Multi-Percussionist & Electronic Artist
Sam Wilson is a percussionist and composer based in London. Recent projects include the world premiere of G F Haas’ Solstices with Riot Ensemble (a 70 minute work performed in total darkness), numerous sessions for film and television (including Netflix’s The Two Popes and the Oscar and Grammy-award-winning soundtrack to Black Panther), recreating Clint Mansell’s score to Duncan Jones’ cult classic Moon at the Barbican, and depping in London’s production of Hamilton. Since 2010 Sam has worked with composer and producer Anna Meredith. Anna’s albums have garnered critical acclaim (including the coveted ‘Best New Music’ on Pitchfork ), and their NPR Tiny Desk performance was described by the show’s creator Bob Boilen as “simply the most exhilarating one I’ve experienced”. Their second album FIBS was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2020.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
When I was very young I developed a condition called ‘hyperacusis’ - defined as an “increased sensitivity to particular sounds”. This for me manifested itself as a complete fear and aversion to loud noises; you can imagine the tragically comic scene of me as a child quietly sobbing in the corner of a friend’s birthday party as the “how many balloons can you pop in one minute” competition was taking place. Fireworks night was a write-off. Proper hiding-under-the-bed business. Someone opening a bottle of Prosecco at Christmas time? I’ll just be off to the toilet for a few mins to hide, thank you. I have this memory of going to watch a concert at the RFH. They were playing “The Planets” in the second half, and the sight of all that perc gear just ruined the whole experience for me. I was so worried about the noise that was going to come out of all that stuff at the back of the stage.
My parents were musical, and there was a piano in the flat. They never pushed me to play it - just let it exist in the flat, and about age 7 I started messing around on it. I started having piano lessons at school, and when I moved to a new school that had a school orchestra, the music teacher asked which instrument I’d like to play.
“I will play the piano”, I said.
“There’s no piano in the orchestra”, she replied. “But we need some more people to play percussion?”
“No THANK you, I will NOT be playing percussion”.
I went back and spoke to my parents about it and they told me to give it a go, once. I went in to the next rehearsal and played a piece where I had to play crotchets on a woodblock throughout. I was absolutely dreadful. But I loved it. Taking ownership of the sound seemed to be the simplest way to start overcoming a lifelong phobia. I’ve never looked back, but you’ll still see me carefully removing balloons from my immediate vicinity at any birthday party/function.
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
After the woodblock audition, I went to the open day of the Suffolk County Music service music school which took place on a Saturday morning. I’d never actually seen someone play the drum kit up close before, so when the orchestra started playing a (fairly definitive) version of “Let it Be”, my jaw hit the floor. The kid playing the drums was playing a very simple rock beat but when it finished I ran up to him and said, “wow!! That was absolutely amazing!!!” I think he thought I was taking the piss.
I started learning drums at school with a teacher called Gerry Gillings. He was patient and supportive, and got me started with a lot of technicals. When I started getting more serious about my music I went for an open day at Junior Trinity College of Music in London. Percussionist Joby Burgess had just started teaching there. I remember he produced some handmade dots for Red Hot Chill Pepper’s “Under the Bridge”… RHCP were (and still are) the only band I’ve ever truly been OBSESSED with, so this was a done deal. Joby made it clear that he was not interested in just teaching me drums; if I chose to study with him we’d learn all percussion. I did Saturday mornings at Junior Trinity from age 13-18, and that changed everything for me.
What instruments/resources did you have?
