Interrogating Ali – an interview with percussionist Ali McMillan

I like to plumb the hidden musical depths of people who, whilst they may be fairly well known, are bubbling just below the public’s sight line. Ali McMillan, much dreaded former teacher, roving percussionist and behind the scenes man was the drummer in indie rock band Darwyn and has also been seen with Matt Cardle in and around Essex playing the djembe (a West African hand drum shaped something like a huge wine glass) and providing backing vocals for long covers sets in pubs and clubs such as the Five Bells in Colne Engaine and High Barn in Great Bardfield. There is, however, evidence that Ali has worked with other musicians and may do so again in the future. The proof can be found on his website.

It is known that he recently acquired a set of Conga drums. Can he play them? More information was needed. He’s 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.

Sue – I’ve 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.

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 Wonder’s Live at Last DVD.

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 can’t 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 I’ve 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 I’m sitting behind a kit or a Djembe I think ‘I’m not really doing much back here!’ 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!

Sue – What are you currently working on – and who with?
Ali – Right now I’m working at High Barn (Essex). I am programming the events mainly but also doing sound occasionally for the gigs here. I’ve always wanted to work here so it really is a dream come true.

Cardie – 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 time.

Sam – Do you like working “behind the scenes” or do you prefer performing?
Ali – I’ve always wanted to work at High Barn, since we came here with Darwyn in 2005. And now I am, which is amazing, and I’m having such a great time here too. But I prefer performing.

Sam – Do you want to be a session musician or would you prefer to work exclusively with one artist?
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. I’ve got a way to go yet, but I’m on the way!

Sam – 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 don’t know. Or both.

Azliyah – 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.

Sam – What and where has been your favourite performance?
Ali – 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 hoped!

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 I’m not even looking at this on Twitter. AATW is an epic song and I’m glad we covered it.

Sue – 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 it’s 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 I’ve always been interested in writing. Who knows, if all else fails, I try that instead!

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 eventually recorded.

Sam – What is your favourite Darwyn song?
Ali – Junior is my favourite. It’s 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.

Cardie – 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 recorded.

Sam – 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 wasn’t 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 – I’m 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 it’s not in any kind of order, which makes finding anything long too.

Cardie – 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 I’ve 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 weren’t a musician what would be your alternative career choice?
Ali – Let’s just say it’s a good job I am a musician. Otherwise I would be hungry and homeless.

Denise – Who inspired you to become a musician?
Ali – I’m 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 it’s 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.

Azliyah – Besides Matt who else do you collaborate with when doing gigs?
Ali – I’m doing some stuff with a guy called Gary Osborne @acousticgary, and a couple of other people.

Sue – Where would you like to go next with your music?
Ali – I’m trying to promote myself as a percussionist/drummer right now. Seeing if I can get gigging again.

Cardie – Did you vote for ‘Shopkeeper Jones’ in the recent Council Election, and are you convinced he takes his position of authority seriously??
Ali – If I lived in the council district I would have voted for Richard, and then rigged the vote so he won. I don’t think he takes anything seriously. He’s a man I seriously aspire to be one day.

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.

Ali McMillan’s website



  1. samofbev

    Great interview!! Thanks for using so many of my questions!! Theres still so much I want to know!! Can you make it a regular feature?? Ha ha! #askAli

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