It would probably be easier to list all the musical things that fan Wallace hasn’t done than those he has. This unassuming Englishman has covered every aspect of pop drumming, beginning with pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll in England, and progressing through gigs in top rock, blues, country, R&B and even reggae bands. Ian is one of those drummers whose name you may not know, but whose career has included albums or tours with such artists as Alexis Korner, Alvin Lee, Lonnie Mack and Bonnie Raitt, memberships in such notable groups as King Crimson and David Lindley’s El Rayo-X, and a legendary tour with Bob Dylan. Interviewed during the recently completed 1984 Crosby, Stills & Nash tour, Ian is at once a contemporary drummer of the highest caliber, and a walking compendium of pop history. The associations he has shared with top musical artists over the years have provided him with a wealth of experience, an amazing attitude towards professionalism and the role of a drummer, and an almost unlimited supply of anecdotes.
RVH: Let’s get the background on how you started drumming.
IW: Well, I was interested in music as a kid, so I was always up with the pop tunes that were happening in the ’50s. Then I became interested in traditional jazz while I was at school. On one occasion, I went with the school’s jazz society to see Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band at the local cinema. 1 remember that I looked up and saw this kit of drums, and that was it; it was almost like a spiritual experience. I knew that’s what I was supposed to do.
I got a little band together at school, and we used to play all the Shadows things. Then the Beatles came out. I remember seeing them before they were a hit. They’d play the Oasis club in Manchester, and of course the Cavern in Liverpool. I also remember the first time I saw the Beatles after they had suddenly become monsters. In England there used to be midday radio programs, where they’d feature a couple of rock ‘n’ roll groups every day. I got tickets to this one particular show on which the Beatles were the featured group. They came on and the place went just absolutely nuts. I couldn’t believe it—the girls screaming and all. Of course, they were incredible; they were just really, really exciting. So naturally, we started to play Beatles stuff, and I was the singer as well as the drummer. I think I played my first gig when I was about 15. We played the Women’s Co-op Society, and got 10 shillings each, which in those days was a couple of dollars.
RVH: Did you ever have any formal instruction at all?
IW: I had a couple of lessons when I was a kid, but nothing really formal. That’s why I play left-handed, like Phil Collins and Ian Paice. Nobody ever told me it was wrong. And in fact, it isn’t necessarily wrong, but it gets a bit awkward when I want to sit in with people.
RVH: Let’s talk about your early pro days, with the English clubs and the Hamburg scene.
IW: The band that I was playing with originally was called the Jaguars. We used to play the local dance hall, in Bury, in Lancashire. We’d open for a lot of groups who used to come in there, including one called the Warriors. The Warriors were very, very good, and they were just about to turn professional. They saw me play, and asked me if I wanted to join them. There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of my mother ever allowing me to be in a pro band, but the Warriors persisted in convincing her. They had just been signed by Dick Rowe, who at that time was the head of A&R for Decca. He’s probably still famous today as the man who turned down the Beatles. Consequently, he signed every other band in England—hoping! Anyway, the Warriors were due to cut their first record, they had an appearance on the big pop TV show, Thank Your Lucky Stars, and they had this manager in London who had just signed them up. So my mother told me to go ahead. I was 17 then, and that very weekend I went down to London and cut this record. Of course, the record flopped, but it was too late then, because I was in the band.
While I was in the Warriors, we used to open up for a lot of American rock acts at a place called the Nelson Imperial Ballroom in Lancashire. One night Little Richard was playing there, and he was enormous at the time. His drummer just quit suddenly, right at the theater, and wouldn’t play the show. So Little Richard asked me if I’d sit in. It was just incredible. Fortunately, I knew all the Little Richard numbers, because I used to sing and play them in my first band, so it was great. Most of the band was an English pickup band, but he had brought these two black guitarists from America with him. I often wonder if one of them was Jimi Hendrix. This was in ’65, so I doubt it.
When I was 19, we got an offer to play some clubs in Germany. It was the first time I had ever been away from home, and I was really miserable for a long time. We used to play from seven in the evening till one or two in the morning—generally six sets per night. On the weekends, we’d do seven evening sets after three matinee sets! We’d do that every day for a month, then pack up and go to the next club. We did that for 18 months, in which I had one day off for Christmas Eve in 1966 and another on Easter Sunday of 1967. The hardest gig was the Top Ten Club in Hamburg. There would be two bands, and you’d alternate sets. I think we’d finish about five in the morning. You’d have to decide on a number for the end of your set. The other band would be set up right beside you on stage. They would come on during that tune and take over, so there’d be no break in the music at all.