My first bit of a gear was a Roland TD-6 electric drum kit. Because we’d moved out of London into the suburban vista of Ipswich, the upgrade of this, insanely, was an actual Yamaha acoustic drum kit. I don’t currently have children, but the idea that I’d ever love them enough to allow an actual drum kit in my house whilst they were learning…. is nigh-on unfathomable. I’m so grateful they did though. Having stayed in London after graduating from Music College and learning about actual noise-politics and the thinness of walls… they, and all neighbouring families deserve several medals and many hand-written apologies. After starting studying in London at Junior Trinity, my parents saved up to buy me a 4.3 octave marimba. I’m still ridiculously grateful for that. It was back when rosewood wasn’t as expensive as it is these days, but still it was a huge gesture - and ultimately facilitated me playing with four sticks at home.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
Everyone’s experience is so personal. I’d longed to go to a specialist music school since I got the percussion bug, but my parents put the brakes on that. Having been musicians themselves they were very resistant about me choosing this as a career path, and thought it would be a good experience to continue in a regular school and do the music education on the weekends. That’s not to say I have anything against specialist music schools - I’ve met tons of people who have come through that as more-than-rounded-people with loads of interests. My personal advice to younger students would be to try and make your music education work alongside a more regular school programme. If you choose to go to music college at 18… life gets ‘specific’ and ‘focussed’ enough. To be honest - the juggling that is required between keeping up your work at school and also practicing and participating in music activities is the PERFECT training for what life feels working in the profession. You have to be a chameleon, and give your best to lots of people all at the same time.
Try and keep an open mind about English, Science, Sport, Drama - whatever other things spark an interest. Get as much performing experience as you can, whatever it is. It will all be helpful. Act in plays if you want - learn about stage presence, nerves, camaraderie. Do some Graded Exams, but not all of them. And if they’re on drums, do the ones where you have to play along to recordings - preferably real songs. As much as possible your drumming should feel connected to other people, other instruments. I’m so excited about how this has come on since I did my drum exams.
I actually feel so many parallels with this time at school, and the time when you’ve left music college. You may have to be “guerrilla” with your practice methods. If you don’t have a tuned percussion instrument at home - is there anything in the school? Even a diatonic melodophone/crap little xylophone would be beneficial to practice scales/arpeggios and start to reinforce the muscle memory required to hit small targets with sticks. Bug your head of music; ask for times to practice… Life opens up when you get to music college; big, expensive instruments, sound-proofing, like-minded individuals… You want to feel excited when you get there. If that means ‘making do’ but still fuelling a passion from 12-18 years old - my money’d still be on you to make the most of your ability.
Buy a Practice Pad. Something to practice tuned percussion shapes. Shaker and a Tambourine. And yep. Ready for this feeling again once you’ve been presented with that graduation hat? “Guerrilla Practice” baby!
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
There are many more programmes/summer schools available to young percussionists these days. Get fanatical researching them. Many fantastic players are offering their tuition in these contexts - just be bold and go for it! I owe a lot to Aldeburgh Young Musicians and to Junior Trinity College of Music for opening my eyes to so much music.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
If I told you it was the woodblock moment, it would sound cheesy. But not long after that!
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I studied at the Guildhall, and did an Undergraduate and a Masters Degree there. 5 years at the most beautiful concrete bunker in the City! I had so many fantastic teachers, some for longer than others… but I’m thankful to Richard Benjafield, David Corkhill, Mike Skinner, Aidy Spillett, Sam Walton, Julian Warburton, Tony Bedewi and Zands Duggan. I learned so much from all of them. And Aidy was gracious enough to invite me to fill in for him in Perc Quartet 4-Mality. I remembered reading about them in a music magazine when I was about 13, and liked to remind them of that as it made them feel very old.
Why did you decide this pathway?
