Shovell summons the gods

interviewed by Bill via Zoom, 07.11.19

For Shovell, drumming is life, communication, ‘a way of transmitting power, positivity and gratitude’. His hand percussion has summoned the gods on everything from the deepest tribal house tracks to Primal Scream, Jamiroquai and Nightmares on Wax. His story is testimony to the power of music to transform lives, an acid house odyssey that goes from Lewisham plumber to international drum warrior, taking in pop-stardom in M People, a Pacha residency and sidelines in cranio-sacral therapy, Nichiren Buddhism, and the Last Night a DJ Saved My Life Foundation. And that’s without even mentioning the stunning secret his family kept from him.

So, tell me about the music you heard growing up in south-east London.
I used to hang out by this place that had been a morgue in Deptford. We’d hang out on the corner of Watson Street and New Cross Road, because there was a fish and chip shop there, and one evening we could hear this music, live music, coming out of the morgue. So we knocked on the door. ‘What’s going on?’

The council had moved out the dead people and replaced them with musicians and instruments, predominantly to get kids like me off the corners of streets getting into bits of bother. They would literally go, ‘This is called a saxophone. This is what it does. This is a drum. This is what does. Singing: this is what it is.’ And they were all really acclaimed musicians in their own right.

I never, ever paid anything. It was an open musical house for youngsters. I went in there when I was 14, and started mucking about, just having a laugh, but before I knew what was happening, I was part of a reggae band and went to support my mate’s older brother at a gig in a place called Chats Palace in Homerton.

I didn’t realise the eclectic mix of music that I was getting. I was born in Greenwich Hospital, and brought up in New Cross and I was there till ’71. It was a very mixed bag of people, so there was Africans and Irish and Greeks and Turks, Indians, West Indians, Caribbeans and Pakistanis. I thought the whole world was like New Cross and Deptford.

I used to muck about on my mate’s mum and dad’s bongos. After this gig, this guy says, ‘You’re pretty good. Get yourself some drums and you can join a band.’ I failed everything at school and I’d probably be labeled ADHD if there was such a thing back then. I was just a pain in the arse. I was always tapping and banging on chairs and people’s backs and my legs and pencils, everything. And that’s why the drums came in, gave me a way to use up my energy.

Were you aware of other drummers and percussionists in bands at that age?
I knew Charley Charles, so Ian Dury and the Blockheads was a massive influence on me, as was Bob Marley. But I couldn’t tell you, ‘I want to be like him,’ or any specifics, I was just having a great time. I wasn’t causing any mischief. I wasn’t able to stay in one place longer than about 90 seconds. I couldn’t even sit down and play the drum kit, because I used to get electricity in my arse. I couldn’t sit.

But then I became a plumber, because I never ever thought that I’d do music as a living. I was a plumber for nine years on Lewisham Council. The bricklayer played a bit of keyboards, the electrician sat in a bit, the labourer played a bit of bass guitar. We used to rehearse on the Catford one-way system. I went from reggae and had another band, more of a sort of pop/rockish group called Profile. We played in empty pubs on the Old Kent Road. Thought we were going to make it, but didn’t. There was another band of fellas upstairs, who were the hippies. Me and the guitarist and the drummer left Profile, and we started talking to these hippies, and said, ‘Do you want to jam?’ There was another plumber in there, a painter and decorator, guy who ran a playground centre, and a car valet.

It was the late ’80s, house music had just started, it was at the back of the Downham Tavern pub in south-east London, they had a massive hall. And I got asked to play some drums, I thought with the DJ, but actually they stopped the DJ, and it was just me playing drums on the stage to about, I don’t know, one or two thousand people. I mentioned I was in this band Natural Life and they went, ‘Do you want to do a thing?’ We started playing there, and we did a cover of ’Another Brick in the Wall’, four-to-the-floor version. There was a guy filming there. He knew Adamski’s manager, and he said, ‘That track’s really good,’ One thing led to another and we got a record deal.

