Yoko Ono Talks Drums With Modern Drummer
by Billy Amendola
At the young age of seventy-six, there’s just no slowing down for artist, activist, and avant-garde queen Yoko Ono, widow of the late Beatle John Lennon. Her latest CD, Between My Head And The Sky, made with her new Plastic Ono Band, was coproduced by Yoko and her son, Sean Lennon—who, besides playing guitar, keys, and bass, also plays drums on a few tracks. The disc is receiving the best reviews Ono has received in her forty-plus years as an entertainer.
Through the years Yoko’s life has been complex, controversial, and very rewarding. Some have labeled her brilliant; others have denounced her—and many are still trying to figure her out. Having met her on two occasions, I can say that in my experience she’s been sweet, smart, and focused, and she knows exactly what she’s doing at all times. MD is honored that she would take the time to talk drums with us.
MD: What does drumming mean to you?
Yoko: In a summer night, you hear the sounds of drums coming from the park. The trees cover the scene, so you don’t quite see what’s going on. But you hear the drums. And it’s beautiful and mysterious! I would sit on the edge of my large window and listen to it for the longest time. That’s what the sound of drums is to me. It is the heartbeat of the universe. The drummers are letting us touch the heartbeat of the universe through their drumming. And when I hear all these drummers and the drummers on my record—Sean, Yuko “Mi-Gu” Araki, and Shahzad Ismaily—I cherish them; each one has their way. I appreciate the differences and love them all. Advertisement
MD: Do you explain the rhythms you’re looking for to the drummers on your records or leave it up to them?
Yoko: It all depends. Sometimes I feel it necessary to explain, and sometimes I don’t have to.
MD: Do you think of the drums—feel, tempo—in the very early stages when you’re writing a song?
Yoko: Yes. The feel and the tempo definitely come to me right away while I’m writing the song. But layers of drumming keep being added as well—in my mind, and physically, in the studio.
MD: How do you feel about programmed drums as opposed to live drums?
Yoko: Again, it all depends on the song. I love experimenting. So I have fun using programmed drums and live drums together, as well as using them separately. I usually like to double and triple the drumming. You may be interested to know that I did scratching on my records pretty early on—like all the DJs do these days. I love that scratch sound. Advertisement
MD: Have you ever sat behind the drumkit and played?
Yoko: I kind of tried…like a four-year-old would. Nothing interesting came out of it!
MD: Over the years you’ve worked with many top drummers, like Rick Marotta, Steve Gadd, Andy Newmark, Yogi Horton, Jim Gordon, Tony Williams, Ringo, and Jim Keltner, to name but a few….
Yoko: I think I was simply very lucky. Tony was on my Walking On Thin Ice album and the track “Sky People” from Starpeace. And I remember being surprised that Jim Keltner did a very interesting drumming duet with my voice on my album Fly. Especially the song “O’Wind.” It wasn’t rock; I don’t know what to call it—almost Indian, but not quite. And it was done with no overdubs.
MD: What are your thoughts on Ringo as a drummer?
Yoko: Ringo is the most underrated drummer in the industry! His drumming is like life—it gives you the most solid beat. When he drummed on my Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band album, I was totally amazed that he had no difficulty in following the very complex improvisational vocals I did—again, no overdubs. I think his incredible drumming was what made so many great Beatles songs possible. We thank you, Ringo!