Despite my parents trying to *softly* dissuade me, I knew I wanted to go to music college. They claim to have done this not to ‘crush dreams’ etc, but more to provide a bit of resistance. They said that if I’d relented and not followed through then I probably didn’t want it enough, and I can see some sense in that. I auditioned for all the music colleges in London, and went to each of the open days. The vibe at the Guildhall most closely chimed with the way I was thinking at the time. I asked at every place what their attitude to students taking time off to do outside engagements was - and received a spectrum of answers. I only have the life I do now because the Guildhall were hugely supportive and generous in allowing me time away from the college. It’s not an open and shut case, and conservatoires have a duty of care to their students to make sure they are properly “trained” etc. But some of the attitudes to this above issue were, frankly, pretty staggering. This career is hard enough without shutting down any opportunities before you graduate.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
I’m pretty sure it was about 3 weeks after getting to Guildhall. Myself and percussionist James Leveridge were contacted by someone who worked at a renowned law firm in the City of London. They were attempting to put on a scratch gig/teambuilding thing where the whole office would sing Carmina Burana in the atrium of their posh building. It was absolutely mega. We were just there tanking timps and snare drums whilst Darren and Sandra from Human Resources squawked their way through “O Fortuna.” A gig offer soon followed from the “London Bankers Orchestra”… I’m telling you: What went wrong?! That was all starting to sound like a pretty lucrative career path…
What happened next?
Drunk a few too many bottles of the complimentary Heineken and stumbled in late to Musicianship Class the next morning!
You are a passionate advocate of new music and hold positions of artistic board member and principal player with the Riot Ensemble and London Contemporary Orchestra. Where did your interest in new music start and what has been the highlight?
I think it honestly started reading those amazing books about percussion by people like James Blades. I must have seen a copy of one of these books in a library somewhere, and took it home to look at the pictures of the instruments. The most interesting pictures though were the excerpts of the sheet music. It looked absolutely insane - graphic scores, notes with more beams on them than I’d ever seen in my life, crazy sounding stage-directions… There was this La Monte Young piano piece where you were asked to bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage and ‘feed' it to the piano. That stuff was definitely catnip to me at the time. It had this “punk” energy - and with it came embarrassing trips to scrap yards and hardware shops to pick up junk metal and start crafting instruments and ‘finding’ sounds. When I was in Aldeburgh studying at AYM we played a Takemitsu percussion quartet called “Seasons” - and all the sounds had been found in the building site next door. Suddenly a scrape of a pair of scissors on a piece of old masonry felt like the most beautiful, meaningful sound in the world. I’m sure if you asked the audience of parents, they would resoundingly agree.
So many highlights with both those groups but something that rings in the memory of late is our creation and premiere of G.F. Haas’ “Solstices”, a 75 minute work to be performed in total pitch darkness. The set up include playing vibraphone, some timps, lots of small unusual sounds, and throwing some old cymbals into a dustbin. The dustbin moment comes at about 50 minutes into the piece, (out of nowhere) - and the fear and anticipation about what it’s going to do to the energy inside the room is pretty palpable. There’s no stopwatches, no hidden tricks with time: I have to simply feel/guess 50 minutes and then offer up this terrifying contribution. The first time we played it, in Iceland, they blocked out every single bit of light, and covered all the Exit Row signs. We’ve been in a series of losing battles since to get other venues to do the same…! True dark with no gleam of light at all is soo much darker than ‘nearly dark’.
You were a member of and co-producer for the hip hop comedy act Abandoman from 2011-2017, performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, every major UK music festival and supporting Ed Sheeran on tour. What was this part of your career like?
I started working with Rob Broderick (Abandoman) in February of my first year at Guildhall. This goes back to what I was saying about GSMD being generous with time off - we put on a run of shows at the Soho Theatre as a first project and did a corporate to launch the Nintendo 3DS the next night. I put a backing band together that did a run of festivals that year and that was crazy to me; I’d never really been allowed to go to a music festival during school, or maybe, I hadn’t asked - and to be introduced to that world as performers (even though we may have been playing free shows on a rickety wooden stage) was electrifying. It probably did bad things to our confidence/egos - - we may have been absolutely insufferable. I’m sure there’ll be lots of character references who can confirm that. But after the summer the fairy dust started to evaporate a bit; this show was touring around with a 7-person band and we weren’t making anywhere near enough money to sustain that. In fact we were losing money every time we went out. Rob called me for a meeting and said basically, “the jig’s up”. I remember making a mental snap decision that I was going to fight for my role in this group, and justify the aspirations I had for us after working together for these few months. I went away and wrote a hefty Microsoft Word document detailing all the aims, all the things I wanted us to accomplish. I presented it to him later that week and I think he was a bit shocked, but pleasantly surprised.
