Tico Torres of Bon Jovi
The last time we spoke to Tico Torres (November 2000), Bon Jovi had just made a triumphant return to the limelight with its eighth album, Crush. That CD’s success brought their total album sales to over 90 million. In 2003, Bon Jovi will celebrate its twentieth year in the music business, and with their newest release, Bounce, it looks like they’ll soon be celebrating the 100 million sales mark.
by Billy Amendola
Drummer Tico Torres has been there every step of the way with bandmates Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, and David Byran. (Hugh McDonald replaced original bassist Alec Such in 1994.) “We’re like brothers,” says Tico proudly. “This is my family.”
We caught up with Tico while the band was in rehearsal preparing for a world tour, hot off the Times Square kick-off the NFL season, one of the biggest parties New York City has ever thrown.
MD: The new record sounds heavier than Crush, and it seems to have more of a live feeling.
Tico: I think it’s just the way our studio [the Sanctuary] is set up. There are quite a few overdubs. But I track with all the instruments, even though for the most part they’ll be scratch tracks, except for the bass. So maybe that’s where the live feel comes from. From there it’s a layer cake. Everyone gets to use the “big” room, which is made for drums. It’s fantastic.
MD: Were any of these songs left over from Crush?
Tico: No. We never use anything from the last records. We did about thirty new songs on demo.
MD: When you hear the songs for the first time, what state do you get them in?
Tico: Usually it will be Richie and Jon on acoustic guitars on a little tape player. There’s usually no lyrics or melody on there yet.
MD: Is there a drum machine or beat idea on it?
Tico: No, nothing. It’s a canvas, and I’ve got to start adding the colors. We do that through the demo process. From there it’s a process of elimination for which ones will stay on the record. We do a batch of maybe ten songs at a time. Richie and Jon bring them in, and in a week or two we take them one at a time and get them to where they’re as good as we can get them. Then they go back and write some more. We’ll go through that process two or three times. Now, out of that batch of thirty songs, the best ones always shine through. So then we’ll record seventeen or eighteen of them. The work has mostly been done in pre-production, so from there we really just have to attack it and fix whatever we need to.
MD: Does the beat ever dominate the way the song is going to go?
Tico: Well, it’s like anything: All the components need to work together. We try songs fast, slow, and kind of exhaust every idea. The word “no” never enters the coversation in the studio. We’ll just try a million things until the song is feeling the way it should be, which is good because it gives us all a full chance. I mean, there might be one or two songs where, rhythmically, it’s undeniable what it’s supposed to be.
MD: On the first single, “Every Day,” I like the way you change up the beat, then go back to 2 and 4, because you anticipate it’s going to stay on the up beat.
Tico: Yeah, we don’t do too much of that, but it’s nice to throw it in once in a while.
MD: You could have gone with 16th notes on the hi-hat, but it already has some kind of sequencing giving it that 16th-note feel. I like how you lay on the quarters on the hi-hat to make it heavier.
Tico: It makes it us, otherwise it could be anyone.
MD: It would almost sound like a disco song then.
Tico: Yeah, could be. It’s just putting the flavor in, incorporating what’s happening today. One thing we try to do is keep current with the electronics and everything, but still retain our sound.
MD: The new record doesn’t sound as loop-oriented as the last one, though.
Tico: Our co-producer, Luke Ebbin, came in again after a four-or five-year break. He’s a young guy, hip to computers, so he naturally leaned in that direction for Crush. Whatever loops he would come up with I’d record and make a new loop out of that. That’s kind of nice, because you’re using the technology to enhance your music, instead of creating around it. Thank God we’ve never gone in the direction where it demands it. I wouldn’t have minded a couple of more loops in there this time, though.
MD: Do you miss stretching on a song, maybe showing off a little bit?
Tico: I think you’ll see that at a live show. That’s one of the best things about seeing a band live: You get to see other directions. So it kind of gives you something else to listen for. Plus, these guys are strong songwriters. I believe in that too. I play for the song instead of trying to be a drummer’s drummer. Rather, I try to be one of the musicians on the song.
MD: Any new drummers that you like to listen to?
Tico: Oh yeah, but nobody I can name. [laughs] I’m so bad at remembering bands and names. But I like what I’m hearing. It seems to me that we’ve gone back about thirty years in some of the sounds. The drums are really loud now and a little thrashier. Guys are playing more and using more intricate rhythms than radio has ever allowed. On some of the new stuff I go, “Jeez, I played this stuff thirty years ago,” but nobody would give it a second listen. Now it’s about a whole different vibe–but I do like what’s out there.
MD: How is your art coming?
Tico: It’s good. I haven’t gotten to paint much this year, but I’ve got some shows coming up, so it’s progressing.
MD: You also have a line of baby clothes?
Tico: It’ cool stuff for kids. It’s called Rock Star Baby, because I believe every baby is a star–and they need to look like one too. [laughs] I got tired of seeing pink and blue. But it’s been going good. We are working on ways to get global. [For more information, check out www.rockstarbaby.com.]
MD: What are you doing to physically prepare for the upcoming tour?
Tico: I’m starting to work out and get my wind up, because we’re on stage for about three hours sometimes. Because we keep recording new material we always end up playing more. We’ve rehearsed more now than we have in years, which is good. It kind of gets you greased up. When you spend six hours behind the kit, you start working those muscles. Then I’ll sit down and woodshed for a week.
MD: What would that consist of?
