Aaron Comess: On the Re-Formed Spin Doctors, His Early Influences, and His Many Outside Projects
by Billy Amendola
In the early ’90s, The Spin Doctors burst onto the music scene with a fresh, funky rock sound that generated several hits and millions of record sales. The band graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and drummer Aaron Comess became one of the most talked-about drummers of the time, appearing in Modern Drummer (October ’94) hot off of playing a blazing set at Woodstock.
This month MD Online reflects with Comess on those heady days. We also talk about the exciting days ahead, as the band supports its new CD, Nice Talking To Me—their first since 1994’s “Turn It Upside Down”.
MD: How does it feel being back with all the original band members?
Aaron: It feels great! We’ve been having a really good time. It’s fresh because in the time we spent away from each other, everyone was involved in different projects, and it kept their chops up. We got back together after getting a call from the New York club The Wetlands, who said they were interested in getting the original band back together for a one-off. So I made all the phone calls. I hadn’t spoken to some of the guys in a while, but everybody was into it. Pretty much right from the first note of rehearsal it felt great.
MD: When was this?
Aaron: About four years ago. We had a really great show that night. The music was on, the crowd was packed. It felt really good to shake those guys’ hands and have a good vibe. After all the stuff we had done together…it’s a drag if you can’t even be somebody’s friend after that. For me, that was the best part of it. From there, a buzz started and we got an offer to do a tour that spring, which led to a summer tour, which led to us to do some writing and more gigs. We’ve taken the last three years kind of slow. We did two-week tours here and there, getting together in New York for writing and demo sessions, and taking our time trying to get it to a point where we felt we had a really good batch of material for this new record.
MD: For readers who are unfamiliar with your background, let’s go back and talk about when you first started playing music.
Aaron: I started playing piano when I was about five, taking classical lessons for a few years. When I was around nine I got interested in the drums. I have an older brother who is a musician, and we used to do your typical jamming around the house, banging on pots and pans. Originally we both wanted to be drummers, but I was the guy who said to my parents, “I want to play the drums, can you get me some lessons”? Luckily I come from a really supportive family, and they found me a great drum teacher in Dallas named Jack Iden, who passed away a few years ago. I took lessons from him at Brook Mays, and I couldn’t have asked to walk into a better situation as a young drummer, because this guy was unbelievable.
The first two years of my drumming life was basically learning how to read, learning rudiments, and practicing on a practice pad. About a year into it I got a snare drum. I’d get my mom to come in there with me and talk to him after lessons, because I really wanted to get a full drumset. I was already into a lot of bands, and I wanted to play a kit. But he was like, “We’re going to get to that. But I think it’s very important for you to get your hands together, learn how to read, get your rudiments together, before you move to kit.” It drove me crazy at the time. [laughs] But it turned out to be the best thing I ever did. A few years later I finally got a kit. I wish to God I still had it. It was an old ’50s tiger-striped Apollo kit. I made the mistake of selling it a few years later.
MD: Who was the first drummer you noticed?
Aaron: It’s hard for me to say, but some of the first music I can remember getting into was The Jackson 5. It was such cool music—I still listen to them now. The rhythm section is incredible. I remember getting into Stevie Wonder too. And having an older brother was really great, because he turned me on to a lot of the music I got into.
From there, I discovered Led Zeppelin. By the time I was in seventh grade, I was all about John Bonham. I used to play along to all those Zeppelin records. I’d turn the lights out, put the headphones on, and just rock out. To this day, I still consider him the best rock drummer who ever lived. He had everything you’d want—style, finesse, groove, power, originality. You know it’s him from the first note.
MD: So did you continue with lessons when you got the kit?
Aaron: Yes. Rick Latham was my first drumset teacher. His book Advanced Funk Studies, was unbelievable, and I was learning it in seventh grade, which was awesome. Nobody had a book out like that at the time. It incorporated reading along with learning very cool funk beats. He also got me into big band chart reading. In seventh grade, my school had a symphony and a big band, so it was great to get exposed to that.
Then I moved on to this guy Henry Oxtel, who was Rick’s teacher. He was the head teacher at North Texas State. Henry was also unbelievable. He helped me take the whole thing to another level. He got me into some weird stuff with time and polyrhythms. He really pushed me hard on a technical level, but he always made it very clear that it doesn’t matter how technical you are, it has to be musical and it has to groove.
