Mention Steve Schaeffer around L.A. and you will probably hear comments such as these:
Patty Fidelibus (Contractor, Warner Bros.): “Steve makes me feel very safe. If we have a 2:00 downbeat, at 1:30, Steve is already there, set up, ready to go, and totally involved in that project. You have 150% of him. He has a tremendous ability to put himself in a composer’s shoes, knowing what that composer wants from him musically. At the same time, he has the ability to read something else into it and maybe develop something that he feels the composer isn’t able to communicate.”
Pat Williams (Composer): “I’ve used Steve for quite some time. When I met him, he was playing in A Chorus Line, and I’ve watched him develop into a really state-of-the-art studio drummer. I think Steve combines a very eloquent variety of abilities. He’s very bright, he’s an extremely good musician, he’s got terrific ears, and he’s very well informed about all the high-tech stuff.”
Mike Lang (Keyboards): “I think one of Steve’s rather unique aspects is his incredible ability to read any situation in terms of what his contribution may be. No matter what the requirements in terms of equipment, sound, approach or style, he’s very adept at figuring out exactly what would be the most appropriate thing to do at any given moment.”
Chuck Domonico (Bass player): “When I walk into a job and I see Steve there, I say, ‘Well, that part of it’s covered. ‘On every job you walk into, it can always be a terror. When there’s terror involved, you want to see certain people around you because there will be a lot less problems. We have magic together. Whenever there’s a situation where one of us knows more about what’s happening than the other, it takes about a half second to communicate it to the other.”
Bill Conti (Composer): “It’s easy to say he’s a good drummer and a good percussionist, but he brings more to a project. In a town like L.A., there are many people who are good, but I don’t think anybody works harder at trying to please than Steve. This business is based on smiles. I’ve got to make a director smile. I can do what I think is very good, but if the director is not smiling, it won’t even be in the movie. Steve understands that. He’s got to make me smile, so we’re all going after the same thing. Those energies that don’t have anything to do with music are the most important. Of course he’s a great drummer; if there’s something new, he’s got it and there isn’t any kind of music that he cannot play. After all that is taken for granted, he will not stop trying to get the same kind of smile that I’m looking for from the director. It’s, ‘Should we try this; should we try that? Are you happy? Are you smiling?’ And if I’m not, he really cares.”
Dan Wallin (Engineer): “You need a lot of communication and cooperation in order to get the sound they want today, especially when you’re dealing with all the electronics. Steve is real dedicated. He always comes in early enough for me to get the Simmons and the rack all plugged in, and to gel the sound on the acoustic drums. Steve happens to be one of my personal favorites simply because he is so helpful to me all the time.”
Neil Stubenhaus (Bass player): “The reason Steve is the number-one call for all motion picture and TV dates is that, on top of the fact that he’s a great player, he probably cares more than most people about everybody being pleased. That’s what makes it easy to work with him on a date. He knows how to interpret every composer.”
What made the above comments especially interesting to me was the fact that I spoke with those industry people totally independently from my interview with Steve Schaeffer. They didn’t know what he had spoken to me about, and he did not know about their comments. Yet, their statements mirrored his. What that says to me is that Steve Schaeffer knows exactly what is needed in the area of TV and film recording, and contractors, engineers, composers and players know that Steve is the one to give it to them.
Certainly, the amount of work Steve does reveals his expertise, but it wasn’t always that way. Steve lived in L.A. seven years before he had any luck with the film recording scene. However, he had done very well for himself in New York. As a youngster, Steve took lessons on both piano and drums. By 15, he had done his first jingle and was playing in the Catskills during summer vacation. He got a job in the Half Note’s house band at age 17 with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, working opposite John Coltrane (with Elvin Jones) at times. A couple of years later, he got a job with Doc Severinson, and then with Robert Goulet.