You went to Shoom, right?
Yes I did. So I was in a club in Croydon called Easy Streets, with my jacket and gold chains on, trousers and shoes. My mate Martin Davey, his dad owned the fitness centre and we’d go there for a little late drink. One night, Martin went, ‘Oh, there’s this new thing down at me dad’s gym. We should go down there.’ In them days, clubs finished about 1 am, didn’t they? All piled in a cab, went down the gym, all with our jackets on. Turned up, went to the bar and ordered four pints, then this dungaree-wearing guy comes up to us with a kaleidoscope thing. Steve Hill, his name was. I walked down the little hallway to the dancefloor, and it was like I’d landed on another planet. The music, the smoke, the people had T-shirts on. No one had a jacket or formal trousers. It was all dungarees and shit, sweating like nutters and doing this dancing I’ve never seen before.

I said, ‘What’s going on here?’ And he went, ‘Here, have half of that.’ You can imagine, half hour later, jacket’s off, I’m out there. Monday morning, straight down the sports shop, T-shirts, jogging bottoms, and I resigned as a plumber six months after that. It changed my life. I was going there every weekend, thinking about it every moment of the week, waiting for the weekend.

Didn’t you also play at Monkey Drum?
Yeah, I was playing Monkey Drum on Gray’s Inn Road on the Monday night. I met Alfredo. He said, ‘Why don’t you come to Ibiza? I can sort it out’. So I went to Ibiza in ’90 for the summer with Alfredo. Meant to stay there a week, stayed five. Ended up looking like I’d served three missions in Vietnam, couldn’t get home, all my money had gone. It was the greatest worst time of my life there. Billy Nasty’s mum used to work in a travel agents so I phoned him: ‘Can your mum …’ Got me a flight home.  Anyway, Natural Life ended up getting signed to Hollywood Records, which was Walt Disney’s record label, for £100 grand.

Were Yothu Yindi on the same label?
They were signed to them as well, yeah.

I remember seeing a Yothu Yindi showcase, at the Marquee on Charing Cross Road, and I’m pretty sure you guys supported them.
We did. It was ’91. Because the label folded in ’92. We got 100 grand in the January of 1991, and we were minus 30 grand by October. And we hadn’t bought a car, a house or anything. We had a live-in studio, ‘Let’s write it all in the studio.’ And everyone around us went, ’Yeah, do that. Brilliant.’ So you can imagine, invited everyone up, and set up these parties, massive amounts of weed….

I resigned as a plumber in the April of ’90. In  June, I was on Top Of The Pops with Kenny Thomas doing a cover of ’Outstanding’, who I’d met through Glen Gunner, who was at Monkey Drum (Simon Dunmore signed it to Cooltempo). So I’d gone from a plumber in April, to Ibiza, Top of the Pops, and I was like, this game’s easy. What’s everyone going on about?!

We were touring as Natural Life, but because we weren’t signed anymore (Hollywood went out business by this time), and no one was giving us money, my mum and dad paid for our last tour. You know when a relationship’s not working, but you’re still there? It was like that. The keyboard player walked offstage in the middle of a gig. It was all falling part. One of our last gigs was at Brixton Academy, 1992. Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai, Natural Life and M People. Apart from Jamiroquai, I didn’t know really any of the others. As we were finishing sound-checking, Mike Pickering and Paul Heard [from M People] said to me, ‘Look we’ve got a percussionist. He’s broke down on the motorway. Can you stand in on the sound-check?’ And I was like, ‘Give us 50 quid and I’ll do the gig later for ya.’ Did the sound-check, didn’t think anything of it. They took my number. The fella turned up, played, and then they phoned me about a month later, and said, ‘Got a gig in Middlesbrough. Do you want to do it?’

Heather was live, I was live, the rest was on DAT. Had a great gig. And then there was another few club gigs. I was never the most shy and retiring sort of person, so they liked me and I kept the firm jolly. Heather didn’t know what to make of me at first, but she soon got to know me, and yeah, they wanted me around. Then the club gigs became college gigs. Then the album was released and ’Moving On Up’ come out and we were on Top Of The Pops. Then there were arena gigs, and then I was bloody flying all around the world.

