Sean Ono Lennon

We talk to the experimental-pop multi-talent about being a drummer, his musical influences, and much more.

by Billy Amendola

 

Primus bassist Les Claypool and multi-instrumentalist Sean Ono Lennon have united for their second collaborative album as the Claypool Lennon Delirium. The self-produced South of Reality, released on February 22 by ATO Records, follows the duo’s 2016 debut, Monolith of Phobos, and the 2017 covers EP, Lime and Limpid Green.

Sean has been playing drums on his solo recordings since early in his career, including all but three tracks on South of Reality. “I play drums on the first single, ‘Blood and Rockets,’” Sean tells MD, “but I never thought I was going to play drums on the recordings with this band. When Les and I first got together to start writing for Monolith of Phobos, the plan was that we would write the songs with me on drums to get the structure and then we’d bring in the ‘real’ drummer. Three songs in, Les says, ‘I like your loopy feel, you should do the drums on the record.’”

That “loopy feel” can be heard at least as far back as Sean’s 1998 debut album, Into the Sun, which featured him drumming on all but two tracks. Among the stand-out tracks from that album is “Two Fine Lovers,” of which he says, “That was my Stevie Wonder take. He’s one of my favorite drummers. Just listen to ‘Maybe Your Baby.’ That song has such a slow halftime beat, and the hi-hats are so weird and open. I still can’t tell if it was overdubbed.”

Modern Drummer sat down with Sean at his studio in New York City to talk about the new project. Later that day, we had a further discussion about his favorite drummers and influences. Though Sean’s the son of John and Yoko Ono Lennon and has subsequently been in the media eye since Day 1, don’t think for one minute that he’s not serious about his music making—or skilled at writing, arranging, producing, and playing a multitude of instruments, including the drums. As you’ll learn from this exclusive MD Web interview, Sean knows his craft very, very well.

 

MD: What made you want to play drums?

Sean: Every musician I’ve ever known growing up in my community of peers, no matter what instrument we played, we all wanted to play drums. It’s rare that I meet, at least in rock ’n’ roll, a musician who doesn’t love playing the drums. Whenever we jam we would always be fighting over who gets to drum next. It’s the most physical and it’s the only instrument that I play that’s always fun. Even when I’m playing a beat alone it’s fun, whereas sometimes playing guitar or piano can feel like work. Drums are pure groove, abandoning chords and melody and just focusing on feel. It’s visceral. Rhythm is something everyone can relate to, no matter where you’re from and no matter what time period you’re in. They say music is the universal language, but drums are even more universal.

MD: Did you practice a lot growing up?

Sean: I just played. I never was the guy who practiced scales. For me, practicing would be learning my favorite songs. I would sit and play along to a Led Zeppelin record for days, and that’s how I learned to play drums. I’d also play along to the Beatles, Cream, the Who, Pink Floyd….

Knowing I was going to play with Les, and since I have a band with him, I started practicing on guitar and drums for the first time in my life. I never had that mindset, because I was always using instruments as a means to write a song. I consider myself a songwriter, if anything. But I never think of myself as a guitarist or a drummer or a bass player—maybe a bass player a bit more because I played professionally more on bass in the band Cibo Matto. I toured first on bass with them, but I definitely didn’t consider myself a drummer or guitarist specifically, but Les encouraged me. So I started doing scales on guitar at the age of forty, and I started learning the Moeller technique on drums, and it really helped a lot.

What really helped me was talking to Scott Amendola, who’s a great friend. I asked him to show me how to start practicing, and I said to him, “Is this how you do it? [Sean demonstrates] And he was like, ‘No, listen, you shouldn’t do it that way because you can’t hit the drums correctly.” And I was like, “Really?” He taught me to just practice at ten beats per minute and [work on] getting that bounce back and making sure that every time it’s that same bounce. That was hard. Just putting your fingers on the stick without using it—that changed my life. And once I got that and then started doing the Moeller technique, that helped me change my drumming. It also helped my guitar playing.

Another good point that Scott taught me was showing me that I was playing with the wrong sticks. He said the sticks I was using were too big for me. I mean, look at my hands. I’m Japanese, and I have small bones. So I got much smaller sticks, and now I can play so much better. My drums sound fatter using smaller sticks. But the thing that was really upsetting is how much slower the progress was from when I remember being a kid. Back then I would pick up an instrument and start to figure something out, and if I practiced for a day, I got it. I’ve been doing the Moeller technique for almost two years now, and to be honest I’m still pretty slow. It’s frustrating. The neuroplasticity is less.