We finally came back home, and I got another offer from a Manchester band called The Big Sound, which was backing a Danish soul singer. So I joined them, went to Denmark and lived there for six months. That band broke up in early ‘68.1 returned to London and spent quite a few months sleeping on people’s floors and starving, trying to make a bit of money here and there. I started doing a lot of backing jobs behind American singers who came over, like Lou Christie and Marvin Johnson. I became pretty well-known in London, and eventually was offered a gig with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Their drummer, “Legs” Larry Smith, was coming out front more and more, so they’d use guest drummers. Aynsley Dunbar and Keith Moon each did it for a few months. Keith had to leave to go on tour with the Who, so they asked me to do it. The Bonzos were on the verge of breaking up, but the singer, Vivian Stanshall, was forming another band for when that happened, called Vivian Stanshall’s Big Grunt—strictly a comedy band. So I played the last few months with the Bonzos, and then I played with Vivian’s band. I was just playing the music; I wasn’t particularly involved in the comedy part of it, although we once did a Marty Feldman comedy special on TV for which I wore a duck suit. Then Vivian had a nervous breakdown, and everything fell apart. So Neil Innes, who was also in Vivian’s band, and who is famous now for writing all the material for the Ruttles and a lot of the music for Monty Python, formed this band called the World. We did an album on United Artists, and went around playing, just hanging in there. I was living in the same building as Keith Emerson at the time, in London. That happened to be the time when King Crimson had broken up the first time, after Michael Giles’ term with the band. Keith recommended me to Robert Fripp, who came to see me play and offered me the job. Of course I said, “Wonderful!” because I was a big Crimson fan.
RVH: What was the band into at that point?
IW: Very progressive, very instrumental.
RVH: Who was in the band then?
IW: Robert Fripp, of course; Peter Sinfield, who did lyrics and mixed the sound and the lights; Mel Collins, who sort of joined in transition; and myself. Then we started to audition bass players—four dozen of them. We taped all of the auditions, and some of them … I know it’s sad to say, but they were so funny. We had one kid who was so nervous that halfway through the first number he stopped, went completely white, and passed out. Of course, Fripp used to delight in all this. We’d play back the tapes and roll over screaming with laughter at some of these poor guys. It was very cruel, and a horrible thing to do, but at the time I was very cruel and horrible. We were also auditioning singers, and this guy called Boz Burrell got the gig as the singer. We carried on auditioning bass players, and one had left his axe for some reason. One day when we were just sitting around, Boz picked it up and started doodling on it. Fripp went, “Well that’s it! I’ll teach Boz how to play the bass!” So Fripp taught Boz how to play the bass, I taught him the rhythm-section thing, and Boz became the bass player with Crimson. Later, he went on to play bass with Bad Company, and now he’s very rich. He has his own studio and is living in London, God bless Mm. So that was the band: Boz, Mel Collins, me, and Fripp, with Peter Sinfield doing the sound and lights. I did that from ’70 to ’72.
RVH: How did you see your role in a band like Crimson?
IW: When I first joined King Crimson, Fripp said to me, “There are no rules in this band. You can play absolutely anything you want. If you decide that in part of the music you want to go to the front of the stage and nail a shoe into the floor, you can do that.” And for a while I did that— till I ran out of shoes. [laughs] Not really, but I did do a lot of strange things in Crimson. One of the things that broke it up was the fact that, although Fripp said I could be as free as I wanted, when I just tried to play something simple, he didn’t like it. He wanted me to be always free and always outside, which is not free, because that immediately tied me down to not being able to play anything basic. 1 found that to be very difficult and frustrating. Instead of being able to play what I wanted, 1 couldn’t play at all what I wanted, and although I have recordings of some pretty amazing stuff we played—a lot of odd-meter things, even in those days—it did get awkward.
