Drummer Chad Cromwell

We first featured Chad Cromwell in the March ’04 issue of Modern Drummer. There wasn’t quite enough room for all the great stuff Chad had to say, though, so we decided to share the rest of it with you here.

by Billy Amendola

Chad has been a member of Peter Frampton’s band for the past six years, and is on Frampton’s latest CD, Now. Peter tells MD, “For me the drummer in any band is the engine that drives and steers the rest of the players. Chad is one of a handful of players in the world who has the sensitivity and overall feel to take the music to another level. After playing live and recording with Chad, I am totally spoiled. Chad’s a very special player.”

Now, most drummers would be content and comfortable with a gig the caliber of Peter Frampton. But Chad, who’s such a versatile working drummer, likes to switch gears, whether it’s rockin’ out live or on record with Frampton, Neil Young, or Joe Walsh. You can also find him laying down a country groove with Vince Gill, Amy Grant, LeAnn Rimes, or Mark Selby, or on a pop record with Jessica Simpson. He’s also toured and recorded all of Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler’s solo records for the past eight years – in fact, he’s currently recording Knopfler’s new one as we speak. The guitar great had this to say about Cromwell: “I clicked with Chad right off. He’s very musical, positive, and easy to hang out with. Also, Chad has the absolute confidence that what he’s doing feels good, which is essential for a drummer. Chad’s always into the song more than into himself, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get the song to work. I’ll always be having a good time from Chad’s first downbeat.”

Since his move to Nashville in 1990, Chad has gone on to become one of the most in-demand session players on the scene, while still maintaining a busy touring schedule. Not many get the opportunity to have success at both. We start our conversation about what it was like in the early days of his career, and his first taste of success.

Chad: Right before I graduated high school, there was a guitar player in Memphis named Robert Johnson [not the blues legend], who was a little older than I was. He moved to London and somehow got involved with John Entwistle’s band Ox. At the same time Chris Spedding had a thing going on for a while, and he had a bass player who was also from Memphis, David Cochran, who ended up in his band. Well, those two guys from Memphis met and decided they wanted to start their own band. They lived in London, but they weren’t meeting any drummers who they felt had “soul” – being so accustomed to Memphis guys. So they set out to find a young guy to help complete this trio, and then they were going to pursue getting a record deal over in London. A band of three guys from Memphis, that was sort of a cross between punk and soul music. [laughs]

So, David came back for Christmas holiday to see his family. While he was back in Memphis, Robert said, “Look around and see if you can find somebody that works for this.” So I meet this guy through a mutual friend. It wasn’t the band that I would have normally been in at the time, but I was over there jamming with these guys – we were playing Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” and we just hit it off. So he gets on the phone and calls Robert and says, “Hey, I’ve found the guy.” So I took this gig. I graduated from high school that year, and a week later I was on a plane to live in London.

While I was there, we did a showcase for Chrysalis. The head of A&R at the time came down to the rehearsal studio, listened to us play, and wanted to sign us. Well, then this bidding war started. And who ended up signing the band but Elton John’s new label, Rocket Records. Elton had just started it. His first signing was Grace Jones, and we were second. This was all kind of mid-’70s London, which were big years for rock ‘n’ roll. So we went in and made a record in three days.

MD: What was the name of the band?
Chad: It was called Lash LaRoo. Unfortunately, it just kind of came unglued. Without getting too specific, it basically fell apart.

MD: But it was your introduction to “the big time.”
Chad: [laughs] Oh yeah. I went from riding around in limousines and living in a beautiful four-story town house in London, to the last two or three weeks with no money. We were going down the street buying pork & beans and toast to survive. It was a bizarre experience. But that was my introduction to the music business and how quickly it can change. And when I came home, you know, I was kind of destroyed. I had high hopes for all that. Anyway, I finally got my legs back under me and started looking around, playing in the clubs again.

MD: Let’s jump ahead. You recorded LeAnn Rimes’ debut record, Blue.
Chad: Yes. She blew up, didn’t she? She’s great.

MD: I remember Pat Brown from Pro-Mark telling me at that time, “Wait till you hear this girl sing.”
Chad: It’s funny you mention Pat. He’s my guy. I love Pat. I go back with Pro-Mark and Pat a long time. Class-A individual.

MD: Let’s talk equipment while we’re on the topic.
Chad: I use DW drums, and I have to say, John Good and Scott Garrison from Drum Workshop are amazing guys. They’ve made a world of difference in my career. They’ve helped me get the sound I need, and they’ve spared no expense getting me there. And it’s greatly appreciated. I use Zildjian cymbals, and John DeChristopher, John King, and Jim McGaffee – all three of those guys have been wonderful. I have a full bag of their new Constantinople line to check out. They’ve gone to different gauges in some of the cymbal depths, and the tones that are coming out of these cymbals are scary. You’ve got to check them out.

