(June 2011 Issue)

Danny Seraphine : Modern Drummer
By Bob Girouard

It seems that since Danny Seraphine made a comeback of sorts of the 2006 Modern Drummer Festival, he’s kicked the current phase of his drumming career into high gear, appearing at events like Drummers for Jesus, the 2009 Chicago Drum Show, and a Terry Kath tribute, and making a memorable appearance at Donn Bennett’s Drum Shop in Seattle. Seraphine’s autobiography, Street Player: My Chicago Story, and new DVD, The Art of Jazz Rock Drumming, have also hit the shelves recently. MD sat down with the legendary drummer to find out more about his latest projects.

MD: How do you feel the reception to your recent comeback has been?

The Modern Drummer Festival is something I’ll never forget. It was really gratifying; it’s hard to explain all the emotions. I thank everyone at MD, along with my equipment sponsors, DW, Remo, Zildjian, and Pro-Mark. But most of all I thank the drummers of the world who welcomed me back. When I think about it, it still gives me chills. The reception out there has been incredible.

I used to be nervous doing clinics. I’d rather play in front of 50,000 people than fifty drummers, you know? I do a lot of clinics, and I feel the love. There are some guys who look at you and think, I’m faster than he is. But nearly all the drummers I’ve played to are those who’ve been influenced by my early stuff and are big followers of the jazz-rock genre. It’s an incredible genre for drummers—really liberating.

MD: Since your departure from Chicago, you’ve done some very cool projects, including producing recording artists and Broadway shows. Were those rewarding experiences for you? And what made you want to get back in the game, so to speak?

I always try to do something that moves me artistically and spiritually. At that point in time I was kind of in exile from music. For the Broadway show, I was approached to find investors, which I had never done before. Because of my musical pedigree, I ended up getting involved with cast-soundtrack albums. I was involved with two shows between 2003 and 2005. One was Bombay Dreams, which was written and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and A.R. Rahman [Slumdog Millionaire]. The second was called Brooklyn. Both were incredible, with great scores, but when you get a lukewarm review on Broadway, it’s the kiss of death.

At the same time, I produced some really great but unknown artists. As far as success, some of it was there but not all the way there, if you know what I mean. The lightbulb finally went off in my head, saying, Get back to playing. Not to mention that many people were asking me why I wasn’t drumming. So I took some private refresher lessons with Joe Porcaro to work on my technique, and here I am.

MD: Full Circle, by your group California Transit Authority, is a killer calling card. You’ve kept the spirit of the original Chicago sound—especially of the first two albums—with a fresh, adventurous approach. And your guitarist, Marc Bonilla, practically channels Terry Kath. How difficult was it to find players who could give you what you were looking for?

If you talk to most of the younger cats, it all started with jazz-rock being the catalyst to becoming musicians. Marc was a big fan of Terry’s, and he’s the best guitarist I’ve played with since then. Keyboard player Peter Fish is a brilliant arranger. Our other keyboardist, Ed Roth—what a player! Bassist Mick Mahan has a great pocket. And then you’ve got singer Larry Braggs, who brings the R&B thing to the Chicago thing. CTA is a labor of love.

MD: What’s going on with the band at present?

We’re working on a new record called Promises. It’s all originals except for a Blood, Sweat & Tears song and a Chicago song that I cowrote. They’re all in the jazz-rock genre, which nobody’s doing. It’s a dying art, you know?

MD: A very cool thing about your DVD is the way you present your approach to the beats and fills you created, within the framework of your music. You cut in and out of each song with a conversational, easy-to-understand analysis. How did you want to make your video different from the many you’ve come across?

Well, the lion’s share of credit goes to [Drum Workshop and Drum Channel founder] Don Lombardi. Like the guy who cowrote my book, Adam Mitchell, Don really helped me craft the DVD. We discussed the approach, and he stayed on it diligently. We wanted to entertain as well as educate. For twenty-three years with Chicago, I wasn’t allowed to talk, and now you can’t shut me up! [laughs] It’s been fun reaching out to the drummers of the world, and I want them to know that I’m approachable on anything.

MD: The disc also highlights four great cuts: “Introduction,” “Antonio’s Love Jungle,” “I’m a Man,” and “25 or 6 to 4.” You stay faithful to the arrangements, but at the same time you aren’t afraid to stretch with solos. It’s almost like a jazz concept in a big band format. Was that your emphasis from the start?

That’s a good analogy. Interestingly, on the new CD we have a full brass section. It kind of happened by accident. In the summer of 2006 I was asked to play at a benefit for the photographer Lissa Wales. At the time I couldn’t pull a horn section together, so Marc Bonilla suggested he play some of the horn parts on guitar. Consequently, it sounded like Chicago on steroids. It was, to say the least, powerful.

MD: Your own playing continues to amaze. Stylistically, you have so much of Buddy Rich in your execution, but you rock like crazy at the same time.