With a band like Crimson, the accent was on being as unusual as we could, and we were certainly unusual. I used to do this drum solo which included the first synthesized drums ever, to my knowledge. It was in the beginning of 1971, and we had a VCS-3 synthesizer, one of the first things to come out. It was basically what was called a Ring Modulator, and at one point in the solo, Peter Sinfield would put the mic’s from the drums through the Ring Modulator into the mixer. What I used to do was to do a takeoff on Carl Palmer, when he was with ELP. He used to do a solo with this very fast bass drum thing—a 16th-note roll, actually—and at the same time he’d take his shirt off over his head, and throw it to the audience. So at one point in my solo I’d do the same bass drum pattern—which would be the signal to turn the synthesizer on—and start to take my shirt off. But I’d get into trouble! I’d get all stuck up in the shirt, and then I’d fall off the stool behind the drums, so you couldn’t see me. Then I’d climb up on the back wall or an amplifier with a load of drumsticks, and throw ’em at the drums. They’d hit the toms and bounce off into the audience, and when they hit the toms the drums would go “DOOOOOooooo” through the synthesizer. It was rather a satire, which must have come from my Bonzo Dog Band influences. I think it’s dangerous to take oneself too seriously sometimes.
RVH: According to your resume, from ’72 through ’80 you had basically one project per year, each of which was pretty different from the preceding one. For example, from Crimson, which was progressive rock music, you turned around and went with Alexis Korner in ’72. Wasn’t Korner a blues artist?
IW: Yeah. Very, very basic.
RVH: Then that gig led to the Streetwalkers in ’73. What was that?
IW: The Streetwalkers was a band that was formed from another big British band called Family. The lead singer, Roger Chapman, and the slide guitar player, Charley Whitney, were a songwriting team as well, and they formed the Chapman-Whitney Streetwalkers. The album we did is still one of my favorite albums that I’ve ever played on.
RVH: What was the style of music?
IW: It was rock ‘n’ roll, but very melodic, with a lot of little solos. There was R&B in there, and a little jazz here and there. There was some really nice playing in it; it was a really great band.
RVH: Why did you leave?
IW: I left to join Alvin Lee in ’74.
RVH: He’s the British blues/rock guitar ace. That must have been quite different from the Streetwalkers.
IW: Right—another style jump.
RVH: What are your thoughts about playing behind an instrumental soloist, such as Alvin Lee?
IW: When artists play solos, you have to keep the solo flowing. It’s important to listen to soloists, because they may play a passage where you can join in—where you can put in the accents of the riff they’re playing. That builds it a little bit. It’s not quite so much staying out of the way as you would with a vocalist; you can perhaps underscore some of the things they’re playing.
RVH: Buddy Rich has said that, when playing behind soloists in his band, his job is to “Kick ’em in the ass”—to actually push them to play better.
IW: Absolutely! But another important thing to remember is, when you’re working for somebody, you have to play what they want, whether you think it’s right or not. I used to find it very difficult to do that, because I was a very opinionated person, and I always used to think that what I was doing was right. I don’t do that anymore. In fact, I’ve found that, by actually trying to play exactly what they want the best I can, I’ve discovered some things that I’ve been able to use in other situations.
RVH: In ’75, you joined Steve Marriott’s All-Stars, which sounds as if it would have been more into straight hard rock, a la Marriott’s group Humble Pie.
IW: Right again. In fact, I played four tracks on Humble Pie’s last album, which I never got credit for. Andrew Loog Oldham produced it, and he paid me 50 pounds. I co-wrote the title track with Steve too, which I never got anything for.
RVH: So what did you do with the All-Stars?
IW: We went over to L.A. and cut an album, and then we did a couple of tours in England, one in Europe, and a two-month tour in America. That was when I decided to move to America. When I left Steve I never went back to England; I moved to L.A.
RVH: What prompted that decision?
IW: I was in love with Southern California, and I did think it would be a good career move for me. Besides, I had always played American music: jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. All my influences had been American, apart from the Beatles, and their influences had been American.
RVH: So there you were in L.A. in ’76 or so, and in ’77 you joined Lonnie Mack and Pismo. What was that about?
IW: It was country and country/rock. Lonnie had a few instrumental hits—one called “Wham” and another called “Memphis”—and he’s also a very fine singer.
RVH: There’s another stylistic change for you.
IW: Oh, yeah!
RVH: From the gig with Lonnie Mack, you became involved with Dylan. How did that come about?
IW: Lonnie’s thing didn’t last very long. Around the end of ’77, I was playing in various little projects around L.A. Joan Baez’s manager was involved in one. He knew they were auditioning drummers for Dylan and he recommended me. So 1 auditioned and got the gig.
RVH: Did you tour first or record first?