Simultaneously, Schaeffer was always studying. He began lessons with Stanley Krell at age 12 1/2, which continued throughout high school. He then attended Hunter College and, at the same time, studied percussion with Morris Goldenberg, who was affiliated with Juilliard. He enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music and also studied with Hall Overton until he was 21, at which time he worked with Sarah Vaughan for three years, followed by Leslie Uggams, and Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass (the second incarnation). When he moved to L.A. to pursue a broader recording career, he worked in a variety of musical situations, as well as taking a job as a music copyist to help support himself through the lean years.
Although his love of recording was immense, he never imagined himself a studio musician while he was growing up. “I wanted to be an innovative musician,” he recalls. “I did not predict that I would become a Hollywood studio musician. That was the furthest thing from my mind.”
Steve believes that experience makes a good studio musician, and relates that, when he taught at Cal State Northridge a few years ago, he had an eye-opening experience: “I had a preliminary meeting with these kids, and all but one wanted to be studio musicians. We sat around a table and I said, ‘That’s great, but you can’t expect to go from college into being a studio musician.’ I asked them if they d be interested in playing a show, but the answer was, ‘No, we don’t want to play shows; we want to play in the studios. ‘I asked, ‘What if an act called you to go on the road?’ They said, ‘No, we don’t want to do that.’ All of a sudden, it seems to be a fad to want to be a studio musician, because somehow the monetary thing has outweighed the musical thing. That makes me mad because that’s not what it’s about.”
And what it’s about is not always glamour. As Steve points out, drummers in his position do not always get the recognition due them. Even though Steve does a major portion of the film and TV drumming we hear, he still remains anonymous; film and TV credits, as well as soundtracks, don’t list the musicians. In fact, it’s possible that you didn’t even know about Steve Schaeffer before today.
So who is this “masked man”? Aside from all of the kudos spouted above by the prominent figures of the TV and film industry, he’s conscientious, caring, warm and most pleased to take off his mask.
RF: How did you finally get your break in L.A.?
SS: I was working out here, trying to meet people, and an interesting thing happened. I would call people to introduce myself and they would want to hear me play. But I didn’t have a job where they could hear me play, so they couldn’t recommend me. It was the old Catch-22 situation, which I understand so well because I get calls from people and I’m put into the same situation. So I kept going out on the road and back to New York. An ironic thing happened on one trip. I was with Michael Franks, who was promoting his Art Of Tea album. We were working two shows a night at the Bottom Line in New York. I went out on a break and ran into this guy named Bobby Thomas, who was the original drummer on Promises Promises, and also the drummer on The David Frost Show in New York. He said, “I thought you lived in California.” And I said, “I do.” He told me that he had become the musical coordinator for the show A Chorus Line and that they were looking for somebody who had Broadway experience to do the show in California. So he said, “You’d be perfect for the situation. Would you sign a run-of-the-show contract?” And I said, “Certainly.” I was staying at my folks’ house in New York. Marvin Hamlisch called me there and we set it up. I agreed to do a two-week stint in San Francisco, where they were breaking in some new people, and then come to Los Angeles. That was 1976 and I took the show, which ran two full years. During the period of that show, things started happening for me. The irony is that I got the show when I was touring in New York, and the drummers who were living here in L.A. didn’t get it. There were a lot of drummers here who had the experience, but psychologically the people in New York wanted a New York musician. There’s always been this East/West thing, so I got the break by being a displaced New Yorker.
A lot of people came down to see that show, and the drums were featured throughout. I played nonstop for a couple of hours with all these dance montages and pieces. I stayed pretty close to what I had to do, but I was creative enough and the sound was so good that some of the composers who came to see the show with their families heard me and inquired as to who was playing drums. I got some breaks that way. The contractor, Stan Fishelson, understood the business, so when somebody called me, he allowed me to take off. He knew the show would come to an end at some point. He was unbelievable because he made it possible for me to work other jobs that would have conflicted with the show. So by the time the show ended, I was doing a couple of regular TV shows.
RF: Even as a young person, did you know you wanted to record?
