals like this. The total hand hammering does tend to lend itself to darker sounds with more spread, but the amount can be controlled by how exactly you hammer. How you distribute tension over the surfaces of the cymbal.
ID: What’s your everyday schedule like? How much time does it take to create one cymbal?
Matt: A typical day would be at home from breakfast up until just before or just after lunch – doing all the office / admin things, answering emails, etc. Then down to the workshop – walk, cycle or drive – it depends. Then I’ll be coming home again any time from before dinner to after midnight.
A cymbal can take from 2 to 3 hours up to 7 or 8. It depends on what size it is, what type it is, how extensive the process is going to be – is it going to be extensively lathed or not, do I have a disc already that size or do I need to cut one, etc. Recently, I’ve been pretty full on and yet only averaging 2.4 cymbals a day. Yes, I worked it out last week.
Gongs and more sculptural pieces can take a lot longer than cymbals. I’ve had gongs take over week. And seemingly small things like a little string of bells can actually take a lot of work because they are so small and fiddly – lots of cutting and smoothing of edges.
ID: Blending art and visual appeal along with the rich nature and the depth your cymbals offer, how hard is it to achieve this balance?
Matt: It takes practice! Most of my coloured finishes are created with fire – just the way the heat causes the surface of the metal to oxidise. It can be difficult to judge. Especially on Bronze, as it tends to continue to change colour for some time after you remove the heat.
Shapes and textures have to be carefully considered too. You can’t make every sound with any shape; much of it is tied together. Some of the “finishes” actually rely on doing something with the metal right at the beginning, or part-way through, so you have to have a plan.
But this is what makes it fun!
ID: You’ve stated that you were more of a self-taught cymbals creator. How hard or challenging was it initially?
Matt: I got a couple of pointers from Steve, and I read some writings on the internet from the late Johan van de Sijpe and the also late Mike Skiba. But, the vast majority of it comes from practice. Trial and error. Hypothesis and observation of results. I remember a couple of times in the early days (still hammering in my house, annoying the neighbours) when I would do something and only then understand and relate it to something that I’d read from Johan or Mike. You don’t really understand it properly until you discover it yourself.
It was, and is, enjoyable because it is a challenge and because you can achieve new things.
ID: What sort of metals do you mostly work with? Are there any misconceptions out there when it comes to a particular metal or the process itself?
Matt: Most of my work these days is in Bronze, certainly in cymbals as opposed to gongs, triangles, bells, etc.
Lots of people are surprised by how my B8 (8% Tin malleable Bronze) cymbals sound. People compare them to B20 cymbals, even to vintage B20 cymbals. I think the misconception about B8 is because it is the alloy that most manufacturers use to create their cheaper lines. It can be formed into an OK cymbal in very few steps. But, when you do what I do, and apply total hand-hammering, carefully control the tension across the cymbal, hand-form the bell; naturally you get a much more refined instrument.
Also, with my Stainless Steel cymbals – more for the avant garde jazz player really – people who haven’t heard them (and, it’s not often you see a cymbal that isn’t Bronze) sometimes expect them to sound clinical, clean, bright, like cutlery. This is far from the case. You get a very dark, fairly dry and often quite trashy sound from Stainless. A great contrast.
ID: You’re a drummer yourself, for how long have you been playing and what are the projects you’re involved with at the moment?
Matt: I have been a drummer since I was 12 or 13, I’m now 37. At the moment I play in 3 “bands”, one regularly, one less regularly and the other something like 2 times a year. The main gig is “Fungus Licks” – basically an eclectic Boogie Woogie Piano Trio (Piano, Sax, Drums). The Sax player also plays excellent Blues Harmonica and we have a singer who joins us on about 1/3 of our usual set. The non-vocal numbers are quite involved – I guess the music has to sustain interest by itself. It’s a lot of fun, and there is a strong sense of humour and mischief in the music.
The less often band is a fairly heavy rock band called “Unmitigated Audacity”. Mainly covers of things like Led Zeppelin, Faith No More, Pink Floyd, Rage Against The Machine. It’s more of a social thing really. Old friends getting together every couple of months.
