Tony Thompson Interviewed by Modern Drummer

Original interview from 2002.

Not many drummers dictated the sound of the 80’s like Tony Thompson. That big, huge drum sound was everywhere: on classic recordings like Power Station’s “Some Like It Hot,” David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love,” the list goes on. We recently caught up with Tony for an exclusive MD Online interview.

MD: What have you been up to lately?

Tony: I’ve been critiquing songwriters for a company called Taxi. I’m basically a screener. If I find someone who’s happening, I pass it on to the A&R people. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s a few days a week for a couple of hours, so I have plenty of time to do whatever else I have to do.

I was living in England for a while, I lived in Spain. I did the Power Station record Living In Fear with Bernard Edwards before he passed away. We cut some tracks in LA, some in NY, but most of it was done on the island of Capri in Italy. It started with the original line up, but John Taylor had to bow out for personal reasons, so Bernard played bass on all the tracks. The record came out in Europe, but the label in the States ran into some problems so it was never released here. It’s available on various Web sites. I also did a record called Under The One Sky with a band called Distance. The lead singer, Robert Hart, was the singer for Bad Company. Speaking of Bad Company, I toured with Paul Rodgers about two years ago.

MD: You also did a Nine Inch Nails record. How did you hook up with Trent Reznor?

Tony: I did the album The Fragile. I was on tour with Power Station, and I got a call from Trent and his people saying they were fans of mine, and would I consider doing the album? At the time I wasn’t really familiar with the band and their work. But it turned out the Power Station tour was ending, so I went back to New York, then to New Orleans, and started to work with them. I did about eight tracks. Trent was a very nice cat to work with.

MD: How were your tracks recorded?

Tony: I had no one else to play along with – no human beings in the room, just drums and computers. It was very interesting. I played all acoustic drums. I’ve always enjoyed playing like that. No matter how you look at it, the machines can’t mess up. You can’t blame anyone but yourself. I dig playing with sequences and loops. It’s a lot of fun. The time is there, so all you have to do is lock in and groove.

MD: Any other projects you’re working on?

Tony: I’ve been working with the former guitarist from Kiss, Bruce Kulick, on tribute records he’s producing – bands like Metallica and Aerosmith. Bruce has every artist under the sun, drummers like Vinnie Colaiuta, Simon Phillips, and myself. He puts these amazing players together, and teams up rhythm sections with people who never played together before.

MD: Let’s talk about that big drum sound you created in the 80’s.

Tony: All these years, people wanted to sample me. Everyone always assumed that there was some kind of special knobs turned when we did that first Power Station record. All it basically was, was a brand-new Yamaha kit (which I still play) in a very live, brick, recording studio in London called Mason Rouge. I hit the drums very hard. That’s it! [laughs] We did “Some Like It Hot,” and everyone had all these stories, saying all kinds of things, about tricks that were going on. Samples weren’t even around back then. So, bottom line, the sound came from a good kit, hit hard, in a nice live room.

MD: Was this the same recording process for Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love”?

Tony: No. Out of all the recordings I’ve ever done, that was the first time anyone ever spent time to get a drum sound like that. We did “Addicted To Love” in a recording studio in the Bahamas called Compass Point. At the time Robert lived across from the studio. So Bernard Edwards, one of my favorite guitarists, Eddie Martinez, keyboardist Jeff Bova, Andy Taylor, who also played guitar on that track and me went down to do Robert’s record and I remember my drums were set up in the room, and there was a door that led to a hallway. The engineer, Jason Casaro, took a tube the size of my bass drum and built this tunnel from my bass drum all the way out into the hall and up the stairs. It was this weird thing he hooked up. And it worked. The groove in the house was so thick, and what am I playing? A simple, Boom-Bop-Tish-Bop-Boom-Bop. It was unbelievable – I locked into that with everyone else swinging, and it brought the walls down. That song was a masterpiece.

MD: How about David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”?

Tony: That was recorded the same way as the Power Station album. It’s the way that I play. It’s the power that I have, which I really put an emphasis on growing up. My major influences as a kid were Ginger Baker and John Bonham.

MD: Speaking of John Bonham, how did you feel about playing with Led Zeppelin at Live Aid?

Tony: I was on the road at the time with Power Station in Sarasota, Florida. I got a call from my road manager saying Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were on the phone. I was like, “Yeah, right.” [laughs] And I hung up the phone. About a half hour later, my road manager calls back again and says, “Tony, don’t hang up the phone. I have Robert and Jimmy on a three-way call from Chicago, and they want to talk to you.” I was like, “Are you serious?” So I talk to them, and it turned out they were fans of my work, so they asked me if I would consider doing Live Aid with them. They said they also asked Phil Collins, but he was on the Concord flying back and forth. It turned out Power Station was also doing Live Aid. We were to go on at around six, and then I would go out with Zeppelin around eight.