MD: Very important information.
Aaron: And it’s really important to figure that out at a young age. On top of that, I was going to a school called The Arts Magnet High School in Dallas, which is a performing arts high school. At the time I went there, Roy Hargrove was there; I used to play with him every day. Nora Jones was there. She was younger than I was, but they’ve had a lot of graduates—Erykah Badu, Edie Brickell….
Every day in high school I was playing in big band, jazz combo, symphony orchestra, taking music theory classes, ear training classes…. And on top of that I had this group of friends that were all great musicians, and we’d get together at night and jam. And I was always the kind of guy who was into everything. I tried to be versatile, and I’d try not to be judgmental about something right away. Even if a particular kind of music may not be your favorite thing, there’s probably going to be something you can get out of it.
MD: How would you describe your sound?
Aaron: The musicians you play with are going to affect the way you play. I think I have a couple different drumming personalities. There’s definitely my Spin Doctors personality, which I’m most known for.
I think it made a big impact in my style when I first started playing with them. You hear about New York guys and West Coast guys…I’m a little bit more laid back. I tend to go for more of an in-the-pocket or behind-the-beat kind of feel, but these guys are total New York edgy players, and they play hard and loud. I’ve had to adapt to that over the years, but I think it’s made my playing style a lot stronger. Though, I’ll do other gigs, or go on sessions, and it’s totally different.
MD: I heard that when I saw you with The New York Electric Piano band. It really showed a different side of you.
Aaron: I’ve always felt like your first thing as a drummer is to serve the music, whatever the style or song or group of people you’re playing with. You really have to adapt. Unfortunately there are a lot of musicians who just show up and say, “This is the way I am, this is what I do, and you better adapt to me.” I think the best music happens when everybody is listening to each other and making the proper adjustments to make the whole group sound good. That’s what music is all about. Take the drumkit itself: You’re trying to take all the different sounds at your disposal and make the drums sound like one instrument. It’s the same thing with a band: All those different instruments and personalities have got to find a way to blend together and make one great sound.
MD: Not to mention that it helps get you work.
Aaron: Exactly. I do a lot of session work and jazz gigs, and if I just came in as “Mister drummer from the Spin Doctors,” I’d get fired a lot. [laughs] Now, sometimes people might hire me and say, “I love the way your snare sounds on that Spin Doctors song—that’s what I want.” But a lot of times that’s not what they want, in which case you have to make sure you’ve got the right equipment. You have to make a quick call and know how to find the right sounds. Early on I had people say to me, “Well that sounds great, but it sounds too much like The Spin Doctors.” That was a good wake-up call for me. I was playing a certain way, thinking that was what they wanted. It’s cool if you have a sound and a style, but you have to adapt as well.
MD: While we are talking about sound, do you have a studio at your house?
Aaron: Yes, I do. I’ve had an apartment in Manhattan for about ten years now. When I was first looking I knew I wanted to buy a place so I could have a soundproof room that I could play my drums in and jam with people and rehearse. Before I knew it, I started producing a lot of different people there. So it’s worked out to be a great scene. People come over and bring finished tracks that I can lay down drums to, or I could be producing full tracks and doing writing sessions.
MD: I noticed on your Web site that there’s one album you did that you didn’t even play drums; you played guitar.
Aaron: I play a lot of guitar and some basic keyboards, so on a lot of the sessions I’ll play other instruments as well. Sometimes people will hire me to just play bass on something, or they’ll like the way I play bass with my drums.
MD: How does being a multi-instrumentalist help your drumming?
Aaron: I think it helps a lot. I really recommend to any musician, no matter what you play, learn how to play some other instruments. For one, it gives you a different perspective. I mean, I learned a long time ago that if all you’re thinking about is the drums, it’s not going to be very musical. I think by understanding how a guitar part, bass part, or a keyboard part works, it makes you think of the whole picture, which is what it’s all about.
MD: How about as a songwriter?
Aaron: It helps with songwriting and producing especially, because if you have a song and produce it, your job is to finish the whole thing and make sure everything is right. All you’re thinking about is making sure you have a great song that sounds as good as it can. You’re not thinking at all about, How am I going to get my best drum lick in there? I think that by having had all of those experiences, when I come in as “just the drummer,” I’m able to walk in and all the fat is already trimmed. I’m already thinking about the end result.