IW: We toured first. I got the gig at the beginning of ’78, and we rehearsed for about a month. Then we went to Japan, and that was Dylan’s only time in Japan, ever. It was like the Beatles. When we got off the airplane, all these people were at the airport. We played eight nights in Tokyo at the Budokan, and the prince of Japan sat in the front row. It was great. We went to Australia and New Zealand. Then we came back in April of ’78 and cut the Street Legal album.
RVH: The Live At Budokan album was recorded during that tour then?
IW: Right, and I think they cut the album at what was probably only the second gig the band had ever played together. That’s why a lot of the tunes are a bit shaky on the album. That band got really hot. But you know, we got so much criticism in America; it was a real shame. It was a big band— 12 pieces—and we all wore costumes and things. America was saying, “Bob Dylan’s gone Las Vegas.” I remember one local critic comparing him in the paper to John Davidson. Although Bob never showed it, I knew that it hurt him tremendously. They allowed what they saw to influence them more than what they were listening to, because we were playing some really great stuff, and we had a great band!
We went to Japan and Australia, and they loved the show; we went to England, sold out six nights at Earl’s Court, and played the biggest single-day event in history for half a million people in London. We toured Europe, and they absolutely loved it. They also loved Street Legal. And yet here, Street Legal got reviewed in Rolling Stone—twice, in fact—and two different people destroyed it. That album was one of Dylan’s favorites—he still plays material from it today—and he loved that band. He said in his last Rolling Stone interview that he doesn’t think that band can ever be recreated. I’m sure he’d love to try.
RVH: What followed the recording of Street Legal?
IW: We did eight nights at Universal Ampitheater in L.A., which were eight of the coldest gigs I’ve ever done; we had to have heaters put on the stage. Then we went to Europe for six weeks, for an amazing, amazing, tour. Eric Clapton played guitar on that gig. We played Zeppelin Field in Nuremburg, where Hitler held the rallies you see on all those old films. We were in the middle of the field, facing the podium from which Hitler had spoken. The tomb where he was going to have himself buried was right behind that. And here’s Dylan, facing Hitler’s tomb and the podium he spoke from, with the audience looking at him with their backs turned to Hitler’s tomb—very symbolic. The German promoter was crying. He said it was always something he had wanted to do—to have the German people with their backs turned to Hitler. There they were, looking at this little Jewish guy. It was really special.
We came back and took a few weeks off, and then did 65 dates in 90 days in America, which brought us to the ’78 Christmas season. I remember sitting up all night with Bob, after the last gig, in Miami on December 17. He was telling me about all the tours that were lined up for ’79, and how we were going to cut an album. And then I never heard from him. 1 got reports that after Christmas he came back and was putting pictures of Jesus all over the office. That’s when he got into the whole Christian thing. So none of the band ever worked with him again after that; he formed a completely different band. I’ve seen Bob since then, of course; he’s real healthy looking, and playing just great. To me, he’s one of the greatest blues singers I’ve ever heard, black or white. He has a very unusual voice of course, but the way he phrases and the way he puts words into lines is just unbelievable.
RVH: Dylan was already a legend at the time you auditioned for him. Did you have any particular awe of working with him?
IW: Oh yeah, I was scared to death! [laughs] I rehearsed with him for a week before he actually spoke to me. I think he was probably as scared of me as I was of him. Bob’s great—I really love him dearly—but he’s very strange, because he’s been a legend virtually since he was 20 years old. He doesn’t relate to things very much like other people. But he’s a very basic person. He doesn’t put on airs or anything like that, and he’s very shy.
RVH: I can visualize “Dylan the artist” mulling over a lyric somewhere. I’d like to know about “Dylan the performing rock star,” and how he related to your drumming.
IW: Well, he hardly ever told me what to play. Occasionally, he’d make suggestions, which were very difficult to translate into drumming terms, because he wouldn’t say, “Play something on the toms.” He’d say, “Play something like the sound of breaking glass.” So it was like “O-kay, Bob . . uummm . . I’ll try.” But he was very good to me, and I’ve got a feeling I’ll play with Bob again. I’d like to.
RVH: That brings us to Billy Burnette. What was that all about?
IW: Yet another style change for me. That was rock ‘n’ roll, leaning towards rockabilly. Billy is the son of Dorsey Burnette, and the nephew of Johnny Burnette, who had a few major hits in the ’50s. We played around L.A., and then Billy got a recording deal with CBS. But it just sort of fell apart. Billy’s playing in Mick Fleetwood’s Zoonow.
RVH: That brings us up to David Lindley favorite people in the world.