SS: Oh yeah. I used to play along with records when I first started playing in our basement in Queens, New York. I would put the record on one side of the tape, then set up a small microphone and tape myself on the other side of the tape, so I could hear myself playing along with the record. I always wanted to sound good. When I recorded myself, I could really look at myself under a magnifying glass, and get to hear it from a perspective other than sitting behind the drums. I could be real critical of what I was doing, and I could analyze what I was doing. I would tape it over and over again until I found things I liked to hear. Whenever I played with a group or something, we would always tape what we did and compare it to the record. The kids I grew up with always wanted to be as good as the records we heard. I’d record myself practicing and listen to it for hours. Then I would try to figure out what I liked about it and what I didn’t like about it.
RF: What kinds of shortcomings did you see that you had to work on?
SS: Basically, you never get used to hearing yourself talk or play on tape, because you never really think you sound like that when you speak or play. The sound was real important to me—the articulation and how even it was. So I got one of the first multi-track recorders, and I talked to engineers right away. I found out that, if I played the bass drum, I had to make sure that needle always hit the same spot every time that I hit it. I had to think about that while I was playing, until it became natural and I didn’t have to think about it.
RF: How do you work on something like that?
SS: I taped it and watched the meter. The bass drum would get softer somewhere in the 20th bar, because I’d be concentrating on my hands as opposed to my feet. I’d play that passage over and over again, and re-record it. When it was at the standard where I liked it, it became automatic. I’d practice maintaining that while I played from a rudimental snare drum book. I wanted to make my foot automatic, so it would always play evenly. I did the same thing with my hands, so that one crash wouldn’t be ten times louder and I’d ruin a take. Without knowing it, I was already preparing myself for the studio. Everything was mixed into one channel. I was trying to balance myself with a band and also trying to make everything sound even, so that 1 wouldn’t have to go back and do it over.
RF: What about working on time?
SS: I’ve always played with records. You can’t make somebody who has bad time have good time. You can’t make somebody feel a beat who can’t feel a beat. There are great technical players who don’t have very good time. Probably one of the premier prerequisites for working in the studio is being able to play with click tracks that are regular metronome tracks, or variable tracks to sync up to film.
You can work with a metronome to help your time, but I associate time and feel as one thing. You can play real metronomic, but if you don’t have feel, it’s not good time. It has to have a certain kind of elastic quality within the evenness. If it’s just even, it can be metronomic and stiff, and that’s not good. I don’t think you can teach somebody how to feel good with a metronome, or feel good in a certain kind of musical context. If you take somebody who has good time, can play evenly, and also feel good, then you can develop it to a keener point, but you have to have a certain amount of natural ability to start with.
RF: Do you recall any of the drummers you were playing along with as a youngster?
SS: Sure. There was a guy who just killed me the first time I heard him. When I was in high school, it wasn’t a big deal for me to go into New York. I used to cut out of school with some of the other musicians and we would go into Birdland to see the groups rehearsing there in the afternoon, or I’d go into the “Peanut Gallery” where they didn’t sell liquor. I saw Philly Joe Jones, who was the consummate showman. His feel was just beyond comprehension. I had never heard anybody play the drums like that. There were a few others I loved tremendously, but he was magic. There wasn’t a jazz record he was on that I didn’t buy, including the most obscure. I set up a mirror in front of my drums, and I would have given half of my torso to know what it felt like to play like that guy.
My feeling about drummers has changed as my career has changed. When I was much younger, my favorite drummers were Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes and a very little-known drummer by today’s standards, Pete LaRocca.
Then there were some big band drummers I loved playing along with—people like Sol Gubin and Buddy Rich, of course. There was a band out here—the Terry Gibbs Big Band that Mel Lewis had been playing with—and there was a record called Explosion. I transcribed every drum part on that record, because there was something special about the way Mel played with that band. I learned from every one of the records I would play along with. If the records rushed or dragged a little, I memorized those spots. I wasn’t even realizing how it was preparing me for today. When I hear a variable click track, it’s just like playing along with those records.
Of my contemporaries, I have to say that Jeff Porcaro is my favorite rock ‘n’ roll drummer. I just think that he has the best feel, by far. I love Steve Gadd, Jim Keltner, Vinnie Colaiuta, and a drummer back East named Alan Schwartzberg, who is very underrated but a tremendous musician. I know I’m forgetting a zillion drummers, so my apologies to those I’ve overlooked.
