Mark Sheppard is having a great year. He’s chatting with us from his home in LA, about to leave for People-con in Paris, France, where he will be promoting the staggering TV hit Supernatural on which he plays Crowley, the King of Hell. The celebrated actor has an impressive list of credits in his portfolio, from the Academy Award winning movie In the Name of the Father to hugely successful TV series such as CSI, The X-Files, Firefly, and Doctor Who.
What might not be as well known about Sheppard is that he started his professional life as a drummer, and still lays down a seriously mean groove to the present day. In a truly full-circle sense of coming back to his roots, Mark is getting ready to play a sold-out show with singer-songwriter pop icon Robyn Hitchcock, the artist who gave a teenage Mark Sheppard one of his first serious gigs years ago.
It all started for Sheppard as a young boy in London, where he started listening to records voraciously after meeting Daniel “Woody” Woodgate, drummer for English ska band Madness. “He was very much a big brother figure to me,” says Mark. “His mother worked for [BBC TV series] Top of the Pops, so he had this enormous record collection, thousands of records.” The family had a drum kit in their front room, and at the age of 12, Sheppard knew he wanted to learn the drums. He got a job at the London Drum Centre, next door to both the Dread Broadcasting Corporation and the legendary Rough Trade, where he would eventually record drums on albums. “I was making a lot of records back then,” Sheppard says. “When I was 17 years old, I started playing with Robyn [Hitchcock] in his first solo incarnation after the Soft Boys.”
After Sheppard left Hitchcock’s band, he played with English surf-rockers the Barracudas, then left for Ireland, where he joined Irish rockers Lighta Big Fire, who opened the Joshua Tree tour with U2. Soon after, Mark moved to the U.S. “In America, I formed a band with Josh Clayton-Felt called School of Fish, and at the same time I started an acting career.” The acting career kicked off in a big way in the early nineties, when Sheppard landed a part in the X-Files, and then In the Name of the Father starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson. “My whole life changed, and I stopped playing drums. I didn’t play drums for about 15 years.”
Now, with his role on Supernatural, Sheppard has a following of millions of fans, and it’s the show itself that has gotten him back into the music game. “Supernatural has obviously had its own fandom, which is enormous, a truly huge fandom of itself. There’s a band that’s attached to Supernatural, an LA band called Louden Swain. Their singer is Rob Benedict; Rob plays God on the show.
“We were doing these conventions for Creation Entertainment, and they picked up Louden Swain as a house band. Louden’s a good band, they could play cover tunes all day, but they’re a band in their own right like Wilco or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. And I was constantly asked if I wanted to play, and eventually they talked me into it.” With Sheppard, the show’s musical feel changed into something very present; its own entity, “a serious rock show,” as he puts it. Every Saturday night during the conventions the concerts sell out, to thousands of people, and it is now an event of its own. “Our own gear, our own soundman, two drumkits—myself and Stephen Norton, a North Texas drummer. And it’s done really, really well.”
Returning to the music world years later, Sheppard says in many ways it’s like he never left, while some of the mechanics have changed. “When I left [the music industry], it was analog, we were only just moving into digital. But the break that I took was ostensibly 20 years, and I came back into this with a completely clean slate.” Getting into gig mode led Mark back to the gear companies he played “back in the day,” from DW, to Zildjian, to Remo and Vic Firth, and he sought out Audix for his audio needs. “When it came to microphones, because I’m playing live, I said, ‘What’s out there that’s good?’ And I looked at all the reviews and all the talk about Audix microphones, and everyone said for a small company, they make a better product than any of the other people out there.”
After hearing a D6 on a kick drum, Mark was convinced. “I thought, this is fantastic, so I went out and I got a May rail [bass drum miking system] from DW.” He installed the system in his 20” x 22” bass drum and bolted it all together backstage before a show. “I played it that night and it was the best drum sound I ever heard. The FOH guys were like, ‘This is amazing!’ And then immediately the guy who had been using Sennheisers and Shures the entire time went, ‘Okay, I’m switching to Audix. This is so, so good.’”
Sheppard uses the entire D series for toms, which works for his larger-than-average touring kit: 20×22, 12×14, 16×16, and 16×18. “I think the D4 holds up so, so well on anything above a 12” tom. It just has that amazing, round tonal quality to it, and so little effort to do it. I’m proud to represent what I feel is the best microphone company out there.”
Sheppard just played a sold-out show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles on May 3 with Robyn Hitchcock, along with Luther Russell (Those Pretty Wrongs) on guitar, and Emmy-winning producer Tony Buchen on bass (Tim Finn/Crowded House). The band will go on to tour on the west coast and run the coveted late-night circuit promoting Hitchock’s new self-titled album. Mark’s enthusiasm for being back on the road with a band is tangible, connecting the two major parts of his career and creative energies, particularly for a gig he had as a teenager. “I was playing with [Robyn] when I was 17 and now I am playing with him 35 years later—it’s an extraordinary experience. And I’m obviously a much better drummer than at 15,” he laughs. “It’s fun to do. It is so cool.”
All photos ©Chris Schmelke