MD: As we all age we also have less patience and time to spend practicing.

Sean: That’s true. Though actually back then I was still in high school or college, whereas now all I have to do is play music. It’s part of my job. It’s funny that I’ve discovered practicing, and lo and behold it actually works. I was raised in a generation that was influenced by punk rock and movies like Animal House, which basically made fun of smart people and academically motivated kids. So I sort of grew up in this world, and especially knowing my dad and none of the other Beatles had really studied music, I always thought, I don’t need lessons, I’m just going to learn this on my own, which I completely regret now.

There was a mindset that if you practiced too much and got too technical, you’d get cheesy. But now that I’m older I can play better, at least better than I did when I was young. My feeling is that if you get much better on an instrument and suddenly your music is cheesy, it’s because you’re cheesy and you always were. [laughs] One person can practice twelve hours a day and become John Coltrane and another can practice ten hours and become Kenny G. So I don’t think it’s how much you know or how much you practice. Having good taste, knowledge, and technique can only help you. I think that’s true of all musicians in every genre of music.

Another way of putting this is that listening is more important than making sound; it’s all about being aware of the big picture. You listen to music from session guys on cops-and-robbers TV shows from the early ’70s, and it’s amazingly funky and great. And you couldn’t be a studio musician and not have great feel and a sense of song. You know the drummer is always listening to the singer. The bass player is listening to the singer and the drummer.

MD: It sounds like Ringo influences you as a drummer.

Sean: Oh my God, of course—also, his sense of humor. [laughs] Honestly, it’s embarrassing in a way; I never tried to hide the degree to which all the Beatles influenced me. I can’t pretend otherwise. But with me specifically being a “Beatles kid,” there was nothing else for me from Day 1. It’s the music I heard, and the reason I was interested was because of my dad.

So yes, of course Ringo is a huge influence on me. And in terms of a drummer who may not be as technical as, say, Bill Bruford, he’s just as great. I think the best example is “A Day in the Life.” I always feel like that song needs those drum fills as much as the vocal melody. Every time my dad sings a line, Ringo, does a fill that feels like you can hum it. The fills themselves are little catchy hooks. Ringo is certainly one of the best!

I was driving home two days ago, and “Strawberry Fields” came on. I’ve heard that song ten thousand times, but it struck me again how interesting the groove is. It’s just so cool and weird and progressive. It must have been so avant-garde for the time. I know that was the first single before Sgt. Pepper was even finished. The way the groove feels on that and “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver, it’s totally an original feel and drum pattern.

Ringo is, in a way, underrated. I think he was more trained than people give him credit for. He has an incredible feel. Even a ballad like “Let It Be” swings. When you think about that drum track, it feels kind of straight until you listen to and feel the hi-hat. I think in early rock ’n’ roll, any drummer in that time would have listened to jazz a lot, or at least be exposed to it. All that early rock ’n’ roll was super-shuffley. There was a sort of unmentionable swing in those days, where now it’s more rigid. There’s a way to play a straight song and also swing it, but not fully swing it. Ringo is one of the best at that! Ringo’s son, Zak, plays really well and is perfect in the Who. [Original Who drummer] Keith Moon is one of my favorites.

MD: Who are some other drummers you dig?

Sean: Lenny Kravitz. I met Lenny when I was so young, through some friends of my mom, and to this day I think most people don’t know, as much as I think they should, that he’s one of the best drummers in the world. I’ve been lucky enough to play with him in a lot of different contexts. His groove is like nothing else. The 1 and the 3, it just locks.

Some people have an internal clock that’s deeper than a metronome. He’s one of those people. I got to watch him track Mama Said, because I was on that record. In a way he’s the one who, just by watching him, gave me permission to try and play every instrument myself, because he played everything. He’s a huge influence. He also taught me about analog gear and all sorts of stuff. He was one of my biggest music mentors.

