Longtime New York City drummer Tony Leone is currently on the road with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. The Californian blues-rock group, whose members also include Black Crowes vocalist Chris Robinson, guitarist and vocalist Neal Casal, keyboardist and vocalist Adam MacDougall, and bassist Jeff Hill, is supporting its 2016 release, Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel. Modern Drummer associate editor Willie Rose checks in with Leone to talk about his journey with the band since joining in 2015.
MD: How’d you get started with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood?
Tony: I first met Chris around 2007 or 2008 at a Midnight Ramble [a live performance series hosted by the Band’s Levon Helm at his barn in Woodstock, New York]. He was there for the show and also sat in with the band. I believe they did a smoking version of the old Elmore James tune “Shake Your Moneymaker.”
Levon used to do what he called an acoustic set. He’d go up front to play mandolin and sing a few songs. So I’d get up and play drums. Chris heard me and after the show we met. He said something like, “You have a nice feel! We should jam sometime.” I remember we talked for a while about how much we loved the Band and Little Feat and how much we loved Levon and [Little Feat drummer] Richie Hayward. I thought to myself, Yeah, man! I hope we do get to jam sometime. That would be killer! Over the years we crossed paths a few times and he was always really cool.
The first time I heard CRB, I was playing the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival with Phil Lesh and Friends. I really liked the music and vibe of the band. Neal [Casal] and I had lots of mutual friends but didn’t know each other well. But I was well aware of his many talents, having heard him with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. Later that year the CRB played in New York City, so I made it to a couple of their nights at Irving Plaza. Neal, Adam [MacDougall], and I first played together out at Terrapin Crossroads, Phil Lesh’s club out in San Rafael, California. We had such a blast playing, hanging, and getting to know each other.
Sometime right before the end of 2014, I’m out at the playground with my daughter, and my phone rings with a California number that I didn’t recognize. I let it go to voicemail. It was Chris saying to give him a call to talk. When I called him back he said the band was getting ready to make a change and asked if I’d be interested in joining. I was totally stoked! These were all guys who I really dug musically and otherwise. It seemed like it would be a natural fit.
MD: How do you feel you’ve affected the band’s sound since joining?
Tony: I had the luxury of coming in after they’d done about four years of work, so it was easy for me to hear what had been done and make adjustments based on my own musicality and experience. I think conceptually I was coming from a very similar place to the guys in the band. We like a lot of the same music. Aesthetically we draw from the same wells for our musical inspiration. So, if anything, maybe I’ve helped to solidify that common ground.
MD: Were there any specific concepts or sounds that the band wanted from you, or did they open it up for you to be yourself?
Tony: For me, “being myself” is feeling like I’m serving the song and the sound and groove of the band. In my opinion, you can’t really do that unless there’s an open dialogue between all of the members. What needs to happen here? What are we doing dynamically? Is this feel or tempo working? That being said, I feel like my transition into the band was really smooth and easy. There was never any pressure on me to play the exact drum parts or to recreate anything. So in that regard I was given the freedom to use my own musical instincts.
Everyone in this band is constantly listening to or talking about music. We spend a lot of time together listening to music on the bus. Chris and Neal’s knowledge of music is phenomenal. They each have thousands of records. And we each have different genres that we know more about. Chris can go anywhere, from psychedelia to jazz, to avant-garde to folk, to funk to soul to country—a wide spectrum of musical tastes and interests. Neal’s knowledge of rock music and its family tree of influences is huge as well. Adam has great knowledge of R&B, funk, and fusion. My strengths are the classics—classic jazz, rock, country, and soul. Chris’s nickname for me is “A.O.R. Tony!” [laughs]
You never know what you might hear on the bus, and that can constantly add to your palate of colors as a player. It can give you a wide variety of options to draw from. It’s really inspiring.
MD: Can you describe the band’s songwriting process?
Tony: Chris usually comes to soundcheck with little sketches. He’ll start playing a riff, the band kind of falls in around it, and then we stop. In the next day or two, he comes in with a melody or maybe a few lyrics. A couple weeks later he’ll have a bridge. About a month later, the tune will be done and we’ll be playing it live. Chris is fearless like that. Once he feels like we can make it through a song as a band from start to finish, we’ll start playing it. There’s at least a couple on the new record that were written like that. We’d been playing them for months before we even recorded them. He and Neal, and sometimes Adam, often flesh out arrangement ideas. Adam and Neal often have great bridge and instrumental section ideas that really add to the tunes.
When we started the new record, aside from those few tunes that we’d been playing on the road, we didn’t know what we were going to record. Chris came in with some sketches, and each day we’d try different ones. A lot of times we’d take a break and he’d go out to the brook near the studio and write lyrics. We approached a lot of the recordings as if we were doing demos, and a lot of the demos turned out to be keepers. It was really fresh and inspiring.
MD: Do the band’s songs, or your drum parts, evolve live at all? Or do you stay close to the recorded parts?