Having knowledge of harmony and theory is also very important when you’re trying to communicate to another musician. The same goes for guitar players, singers, and bass players: It’s great for them to know a little about drums. I’ve always felt that it’s everybody’s job in the band to put the time down.
MD: What do you practice?
Aaron: If I’m real busy in the studio or out on the road, then I’m just playing. But if I’m home for a while, I’ll put myself onto a practice regimen, which I love to do. I find that a good hour to two of really focused practice is better than just banging around for eight hours. When I was younger, I went to Berklee for a year, and then I went to The New School for a few years. I was one of those guys who would practice eight hours a day. That was great and it helped a lot. But I just can’t do that anymore, because I don’t have the time or the patience. But if I sit down for an hour every day for a few weeks, and really think about certain things that I need to work on, I’ll focus on those, and do it. And I like to give myself a little technical tweak every now and then. I have a lot of books that I go through.
MD: For instance?
Aaron: To me the best book in the world is Ted Reed’s Syncopation. I went through that in high school a lot with Henry Oxtel, who hipped me to a thousand ways to use it. There are ten pages in the middle that are just simple 8th-note bass rhythms. And there are a million things you can do with independence. The simplest would be like a 2 and 4 on the hat, jazz swing on the ride, and the left hand playing the line. From there you can get totally insane.
Also, I always practice with a metronome. I think at least half the time you’re practicing, you should have that metronome. A lot of people don’t realize how much their time goes up and down. In the studio, if they’re using a click track, but you’re not prepared for that and you screw up, you’re going to be out the door really fast. So I’ll do things where I’ll just play the simplest groove for fifteen minutes and try to really lock it in, make the pocket right, make it feel good, and concentrate on the different sounds I’m getting out of the drums.
MD: Let’s talk about the new record.
Aaron: Matt Wallace produced it, and he’s great. All the basic tracks were done live, and we used a click. Matt’s whole deal was pre-production. He’s like, “Let’s get our stuff together so when we go in we’re totally prepared and we’ve got our arrangements together.” So we spent two weeks in pre-production, really digging into the material. We made a lot of positive changes to the songs, and by the time we got in there it was pretty laid back. We did all the basics in like three days.
MD: Are the drums recorded out in the open?
Aaron: Yes. We recorded it in Sound City Studios in LA, which is an old legendary studio. It’s where Nirvana did Nevermind, Fleetwood Mac did Rumours, a lot of the older Tom Petty records were done there…. It’s an old big room that still looks like 1974, and it’s got the same carpet. Nobody wants to change anything because they’re all superstitious. But it’s a really great vibe. It’s got the high-end Neve board and great mic’s, but without that real high-end feel, which is great. Nobody likes going into a sterile environment when they’re playing music.
MD: It’s a pretty organic-sounding recording.
Aaron: There was very little tweaking done. Matt may have done a little bit of editing, but for the most part it was all there. And he was impressed. He was like, “Man, I’ve got to tell you, I do all these records and this is the first record I’ve done in years where I didn’t have to sit here and Pro Tool drums.” [laughs] I think the whole Pro Tools thing is a great tool, but unfortunately—and I think I read something about this in Modern Drummer—these days, how do you know if a guy is really on the money or has some hotshot Pro Tools guy making him sound great? It’s nuts. I think it’s a good tool—if it’s not overused.
So anyway, the tracks were all recorded live, and then we went to a studio across the parking lot to do the guitar and overdubs and a couple of little bits of percussion here and there.
MD: How were the drums miked up?
Aaron: There was your standard kind of miking, and then we had a couple of really cool overheads to bring the room in. I’d just gotten one of those new Yamaha Subkicks, which I brought to the session, and I loved it. The engineer and producer loved it to. You just put a little bit of that in with the bass drum, and it’s so nice.
MD: Speaking of equipment, what kit did you use?
Aaron: I used my Brady kit in the studio, because they totally hooked me up in LA and supplied me with a beautiful kit and about ten different snare drums to choose from. I brought my two or three favorite snare drums as well. I also had a whole array of Zildjian cymbals to pick and choose from.
MD: Whose sticks do you use?
Aaron: I use Regal Tip’s Jazz model.
MD: You play traditional grip: advantages or disadvantages?