Billy Cobham is also a big influence. That amazing drum solo on “You Know, You Know” on the first Mahavishnu record, The Inner Mounting Flame…I sat and played along to that song a thousand times. I can’t play every fill on the drum solo, but talk about time signatures. That was my favorite Mahavishnu song for ten years before I finally figured out what the time signature was. The whole time I was counting like one two, one two three, one two three four five, thinking it was all these odd bars, and one day it just clicked when a friend of mine and I were listening and just snapping the tempo. We realized it’s actually in four. But you would never know it, and that was one of the most mind-blowing experiences I ever had. There are a few moments when there’s an odd bar here and there, but for the most part it’s in four the whole time.

Another example of that on the same record is “The Dance of Maya.” To this day, when I’m trying to help young musicians—or show some parts to my nephew, Jack, who’s becoming a great player—no one ever guesses what the drumbeat is. Just realizing that you could do something like that opened my playing.

Jack DeJohnette is another one of my top drummers. His playing on Miles Davis’s Big Fun and Live-Evil is some of the funkiest! I’m a huge jazz fan, though most people don’t know that. Big Fun and Live-Evil are the records that I can always listen to. Jack could possibly be my favorite drummer—especially his hi-hat work.

Then there’s Bill Bruford with King Crimson. “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic,” from the live TV recording that also has “Starless,” man, listen to his drumming on that. That was great Bill Bruford beats. And he wrote that outro riff. That’s one of my favorite moments in music. And watching him play that live is just incredible.

I also like Zigaboo Modeliste from the Meters. I like James Gadson. Bernard Purdie is one of my heroes. For modern drummers, Chris Dave is my favorite. I’d like to play with him. I really like John Bonham! When I was trying to figure out “Rain Song” by Zeppelin, I read about the recording sessions for it, and it’s so amazing. Everyone thinks of Bonham as this guy playing huge all the time, but he doesn’t even start playing until two minutes into the song, and when he does it’s so mellow you can barely hear it. And as it develops, by the end it’s slamming.

Bonham’s concept of arrangement is so sophisticated. I love most Zeppelin songs, but that one specifically is one of my favorites in terms of Bonham. I feel it shows his class. He wasn’t just a basher, he sounded huge because his bounce was so good. I don’t know if you’ve seen the black-and-white footage of that Swedish TV show…oh my God, it’s incredible. I mean, when you watch him playing, you can tell it’s not that loud.

MD: Look how long it took for drummers to realize he’s doing a Texas-type shuffle on “Rock and Roll.” It became evident on the [2003] Led Zeppelin DVD, when you can see that clear shot of his left hand.

Sean: Yes! And he’s doing it with volume. He’s hitting every 16th note so fast. For his generation, doing that shuffle beat was like the first.

MD: Shuffles are hard to play comfortably and to make swing. I heard that when Paul McCartney would audition drummers, he would know if he really liked them after he asked them to play a shuffle.

Sean: Paul told me that’s the one thing he can’t do. It’s funny, if you listen to McCartney, his first solo album, he’s amazing on drums. I guess he doesn’t do a “real” shuffle on it. I actually asked him about that. He was like, [Sean imitates Paul] “You know I have to feel it. I go for it [Sean air-drums] but I still couldn’t play the shuffle with the swing.” And I was like, “You swing so well on guitar and bass and any other instrument, it’s hard for me to believe.” Honestly, he’s such a sweet, humble guy, I’m sure he could swing his ass off.

MD: Speaking of Paul as a drummer, for years everyone thought it was Ringo playing drums on “Dear Prudence,” but most of us now know it was Paul. I recently asked Giles Martin about that at the listening party for The White Album. I asked him if his father [Beatles producer George Martin] ever mentioned that session to him, being that it was the time that Ringo had walked out of the sessions and was going to quit. I wanted to know if Paul had heard what Ringo played and was just copying his parts. It was on the same kit as well, so of course the sound was pretty much the same. But Giles said, “No, that song wasn’t even done. Paul did it from scratch.”

Sean: Interesting. Giles does know the truth about the Beatles recordings from conversations with his dad, and he hears them talking in between takes on the master tapes. Paul did a really good job! I think Ringo was feeling hurt at the time and left for a bit. I like the way Paul said, “We just sometimes forgot to say, ‘Hey, I love you.’” I know what it’s like to be in a band. I mean, I don’t know what it’s like to be in that band, but I know what it’s like to be in other bands.

