SOUND OF THE UNDERGROUND with Davy Craig former guitarist for North East noise merchants Drill

Drill formed in the late 80s. A live review in Sounds said…’when the massive guitar barrage is coupled with vocals they sound like they’re fresh off The Exorcist. Drill have a magnificent intensity’…. For my first gig we were booked at the Riverside on Wednesday 18th July 1990. I was 21. A few of my mates were in the audience and by the time we went on stage I was a shaking mess. But once the drum machine counted us in for the first song I was in the zone. The audience stood as if they’d been sonically blasted into submission. That was my first proper gig and I wanted more.

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Davy Craig on the right playing his first gig at The Riverside, Newcastle.

When did your interest with music begin ? I always thought that being able to play guitar was a mystical gift that you were born with and was unattainable. But I knew a lad who was selling a bass for £20. I had some money left over from Christmas and begged my parents to lend me the difference. They did and I headed home with the guitar. After a few months I became bored at the limitations of the bass so sold it for £25 and bought a guitar with an amp. Immediately I felt I was in business. I just played what I heard…badly, but I loved it.

Who were your influences ? I was brought up with The Beatles, The Moody Blues and Donovan,  Then U2, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Big Country. Amongst 60s bands like Velvet Underground, The Doors and a number of Punk and Post Punk bands.

I’d read an interview with Will Sergeant from Echo and the Bunnymen. A lot of music journalists and ‘musos’ gave him a hard time, because of the simplistic style of his playing. He sounded incredible to me though.

He said something along the lines of ‘I’m not very good at playing anyone else’s stuff, or like anyone else…but no bastard can play like me! That was the whole key for me.

Had guitars started to become an obsession then I had two part time jobs and saved every penny to upgrade my guitars, amps and effects. By the time I was 17 I had an early 60s Japanese reissue Candy Apple Red Stratocaster and a Fender Amp with upgraded pedals. I knew about chords by then and was learning more and more, but still in my own style. I got to find out about the world of effects and tried to get my hands on as many cheap second hand Arion effects. Phaser, flanger, distortion and an analogue delay which was a real game changer.

My dad would just turn off the house electricity and have everyone sat in the dark rather than tell me to turn my amp down! Loads of other crap was going on and I started bunking off from school to get home and play guitar in peace.

I also became friends with members of local band Candleman Summer and roadied for them. I thought the guitarist Graeme McCulla, was superb. I watched closely and learnt from him.

When I went to university in London the first thing I bought with my grant was an E-bow in Denmark Street in Soho. That changed everything and I spent hours playing with big delays, slide, distortion and other effects to create all sorts of weird and wonderful sounds.

When were your first gigs ? I played in a few bands at a Community Centre in Hebburn. But I left because I didn’t want to play Dire Straits, OMD, Level 42 and the like. I wanted to make a racket!

How did getting the job with Drill come about ? When I started my second year at Uni I had plans of joining a band in London but after a few problems came back to the North East and looked in various music ads.

There was an advert in The Sunday Sun in July 1990 for a band who required a 3rd guitarist. That intrigued me. They were into Big Black, The Band of Susans stuff like that. I spoke to a lad called Kev Wilkinson and arranged to meet up.

I went along to the rehearsal rooms and Kev said…‘Well get inside and set up, because I’m fucking sick of all of the metal heads we’ve had so far!’ The first thing I noticed was no drummer, then the bassist Drew Gallon, who played for The Shotgun Brides and later Forgodsake. He was helping the band out.

In the corner standing in front of a huge double stack of four cabs was Tony O’Brien. Kev and Tony had previously been in The Shotgun Brides.

I was asked to play a few things which sounded absolutely deafening. Having enjoyed it I left and when I got home got a call from Kev. He told me that I was in the band, but I had to learn all of the songs for a gig that Wednesday at the Riverside!

I was also told that I couldn’t use my strat or my Fender Amp as they weren’t powerful enough. I borrowed a Marshall cab from Tony, along with a Fender guitar, the humbucker being crucial to the sound, with a borrowed 2 x12 cab. I learnt the songs and rehearsed a couple of times prior to the gig and felt confident. I was ready to play my first gig with Drill.

