James Laughlin


FT: What first interested you in pipe band drumming, and how long have you been involved?
MC: On St. Patrick’s Day in 1987 I was part of a musical group at St. Barnabas Church, located on the southwest side of Chicago. At the end of the service The Invermich Gaelic Society Pipe Band marched up the center aisle. I was very impressed. Afterwards there was a gathering in the church hall with tea and soda bread. I struck up a conversation with one of the drummers about their style, which was foreign to me at the time, and mentioned an interest…I was at their practice the following week and joined the band as a side drummer shortly thereafter! As luck would have it, they competed at the World Pipe Band Championships in Grade Three that year, and I was able to compete with them as a side drummer. I was hooked!
FT: How much do your other styles of drumming influence your pipe band technique?
MC: It is my belief that I am the result of all of my drumming experiences. Prior to joining pipe bands I was a professional drummer and have had a ‘mixed bag’ of musical endeavors. In the 70’s I toured with rock bands; worked in show bands in Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe; worked blues bars in Chicago; did some Country AND Western gigs, and last, but not least, I worked with an Elvis impersonator for over a year…thank ya verrra much. As far as styles that are an influence on me…Afro-Cuban to Zydeco!
FT: What all bands have you played with?
MC: Ok, remember, we’re talking over 25 years!
The Invermich Gaelic Society Pipe Band, which became The University of Chicago Alumni Association Pipe Band, The 78th Fraser Highlanders, Midlothian Scottish, Niagara Regional Police, Chicago Caledonian, North Coast, Windsor Police, Inveraray and District, and The City of Chicago.
FT: Who have been your main instructors/influences throughout your career?
MC: I can’t say that I’ve ever had a ‘main’ instructor, per se, but I have had the great fortune to have received instruction from some of the great drummers in our field: Luke Allen, Ronnie Brown, Craig Colquhoun, Harvey Dawson, Jackie Houlden, Jim Kilpatrick, and “Big Jimmy” Stewart. My influences? That’s a tough one simply because there are so many! An early game-changer for my overall midsection ‘experience’ was listening to Boghall and Bathgate back in the day! From a bass drumming point-of-view, my earliest hero was Luke Allen. Big Luke was an amazing musician with an incredibly subtle touch on the big drum. In my humble opinion, he opened the door for bass drummers to become more divergent in their playing styles. Big Jimmy Stewart…an absolute joy to watch! His approach to light music was electric!  Craig “Hoss” Colquhoun…genius. I learned volumes from him, especially in the area of sound. Hoss took the bass section sound to another level with his development of the Hosbilt drum series. He supplied a canvas, if you will, for many bands to create (at the time) unheard of melodically orchestrated bass and tenor scores…ensemble would never be quite the same. The late Duncan Gibson was so smooth and fluid in his playing…you could set your watch to him.  Albie Copeland from Vic Police put in some amazing performances with that band! Steven McWhirter, the leading drummer of Inveraray and District, Chris Ross from the Vale of Atholl, John McFettridge, formerly of Field Marshall Montgomery, have also influenced me. There are a number of excellent bass drummers on the Grade One scene today: Kahlil Cappucino with 78th Halifax, Scott Currie with Shotts and Dykehead, John Dunne with St. Laurence O’Toole, Steve Foley of the L.A. Scots, Chris Pollock with Field Marshall, and Kathryn Tawse of SFU…just to name a few. Watch, listen, and learn!
FT: What do you feel is the best structure of lessons for new tenor/bass students who have never played an instrument before?
MC: First and foremost, they should immerse themselves in the idiom! Listen to bands that inspire you. Listen to and watch the World’s recordings. Train your ears to differentiate between, say a 4/4 march and a 12/8 march, a 4/4 strathspey and a jig in 6/8, a hornpipe and a rounded reel or a pointed one…the list goes on. Take the time to listen to a Gold Medal piper play a piobaireachd. Study the history of the Great Highland Bagpipe.
As for practice, try to balance your time between learning to read music – rhythmic notation at the very least – proper stick control, rudiments, motion…the basics. Above all…find a recording that really moves you, put on a set of headphones, strap on your drum, and play as though no one is watching…or, if your prefer, play like you’re in Carnegie Hall. Whatever makes you feel good!
FT: What would you recommend to aspiring tenor and bass drummers who are located in regions that are difficult to find instruction?
MC: The Internet is a great conduit for informational resources. There are a number of instructors, including myself, who offer lessons on Skype. Save your money and travel to attend workshops that could be of benefit to you. Winter Storm in Kansas City and The Celtic Arts Foundation’s Winter School in Seattle are two excellent opportunities for instruction. Watch the forums and websites, such as your local association’s, the Dunsire, and FlourishingTenor.com, to name a few.  As I mentioned before, get your hands on DVD’s of the World’s and scan YouTube…lots of great stuff there!
FT: What are some practice exercises you would suggest to newer drummers?
MC: Use a metronome to develop your feel for time and to measure your rudimentary progress. I have a series of exercises in 12/8 time for developing mallet control and hand speed that I adopted from Harvey Dawson’s dead (buzz) sticking regiment for the side drum…you can find it on my website. Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer [Ted Reed] is a classic book with a wealth of permutated exercises. You have to put in the time learning the basics…the boring stuff! I see too many drummers who try to learn the scores before they know how to play the drum. It’s the wrong approach.
