Curt Bisquera has been a first-call studio drummer since 1991, appearing on recordings or playing gigs with Mick Jagger, Tom Petty, Celine Dion, Morris Day, Ronan Keating, The Dixie Chicks, Seal, Bonnie Raitt, The Spice Girls, Boz Scaggs, Johnny Cash, Dave Koz, Ricky Martin, and Elton John. Here Curt talks about his friendship with studio legend Jeff Porcaro, working with producer Matt Serletic and Taylor Hicks, and what you’ll need to be a first-call studio drummer.
MD: Let’s go back to the very beginning: What made you get into the drums?
Curt: My mother was eight months pregnant with me when she was playing B3 organ and piano with her jazz trio. Now whenever I hear a B3, I instantly put my thumb in my mouth and run towards the organ. [laughs] As a young teenager, I started doing gigs with her. My mom’s brother—my uncle—also plays piano, so I did gigs with him as well. That’s how I got introduced to playing drums.
MD: Did you have any formal training at all on the kit?
Curt: No, I was completely self-taught up until the point where I went to PIT in ’84. Then I studied intensely how to read, so I could become a studio drummer.
MD: How important is reading for doing sessions today?
Curt: Oh my God, it’s incredibly important. Obviously there are people who do sessions that don’t read, and that’s cool. But I wanted to be able to have anyone throw something in front of me and know that I’d able to read it and make it happen. Jeff Porcaro would always say to me, “Yeah, man, make sure you know your 8th notes and quarter notes and dotted 8ths,” and he was right, because in popular music that’s what you see a lot of.
MD: But with looping and other programs so prevalent, is reading drum charts still as important as it was back in the day?
Curt: I think reading is just as important now as when I first started. But now, not only do you have to know how to read, you have to know a bit about programming and drum editing in programs like Pro Tools or Logic. Sometimes I’ll get called and they’ll say, “You know, we want to edit this part of the verse and make it shorter and make the third chorus of the song longer.” Sometimes the engineer won’t know exactly how to do that, and I’ll have to go in and say, “Okay, cut here, paste here….”
MD: So he’s not losing your part.
Curt: Exactly. When I first started sessions in the ’90s, it was still tape, so there would be a lot of splicing of the tape with a razor blade—which some younger players might not even realize, since Pro Tools and Logic are the modern methods of cutting tape.
MD: Growing up, who influenced your playing?
Curt: Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks with James Brown were a huge influence on me, along with John Bonham. When I was a young teenager, Tower Of Power used to tour up and down the coast and I’d sneak in and watch David Garibaldi. He was a huge influence on me too, along with Jeff Porcaro.
MD: It’s known that you and Jeff were good friends. How did you two meet?
Curt: When I went to PIT in ’84, I studied under his father, Joe. And Jeff would periodically come into the school and check out what was going on; he was always about seeing the upcoming talent that was out there. In his kind heart, I guess saw something within me. He knew that I wanted to be a studio guy, and he started recommending me to some really top-notch producers and engineers.
It all sort of started for me when he was going to produce a record for Boz Scaggs. He called me personally one day out of the blue, with that deep voice, “Hey Curt, man, it’s Jeff.” I said, “Jeff who”? And he goes, “Jeff Porcaro. What’s going on”? I’m like, “This isn’t Jeff Porcaro.” I thought it was one of my friends goofing around. He goes, “No, really man, it’s me. I’m producing this Boz Scaggs record and I want you to play on it.” To have one of your drum heroes call you personally and have you play for a record that he’s producing—that was one of the landmark moments in my life; it was a great honor. And it wasn’t just me. Jeff did this for a lot of guys. He had this huge heart and this huge basket filled with compliments and willingness to help his fellow drummers out.
MD: What was your first big session?
Curt: The one that put me on the map in 1991 was the Bonnie Raitt song “Something To Talk About,” from her record Luck Of The Draw. And then simultaneously, the first Seal record, also in ’91.
MD:When you were growing up, what would you practice?
Curt: I was playing along to records at home and playing gigs with my mom’s trio. And at that time, as a young teenager, you kind of think that jazz is for old people. I don’t think that anymore, but at the time I did, so I started listening and playing more to James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, and then I’d put on a Ramones or Sex Pistols record. Then after that I’d put on Led Zeppelin. When I came up playing drums in the ’70s, punk rock and disco were the things to listen to. I dove into punk and disco at the same time, and those were two worlds that didn’t coexist. I used to get made fun of by a lot of my friends because they’d be like, “Man, why are you listening to Donna Summer and then the next cassette you have in your car is The Ramones or The Sex Pistols”?
MD: But at the time you’re absorbing different types of music.
Curt: Exactly! And that’s what helped me find my groove, because when you listen to Tommy Ramone and John Bonham and the James Brown guys, it’s completely different styles, but the common thread is the drive in the groove, and it’s just solid. And that was one of the things I was attracted to. I really admire the drummers that can play a ton of licks—I’d give my right arm to do that—but there’s just something that I was attracted to with those drummers who were able to just drive the band.
MD: Did that also make you appreciate songwriting?
Curt: Absolutely. I would get into the lyrics and I would get into the melody and I’d wonder what they were singing about. You hear John Bonham play and you think, Okay, that’s rock ’n’ roll but it’s got a James Brown kind of hump to it. So in a weird way there was cross-pollination of all these grooves going on without a whole lot of people realizing it. But I was paying attention because it all had drive and groove to it. That’s something I think a lot of drummers are missing out on today, because they’re concentrating on how many notes they can fit in a bar.
MD: Are you playing mostly acoustic drums in the studio?