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Things were going well with the band ? Yes, Kev would pick me up for rehearsals and gigs so we had a lot of time to chat. He was very forthright in his view of what the band should be like and I loved being part of it.

We started writing new songs together with Kev at the helm. Part of me wondered if he was just making it up as he went along or he was a genius with real vision. It felt great to be part of something that seemed so different to anything else around.

I became mates with the other lads from The Shotgun Brides. I got on well with Chris McCormack, later of 3 Colours Red and Professionals.

Who was in the line up and what equipment did the band use ? I had to sell my beloved Fender Strat at Grott Guitars in Newcastle. I put what money I had to buy a Simms Watt 4 x 12 cab from Rock City and picked up a Burman 100 Watt Amp that was in Grott Guitars. I needed a guitar, Kev wanted me to have something with a meatier sound.

I entered McKay’s on Westgate Road and saw two guitars that were ideal. One was a Yamaha, and the other was a bright green Gordon Smith Gypsy II, with double humbuckers and a coil tap. Tony put a new bridge on it, along with a brass nut, for ridiculous sustain. I was geared up.  I was encouraged to join in writing.

Simon Moore eventually joined on bass. We worked on each other’s sound and everyone was happy to experiment. Si used Marshall’sThe Gov’nor’ pedal on his bass. It took a while to get the sound right as we wanted that cutting distortion, without losing the bottom end. His style of playing suited the band perfectly. Kev used a Fender Mustang guitar which gave a great top end cutting through the rest of us.

Tony used multiple guitars, but mainly Gibson models, Les Paul Special, Firebird, a couple of Flying V’s plus a stunning Gibson L5-S. His 4 x 10 cabs made his guitars sound quite trebly, but Tony was playing what was closest to being lead parts.

I suppose I was in the middle, with the Simms Watt 4 x 12, then aside from the drum machine, playing in various time signatures. Kev’s voice was the ingredient he wanted to get spot on. He picked up a zoom guitar effect, which was the size of a walkman. I think he initially wanted to use it for his guitar, but decided to use it on his vocals instead. He utilized a number of effects, but the main ones were distortion and harmoniser/octave controls.

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What venues did the band play ? We didn’t play many gigs just the Riverside and a few local venues in Newcastle. At The Broken Doll I was always asked what the fuck was I playing, but in a good way and many just marvelled at the E-bow, as they scraped themselves off the walls pummelled by our sonic assault. I very quickly felt that I was going to keep playing in the band and see where things were going to take us.

The clincher for sticking with it came when we signed to Abstract Records with Edward Christie. In September 1990 we joined the stable that previously had New Model Army and UK Subs as it’s main bands.

What was your experience of the studio ? We booked into Impulse Studios in Wallsend with Kevin Ridley, the singer with Forgodsake. Kevin was a really nice bloke and he really pushed us.

We went in on 17th January 1991, the day the Gulf War started. We had no idea what was going on in the outside world as we were walled into the studio. It felt really claustrophobic and I think we captured that on the album, which was completed in five days.

At first, we started with one of our favourites, Compressed Head. We played everything correctly, but Kevin Ridley wasn’t happy and said it sounded flat. Not having been in a studio before, even to do a demo, I had no idea but Kevin was right. It didn’t sound like it should.

We were paying for the studio time, or at least the record company were and we felt like we were wasting it. We scrapped that song for now and said that we’d come back to it.

We moved onto other tracks and I think the first one we did was Pylons. When we came back in to listen to it, it sounded spot on and somehow the studio, the desk and ourselves had come alive.

We blasted through the songs and Kev added his vocals, deciding to run a lead out of the recording booth and into the old Victorian toilets which was covered in tiles. It sounded fantastic. Kev doing his vocals sat on the netty was a masterstroke.

With an instrumental called E the sample was played backwards and by pure chance it sounded like someone saying Eee, ya fucker…! It was hilarious and fitted.

I loved playing that song as I was given free range to create atmospheric sounds over sparse chords that it was built from. I scraped the E-bow, holding it with my ring and little fingers, at the same time holding a plectrum and changing from one to the other very quickly. Plus employing my made up chords and even using a wee bit of string bending!

