The Fab Faux’s Rich Pagano
By Billy Amendola
New York City drummer Rich Pagano is way more than just a member of the hippest Beatle cover band you’ll ever hear. He’s also an accomplished singer and producer. As we journey through Rich’s MD Online interview, we’ll learn that not only does he do a stellar job of providing the Lennon vocals and Ringo drumming with the popular Fab Faux, he’s done some producing and playing with some of our industry’s finest. In fact, this past year the Fab have become so mainstream (with appearances on Howard Stern and a Rolling Stone feature) that finding the time for everything on his plate is becoming difficult to manage.
Rich says he still has dream gigs; in fact, he could have some of them, if he only had the time. “It’s always been a dream of mine to play with John Fogerty,” the drummer explains. “Since I was a kid he’s been among my favorites. Recently he called me to tour—but I have to say no for right now.” Rich’s busy schedule is not a bad problem to have, but he’s not the only one with commitments. His bandmates in the Fab, Letterman’s Will Lee and Conan’s Jimmy Vivino, also have their hands full with their TV shows. And Frank Agnello and Jack Pettruzelli both juggle sessions and gigs. But the Fab are marching on and becoming more and more in demand. Let’s talk to Rich and find out how they began and where they’re going. But first, let’s go back to Rich’s early years.
MD: Who or what made you want to play drums?
Rich: My dad was a big influence…anything he did was great to me. He had this Brooklyn, street-kid personality, so he was an intense figure. He was a snare drum player in junior high school. He didn’t do it for long, but there was a pair of sticks in the house at one time, and he started playing rudiments. I thought, “Well, if my dad plays drums, I’m going to play drums.” I eventually joined the school band and took private lessons. But I was really into AM radio even before I was playing an instrument, and it was a tos-up between guitar and drums. I was taking my Lincoln Logs and beating on everything. And then when I saw my dad play those rudiments, and I asked, “How do you do that”? He showed me.
MD: How old were you then?
Rich: I was six. Then I started taking private lessons for seven years with Charlie Busterna, from Long Island. He was mainly a show band drummer who played with Lionel Hampton. He was a great teacher in that he was like a really old soul for a young guy. He loved big band and show drumming, and he would say to me, “You’ll learn rock ’n’ roll on the street. Here, you’ll learn how to play jazz, and how to read.” He got me into people like Mel Lewis.
MD: Did he teach you how to read charts?
Rich: Yes. I don’t consider myself a good jazz drummer at all, but I’m glad that he kept me away from rock ’n’ roll at that time, because I think now I incorporate the jazz stuff into my playing, which gives me a little bit of a signature—something different to say.
MD: When did you discover rock?
Rich: I guess by ’70, ’71 I was really into it. I would always ask who the drummer was on certain records, and I would try to follow everything that Hal Blaine did. It seemed like Hal was on everything. And then after Ringo and The Beatles, I went right to Nigel Olssen, who was really big for me. I also have to say, I went to an amazing high school for music, in West Babylon, Long Island. They built this music wing with a recording studio, a guitar studio, and a keyboard lab. It was a great place for musicians, and it had great teachers. Of course, everybody wanted to play as fast as they could, but I was the guy saying, “Yeah, but check this guy out, Nigel Olssen. He knows exactly when to stay out of the singer’s way.” Since I started with songs and kept my ear to AM radio, it really was, for me, all about the hook.
MD: What was it you dug about Nigel’s playing?
Rich: I love his sense of space.
MD: When was the first time you noticed Ringo?
Rich: I had just started playing drums. I was sitting in a doctor’s office thumbing through a magazine, and I saw a photo of The Beatles with Ringo behind his kit. It was an early live photo, and the kit looked massive in front of him. Then, my cousins, who are older, knew I was into music and they would play me Beatles records all the time. I really came into it right when Abbey Road came out. I had this one cousin who turned me on to everything that was great back then—Janis Joplin, The Stones, Cream—but a heavy dose of The Beatles. Her room was decorated with posters of George and John when they had their long beards…I was into that look as much as I was into the music.