The very less often band is an improvisational duo. Gongs and experimental guitar with Daniel Bennett. Sometimes we go out just as our names, sometimes as “Skjolbat”. It usually ends up being a mixture of ambient / free-time sinister spooky atmospherics and some rhythmic figures, if they crystallise out of what we are doing. It’s exciting to play like this. Just listen, and play. No rehearsal. No plan. Just the moment. I usually have a different rig each time – a couple of core gongs that I always have and then whatever I have recently made but not yet sold. I love to explore what different sounds you can pull out of the gongs.
ID: How different is the process of making a gong compared to a cymbal?
Matt: In terms of the physical processes – heat treatment and hammering – and the types of metal you use, they are the same. In terms of shapes and tension profiles, they are very different, pretty much opposite. I have to be careful not to start making a gong with my cymbal head on!
In simplistic terms – a cymbal is suspended from the middle and the edge is the part that is most free to vibrate. A gong is suspended from the edge and the middle is the part that is most free to vibrate.
ID: I was going through the shop page on your website and saw two really interesting gongs, the Batwing gong and the Bronze hand gong. Does a lot of the inspiration come from living in Bath surrounded by the incredible countryside?
Matt: Inspiration comes from all over. But living in Bath and being nearby to all that countryside does help.
The Bat theme that crops up here and there (Bat-Wing gongs, Bat-Head gongs) is a nod to where I started. One of the first things I did with cutting up one of those cracked cymbals was to cut several large scallops from the edge to make a shape very much like the “Batman” logo that they shine up into the sky in the films. It was a great cymbal after that! I came second in an anonymous submission “International Solo Cymbal Competition” – to compose and play a short piece of music using just 1 cymbal and one complete recording take. I used the “CymBat” for this. Afterwards people wanted me to make CymBats for them. I don’t do it any more, but the shape of the head portion is preserved in the gong – and it makes a great gong! The wing is not the same as the wing part of the cymbals was, but the theme remains.
ID: Who are all endorsing your products at the moment?
Matt: Not too many full-on endorsers. It is difficult to compete with the large companies in this aspect, certainly with kit drummers. But, I have avant-garde / classical percussionists William Winant and Lisa Pegher (look them up – you’ll be impressed) and hybrid kit/hand percussion players Ryan Edwards and Tareq Rantissi (both from Berklee school of music).
Also, drummer Joe Travers and percussionist Billy Hulting (both from Zappa Plays Zappa, both endorsing Zildjian cymbal) play and endorse some of my non-cymbal instruments.
Will Calhoun (Living Colour) has some of my custom instruments. I have made instruments for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra (UK), the band Massive Attack and the singer Bjork.Lea Mullen, percussionist for the Happy Mondays and George Michael also uses some of my custom sound sculptures
ID: What are your plans for the rest of the year? Are there any new line of cymbals you’re work on at the moment?
Matt: Right now it is almost all about shows – UK National Drum Fair in Birmingham right now, the Hollywood Drum Show next weekend, the London Drum Show at Olympia two weeks after that and PASIC (Percussive Arts Society Convention) a month after that. Then it won’t be long before NAMM in January and Frankfurt Musikmesse in March. Phew! A lot of work, but great because I get to interact directly with the people who buy my work.
Meanwhile, I am developing some new instruments – a couple of orchestral percussion instruments and new cymbal lines. I’ve established B15 Bronze as a new alloy (new for me, it is the Paiste Signature Alloy) – it makes beautiful lush crash cymbals and fantastic flat rides. I don’t know, I think I still prefer B8 for larger rides. In development (which means building a furnace / oven thing) I have limited edition B20 cymbals. It will be interesting to see where I can go with that. I’m also developing some new triangles with percussionist Nigel Shipway. So, in addition to my very well respected “InfiniTri” range, there will be the NS Signature line, which is quite a different animal.
ID: How can people around the world get their hands on your works?
Matt: Direct from me (off the shelf, from my website when I have stock, or custom made-to-order) or from a select number of drum shops – two in England, a good few in the USA and some in France and Germany. The Memphis Drum Shop’s mycymbal.com is selling very well for me. They do individual demonstration videos for each cymbal. The only thing better than that is playing the cymbal for yourself.
ID: This is your space; feel free to say anything to your friends, family, fans, etc.
Matt: Ooh. What an opportunity. I would just say explore and enjoy music. Try listening to some new and different things. You never know where it might take you. I think it’s one thing I wish I had more time to spend doing!
Thanks a lot for doing this interview Matt. We wish you the very best with all the projects you’re involved with.
Photo Credits : Andy McCreeth
Interview by : Sumanth Venkatesan