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How to Handle Being a Singing Rock Drummer

Nick-GaffaneyShaun Jones

Cairo Knife Fight have toured with Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age and were nominated for Best Rock Album at the New Zealand Music Awards twice.

Singer and drummer, Nick Gaffaney tells us how the band carved a name for themselves with an energetic live show and strong identity.

What main challenges do you face as a singing drummer?
It is a very different experience for me than it is for a ‘conventional’ singer. It’s much harder to communicate directly to the audience. I can’t move around the stage as easily while I sing and I’m heavily involved with a number of other sounds, including keyboard bass and live looping, which can distract me from the vocals. I learned that singing is the most important thing so I try to stay focused on that while not neglecting my other duties.

How have you managed the ‘stage craft’ aspect of being a singing drummer?
I always set the drums up on stage left facing directly across the stage towards the right. This means that I’m singing over my left shoulder and the audience can at least see my face. I also get up off the drums whenever I can, if there’s a section without drums or if I’ve looped them.

Something that’s worked for you in reaching a larger audience
We try to make music videos that really engage people and deliver them something outside the usual experience. We also hate being in them so it’s an easy way to avoid that. One of them went viral in 2016 and has shot up over 11 million views.

How important is branding for artists these days?
I think of it as creating an identity that lives outside and beyond your music. We’ve tried to do that by making artwork, music videos and merch that share imagery over a number of years and many releases. Now we look back over it all and there are themes we’ve kept in all our album covers, music videos and shirts that can be viewed as part of the same story.

The Violence Of Action | Cairo Knife Fight

Favourite vocal gear
Because I’m hitting drums and cymbals within close range of my vocal mic we spent a long time experimenting with mics to help reduce bleed. We decided on the Audix OM11 and it’s been great. I also run my own vocal effects and harmony engines through Ableton using A-Designs Pacifica Mic Pres, A Motu interface and an SSL summing console.

A musical lesson you’ve learned the hard way
You’re never as good as you think you are. Music has such a remarkable way of burying you at the moment you get the idea that you know what you’re doing and “how great am I at doing it?” It’s probably its most charming faculty, I’m always chasing the moment when something works and I get a few minutes respite from that crushing doubt.

A vocal lesson you’ve learned the hard way
During the set, I’m exerting so much energy drumming and singing that I need to be in good physical shape to keep my breath going. There have been plenty of times I’ve run out of breath during a song and had to drop lines. That’s not ideal. Paying attention to breathing is now a massive thing for me.

What lessons have you learned from collaborating with other musicians/producers?
Never be that guy that won’t try an idea before deciding he hates it. It can be very difficult because we all have an idea of where we want something to go but always try the idea before deciding whether or not it’s a good one. Not only does that create an atmosphere where people will be inspired to follow their vision without fear of being shot down, you may also find an entirely different and possibly better direction for the music.

How to overcome writer’s block?
Treat it like a job. Don’t wait for motivation; write every day and don’t write with any expectations. Work for the allotted hours and then go do something else.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the music industry?
It’s a challenging time to be a musician. A great deal of value has been stripped out of the industry but it’s the times we live in. I’ve never seen the point in complaining about it, I try to see what CAN be done and surround myself with people who can help me make those things happen. We are at a point where fans have more access than ever to their favourite artists and that can only be a good thing. They feel like they are a part of your career rather than someone who participates from the outside. While there’ll always be a place for manufactured music, audiences are responding to people that deliver something genuine and inspiring.

What advice do you have for people wishing to make the leap out of the day job to pursue a music career?
There’s never a ‘right’ time to dedicated yourself to it and it’s easy to sit on the fence rather than throw yourself into it. Obviously, we’ve all got bills to pay so be smart about it. There’ll be plenty of times you’ll feel like it’s not going anywhere. Those are the moments when people who won’t make it a career will opt out and people who put their heads down will dig in even further. Nothing is more magical than tenacity.

Cairo Knife FightThe Music is Talking

Cairo Knife Fight is a hard rock duo originally from New Zealand. Nick Gaffaney slays on vocals and drums while George Pajon, Jr. destroys on guitar. Find out more at: www.cairoknifefight.com