RVH: You were with him for almost three years. What kind of music were you playing?
IW: Reggae! [laughs] Once again a major shift in musical direction for me.
RVH: Wasn’t this about the first time in your musical career—since the very early days, that is—that you were in on the ground floor of a band’s formation?
IW: Well, basically it was a band, yeah. It started off this way: When I was doing Lonnie Mack’s album in Nashville, in ’77, David was guesting on the album. He told me then, “I’m going to put my own thing together and do my own album.” We got to talking about how much we liked reggae. Being a musician living in London, I’ve been into reggae for a long time; I’ve played with a lot of West Indian reggae musicians. So David said, “I’ll give you a call when it comes together.” Well, three years later, I bumped into him in a sushi bar in Los Angeles.
RVH: You walked out of an American rockabilly band into a sushi bar in Los Angeles, and wound up in a reggae group?
IW: That’s absolutely right! In fact, I was still playing with Billy Burnette when I did David’s album. It was David and this Rastafarian percussionist called Baboo, and myself. Jackson Browne produced the album. Along with the studio players, I think Garth Hudson played one track on saxophone, and it was wonderful! Rolling Stone called that one of the best albums of 1980, and it was. It was mainly reggae, but we did one track called “Mercury Blues,” which was a very fast, hard and heavy rock ‘n’ roll track. In fact, the recording technique we used on the drums blew up one of the consoles. We put the drums on a riser, with thick sheet metal on top of the riser, which reflected the sound. We put three microphones on the snare: one inside, one on top, and one under it; it was just this enormous sound—really great. We played really eclectic music—not only reggae but Turkish music, Irish jigs and reels. David’s into a lot of strange stuff. We stuck it out for quite a while. In fact, David just recorded another album, and as far as I know, I played on all the tracks.
RVH: That gig lasted quite a bit longer for you than any of the preceding ones. What was different about it?
IW: David treated us all so well. From what was his solo album, it became a band. He treated us all the same, paid us all well, split up the money, and put us all on a pension plan. He, of course, was the leader, and he had the final say on everything, but that was fine with me, because 1 was learning all the time. When David would work, I would work exclusively with David; the rest of the time I’d record in L.A., and do a few other things. For example, I did a tour with a guy named Jo-El Sonnier, who is a Cajun accordion player from Louisiana! That was something totally new I had never done before—a lot of waltzes and two-steps. Boy, that was fun. That was August of 1983—just around the time I did Bonnie Raitt’s album. A lot of these things overlap.
RVH: How would you describe what you did with Bonnie?
IW: I’d say rock and blues; later she got quite into new wave type rock ‘n’ roll. She’s a tremendous singer and a lovely lady. It was really sad that I had to leave Bonnie, but the reason was financial. Plus, I always wanted to play with Crosby, Stills & Nash. I mean, I’ve known Graham Nash for 20 years; in fact he produced a demo of the Warriors.
By the way, the lead singer in the Warriors had been Jon Anderson, and much later, 1 actually played one gig with Yes. Bill Bruford was Yes’s original drummer, but he decided to leave and go to university to become an accountant! They got another drummer, but he got himself into a bit of trouble, and they got stuck with a gig to do. We were all living in the same house at the time, and I had my own band. They asked me to play the gig with them, and I did. We had a great time. Then they asked me to join the band. They were just about to open for the Cream farewell tour, but I turned them down, because I had my own band and I really thought we could do something. What a fool, eh? But who’s to know? I really enjoyed playing with them, but there was a little thing called loyalty, which is not necessarily always a good thing. Did I tell you that I played with Foreigner, too?
IW: I did two months on the road with Foreigner, because Dennis, their drummer, broke his hand. Their road manager had done Alvin and Marriott, and he called me up in L.A. I wasn’t doing anything, so I flew out and the next day played the gig. They had just started the tour, and they held a band meeting to decide whether to have two drummers or not. I nearly was the second drummer in Foreigner.
RVH: With the exception of a gig like the Foreigner spot, where you knew ahead of time that you were filling in for a short period of time, you’ve had very many career and group changes. Did you approach each one with the attitude—or hope—that “This is going to be it for the next few years”? Or after two or three of those gigs lasted only a few months, did you start to approach them with a “We’ll take what comes” attitude?