Anyway, the album was finished and mixed with us having completed Compressed Head, a great way to end. Overall, I’m very proud of the whole thing.

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Skin Down was released in June 1991 and billed as Industrial Noise Guitar music. It was met with some excellent reviews across the board, most giving us 10/10. Some local music writers had really championed the band, none more so than Kriss Knights and especially Lee Conlon who was a big part of the Paint It Red magazine. The big nationals also seemed to love us with Melody Maker describing it as ‘a musical white knuckle ride’. 

Written press weren’t the only ones to champion the album. The record company on hearing what we’d delivered, pushed us to the forefront of the label and it sold quite well.

National radio got involved, with us being played and championed by John Peel. We got album of the month on BBC radio, ahead of the first Blur album.

I loved all of this and wanted more. It felt like we were riding a huge wave and were about to sign to an agency for tours. I thought it was all about to happen!

Did you film any music videos or appear on tv ? Kev came in to rehearsal with the news that he’d left a tape at Tyne Tees Studios and we’d been picked up to appear on local arts programme Elements. I couldn’t believe how quickly everything was happening. We went to an old steel foundry in Gateshead and set up to mime to a song.

I remember it taking most of the day. I don’t know about the other lads, but I had great fun. When we finished we headed for free drinks in the pub round the corner.

With an album recorded how did you promote it ? We only played a handful of gigs. One was supporting Swervedriver at Riverside. After our second song the house lights came on as there was a technical problem. We looked out and saw Swervedriver stood next to the desk, mouths agape. We just laughed, got on with it and showed them what we were made of. It went down a storm with the crowd going crazy at the front. When Swervedriver came on the crowd moved back from the stage and were very subdued.

We also did a gig in a pub near Blyth. Not many turned up, but those that did were going mad. Four people were sat in the corner and asked to speak to us after the gig. They’d come over from America to see us, having been told about us by the label. They loved us and wanted us to go to L.A. for a four venue residency, with a view to moving on through the US. I couldn’t believe it.

We thought they were mad coming all that way but they were genuine. I had my bags packed in my own mind and I think Si was up for it as well. But Tony and Kev were married, with mortgages and well paid jobs. They didn’t fancy getting stranded in L.A. so it didn’t happen. The same thing happened with tours that were in the offing in Europe and Japan.

We hadn’t even played London and our only gig outside of the North East was in a working men’s club in Burnley. It was booked by a group of fans from the area.

As we sound checked people coming out of the snooker room were shouting ‘What the bluddy ‘ell’s this flamin’ racket?’ The atmosphere wasn’t good to say the least.

We set up on stage, instructed not to move the house organ, drum kit, or bingo machine. The place was jam packed when we went on. A crowd of around 30 kids were at the front jumping around and absolutely loving it. The rest of the ballroom consisted of pensioners out in their finest clobber.

With the drum machine we knew the songs by names, but also by the numbers that were programmed in. Kev did away with the set list and said Davy, what number will we play next?  I shouted out a number, he pressed it and we launched into it. As I shouted the number I noticed that most of the crowd suddenly sprang into life. No they weren’t going to start headbanging or crowd surfing, they were looking for their bingo dabbers and cards! I couldn’t stop laughing. We’d broken the unwritten code of never mess with the bingo! I read a number of years later that club was the inspiration for Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights!

Soon after I became disillusioned with the whole thing. My girlfriend at the time was feeding me lies about members of the band, that they were planning to replace me with Chris McCormack. She just wanted me to get a proper job. I thought that I’d get a writing credit for E but didn’t. No tours or gigs apart from a few local ones. With Kev and Tony saying we were going to continue writing new material and go straight back into the studio. I couldn’t see the point if we weren’t going to promote the debut album.

On reflection what do you think of your time in the band ? I left having only been in the band for just over a year. It was great when it lasted. But I felt that so many opportunities were missed.

What am I up to now ? Well I’ve been in a few bands since but my health, both physically and mentally wasn’t very good and I become disabled around 5 years ago. I haven’t played since but hoping to improve and maybe get out doing some solo stuff.

It’s nice to hear people still talking about the band, both online and in conversation. I’m very proud of it all, but it seems a bit sad that it didn’t take off and it just ended with a whimper.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  January 2019.

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