The tour with Ed Sheeran came soon after that - him and Rob knew each other from way back and it was a fun challenge to make stuff work on stage for 5,000 people, in the same way we had it working for 120 in a comedy club. Each night the finale of that tour spot was Rob asking the crowd if anyone had the guts to “battle him”. The crowd obviously assumed a “rap battle” - and a cocky guy or two would volunteer or be volunteered by his friends. He’d come onto stage looking nervous, and then myself and Phil Donnelly 9who was playing keys in the group on that tour) would help the tech crew wheel on a Giant Connect Four that we’d got from Hasbro. Rob would freestyle whilst battling the guy at Connect Four, and he won the game every one but one during that run of shows. It’s sort of mad, the memory of doing that in Brixton Academy - but it went down pretty well and was a useful experience in how to 'size-up' the silly nonsense we were peddling. I worked with Rob for six years, and very closely for the final 2.5 years when we performed as a duo. I’m really proud of the things we made, including our final show which was a fictional narrative about us achieving fame on a twisted version of Ireland’s Got Talent and being hunted down and assassinated by Daft Punk. I learned a lot about electronics, sung for the fist time on stage, and have a lot of memories travelling the world with a really close friend.
You are a member of Anna Meredith's Mercury-nominated band, in which you play drums and sing, and also share writing credits and have co-devised works with Anna. How did this partnership begin and how does it differ from your other work?
I actually played one of her pieces when I was a teenager… she likes to remind me of the cringy email I sent her asking whether a “particular baking tray would work for one of the metal sounds”, or something. But we properly met in 2012 on a music/dance residency run by cellist Olly Coates. He ran a session where he got everyone to lie on the ground and we listened to Anna’s tune ‘Nautilus’ which had just come out. I’d never heard anything like it, and resolved whilst there lying on the floor that I wanted to work with her and play her music live. Because improvised-audience based-freestyle-comedy felt like such a unique thing, I’d engendered this mindset where I wanted every project I was involved in to be unlike anything else. And I felt Anna’s music didn’t sound like anything I’d heard in my life. I still believe that. She has developed such a distinct electronic language - and she makes no bones about the fact she doesn’t go heavy on synth building, analogue processing or micro-tweaks to sounds. Her process is refreshingly unfussy, sonically - but this, combined with her fanaticism for an IDEA creates songs I really believe in. Whilst it may be “unfussy”, the process can take a long time. She cooks up little ideas/little scraps and then builds up some courage to play them and we talk about them as a group and begin to weave them together. We wait quite a while before adding the acoustic instruments, but always have a sense of what they’re going to do.
We poured everything we had into album 2, ‘FIBS’, but are so pleased with it and were blown away when it got nominated for the Mercury. Our tour to the USA had been cut short before our first gig, right in mid March, and we’d lost a load of energy and money and felt totally depressed about the rest of the year, but that was definitely a big boost. The bulk of the work with Anna is just about being a good collaborator, (whatever that means!). It’s being open-minded and having faith in others when working out ideas, it’s keeping spirits up during long van journeys up motorways and frenetic get-ins/soundchecks… working out packing solutions for all our mixers and gear when we go abroad, and really, believing that this thing we’re doing is worth it. The gigs can feel like the easy bit. This concept of being a band, at this level, is absolutely amazing - but there is not enough money to farm out much of the work. The leap that comes when you start making the cash to have people drive you around, move your gear, soundcheck your gear… That’s unfathomable to me, at the moment. I’d love for it to happen, one day - but right now it feels like a cottage industry and a family. So when we experience success, or setback, we all feel it, and we have each other for genuine support.
You have also performed as a soloist, have a long-standing Boiler Room collaboration and recorded for productions such as Netflix's Two Popes and the soundtrack to Black Panther. What do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?
