Narada Michael Walton
Photo by Bill Reitzel

In a continuation of our interview with Narada Michael Walden from the November 2010 issue of Modern Drummer, the fusion and pop drumming/producing maestro reflects on his early days, teaching, spirituality, playing in odd time signatures, and coming full circle with guitar legend Jeff Beck.

by Billy Amendola

MD: You played on Jeff Beck’s classic album Wired, which was produced by the Beatles’ producer, George Martin. You’d already worked with him on Mahavishnu’s Apocalypse album.

Narada: Yes! And in his book he said that it was one of his favorite experiences outside of the Beatles.

MD: Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick worked on that as well. How was it working with both of them?

Narada: I loved it! They are so very calm, and George is very easygoing. We recorded that record live in the studio. Wired was Jeff’s and my first-ever gold album. The year after making Wired, I made my first solo album, Garden Of Love Light, and Jeff was very gracious to fly over and play on it. I was very happy about that!

MD: Before rejoining Jeff on this recent tour, had you kept in contact with him through the years?

Narada: Yes. Whenever I was in London, I’d pop over his house, hang out, and hear what he was up to.

MD: Before you saw Bernard Purdie playing with Jeff on that first tour, were you familiar with his playing?

Narada: Oh, yeah! I knew of his playing with King Curtis and the records he did with Aretha Franklin. Purdie played so in the pocket. Not a whole lot of strokes necessarily, but really creating grooves, and never rushing.

MD: When you took over the drum chair from Billy Cobham at nineteen years old, did you realize how heavy that was at the time?

Narada: Billy is my teacher! I never looked at it like I was replacing him, because nobody can replace him. Guru would say the simplest thing to me, like, “Just compete with yourself, and not with anyone else.” That kind of set me free. I didn’t try to fill Billy Cobham’s shoes. I just tried to be the best me I could. As far as thinking about it any deeper than that, no, I never did.

MD: At the time [Mahavishnu leader] John McLaughlin probably could have gotten anyone to join the band. Obviously he believed in you and knew that you could do the job.

Narada: The truth is, yes, he could have hired Steve Gadd—anyone, any genius drummer—but we fell in love with each other because I told him that I wanted to be like him. I said, “Whatever it is you are doing in your life, I want to do with you now.” And he said, “It’s because of my meditation and my prayer life with Guru [Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy].” And I said, “I know, because I look at the back of the albums and I see the poems written by Guru and I know it’s a big inspiration. I look in your eyes and see the bright light coming out, and you’re playing beautifully.” He then said, “I’m going to see Guru tomorrow morning, and I’ll tell him I met you.”

This man is so devoted. He can play a show that is out of this world, and he was going to drive to go see the Guru at six in the morning and tell him he met me. And sure enough, a week later I got a phone call from him saying, “I can’t be at mediation tonight, but I want you to go and meet the Guru.” So I brushed my hair back and shaved my beard off and wore all the white clothes I could find. I went down there and met the Guru. And that night Guru accepted me. He said, “You are Mahavishnu’s friend”? I said, “Yes, I think I am ready.” He said, “You’d like to become my disciple? I accept you in my heart.” And he walked away.

When he walked away I felt fireworks in my heart. I couldn’t believe my whole life was changing like this. That’s how fast it happened. I knew that when I was willing to change my life, and I was sincere about it, John would look at me differently. Then he would teach me how to play with him. He wanted to teach me how to play in seven, in nine, eleven, thirteen, all these odd meters, and he did. Obviously I’d been doing it before him, because when the Mahavishnu’s first album came out, Inner Mounting Flame, we all just digested it as best we could. And [the follow-up] Birds Of Fire, we all just digested it because it was just what you had to do. I had another band at the time called the New Maguire Sisters with Ralph Armstrong on bass. In fact, one time I even brought Mahavishnu to hear us. That’s when he really got turned on.

MD: How old were you at this time?

Narada: At that time I’m nineteen, maybe just twenty. To me, I’ve been playing all my life. I’ve always wanted to make it. It was the hardest thing—how to make it? I’d been very sad playing in a lot of bars and on the road and wondering who was going to walk in the door and discover me. And I kept praying about that and asking God about it, because it’s very painful to play these little dives—playing hard, but wondering how you’re ever going to make it. It didn’t happen until I actually went out and met Mahavishnu and talked to him and befriended him—then it kind of came back around to me. God blessed me. It didn’t walk upon me; I had to walk upon it.

MD: Did you study with Guru Shri Chinmoy for long?

