This article originally ran in the December 2009 issue of Modern Drummer magazine. For access to all of the great editorial from MD’s first twenty-six years of publication, check out our Digital Archive.
1. Think marketing. I made my latest record [Since 1972] on my own dime. So I thought, How can I do something cool and interesting to make people aware of it? My last record sold so few copies I thought I should call everyone who bought it and thank them personally. So I wanted to do something different in today’s rapidly changing music climate and do it in a way where I could get a lot of free publicity. TV stations have responded, as well as bloggers, The New Yorker, NPR. I don’t expect anyone to buy the highest-priced option, but I’ve grabbed folks’ attention. Before I developed this campaign, it was just another dude putting out a record, but now there’s a whole story that people have really picked up on.
2. If it sounds good and everyone is playing well, there’s no reason not to go with a guerrilla recording approach. Even though I’d already recorded The Notorious One Man Orgy, Since 1972 was still like flying by the seat of my pants. These are songs that I messed around with over the course of seven years and recorded on a small digital recorder with a couple mics or at a couple of pro studios. Both records were recorded in a pretty disjointed way, and it worked because it had to. As things were shaping up, I thought, Ya know, I can use that song I recorded with two microphones!
3. When working with a new band in the studio, it’s important to adapt, musically and personally. I don’t want to come in and act like some hotshot or intimidate them. I say, “We’re all here to play music together.” I’m not in there looking down at them just because I’m there for the day or because I’ve got so much experience. I don’t want them to think the producer hired some outside dude who doesn’t understand their music or doesn’t care. I’ll say, “We are going to kill this together,” rather than, “This will be so easy because I do this all the time.” You don’t want to come off as a know-it-all, but at the same time you should be confident enough that they can relax.
4. Laying the groove behind the click or pushing ahead always depends on the song, or sometimes on the particular section of the song and how it feels. Sometimes [the time] is explained to me; sometimes it’s just something I realize as the tracking progresses. Usually you’ll play through a song, and if no one suggests anything the song will make it known where it wants to lay. I might suggest, “We’re all leaning forward on that chorus. Let’s not be afraid to lay back,” or, “It’s tough staying on the click in that breakdown verse; it’s okay if we lay back.” It’s either discussed ahead of time, or it makes itself obvious.
5. Learn your rudiments. As a kid I would do the most basic rudiments: double-stroke rolls, five-stroke rolls, sevens, paradiddles, flam taps, flamadiddles…. I used to play a snare drum solo called “Three Camps.” It was such a big deal to learn that when I was ten years old. It’s five-, seven-, ten-, and eleven-stroke rolls. Learning that was a goal of mine as a kid. I loved the challenge and the routine of it, how it got my wrists warmed up and in shape.
6. Do it like Frank (and Terry and Vinnie and Chad). I listened to a lot of Frank Zappa music when I was in grade school. That’s how I learned to play odd meters without even thinking about it. Of course I heard Rush and King Crimson songs that had odd times, but I really got into Frank’s music at a young age from reading Modern Drummer interviews with Terry Bozzio, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Chad Wackerman. They all said Frank Zappa’s music was really challenging. I didn’t transcribe anything, but I tried to play along. Over time, you learn about playing in seven or five or getting into more intricate things like 15/8 or 21/16. For years I thought Zappa’s “Keep It Greasey” was in 21/16. I would try to count it, but I never could find the 1. Later I realized it’s in 19/16!
7. A good way to work on your time to prepare for studio work is playing with a drum machine. You can get drum machines pretty cheap these days. Playing to records can help, and playing by yourself without any sort of click is helpful too. Play with a boom box and record yourself. Then listen back and see how it sits. And you have to play with people. I always go back to that.
8. To get a good take in the studio, listen and ask questions. Sometimes the producer or artist has a drum machine demo to get an idea across. I’ll ask, “How close do you want me to stick to the demo?” I cue off what the bass is doing, whether I’ll be playing down or up. If it’s the end of the song or the solo section, maybe I’ll play a couple of cool fills, but I won’t play fills in the first verse. I make a logical estimation. I’m assuming we’ll come down in dynamics in the first verse and the hi-hats will close up. Then you might open them up in the bridge and go to the cymbal on the chorus. Maybe vice versa. It’s usually a quick discussion.
9. Get paid. I only take cash up front for payment, baby! Seriously, there are artists on major labels who I really couldn’t care less about working with, so if they hire me I charge them more. But I also do sessions for free for friends who have no money. I worked with a band where we recorded eighteen songs in one day, and they shoved $200 in my pocket at the end of the session. I thought I was doing it for free. But generally I work out payment issues in advance on a per-song or per-day basis. I’m pretty easy to hire, unless I need sleep!
10. Turn them down in my headphones! That’s how I deal with some musician’s bad time in the studio. Or I’ll tell the producer, “You know and I know that this particular guy is all over the place,” and they’ll dip that person in the mix. Generally you’re not trying to get takes off the floor with everyone playing together. They’re there for the vibe. They’ll punch in guitars and bass later. It doesn’t matter if I’m not listening to the bass player, though if he’s a great bass player we’ll play better off each other and we can get a take together. Often the bands I work with will have a click going, and that’s more inspiring than working with someone who isn’t playing well. Then I know everything is perfect and I don’t have to worry about someone falling apart.
Original interview by Ken Micallef