Aaron: You know I play traditional grip because that day I walked into my lesson when I was nine years old, that’s how I was showed to hold the stick, and ever since, that’s how I’ve done it. I’m not really a preacher on whether it’s right or wrong. I think it’s cool that I play traditional grip because not that many guys do it anymore. I don’t know if it has any advantages or not. I will switch over to matched grip for certain grooves. Sometimes if I switch it up, I’ll come up with something different or maybe get a different sound out of the snare drum. But I have far more power and better technique with traditional grip. It just feels natural to me.
When I play with The Spin Doctors I have to put duct tape on my left hand between where the stick would hit between your finger and your thumb, because if I don’t it will just open wide. I’ve tried gloves, but they felt too stiff for me. Stewart Copeland used to do the tape thing too. He played traditional as well.
MD: Let’s run down the songs from the new CD, starting with the track “Sugar.” I notice that at the beginning you’re playing way ahead of the beat before it settles into the groove. Obviously that was intentional.
Aaron: It was. Part of playing with a click is being able to move around it a little bit. Let’s face it, as musicians we naturally move around a little bit, especially in a band situation. That’s part of the beauty of music. So when you’re working with a click, it’s an interesting problem: How do you make it really tight but not sterile? With that song, we wanted it to feel like an epic rock tune at the beginning and then lay back into the groove. So we consciously tried to do that.
MD: “Nice Talking To Me.”
Aaron: That’s pretty much straight-ahead, kind of going for a B-52’s “Love Shack” vibe. On the verses you couldn’t get any simpler. It’s 1 and 3 on the kick, 2 and 4 on the snare. And then as the song progresses through the verse, I add another bass drum beat, slowly open up the hi-hat, and then build it to the chorus. It’s a good example of trying to serve the song as simply as possible. Sometimes less is really more.
Aaron: That’s one of my favorites on the record. I really just went for a straight-up rock/pop song approach—again, nothing anything fancy, just try to give it a good feel. We tried to keep it energetic but also with kind of a little bit of a laid-back feel to it. When we first walked in we were playing it a little more aggressively, but Matt Wallace said, “Just lay back, let the song speak for itself.” So I tried to go for a cool approach on the hi-hat, and during the verse just kind of lightly hit the ride and not hit a lot of crashes. I did some simple fills in the middle of the verse. The standard thing would be to hit a crash at the end of it, but I chose to just let it almost act as part of the beat, which I thought worked pretty well.
MD: “Happily Ever After.”
Aaron: I went for a Motown-ish vibe there—a little deeper snare drum sound, and, again just a real simple groove. At first that song was an upbeat party vibe. Then we changed some of the chords and the beat and tried to turn it into this happy but melancholy song, which I think we accomplished. We did an interesting thing: By the time we got to the last chorus, we felt like it needed to pick up, but instead of just pushing it ourselves, on Pro Tools we moved the click one beat faster for the last chorus. It’s not the kind of thing you would hear, it just sounds like a band doing what they would naturally do.
MD: “I’d Like To Love You But I Think You Might Be Crazy.”
Aaron: Usually I find that I find my best parts on my first instinct. If you are fishing around for days trying to find the right drum part, you’re probably way over thinking it. That song was just Eric and me at my studio in New York working on it. Everybody else was out of town, and he had that bass riff and chord sequence. We basically just pressed record, and made it into this jam, which ended up being the entire groove of the song. That was the beat I played, and it stuck. It’s just a cool syncopated beat. I kind of regret coming up with it, because it’s a pain in the ass to play live. [laughs] I’m really working up there playing that one. I always make jokes to the guys or I’ll look at Chris: “I’m working now!” [laughs] But it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. I think it really showcases The Spin Doctors and shows all four of our styles very well: Chris’s great lyrics and melody, Mark really gets a chance to do his thing, Eric’s really cool guitar, and I’m doing my thing. To me it’s kind of like a classic, non-pop side of The Spin Doctors, more of our rocking side.
MD: Is everyone involved with the songwriting?
Aaron: Yes. It depends on the song. There are a bunch of them I wrote with Chris, there’s a couple that Eric, Chris, and I wrote, some of them Eric and Chris wrote, and a few all four of us wrote together.
MD: “Can’t Kick The Habit.”