I also remember having a huge stash of Disney records when I was six and playing them constantly. And that whole Louis Prima thing from Jungle Book was big in my house. Then one day, I opened up the TV Guide— where they always had the Columbia Record House ad—and there was a picture of Abbey Road. I saw their long hair and I said, “Dad, let’s go get that record.” So we went out to the Times Square store, and that’s the first Beatles record I ever got. My dad had this huge Lafayette stereo in the house—he was a bit of an audiophile—and whenever I hear “Come Together” it just brings me right back to sitting there and hearing that bottom end.
MD: How was your first time in the studio?
Rich: I always felt confident in the studio. I guess it was around ’77, and I brought everything I owned with me. [laughs] It was older guys, and they had heard me play in a high school Battle Of The Bands. They had a four-track there, and I remember not being nervous and just setting up everything—the full frontal Carl Palmer setup. [laughs]
MD: Did you have to play to a click?
Rich: No, there were no clicks then. That didn’t start until a couple years later, and it’s been clicks for the most part ever since.
MD: Do you play traditional or matched grip?
Rich: I play matched grip for almost everything, but I’ll use traditional if the music is real sensitive, like soul music.
MD: Do you play any instruments beside drums?
Rich: I play bad bass and bad piano, just enough to write songs. [laughs]
MD: Let’s talk about The Fab Faux. How long have you been together now?
Rich: Eight years.
MD: How did the group come about?
Rich: The funny thing is, right before The Fab Faux started, I was touring with Will [Lee] and Hiram Bullock in Europe, back in ’97, and I really didn’t know them very well because we were from different circles. I was doing rock ’n’ roll records and they were doing their thing—plus they were on TV shows, so I knew of them. I knew Will from pop records too. I didn’t know much about Hiram, like about his fusion side.
Anyway, Hiram hired me. I guess he wanted more of like a Sly & The Family Stone thing for this tour, and with me being a big [original Sly drummer] Greg Errico fan, it was fun. I had to preface it by saying, “I’ve seen who you’ve used in the past, and I know you guys are into the notey fusion thing. I like that stuff, but I don’t play that way.” But Hiram said, “No, for this tour I want you to just lay it down.”
It was a great tour. During soundchecks, I would tune the drums, and I guess I had sort of a Ringo-y fill thing. Then one night we were playing in France in a jazz club, and Hiram said, “Let’s make tonight more of a player’s thing,” meaning, feel free to over-play. Then a one point during the show, Hiram turns around and says, “Give us a drum solo.” I despise drum solos. So I shook my head and said, “Nah, I don’t want to.” He kind of gave me a look like, “C’mon man, I’m hiring you.”
So I go into a couple little things, and then into Ringo’s solo from “The End.” Now, I didn’t know that Will was a big Beatles fan. But all of a sudden he jumps on stage and goes, “I love that track,” and starts playing the outro. After the show he said, “I didn’t realize you were such a Beatles fan.” I said, “I’m huge into it.” He said, “When we get back to New York, why don’t we pool our resources, get people that we know, start the greatest Beatles tribute band, and do it note-for-note accurate.”
Now, I was already making my living in sort of a Keltner/Ringo-type style. Actually, I had just done a Freedy Johnston record where Keltner did half in LA and I did the other half here in New York. So I said to Will, “Well, that’s kind of like a parody of myself in a way. Plus I was in Beatles bands as a kid, and I do Ringo all the time.” But he didn’t give up, and called me for like three more months: “I’m still high on our level of Beatleness from the Hiram gig. Come on, let’s do this!”
MD: So he had this concept brewing in his head.
Rich: Yeah, I guess. He always wanted to do it. Also, I spent so much time with him on that tour, we became really good friends, and we talked about things like Beatles bootlegs—what he had, what I had. His circle at that time was mainly jazz cats and he was doing a lot of Japanese fusion records and things like that—not a heavy Beatle thing. Now he’s surrounded by it. So I said, “Okay, let’s do it. Your enthusiasm—I’m getting off on it, let’s run with it.”
