I like to plumb the hidden musical depths of people who,
whilst they may be fairly well known, are bubbling just below the publicís
sight line. Ali McMillan, quintessential Englishman, dreadlocked roving
percussionist and behind the scenes man was the drummer in UK show the X Factor
winner Matt Cardleís former band Darwyn
and has also been seen with Matt in and around Essex playing the djembe (a West
African hand drum shaped something like a huge wine glass) and providing
backing vocals whilst they played long covers sets in pubs and clubs such as
the Five Bells in Colne Engaine and High Barn in Great Bardfield. There is,
that Ali has worked with other musicians and may do so again in the future. It
is also known that he recently acquired a set of Conga drums. Can he play them?
More information was needed. Heís a big man and those mild manners and cheery
smiles could be deceiving, so rather than tackle him alone, I called in
reinforcements. You can read our joint investigation below. Interrogators:
CardlesCardie, SamofBev, Azliyah Borhan, Denise Kelly- Marshall, Sue Phillips.
Sam - What
made you decide to play percussion and Is there a particular percussionist you
admire or aspire to be like?
Ali - I never really decided I
suppose. I just had a go on some congas
once and that was it. Hooked. I was already having drum lessons when I
first had a go at percussion. I love
playing drums, but I prefer playing with my hands rather than sticks. I want to be like the percussionists you see
on shows like Stevie Wonderís Live at Last DVD.
Iíve heard you are self taught. Is that true?
Ali - Yes as far as percussion goes,
I am self taught. I went to Lights Music
Action summer school in 1996 with the aim of playing piano, and when I got
there, there was a rather large drums/percussion section in the band run by a
guy called Tony King. He showed me how
to play Congas that week, and then I never looked back! I have had drum lessons while I was at
school, much to the annoyance of my neighbours when I was growing up!
Cardie - Teaching
yourself the djembe - how does that work??
Ali - Practice, practice, practice.
Azliyah - I
know you as a brilliant percussionist, can you play any other instruments?
Ali - I play piano, drums. I have a bass and a small guitar. I also have a couple of wooden flutes. I have a violin somewhere in the garage too along
with a couple of accordions. I canít
play actual songs, but I can make notes.
Sam - Is
there any instrument you want to learn to play?
Ali - I sing and I can play other
instruments, but Iíve never been any good at sight reading. I had years of piano lessons and never quite
grasped it. I understand it, but it
always took me ages to work out a chord.
I guess guitar would be something I would like to learn. I would like to
be able to create actual music rather than just rhythms occasionally. Sometimes, when Iím sitting behind a kit or a
Djembe I think ĎIím not really doing much back here!í I want to be at the front of the stage from
time to time!
Sue - You
have a beautiful singing voice, would you ever consider doing solo vocals?
Ali - I would love to sing. I
can sing. But I never really get the opportunity!
What are you currently working on Ė and who with?
Ali - Right now Iím working at High
Barn (Essex). I am programming the
events mainly but also doing sound occasionally for the gigs here. Iíve always wanted to work here so it really
is a dream come true.
Could you please explain what your job entails at Highbarn? You seem to have a
great atmosphere there.
Ali - I manage the events
programming. I listen to all the demo
submissions. I look after the website
content and mailing lists. I also do
sound/lights for the events and try to think of new nights to put on. all the
Sam - Do
you like working "behind the scenes" or do you prefer performing?
Ali - Iíve always wanted to work at
High Barn, since we came here with Darwyn in 2005. And now I am, which is amazing, and Iím
having such a great time here too. But I
Sam - Do
you want to be a session musician or would you prefer to work exclusively with one
Ali - I want to do both. I want to work with one artist like I always
have done, or a group of artists in a band.
but I also want to be known as the guy to go to when you want
drums/percussion. Iíve got a way to go
yet, but Iím on the way!
Which do you prefer: to play your own music or covers?
Ali - I suppose I like playing my
own music. When we were doing Darwyn it
was great to see people singing your own lyrics back at you. But when we were doing the covers, we made them
our own, so it felt like they were ours.
So that was pretty good. So I
guess the actual answer would be...I donít know. Or both.
When and where was the biggest gig you have ever done?