Aaron: That’s one of my favorite songs we’ve ever done. It’s a song that Chris wrote with an outside writer, Jeff Cohen, when he was working on his own album. He recorded a version that was quite different from ours, but it was so good everybody wanted to take it off his record and put it on ours. Chris doesn’t play a lot of guitar in the band, and I think the whole idea of building the song around him and the acoustic guitar was great. It was magical. I’m really proud of it. I feel like it’s something we haven’t done before, and I really like the fact that you have this beautiful pop song centered around voice and acoustic guitar, and then at the end, it just totally stretches out. That whole take was basically The Spin Doctors live in the studio, with the exception of some keyboard overdubs.
MD: It has a great feel, drum-wise.
Aaron: Thank you. I used two snares—my Brady Tree Trunk, which is my absolute favorite snare I’ve ever had in my life. They only made about five of them. It’s got the warmest sound. Anyway, I used that as the main snare, and on the left I had an old Ludwig 6″ snare that I put a towel on. On the first part of the song I think I used Blasticks on the Ludwig snare, and then I switched over to the regular snare when it kind of opens up. That song has become a centerpiece of the show.
MD: “My Problem Now.”
Aaron: That’s a straight-ahead rock tune. It was a song that Chris and I had written like five years ago, and it was quite a bit different then. We brought it in for the band and kind of turned it into kind of what Eric’s take is—more into a rock thing. It’s a Stones-ey, straight-ahead drum groove. Anything more than what I played would have been too much.
Aaron: Eric wrote that with [Mountain drummer] Corky Laing. So I had to put the cowbell in, in his honor. [laughs] Eric and Corky had a band for a while called Cork. As you can imagine, it was old-school, rocking stuff. It’s a great vibe, and I really like that song a lot. It’s a lot of fun to play.
MD: “Tonight You Can Steal Me Away.”
Aaron: In some ways that song reminds me the most of something off our earlier albums. It’s kind of a classic Aaron Comess/Spin Doctors beat. I think, luckily, it’s the only song on this album that has that beat. I know there have been a few songs where I’ve done that beat. [laughs] But it’s a good-feeling funky kind of rock groove.
MD: “Safety Pin.”
Aaron: Great rocker. I did a tom beat on the verses, and then it just goes to the ride and rocks out. A good energy track that hits hard.
MD: Well, we wish you much success, because this is a really good record.
Aaron: Thank you. I hope, if nothing else, it does well enough to keep the band on a good level. I think all anybody can ask for when you’re a musician for life, like I plan on being, is having a good career and continually working, and trying to always improve as a musician. It’s great to have a band. I’m one of those guys who lives in both worlds. I’m the hired drummer, but I’m also in a band, so I get to see both sides, which is cool. I think I’m able to bring something different to what I’m doing because I’m on both worlds. But I can tell you, when things are going right, there’s nothing like being in a band.
MD: So do you have any advice about keeping a band together?
Aaron: It’s definitely a lot of work. When you’re in a band like ours, there’s no real leader; it’s basically four guys. We all make the decisions, and we don’t always agree. You’re dealing with musical differences, personality differences, scheduling…. There’s just so many things involved it can get very difficult.
I think that the kinds of things that split us up the first time won’t happen this time, because I think we came back to it with a stronger appreciation for the music and for each other. And you want to try to hold onto that. You’ve got to hand it to any band that keeps it together for a long time.
My advice to any young band is this, first of all, be unique. Don’t try to sound like all the other popular bands already out there. It’s the bands that come out with their own voice that succeed.
Beyond that, you’ve got to be willing to work really hard. Nothing is going to be handed to you, and you’ve got to have your business affairs together. You’ve got to make sure you don’t sign bad contracts, and make sure you’re working with people you trust, because you can make a whole lot of money in this business but you can also get royally screwed. Just keep your eyes and ears open.
When I’m behind the kit, through the course of the evening, no matter what song I’m playing, I’m thinking about at least ten of my favorite drummers that I’m trying to be at that moment. Hopefully, at this point of my life, it’s going to end up sounding like me. Without those inspirations and influences, I would have never gotten to this point. And that never ends. I feel like I just started. I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near where I want to go and what I want to be. I’m thirty-seven years old now. As long as I’m around and I’m healthy I’m going to be playing music, as long as I can. This is what I do. And it’s great to see more and more people having long careers and sticking with it. You do it until you can’t do it anymore. It’s what you do.
For continual updates on Aaron, visit his Web site at www.aaroncomess.com.