I’d also done Joan Osborne with Jack [Pettruzelli], and he was the same way. He was a bootleg freak and knew all the riffs. He would always sort of defer to a Harrison bend on his solos, and I was always the one nodding and going, “I know where you got that from.” [laughs] So I mentioned him to Will. I’d also been doing some duo gigs with Frank Agnello in Staten Island, and Frank’s knowledge is pretty amazing. So Will and Frank met at a Beatle Fest that we went to one year, and Will loved Frank’s knowledge and enthusiasm. So we brought Frank in.” We all met at Will’s house one night, and we hit it off.
MD: Let’s talk about how you approach Ringo’s style. Do you try to copy every nuance, or do you just go for the feel?
Rich: When I first started this with Will, I was doing pretty exact Ringo fills and everything. I take a few more liberties now. I approach it as if Ringo hired me as a secondary drummer. I actually tend to throw a lot of Alan White-isms in there. I’m a huge Alan White fan.
MD: From Yes.
Rich: Also from John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. I always loved what he did in both situations and the way he approached the Lennon stuff on Imagine. I’ll throw that in there sometimes because he had a different kick sensibility—or a Keltner feel.
MD: Does Ringo’s being left-handed make you approach it differently?
Rich: If I think about it, I’ll start a fill with the left hand. The key to Ringo is that you come off your hi-hat with your ride, which is why he would always sort of bash his hi-hat hard, and then the left hand would go to the rack tom. And then the right hand is available for whatever is happening after that. If you do it that way it’s automatic Ringo. But if forget, I just go over to the righty thing. But the only way to play the beginning of “Birthday” correctly, for instance, is to start with the left hand, and tune that tom just right.
MD: Any tunes you find particularly challenging?
Rich: I don’t know any drummers who can do “What Goes On” easily. That’s a real tough song to play. And people are always saying to me, “What do you think, man, is Ringo any good”? There’s always someone at every gig. I’ll say, listen to “What Goes On.” His groove is amazing, so tight and fast. Not only that, watch the video of the Washington, DC concert. Who played rock ’n’ roll like that before? Nobody. He’s great on that. And who was swinging those fills like that, his whole mid-tempo thing. He taught all of us how to play mid-tempo songs.
MD: Even his two-handed fills: “Tell Me Why,” those fills are hard to do.
Rich: You’ve got to be in shape. Your wrists have to be so limber.
MD: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from studying Ringo?
Rich: He taught me how to be a song drummer. That’s what I always say about Ringo. I’ll go see him from time to time now on his solo tour, and I just stand on the side of the stage and study his stick technique.
Here’s a story I’ve got to tell you: I produced Ian Hunter’s record Rant, and Ian’s drummer was Mickey Curry. But Mickey—who’s one of my favorite drummers—couldn’t get there for the early part of the sessions. So I played drums on one track, and another of my favorites, Steve Holly, came in and did some tracks. When Ian did the Ringo tour, Ringo told him, “I like this song,” meaning the one I did, “Let’s do it.” So, I get tickets to the show, and at one point Ian counts the song off, and I’m watching Ringo play my part. He played my fills. I thought, it now comes full circle. I’m watching Ringo play a track that I played on!
MD: You do a good amount of singing while you play. Any tips?
Rich: All I can say is every drummer should learn how to sing somewhat, because then they’ll realize just how to stay out of the singer’s way. Before I was singing, there was a period when I left The Beatles and song drumming and went to Return To Forever, Yes, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Then the first Elvis Costello album came out, and I thought, “I’m getting back into songs,” because I thought he was so great. But I still had this nervous, or I should say, “notice me” attitude, and I would get sessions or play in bands and overplay. But when I started singing, I realized, I can’t play a fill here because I can’t get back to the microphone in time. Or if I play a fill here, I’m playing over my vocal rhythm. So I lost my chops, but I gained a voice. [laughs]
MD: What’s it like being a drummer on the New York scene?