Narada: Yes, and he gave me my name, but not right away. He made me wait a long time, almost three years. And when he finally gave it to me, John was no longer a disciple. I wanted him to come to church with me to get my new name, but he was so upset and going through his own personal life changes. It broke my heart that he couldn’t be at church when I received my name, because he was the reason I got into it.

MD: How old were you when you first started playing drums?

Narada: All my life—born. That’s all I wanted to do, pots and pans and pie tins and play along to the records and watch records spin, what a lot of drummers did. I got a toy drumset for Christmas. My dad wanted to be a drummer. He was eighteen when I was born, and he always wanted to be a drummer. So he bought me these toy drums made of paper—they only lasted about ten or fifteen minutes, but for me it was ecstasy. [laughs] I realized what a joy it was to play and have others watch me play—my grandmother, my grandfather, my mom and dad would sit down and watch me just jam up. And I loved it!

MD: So did your dad ever play?

Narada: Not really. He’s got an inner soul, and he’s a great listener. When I got older he got me Buddy Rich and Max Roach records. I recall this one record he brought into the house where they were playing together. He would never talk about it too much but just kind of bring me the things so I could listen to them.

MD: So he was very supportive.

Narada: Yes, very! There was a record by George Shearing with bongos, and I would play the record by heart—all the bongo parts. We had a really cool stereo, and I’d play along with it. My dad one day walked by me and looked at me and said, “That’s been you all this time? I thought it was the record.” That was the first time I saw in my dad’s eyes that he got that I could really play.

MD: Who was the first drummer you noticed?

Narada: Well, I have to go way back. [laughs] Tom Carey was my first drum teacher. He was fantastic for teaching me drum rudiments. Bobby Davidson had his own music shop in downtown Kalamazoo, so Bobby would be another cat. He even ran a big band up at the college. Then I got with Harold Mason when I was ten. Harold was on the north side of Kalamazoo, and he taught me Jim Chapin’s blue book on independence. He was phenomenal. He went on to play drums with Stevie Wonder, that’s how badass he was.

I had a band called the Ambassadors at the time. It was me and Joel Brooks who played organ. His uncle, owned the Ambassador Lounge. And we could go in there and play and open up for whoever came to town. So I had a chance to see and hear the cats coming through town. It was like a nightclub; there’d be Jimmy Smith—all the organ cats. That was all the rage when I was a little kid, organ stuff with the organ playing bass parts. One record that turned me out was The Sermon by Jimmy Smith, with Art Blakey on drums. That’s when I realized you could put a backbeat in jazz. Now that was revolutionary to me, because I realized you could go “kink-ca-ching, kink-ca-ching, kink-ca-ching,” twenty-two minutes long. I think he only plays two fills the whole thing, just driving like rock ’n’ roll in jazz. That taught me that you don’t have to be afraid of jazz. So that really turned me on.

Then of course I watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and saw Ringo Starr’s eyes, how he was so charismatic looking at the bleachers up top, playing open hi-hats and smiling at all the girls up in the balcony. John, Paul, and George were looking below. But Ringo, he was looking way up and swinging. At that point I knew you can’t just be a drummer, you’ve got to have charisma. So I learn something from everybody. My favorites later included Mitch Mitchell, who was brilliant because he put together what we heard from Elvin Jones and the jazz cats, but then do it with Hendrix, who was the baddest cat. He could do everything with jazz and blues and rock and just mix it up so beautifully.

MD: Let’s go back to the days when you were teaching. You taught Omar Hakim and Tony Thompson, to name two great players.

Narada: Yes. Tony, Omar…there’s a whole league of cats that came out of Queens. I had a home in Hollis, and they would come to my soundproof room in my basement, and I would say, “Go ahead and play,” and I’d play my Fender Rhodes and then get on my drumset and we’d just play. And I could hear if they were rushing or what it was that we needed to work on. Tony was great, but his thing was to rush a little bit, so I had to get him to relax. I’d say, “Okay, breathe deep and play it again, over and over again, that same fill, until it’s relaxed.” And that’s what he’d do. And Omar, he was so masterful and smooth. He came in just knowing how to do it all, so all I ever did with Omar was just encourage him, remind him: confidence, confidence.

I like teaching with two drumsets and a keyboard. I like when I just play piano and they play drums and then we go around in sequences and just work it out so it’s musical.

MD: You’ve worked with so many great bass players—any tips?