When I was a plumber for nine years, I would literally have my hand down a toilet pan or down the drain, or lying on me back putting on bath taps on council estates in Lewisham. And I dreamed: all I want to do is be in a band. I just want to make one record and do a few gigs. That’s all I want. So this felt unbelievable. I remember flying first class to Australia, and I think we did three nights at the Hordern Pavilion. It was like 12,000 capacity. Mick Jagger turned up. Mick Jagger was a big fan of M People. It was ridiculous. Everyone knows your name and all that.

But all through this, I was carrying a lot of trauma. I’m adopted. I’ve been fostered; so that was bubbling. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had ADHD, anger issues, concentration issues, getting into trouble issues. I was an extreme character, I’m a drummer, I am Keith Moon, I am Animal out the Muppets, I am John Bonham. That is me. That’s what we do. So I dived into that character. That’s who I thought I was. I had a massive hole and I was trying to fill it externally with as much partying and sex, drugs and rock and roll. Yeah, bring it on. Here I am! Massive flag-waving. I can stay out longer than anyone. I’ll do more than anyone. That’s what it was like for years and years. But after ten years it sort of tailed off. Then Heather said she wanted to do a solo album. That was at the very end of December ’99, that was when things started crumbling inside. Hit a wall. and it coincided with finding out who my real mum was. And it was a massive shock, because it was an incredibly close family member.

So I was adopted. My mum’s white, my dad’s white, my older brother is white and I’m not. Even as a kid, it didn’t even really register what that meant. And when I did, I just bottled it somewhere, put it away. So it was revealed to me that my mum, who’d adopted me, was actually my birth mother. So I’ve gone 33 years of living in a house with my mum, who I didn’t know was my mum, because she’d said I was adopted.

What a head fuck.
She’d had an affair with a Jamaican guy, and I was the result of the affair. And then they came out of hospital, and told everyone that they’d had a still birth, and I was fostered, and months later, they adopted me. And no one knew. My mum and dad, and that was it. So on that night, my mum didn’t even say a word. My dad said to me, ‘Look, we was going to take this to our grave but you’ve asked, so I’m going to tell you.’

It spun me out, man. That year, I drunk more than I’d ever drunk before. I did more gear than I’d ever done before. I was angrier than I’d ever been before. Then in January 1999, 13 months later, I was in a studio in Manchester talking about a drum pattern. I remember I was looking at a screen, going, ‘Well, if we put the…’ And I started convulsing, then I started crying and sweating in the middle of the sentence. Got in the car and drove straight back to London, had this ridiculous cathartic, I’m going to name it spiritual, an incredible few hours of seeing my decades of trauma coming out of my body. The girl I was with was getting bath towels to soak this off, just lying there just sweating and wailing. Beyond crying. And then, and this is my truth, this is my truth, there was black smoke coming out of my stomach. Looking down, I could see black smoke coming out.

Drove to my mum and dad’s the next day, spoke to my mum and just needed to be held. She was so ashamed of what had happened, she didn’t do anything on that night. Very Freudian, I suppose. I needed to be held, told me that she loved me, and it helped me a bit, but it knocked me out, because it’s PTSD. And so it led to one of the lowest moments in my life. I was just like, ‘I’m out of here, man. I’ve had this pain now for so long.’ It felt unstoppable. And I don’t really want to go into details about it, but it didn’t happen, obviously, because I’m sitting here right in front of you. Needless to say, I was in a really incredibly dark place.

So I had to work out who I was. I started doing yoga. I was doing yoga, I was a vegan. I was the healthiest I’ve ever been. I started running, I was up the Kronk boxing gym in Kentish Town. End up doing a white collar fight. So I was doing boxing training, boxing, yoga three times a week and running. Because I wasn’t drumming. But I was doing it for the first time positively, because I felt like I was so worn and fragile, that I couldn’t do any gear. By 2004, I was in a pretty good way. I started doing a bit of TV.

