Drummer, drum kit maker, mountain biker, “Recycle” advocate

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I was in RAM Studios in Damai, chatting to a nice guy called Peter Lau, who is based in Labuan. Moses de Silva walked in and said, “Hey Joanna, have you ever seen Peter’s drums? He makes them himself, come and see.” He led me to Roger Wang’s office, where there was the most beautiful miniature drum set, waiting to be played at a gig at Rasa Ria resort.

I got the chance to talk to Pete more, when we were all in Kudat for the “Tip of Borneo” music festival.

Pete made his first prototype cajon box about ten years ago, when looking for a gentler way to accompany Roger Wang’s finger style guitar.

Pete got into fusion drumming through a KL bassist. “He played me a record, and I thought wow! What is that? The drum beat and patterns are totally different from anything I had heard before. The drummers were Billy Cobham and Steve Gadd, and the way they play, it make my hair stand on end. I keep listening and listening. I want to play like that. But in Labuan, the moment I start playing using those skills, people look at me like I am an alien.”

“So, the first time me and Roger jammed together, there was a spark, as if we were playing together for many, many years!” said Pete. Roger had not found a suitable drummer for his music in KK, and Pete was a lone fusion drummer in Labuan. Bingo.

“Roger called me and said ‘Pete, I’m going to start a project, it’s called Journey Home. But before you say yes, I need to let you know, you must use a brush, and just play a snare drum.’

“I said, ‘Eh Roger, you know I’m a busy kind of drummer. Suddenly you just want me to play something so simple?’

“Roger told me to listen to Tommy Emmanuel or Martin Taylor, and to listen to the drummer. So I listen: true it’s just a snare drum with a brush, a swing pattern. 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. It’s a challenge for me. Roger said, ‘Less is More, Pete. You have to apply that now.’

“I said, ‘Roger. Less is less! What do you mean, less is more, man? I don’t agree with that!’ But never mind, I take up the challenge.

“We start to do road shows for Journey Home. That’s Roger, Walter Samunting and me. The normal jazz drum kit is loud, and overpowers Roger’s guitar. I have to play controlled. I don’t enjoy it. Roger said, ‘You got to do something about the drum, it’s too loud.’

“Then Roger introduced me to the cajon. I think it cost about RM650. I said, ‘I’m not going to buy it. I’m going to make it’. I look for one of my friends, his nickname is Tai Khiong. He’s a carpenter from KL and owns a workshop in Labuan.

“‘Eh, Tai Khiong’, I said. ‘I want to make a drum.’ He said, ‘Come to the workshop. I have a lot of leftover wood.’ I went there and picked up things from the floor. He has all the tools there and within about half an hour, the whole cajon is complete. I start to play it, but I find the cajon position is no good for the back. You have to play leaning over. If you’re going to stay there for one hour, you can’t even sit up again, isn’t it!

Drummer Peter Lau from Labuan designs and makes his own miniature drum kits

“So I thought, I am going to modify my own cajon. I make a pedal, and a drum head from thin ply wood. I play it with a brush and this way I can sit up straight.

I brought this one to KL, No Black Tie. After that, as the music is getting more complicated, this cajon sound is too soft. I needed to improve the drum. I have another friend Kenneth Loh, he’s my childhood football friend. He owns a missionary shop, and works with oil projects, so he has left over pipes. So I use his pipes to hold a hi-hat. I can’t do welding, but he can do that. Everything is FOC, it’s recycling. We go to the carpenter workshop, pick the wood, combine together and make a drum set. I bring the mini drums up to KL.

The best part is, I put it on the stage, people look at it and they say, ‘What is that?’ And they start laughing! It doesn’t look like a drum set, but I don’t care! As long as it makes good sounds. This kind of drum set is really good for making acoustic music: unplugged, low volume kind of gigs.

Pete had made a huge transition: from very individualistic power drummer to supportive team player, in order to grow musically, and to be harmony with his faith and his environment.

“My father was a saxophonist and had a band. So when I was very young, he used to bring me around to the clubs, and I would watch the band play. Our house is full of instruments, almost every week the musicians would come over and, there was music all night long I would say, lah. My father would play all those dance records, like mambo, cha cha, rumba, because the band played for ballroom dancing. Every time I follow him to the club, and I would look at those uncles and aunties, playing and dancing, and of course I would be looking at my uncle because he’s playing the drums, and the sounds attracted me.”

By 14, Peter was drumming at night at the Victoria club in Labuan, careful not to let anyone at school know, because he didn’t want to get pulled into the school band.

‘The first real drum set I had was when I passed my Form 3.  My father said: ‘I’m going to buy a drum set for you, since you passed your exams.’ This was like fortune broke through from the heavens! I was very happy.  I still keep that drumset. I’m now 48.  That drum set is coming to 30 years old. I still have it because it has sentimental value.”

