Steve Negus on the rise of drum technology, crazy shows in Puerto Rico, and Saga’s new Heads or Tales


By Steve Newton

“Actually, I never really sat in a room and practiced,” claims Saga’s highly-touted drummer Steve Negus. “I always thought that the best way to learn how to play was to go out and play. So in my early days, all through high school, I used to play local dance halls and things like that–often three nights a week.”

Negus’s early, hands-on drumming experience has paid off in spades for the Toronto-born percussionist, as one listen to the new Saga album, Heads or Tales, indicates. His inventive, deadly accurate drumwork is a crucial ingredient of Saga’s heavily-textured, keyboard-based sound. And, as Negus revealed in a recent telephone interview from Toronto, his playing is something that evolved naturally, do-it-by-the-book music teachers notwithstanding.

“I took two private lessons from a music teacher at school,” he recalls, “and the first lesson I took he handed me this piece of paper with some notes on it. And I played left-handed, but the first thing he wanted me to do was play right-handed, and read these notes on a snare drum that go ‘left, left, right, right, left, right, left, left.’ And I thought, ‘This is a complete bore!’ You know, I’m already playing cymbals and tom-tom fills, bass drums and hi-hats–and this guy’s got me playing this stupid snare drum. I was already doing gigs!”

Thankfully, his old teacher’s methodical approach was not enough to curb the young skin-banger’s unique, left-handed playing style. Like Hendrix on guitar and McCartney on bass, Negus wasn’t about to let convention override personal preference. And the result is a percussional setup that causes fellow drummers no small measure of dismay.

“If you look at my drum kit,” explains Negus, “it’s actually a mirror image of what most drum kits are in that everything’s set up completely backwards. I play my main bass drum with my left foot, whereas most players play it with their right. So the hi-hat is on my right foot, my snare drums I play with my right hand instead of my left, and I play my cymbals with my left hand. And I roll from right to left, whereas most players go from left to right.”

Considering Steve’s creative approach to acoustic drumming, it isn’t surprising that experiments with electronic percussion have followed suit. “The Vendetta” and “Scratching the Surface” are the two main cuts on Heads or Tales that utilize electronic drum sounds–“Scratching” being totally synthetic, and “The Vendetta” employing the acoustic kit about halfway through.

“I really got into it at the beginning of Saga,” says Negus of the electronic percussion. “On the very first album there’s a song called ‘How Long’, which was using the Moog drum. I was basically the first person to use the Moog drum way back then [in ’77], and since then it’s become a little obsolete–although I still use it. And then the Syndrums came out and I really wasn’t happy with what I was hearing from them. I think about the time that Linda Ronstadt released a song with them on it sort of killed them for me.

“So I decided to wait, but I always had my eyes and ears open for anything new. We moved to England for eight months after the third album, Silent Knight, to write material for the fourth album, and we discovered an ad in a local trade magazine for these things called Simmons Electronic Drums. So I called them up and had them send me a tape. And I liked what I heard, so I went to see them. They were a very small company actually, just making a few kits at a time, and I got quite involved with the development of them and used them on Worlds Apart, particularly on cuts like ‘Time’s Up’ and ‘Wind ‘Em Up’.”

Negus has been using the Simmons drums in concert for three years now, and is still very much involved with the company. He tests all their new products, makes criticisms, and even helps design some of the equipment. But the 31-year-old percussionist admits that, at first, his embracing of the new technology confused some of his fellow players.

“When I discovered them and brought them back to North America it was quite an odd situation trying to explain to people what they were and what they did. Talking to my drummer friends, if they had a 20-year-old Gretsch snare drum or something that they just loved, there’s just no way they could comprehend what I was talking about. But now of course they’ve become quite the rage.”

And Saga itself has become quite the rage of late. Last year’s live album, In Transit, went platinum in Canada, and the new LP is showing similar signs.

And it’s not just in Canada that the band has won an enthusiastic following. Last year the band played the Roberto Clemente Sports Centre in Puerto Rico, and the result was frightening. Negus describes what happened.

“We were getting these calls to go play in Puerto Rico and no one had done it before–everyone was a bit skeptical because it’s a pretty corrupt place, a pretty crazy place to do business. But we decided to give it a shot.

“The first time was about four years ago, and that was a successful show. And the time after that, when all the riots happened, we did a 10,000-seater–and about 15,000 kids showed up. So there were 5,000 kids outside trying to get in, one way or another.

“And I remember sitting in the dressing room and this SWAT team comes in and disappears through another door. They come back about ten minutes later with a dozen people in handcuffs covered in concrete dust, like a prison break. What they had done was taken a sledgehammer and bashed their way through a concrete wall to get into the concert.

“And there was another guy who came in through the roof. I mean, this was a really high roof–like the Vancouver hockey arena–and some guy came through the roof with an ax, dropped a rope right down into the middle of the concert floor and climbed down. Aw, it was just incredible! A very crazy evening.”

And just as crazy is the fact that, with all this pandemonium going on, Saga continued to do their show. But as Steve points out, it would have been even crazier not to.

“It’s funny,” he recalls, “one of the guys from the record company panicked just before the show and said, ‘You can’t go on!’ And we told him, ‘Listen, we don’t have any choice. If we dont’ go on there’s gonna be nothing left of this place.”

So Saga did go on, and they even had the audacity to come back to Puerto Rico the following year. But that time they played a baseball stadium, so, says Negus, “There was lots of room for everybody. And it was a little more mellow.”

Another country where Saga have found a strong following is Germany. Their last five albums went Top 5 there, and the band received the German Gold Concert Award for outstanding ticket sales during 1981.

“They’re probably one of the most vocal audiences you’ll ever hear,” says Negus. “They understand quite a bit of English, so they sing through the whole show. they know all the words!

“On the live album there’s a thing called ‘The Briefcase’ which is a drum solo Michael [Sadler, Saga’s vocalist] and I do with the Simmons. And the audience actually sings all these different chants through a drum solo–it’s on the record if you listen to it. First time ever in my life that I can think of that anyone has sung through a drum solo. And in Europe they do it every night!”

Saga’s first three albums were produced by Paul Gross at Phase One Studio in Toronto, but for Worlds Apart the band acquired the services of Rupert Hine (The Spoons, Fixx, Robert Palmer). They had heard his first solo album, Immunity, and were impressed by what he was doing with keyboards.

Out of Hine’s production work on Worlds Apart grew a strong relationship between him and Negus, who played on his next solo album, Waving Not Drowning, and also did all the drumming on Chris de Burgh’s Getaway, another Hine production.

The musical relationship between Rupert Hine and Saga was continued on the new Heads or Tales, an album which Negus feels the new drum technology had a big hand in shaping.

“Everybody in the band now has a drum machine of some sort or another,” he says. “What they used to do was just write on keyboards, and now they have a drum machine to go with it, which immediately gives them a groove or a pulse that makes my life a lot easier. And drum machines have a tendency to make you write a little bit funky, which suits me fine–I’ve always had a soft spot for R&B anyway.”


To hear the full audio of my 1983 interview with Steve Negus subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 350 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

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…with hundreds more to come



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