Ali - The biggest gig might be Brownstock Festival a few years
ago. There were a lot of people there.
What and where has been your favourite performance?
- Well High Barn was always a special place to play. We were always quite loud for the place, but
people enjoyed us. We always had a
strange thing happen. If we were looking
forward to a gig, something would happen to make it shit. Like the sound would be bad, or no one would
turn up. But whenever we thought a gig
was going to be crap, it more often than not turned out better than we had
Cardie - I
absolutely ADORE the version of All along the
Watchtower from High Barn in February. It's nearly an obsession with me!!!!
Sorry that's not a question, it's a #justsayin.
Ali - I love the fact that you added
a hashtag into the question and Iím not even looking at this on Twitter. AATW is an epic song and Iím glad we covered
When you perform at High Barn with Matt, you often seem to be saying things
that make you both laugh. I read your account of going to see him at the X
Factor and itís clear you have a natural talent for comedy, have you ever
considered building on this either as a writer or performer?
Ali - I
love making people laugh. I can have
quite a dark sense of humour sometimes, but I usually save that for close
friends. I used to take drama lessons at
school and Iíve always been interested in writing. Who knows, if all else fails, I may try that
Sam - How
much were you involved in writing Darwyn songs and are there any more Darwyn
originals hidden away in your vaults?
Ali - The three of us used to
collectively write Darwyn songs.
Sometimes Matt would turn up with a guitar riff, or the beginnings of an
idea. And rich and I would add our own take on it. Other times Rich would randomly start playing
something on the Piano which would kick off a huge jam session until something
sounded cool. The same for me when I
would play a random rhythm. I have many
rehearsal recordings saved and hidden away.
Tracks that we never finished and ideas that grew into the songs we
What is your favourite Darwyn song?
Ali - Junior is my favourite. Itís the one that is the most fun to
play. There are a lot of different
Darwyn tracks that were my favourite. It
was usually which ever was the newest.
Looking back, how would you assess the music made by Darwyn? (Completely biased
mega fan here).
Ali - Awesome. I reckon the idea was good. The execution was very close to the
mark. I still love every single track we
Have you been a member of any other bands?
Ali - I used to be in a band at school called
Tourniquet (not my choice of name). I
played drums, but I was just starting, so I wasnít very good.
Cardie. What do you miss about teaching, if anything?
Ali - The kids were a lot of
fun. But everything else was too
serious. Some lessons I saw could really
suck the life out of someone. The
performing arts was always so lively and interesting.
Cardie - I
know you are a big Ed Sheeran fan, but who else do you rate currently?
Ali - Iím a huge Barenaked Ladies
fan, them and Dave Matthews Band. I like
a hell of a lot of stuff. My Spotify playlist is very long. And itís not in any kind of order, which
makes finding anything long too.
When was the last time you had short hair?
Ali - I had short hair 10 years
ago. I shaved my head in my 2nd year of
University and then in January 2004, the dreads went in. It took 5 hours and Iíve never looked back.
Azliyah - Who
are your favourite musicians or artists ?
Ali - Dave matthews Band, Barenaked
Ladies, Amon Tobin, Prodigy, Stevie Wonder, The Nextmen, PUSA.
Azliyah - If
you werenít a musician what would be your alternative career choice?
Ali - Letís just say itís a good job
I am a musician. Otherwise I would be
hungry and homeless.
Denise - Who
inspired you to become a musician?
Ali - Iím not sure. Music is just something I fell into a long
long time ago. Ive never been very good
at it. But I love it and itís all I want to do really. I have artists who I aspire to be like, but they all came
after I became a musician. I learned
Piano first, then one day I sat behind a friends drum kit. Then I pestered my parents to buy me a drum
kit. Which they did. Thanks Mum & Dad! Sorry about the noise.
Besides Matt who else do you collaborate with when doing gigs?
Ali - Iím
doing some stuff with a guy called Gary Osborne .acousticgary, and a couple of
Where would you like to go next with your music?
Ali - Iím trying to promote myself
as a percussionist/drummer right now.
Seeing if I can get gigging again.
Cardie - It
seems now is the time for you to forge your own career, and I really believe
you have the talent and personality to do that.
Ali - Thank you for your
support. That means a lot to me.