Watching Sue Hadjopoulos on percussion and Larry Tolfree on drums, one would think they’d been playing with Joe Jackson for eons, and certainly working together for even longer. Neither of the above assumptions is accurate. Tolfree has been working with Jackson for only two albums in as many years, and Hadjopoulos has been a group member only since March, 1982 and one album.

Their backgrounds are as different as night and day; Larry born in England with little formal training and Sue a New Yorker with an extensive musical education.

Sue was initially classically trained on flute, taking private lessons for six years. Her father, however, was a drummer, and she became so interested in the drums that she lost interest in the flute. At 17, she played her first professional gig as a drummer and shortly thereafter, she bought some congas, then timbales. While attending Columbia University, where she obtained a BA in anthropology and ethnomusicology, she studied music privately and immersed herself in the salsa business. She hooked up with Latin Fever, a 14-piece woman band and finally went to Mannes School of Music for a music curriculum. While primarily doing session work, Sue answered an audition call that required knowledge of salsa music. She had never even heard of Joe Jackson.

Larry Tolfree
Photo by Lissa Wales

“When I came in, I had no idea what they were going to do because none of the albums prior to that had any percussion. He played the demo of his new stuff, which of course, was very syncopated and percussive and immediately my ideas started going. So he said, ‘Let’s listen to a few of these things and why don’t you play along with the band? I want you to put in what you think you would want to hear on these songs.’ So we proceeded to play the songs and I threw in what I had immediately thought I had heard. Apparently they liked it.”

For Larry, there was no formal audition. He grew up in Jackson’s hometown, so both musicians had been aware of one another for some time. Larry has been playing for 15 years and is self-taught, “by playing to Stones records and all that. I knew I wanted to be a drummer years before I was 18, but my parents didn’t allow me to have a ‘drum kit because we lived in a close community and they felt the noise would make them unpopular. At 18, I was able to get enough money together to get a kit, which is what I did. I said, ‘I’m bringing some drums home whether you like it or not. I’m of age now.’ And that was it. I worked a normal job and each night, I came home and sat in my bedroom and practiced rigorously, as well as all day Saturday and Sunday. I did that for six months and I had the police up all the time.”

After six months, he began playing in bands. He worked on a cruise liner, five hours a night, six nights a week, dressed to the hilt, including bow tie, in 100° weather. He also worked in a band called Linx, containing two drummers plus percussion, and Planets which had minor success in England.

“I wish I had training, quite honestly,” Larry admitted, and when asked whether he ever did anything to work on his time, he replied, “No, and I wish I had. It shows sometimes because I can be inconsistent in my time.”

That’s debatable. The precision with which he plays Jackson’s successful “Steppin’ Out,” which was done with a drum computer in the studio, belies that statement.

Sue interjected, “We’ve had running conversations about this because I’m one of those metronome-trained people with lessons and all that. I think some people have great time naturally, but I’ve always had training, so that’s where I’m coming from. I had been playing classical flute for six years, so I had the music down and I always had to practice with a metronome. Usually when you go to a teacher, at some point you have to do some kind of technique with the metronome, whether it be breath control, stick control, whatever. I happen to think it’s great discipline. You can play a piece and it’s fun to play, but you can also be playing it wrong, so you’re not really learning anything. I’m all for getting training, especially women. I don’t mean just women, but especially, now with the advent of women’s bands. Obviously they’ve been around for a long time and I was in lots of them, but there are some very successful women’s bands right now. The fact is that women, as well as men, just go out and pick up a guitar or drums and start playing sometimes. I think it would be really good if they had the training. Studying gets harder when you get older, though. Right before I got this tour, I started mallet training. As a percussionist, you can’t play everything as your main instrument. My forte is Latin percussion, but I want the mallet training for versatility, so I’ve been taking lessons. The biggest difference there is that you have to learn special orientation. It’s very frustrating, because as a musician, I can read, I know the notes and that’s not the problem. The mallet instruments you don’t physically touch except through a stick. So if you’re going to play an octave, you have to learn what an octave feels like through space. It’s a whole different thing. I had to stop the lessons to go on tour, though, but I’ll resume them as soon as I get back.”