MD: When you’re called for a session, will you take a variety of cymbals and different types of snare drums?
Chad: Oh yeah. Generally I have my studio rig set up into three different categories. If I’m going to do a demo date, then I’ve got a demo rig, which will be my DW kit. And then the bag of cymbals will have just my basic setup. And then if I’m doing masters, where I’m going to be at a place for a day or two, I’ll send one of my Timeless Timbre kits. And I’ll send in a couple of bags of cymbals so that I’ll have two to three options for hi-hats, rides, and crashes. Then all of my snare boxes will roll to any master I’m on. So if I’ve got to move from one studio one day to the next studio the next day, then come back to the other kit the following day, my guys will just come in and pull all my snares out. The snares follow me wherever record dates go. And then if I’m going to be camped out for a while, like a week or something, I’ll send over my vintage Zildjian cymbals and my other bag. I’ll just have everything, basically, but the kitchen sink. And on some those dates I’ll send my round-badge moon-glow satin Gretsch kit, or my pink marine ’59 Ludwig kit.

As far as percussion, it’s all Meinl. And my tech, Harry McCarthy, takes care of everything I do here in Nashville. He owns Drum Paradise here with his partner Mark Arnold. I was Harry’s first client here when he came from LA. He has not made one mistake in almost ten years now. I don’t know what I’d do without him. I don’t have to worry about anything. All I have to do is show up. I didn’t know guys like that existed.

MD: Let’s talk a little bit about recording and Pro Tools. Are you ever called upon to go in and play a couple of bars for a producer, and then have him say, “Alright, thanks, we’ll use whatever we’ll need”
Chad: I generally don’t get asked to just come and play a few measures. I mean, it’s happened, but very rarely. What mostly happens with me is after we finish a rhythm date, the engineer and the producer might ask me to stay and give them samples of the kit.

MD: Sometimes here in New York you walk in, you’ll hear the song, and the producer might say, “What do you hear for this?” You’ll play something and they’ll go, “Oh that’s good. What else do you hear?” and you’ll play something else. Meanwhile they’re recording everything. And before you know it they have your whole drum track cut up and put back together, and they have a whole track done.
Chad: And you know what? That’s a big part of why there’s very little live rhythm-track recording going on in New York City. I hate to be that honest, but that’s the truth. That’s been the curse of Pro Tools: Now everyone is a recording engineer and a producer with their own studio. But people have forgotten that ensemble recording is and always will be the best way to record. But that requires more than one human being in the room at a time. Thank God Nashville is still a rhythm section oriented town. So far that’s holding true, and I hope that it will for many years. You can never discount the fact that human beings want to hear humans making music.

MD: What was it like playing with bassist Willie Weeks again on the new Vince Gill record, Next Big Thing?
Chad: Oh man, Willie’s great. He did the Donny Hathaway Live record, which is probably the definitive R&B record. There’s some bass playing on there that’s Hall Of Fame. I’ve known Willie a long time. We don’t get to work together as much as I’d like to, but when we do, we have a great time. We actually recorded together on Keb Mo’s new record.

MD: You also toured with Bonnie Raitt?
Chad: Yes, I did some work with Bonnie, subbing for Ricky Fataar. I did the US leg of her tour in ’94, for the record Longing In Their Hearts. We also did Oprah Winfrey’s TV show last year. Bonnie’s one of my favorite people in the world, a great lady. I definitely want to sing her praises. We call Bonnie an unofficial member of Knopfler’s band. She can sit in with us any time.

MD: When you play, I can hear you incorporate that R&B feel into country – that very soulful, funky type of groove.
Chad: Thank you. You know what? That feel is on a Motown record somewhere, and it’s on a Stax record. I’m not doing anything new. And that’s the thing that most young drummers don’t want to know about. They don’t want to be told to go into a room, turn on a drum machine or create some sort of click track, and play along without doing one fill for five minutes. That’s tougher than nails, because there’s an incredible discipline to that. Say you’re asked to play a half-time ballad at 67 bpm – a really slow tempo. If you are recording a ballad for an artist at that tempo, that means you are subdividing to the minimum number of actual notes played from the kit, which ultimately means you are a time manager. There’s a lot of time between snare backbeats. If that next one doesn’t lay in there exactly the same as the one that preceded it, then you’ve got to stop the tape. And that’s what you have to know how to do.

MD: So what’s coming up for you?
Chad: Besides Knopfler’s new one, I just finished up recordings with Trisha Yearwood, Leann Womack, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Livingston Taylor, Amanda Wilkinson, CC Winan, and a new country artist named Trent Willman. I also recorded for a new country band called Sugarland, as well as a solo record that Peter Asher is producing for Raul Malo, who’s the lead singer of The Mavericks.

[Editors note: As Chad and I were finishing up our interview, word came that long-time Peter Frampton keyboardist Bobby Mayo had passed away. I was fortunate to have a chance to spend some time with Bobby, in fact it was Bobby who was responsible for Chad and MD hooking up. Thank you Bobby, God bless.]

MD: Sorry to hear about Bobby.
Chad: Bob was truly one of the most talented guys I’ve ever met. He burned so hard at both ends of the candle – in a positive way. That light burned so bright, when it was time to go out, it went out so quickly. He was a great friend and a great partner to Peter and the band. I loved him, and I’m going to miss him.

For more with Chad, check out his feature in the March ’04 issue of MD.