Warren Cohen
Photo by Larry Kellogg

SF: What does it take to become a circus drummer?

WC: You have to be familiar with every style of music and drumming. Latin, rock, shows, marches, contemporary, disco. You have to have all those in mind and be comfortable playing them. What seems to be most unusual are the tempos involved. Some of these tunes weren’t originally written to be done that way. The music is so personal to each act. As much pride as they take in their act, they feel their music is just an extension of themselves.

SF: Does each act choose its own music?

WC: Sometimes. There are times when they’ll bring us music that isn’t written too well and we’ll have to beef it up. Or we might just suggest an alteration. Certain acts might tend to fall into a pattern through the years. Usually a juggling act tends to fall into Latin tunes. Traditionally the trapeze acts used a lot of waltzes. But, the act we have now is a younger American act. They want to have modern music. We tried different things. For their act, for example, we have the theme from Rocky II, which is maybe breaking the mold. When he’s swinging on the trapeze he wants the music to lift him up. We also play Chick Corea’s “Spain” in their act. The music adds to the excitement of the audience also, and how they feel the act.

SF: When you first began playing drums, did you have a burning desire to play in a circus?

WC: Not at first. When I was 16 or 17 I used to get the International Musician and it seemed like they’d always be running an ad for the Clyde Beatty Circus. Somehow it tickled my fancy back then. I once sent a resume in, but at 16 there weren’t many things I could say that I’d done. It’s funny that so many years later I find myself doing this.

SF: How did you develop the ability to play all the different styles of music?

WC: I started playing at age 14, in the middle ’60s. At that time it was really rock ‘n’ roll. My father used to always play his Benny Goodman records to try to influence me. “Sing, Sing, Sing” was his favorite to let me hear Gene Krupa. At the time I got a kick out of it, but I was so into rock ‘n’ roll that I didn’t really pay much attention to it. A little while after that I had the desire to learn all different styles of music. I don’t know why.

When I was a busboy at a restaurant in upstate New York, they had a clubdate band, and they also had shows in there. It used to really interest me to sit there and watch the drummer as much as I could while carrying trays. I’d watch how he’d cue the acts; listen to him play rhumbas and cha-chas and then swing. I guess the more I heard the swing jazz sound it crept into me. That’s when I developed the desire to learn all different styles.

SF: Did you have the chance to talk to that show drummer?

WC: Yeah. They used to call him “Sticks.” His real name was Asbury Middlebrook. He was an old-time black drummer who played a lot of the black circuits. He’s passed away. But, he was a wonderful gentleman. He used to take the time to talk to me and explain different things. He had polio and he had crutches and it was a real struggle for him to get up behind the drums. At that time he was probably in his late 50’s or early 60’s. Once he got behind the drums it was like he was a different person. You’d see him scuffling on the crutches and maybe people would look at him a little funny. But when he got behind the drums he commanded respect. There he was in his tuxedo. He had this big smile on behind the drums. It seemed like he was in charge. There was the drummer kicking the show. The singer would acknowledge him and he’d be laughing. He’d take on a whole different image. He was a strong influence on me at that time.

SF: My impression is that you must have had a very schooled or academic background on drums.

WC: I can’t say I was a strong rudimental drummer. I had a good deal of formal training. Right before I graduated high school was when I decided I wanted to become a full-time musician. At that point I thought I was lacking something. My drumming was just based on what I’d been listening to, and maybe from picking up tips from drummers like “Sticks.” I had no formal training and I’d been playing about four years. I did shows in the Catskills and got some experience playing. But, I felt like maybe I needed to know more. My reading skills were just things I’d picked up. I got through shows in the Catskills that weren’t, obviously the most demanding in a reading sense. I felt that training would be better.

So I studied with John Bock in Elmsford, NY. John had studied with Henry Adler. John really worked on my technique a lot right away. The first thing that bugged me on the first day was that he didn’t like the way I was holding my left stick. It irked me because I’d been playing for money at that point, but he kept on bugging me about that. We worked a lot on technique, using different exercises based on the rudiments. I’d say the bounce was the crucial turning point. John felt that the bounce was the foundation for good technique in drumming.