“If I ever have a son and he wants to play drums, he will be taught properly,” Larry said, ending the discussion.

Sue Hadjopoulos
Photo by Lissa Wales

The women’s plight is indeed of concern to Sue. “It’s not as hard for a percussionist, but for a trap drummer, there is still that attitude that a woman can’t play that strong and be that backbone of a band. The way you get gigs as a freelance artist, which is what I really am, is by recommendation. When you are first starting out, it’s very hard to get work because no one will hire you, but once you get in on that lower level, it seems that you don’t have to be quite as good because of the mere fact that you’re a woman. They don’t expect as much from you and then they don’t take you seriously. I had an experience where I was actually sitting with my drums and equipment and somebody said to one of the other musicians standing nearby, ‘Oh, are those your drums?’ Another time, I was with some guys and we were going to a rehearsal. I was playing traps at the time and we met three others at another house. Introductions were made and one of the guys said, ‘John, where’s the drummer?’ The next place we went, someone said, ‘But we’re missing one person.’ You are thought to be a girlfriend or just somebody there. Who knows who you are? You can’t possibly be. . . That outward kind of stuff doesn’t happen as much anymore because there’s a circle of people who already know me. I think, though, if I were a guy, I would have been on a different level immediately. I’m certain of it. It takes women a lot longer. It’s hard for guys too because there’s just too much competition out there, but there’s always talk about ‘this phenomenal guy.’ Well, there are phenomenal women out there too. I just want to be a musician. The fact that I am a female is unfortunately taken by some in a positive or negative way. People don’t say, ‘Here’s this 14-piece male orchestra.’ We’ve got to get past all that to the actual playing. I just want people to consider me a good player. I want respect.”

When asked how he felt about a woman percussionist being hired into Jackson’s band, Larry answered, “We all had a say in it. We’re the reason she was hired. We loved the idea, not because she was a woman, but she was such a good player.”

“That’s one thing about Joe’s band,” Sue concurred. “He couldn’t care if you were pink or purple. If you did what it was that he wanted, you got the gig. That was nice, but that’s not the way it usually is in this business.”

“She got the gig because she was better than all the men,” Larry added.

“Well, you had to be twice as good. What I was just saying is that generally people in this business don’t take you seriously so it’s harder to get those recommendations. If nobody will recommend you, you might be the greatest thing in the world, but if nobody is going to give your number out, no one is going to know it. I’ve had people say, ‘I’ve given your number to so and so, did they call you?’ They never called. And then, of course, it’s back to the problem of when you do get in, they expect so little of you and don’t take you seriously.”

“The audience takes you seriously, though,” Larry insisted.

“I’m mostly talking about the musicians, although the audience does cat call sometimes. I used to get really angry about it, but now I really laugh. I have stories that I can tell at parties that make people absolutely hysterical.”

There are many interesting elements that comprise a Joe Jackson show. First, Joe makes no secret about the fact that he doesn’t like audience response during the show. With that energy contained, how does that feel to the musicians?

“That’s Joe,” Sue smiles warmly. “He wants them to only applaud if they really appreciate what he’s doing and he wants them to really hear all the nuances in a song and the music. But people come in there excited and they’re interested. They are loving it, but they just want to applaud and yell and scream and I think that’s good too. I like people having a good time. I don’t want them to throw things, but I do want them to react. Sometimes if they’re too quiet it does make you wonder.”

The sheer diversity of the music keeps the interest for audience and players alike. Jackson touches on the blues, new wave, rock, swing and Latin in the course of a show and Sue and Larry particularly enjoy that aspect.