Didn’t you present the football?
Yeah, I did a football show called 90 Minutes, Shovell’s Travels, which was flying round the world interviewing footballers. I was a presenter on the Guinness Book of Records, Record Breakers that Roy Castle, Linford Christie did… I was on that with Fearne Cotton. But unless it was about things I wanted to interview people about I’m not interested. I’m not interested in what insulation you’ve got. I don’t care. What are you doing, really? I’m a presenter, but only if it’s football, music… Passions.

Then music raised its head again. The drums took on a whole different meaning and texture and sound, even. They were very healing. I felt like, in a lot of clubs it was me and the drums, and I didn’t have to run around meeting everyone and shouting, and I know this may sound a bit bonkers, but they’re my family: the congas, the bongos, the timpanis, It’s my island, it’s my world, and I can go there without using substances. It’s beautiful. I haven’t had a drink or anything else since February the 4th 2010. Ten years in February.

Met my wife in the April of 2010. Well, I didn’t know she was going to be my wife. Moved to Ibiza in July playing all the clubs: Pacha, beach parties, private. My rider was a pot of green tea and some bananas, and I’d go all through to six, seven or eight in the morning on that, drumming all night. Started studying shamanism there in 2011, met a shaman.

That was life-changing. When you’re blindfolded in someone’s house. I was blindfolded, she’s playing shamanic drums and rattling, and you’re in a trance dance to go and find your power animal. If all my Arsenal lot was looking through the window now, ‘What are you doing, you mug?’ And I was there. I’m loving it, and I’m thinking, you know what? I don’t care. This is amazing. Such freedom. I did five years with that woman.

How did all this feed into the music and what you played and how you played?
There I am for years thinking I’ve invented this character called the Drum Warrior, and I wear all this face paint and tribal clothing. And I bless the drums with sage, and I have a staff. And I invented that. My ancestors are African, man. Slave drumming, rhythm. African. Black. It’s not a theory. Everyone else is walking out in all their gear, and I’ve got a bright pink smock on with face paint. I’m Arsenal, do you know what I mean? I’m from south-east London. It wasn’t easy, Bill. The sage and the smoke…

It’s the 21st century, and everyone thinks we’re so intelligent and we know what’s what, and we can hit two buttons and get every single artist, and we can play computer tennis with a guy in Tokyo but fundamentally, what we’re doing is dancing to a beat of a drum. This is tribal, and we’ve been blessed and given it by the ancestors. It’s a gift of the universal rhythm that the ancestors sent us.

And when there’s a full moon, and you start playing drums out on a full moon, and you’re a bit conscious of that, and I’m on green tea and bananas, honestly I’ve never felt so energised. So the drums and the music took on a massively deep, spiritual gifting, healing, ancestral, momentous, infinite, eternal meaning. The gift that I’m blessed with, oh my goodness gracious.

Was it Simon Dunmore that brought you back into playing clubs?
So we was on Defected when ‘Drums Of Ghodrat’ came out. Simon had Copyright, and was in the same studio and I knew Simon from the Kenny Thomas days. I was doing separate things in Ibiza, and it was like, ‘Well, why don’t you start doing something with Defected?’ Then it just got bigger and bigger and it’s like a family. I felt at home. There I am going, ‘Sime, what do you reckon? Is this all right?’ Like the face paint and headdresses and he was like, ‘Yeah, all right. Go on.’ It was a beautiful platform. It was a wonderful environment to play with some great DJs, to play in some great places around the world, with this new way of being. I was doing a lot with Nightmares on Wax and George [Evelyn] encouraged it: ‘Get some more sage. More sage! More face paint, Shovell! Be it! Be it!’

Do you see that now as much as almost like a kind of a master of ceremonies, as well as playing the drums? It feels much more than just being a percussionist in a band.
Yeah, 100%. No one else needs to know what I’m doing. If they ask, I’ll tell them. But if they just see a nutter with a massive bit of sage and blessing the crowd and blessing the sky and blessing my drum, they think, what’s he doing, this fella? Ive ended up blessing people that come to the front, and it’s not me blessing them, it’s the universe that’s coming through and blessing them. I’m a deeply rhythmical, spiritual, ancient heart of a very modern, technologically-based environment.