So the day of Live Aid, I got to Philadelphia and Jimmy, Robert, and Jonsey rented out a rehearsal room and we rehearsed. I was glad we had that rehearsal. I grew up listening to Zeppelin. They were my bible when I was a kid. Now, I assumed a song like “Rock & Roll” was played a certain way. But when we started the song, Plant said, “No, that’s not it” and Jonesy said, “It doesn’t go like that.” [laughs] Bonham had a way of playing that everyone thought was straight. You’d think “Rock & Roll” is just a big 2 & 4, but it’s not like that. It’s more like a Texas shuffle. I got the chance to actually play with the guys who wrote the song, who were there. Bonham was just so good. You can’t copy him.

Another one of my idols growing up was Tony Williams, another guy you couldn’t really copy. You could never anticipate what Tony would play next. Some drummers you can hear where they’re gonna go. Not Tony. He would always throw you a curve. Another thing I dug about Tony, which I also dug about a lot of British drummers, was that they played more behind the beat. I noticed American drummers were more on top. Still on tempo, but a little more ahead. Tony Williams had the ability to play behind or on top of the beat at will. I always dug that, and tried to emulate it.

MD: So growing up, you were mostly listening to rock records?

Tony: I love funk, but my major influences were rock. The reason I play drums is people like Ringo and The Beatles, Mitch Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix, Ginger Baker and Cream. John Bonham and Led Zeppelin blew me away. I played rock in neighborhood bands. I always liked and listened to funk music, but I really got into it when I met Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers. Prior to meeting them I was really into fusion. That was my thing. I would go down to 7th Ave. South. That was a club in New York City that The Brecker Brothers used to own. I would see Chick Corea with Steve Gadd. I remember seeing Return To Forever. I saw Billy Cobham for the first time – and saw God. When they broke into “The Inner Mounting Flame,” it was the most awesome performance I’ve ever seen in my life. My God, it’s still embedded in my soul seeing him play like that. To have that command and power – plus his chops were just super-human. Before that, I’d never seen anyone like Billy Cobham.

MD: Was this around the time you met Narada Michael Walden?

Tony: I met Narada shortly after. He became my drum teacher and friend. He would pick me up at my house in Queens, New York every morning and we would go over his house, also in Queens, and we would meditate and then play drums. The thing I liked about Narada as a teacher was that he would never show me drum things. He wouldn’t sit and play and say, “Copy this.” He would play keyboards and I would play drums. He would analyze my playing, my feel, from that aspect. It was a different way to learn. It was great. It was an invaluable experience. He also taught Omar Hakim. I would see Omar when I was leaving. Narada was a great teacher and friend. Still is.

MD: So with all this rock and fusion influence, how did you end up in Chic, one of the biggest dance bands of all time?

Tony: When I met Nile Rodgers, I was playing in this band with a lead singer who was like a Persian Tom Jones. The band was looking for a guitar player, and Nile came down. He didn’t join the band, but he liked my playing and he kept my number. Months later, I got a call from Nile saying he was starting a band with Bernard Edwards. So I met them at this high school that Bernard’s uncle or somebody worked at. He would slip them the key so we could practice after school hours. This was the first time I had met Bernard, and that was the beginning of Chic.

We actually started as a rock band. But at the time, no one would hear of it – “Yeah, right, three brothers playing rock ‘n’ roll. That’s not gonna happen.” [laughs] So Bernard and Nile came up with the whole disco thing. I didn’t even know what disco was. It was very new to the scene. We pressed “Dance, Dance, Dance” without a record deal. Back then you could go over to a hot club, ask the DJ to play it, and see the results – which is what we did. And people just freaked. From there we signed to Atlantic.

MD: “Le Freak,” one of Chic’s many hits, became Atlantic Records? biggest-selling single of all time.

Tony: Yeah. I can recall when I first joined Chic. Nile didn’t like what I was playing. He felt I played way too much. Remember, I was into fusion at the time, you know, Billy Cobham. [laughs] So I would show up with all these drums and cymbals, showing my chops. I thought I was going to put a move on these guys. Check my shit. [laughs] Meanwhile, it had nothing to do with what they wanted to do. Nile was like, “Why you need all those cymbals and stuff?” He would tell Bernard – the brother plays way too much. So Bernard took me under his wing. He would talk to me: “Get rid of all that shit. Just keep a bass drum, snare, and hi-hat. When you master that, then maybe I’ll add another cymbal or drum.” So I was spoon-fed my kit. [laughs] But It worked. It’s amazing how creative you get from boredom. You come up with all these different things. Nile and Bernard saw a lot of things in me I didn’t see in myself. They helped me immensely in learning to groove. They were the groove kings. I really miss Bernard.

MD: Any memories of Madonna’s record Like A Virgin?

Tony: Nile produced that. Madonna was great to work with. She was a lot of fun. I’ve really been blessed; I’ve played with just about everybody.

Billy Amendola