“I like the variety and with this particular band, he wrote the last album with percussion in mind, so we had that salsa trip. By the way, I’m going to say this now for all those people out there who criticized Joe for doing that material. I am half Puerto Rican and half Greek and I was brought up loving salsa music and I know salsa music. Very often, if people don’t see a Spanish name, they’ll put it down saying, ‘Well, now he’s decided to do Latin music. Isn’t this pretentious?’ And yet, he did a lot of research and I resent people saying things like that without their knowing what they’re talking about,” Sue said, then getting back to her original point. “This has been great for me because I had to interpret the material from previous albums where there was no percussion. It’s great when I get to play a wide range of instrumentation during the show. I don’t get bored for a minute.”

“Neither do I,” Larry agreed.

Larry, however, does not have the free reign to create as Sue does.

“It’s the discipline that Joe has in his music,” Larry explained. “He knows exactly what he wants from everybody.” “But he doesn’t tell us what to play,” Sue interjected.

“He tells me what drum rhythms he wants and if I want to put fills in, okay, providing they’re tasteful, of course,” Larry clarified.

“Well, he doesn’t tell me what to play. I have a lot more freedom,” Sue said.

“Well, that’s fine because that’s what percussion is all about,” Larry commented. “The drums have to be a certain way and I’m quite happy to do that because I enjoy listening to everyone around me. I like the music and the simpler you play, the better it feels, hopefully.”

“I think it’s basically just working together as a unit; as a band,” Sue summarized. “You have to listen to what’s going on around you and you have to play within that framework and be aware of what’s happening. I most definitely have to work with the drummer, in not just fitting in, but we have a rapport. It’s really horrible when you have a drummer who’s not going to listen to what you’re doing, because then you’re just playing all over each other, on top of each other. A lot of drummers don’t know how to work with a percussionist and vice versa. A drummer who is not used to working with a percussionist might overplay in spots where a percussionist might play. Larry and I really worked out well. We’ve worked out parts and I’m a spacy player too. What you don’t play is as important as what you do play. So we work out rhythmic patterns that interlock.”

“It’s nothing we’ve really thought about,” Larry said.

“Yes we have,” Sue argued. “I’ve thought of patterns.”

“Well, you more than I, being a percussionist. I’m just playing straight.”

“We haven’t sat down and said, ‘Okay, this break is yours and this break is yours,’ because we’re both professional musicians,” Sue explained. “He’ll have a certain rhythm he’ll pick for a song and I’ll just integrate a lock-in type thing.

“But basically,” she continued. “I work with the band. Generally I wait for the band to have the song down and then I work with the drums and bass and work within that framework, but, of course, with the total band surrounding it. It depends on what I’m doing. In this band I’m primarily a rhythm section player, so I’ll work that way. If I were to be doing color, sometimes I like to hear a vocal on it because I might have to add little bells or triangles or something. It really depends on exactly what I’m doing on percussion.”

The two worked together to create an exciting bit of theatrics during their solo section in the tune “Look Sharp.” The idea was formed years ago when Larry was with Linx, and it developed further with Larry on timbales and Sue on congas.

“It was a good idea to go down from fours to twos to ones. It was good because it was more of a cadence type thing and it really gets them going,” Sue said.

“It does because everybody feels the competition,” Larry suggested.

“And then we do a big theatrical thing like we’re irritated at each other,” Sue laughed. “I throw my sticks and he jumps up and we really get the stage act going. That’s what is fun about the live thing.”

How she chooses the appropriate instrument for the specific moment is a question that is difficult to answer but the crux of her pleasure.