Tony: The songs and the parts usually stay pretty close to the recorded versions, but we’ll often expand the arrangements to allow for more improvisation. We might insert a section during the improvisation, or we might take a particular section and make it longer so that Neal can stretch out before passing it to Adam or Chris. But I’d say that the parts everyone plays are points of departure, or reference points. They’re there to keep the tune centered and grounded. But it’s not like we’re trying to recreate the record. We approach the tunes with a fresh perspective each night.
MD: Who are your drumming influences? Have you drawn on them in any specific songs on the new record?
Tony: I started playing in bands when I was eleven. But I’ve listened to and studied the playing of so many drummers. As a kid listening to classic rock radio, there were all of the greats that played on the records I was listening to—Ringo, Charlie Watts, John Bonham, Levon Helm, Richie Hayward, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe from the Allman Brothers, Nick Mason, Keith Moon, and Mitch Mitchell, among others. In college I got very serious about jazz and really dug into the styles of Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, Billy Higgins, Tony Williams, and Elvin Jones. As I started to go back further into soul music and R&B, I really got into Al Jackson, Roger Hawkins, Bernard Purdie, and Zigaboo Modeliste. Going further back into rock ’n’ roll, you’ve got Earl Palmer, the Tulsa, Oklahoma, guys like Chuck Blackwell and Jamie Oldaker, and of course the studio kings, Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon. All of these guys have had a serious impact on my development, and still do.
But there have been lots of musicians other than drummers that have had a huge impact on me—Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jerry Garcia, Dr. John, Chuck Berry, George Jones, Bob Dylan, Lowell George, Jimmy Page, and Taj Mahal, to name a few.
As far as drawing on certain inspirations for tunes, I definitely was thinking about Levon on “California Hymn” and Charlie Watts on “Forever as the Moon.” You caught me red-handed!
MD: “Give Us Back Our Eleven Days” has an interesting 6/8 groove that almost reminds me of some early funk players. Is there any concept or specific inspiration behind this pattern?
Tony: One day at sound check Adam started playing this cool riff on the clavinet. I just tried to come up with something that I thought was cool and fit his riff. Whenever someone is doing something cool at soundcheck, we’ll try to record it on somebody’s phone. That’s how that tune got started. When Chris said he wanted to record it, I was surprised. I actually had forgotten about it. But he layered some amazingly cool vocal psychedelia over the top of that riff. I don’t think I was consciously trying to cop anybody’s thing while we were playing it. But I may have been “Gadding out” a little. [laughs]
MD: Can you describe your gear setup?
Tony: Right now I’m playing an early-’70s Rogers Londoner kit with a butcher-block finish. I use a 22″ kick, a 13″ rack, and two 16″ floor toms. I’ve been playing an Eames 5.5×14 birch snare drum that I love. I just got a deal with Paiste, and I’m loving my cymbals: a 24″ Giant Beat, 18″ and 20″ Giant Beat thin crashes, an 18″ Formula 602 Modern Essentials China, and 15″ Formula 602 Modern Essentials hi-hats. I use Vater drumsticks—currently the 52nd St. Jazz and 55AA models. On the record I used an incredible Craviotto walnut kit that was at the studio. I fell in love with that kit!
MD: What was it like studying with Alan Dawson?
Tony: Studying with Alan was a total game changer for me. I started with him when I was around twenty-five. I was about two years out of college. I got my degree in jazz studies at the Hartt School in Hartford, Connecticut, with Jackie McLean. We learned concept from Jackie. We learned about Bird, Monk, Bud, and Trane. But technically my hands had reached a threshold. Alan gave me the tools to take my technique, control, and sound on the instrument to the next level. He had a real system, and it was just what I needed at the time. He taught Tony Williams. He was a giant as a player and as a teacher. In the nine months I studied with him, my playing grew immensely. I still work on things that he taught, and many of those things I still can’t play!
MD: Did Levon Helm ever give you any advice from a drumming perspective? What was it like playing with him? And do you take any of that experience to the CRB?
Tony: Levon was pure music—not just a drummer, and not just a singer. When he got up on stage to play, he channeled the music. When you heard him you were hearing Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins, the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Ray Charles, and others. Some of the most exciting times of my musical life came from playing with him, and it was a gift. Hanging with him was always a laugh.
I remember him talking about fills one time. In his Arkansas drawl he said, “Ya know, Tone, the thang about them fills is that sometimes ya gotta dray-ug ’em a bit!”—meaning lay back on them for a little more drama in the music. I think about Levon every time I sit behind the instrument. He was unbelievably generous and encouraging to me. He was like that with everybody he met—a warm, generous, and soulful spirit.
MD: Do you have any advice for aspiring professional drummers?
Tony: Listen to lots of music. Study music. Work on your craft and the basics: time, tone, technique, dynamics, and groove. Keep your ears open, and learn how to play other instruments too, like piano, guitar, and bass. But also follow your heart and follow what drives you creatively. And find likeminded musicians to collaborate with.
MD: Does achieving success as a musician require being in a certain location, especially in today’s world?
Tony: I think there was a time when you had to go to New York or Los Angeles or Nashville to work a lot. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. I think everyone has a different version of what success is. But to make great music, I don’t think you need to be anywhere specific. You just need to be with people you enjoy playing with who have a similar musical mindset as your own.
Photo credit: Jon Cornick