It seemed like it was never going to happen. Then one day, everything that he was talking about fell into place. I was sitting there practicing these exercises and think ing about what he’d said: “Let the stick do the work. Feel the bounce off the drum.” It fell into place and seemed like it released a tremendous amount of technique all of a sudden. He also worked with reading a lot.

After that I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. One of the main reasons I went to John was because I felt I’d be inadequate at Berklee if I didn’t. When I got there, I found that the only thing I lacked mostly was my reading. But, a lot of guys didn’t have the experience that I had. It was an awkward situation. The theory and all the other classes were good, but from a playing standpoint I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it. They put you in ensembles on your reading ability. My reading wasn’t up to par, but my playing was on a different level than my reading. It was a good experience and I got more knowledge as a musician out of it.

SF: Do you feel that a drummer should definitely attend a music school in order to become a professional?

WC: I think a good teacher is crucial, especially in the beginning. A good teacher can keep you from bad habits and give you direction. But, it has to be someone who you respect. Also, playing any kind of gig that you can play will help.

SF: Did you graduate from Berklee?

WC: No. I just went one year. I was anxious to play. We had an original jazz group up there. It was kind of a wild experience. It was a band where I never had to listen to a record; where I never had to listen to how another drummer played. The keyboard player would play what he thought and ask, “What do you think will fit?” We tried different things. It was really wild to be in a situation where you could play free like that. That was my first chance to play long drum solos, which was interesting. I think I really enjoyed doing that.

SF: How did you get the circus gig?

WC: I was living in Orlando at the time so I was down in the area where Ringling Bros, had the park that they built. They had a permanent base for Circus World. I was just looking to do something different, so I spoke to the bandleader. I used to work at this Dixieland club in Orlando on Sunday nights and he was there. I spoke to him about the possibility of going out there. He told me to come out. I went and was just blown away by what they were doing. You’d never think of what was involved in playing the show and how demanding the drumming spot was. I really got a bug to do that. I taped the show and observed it two days. I came in the next day to listen to it. I’d been listening to the tape in between the sets on my gig every night and tried to get everything settled in my mind. What awed me was how quickly it went from one tune to the next. You might be doing the “Theme From S.W.A.T.” for 24 bars. Instantly there’d be a cut and it would zip real fast into a 2/4 mambo or something. Then it would zap into something else. It impressed me that in each act there were so many different styles and drastic tempo changes.

I came in to listen the next day—and I didn’t know if he was pulling my leg—but the drummer said that his stomach bothered him. He got real sick. He said, “Do you think you can play the show?” He caught me off guard. I said, “I think I kind of have the grasp of it, but I can’t say.” He said, “I don’t think I can play. You’d better get up there.” So I got thrown right into it. Maybe that was good. And they didn’t have any music at that time at all.

SF: You were playing the show by ear?

WC: Yeah. Since that time I’ve made up cheat sheets. I have each act listed and at least each tune, what style and tempo and what meter. At least someone would have a rough idea if something ever happened like that. I got up there and just had to wing it. The opening was a two-feel. The drummer gave me the okay sign and snuck off the bandstand. He didn’t even stick around to help me through it. That’s how I fell into the gig. After that they gave me the job as his sub a couple of days a week. Finally the other guy left and they offered me the job. I’ve been there ever since.

SF: Were there any aspects of your playing that you needed to brush up on for the gig?

WC: Playing rolls for an extended period of time was a little strange. On a dance gig you wouldn’t necessarily do that. There could be a roll that would normally take 30 seconds. If it’s a situation like an animal act, you can never tell if the animal is going to want to perform—if the bands made their cut, the roll just goes on and on. In a trapeze act if a guy does a triple, sometimes they have it just cut to a roll. If he misses it, you have to keep rolling until they set it all up again. You could be playing a roll for two or three minutes, or even longer. You never know. You know that there are 2400 people out there and all they’re listening to is a drum roll, so you surely want it to be nice and smooth. You can’t hide behind the band at that point.

SF: I would’ve assumed that there would’ve been precise charts written for a circus show.

WC: More recently there’s music coming in with the newer stuff. Some of the new arrangements are coming through with drum parts. But, the main problem is that it would be very hard to sit up there and read—even if the whole thing was written out—because your eyes have to be completely on the act and the conductor. He determines the tempos. The bandstand is in more of a rectangular shape. The drums are all the way on the left side facing the audience. The conductor is in the middle, sort of. Technically, he’s totally to my right. To watch him, I have to almost turn my head straight with my shoulder. But the act and everything else is straight out in front of me. You’re caught with your head making an unusual movement back and forth. I’m almost to the point where, looking straight ahead, I can see the conductor out of the corner of my eye.