Tico: I’ll get on a little Gretsch jazz kit that I got off Norman Connors in the ’70s, playing stuff that I would never play in Bon Jovi. Then I start sitting in with a few people around town to loosen up muscles I wouldn’t use in the music I normally play. That stretches me and makes it easier to call on stuff whenever I need it.
MD: What kit did you use to record the new record?
Tico: It’ a Pearl MasterWorks. Man, does that kit sound good. The MasterWorks series can be anything–different types of wood, different numbers of plies. I think it’s fantastic having those options.
I’ve also got an aluminum Signature snare drum that just came out. It’s warm but it’s got that metal ring to it. It’s the best of both worlds. I usually use a spectrum of snare drums, from Radio Kings to Black Beauties. But you know what? I had them all lined up ready to go, and this thing beat them all. It’s my first signature drum, so it makes me proud to put my name on something that really works. And what better test is there than to use it on a record and say, “This is it.” I’m also using it live. [For more on Tico’s setup, check out www.pearldrum.com.]
MD: Was the kit recorded out in the open?
Tico: Yeah, it’s a very large room. Obie O’Brien designed and built the room, and he’s a drummer from way back, so he made it for the drumset. For me, Sanctuary is as good as any studio. Plus, it has windows. [laughs] Seeing the progression of the day–rather than not knowing what’s going on outside–I can tell you, is very liberating. I don’t know who invented the “no window” thing in the studio, probably guys like Hendrix who used to start at 2:00 in the morning. In the ’60s and ’70s the studio was as dark as you could get it.
MD: What are some of your favorite songs to play live?
Tico: I like “Wanted Dead Or Alive.” It’s got a lot of emotion to it. Then we’ve got the trashier songs like “Hey God,” which is a lot of fun to play. “Keep The Faith” is always fun. And I like our power ballads because, you know, I get to do my little signature riffs.
MD: Did any songs on the new album give you a hard time?
Tico: Not on this one. “Say It Isn’t So,” from the last record, did.
MD: I remember you telling me you tried it a couple different ways.
Tico: We tried a million different things. Then we took a break and I came back and started playing this other rhythm, and it all went like, “Yeah?.” But I can tell you that the easiest track on this new record was “Bounce.” That was a one-taker. Luke put the tape on and then Hugh and I went crazy. I remember “Wanted Dead Or Alive” was also one take.
MD: How many takes is too many takes?
Tico: There’s never too many takes. [laughs] But I’ve never gone more than five or six. A lot of bands will write in the studio. We don’t do that.
MD: That could get expensive.
Tico: Yeah. That’s one good thing about having your own studio. But I can’t see us doing that. And there’s been a few times in the past where we’ve done a song so many times that it lost its feeling. I prefer to get it done early. Usually the first two takes are going to be the magnet. After that I start over-thinking the song. In that case you should leave it and come back to it another time. But that’s very rare for us.
MD: The last time we spoke you were saying you would love to do a solo record, with some crazy sounds like kitchen appliances. Any closer to that?
Tico: I haven’t gotten there in my life yet. With the painting and having the baby-clothes business, I keep myself so damn busy. And you know what? I’m still learning, I’m still soaking in a lot of stuff. So I think when it’s time, I’ll be musically and mentally mature enough to attack it the way I want to. I’m not saying I couldn’t do it now, but I think it’s going to come so much easier when it’s time. And there will be a time and place for that, maybe when I’m not touring and doing records, when it’s my time.
MD: How do you stay motivated after twenty years?
Tico: I think it’s because we still enjoy what we do. I’ve been playing drums for thirty-five years. I love doing it. We love doing it as a band, and if we didn’t we wouldn’t do it. I can honestly tell you that. When we finished the record, we all liked it. We all liked the last record too. We just try to make ourselves happy. We’ve been very lucky that we still have an audience. And since the last record, we have a whole new audience, from twelve-year-olds on up.
MD: Did the success of Crush surprise you?
Tico: Yes. For any band that’s been around for a while, it’s like winning the lottery when you can appeal to a whole new generation. We were very surprised. It’s wonderful because it’s like we’re back where we were twenty years ago, except that now we’ve got all this knowledge under our belts. Everybody thought we were going to die before that last record came out. There are people always looking for you to stumble and choke. But the smartest thing we ever did was just do what we do–not be disco when it’s disco, not be grunge when it’s grunge, because we’re not.
MD: This new record seems to be on its way to being just as successful.
Tico: Thank you. The vibe is good. People who listen to it seem to really like it. I’d say there are four or five hits on it–though who knows what a hit is any more? But the first video is cool. We did it in New Mexico where they have twenty-seven satellites–huge things worth billions of dollars, which the government put there, listening and waiting for ET or something. The concept is that our music gets telegraphed through these satellites all over the universe. They did a wonderful job filming. They could have used blue screens and all that, but everything is real. There’s some incredible footage. The only problem is the video is too short.
MD: Tell us about that storm on the last day of the shoot.
Tico: The last day we shot it was like – God came to this one. There was thunder and lightening all around us. We were right in the center of it. It wasn’t on us but around us, and they kept filming. When it finally hit, it was like 60-mph winds. It looked so good, it looks fake. But you couldn’t make this up in Hollywood. It was stupendous. And if the video had turned out like garbage, at least we would have had a good time. [laughs] But it truly is a good one.
MD: What did this video cost?
Tico: Definitely in the millions–but it was worth every dime.
MD: Any advice for drummers on entering the music business?
Tico: If you don’t keep track of what you’re doing, you’re going to get in trouble. There’s no secret to that.