RF: You mentioned a variable click a minute ago. Can you explain that?
SS: A variable click is one that changes tempo. It could be one set tempo to another set tempo, or it could be three bars slowed down, four bars sped up, or two beats sped up. Something in it varies. A regular click track is a metronome that’s even; a variable click track is one that changes. It’s used in film where there will be a scene of, say, a high school marching band. They will film it, but those people are not in the union, so we have to sound like them. While they’re marching along, if their steps slow down a drop, it sounds ridiculous if the music is out of step, so they build a track on the film. They punch holes on every footstep, and when that film is run, the holes in the film produce this pop sound that becomes the click. The first footstep could take five frames, but by the time it goes to the second step, it could be seven-and-a-half frames. To match up to that creates a whole different set of circumstances. So not only do you have to play the music with good feel, but you have to memorize those little idiosyncrasies: Where do you slow down and where do you speed up?
RF: In a session when you have something like that, how much rehearsal time is there?
SS: It depends. What they would like to do is one run-through and a take. But it depends on the complexity. If it is real complicated where the click is changing meter, they might dedicate an hour for that cue, especially in the case of a big feature with a budget. In a television film where that also takes place, if there’s 15-minutes worth of music that has to be done in three hours, that’s the way it is. You’re under the gun to make a take. Lots of times we make takes without a rehearsal, providing the band is not changing and the sounds are pretty much the same.
RF: Do you remember the very first time you played with a click?
SS: [Laughs] Unfortunately, yes I do. It’s a sad and humorous story at the same time. I wasn’t getting the click where I was, and I wasn’t aware that there was a click. I was watching the conductor, so everybody thought I had terrible time. I’ve worked for this guy since, but it was an interesting situation at the time. It was resolved.
It’s nerve-racking because there’s not enough time for you to get the balance you really want. A drummer’s needs are different than a violin player’s needs. A violin player just wants to hear the click without the orchestra or band. The drummer really needs to hear everything. You’re isolated, of course, and you need to hear the other parts of the rhythm section, but you need to hear the click a little louder than maybe somebody else does, because the sounds of the drums cancel out the click.
It takes time to get used to. I don’t work with a click all the time, but I would say 90% of the time I do. Of course, a lot of the orchestral stuff I do is conducted, so the conductor can slow down and speed up without having variable clicks, and put expression into it.
RF: How do you feel about isolation booths?
SS: I don’t particularly like them, because you’re limited to hearing only what you’re sent in a cue mix from the engineer. There are certain things that are not even heard from other musicians. I don’t like them, but they’re a necessary evil. It’s possible not to have to be in an isolation booth on certain stages when I use certain electronic instruments, because there’s not as much leakage from a Simmons pad as there would be from a drum. But it’s just something I accept.
RF: Aside from the variable click tracks, are there any technical aspects of what you do in the film area that are unique to the recording situation?
SS: The actual underscoring dates where there is a big orchestra is where it is different than a small record-type studio. The difficulties that arise have to do with the openness of the studio, and the volume you have to sometimes play at so that there’s not as much leakage of the drums into the string mic’s—things like that. In essence, you have to play with the same intensity that you would play with if you were playing full out, but at a much lower volume level. As every drummer knows, playing at a high-intensity level at low volume is one of the most difficult things to do. It requires a lot of technical discipline.
RF: Can you tell me what communication is like with the composers and engineers?