Watch as many World’s DVDs and YouTube performances of pipe bands as you can find. Absorb what is useful to you. You can find a wealth of drumming inspiration and great resources athttp://www.drummerworld.com. To quote the late/great Buddy Rich, “Don’t be a ‘rock’ drummer or a ‘jazz’ drummer…be a drummer!”  Every sticking and rudimentary exercise that can be applied to the snare drum can enhance your approach to the bass drum. I’m not suggesting that you should be playing double ratamacues to Scotland the Brave, however, training your fingers, wrists, and arms to execute what you’re thinking and feeling will make your playing more responsive, fluid, and, ultimately, musical.
FT: How do you prepare mentally/physically for a band or solo competition?
MC: There is no substitution for practice. I make it a point to record every band/solo rehearsal so that I can play along in my studio or simply listen to arrangements when I’m unable to practice on the drum. Preparation eliminates nerves and helps you win the inner game.
FT: What have been your biggest inspirations in your playing?

MC: I am inspired whenever I’m in the circle and everyone is “Hittin the Note”, to quote the Allman Brothers. It’s one of those things that, when it happens, you’re almost not aware that it is actually happening…if that makes any sense. Watching the great players that are on the scene today inspires me.  Recently  I had the opportunity
to work with Chris Barr and his brother Ryan. It was a blast to write mid-section scores for their material!
FT: How often do you spend practicing and how do you typically spend your practice time?
MC: I usually am playing the drums, in one form or another, an hour a day…sometimes at the dinner table, much to my wife’s chagrin. During the competition season that time increases.  I can do that now that I am retired from teaching math fulltime. When I write scores for a midsection I find that I become very familiar with the tunes and drum settings. This makes practice a more natural and organic process as opposed to rote learning.
FT: What do you think is the best tuning set up for a midsection?
MC: Firstly, that depends on the number of drummers in the section. The ‘old’ standard for three tenor drums was the basic triad based on the A of the Great Highland Bagpipe: A – E – C. That still works, it but has become a bit staid, I suppose.  When I’ve played in a section with five tenor drums I’ve arranged the drums using the notes: A – G – E – D – C. It really should be based on your band’s musical preferences, your tune selections, and the range/size of drums that are available to use.
FT: What has been your favorite instrument set up so far for tenor and bass, heads, drum, etc.?
MC: The best sound I’ve heard so far was from the new Premier Professional series set-up we had with the City of Chicago Pipe Band. Great sounding drums right out of the boxes!
FT: What was it like living in Scotland for a summer to play for Inveraray and District at all of the major championships?
MC: I’ll preface this question by saying that it wouldn’t have been possible without my wife, Mary Jane, “MJ”.  She encouraged me to take the offer when Steven McWhirter made the call…a wife in a million!  As I mentioned earlier I went to Scotland to play the concert with Inveraray in January, then I returned in May to play at the Scottish Championships.  At that time I was still teaching. I flew to Scotland the evening of my last day of school in June, and I returned two days before school began in August.  I spent more time drumming that time than I have ever spent drumming during my time in pipe bands. I spent most of the season at Stuart Liddell’s house on the shore of Loch Fyne. I didn’t have to worry about anything other than drumming…and that wasn’t really a worry! I was truly fortunate to have spent time working with Steven and Stuart. My approach to writing scores changed for the better, I think.
There are fewer greater things in life than having the opportunity to share your knowledge with a talented and keen student. One of my objectives that summer was to train my replacement, Mark Kenny Stark, for the following season. He was fourteen at the time. Mark is a dedicated student of drumming and is well on his way to becoming one of the all-time great bass drummers.
FT: What has been the most memorable moment(s) of your pipe band career?
MC: Playing in the World Pipe Band Championship finals with Inveraray in 2010 has to be the topper for me. Coming in 5th at Cowal two weeks later wasn’t bad either, especially for our first year in Grade One.
FT: What has been your favorite performance, competition or otherwise, that you have had?
MC: I’ve had a few that fall into the “favorite” category. In January of 2010 I flew to Glasgow to perform as a part of Celtic Connections with Inveraray and District at The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. It was a magical experience. I am honored to have been invited to play as a guest artist with the band for their 2013 “Ascension” concert in Glasgow.
Another great one was The Mastery of Scottish Arts (2007) concert at Benaroya Hall in Seattle with Reid Maxwell, Tyler Fry, John Scullion, Stephen McWhirter, Alasdair Gillies, Roddy McLeod, Willie McCallum, Jack Lee, Murray Henderson, and Stuart Liddell. I performed a duet on the bass with Alasdair. I will never forget that.
In April of 2012 “Pipes and Sticks on Route 66” played a concert at The Cactus Theater in Lubbock, Texas. That show was a joy!
FT: What direction do you see the pipe band midsection heading in?
MC: The future is very bright, and the dark days are over…at least they are for the well informed. I see the majority of new drumming students taking the proper path to learning the art as well as taking deep pride in what they do. I believe that as long as we, as bandsmen, understand that we are but a part of the whole, great things will continue happen!
We would like to thank Mike for taking the time  to be a part of our interview series! For more from Mike and Twisted Thistle please visit his website:
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