MD: As a bass player, what do you listen for in a drummer?

Sean: The kick is the most important thing. I just want to look at the kick—especially if the sound isn’t good on stage. I watch the drummer’s foot and make sure I’m locked in. I definitely come from that school where the bass has to lock with the drums. If the bass and drums aren’t locked, it doesn’t matter how good your song is or how good your guitarist or singer is. I think that it’s drums first and then bass that will make or break a song. I’m a guitar player, so I love guitar, but even Jimi Hendrix wouldn’t be able to save a bad rhythm section. Bass and drums are the train tracks. You can’t drive the train if there are no tracks.

One of the things Les has me do, which is really out of my comfort zone, and I resisted it, is when I would come up with an idea and he would say, “Lay down the guitar part, then we’ll open up to that.” But my time wasn’t good enough. How you feel it is the way the song is. I never overdubbed drums before, unless it was an emergency. I was raised in the studio, mainly with my mom. I watched her make four or five records when I was a kid. So by the time I get to the drum parts on my rhythm track, I basically have to learn the feel and the mistakes, where it slows down a bit and speeds up. I’m trying to play along, and it’s been really challenging. But it has really opened up my ears. You could go back and listen to the greatest bands of all time, whether it’s Cream or Zeppelin, and if you really listen there’s all sorts of very slight variations of rushing or slowing down, especially on the Beatles and Who records. And that’s the kind of thing that in the old days would have totally made me nervous and I would have to fix it, but it doesn’t bother me at all when I listen back now to it.

MD: How many takes do you usually cut on drums?

Sean: Not too many—unless Les teases me. [laughs] Because he’s used to great musicians, including himself, every day it’s gold. But I’m used to laboring over it sometimes for days. I’m like, “Let’s come back tomorrow and try this again.” On take three, he’s like, “This is the last take,” and I’m like, “It’s only take three and I just learned the song. I only just wrote it an hour ago.” And he’s like, “I’m just not used to doing this many takes.” And I’m like, “Come on!” [laughs]

MD: Sometimes the first ideas are the best.

Sean: Yes, often that is the case. But there are definitely several examples of how he’s pushed me out of that comfort zone, and that’s been a really big learning curve for me. It’s like being thrown in the deep end. I’ve tracked when I have a band, but I’m more of a one-man band. That’s just the way I feel most comfortable, when I can I just layer parts myself. That’s how I’ve built songs.

MD: Have you written songs from the just the drumbeat?

Sean: All the time. I’ve written songs from bass lines and drumbeat ideas my whole life. Even on my first solo record there’s a couple songs that just came from the beat. The first band I was in, Cibo Matto, where I was the bass player, that was kind of a hip-hop band, so for me my first formative experience as a nineteen-year-old was music that was based on groove, with samples and a vibe.

MD: So you don’t shy away from drum machines?

Sean: Oh, no. I’ve been collecting gear and drum machines since I joined Cibo Matto. When I toured in those days, I’d go to a local music store and look around. In Montreal, I remember getting a mini moog for $500. I’ve got an 808 drum machine, a 909. I have a great collection of gear that I got years ago when people were throwing them away. All that is at my studio. But Les has his way, and he’s an instrumentalist, from a virtuoso musician world where you track and you play your parts, with no studio tricks.

MD: Were you a Primus fan and into their drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander?

Sean: Yes! I was a fan of Primus as a kid, so it was funny, I’ve never been in a situation where I joined a band with somebody I was already a big fan of. I learned to play drums and I learned to play bass. That’s how I learned to play triplets. I mean, Herb and Les have taken triplets to a whole other level. The difference for me in terms of drumming with Les is that he’s a real drum producer, and often I wouldn’t know what to do and he’d say, “Play this.” Often I’ll be trying to play a double-time beat and he’ll say, “Play it half time.” He’s a real artist, and he has an outlook on everything, but especially rhythm. He always tells me to play things that I never would think of playing. It’s really cool, and he’s pushed my playing to a new level. It’s amazing that it can happen after forty years, but it has. And here I am doing a Modern Drummer interview with you, and that’s a great accomplishment—so thank you!

For Claypool Lennon Delirium tour dates and more, visit https://www.facebook.com/theclaypoollennondelirium.

Photo by Tal Wilkenfeld