SS: That is really two separate issues, but combined, they make a major part of the pie of your career. If you show up on a job, it’s automatically assumed that you’re a good player. Now comes a whole other issue. You have a composer who usually is the conductor. You’re given a piece of music, and you know there isn’t a lot of time to talk to this person about it because there are a lot of other people in the room, and there are 15 or 20 other pieces of music you have to play in a three-hour time period. I really try to get into the person’s head. If it’s somebody I haven’t worked for and I have the time, I’ll do some research. If I get called for a weekly TV series, I’ll make it a point to tape the show so I can listen to what has gone on. Sometimes the music changes, but at least I get to hear an essence of this composer, so I have some way to tune in my intuitive self. I try to get inside the composer’s head to figure out what it is this person is trying to put down on paper. I’ll look at the music, and go one step further by trying to play what I think this person is hearing. I think that’s probably one of my best gifts. If I have to praise myself for something, I have a sixth sense about hitting something real fast that somebody had in mind without playing just notes on paper. It’s real hard just to look at a paper and figure out a feel. I’ve been really fortunate that that works. Once I can get the right feel, then the notes will come easy.
RF: What if something that is written just isn’t working?
SS: Then I’ll say, “That just doesn’t feel right to me.” You can play the same thing 50 different ways. It could be a certain sound. At this point in time, because I have a decent reputation, I can take certain liberties that someone else can’t. When I have felt strongly enough, I’ve even gone as far as to suggest what it should be. In the initial stages of working for a particular person, that’s a really touchy situation, because you want to do good and you want to play what this person has in mind. You don’t know the person and there are a million ways you can go. It’s a crap shoot a lot of the time.
I would say that 99% of the time, the rhythm sections are all handpicked, so that when composers write something, they won’t have to start dealing with communication problems. Composers want to go in and know that the musicians are pretty much going to know what to do for them, that the job is going to get done, and that they’re going to have a piece of work that represents what they’re thinking about.
Now you come to the other aspect—the sound—which is almost a separate question, but it’s very related. The sound is so important to the way something feels. If you’re in a situation where the composer wants to hear heavy metal, and you have an engineer who is a really good, legit engineer but who knows nothing about heavy metal, how are you going to communicate that? No matter what you play, it’s not going to come off that way. So another thing that has worked for me is my ability as a salesman. That’s part of the business that everybody likes to overlook. I don’t care what field you’re in, though; that exists and it’s equally important in creative fields. The music and what the player plays like is the most important thing, but the communication is crucial. The first time I brought electronic drums in, I was throwing something new at an engineer and if I hadn’t been able to make him want to know about that, it could have sounded like the worst thing you’ve ever heard in your life. There are technical things involved that the engineers have to deal with, so communication is key. I have to know what they like. I have three different drumsets that I use, and if I know an engineer prefers one, even if I feel a different setup is applicable for a composer, I have to please that engineer too. I compromise a lot. I win in the long run, because I can go in and talk about something if I’m not hearing it the way I want to. Instead of assaulting engineers, which a lot of drummers are accused of doing, I try to do everything possible to make their jobs easier. I show up at my jobs a half an hour early to get a sound, so when the downbeat comes, I’m ready. Then I can just worry about the music. I’ve been criticized for it by some musicians who say, “Hey, they’re not paying for that time. Let the company pay for it if they’re concerned about the sound.” But I’m concerned about having a good drum sound, and I know they’re not going to pay for it.
RF: What about the politics of the industry?
SS: Yeah, there is politics, no matter how you want to look at it. I used to sit around with a lot of musicians when I couldn’t get a job. We were all bitter, because we were good players and we thought, “Why can’t I have a piece of that? I just want an opportunity.” We were angry at all the people who dominated the scene. An interesting thing happened when I started working: All of a sudden, the same people I hung out with didn’t want to talk to me. They needed somebody to hate. I think everybody gets an opportunity. If someone doesn’t, there’s a reason. Attitude has a lot to do with it. I don’t know one person who hasn’t gotten an opportunity at some time or another. It really takes determination. If somebody is that determined to get somewhere, there’s a way. I know some really good drummers who would like to play in the studio, but they’re not willing to do what it takes. It’s not that they want it any less, but they don’t have the ability to deal with the rejection. Nobody wants the rejection. There are those who can deal with it and who you may think are less sensitive people, but they’re not. They’re just so determined that they have a way of dealing with that abuse. I didn’t work for seven years in this town, so what happened? It wasn’t any miracle. I did not stop and nobody did it for me, so I’m adamant that it can be done. You know, two people can walk in for the same gig who are equal players, but only one person is going to get the job. It could be just the charisma of that person. You can work on those things like communication. I know a lot of people who are just oblivious to that aspect. They think about the music four-million hours a day, but the one thing they don’t think about is, “How can I project myself as being a desirable person to have on a job?”