Curt: Yes. I got rid of all my electronic gear because I felt it wasn’t adding anything to my playing and I wanted to concentrate more on the playing aspect. So when they would want electronics, I’d say, “Why don’t we just program it”? And it always works out better that way because then the producer has complete control of the electronic part of it, and they can add or take away.
MD: Do you play other instruments?
Curt: Yeah, I play a little guitar, keyboards, and bass guitar.
MD: What made you concentrate and focus on being a studio musician as opposed to starting a band and going that route?
Curt: I was attracted to being a studio drummer because I had and still have a huge record collection. I used to look at the credits, and I’d see a lot of the same names on all these different records that were all different styles. I thought, “How cool is that to be a drummer and play with all these cool artists, and play all this different types of music”? I love bands, and I’d love to be in a band, but then it’s one style. There was just something attractive about being a guy who could come in and play anything at any given time with anyone.
MD: I’m sure you get offers to go on the road. How do keep from losing studio work?
Curt: Well, I work on that balance by being really selective about who I tour with. First of all, I only take tours that I know are going to be lucrative—not only in the monetary sense, but musically satisfying. And I usually let people know: “I’m going to Italy for six months, I’ll be back in June.” And every tour that I’ve done, thank the good lord above, a lot of people have waited and said, “Okay, we’ll wait until you get back to do this record.” So it’s worked out. I know a lot of drummers don’t ever think about playing outside the US, but the artist I toured with last year, Eros Ramazzotti, is a huge pop star in Italy. I toured with him last year for six months all over Europe. And I had no idea how popular this guy was until I went there. He sings in Italian and in Spanish, so he tours South America as well.
MD: What’s been one of your most memorable live gigs?
Curt: It was an honor and a pleasure playing besides Nigel Olsson. He was always a drum hero of mine, and sitting on the same stage with him and playing double drums with him was an honor. I hope one day to do that again. He’s been such a huge influence on me, not only as a drummer but also as a person. And he was one of the reasons I had long hair. [laughs] He’s a class-A1 guy, and I have nothing but love for him. He’s a gentleman, and I’d bend over backwards for him. He’ll be my drum bro for the rest of my life.
MD: Let’s talk a bit about your recent work with producer Matt Serletic on Taylor Hicks’ CD.
Curt: The thing I love about Matt is, not only is he a talented producer, he’s a very talented musician. He would be recording piano with us, and then right after the take run right in and start editing on the computer. So here’s a guy who really knows his music. He was a drum major, and I think he majored in classical music—and he knows how to run Pro Tools. He can sing, dance…he’s one of those guys who can do everything and do it well. So when he’s giving direction to people, it’s the right direction. He becomes one of the members of the band or an extension of the artist, and he’s able to make it happen really smoothly. He really brings a lot to the table and makes it musical and fun for all the musicians—and challenging at the same time.
MD: What’s a typical day in the studio with Matt and Taylor like?
Curt: Because Taylor was the winner of the American Idol contest; they were bringing in all the best songwriters from around the country to submit their songs. We cut about eighteen or nineteen songs for the record, and twelve got used. There were demos and charts, and Matt would listen down and his team of people would decide what tunes we would record for the day. We’d knock out two or three a day, every day for a month—just hitting it hard, because they had a really short deadline. Taylor wanted to wait until after he was done with the tour to start the record, so it was kind of crunch time. But the typical day would be us showing up at noon, listening to a tune, and just sort of hashing out the grooves and the way that Matt heard it in his head. He could arrange on the spot, which was really cool. The reason they wanted me there was Taylor wanted it to feel greasy and have a loose R&B groove/vibe to it. Matt thought I’d be the right call for that. A lot of it was just rehashing all the great grooves that we all know and love as drummers, but adding a modern feel, with loops and cool drum edits and things like that. All of the record was cut top to bottom, each song, as a performance with the rhythm section live. It felt like back in the day, when there were musicians in the room all together. Matt had an incredible production team, and he had what I called “the chop shop.” They’d be in there chopping audio day in and day out. The guys were amazing and came up with some cool, musical loops for me to play to for a lot of the tunes. I would lay down my groove and they would program something on top, or they would program something and I would play on top of that groove. So it was kind of the melding of analog drumkit with the new grooves and technology.
MD: Any upcoming projects?
Curt: I’m doing the Cape Breton Drum Fest, coming up in April ’07. There’s going to be some drum clinics along the East Coast. And I have a solo CD called CMB (Consciousness, Mindfulness, Beauty).
MD: Any plans for a new Bisquera Brothers CD?
Curt: No, not at this time. The Bisquera Brothers are kind of in a vacuum right now because all six of us are so busy with different projects. It’s great when we do get together, but it’s only once a year because everybody in the band is either touring or recording. Hopefully we’ll make another record some day.
MD: I hear you’re pretty good with a skateboard.
Curt: That’s what I did way before I got into drums. I just started up again.
MD: Please tell me you wear protection.
Curt: Absolutely! Falling is not an option. But I’ve been skating all my life, and because my profession now is being a drummer, I wear full wrist braces, elbow pads, kneepads, and a helmet. Growing up as a kid in California, it would be one hour of drumming and the rest of the day skateboarding. Drumming and skateboarding were two things that were hand-in-hand for me—and still are.
MD: Lastly, any tips for someone who wants to be a studio drummer?
Curt: The thing about the music industry is, it changes constantly and you have to be open to the change. The key is to be flexible, be willing and able to bring your talents to the table, and see the vision through for the artist and the producer. And get yourself a laptop and some recording software, and learn it, because that’s the future. That’s really where studio drumming is going. Keep an open mind and an open heart, and don’t let anyone or anything get in your way. I get a lot of kids writing me: How should I do this? And I’m like, you’re thinking too much. Just play drums. That’s why you’re there in the first place. We get so hung up on the technical stuff as drummers that we forget, this is fun and it feels good!