Talking drums with Young Drummer of the Year 2018, JJ Wallace

Posted: 15 November 2019

We caught JJ Wallace for a chat about what life has been like in the year since he won and how he balances his time between his music and his studies.

Read time: 10 mins

What encouraged you to get into drumming?

My whole family are musicians. My mums a singer, my uncles play, and my cousins are in the industry as well, so they encouraged me to work hard and get into music as well. Being around it I naturally enjoyed it. It just kind of went from me smacking my dads head when I was younger to him getting me a drumkit and then it just evolved from that. They never forced me to learn because otherwise I don’t think I’d have enjoyed it as much. It was more of my initiative than anyone else telling me to do it.

Has it always just been drumming for you?

It was in the beginning, but as I’ve grown up and matured, I wanted to explore different avenues. I play keys at quite a high standard and I play bass as well. I do this mainly because I’m working on my own project so I wanted to be able to understand music from a different perspective, not just being a drummer. When I’m in a band I know what other people want and I know how the music should play out. I’m not just a drummer, I can compose, I can score out. It makes sense to not limit myself to the one thing because I’m young and it’s worth putting in the time now.

What’s this project you mentioned?

A year ago, my school started getting a really good music facility and I wanted to make use of it before I leave because I’m in my last year now. I write notes on my phone when I’m in the car or on a plane. My phone is just filled with voice notes of ideas and bits of me practicing and that’s all evolving into a kind of ‘jazzy/ hip hop/ late night New York style’ of music that I’m working on. I want to put it out as an EP/ album of my own stuff. It’s just me doing my own thing. It’s how I want to express myself because I’ve always listened to music and played music so this project is just saying ‘this is me.’ I just want to express myself through music I love basically. It gives me something to stay focused on other than my studies. I really like it so far and I’m quite excited but nervous at the same time because I’ve never released my own music.

Are you self-taught or did you have lessons?

I learnt by just watching other people, not through having formal lessons. I watched videos and watched players at church and things like that. I used to watch Dennis Chambers back when I was a little kid, I had that video on replay.

I did have a teacher just before secondary school who started teaching me how to read music as my mum thought that was really important. I then got another teacher at secondary school, smashed through all the grades and got my diploma. The teaching wasn’t just about teaching me drums, it was about teaching me the reading and wider musical abilities. It was teaching me about music as a whole so I could go anywhere, like an orchestra or a jazz and let the music play itself. 

"I’ve always listened to music and played music so this project is just saying ‘this is me.’"

So, music theory is really important then?

I know loads of people who don’t bother with music theory and that’s fine, but I always loved music and it was very hard for me to listen to just drums. I wanted to understand music as a whole. In school a lot of the music we studied was classical, so I had to know how to read otherwise I would just be left out. Like I said, my mum initially made me do it, which was good as I might not have done it in the first place, but it’s really helped me understand how it all comes together. I’m not just bashing drums!

Do you have a set practice routine?

It depends. I don’t go into a session thinking ‘now I’m going to learn rudiments’ or anything like that. A lot of my practice is listening, observing. When I get on the kit it’s playing along with stuff.

I used to do a lot of click practice as I thought that was important. I’d have a metronome going and I’d speed it up, slow it down, do different speeds. I’d also have someone there to turn the click down, I’d keep playing and then I’d have them turn it back up to see if I was still in time so that was really good as timekeeping is one of the most important things in drumming. You can do all the flashy stuff but if you go out of time you’re fired. I never really have a set regime though, I’m a bit free flowing. I get to practice less than I’d like due to school and stuff.

"I used to have pillows laid out on the floor and I’d name them like ‘that’s the tom, the snare etc’ and just visualise it in my head."

Do you have a preferred kit setup?

It changes quite regularly. Sometimes, if I’m playing jazz I’ll have one 12” tom up and a 14” or 16” tom down because I like simplicity. Sometimes I even get rid of the toms but there are other days when I’ll have three up and one down. It depends on what I’m playing. I don’t necessarily have a set up for myself, I have a setup for the music. Having just one setup limits myself. I can explore different setups, different depths of toms.

You won the Young Drummer of the Year Award in 2018, has much changed since then?

Yes and no. I’m still at school so the idea of ‘now you’ve won it, you’re working all the time’ is a bit of a myth really. The exposure I’ve got and the amount I’ve learnt since is massive. It was a massive platform. I played at the UK drum show that same year and that was huge for me. I was used to just playing in front of my mates at school and now people are actually buying tickets to watch me perform. It was a shock to my system.

Since then I’ve got better and I’ve diversified. Since the competition I feel like I’ve matured, and the confidence was immense. I remember going into the next gig I played, I felt like I was so much more confident. People have acknowledged that I can play and I now believe in myself a little bit more.

Are you planning on studying music further after school?

I won’t be studying music at uni. I’m going to study Economics. I’m not going to leave the music, I’m going to have both. It helps having a business mind in any industry and it would be a waste on my part to throw away my academic side. I will still be playing a lot at university, I’ll still be gigging and doing shows and stuff. I just want to give myself options and not limit myself in any way.

Do you look for anything particular in a drumkit?

It has to look the part and it needs to be versatile in terms of how I can tune it and what it sounds good for. For me, the bass and the snare are the most important bits of any drumkit. They need to pop. My bass drum needs to be hard but not too deep and I’m a massive snare fan so sometimes I’ll have a really small 12” snare or a buzz snare. It needs to sound good in different scenarios so if I can tune it up and it sounds great in a jazz scenario, then if I can tune it down for some urban pop, that’s perfect for me. I don’t want to be chopping and changing kits for each gig.