RF: Let’s talk about your equipment. You’re doing things that have not been done before.
SS: I’ll give you an example. Yesterday and the day before I worked on a feature with a composer named Lee Holdridge, who I’ve also worked with on records. He’s a wonderful writer, and he wrote this score for the movie Sylvester. For that, there was a big orchestra on the stage of the Burbank Studios and I had an acoustic drumset set up. I triggered part of the drumset, had some Simmons pads and a Linn machine and this rack, affectionately known as “Robbie.” This rack was designed with my help by Don Walker, who has a company called Underscore. He had been involved with some very heavy synthesizer players and has helped devise a way for them to make their lives a little easier.
The consoles that an engineer works from have just so many inputs for microphones. On this date, we used a brand new Mitsubishi 32-track digital machine, but since there are more inputs than there are actual tracks, the tracks have to be combined. By the time it comes down to the drums, if there are 75 musicians plus myself, they allow me two tracks for everything I’m doing. I have an acoustic drumset, four Simmons drums, and a LinnDrum with probably nine sounds that I’m using. Nine and four is thirteen, and the drumset—which is snare, hi-hat, two overheads and bass drum—makes 18 separate feeds that I have to send to the mixer. But the mixer only has two inputs for me. Enter Don Walker, Underscore, and Vince Gutman, Marc Electronics. Vince builds triggering systems so a drummer can play an acoustic snare drum and get a Simmons sound. Regular recording studios are geared for that. But go on a soundstage that has a different situation coming in every three hours, and nothing is geared for that. In order for me to do what I want to do creatively, I have to bring in my own gear. So I come in with a 48″ x 12″ mixer built into my own rack. The LinnDrum goes into my rack. I mix the levels and pan them. I also take my Simmons inputs into this rack. I literally become my own engineer. Then I set up all these parameter problems. The Linn is playing, but I want to add things that also go into the Linn. I need a special triggering device which will trigger from my drums. It will also trigger the Linn and the Simmons. It gets bananas. It looks like a zoo of wires. I have to have ways of setting all of this up within five minutes, because I’m coming from another job and that’s all the time I have. So I spend every spare minute making long-distance phone calls to help figure out ways. If I create a situation which is not feasible, I have to call somebody and say, “How will I be able to do this?” Every studio is slightly different and needs something different from me, so I have to constantly come up with these solutions.
The other day, I had to play all kinds of electronic synth effects, my drums, and the Simmons, all at the same time, and the Linn was programmed. I had to have them send me the click, because while normally the drum machine is turned on and the band plays to the drum, in film we have to match the film. So I have to have a separate click sent to me. It goes into my Doctor Click, which then feeds my programmed LinnDrum. Because it’s a click going through all these microprocessors, it’s going to sound like it’s late to the band. Then I have to send another click back to the engineer, which he sends to the band so that it’s in time with everything. It wouldn’t be possible for me to attempt to do the kind of triggering trip that I’m on—playing one thing and getting 14 other sounds—without this system. Vince Gutman is responsible for the triggering system that I’m using now. It’s not feasible to play three things at the same time without this system. I can get three drum sounds at once. In order for me to have all these sounds, that’s where Don Walker enters. Don developed this rack system for me, which enables me to take all the outputs from the Linn and the Simmons and have them come out stereo. I can literally take 30 outputs of different things and mix them down.
I had to do that on Romancing The Stone. I had two LinnDrums, each of which has 15 outputs. But they had a big orchestra, so where are they going to put 30 tracks of separate drums? They needed to give me a separate console, or I needed the rack. At this point in time, I have a total dependency on my cartage company and on people like Don and Vince. It wouldn’t be possible for me to do the kinds of things that I’m attempting to do without having these people.