It was always the thing that interested me about playing percussion. I personally wouldn’t have it any other way at this point - but hey, that’s liable to change one day… The plate-spinning can be exhausting. And you can easily fall into the trap of letting your work define who you are - it can definitely feel like that when you’re dashing from one thing to the next trying to make things fit. By no means am I saying I’m not grateful to be working (or, WAS working - do we all remember what that felt like?), but as a freelancer there’s this pressure to fill all your time to keep money coming in. It’s like if you were offered the opportunity to do “unlimited overtime” in a more traditional job - but there’s a ton of reasons that might not be the most healthy thing.
Are there any challenges?
Yes. I’ve always been someone who has put great pressure on myself and is frightened of failure or not being good enough. So when I left working with Rob (Abanadoman) in 2017 (which had taken up about 75% of my time for the previous couple years) I had a bit of a confidence meltdown. I didn’t really realise what was happening at the time - I think I’d assumed I wasn’t gonna be working for a bit so would have time to get my hands back in shape after being on the road with him - but when that didn’t happen and instead I got called to work, my brain and my hands started to let me down. My perception of my playing started veering further and further away from the reality, and being asked to go in to play occasionally in the studio or in the pit at a West End show is daunting enough due to the people you’re playing alongside. I went down a bit of a difficult road with it, and didn’t stop my work whilst it was happening. I tried lots and lots of different type of therapies and spoke to lots of people about it. But the idea of admitting it to anyone, and taking the time off just seemed impossible. My love for playing and performing really suffered during those years. It felt a bit like wearing a mask, and your brain is well-suited to filling in the narrative about what others might be saying/feeling about your playing, especially when your internal monologue is so negative. What it required in the end was breaking down my practice to very small, slow chunks, and just doing the same thing, three times a day, every day. Just with sticks on a pad. The anxiety had led my grip to change, effectively, and I needed to restore my fulcrum and sense of fluidity. But changing a habit like that whilst depping on a show like ‘Hamilton’, where you have 156 different click triggers to hit exactly at the right time or the show effectively “stops”?! It’s a lot to ask of your hands to be pliable and flexible to change under those conditions. I had to be religious about the practice. And slowly over time things improved. The first Lockdown helped, which feels a very complicated thing to admit. A period of not having high-pressure engagements allowed the physio and the approach to really bed-in. And it’s a method of practice I’ll keep up - if only just to stay “in touch” with my hands in a way which has become extremely familiar over the last 18 months.
I was very hesitant to admit any of this to anyone, especially other people in our industry. But then, during 2020 I started making a piece with a composer called Matt Grouse, and we decided we wanted to make it about this very issue. It uses the practice pad I made all the improvements on as the only instrument, and triggers samples of our zoom conversations. It’s also about me getting addicted to an online version of the board game Risk.
It’s called "Left Right, Left Right", and is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IauCUHBjtQM
If anyone takes in any of my waffle here, I’d ask them for it to be this bit. Don’t be afraid about finding help with stuff like this if it crops up, BAPAM (https://www.bapam.org.uk/) are fantastic, as are Help Musicians UK (https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/). And talk to your friends/colleagues about it. They’ll be a way through. We ask so much of ourselves as percussionists so this stuff is merely bumps in the road. But I wouldn’t have believed that if you’d told me 2 years ago. My website is linked below and if anyone want to ask/talk about any of this please feel free to shoot me an email. The thing that has always made me feel good about percussionists is that we are there for each other. That’s what doing the setting up and the packing down and the wheeling xylophones in and out of lifts does. This stuff is equally taboo on the football pitch as in orchestras - because of the high standard that is demanded, and people’s fear it will make them look unreliable/weak. But my experience in navigating something like this showed me it takes remarkable strength. And players like that who are willing to take those risks and stick themselves on the line, are definitely players I’d want to play alongside.
As we've already heard you are also a composer, how and when did you start composing?