IW: At first, I thought each one was going to be a long-term thing—particularly with Crimson. I was with that for about two years. But that fell apart because of a few things; the Alexis thing fell apart because he was getting on a bit and he decided he wanted to be home with his family. 1 left the Streetwalkers to join Alvin, because I thought he would be more lucrative. After that, I did start to get the attitude of “Who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow?” Now, of course, I haven’t been in a band for years. I am a journeyman musician—have gun, will travel.
RVH: You know, after all these gigs over so many years . . . how do I put this tactfully? You don’t seem to have had too much staying power in your career.
IW: Well, it’s not like I was ever fired from a gig. It’s just that the gigs often ceased to exist. For every group like the Stones who’ve stayed together for many years, there are hundreds who haven’t. Often an artist will put something together, cut an album, and then the corporate interests don’t get behind it, and the gig falls apart.
RVH: Well, now that we’ve talked about all these different groups that you’ve been in, let’s talk about the very abrupt musical style changes you’ve encountered from gig to gig. How have you gone about adapting your drumming style to these various situations?
IW: Basically, it was a case where the music itself was different, and 1 played what seemed appropriate to that music at that time, so the drumming sort of changed automatically. As I grew older, I found that, instead of wanting to be a technician, I wanted to play music. I wanted to feel and I wanted to make people feel. I discovered—and it took me years and years to discover—that the simpler, the better. And that’s why I now appreciate drummers like Charlie Watts and Ringo as much as drummers like Tony Williams and Steve Gadd. All the great drummers have got one thing in common, and that is that they play simply. A lot of drummers are able to play technically brilliant, but what makes their playing so great is the fact that they will play something simply—over the period of the musical number—that will have the rhythm, the flow, and the essence. Then when the right moment comes, they will put in this incredible break. If they put those incredible breaks in all the time, they wouldn’t have the rhythm and the flow. Also, it would be boring! I’ve heard that in the playing of drummers so many times— even drummers who people think are great. To me, they’re really boring because they’re just playing rubbish all the time; it’s just an ego trip. What they’re doing, in my opinion, has got nothing to do with what the rest of the musicians around them are doing. It’s a bit sad, really. So, after listening to all these different styles of music, I wanted to play them all. That’s basically it, really. I pride myself on the fact that I can play virtually any style of music and enjoy it.
RVH: Your career has been equal parts studio and touring. Do you consider yourself a studio drummer who tours, or a live drummer who can cut the studio?
IW: At the moment, I’m a live drummer who can cut the studio. I think, eventually, I would like it to be the other way around. I have a family life now; I’m very happy at home. Although if I spend too much time at home, I get itchy. Also I find that if I’m in the studio for too long a period of time, things tend to get a bit stale. I think that you need the thing that playing in front of an audience gives you: being able to create.
RVH: Do you miss the personal fame that comes from being a name drummer in a name band?
IW: Yeah! I’d love to be in that position, especially now, because I think I could handle it better. It would also give me a lot of room to be able to do stuff like Phil Collins does. Phil is able to do his own pro- jects, and sure, I’d love to be a sort of star.
RVH: You’d love to get in a band that would stay together for five years and really get something rolling?
IW: Yeah, if they could guarantee they were going to be famous . . . but God knows! [laughs] Honestly, though, it used to bother me tremendously. There was one point in my life where I wanted to be famous so badly that it hurt. But not really anymore, because I’ve had such a great life up till now. It still would be nice, though, because I’ve got a lot to say—musically and verbally—to young drummers. I’ve got a lot of opinions that I think are valid.
RVH: Now that you have the opportunity to be heard, what would you like to say?
IW: A couple of things. One thing I find very relevant pertains to letters you get in your magazine complaining about too many interviews with the technical drummers, or too many with the simpler drummers. I think that young drummers who write letters with those opinions, whether they be against the Charlie Watts and Ringo Starrs, or against the technicians like Neil Peart and Bill Bruford, should take some time out and listen. Any drum- mer—no matter who he or she may be— who’s been doing things and has gotten some kind of recognition, must have some- thing to say. Drummers today should listen to as much as they can and try to be as unbiased as possible. If they want to be great technicians, fine, but they should also listen to Charlie and Ringo, and how they play behind their bands—listen to the way they feel that kind of music and the way they make it flow.