“It’s a real fun question because it’s exactly what I like about listening to music and putting something in. Generally, certain things come to mind immediately when I listen to a song and that’s probably just a matter of taste. I will listen to a song and immediately say, ‘Congas here and this is the rhythm, and timbales at this point here.’ I absolutely hear it. It’s like I’m hearing the exact song in my head and I’m also hearing it with percussion in it simultaneously. There are times when the person I’m working with says, ‘I would like you to use this instrumentation.’ I may not agree or we might compromise on it. There are other times when it’s more difficult for me and I really, really have to think about it and take it home like homework. I’ll sit down in the living room, play it a couple of times and really work on it. Obviously that’s when the opportunity is there, as opposed to a jingle. What’s great about a jingle is that you never know what they’re going to put in front of your face. Is it going to be really, really fast? Is it going to be a complicated line? Is it going to be simple and relaxing? Usually for percussion and drums on a jingle, they’ll have a chart which will specify the timing, what’s going on and any specific cuts or breaks. Sometimes it’s absolutely specific and sometimes it’s not. A mallet part would be written out exactly. A bongo part may just have time, and when the break comes, the break would be written out. It might say ‘solo here’ or sometimes it’s really specific with something written out that they want you to play. Sometimes they’ll just give you the rhythm and say, ‘jazzy feel.’

“It’s very difficult for me to say what I use where because I guess it’s already been internalized. Say, for example, timbales is a much more primitive, earthy, kind of gritty sound, so if I want something to think of sex, I’ll use timbales. Congas can be either powerful like that, vibrant, or they can be softer, lilting. Bells obviously are going to be sweet, and like that. It’s more on an emotional, gut-level kind of thing. I think the instinctual comes from the training and from being aware of the instrument. I think you get to the feeling of knowing and also from listening to other people. A lot of times I’ll be listening to somebody on a record and I’ll say, ‘Ooh, I like what he’s doing there.’ I’ll remember that and the next time there’s a recording, I may think, ‘I want to use that one I heard,’ and throw it in.”

Larry suddenly smiled. “That’s so strange. Last night Mitch Mitchell was in the audience. I used two things off the Axis: Bold as Love album [Jimi Hendrix] that Mitch Mitchell did and it occurred to me as I was doing it, ‘He’s in the audience and I’m using his bits.'”

Which brought Sue to another point. “Only by copying other people initially, do you get your own style. Anyway, when you play it, it’s going to sound different from how somebody else plays it. I’d love to get an original thing going. I immediately know Ralph MacDonald, I immediately know Paulinho. That’s the style you develop. I think you develop your own style by listening and then copying and it all works into developing your own style. The search for the original lick!”

Sue used Gon Bops congas and LP timbales on the Jackson tour, as well as assorted percussion instruments. Larry uses Yamaha drums with a 24″ bass drum, a 13″ rack tom and 16″ and 18″ floor toms. He loves Sabian cymbals and uses them exclusively in sizes of 20″ ride, 16″, 18″ and 20″ crashes, a 10″ splash and 14″ hi-hats. The bass drum Sue used along with her timbales for accents was also a Yamaha.

How do they keep the spontaneity and freshness in a show they do for nearly a year?

“I think through the variety of music and length of time we play each night, which is about 2 1/2 hours,” Larry suggested.

“Sometimes we do integrate some new songs into the show and switch around a little,” Sue explained.

“I don’t get bored playing them at all,” Larry said.

“I like the songs. I don’t mind playing them at all. We have fun,” Sue smiled, adding, “But it doesn’t matter what you’re playing, it’s how you play it. It’s just professionalism. There are days when you’re as sick as a dog and you go out on stage and feel like you want to faint. You get up on stage, play and feel great for 2 1/2 hours and then you get off and go to bed.”

“A lot of it is that there is a different audience out there as well, every night,” Larry added.

“This is one of the fun bands to work with because on stage we do a lot of carousing around, so you never know what’s going to happen every night. That’s fun,” Sue declared.

“Joe’s always interesting to listen to,” Larry pointed out. “We’re all listening because he’s always going to play something we’ve never heard before.”

At the time of this interview, neither musician knew what the future held. At Christmastime, they both lent their playing to a movie project in which Joe was involved, but beyond the tour, neither knew. Larry is content to remain with Jackson and hopes he will continue doing so. “Unless I do something drastically bad, I get the impression I’ll be on the next album, but who knows?” he said.

Sue’s primary interest is the freelance studio scene and she would also like to do a Broadway show. “I don’t want to limit myself to one thing. I want to do it all and I think you can,” she concluded.