Dave Weckl

Everyone dreams of the Big Break—the situation that changes you from unknown to star overnight. In reality, of course, no one actually becomes a star that fast. That is something that must be earned and worked up to over a period of time. However, often there is a single incident that can mark the turning point in a musician’s career, and which can earn recognition for that player.

Dave Weckl went from playing small, New York clubs to backing the recent Simon & Garfunkle tour, alongside such players as Airto, Richard Tee and Anthony Jackson. For many, a gig like that would be a dream come true, but for Weckl, it wasn’t so much a dream as a logical conclusion to the hard work he’s been putting in since he was a kid growing up in St. Louis.

Shortly after completing this interview, I had a call from a drummer who wanted to know if MD could refer him to any teachers. As it turned out, this drummer had grown up with Dave Weckl. He was verbally kicking himself for not taking his craft as seriously as Dave had, and now he wanted to make up for lost time by studying with a rock star. But as Dave Weckl told me: “There are a lot of people who say, ‘Yeah, tomorrow I’m going to practice for ten hours.’ It might be loo late by then. “

SF: What brought you from St. Louis to Connecticut?

DW: I was in St. Louis playing in show bands and top-40 bands. I’ve been working six nights a week since I was 16. My best friend, Jay Oliver, and I were always in bands together. He left St. Louis to go with Maynard Ferguson. When he split, there was nothing left in town for me to do. I was 18 and I wanted to go to school somewhere. I mainly wanted to get where some action was—either New York, the West Coast, or somewhere close to those places. I wanted to go where there were some connections— where I knew some people. I went to Bridgeport University because of Neil Slater, who was the jazz director. I had sent him a demo tape, and he responded, “If you can read as well as you can play, you can have the spot in the band. I’ll also help you try to find some work,” which he did! He got me into Sal Salvador’s band right away.

SF: Joe Morello’s old chair.

DW: Right. I got to meet Joe because of that, which was great. Another reason I chose Bridgeport was because Ed Soph was teaching there. I was really interested in studying with him. When I got there, I found that Randy Jones was also teaching, which was real nice too. Randy is great. He’s not the book-type teacher like Ed. He was real good for my head. If I had some problems, whether it was with playing time or with a member of a band, he’d always have something to say that was very helpful. And he showed me a lot of things about straight-ahead playing which were real good. I studied with Randy about a year, and then I got a chance to study with Ed. That was a nice learning experience too; Ed’s a great teacher.

SF: When you went to Bridgeport, were you already well-rounded in all styles of music?

DW: Yeah. I started learning about different styles when I was about 13. Bob Metheny and Joe Buerger were responsible for my foundation. They taught me how to read, and taught me all the basic styles. From there I took it upon myself to do a lot of listening and copying from records. That’s how I had started when I was eight. I would play to rock ‘n’ roll records like the Monkees. My dad was always turning me on to Pete Fountain, with Jack Sperling on drums. Jack was my number-one influence when I was first starting to learn straight-ahead drumming. I listened to him and then, of course, came Buddy.

SF: Did Sperling’s playing ever inspire you to use double bass drums?

DW: I attempted that once, but I’ve got enough to do figuring out the coordination and technique to play one drum. Also, I like to do interacting rhythms between the bass drum and hi-hat. If I want a double bass drum sound, I use my floor tom and bass drum, which has a lot to do with what Gary Chester is teaching. You can get that sound happening by working up fast singles between the floor tom and bass drum, and you still have your other foot free to play the hi-hat.

SF: Would you say that you are a “natural” drummer? Did drumming come easy for you?

DW: At first it did, yeah. When I was eight, my dad got me a drumset—a little cheap snare drum, bass drum, one tom and a cymbal. I just started playing to records, and it was sort of easy for me to pick up and copy these things. I loved the challenge of figuring the stuff out. I was always really into that. But it became frustrating when I was about 12 or 13. I was in a rut. I was practicing the same things, and not really advancing. Then I was thrown into a situation where I had to get it together. I was 14, and in the eighth grade. The teacher at my high school, Al McCuen, was really great. He really loved kids, and if he saw a talent, man, he went after it and really tried to push it. I wasn’t even in high school yet, but he asked me to come down and audition for the high school jazz band. I’d been reading little snare drum things since I was in the fourth grade, but to sit down and actually read a chart and play with a big band—forget it! But I did a good job of faking it, I guess, because he said, “Yeah, I want you to do it.” So I thought, “I’d better learn how to read—fast!”

That’s when I started seriously taking lessons. I’d first started lessons when I was 13, and my dad bought me a new set of gold-sparkle Gretsch drums. When I got into this high school band, my teacher was Bob Metheny. He got me into the Roy Burns Big, Bad And Beautiful package. That’s really excellent material for learning to read charts. Roy plays well on the album. It’s good to listen to what he’s doing if you’ve never played big band material before.