Rich: When you listen to certain players when you’re a kid and you find yourself playing with them a few years later, it’s great. It’s nice to be considered a song drummer and not worry about being a drummer’s drummer, because I get a lot more work when I wear the song drummer hat. My schedule now is half producing, and half sessions—singer/songwriters, some commercial work. Jimmy just brought in an account for CBS, for instance. We did all the walk-on music for the Fashion Rocks awards last month. We did that at my studio, New Calcutta.
MD: Tell us about your studio.
Rich: My studio has a really good drum room. So if someone calls me for a session, I’ll say, “Well, here’s how much I need, and this is how much for the studio. And then I’ll tell them what I have in my space, which is an old analog console, a Pro Tools HD, good pre-amps, and good mic’s. And I’ll give them a better price on me as a drummer and a better price on the studio. So I tend to bring a lot of drum sessions back to my place, and they either finish the track there or just bring it back to wherever they are. A lot of people now have Pro Tools in their house. I built the place for myself, right before I got married, as sort of a little clubhouse to write music. I never wanted to turn it into a commercial endeavor, but it’s gotten a bit of a reputation for having good vintage drum sounds. Ever since Ian came in, it’s been a nice place to make rock ’n’ roll records.
MD: The number of recordings made in studios has changed in the past ten years, right?
Rich: With fewer bands and artists being signed, there are fewer demos being made. There was a lot more production deals ten years ago. And that was a great way to make a living, because if an artist needed a drummer, those of us who had the singer/songwriter attitude, we got a lot of work.
MD: Can you explain what a production deal is?
Rich: That’s where a label would give some money to an artist, but not sign them yet, and say, “I like your demos, here’s some money, do four more songs.” At that point the record company wants to use better players, so you’d find yourself with A-list guys. And there aren’t as many as those deals today as there used to be. There also isn’t as much jingle work. I sort of crossed over to jingles fairly recently, because back then it was like the jingle guys and the record guys, but now the line is blurred.
MD: When you are hired to do jingles, do you get a chart, or do they say, “We’d like it to sound like such and such”?
Rich: Rarely do I get a chart. Usually you check out their demo and then make it your own. I’ll always write a basic chart that helps me get through the arrangements that they played for me. Once in a while I get charts. I’m actually doing a record now with Lorenza Ponce, who is Sheryl Crow and Bon Jovi’s violinist. She’s this beautiful singer/songwriter who’s great. She writes charts for everything, but we also take liberties because she also wants us to be ourselves.
MD: What else are you working on?
Rich: I just finished Willie Nile’s new record, Streets Of New York. I think it’s his masterpiece, we’re all really into that one. And Willie is a total grassroots poet, so he comes in with a guitar and his lyrics and we sit in a circle and play like a band. It’s the greatest-sounding session band I’ve ever played with. I’m real proud of that record. I actually co-produced it and mixed half of it with some guest mixers. That’s supposed to be out this month.
MD: Besides the drummers we’ve mentioned, are there any others who inspire you?
Rich: Levon Helm. I’m into Levon as much as I am Ringo. And this is an amazing year for me with Levon, because Jimmy [Vivino] is Levon’s musical director.
MD: Have you gone to the jams he has up in Woodstock?
Rich: Oh, yeah! I went up because Levon sometimes needs a secondary drummer when he plays mandolin up front. There’s a drummer who always opens up for him—he’s a great drummer, I’m really sorry I don’t know his name. But I’ve gone there in case he can’t make it. I’m a big Band fan anyway. The Last Waltz film was something I studied for a long time, just watching him sing and play. There is no one better than Levon as far as singing/drumming. I had met him a couple of times when he came to New York to do his blues thing, but I hadn’t heard him sing live. Well, this year he got his voice back, and he’s singing great. He’s singing all these great blues tunes.