Narada: I love working with bass players, but I don’t follow the bass because the drummer is the timekeeper, and to make a band sound tight, the bass player should play with the drummer. Of course, we both should be aware of each other, but the role of the drummer in the band is to be a timekeeper, so when the drummer hits “boom,” if the bass wants to “boom” together, then they should be aware of where the time is. I really enjoyed playing with Rhonda [Smith] on Jeff’s tour. She’s funky…she’s called the Goddess Princess. She’s an unbelievable player and very loving and very kind. We had a jam in L.A., and Jeff flew in from London after he spoke to me, and I had suggested Rhonda. She came in smoking, and the first time he heard us play, his head almost blew off. [laughs]

Narada Michael Walden in Modern Drummer Magazine
Photo by Bill Reitze

Narada: First thing I would say to everybody is: Memphis soul stew. What that means is, a drummer can play a whole bunch of notes, but when it gets down to it, all anyone really wants is “Memphis soul stew.” For example, someone like Bernard Purdie can put it down and make it feel greasy and make it feel good. A whole bunch of fancy stuff is cool, but that’s not necessary—in fact, it may keep you from getting hired. What is essential and necessary is that groove. And keep it real.

Even Jeff Beck, who had Vinnie Colaiuta before me… Vinnie could play everything under the sun, but Jeff really likes it when you give him that Memphis soul stew. I’m a huge Vinnie fan as well!

MD: Looking at your kit, I see you prefer two bass drums as opposed to a double pedal.

Narada: Always. The sound is better for me. I like the left kick for a new dimension of sound, especially when I do rumbles and roars—the rolls on the left bass drum have to be tuned lower so it’s pulsating. I just love that!

MD: Any tips for playing in odd time signatures?

Narada: John McLaughlin taught me that odd meters are cycles. Feel the cycle of the time. I have to stop to count sometimes, but once you get the count, maybe a better word to use instead of cycle is shape. There’s a certain shape that goes with an odd meter. I like the bass to hold it so I can then go free. If the bass doesn’t hold it, then I have to be really mechanical and count it. But I prefer if that bass player can hold it for me, and I can improvise on top of it, which is more exciting so I can go out and play with the guitar player and pick him up. That’s what I prefer.

Say the meter is eleven. I don’t count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11. I go 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4. I find friendly ways to look at these things so they can sound funky and effortless, as opposed to trying too hard to make something swing that’s maybe not even meant to swing. I’m not a fan of a whole lot of odd meters, unless it’s really musical. I don’t like playing it just for the hell of it. I like them to feel good, so I find ways to make that happen.

Billy Cobham is a genius at making that odd time feel, like, “God dang, man.” It didn’t matter what time it was in, he was just smoking! I’m a real fan of his odd-meter work. But the reason I’m a fan is that he did his homework, he paid his dues playing funk, jazz—music that had to have a groove and that grease we talked about. And that’s why I think that music became accessible to our generation.

MD: Are there any new drummers you have your eyes and ears on? Who have you been enjoying?

Narada: In the Bahamas, I saw Kenwood McKenzie, he’s very good. There’s a cat out in Oakland, Thomas Pridgen. These days you can go anywhere in a nightclub, some hole in the wall, and hear a fantastic drummer and bass player—they are everywhere. But there was a time when it really wasn’t like that.

MD: How does it feel to be back out on the road and touring?

Narada: What’s inspired me so much is having been able to bring my spirituality to the shows. The spotlight up on the stage, it shines down on the stages and I’ve been able to put Holy Mother Mary back in the spotlight, or Buddha, or Joseph, or Jesus, or Santa Claus—all those are living deities, and they come down from heaven to come visit for that hour-and-a-half, two-hour show, and I’m playing for them.

When it really works for me, it’s so beautiful. When I’m playing with Jeff, I’m hearing inside the parades of Ganesh…and celebration of mournful cadences that are very moving…and visions of Mother Mary. Jeff and his audiences come for the journey, the trip, and the movement, and we are all caught up in the emotion and commotion for real—immense energy!

Because the music is all instrumental, you can take it any way you want to. I look to the light and Mother Mary shows up, even Jimi Hendrix, or I’ll channel Mitch Mitchell and he’ll come through me. I swear I feel it. That’s what my calling is. So for me, it’s really my mission to play music that inspires—if it’s sad, go all the way so we can lose ourselves and cry if need be. It’s an hour and a half, if not more, of sitting there and going on a journey. So for me that is spiritual, and a beautiful discipline that we have not lost. And I’m glad to see and feel that.

For more on Narada, go to nmwproductions.com.