Pete Kelly of Union of Knives: Back, and Sharper Than Ever

Mogwai isn’t the only band from Scotland making waves. Here we chat with one of the busier journeyman drummers out of Glasgow to learn about his oldest/newest project.

From left: Union of Knives’ Pete Kelly, Ant Thomaz, and Chris Gordon

After more than a decade of inactivity, the band Union of Knives, featuring drummer Pete Kelly, multi-instrumentalist Chris Gordon, and singer Ant Thomaz, have released several new singles, all culled from their upcoming album Endless From the Start, which drops in June on Disco Piñata.

Union of Knives initially caught attention when the song “Opposite Direction” from their 2006 debut long-player, Violence and Birdsong, landed on Grey’s Anatomy and The Vampire Diaries. A sophomore album produced by Atticus Ross (Nine Inch Nails) never saw the light of day, however, and Kelly went on to play with a number of popular indie-rock acts, including the Kills and Ladytron. The latter band’s singer, Helen Marnie, also employed Kelly for her solo work. The drummer returned a favor of sorts inviting Marnie to sing on a couple of the new UoK tracks, “A Tall Tale,” and “A Little Life.”

Endless From the Start is a unique and bracing amalgamation of styles, from new wave to soul to electronica to industrial dance. On the Drums… hears traces of Garbage, Portishead, and Metric, but Endless From the Start is definitely its own thing, with subtle and groovy details emerging from the mix with repeated listens. As usual, Kelly sounds strong on the tracks, deftly surfing the waters where electronic timbres and acoustic soul meet.

OTD: You play left-hand lead. Have you always done that?

Pete: I’ve always played open handed. I’m left handed and right footed, so it made sense to keep a right-handed setup, especially as my two right-handed brothers also used my first kit.

OTD: Are there advantages for you beyond not having to cross your arms?

Pete: I think playing open handed can bring a different approach to the kit. I have a bit more freedom by not crossing my arms, but it can be tricky deciphering fills written by right-handed players. We lead with different hands, so sticking can get complicated.

OTD: In the band’s performance of “A Tall Tale” from the Scotsman Sessions, it looks like you’ve got a floor tom in the first tom position — how come?

Pete: I like my floor toms to sound like kick drums, especially for electronic music. I’ve started putting the second floor tom to my left so I can have a 13" rack tom in its traditional place. I still like the rack to sound quite dead too, though.

OTD: What gear did you use to record the album?

Pete: For this album I used a mixture of my own and Chris’s drums. I have a Ludwig Custom Maple [kit], which I love and have used for a lot of the tracks. Chris has an old practice kit in his studio that sounds great, so we blended the two — I’m always happy when what appears to be an old wreck turns out to sound amazing. I use a mix of cymbals, and Promark 5B sticks. My snare is a Ludwig Supraphonic.

OTD: Is this the gear you would normally use in a live setting?

Pete: I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be using live for this project. I imagine it’ll be very similar if not the same as my Ladytron setup. We’ll likely use a kick and snare trigger with different sounds for each song, along with a Roland SPD for triggering loops or samples.

OTD: Have you always set up electronic drums when recording or playing live?

Pete: I’ve used SPDs and triggers for years now. I’m actually quite surprised when I don’t see some form of hybrid setup on a modern drummer’s kit these days. I’ll always prefer to hit a real drum, but there are so many cool options that electronic gear opens up for you.

OTD: In Marnie live videos, we sometimes see you wearing headphones and sometimes not. Is that down to whether there’s a click track running?

Pete: All the bands I play with use a click track apart from Jillorean. It’s pretty much essential in projects that use backing tracks or loops. I use molded in-ears, but I’m guessing they were in for repair if I’m using studio headphones in a live video.

I like to keep one ear out so I can hear my kit and the stage sound. It’s quite uncommon to do that, but I find it’s a much more accurate sound for me. The fraction of latency from hitting the drum to receiving it in my ear can be a bit jarring, so keeping an ear on my kit gives me assurance that I’m not going out of time.

OTD: In Marnie’s “Lost Maps” live clip you’ve got a ride cymbal positioned low and to the left of your hi-hat. That seems like a natural choice for open-handed playing, but you don’t see drummers do that a lot. Do you experiment with things like cymbal placement and seat height frequently?

Pete: It took me years to find cymbal positions that work. The main issue is being able to accommodate mics around my kit. Having my main ride cymbal to my left is always preferred. I have it low so it’s easy to play and not too intrusive looking. Placing the stand can be quite tricky depending on the size of stage. In some venues I’ve had to have my ride on an extended boom coming in from side of stage. Not ideal.

OTD: You get a consistently big, fat snare sound. What’s your snare of choice, and what are your tuning tendencies?

Pete: Thanks for saying that. I use my own Supraphonic or whatever the hire company has given me. I’ve struggled with tuning techniques for most of my career but have found a few tricks that suit my style. I hit quite hard, so my main issue is keeping the drums from falling apart during a long set. I’ll keep a key handy for in between songs, but I often finish a show and find lugs missing. I’ve been experimenting with lug locks, but even they are bending during a heavy gig. I should probably stop hitting so hard, but I like it.

OTD: How have you changed as a drummer since Union of Knives first came out?

Pete: Union of Knives was my first session job, going back roughly fifteen years ago. A lot has changed since then. I’d say one of the biggest changes would be knowing when to sit back. For years I thought good drumming was about technical ability. It took a long time to realize that I didn’t need to prove myself on every song. Just play what the song needs. I get a lot of room to play on the new Union of Knives album. I’m probably still overplaying, but at least I’m more aware of it!

OTD: How have the drumming challenges differed between the original Union of Knives band, the Kills, Ladytron, Marnie, and now this new version of Union of Knives? Has learning how best to replace drum machine parts, as with the Kills, been a regular part of the gig?

Pete: I enjoy creating my own interpretation of the drum machine parts. The challenge is pretty much the same over all of the projects I’m involved in. I have to use my own taste and discretion when choosing which parts to follow or embellish for live purposes.

OTD: How much is post-production a part of your aesthetic — when recording, do you go for certain sounds, or do you assume that a certain amount of effects are going to be applied to the drum tracks afterwards?

Pete: I’m always amazed to hear what comes back from the studio. I love when my drums are engineered to a point that I don’t recognize them. A pure drum sound can be equally satisfying when appropriate. If we have an idea of sound for a track, I will try my best to recreate that sound. For the latest Union of Knives record we mostly tried to find sounds that sat well with the rest of the track.

OTD: Where are you from?

Pete: I was born and raised in Glasgow. I’ve seen a lot of the world through music and hope to continue to do so.

OTD: What’s your drumming background?

Pete: I started playing drums around the age of twelve. I convinced my mum to get me a kit one Christmas and have never looked back.

OTD: Did you come up taking lessons?

Pete: I managed to take some lessons in school, but I mainly taught myself through listening. I always encourage new drummers to play along with their favorite music. I think it’s a great way to develop your own style.

OTD: What kinds of bands did you play in early on?

Pete: I played with as many bands as possible from an early age. I would also encourage new drummers to get into their local venues and meet new people. It’s the best way to become part of a scene. Most of my early bands formed in college or bars.

OTD: How has the pandemic affected your work in the past year? Are we finally getting to the point where it’s safe to imagine and plan for live shows?

Pete: I really hope so! The pandemic is something that no one was prepared for. I can’t say what the future holds, but I like to be positive.

Live music will always be a huge part of our culture. I’m sure it will come back with a vengeance. I’m currently working at COVID test sites so I can at least feel like I’m doing something to help get us back on stage.

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