It’s been around a decade since Jack Atherton was chosen as the drummer for a talented up-and-coming singer-songwriter named Jake Bugg. Along with bassist Tom Roberson, they would tour the world, performing with the likes of The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney.
Bugg became a global star, winning numerous awards and topping the charts in several countries. Atherton, though, had his heart set on living in Tokyo and feared leaving the U.K. would spell the end of his time with the band. Fortunately, it didn’t. He has remained a pivotal member of the group, splitting his time between Britain and Japan.
Wanting to hear more about that, as well as his love of the drums and musical influences, we recently caught up with the Nottingham-born musician in Shibuya.
“One of my earliest memories was dancing to Paul Simon’s Graceland album.”
I’ve always been surrounded by music. My dad said he put Schubert’s “9th Symphony” on when I was in my mum’s womb and then played me stuff like Genesis, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in my youth. The first single I bought was [The] Prodigy’s “Voodoo People” around that age when you’re allowed to go to town by yourself and spend pocket money. After that my tastes kept on changing.
“The Offspring’s Americana record was the start of my nu-metal phase.”
That was the catalyst for me to go on to listen to bands like Rage Against the Machine and Korn. I was also into progressive rock acts such as Tool. Hearing their track, “The Grudge” was like a life-changing experience. Another genre I loved was hip hop, particularly Wu-Tang Clan. Now, I listen to all kinds of music, which helps when you work as a session musician.
“Saxophone was my initial instrument of choice.”
It wasn’t included in the free courses we had at school though, so I opted for the drums instead. At 16 I knew it was an instrument I would be playing forever. I went to college and was mentored by the great Jim Chapin (a Modern Drummer Hall of Fame inductee) who had a huge influence on me. I then started to get my own students and the numbers rose quite quickly.
“Being in a band didn’t interest me.”
It seemed to be all about building up egos and I just didn’t want that. I fell in love with the idea of being a support musician. I went around the city of Nottingham trying to get gigs where I could, doing weddings, playing in soul Motown bands, performing with guys doing jazz, things like that. Somebody told me there was no point leaving for London before you’d made a name for yourself in your own city so that’s what I tried to do.
“The book Shogun influenced my drumming.”
My technique was already pretty good. What I was lacking was discipline, which began to improve after I read James Clavell’s novel. I’d had an interest in Japan long before that as my dad regularly went there for work and my brother and I would stay up late watching violent anime such as Ninja Scroll and Cyber City Oedo 808. That book took my appreciation of Japanese culture to a new level, though.
“I considered living in a shack in Japan.”
I’d moved back to my parents’ place, made a studio and was drumming all day while gigging at night. One idea was to move to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music but at that point I was obsessed with Japanese culture and history, particularly anything involving Musashi Miyamoto. I tried to transfer what I learnt from those books into my music and thought I could focus more if I lived in the Japanese countryside. That was when I got an offer from Jake Bugg’s manager.
“I knew Jake had something special as soon as I heard his stuff.”
I was at a bit of a crossroads, so it was the perfect timing for me. His manager sent me five songs to learn for an audition. I wasn’t really into that kind of lo-fi indie sound, but I believe music is either good or bad and these were clearly very good, understated songs with strong melodies. I can’t remember them all now, though I know “The Ballad of Mr. Jones” was included which is still one of my favorites.
“Things just exploded.”
I went to the audition and played for the first time with Robbo (Tom Robertson). We were both selected and soon after were off touring in a van. Jake was a quiet 17-year-old and we were like his older brothers. His management at Universal were aware how big he could get and knew he would need good people around him. We became like a family. It was about three years before we were able to take a breath.
“Who the fuck is this Jake Bugg?”
I remember in 2014 Metallica were playing the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and it had apparently been unusually quiet because so many had come to see Jake on the other stage. Lars Ulrich was reportedly asking people “who the fuck is this Jake Bugg guy?” He’d enjoyed quite a bit of success in the charts up to that point but for Jake it was never about the fame. For him it’s always been about the music. He does things his way while maintaining his integrity.
“The band were happy for me to come and live in Japan.”
They knew how much I loved the place. The management asked when I’d be back and were shocked when I said I wouldn’t be returning. Most people would subsequently lose the gig, so I know how fortunate I’ve been to stay with Jake despite living abroad. I was a bit nervous about moving here because when you like a place that much you can end up disappointed when you see beyond the cracks. Fortunately, it’s been the best move I’ve ever made.
“I love discovering Japanese music.”
Before living here, I didn’t know any Japanese bands. It’s not a country you’d class as creative but when it comes to imitating styles, they do it very well. I fell in love with seventies fusion artists and city pop acts such as Seiko Matsuda and Tatsuro Yamashita. Yoji (Yojiro Noda) from Radwimps, who I spent some time with in Shibuya, is an amazing songwriter. I’ve also enjoyed listening to Sakanaction and Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi who’s a bit like the Bruce Springsteen of Japan.
“Diane Keaton is probably the celebrity I’ve had most fun with.”
We did quite a few of those American talk shows and usually you see a big name and just say hello. With her we spent a long time in the green room. It was like chatting to a mate, fun and flirty. Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) was also great. He asked us to play a gig at his house, which was lots of fun. The most starstruck I’ve been was with Robert De Niro when we were on the Graham Norton Show. I usually don’t like to bother celebrities, but I had to get a picture with him.
“The next tour will probably be in autumn.”
Obviously, a lot of things have been put back due to Covid-19 including Jake’s album. Previously he’d write something then release it whereas these days he’s more meticulous in his approach. Some people won’t be into his new stuff because it’s a bit more poppy and different to what he did before, but he was never going to repeat himself. He’s on a journey and I can’t wait for people to hear his latest songs. I’ll be flying back-and-forth between England and Japan this year, but the plan is to open more time in the latter. I’m teaching drums and hopefully working as a session musician as that’s what I came here to do.
Jack Atherton performs with his Tokyo-based band at The Room in Shibuya on May 27, 2021. Check our event listing for details.