News Column

Big Country's Mark Brzezicki [MD: Modern Drummer]

September 1, 2013

YellowBrix

By following his instincts and bucking trends, he's built a career that's a virtual case study of how to brave the fickle winds of the music industry.

At a rest area off a busy highway in Slough, Berkshire, England, in the late 1970s, a windowless Ford Transit van sits in a parking space usually reserved for trucks. Inside, oblivious to the stream of passing motorists, a tall, lithe young man sits at a drumset, working on licks lifted from vinyl records featuring Phil Collins, Steve Gadd, and Harvey Mason. The commuters whizzing past don't know it yet, but in just a few years their car radio speakers will be shaken by the same rhythms emanating from the stationary vehicle.

The early '80s would be fertile times for session musicians, on both sides of the Atlantic. Albums would sell, budgets would thrive-perfect timing for a dedicated drum practitioner to emerge from the suburbs and enjoy the fruits of the music industry's harvest.

Mark Brzezicki (pronounced bru-ZEE-key) cut his drumming teeth playing with his siblings in the Flying Brzezicki Brothers, and shortly after in On the Air, a band fronted by Who guitarist Pete Townshend's younger brother Simon. On the Air teamed Brzezicki with bass player Tony Butler, and together the pair formed a successful dial-a-rhythm-section service called Rhythm for Hire. In 1982 their musical union led Brzezicki and Butler to Phonogram Records, where they were recruited into Scottish guitar wrangler Stuart Adamson's post-Skids project, Big Country. The success of the band in the ensuing years would elevate Brzezicki into the session-fixers' big league, helping him carve out a busy career that he sustains to this day.

On Big Country's 1983 debut album, The Crossing, Brzezicki stamps his identity into the Celtic-vibe compositions by mixing layers of overdubbed rolling toms with Gadd-esque military snare work. This could have been a recipe for overkill, but thanks to Mark's fantastic taste in grooves and producer Steve Lillywhite's deft direction, the drummer's thunderous performances helped raise Adamson's songs from post-punk gems to bona fide worldwide hits.

"The first thing that struck me," Brzezicki recalls, "was how many Celtic and traditional Scottish elements were in the band, particularly the guitar sounds. I remember thinking, My God, this music sounds so traditionally Scottish. It affected my drumming straight away. My first thought was [to approach the music with] a slight kind of marching feel."

Brzezicki's intuitive rhythmic reaction was on point, a perfect complement to the dramatic soundscapes created by the pioneering use of the EBow on electric guitars, which produced Big Country's famous "bagpipe" effect. "I think that sound was the result of something naturally happening between Stuart and [second guitarist] Bruce Watson," Brzezicki says. "But for me, probably being a southerner, I did feel at the time that it sounded like bagpipes, I have to admit it!"

Big Country created an organic, muscular sound sorely missing from keyboard-dominated early-'80s pop music. Indeed, the group was surfing on a wave that would propel contemporaries like U2, Simple Minds, and the Alarm to the forefront of British music.

Although he was originally signed as a Big Country band member, Brzezicki had a clause in his contract allowing him to accept session work with other artists on the blossoming U.K. session scene. His ?-list session drumming status was soon established, with artists including the Who's Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, Frida Lyngstad of ABBA, Queen's Brian May, Marillion singer Fish, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Nik Kershaw, Ultravox, the Cult, Lionel Richie, the Pretenders, Leo Sayer, Rick Astley, Howard Jones, Joan Armatrading, Go West, and Bob Geldof, as well as Band Aid and the Prince's Trust house band.

In the ostentatious '80s, Brzezicki's kit did not disappoint in terms of visual appeal. Mark sat at a rig that incorporated multiple toms and tube toms, gong drums, auxiliary snares, a plethora of splash and China cymbals, and, eventually, two kick drums. However, it would be a mistake to assume his approach was to play everything all at once. "My attitude is that my kit is something that's there for me to express myself on," Brzezicki says. "I may not use all the drums in one song, but the facility to play them and for them to be heard is there."

Thanks to his unique sound and tasteful use of his wall of drums, Brzezicki did very well to work at a time when it became increasingly convenient to program a machine to do the job of a drummer. After all, this was the period when drum sounds were becoming more about processing a relatively lifeless acoustic source with the latest compressors and digital reverbs, resulting in what many today regard as unappealingly unnatural tracks. Brzezicki, however, managed to bypass the "emperor's new clothes" producer syndrome by providing exceptionally well-tuned drums that sounded as good acoustically as they did in the imagination of technology-obsessed engineers. In a not insignificant way, he won his fight to keep real drumming on records and to keep drums sounding like drums, while fashion dictated that MIDI-generated patterns were the future. "You'll never get rid of the drummer," Mark still insists. "He may get pushed around into jazz or something, but he'll always be around."

Without a doubt, Brzezicki does owe some debt to the Stewart Copeland school of splash/Octoban flurries. But what sets Brzezicki apart from busier drummers with equally sizable kits is the influence of classic groovers like Harvey Mason and Steve Gadd. In contrast to the tom-heavy patterns found on many Big Country songs, there was always plenty of delicate hi-hat/snare work, often weaving an unobtrusive tapestry between the layers of vocals and melodic instrumentation. Check out the hi-hat parts on Big Country's "Chance" or the overdubbed brushwork on "The Storm," both from The Crossing, for examples of Brzezicki's aptitude for treading lightly with his sound sources.

While Big Country enjoyed success in Europe, the group failed to truly crack the U.S. market, with only The Crossing attaining gold status. Despite repeated visits to America in support of major acts, the band never surpassed the success of its debut, and in 1989 Brzezicki departed. He did rejoin in 1993, after which Big Country released some modestly successful albums and continued opening for bands like the Who and the Rolling Stones. But by 2000 Adamson, who'd previously moved to Nashville, was focusing on a folkier musical direction with the Raphaels.

"Big Country perhaps didn't break America as we should have," Brzezicki says today. "Stuart needed to be at home to sort out [some personal issues], and people needed to keep their family life together. That was always something that was teetering on the brink with Big Country: We needed to neutralize ourselves by making sure that families were not being neglected. In hindsight, that's something that Stuart always battled with; he was torn between being a family man and wanting to see success with the band globally."

Despite Adamson's stated intent to re-form Big Country at a future date, the singer took his own life in a Hawaii hotel room in December 2001. "Because Stuart always had so much hope-he always tried to see the good when things were bad-I was shocked to see how it all ended," Brzezicki says.

In 2010, Big Country surprised many by re-forming once again, this time fronted by the Alarm singer Mike Peters-the very person Adamson once suggested as a potential successor. The band has performed steadily and has just wrapped up a summer tour of the States, and this past April it released its first studio album in fourteen years, The Journey.

The twenty-first century has been challenging for studio drummers. Although like all pro players Brzezicki has seen session dates fall, his work has continued in recent years, with Procul Harum, Roger Daltrey, Midge Ure, Rick Astley, Fish, and, of course, Big Country. Mark still prefers a formidable setup, despite many of his peers' having moved to smaller kits. But he has never been a drummer who's followed trends, preferring to tread his own established path.

"I remember thinking, 'My God, this music sounds so traditionally Scottish.' It affected my drumming straight away."

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Brzezicki's setup features Pearl Reference series drums (two 22" bass drums; 8", 10", and 12" rack toms; and 14" and 16" floor toms) and brass and maple 14" Free Floating snare drums, plus Remo Ambassador heads, Zildjian cymbals, a 14" Remo Rototom hoop, a 6" North torn, two 6" Pearl or Tama tube toms, and Pearl hardware. Mark uses Vic Firth 5A hickory sticks.

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