SF: Did you copy the fills that Roy played?

DW: At first, yes, to understand where he was coming from style-wise. Jim Petercsak—who taught me everything I know about left-hand finger control—collaborated with Roy on that, and wrote out a lot of Roy’s fills. That really got me started. After that, I was fortunate enough to always have an outlet to read, all through high school. We would also have little “kicks” bands, where the teacher would just throw charts at us and we’d play. That was a great learning experience.

People come up to me and ask, “How do you interpret that? How can you read that so well the first time?” So I ask them, “How much reading experience have you had? Did you ever play with a big band or read charts?” They’ll say, “No, nobody ever does that around here.” That’s a drag. I always had that outlet. Once I started reading, I loved it. I didn’t even want to play in a band unless there were charts. That’s not to say that I don’t rely on my ears, because that’s a lot of it too. But reading was important because when I got to college I was always reading.

SF: Did you graduate from the University of Bridgeport?

DW: No. After one year of full-time studies, I went part time, because I wanted more time to practice. I had started working quite a bit. My first summer there was great. I was practicing 10 to 15 hours a day. I’d get up early and practice drumset for three or four hours. Then I’d spend a lot of time learning Maynard’s charts, because this was during the time that my friend was in Maynard’s band, and I really wanted to get on that band. So I spent a lot of time listening to that type of music and concentrating on all of those aspects. Then I would work on the reading, and the technical end of it. Studying time was always important to me. Starting at age 19, I didn’t do anything without a click track. I had started listening to myself on tape, and I noticed that, although it felt great while I was doing it, when I listened back it sounded frantic. So I started working with a click track a lot, trying to make sure that everything was perfect.

SF: What was the band you were in called Nite Sprite?

DW: Nite Sprite is still going on. That was pretty important to me in terms of my progression. That band started happening late in ’79 in Connecticut. The bass player, Paul, was going to school with me in Bridgeport. Fred, the sax player, was going to school there too. That band was a whole different thing for me. When we first started, the band was very fusion oriented.

SF: Was it a copy band?

DW: Actually, no. There were a lot of original tunes written by the keyboard and guitar player. It was fusion oriented, but it was good. That turned me on to a whole different thing by making me listen to Weather Report, since we did a few of their tunes. Nite Sprite was good for me. It was a good outlet for me to hear myself in situations where what I was playing didn’t fit. It made me play simpler.

SF: You must have taped yourself a lot.

DW: That’s the best way to learn. And you’ve got to be objective about it. You’ve got to listen and say, “Well, how does it feel? Does it groove? How am I locking in with the bass player? Is that really the right groove to play?” That’s what that band gave me the chance to do. I took those tapes and analyzed them to death. I was with Nite Sprite for three-and-a-half years. We were playing at some jazz clubs like Seventh Avenue South, Mikell’s, and The Other End, and that led to the band I’m working with now.

See, I’ve been in contact with Peter Erskine for years. A friend of mine was pretty close to Peter, and he was always telling me that Peter was such a nice guy. So I just started calling Peter, and he’d always talk to me.

SF: What kind of questions would you ask him?

DW: I just wanted to know what he was doing, if he was going to move to New York, and when Weather Report was going to be in town. Then, of course, I’d ask the stupid questions about tuning and that sort of thing. I didn’t really like to ask too many questions like that.

We were in touch for a couple of years, and then he moved to New York and started playing a lot. One night I went to Seventh Avenue South to hear him play with somebody. He had broken a snare drum head and didn’t have another one. I happened to have a new head in my car, so I brought it in and gave it to him. It was fun to be able to do that.

To make a long story short, he came to Seventh Avenue South to hear me play with Nile Sprite. He really enjoyed the show and we hung out a little. After that, I lost contact with him for a while. But then I called him up one day and we were talking about everything from telephone bills to the music business. He asked me if I was interested in playing with a group called French Toast. Steve Ferrone usually did the gig, but he was getting real busy and was out of town a lot. Peter had done the gig a couple of times, but he didn’t want to do it anymore because it was too loud for his taste. French Toast consists of Anthony Jackson on bass, Michel Camillo on keyboards, and two percussionists: Sammy Figueroa and Gordon Gottlieb. There are three horns: Lew Soloff, Jerry Dodgion, and Peter Gordon, who’s the leader and french horn player. So I said, “Yeah, great,” because I’d always wanted to play with a band of that caliber.