At the same time, of course, drummers should listen to Buddy Rich, Steve Gadd or Neil Peart, because they’ve got to have technique. But to use it all the time is very unnecessary. It’s overplaying, and it sounds terrible. Playing drums basically means being part of a unit, not a unit in itself, and you have to be the piece that fits in with all the other pieces. If you’re going to have some knobby edges because you have to be technical, then you’re destroying the musical concept. It’s necessary to have technique, but it’s critical to know when and when not to use it, and that only comes with experience. A great example is Steve Gadd, because you can listen to him play the simplest things and yet he makes it sound wonderful. If drummers want to hear Steve do that, they should get the Stingray album by Joe Cocker. The band is wonderful, and they play so simply and so beautifully.
Buddy Rich is a wonderful, wonderful player, but he doesn’t flash out all the time. He plays that beat behind the band, and when he has that moment that’s his, then he takes off. The unfortunate thing is that young players only look at that moment; they don’t look at the whole. “Wow, a single-stroke roll with one hand!” Well, what about the majority of the time when he’s just playing the rhythm? As you get older and more musical, you begin to realize that technique is probably the least necessary thing in playing music, because music, after all, is sound. If you can make a sound that is musical and sounds good, I don’t think it’s got a lot to do with technique. B.B. King said, “All the great players are 75% art and 25% technique.” I’ve found that’s very true. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone who’s got no soul.
If drummers refuse to listen to another person because they don’t think he or she is good enough, or that he or she is too much, they are denying themselves the opportunity to learn a little bit more. You should study as many styles as you can, from a Texas shuffle to a Chicago blues, because there’s always something you can use. I could never have played all the different gigs I’ve had if I hadn’t been able to listen, and pick up different styles along the way.
Another point I’d like to emphasize is the fundamental role of timekeeping. Even if you do study the great technicians and can play fills like Peart or Cobham, what’s the point if you can’t keep time? 1 know a lot of very famous drummers who are technically brilliant but can’t keep time to save their lives. It’s so sad. They’re very rich and famous, but I’d much sooner be me than them.
RVH: In this long and checkered career of yours, you have played behind vocalists, behind name instrumentalists, and with at least one instrumental band. Is there any one particular element of drumming that you think applies in all of these situations?
IW: Well, drumming is basically accompaniment. Obviously, the drummer’s job is to provide the rhythm—the meter. Dynamics are also very important, especially behind vocalists. It’s no use playing loud or in a florid style if it should go down as a quiet bit. I think dynamics are very, very important and especially effective, particularly if you’re playing a loud piece and it goes very suddenly into a quiet section. If you can execute that, then it amplifies the emotional intensity of the piece you’re playing. The vocal and the structure of the song are basically what you should play for and listen to. When I learn stuff, I don’t learn the drums; I learn the structure of the song. I think that’s very important.
RVH: For those who are interested in equipment, please run down your kit, including drums and cymbals.
IW: At the moment I’m using a Yamaha kit. I’ve endorsed them since I went to Japan with Dylan in ’78. The kit is a Recording Custom Series, sometimes in black but generally a white kit. The sizes are 13″, 14″ and 16″ toms, all standard depths; a 22″ bass drum, and either a metal 7 1/2″ snare drum or a 5 1/2″ hammered-cop- per Ludwig. I use the DW-5000 chain- drive pedal, and all the rest of the hard- ware is Yamaha. I also endorse Paiste, and the cymbals include 14″ Rude hi-hats, two 18″ 2002 crashes, a 22″ 2002 ride, and a 22″ China type. At the moment, I’m using three Simmons pads with the SDS7 brain and the selector pad that changes the set- tings at the touch of a stick, and two old Synare timpani, which are wired into the Simmons pads. There are also two Yamaha timbales on the kit, which are 14″ and 15″. I occasionally use a set of Dragon Drums, the long acrylic high-pitched toms. My sticks are Bunken 2Bs. One of the reasons for that is that they’re quite light for a large stick. I have a very large hand, and the Bunken 2Bs, to me, are like a 5B in any- one else’s hand. I used to use Regal Tip 5Bs, and I’d always get these terrible blisters. But since I’ve been using the 2Bs, I’ve got hands as soft as my face; I don’t have any callouses, and I play very hard. It’s a question of using the right stick for the job.
RVH: What about heads?
IW: On all the toms, top and bottom, there are clear Ambassadors, and the snare drum gets a frosted Ambassador batter head and the standard snare side head. The kick drum gets a clear Emperor, and I use a wooden beater and a piece of moleskin.
RVH: What do you like to hear in your monitors on stage with CS&N?
IW: The monitor mix is snare drum, kick, and vocals, basically. I get enough onstage music sound from the amps generally, even though I’m above and behind them a bit. I have very good hearing for a drum- mer, which is amazing considering the abuse my ears have taken over the years. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had the minimum put in my monitors.