SF: If a trapeze act, for instance, has new music for their act, does the band rehearse it alone and then perform it with the act?

WC: Usually we’ll play it ourselves first. We’ll get familiar with the piece. Then the act usually listens to us. If they think they like it at that point, then we’ll try to work it in with their act. A good example was the trapeze act and the “Theme from Rocky.” They tried to write the music out to fit the exact length of the act. Some acts, the music will just keep on going until the end of their bit and there’ll be a cut to the next thing, or a chord. On this thing they decided to try to write it straight out. It has spots where it builds so it will fit the trick. There’ll be a high point of the chorus and that will fit perfectly with when the trapeze artist is doing his trick. The end of the act has a timpani 16th note buildup to a high point with a big chord at the end which fits beautifully. The problem is, that in dealing with any kind of an act there’s always room for error. That’s where the fun comes in. One day the artist might be feeling his oats and he’s moving a little quicker. The conductor will set the tempo where he thinks it’s right. All of a sudden the act will be ahead of where the music is. We have to either speed up or slow down. It really gets to be hairy.

SF: Is there an historical tradition of circus drummers?

WC: Name drummers? I would think there might have been, but I didn’t really travel that route. I wouldn’t say I’m an historian of the circus. The guys I idolize would be mostly from the jazz and rock veins.

SF: Do you still practice any particular routines?

WC: I still do those same exercises that I learned from my teacher. The bounces with and without accents on a pad. I used to do it religiously for a half hour every day. In the last year it’s fluctuated some because I might be working days and nights. That gets a little hectic. I don’t know if it’s psychological or physical, but when I do practice, I feel real loose and have the confidence that I’m going to have all the technique or endurance that I’ll need to get through the show.

SF: How about practice routines for your feet?

WC: When I’m practicing the bounces I keep my feet heel down. Sometimes during the show I’ll play with my toes on the bass drum. But, when I practice on the pad I’ll just be keeping my heels flat and I’m doing stuff with my feet as if the hi-hat and bass drum pedals were there. That’s just for a warm-up.

SF: You don’t feel it’s essential to practice on a drumset?

WC: I would always, in the past, swear to anybody that the best practice was on a drumset. I still do. When I first started to play I would spend hours on the drumset. Even my teacher would say that the thing that always irked him was that when someone learns a trumpet, do they give him a rubber trumpet to start with? Why should a drummer not start on his instrument? Sometimes if I want to work something out I’ll do it on the drumset.

SF: What drum setup do you use on the circus gig?

WC: A 24″ bass drum. I use double mounted toms because that’s the setup I always used. On my own set at home I had an 8 x 12 and a 9 x 13 for 15 years. But for the circus it seemed that a little bigger was better. So I have a 9 x 13 and a 10 x 14 which seem to have a little more quality and presence. The floor tom is an 18″ which seems to give a deeper, richer tone over the 16″. It also simulates more of a timpani sound. I usually use two crash cymbals. I find that 18″ thin or medium thin cut real good. A lot of the stuff is happening so quickly that if the conductor wants you to zap that crash for the chord, I like the response to be instant. The thin crash cymbals give that. I’m also using 14″ hi-hats and a 5 1/2 x 14 snare drum. I prefer that over the deeper snare drums because I like a real clean snare drum sound. The whole set is Slingerland. All the drums are wooden except for the chrome snare. Before we got this new set, I was using a Ludwig Black Beauty snare, which I really liked a lot. The feel was great and the sound was real clear and crisp and clean.

SF: Why did you stop using it?

WC: I’m just giving the new Slingerland set a chance. We don’t really have an endorsement with anybody.

SF: Are your drums miked when you play?

WC: Yes. It’s a pretty good size arena and it can be a problem making sure what you sound like on the bandstand comes through to the house that way. There are also monitors facing the bandstand. It’s a 12-piece band that really cranks and it’s all brass.

SF: So you don’t have to play ratchets, whistles and other sound effects?