By the time he was an adult, Peter was a full-on, power-house drummer.

“Every day I was playing the drums, I saved money and slowly started upgrading. This is what drummers do; you want to upgrade, keep on changing. So my drum set become bigger and bigger. Until one day, only I can go in my so-called drum room, because it’s completely full with drums.

“My drum set was 360 degrees. When you are young, you think like:  ‘Hey man, the more instruments I can hit, the better’. That kind of thing.  So there’s no space for other band members to play. Every space [in the music] I’ll just fill in. So, I’m always the star in the band. This is no good. In those times, we don’t really mention about teamwork. It was like: I want people to look at me.  Ego kind of things. I need to mention this, it is important. A lot of young musicians have yet to go through this. If they are aware, maybe they don’t have to pass through it like me. 

So, every time I come down from the stage, people will praise me. ‘Hey Pete, your drum is fantastic”. But they never praise my brother, they never praise my guitarist. How do they feel?  At that time, I didn’t know about that. I think, ‘Wow, I’m a super star.’ Actually, unknowingly I’m hurting them. It’s no good, there’s no team spirit.

Then came the Era of the Technics Home Organ. “Every club is using organ, with one singer. I think all the musicians had this problem. Guitarists, drummers, bassists, they all had to go and play organ, to earn some cash. I even play organ for a few months. But then I thought, No. I still want to continue with fusion drums, even though no band to play with. I practise for six hours every day, and I really go into technicals. This is discipline. I have two phrases which have been with me for many years. Good attitude and good discipline. If you want to be good drummer or become a good musician you must have these things. Discipline means practice. Attitude means accept criticism and do self-criticism too. I record my own playing, and I do self-analysis: ‘this part is too busy, this part is not good’.

Pete and a few like-minded fusion musicians formed a business. They believed they could take this music to the public, raise awareness and make money. But reality was very different. The buying public did not want jazz at their weddings or functions, they wanted pop.

“There were so many problems. Water bills, electric bills, problems with staff. I had depression and insomnia. I lie awake, hearing the clock ticking. Sometimes, when I play drums, I go BLANK like a robot on autopilot. I feel like throwing the drum set away and walking off. After six years, we closed our club on New Year’s Eve. Everywhere people are happy, but we are sad. The moment the clock struck 12, that was the end of the business.

“That’s when I hated drums. Music was like torture. When the club closed down, I stopped playing. I moved into sports, heavily into mountain biking. I go really extreme: stunt jumping and jungle trekking. [I have a big team now.] For a few years, I didn’t enter my drum room at all.

“My father’s friend [now passed away] was a music teacher in Chinese school. One day he said, ‘Peter. What’s wrong with you? You are musician. You are a drummer. Why you give up the drums and you go into this stupid sport?’

“At that time I thought: what this bloody old man want me to do? I said, ‘Don’t talk drums and music to me! I give up already. This bicycle thing is my new life.’ But inside here (presses his heart) I still want to play drums. But I don’t want to admit it, because I got phobia already.

“He said, ‘Pete. You must come back to drums. I know you love drums, and you just want to escape. You want to take this bicycle thing to escape. But in your blood, in every fibre of your body, you are a drummer.’

“I was all empty inside. I needed to find myself again. So I start to look at religions. I got to say this because it’s very important to me. It changed my music. It doesn’t mean I want to promote my religion. So one day I find out this Soka Gakai Malaysia, because Herbie Hancock is a member. It made me curious. We chant this: Nam-Myo-Ho-Renge-Kyo. It is the sound of the universe. When we chant, it’s as if a spark comes out, and I see a way to lead me back to my music. It’s difficult to describe because it’s all here (presses his heart).

“After a while, more gigs come again. I meet Roger because my brother brought him to the club. Then Roger calls me, and says he is going to start a project called JOURNEY HOME, and can I help him with the drums? Journey Home – everybody come back, you know? For me too.

“People ask me how I get the idea to make a drum. It’s through my prayer. I chant, and I can see it. I can see 360 degree what it will look like, and I know the sound, before I have made the drum yet.”

Pete looks at me. “Can you believe that?” he asks me. Well, what’s not to believe, I said. He has done it several times over. Here are some more of his beautiful drums.

Every drum set must meet these criteria:

  • It must be compact
  • It must be light
  • It must take ONE trip to move, either from home to the car or from the car to the venue. [I am guessing drummers will appreciate the usefulness of that.]

“I could buy new materials for my drums, but I love to recycle,” Pete said. “One day I was jogging, suddenly I stop. In the drain I see this piece of rusty, flat steel bar. Who wants to pick it up, it’s rubbish, right? But I take it home and wash it, and I know I will use it.

Our surroundings has a lot of wonderful things for us to use. The only thing is, we don’t know how to discover them. This is the challenge I give myself: to try and make full use of all the things which are around me.” Peter Lau. Drummer.


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