Reflecting back now, what could you say about the impact that acid house had on you, and just that revelation of going to Shoom for the first time?
Oh, every time I see Rampling, he sort of walks the other way, because he knows what’s coming. ‘Dan! Dan, do you remember? I walked in a plumber and walked out a musician.’ [laughs] By taking that half a pill, and I’m going to be honest, that’s the first time ever in my life I had felt love. The first time I ever heard Martin Luther King’s speech over the top of a house track, on half an half a pill, does it get better than this? It meant masses to me, and it still does.

Then on Monday morning, I’d go into my council yard at Lewisham to start getting me time sheets to go and unblock toilet pans and I’m looking round the yard at people in their 60s still there, been there 40 years, and  thought: I ain’t doing this. I felt musical love. I felt the rhythm. I felt the rhythm of the gods, man. I never felt love like that, never. Am I going to give that up just to get my pension?

Then very quickly, as I’ve said, Monkey Drum, Ibiza, Alfredo, Kenny Thomas, Simon Dunmore… Get out of my way! live it. I might have a massive international plumbing business by now, Shovellino’s: the bath’s on us. But that was not my passion. Music is/was my passion, and so that allowed someone like me from south-east London, who was talking to DJs who spoke like me, and couldn’t read music, and didn’t go to university, but who was holding a crowd magnificently. So my circumference went from two mile radius, from my front door in south-east London, to an international circumference, to a global, to…

Cosmic. Exactly that word. Cosmic. Infinite, eternal. And through music, so when I’m playing the drums now. That’s such an important word. When I’m playing the drums now, as well as listening to the DJ of course, that is what’s coming through, the cosmic, infinite, eternal power of the one love.

I’m a Buddhist, I am. When my dad died in December 2014, I’m at his bedside, holding his hand, and he’s on the way, last breath scenario. They’d been married 63 years, all that stuff. Her affair. He’d forgiven her. My dad did nothing but love me, this mixed race kid who was a constant reminder of his wife’s betrayal. And all my dad ever did was love me to bits.

That’s an amazing thing for anyone to do.
I’d been in a relationship of unconditional love. My dad did it. My dad forgave. He’d been in the war, got shot in the leg. He was 91 when he died. He’d forgiven his wife, and loved her and loved me. Took me everywhere, helped me with the drums, with the gigs. When I was in the reggae bands, playing in south-east London, black Rastas and weed, my mum and dad would be sitting there supporting me. At NYNEX Manchester, 18,000 people, my mum is waving at me. She loved it.

In my opinion, we spend far too much time not talking about death. We should talk about death every day. We should make it a reality in our lives, that we’re all going to die, so that we live, we live as happy and as free and as lovingly as we can. We think we’re eternal, so we live accordingly. So that sharpened me up to life, its fragility and its preciousness, and even underlined the importance of music as a gift in that, as something that blends through all of this sorrow and aches and pains, and can hold all these memories and emotions.

My wife got pregnant but my mum was in a nursing home in Crystal Palace, so I grabbed my shamanic drum and drove down there. I didn’t plan. You can’t plan these things. I put the drum down, I lit a candle, started playing drums and singing these Ecuadorean chants, just giving gratitude to the end of life. I picked up the drum again and I’m playing it above her as she’s dying. Talk about the importance of music, its benefits and its healing power. And I’m thinking, thank you, a blessing, and mum on your next journey. We got the call at half five that she’d died Monday morning. The ebb and flow of life is drums, it’s the rhythm of life.

I have been blessed with a gift to connect life’s rhythm through these drums for us all. Whether it’s a little drum or whether it’s what I just did in the studio, or it’s a massive 15,000 people Defected festival, or if it’s Ibiza… Wherever it is, my bit of that is to connect all of this with the energy that is life, which is birth, living, illness and death. And I’ll celebrate the whole bloody lot.

© Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton