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Meet the Antrim drummer looking on the brightside...touring the US with The Killers' Brandon Flowers

Darren Beckett, from Northern Ireland, is currently backing one of rock's top frontmen and says his career is all thanks to his school teachers back home

By Lee Henry

Published 18/08/2015

On the beat: Darren Beckett was playing Belfast’s Empire Music Hall at the tender age of 12
On the beat: Darren Beckett was playing Belfast’s Empire Music Hall at the tender age of 12
Time out: Darren with his wife Sara and their daughter Delphine and son Thelonius, who is named after the jazz great Thelonius Monk
Flower power: Brandon Flowers
Sultry star: jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux

'Turning 40 on the road is tough," jokes session drummer Darren Beckett, one of the fittest 39-year-old rockers you're ever likely to meet, who is currently touring American festivals, stadia and network television studios with Killers frontman turned solo artist Brandon Flowers.

Having burned the candle at both ends throughout the Nineties and Noughties as a beat man for hire, and founder member of the now defunct New York-based indie act Ambulance, Beckett understands more than most the effects that overindulgence can have on a young musician's constitution.

Nowadays, however, with a wife and two young children at home in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, Antrim-born Beckett has replaced backstage high jinks and debauchery with "20 push-ups and coconut water". He knows when he's on to a good thing.

"Before, when I was young and slightly foolish and playing gigs in all these amazing places with some incredible musicians, I was happy to be the stereotypical Northern Irish guy, always up for drinking more than the next man, whereas now, I don't do that," says Darren.

"These days, I exercise. I run a fair bit, and relax in the hotel when we've got days off. Since I got married, in fact, I live a pretty healthy lifestyle. When you're playing to thousands of people with the likes of Brandon Flowers, often for nights in a row, you have to be in control.

"Besides," he adds, "the whole music world has changed in recent years. Now it's all about staying fit, keeping on top of things, focussing on the career. I'm not alone in that regard."

Such an approach has paid off for Darren, who has performed with the likes of hip-hop icon Lauryn Hill and sultry cross-over jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux in famous venues around the world, from the Royal Albert Hall to Madison Square Garden and all points in between.

A drumming prodigy who caught the eye of teachers and established Northern Irish musicians at an early age - "I was playing with blues bands in the Empire Music Hall in Belfast when I was just 12," he recalls - Darren was always determined to make the most of his natural talent.

"I had the blinkers on," he explains. "I wanted to be a musician and that's all I ever wanted to be. I was just mad for practicing and learning and taking in as much music as I could listen to. I had a great childhood, in that regard. I remember those early years back home in Northern Ireland with great fondness."

Beckett was introduced to the world of percussion "aged four or five" by his father, Drew, a former showband drummer from Crumlin, who gave up performing on the vibrant but fiercely competitive Northern Ireland live circuit in order to provide for his burgeoning family.

"I can't remember the name of his band," says Darren, "but when I was born, my dad decided to stop playing the drums and got a job. He kept playing in our local church, though, and brought his kit home every Sunday. Even though I could hardly reach the pedals, I played them as much as I could."

While attending Antrim Primary School, he was encouraged to continue playing by an influential music teacher, the aptly-named Mrs Horn, and today is quick to praise both his first school and Antrim Grammar for their "pretty advanced music programmes, without which I may never have pursued a career in music at all".

Outside school, Darren threw himself into the live scene, playing with and learning from "so many great musicians in Belfast at the time, like Gerry Rice, who had a gig in the Europa Hotel in Belfast every Saturday, and Foggy Lyttle, who had a jazz gig in the Empire".

"There was loads of stuff going on," he recalls, "and I got involved in as much as I could, including the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's jazz orchestra, which would rehearse every Saturday.

"I was still going to school, of course, but I wasn't interested in it, apart from music. My mum, Carol, who loved The Beatles, and my dad, who loved The Stones, realised that I had fallen for jazz, and that I needed to play as much as I could to progress, and, God love them, they'd drive me around everywhere, including down to Dublin, where I'd play with all kinds of bands. Looking back, there were a lot of people helping me out. I was very lucky to have all of that support."

Having experienced a taste of the showbiz life - the thrill of playing live, the adulation of audiences, the sense of satisfaction that comes from learning new flicks and tricks - Darren left home in 1991, aged just 16, to study percussion at Cologne University.

He did so at the invitation of well-known American music tutor Keith Copeland, who saw in his young charge, Darren surmises, an ambitious and single-minded drummer" with the potential to succeed on the world stage.

Two years later, the Big Apple beckoned. Home to countless jazz clubs and rock venues - and the birthplace of drumming legends such as Buddy Rich and Steve Gadd - New York was always top of the young Northern Ireland man's list of places to go.

He bagged himself a scholarship to the New School in Manhattan and thereafter "started getting gigs and supporting myself".

"New York was the centre of the universe for a young musician. It was brilliant, but I'm thankful I arrived there when I did. It's changed a lot over the past 20 years, like any major city. When I got there, it was dirty and gritty and incredibly exciting, from a musical point of view. But it's become so much more commercial, all high rises and luxury apartments, a place for the super rich. Unfortunately, that kind of gentrification often pushes out the artists, but I'm still there. My wife Sara and I have two young kids - Delphine (2), and Thelonius, named after jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, obviously, who is just over two months old - and we are starting to think that maybe we'll leave for the suburbs some time soon. But every time I'm away from New York, I miss it. I think once you've lived there long enough, it's hard to leave for good."

These days, Darren spends, on average, six months of the year on the road, touring with Peyroux - "She doesn't care about fame. She'd play on the street with a hat. That's what I love about her" - and, most recently, Brandon Flowers, one of America's most successful indie songwriters and band leaders, who students here will forever hold in high esteem as the singer of indie classic Mr Brightside.

"Brandon is a great guy and an amazing artist," he says. "I've been part of his band since his first solo album, Flamingo, which we recorded back in 2010, and I'm touring his new album, The Desired Effect, at the minute. I'm very blessed to perform with him."

The feeling is evidently mutual. Flowers, after all, granted him a co-writing credit on The Desired Effect's critically acclaimed lead single, Can't Deny My Love' which stemmed from a beat - one of many - that Beckett had recorded on his iPhone.

"I was in Spain with my in-laws and I got a call from Brandon, who was feeling a little uninspired at the time. He asked if I had any ideas lying around, so I sent him 20 beats, or thereabouts. He wrote the melody of the track around the rhythm, and since then I've had all sorts of calls asking me to write with others. I didn't expect that at all."

He is unlikely to take up writing full-time, however, as he's not finished with drumming just yet.

"I actually prefer being a session musician and getting called in to do different projects, to leading a band with the ambition to take over the world.

"That can be pretty stressful, unless you're in The Killers and are making lots of money, but I think my priorities have changed, the older I've got. Today, I couldn't be happier. For me, family is way more important than playing the drums. And yet, in a strange way, that makes me want to play better, having a couple of kids, thinking about them before I go on stage every night. It puts me in a better head space. Every gig I play is for them."

As for career highlights, Darren reveals that there have been too many to mention in one sitting, but cites one gig in particular, which he was able to share with family, as the show he will remember for the rest of his days.

"My mum always said to me when I was young, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice". Back then, I was 13, living in Antrim and thinking that it would never happen for me. But I got to play Carnegie with Madeleine a few years back, and my parents came over to New York for the show.

"I made them proud, and that, for me, was the most important thing. That was a big moment. The biggest."

Belfast Telegraph

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