So, anyway, when I went up to Woodstock, Levon was playing, and I was upstairs at this haystack area in his barn, just watching him play. He suddenly jumped off the drums—and he’s playing great, his groove is so excellent, he has that great Earl Palmer sound—but he goes up front with his mandolin and he’s tuning it up and no one is jumping on drums. So Jimmy looks around, finds me, and says, “C’mon down.” So I go down and Levon looks at me like, “Who’s this kid”? [laughs] I said, “What are we doing”? He said, “Let’s do some ‘Evangeline.’” Even though Richard Emanuel plays drums on that in the movie, I got to play behind Levon. He sat right in front of the drums, and we just went through it. Brian Mitchell was on keyboards. It was such a thrill for me. I got to play with Levon!
MD: You’ve also played with The Band’s Robbie Robertson, right?
Rich: Yes, I did some work with Robbie also.
MD: Who else have you played with?
Rich: I did some recording and toured with Rosanne Cash. I also did four days with Bob Dylan last year.
MD: How did that come about?
Rich: Rosanne hired [bassist] Tony Garnier to play on some new tracks, which may or may not make her new record, and Tony and I hit it off. And then George Receli, who is playing with Dylan, had a carpal tunnel issue and he was having some problems getting through the whole show. So Tony called me up and said, “Listen, we’re starting a tour. We are rehearsing out in Tulsa, and George may need some help. We’re going to bring in a secondary drummer to do maybe half the show, or do a double drummer thing; we’re not sure yet.” Then he says, “Ritchie Hayward of Little Feat is a good friend of Bob’s, and Bob asked Ritchie to come in and be the secondary drummer. But Little Feat may be touring around that time, so you want to come out and just play and see how it goes? If Ritchie can’t do it and Bob likes you, maybe we can do the tour together.”
So I went out and I did four days sort of rehearsing/auditioning for Bob, and it went really well. George was great. We didn’t do a double drummer thing. He played a few songs and I played a few songs, and Bob couldn’t have been more approachable. We talked about music. We’re both Southern soul music freaks, so we spent a lot of time talking about Memphis and things like that.
In the end Bob said, “Yeah, you can get through my gig with no problem.” And the next day I got the phone call that Ritchie was going to be able to do it. I was so bummed out even though I really didn’t want to tour as much as he tours. But to do a leg would have been great. And that’s really all George needed. Ritchie did one leg and George rested his arm and iced it and did some rehab on the road, and was back in full swing. George has been very influential on me recently. When I saw that guy play, with his level of New Orleans drumming in pop music—I thought, that’s a guy to watch. He’s got this sense of space. I’m not impressed with many drummers these days, but he really impressed me.
MD: The Fab Faux is getting so much press now, it’s becoming its own thing.
Rich: I know. It’s no longer about us. It’s about the happening. It’s like a Dead concert. People just want to be there. The question is, how seriously do we take it now? I never wanted my legacy to be playing in a Beatles cover band.
MD: You do it really well. May Pang (Lennon’s personal assistant, between 1970 and 1975) has been telling me for years now that you guys are the best Beatles band she’s ever seen.
Rich: I’ve got to admit that only until this year am I comfortable with what’s been happening. I’ve always been the one who was a bit sarcastic towards people who would introduce me as, “Rich from The Fab Faux.” I would just say something pissy, “Yeah, my legacy.” But it is great. It’s like an orchestra, and we approach it like classical music, so I’m okay with it now. Until people see it, they look down on you. You kind of get, “Oh, you’re in a Beatles cover band….” After a while you feel, “Yeah, but I’ve done other stuff,” but I’m not about to toot my own horn to everybody who only wants to talk about the Beatles cover band. Now we’re getting respect, and the crowd that shows up at our gigs is star-studded. And it’s starting to make money, which I guess justifies it now. Another reason it’s fun for me is because I book the band. There’s even a DVD in the works that we’re a part of, so look for that this year.