I got to sit with the charts for about three days, and then did the gig. That was some experience. It’s a very diversified book—a lot of Latin and funk, with enough straight-ahead things to balance it out. Everybody’s part is really important. Musically, it’s incredible, and so much fun to play. All three of us in the rhythm section basically have the same ideas and concepts about phrasing. Anthony Jackson has taught me so much about groove. I’ve never played with anyone like him. He’s amazing. The grooves are so fat. He has the tendency to play a lot of notes sometimes, but it always fits and there is never a question as to where the time is.

SF: You were lucky to get into a situation like that. The main focus in music education is on playing your instrument. But once you’ve accomplished that, then what? How do you go about selling yourself and your talent?

DW: That’s a question that was going through my head as recently as six months ago. How do I go about meeting these people without sounding like some little kid who’s just saying that he wants to play? Getting to know somebody is such a touchy situation. When I first came to New York, I went to all of the clubs and saw all of these great players. You tend to put them on a pedestal and look up to them. They are great, but they’re people too. So I figured I’d just show my face, let them know who I was, and not push the music thing too much. How many times does somebody hear, “Hey, I’m a drummer too! Wow, you sound great! Here’s my phone number if you ever need a sub.”

SF: You wouldn’t do that?

DW: I don’t know. Who can say what you should or shouldn’t do? People are people and you have to find out what they are first. I’ve heard a lot of musicians talking about other players. They’d say, “Yeah, so-and-so plays great, but what a terrible attitude.” That’s so important; you’ve got to have the right attitude. You’ve got to have enough sense to know how to act around people in the business, and also around your audience.

SF: You got the Simon & Garfunkle gig through Anthony Jackson, who you met on the gig with French Toast, which you got through Peter Erskine. So, in a very real sense, knowing how to act when you first made those phone calls to Peter led to the Simon & Garfunkle gig.

DW: That’s what I’m saying. Through those phone calls, I was trying to get to know Peter as a person. I was calling him because I loved the way he played, not because I was trying to get work.

SF: Do you think that attitude is as important as, or even more important than, technical ability?

DW: It all works hand in hand. At times, attitude can outweigh talent. There will be these outstanding players who are not working. You ask why, and the answer is, “They’ve got a strange attitude.” On the other hand, once people get to know you, and they see that you’re not a jerk, then your ability has to be able to back you up. When other people put their own reputations on the line to recommend you, that’s when your playing has to back up what everyone’s talking about.

SF: What was the Simon & Garfunkle audition like?

DW: Well, Anthony Jackson had recommended me to Paul Simon. His office then called, said that they were looking for a drummer, and there were a couple of people they were interested in. They asked if I was playing anywhere so they could check me out. I was working downtown with Barry Finnerty. Paul actually came down himself. I was expecting somebody, but I wasn’t expecting Paul. It was funny, because I didn’t even say anything to him. He was there to see if I could play. I figured that, if he liked me and wanted me to work for him, then I’d get to know him.

SF: How did you feel when you saw him walk into the club?

DW: I felt good about the fact that he showed up. I didn’t want to scare him away by playing a lot of stuff, because that’s not what his thing is about. I concentrated on playing for the music. We were playing some funk stuff, and a little bit of fusion, so I concentrated on groove, feel, time, and sensitivity.

SF: And Paul didn’t say anything to you that night?

DW: No, we never exchanged one word. I felt weird about it, but I figured that, if he liked what he heard, then I’d hear from him. I was walking around in nervous anticipation trying to figure out what was happening. I talked to Anthony, but he didn’t even know yet if he was going on the tour. About a week and a half later, the office called and said that they wanted to use me for the tour.

SF: Can you formalize the transition from being a qualified unknown musician to getting a big break?

DW: Well, don’t have any bad feelings about your playing at all. Before you even attempt to make the scene, you’ve got to have your act together and you’ve got to be real confident about it. The other thing to do is try to get in front of people who are playing all of the time. Hang out at the clubs; get to know them. That’s not always easy to do because, unfortunately, it costs money to go to clubs and hang out.

SF: But it’s necessary if you’re serious about making it?

DW: That’s where it becomes a matter of making sacrifices elsewhere. I started making sacrifices when I was real young and I was practicing while all of my friends were outside goofing around. As far as money goes, you’ve just got to decide what you want to spend it on and what’s more important to you. You’ve got to have a balance. You’ve got to have things that will make you happy, too. It all depends on what you want and how badly you really want it.

SF: You were four years old when Simon & Garfunkle released “Sounds Of Silence,” and now you are in a drumchair that has previously been occupied by people like Steve Gadd, Hal Blaine, Gary Chester and Roger Hawkins.

DW: And on the last album there were Gadd, Steve Ferrone, Jeff Porcaro, and a Linn machine. I didn’t even know who was playing on “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” until a couple of years after I started getting into Gadd.