WC: I have a woodblock and a cowbell which I use a lot for effects. Within the drums I try to use a lot of effects. The lead trumpet player is big on all that stuff. He’s played circuses for years. He has a whole barrage of stuff and usually works it out so that if he isn’t playing trumpet, he’s throwing in a lot of the ratchets and whistles. On the day that he’s not in, all that stuff is missing. No one else is filling the void. But I try to pretty much dictate all the effects.

The clowns totally depend on the drummer for all the effects they’re doing. They have their impression of what they’re trying to create to the audience. I might hear a guy tripping and when another guy steps over him, the floor tom-tom might be right. Maybe a cymbal. It depends. It sounds silly, but if you see the clowns do their act without any drum effects it’s like night and day.

SF: Are any of the clowns drummers?

WC: There’s one clown out there who’s a drummer, but most of them aren’t. They pretty much go along with what I recommend. The main thing to them is if there are no effects, they feel like they’re out there naked. Here’s the guy hitting him over the head with a hammer—a rubberized hammer—so to the audience it’s just silent. You have to hit the crash or the tom-tom, or sometimes the cowbell gives a good effect. You could be in awe of their act and what they may do, but to them they’re looking for the drums to accent everything they do. It funny how if a clown does a triple somersault, let’s say, if it’s done silently the audience response is totally different than it is with the drums. The roll is creating the attention to attract everyone’s eyes to it, the suspense. You build the roll as the guy’s in the air and it adds to it. The thing is the timing. It’s funny how you get locked into these things mentally. It seems like you can almost time it after seeing the act enough. You can feel when they’re going to reach the climax. I hit it and they look at me with a big smile on their faces. A lot of times they use hand gestures to acknowledge the crowd after they do something. I’ll try to give a cymbal crash every time they do that. Sometimes I almost know when they’re going to do it.

SF: Have you ever blown it?

WC: Oh yeah. With the clowns, each one tries to do the gags with their own individual style. I have to be aware and watch who is doing the act. Let’s say they’re going to hit a guy over the head with a hammer. One guy will bring the hammer back and bring it down evenly. The next guy will hes itate in bringing it back and bring it down slow. That’s where you can get caught with your pants down. You don’t want to give the cymbal crash while he’s still got the hammer in the air. Usually they only burn me once.

SF: Do the clowns ever try to screw up the band on purpose?

WC: Yeah. I think sometimes they do. Ninety per-cent of the time you’re prepared for it. But, something that adds confusion to the whole thing is that you don’t have the luxury of sitting there catching the crash, cowbell or whatever. While you’re doing that there’s a whole piece of music going on. There’s a whole arrangement and syncopated band figures. Sometimes you have to syncopate a band figure while catching a clown hitting a guy over the head three times with a hammer. You have to keep the time going and catch the hitting of the hammer which is totally out of meter with the tune. Yet you don’t want to send the band down the toilet.

Two other people I studied with are Jim Chapin and Don Lamond. Jim’s technique of independence helped me on the drums in the circus. There I’d be playing the “Theme from S.W.A.T.” with all this syncopation going on, and all of a sudden I’m playing a roll and then trying to accent somersaults in the air and keeping the time going! It’s difficult. There was no one there to teach me this so I had to come up with things that I thought helped. It’s like if you’re playing a syncopated funk rhythm and all of a sudden you’ve got to go to a roll. If you just go to the roll the whole bottom is going to fall out. So I’m keeping the bass drum pattern going and trying to keep the sock cymbal either on a strong “2” and “4,” or if it’s an 8th-note rock tune, I might keep an 8th-note feel with the hi-hat and keep the funk feel with the bass drum. But, then I’m also keeping the roll steady and accenting with my hands. My feet are kind of keeping the time.

SF: Do you have a next goal set after you leave the circus?

WC: I enjoy the circus a lot. It’s always a challenge and it’s always demanding. I can never get up there and say I don’t feel good and just lay back. It’s always physically demanding, and demanding from a drumming standpoint. But, I also have aspirations to do other things. I’ve been kicking around the idea of putting a band together. I thought that maybe going out with a name act again would be something I’d like to do. I’ve played with some semi-name acts in the past and there was a lot of excitement involved in it. I’m in the process of trying to put together a contemporary group, and—like a million other people— maybe cut a demo. I’d like to recreate the hooha that Krupa had in the ’30s, in contemporary music in the ’80s.