I started when I was at Junior Trinity. I had an amazing composition teacher called Cecilia McDowall. She was very inspirational, and also had to spend a good amount of time nudging me to make the titles of my pieces less pretentious. One of them was initially called “The Meaning of Dreams”… (and I think it was for bassoon and piano?).
Does composition compliment your performing career?
In nearly every single part of it. As percussionists we are often asked, (or sometimes we just start doing it anyway!), to improvise as often we know specific rhythms/textures more than a composer might do. Whether they’re happy to work in that way depends! Being confident in improvising and having an opinion on compositional structure/ideas just makes you a far more interesting collaborator in my opinion. Start jamming young - the results might not stand the test of time but the experience of committing to an idea is important to start early. And leave space! This is the cheapest trick in the book but it still seems to have passed so many by…. not playing can often be more meaningful than playing. And it’s much easier!
What advice would you give to students wanting to give composition a go?
Just do it. Get on Garageband, Ableton, or Logic and start messing around with that software. Watch a ton of Youtube tutorials. Much like many others… that was how I learned Final Cut over this unusual year of being sat at home a lot. And as well as that, buy a pad of manuscript paper and sit down at the piano/midi keyboard/whatever and noodle around. Stick the recorder on on your phone to capture an idea whether it’s good or bad. And most important thing of all is keep your ears open to the music that comes across our ears every day. Maybe it’s a striking bit of unusual scoring from a film or a TV show. Maybe it’s a bit of production used on a pop song heard on the radio. You should be like a magpie, picking little things from here and there - at least, until you realise you hate that shiny thing, then throw it in the bin, or bend it into something else (if magpie’s beaks were strong enough to do that…? Does this metaphor feel stretched to you?)
What is your career highlight so far?
We did an Abandoman show once were we ended up, by chance involving the actual Banker from Deal or No Deal. He was just in the audience of a show, off-duty. He was a bit coy about whether he was really the Banker, but it was confirmed afterward he was the ACTUAL BANKER. Any self-respecting Noel Edmonds fan would have to acknowledge the gravitas of that moment.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
There’s this amazing quote from the choreographer Martha Graham where she says:
“No artist is ever pleased. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
It’s the best, the most life-giving and the hardest thing all rolled into one, so I think I’ll go with that.
Do you have any other strings to your bow?
As explored in "Left Right, Left Right" (above) I am, since March, pretty deep in to an addiction to an online version of the boardgame Risk. You get 24 hours in which to take each turn and it’s all sequential, so a 26 round game can (and has) gone on for over 3 months. You get very invested. I’ve played 147 as of yet, and have 26 on the go as we speak. There’s a brilliantly amazing/depressing info page that shows you how many “rolls of the dice” you’ve taken since you joined the site… I’m currently on 46,052 rolls. ‘Don’t hate the player’ etc…
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?
1. Keep your head up out of the stand, and engage with the other people on stage. The performance is not worth much if it exists in a vacuum.
2. Be inspired by others but don’t try follow their footsteps. They only got to where they are by being faithful to themselves, and you need to do the same.
3. Be aware of what you are potentially giving up by choosing to follow this path. Your life will become fundamentally different from your friends at school. Different in a novel way at first, whilst new experiences open themselves up to you, and then different in a harder way, when their income and job stability allows them to buy houses and start families whilst you’re still wracking your brains as to how to make this career work. That is NOT to say don’t do it. It’s to say: if you feel inside that there’s NO chance there’s anything else you’d rather do in the world than find a way to pursue this career, then jump in with both feet. And know it will be hard, all-consuming… but allow you to feel emotions that are so technicolour, and experience moments that are so rare and magical. It’s just about managing all the time in between those moments.
Any last thoughts?
Thanks, if you’re reading this and got all the way to the end! I’m inspired by all the people who have contributed to this amazing resource so it is very humbling to be in their company. Thank you to Will + Kizzy for making our circle feel all that much tighter.
If you would like to find out more about Sam, please check out his website:
Photo credit: Raphaël Neal