SF: How much leeway did you have to create your own parts for songs?

DW: Basically a lot. After Paul gave us his basic idea on a tune, we would come up with our own grooves. We had chord charts, but I basically just took the tapes and listened to them to see what was going on. I listened to the Central Park concert album, and tapes of a tour they had done in Australia with Carlos Vega on drums. We were taking all of the older tunes and revamping a lot of them by putting different grooves in. Paul always wants to do something different if it fits and if it works. He’s really a great musician, and a lot offun to work for.

SF: Did you find any of the music challenging?

DW: All of it. I’d never played in a situation like that. The style of some of the music was actually different for me. Even though some of it was very simple, it was a challenge because I wanted to play it right. It didn’t call for a lot of chops, but the feel, sensitivity and time still had to be there. I really learned a lot from Richard Tee. He always knows what to play and how to make grooves work.

SF: Were there any technical challenges?

DW: No. I had to work out something new on “Allergies,” because there are two drummers playing the track on the album—Steve Gadd playing the beat under Simmons drum fills played by Steve Ferrone. I had to take the main ingredients from both parts and come up with a groove. I ended up playing a left-hand hihat part, fills with the right hand, and I kept the groove happening underneath. It was all stuff I had learned from Gary Chester. I had been studying with him for about seven months, and if I had to do something left-handed, it was no longer a big deal.

SF: How had your playing changed from studying with Gary?

DW: My level of concentration had changed. It had gone up considerably towards what I was actually playing. I was actually hearing what I was playing, instead of letting little ghost notes go in here or there. Every time I’d walk into a lesson, he’d come up with a different system, and I’d feel retarded. Then I’d go home, practice it, and get it down to where it was cooking. When I’d go back, he’d tell me something else to do with it, and I’d feel retarded all over again. It was great though; his lessons are such a challenge.

SF: Did Gary teach you about the music business too?

DW: Oh yeah. He would always answer any question I had about the business, and try to direct me in a way that was good for me, based on knowledge he’s acquired from mistakes he’s made. There were things he told me he’d do over again if he had the chance. One of the aspects we covered was money management. I was never into spending money foolishly. I don’t have to worry about things like having a drug habit because I’ve never done any of that stuff.

A lot of musicians coming up now are not into drugs at all. I’ve met so many people who are real straight ahead; they’re just into making music. I really want to stress that for younger players who are coming up. You definitely don’t need that, and you don’t have to worry about whether you’re going to fit into the social scene. I used to worry about whether I was going to be able to hang out with everybody. It doesn’t work that way. You’re there to do your job. You’re there to make music to the best of your ability, and you’re respected for that. You can still hang out and have a good time without getting wasted.

SF: Can you give me a rundown on your current setup?

DW: I just became connected with Yamaha before the tour, and I’m very happy with them. Right now my toms are 8×8, 10×10, 11×13 and 13×15. The 11 x 13 is on my left side near the hi-hat. A lot of my setup is based on Gary’s teaching, because he teaches a lot of left-hand floor tom things. I’m using a 22 x 16 bass drum, and a 7″ wood snare drum. I’m also endorsing Sabian cymbals, and I really like them. I’ve got 15″ and 17″ AA crashes, and an 18″ HH ride. I’ve got a 16″ HH crash with a rivet in it for this tour, because Paul likes that sustain. I’ve got a regular set of hi-hats on my left, and a set of heavier rock hi-hats closed on my right. The right-hand hi-hats are set up on a boom stand with a little device that a friend of mine engineered to screw on top of a cymbal stand. I can angle it any way I want. So it’s a closed hi-hat over the floor toms. I think that’s going to be standard in the future. It just doesn’t make sense to play with your hands crossed over. It limits the stroke of your backbeat. I still cross over if I want to use a lot of little open hi-hat sounds, but for loud playing with a closed hi-hat ride, having a set on the right opens up a lot of things. I’m also using a set of Simmons in conjunction with my regular setup. I have a Simmons bass drum, snare, three toms and a cymbal effect set up on my right.

SF: Did you feel a lot of pressure on the Simon & Garfunkle tour?

DW: Not at all. It’s what I want to do. I’ve wanted to play with people of this caliber for a long time.

This business is so unpredictable. Who knows what anybody’s future is going to be in this business? Generally, it’s said that you last 10 to 15 years. It’s just a cycle; somebody new is always coming up. So I just want to start it right. I get a natural high from doing what I want to do, and from playing with these people. I don’t know where the self-destructiveness comes from in so many musicians, but I’ve never really known musicians like that. I’ve always associated myself with non-self-destructive people. That’s real important. You’ve got to make up your mind about what’s right for you. I’ve never been the type of person who has to do what somebody else is doing.