RVH: You’ve been touring since you were 17, and you’re 38 now. How do you deal with the rigors of playing a gig, hopping on a bus and driving 12 hours to the next location?
IW: I do Aikido; when I’m at home I go to the Dojo every day, and I’m very good at it. That’s basically how I keep in good shape, along with the playing itself. Diet is also very important. I’m not a strict vegetarian but I do think that eating a lot of red meat does slow you down. Basically, you’ve just got to keep in control. If you drink, don’t drink too much. I used to drink a hell of a lot, and I used to pay for it, too. As you get older, you can’t do the things that you used to do, and I’m so glad that you can’t! Basically, 1 think if you’ve got a good attitude, then you keep your health. If you’ve got a bad attitude, you open yourself up for all kinds of sicknesses. Of course, it’s really difficult to get enough rest on a tour like this, because after you come off the gig and you’re feeling really good, you want to party! You want to hang out with the lads and have a laugh, and that’s the dangerous part. I’ve seen a lot of musicians who just never go to bed! They look terrible, and they feel terrible.
RVH: You’re coming to the end of a gruel- ing tour. How do you maintain your desire to go up and play the gig? Are there nights when you don’t want to?
IW: Oh, yeah! When you’re playing gigs night after night, there have to be those nights, and anybody who says different is lying. But it’s very seldom that I play a gig when I’m not into it, and generally when that does happen, it’s got something to do with the sound being atrocious.
When I was younger, I used to get really nervous; sometimes I’d throw up before a gig. Now, sometimes, before a gig, if it’s been pretty hard that week, instead of being nervous I’ll sit on the couch, yawn, and say to myself, “I wish I could go to sleep right now.” I would give anything— at that moment—not to have to play that night. But as soon as I get on the drums, it’s forgotten.
RVH: Does the size of the venue or the crowd size make any difference to you?
IW: Not at all. I’ve had some of my greatest moments playing in front of ten people—moments as great as playing in front of 500,000 people, and I’ve done both.
RVH: How about physically? Is a larger hall more work?
IW: Physically, yeah. When you’re play- ing in a club, you play dynamically to what’s going on around you; if you’re playing in a big arena and playing louder music, you’ve got to play heavier.
When I first started playing drums, the P. A. was two sets of four 10″ speakers and a 100-watt amp. And in those days, that was considered loud! Of course, you didn’t mike the drums or the instruments. Then it just got more and more and more, until now it’s like megadeath. I play physically to what feels right, and I’d say each gig is just about as hard as the next one, no matter what type of music I’m playing. They’re all physically demanding in some respect.
RVH: If the size of the venue doesn’t matter much to you, how about the size of the crowd, in terms of energy feedback? Do you relate to the crowd at all?
IW: On this tour, some nights, the audience will be absolutely crazy—collectively. Maybe it’s because CS&N have become legends or something. Most of the audiences we’re seeing are young kids, and yet they know all the songs. A lot of these people can’t have even been born when Woodstock happened. It’s wonderful, and I think it does affect the performance. Apart from that, I very seldom look at the crowd. Occasionally I’ll look into the audience to see if there’s a pretty face out there, but most of the time I’m looking at “the money”—the artist—because you never know what they’re going to do.
I’ll tell you a funny story that happened about a month ago. We do a tune by Graham Nash called “Winchester Cathedral.” It opens with a tremendously powerful church-organ solo that ends on this huge chord. Then Graham comes in very delicately with his vocal: “Six o’clock, in the morning—feel pretty good . . . etc.” Well, on this particular night the chord ended: Duuuuhhhhhhhnnnnn!!!! And we heard: “A wop bop a loo bop, a wop bam boom!” Graham! Everybody fell to pieces; Crosby literally fell over laughing. And then, three nights ago, Graham opened the number normally, and got to the line “Fighting dragons and fighting swords.” When he said, “swords,” Crosby and Stills came out with real swords—fencing! And Graham cracked up! We do have a bit of fun on this gig.
RVH: Can you summarize your philosophy of playing drums, based on the experience you’ve gained from the many gigs you’ve played and the wide variety of artists you’ve played for?
IW: Basically, play as simple as possible. Play what they want. I don’t think there are really any rules; just keep the time as steady and as flowing as possible, keep the backbeat happening, and keep the customer satisfied—all the time.
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