Laying Down A Thunderous Groove With Victor Wooten and S.M.V.
For the past five years, Michigan native Derico Watson has held one of the most coveted chairs a drummer could imagine, touring regularly with pioneering bassist Victor Wooten. A modest high school instructor prior to his big break, the thirty-three-year-old drummer’s sudden increase in exposure is proof positive that “luck” is simply the intersection of preparation and opportunity.
And the preparation has paid off. Wooten’s most recent release, Palmystery, features Watson on several tracks, and last summer saw three generations of bass-playing legends–Wooten, Stanley Clarke, and Marcus Miller–team up as S.M.V. to record Thunder. Derico is featured on two tracks and was tapped for the international supporting tour.
Watson’s blazing solos and lightning-fast tom-tom flurries are impressive, but don’t make the mistake of characterizing his playing as a nonstop chops display. Rather, it’s his locomotive groove that propels the music to new heights and gets heads bobbing. His personality has as much to do with his success as his prodigious talent. Ever thoughtful and humble, Watson always serves the music and the artist with whom he’s playing. As a sign of his generosity, the drummer woke up at the crack of dawn to conduct this interview from his hotel room in Osaka, Japan, where S.M.V. was about to perform. “Everybody has an ego,” he told MD. “Mine is under control because I know it’s not about me.”
While this might be the first time you’ve heard about this drum star–in–waiting, we’re quite sure it won’t be the last.
MD: How did you get started playing drums?
Derico: Like most urban or black kids, I grew up playing in church, but even then, I always knew that I wanted to be a drummer. The first time I remember getting behind a drumset was when I was seven or eight years old.
MD: Who were your inspirations during your developing years?
Derico: Some of the notables were cats like Joe Smith, Mike Williams from Commissioned, and Dana Davis, who played with The Winans. Those are the guys I was getting into back then. Once I was a little older, like twelve or thirteen, I got introduced to Dave Weckl and cats like Art Blakey and Elvin Jones.
The person who made me realize that I wanted to play drums not only as a hobby but as what I wanted to do for a living, had to be Louie Bellson. This was about 1991 or ’92. I remember going to a Bands Of America camp in Indianapolis. I was in the marching band at school, and Louie was the guest artist with this university band that was performing. He came on and had his double bass kit and his Roto-Toms, and man that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. My eyes were glued to him while he took his solo, and I knew that I wanted to do that in my life.
MD: Let’s talk about your Gospel playing. What’s your approach when playing with a large ensemble?
Derico: My goal when I play Gospel is to be the most solid yet sensitive thing on stage. I try to give the music room to breathe and make sure the singer feels comfortable, getting underneath them by making sure the music is groovin’, without so many licks and things, and making sure everything I do is in a musical setting. My attitude is always, “Let the music dictate what I’m going to play.”
Here’s the other thing: I didn’t come up using the approach that we see a lot of the Gospel drummers using now. Right now, with some drummers, it’s like it’s all about the drums. But it’s not just about the drums, especially when you’re playing at church. Back then, it was about the drums being in a supporting role and making sure the music was solid. Then, if you had some extra space, you could fill in those areas.
MD: How did you first encounter Victor Wooten?
Derico: I met Victor in 2000. I was working at Mona Shores High School in Muskegon, Michigan, and the band director had this great jazz band. He was thinking of having a guest artist come in to play with his kids, and he came to me and asked me who I thought he should get. I told him it would be cool to see if we could get Victor to come in. At the time, Victor was doing some really cool things as a bass player, revolutionizing the bass, so to speak. We got in touch with Victor, and he was into coming.
The only catch was that the band director wanted him to play with this teacher named Derico–me. Victor tells this story and goes, “I was thinking, ‘Aww, man, this is going to be a disaster.’” But Victor came in, we rehearsed for thirty or forty-five minutes, and it just clicked. The second half of the show was just Victor on bass and myself on drums. Still, it’s one of the most magical and musical nights I’ve had in my life.
MD: How did the S.M.V. gig come about?
Derico: The first thing that happened was that Victor was talking about this project. He wanted to record a couple of tracks and get them sounding so good that when he presented them to Stanley and Marcus, they’d go, “Wow!”
Victor and I engineered the session. You should’ve seen us, man–it was funny. Victor is looking at me, going, “Hey, does this mic look good”? And I’m like, “Uh, I guess”? So we’re sitting there, trying to come up with these drum sounds, and man, we got it. We got a killin’ drum sound and Victor laid his bass parts. Victor said to me, “Derico, I want you to play so solid on these tracks that when these guys hear it, they’ll say, ‘The drum tracks are done, right?’” That’s how I ended up on the record [2008’s Thunder].
MD: Let’s talk technique for a bit, starting with your ridiculously fast single bass drum technique.
Derico: The foot technique first came when I heard Gerald Heyward playing with Hezekiah Walker in the ’80s. I couldn’t believe that was one foot. My attitude now is that I want to play as much as I can play with one foot. I want people to hear it and say, “That has to be a double pedal.” But the biggest reason I don’t use a double pedal is that I don’t like the space between the pedals, the snare drum, and the hi-hat.
Technique-wise, I just practiced the rudiments incorporating my right foot. I would play paradiddles, but instead of playing the left hand, I’d play the bass drum as the left hand. The same thing for drags and all of those other patterns. I would replace my right hand with my right foot too.
MD: How do you see the relationship between the hi-hat and the backbeat?
Derico: My hi-hat technique comes from, obviously, the rudiments, but also from Mike Williams. It’s usually just double strokes, sometimes paradiddles and drags. I call that the sauce. The bass drum and snare drum are my meat & potatoes, and I put the sauce on top. The biggest thing is staying relaxed and letting my fingers and limbs do the work. As far as the backbeat, the biggest thing is consistency. I can play licks and things, but who can’t play licks? There are more people who can play licks, in my opinion, than there are people who can play a solid pocket.
MD: It’s the backbeat that gets you the checks.
Derico: Exactly! I just try to make sure I’m solid, especially with all these bass players. There’s one tune where all three of them are just slapping for a minute straight. That’s not the time for me to go in and put all my crazy bass drum things in. That’s a time for me to get out of the way and just play 1, or 1 and 3. My job is to keep it funky.
Read the rest of the interview with Derico Watson in the February 2009 issue of Modern Drummer now available in print and digital.