Fresh from performing at Glastonbury festival and an appearance on Later…with Jools Holland, BSA caught up with Jack Mitchell, to ask what it’s like finding fame and success playing the drums for Johnny Marr (former guitarist in The Smiths).
Tell us about your experiences of growing up with a stammer.
I first noticed my stammer when I was 8. It was when my parents were going through a difficult time, which eventually led them to divorce. During my childhood and teenage years my stammer affected me the most. I used to dread the school register. Sometimes I could answer straight away, but others I would block and pull (what I thought) were stupid faces as I tried to say a simple “Yes Sir” or “Yes Miss”. I remember every morning the build-up. I would try to prepare myself and be ready but sadly this didn’t always happen, much to the amusement of my classmates, who didn’t know if I had a stammer or whether I just couldn’t say ‘yes’.
In my teens, my stammer affected my social life in every way. Talking to girls was a nightmare and even though my friends were patient with me, even they would have a playful dig from time to time. I remember when I started dating a girl from college; it was a mammoth task just trying to phone her! At that time (1997) there weren’t many mobile phones floating around so I would have to call her house phone and if need be ask the parents to speak to their daughter. Once I got through to my date I could speak reasonably well. However, it was that first giant hurdle of getting her on the phone which I dreaded. Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to say a single word so I would have to hang up - if they hadn’t already done so. They must’ve thought I was giving them dirty calls! This happened a few times and started to upset me. My solution…I recorded myself saying, “Can I speak to…please,” on a tape player, then pressed play when the parents answered the phone. Voila! It didn’t always work though, as there was a small delay from the time they said “Hello” to the point where the tape was rolling. But most of the time it worked pretty well.
What have you done over the years to address your stammer?
At 17 my GP referred me for speech therapy. I went to around four or five sessions. I was encouraged to openly stammer the words rather than block on them. For example, if I couldn’t say my name, started pulling faces and strained trying to get the word out, my therapist advised me to say my name like “J…J…J…Jack”. I wasn’t convinced so I gave it up.
When did you start drumming and how did you get to where you are today?
I began drumming when I was eleven; it was a way of expressing myself and letting out pent-up frustration and tension caused by my stammer. By this time I was in high school and thought it would at least give me something ‘cool’ to be good at and take the focus away from my speech impediment. I played in many school bands over the years and bands with friends, but nothing serious. I chose to go to a college far away from where I lived - that meant leaving behind a lot of friends. But once there I met a whole new set of friends, some of whom knew people at record labels and had contacts in the Manchester music scene. Ironically, my first job in music was as drum technician for Mike Joyce, who was the drummer in The Smiths! He was playing with Andy Rourke, The Smith’s bass player, in a backup band for Aziz Abraham, who had played guitar with Ian Brown (from The Stone Roses). I was only 18 at the time - the fact that I was mixing with these kinds of people was amazing!
I was 20 years old and in a signed band - brilliant!
Through these contacts I got my first big drumming job playing in a band called Tailgunner. The singer was Mark Coyle, who produced the classic Oasis album Definitely Maybe. Noel Gallagher had played drums on the album and I was chosen to play the songs live. (Incidentally, it was on the Tailgunner tour where I noticed that drinking alcohol made my stammer worse. However, as I drank more I didn’t care as much!) In Tailgunner I met one of my best friends, Phil Cunningham (now playing in New Order). He was in a Britpop band called Marion prior to Tailgunner. Marion were managed by former Smith’s manager Joe Moss, who now looked after an up-and-coming band from Cornwall called Haven, who needed a drummer. I was asked, through Phil, if I wanted to audition. It was a success and I got the job. Haven already had a record deal with Virgin; I was 20 years old and in a signed band - brilliant!
I got the job drumming for Johnny Marr in 2012. I had met Johnny in 2001 when he produced the first Haven album, so he was familiar with me. We always got on really well and are first and foremost good friends. Johnny called me one day to ask if I’d like to play on a couple of tracks for his new album. I jumped at the chance and a couple of tracks soon became the entire album. Once the album was mixed we started to talk about plans for worldwide tours. I was very excited.
How do you cope with giving press interviews?
The success of Haven meant I would have to take part in numerous interviews for TV and the radio. This scared the life out of me! I tried to pass the responsibility on to my bandmates - after all, who wants to speak to the drummer? But at the end of the day we were a tight band so we did things together. During interviews I tended to use one phrase which I knew I was able to say, even if it didn’t make any sense. When asked any question I would freeze for a moment and then say, “Well, maybe it’s just a case of doing our own thing really.” That was my answer for everything, which became a running joke within the band.
Johnny (Marr) has been great with me and my stammer; he knows me well enough to know how to make me feel relaxed, and if the phone goes silent he knows not to hang up.
How does stammering affect your job?
Dealing with my drum technician can be an issue, especially when playing live. As I am concentrating on playing the drums, trying to speak as well (which is hard enough anyway) can be even harder. I have to convey any problems as quickly as possible and I tend to pull some serious blocking and stammering faces - not great when there is a TV camera in your face!
Touring and playing live is always very enjoyable and of course my stammer can get in the way. We recently did a live BBC Radio 6 music session, and the way the studio was set up meant that I was put in a separate room from the band. Before the show started, the presenter’s assistant came into my room to ask the names of the other band members, putting me on the spot as we were about to go live! I struggled and finally got the names out, but pulled some pretty extreme faces in the process. I didn’t let this affect me though, and it probably spurred me on to hit the drums a little harder!
How do bandmates respond to your stammer?
My bandmates have always been very patient with me and my stammer over the years – once they have got to know me. Johnny has been great with me; he knows me well enough now to know how to make me feel relaxed, and if the phone goes silent he knows not to hang up.
How do you find speaking with fans?
When you’re playing with Johnny Marr, there are always going to be fans around to talk to. I don’t think they have picked up on my stammer; I can hide it quite well by avoiding certain words. They could possibly just think I am quiet, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Does your sense of rhythm help with your stammer?
Rhythm can definitely help. I have had occasions when I literally cannot say the words (sometimes after a beer or two!) so I have spoken in a kind of rhyme – “Hel-lo I-am-Jack-Mit-chell”. I think this only works, however, in situations where the other person knows that you have a stammer; otherwise they may think you’re making fun of them!
What is it like meeting and speaking to other famous musicians?
I have met many ‘famous’ musicians over the years. Recently I played with Ronnie Wood from the Rolling Stones. He came on stage at the NME awards to play The Smiths song How Soon Is Now. That was surreal. My stammer has been an issue on numerous occasions with other musicians. I am sometimes unable to say what I’d like to say. Sometimes I would rather be quiet than pull faces trying to get words out, especially if I have just met someone for the first time.
Do you get many jokes about being ‘the drummer’?
I am always the butt of ‘drummer jokes’. I don’t help things though sometimes - a recent comment of mine kept the crew in hysterics for a few days after a gig in Bridport. I walked into the venue to soundcheck, when I saw a massive ‘Johnny Marr’ backdrop on the stage. I asked, “Is that ours?” The crew was rolling around with laughter. This was the first time I’d seen it, so what I meant was: has the venue provided it for us?!
Jack will be embarking on a UK tour with Johnny Marr this Autumn. For tour dates, get in touch with him through Twitter at www.twitter.com/jackthesticks.
From Speaking Out Summer 2013 pages 10-11.