Yeah, there’s Buddy and a lot of Gene Krupa. I think I was only ten or eleven when The Gene Krupa Story soundtrack came out. I really learned how to play by listening to it. Buddy told me personally that Gene influenced him. I’m really blessed, because they were the foundation of my playing—as well as rock guys like Hal Blaine, Mitch Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Dino Danelli…. All these guys had a style. My ambition was always to integrate elements from whoever I learned from.

MD: You have that perfect combination of being self-taught and studying formally. Do you feel that’s a must for today’s young players?

I don’t like to preach, but there’s nothing I can say to these “chops cats.” I appreciate what they’re doing, and they’re giving me all kinds of ideas. But you know what? It’s not just about the drummer world; it’s about the rest of the world. Even with today’s styles, the drummer’s role is to hold it together. I don’t care if it’s country, alt rock, metal, whatever—it’s about the groove. That is absolutely first and foremost, and once you get that in your head, everything else is easy. Furthermore, the other musicians in the band will appreciate you.

MD: Many of us are still puzzled by your dismissal from Chicago in 1990.

The dismissal thing was bullshit. I got caught on the wrong end of a power play. What happened was during the drug-and-alcohol days, I stepped on a lot of people’s toes. Eventually, everybody got straight again—which I was very proud of achieving for myself—and all of a sudden they wanted to put me in the background. In other words, it was like, “Go back on the drums and shut up!” First, it was patronizing. And second, that’s just not my way. The agenda was “disguised” by my playing, and I believed it at first. But I realized that, yes, there might have been some truth [to the accusation] that I was too involved with the business at the time. But these guys were like brothers. Sure, there were typical band dynamics, but that’s the case in every band. All in all, the whole experience made me a better drummer and a better person. I’m not wealthy like I used to be, but I’m rich in other ways, so I’m grateful.

MD: When you first arrived on the scene, it is well known that Buddy Rich mentioned you, along with Bobby Colomby, as among his favorite drummers. He made no secret about his disdain for rock drummers, so this was a real badge of honor. Has it remained something that you consciously or subconsciously uphold to this day?

Without a doubt! It’s like getting an endorsement from God. Buddy was a good friend, and it was such a great honor to be acknowledged by your drum hero, not to mention in front of millions of people who heard him say that on television.

MD: You’re presenting a fresh take on a style that’s been ignored for a while. You have something special with CTA, but given the state of today’s technology and the constant media barrage, it’s hard to get any art form, especially music, to stick. Do you think you can crack the mass market?

I don’t know. It’s so frightening. But I think what we can do is rally the troops, so to speak—people who really miss and want good music. And if they like it, perhaps they’ll buy a CD and tell their friends, who’ll tell their friends. It will be difficult, but I’m up to the task. I have to be pragmatic about my expectations, and my priority is getting the band out there and touring. I love what I do and want to keep doing it. I also want to help others in the process and share whatever I know with other drummers. I’ve had the chance to do things that most people can only dream of.

MD: In looking at the many photos and videos of you over the years, it seems you’re comfortable with any drum configuration—from early five-piece setups with two floor toms to two mounted rack toms to the three-rack, three-floor, two-kick setup you’re currently using. How have you been able to master all of them?

I think that’s kind of the fun of it—adjusting to what you have in front of you and making it work for you. I try to use what I have within the framework of the music—for instance, with Chicago, using a lot of colors and cymbals, and now using different-size drums with CTA. Although I love playing with a small bass drum, I’m now using a 23″ bass drum, and it’s deep.

MD: Did you spend a lot of time mastering the double pedal before integrating it into your kit?

Yes. I worked with Chuck Flores on independence and foot technique, and we worked on developing my left foot. I mean, today guys like Thomas Lang play things with their feet that most drummers can’t do with their hands. I love practicing and using a double pedal. It’s a constant challenge, but I feel I’m doing so much more in the process and integrating it into my style at the same time.

MD: The positioning of your drums and cymbals is set by your arm length and reach—much like Buddy Rich. Do you subscribe to the “no wasted motion” theory?

Oh, yeah. That was the beauty of Buddy. He had hardly any wasted motion, until he went into super-overdrive. His overdrive was, of course, beyond human; he had a gear that no one except maybe Billy Cobham had, where everybody watching would think, How did he do that? But even though you might not be able to duplicate what they’d be doing, you could still get something out of it. My advice: Watch and learn.

MD: It’s obvious that you’ve been well schooled in drum rudiments. But a lot of your style is about feel. Do you think about rudiments or about sound when you apply a sticking pattern to the music?

I don’t think in terms of rudiments. I think only in terms of sound and feel. Even though I’m not thinking in terms of RLRR, LRLL, however, subconsciously I am using rudiments to facilitate what I need to do.

MD: What’s your stand on formal practicing on the drumset?

Practicing, for me, depends a lot on where I am at the moment. I do most of it on pads. There’s a discipline on pads that you don’t have on drums. Then I go over to the drums and experiment. Yes, I believe practice is essential—if you want to keep moving forward and learning, you need to practice and listen.

For more on Danny Seraphine, check out the June issue of Modern Drummer magazine and www.ctatheband.com.