RF: What does all of this equipment cost?
SS: All this equipment is custom and it had to be modified. You pay technicians anywhere from $35 to $50 an hour to work on your stuff. When I first put the rack together, we had to buy pieces of equipment and try to modify them so they would do what I wanted. Don could spend 15 hours and then say, “No, this is not working.” Well, multiply $35 times 15, plus the price of the piece of equipment which might be $500. Plus there’s the labor of all the wiring because I have a 240-point patch bay on the back end of this thing, and it’s roughly $25 to $30 per cord. I would say the rack in it’s first stage was $25,000.
The unfortunate thing is that, if somebody so talented moved here and wanted to get involved, it would cost a lot of money. I also have to play percussion on a lot of calls so I own a lot of percussion instruments. If you think of the cost of six timps, vibes, marimba, xylophone, orchestra bells, a complete set of sound effects, plus two drumsets and $30,000 of electronics, how are you going to bankroll it? I was working while I bought each piece of equipment, so I had the money to do this. But if somebody came here out of school and had no money, it would be impossible. A drummer is going to need close to $50,000 to compete. We’re not talking about just buying a Simmons set for $5,000, because that’s not enough.
RF: How do you deal with equipment breakdowns?
SS: With my regular, nonelectrical equipment, I always carry extra heads, two bass drum pedals, two hi-hat pedals, an array of snare drums, and the cartage company is a phone call away. With the electronic equipment, since it would be prohibitive for me to have two complete setups, I have a backup system I take with me that will get me through an emergency. I have a second Simmons brain in case that goes bad, and I have pieces of equipment that can function if one of the main pieces goes down. I have had malfunctions and had to abort the electronics on occasion, but there’s nothing I can do about that. I have to be mentally prepared for that to happen, because when you’re working with electronic equipment, there’s always the possibility of a breakdown. It’s getting harder to avoid because the stuff is becoming more technical. I also spend my evenings and weekends reading manuals. Sometimes, though, I find it easier to have somebody I can take with me, which is again costly, but I have no alternative. I want to concentrate on the music and make the best contribution I can without having to worry about something malfunctioning.
I think the idea is to maintain all your equipment. I do. I spend extra time with it, and I don’t cut any costs or corners. I make sure I have the best possible stuff that’s been tried and tested, and I pay for tune-ups. I pay Don to go through my equipment regularly, check every single output with meters, and make any adjustments. I leave the stuff with him periodically so he can make changes. That’s the best I can do.
RF: When do you find out what they’re going to want at a session?
SS: That involves the other aspect of Los Angeles studio life, which is the answering service. Here’s the whole sequence: A leader like Lee Holdridge gets called to do a motion picture. He discusses the concept with the head of the music department and that person okays a certain thing—enter the contractor. There’s going to be a 70-piece orchestra, so Lee Holdridge then specifies who he wants as his concertmaster, who he wants in the string section, and then goes down an entire list of who is going to be called. The contractor then has to call 70 musicians. Let’s say there are four different projects going on at Warner Brothers that this contractor is working on, Lee Holdridge has three different dates, and each day is a different size orchestra and a different time start. It would be impossible to call people at home and reach their machines to tell them to call. So the contractors affiliate with a particular answering service. There are three main services in this town: Dateline, CAMS and Tiger. All the musicians are affiliated with an answering service. The contractor gives a complete list to the service, and the service starts calling these musicians or leaves messages: “Please call Dateline regarding new work . . . .” The musicians get the message and call back the answering service. Then the service says, “Steve, we want to find out if you’re available for January 5 at 2:00 P.M. at Warner Brothers for Lee Holdridge and Patty Fidelibus.” And you say yes or no. If you say no, they go on to an alternative. I never know if somebody else was already called. They purposely do it that way so egos are not affected. Then the copying department will call the contractor and say, “Bring vibes, timpani, bells, drumset, two concert tom-toms, suspended cymbal . . .” They give you a complete list. The copyist at the studio gets the musical scores and goes through them to make a list of what instruments are needed. Given five, 70-piece orchestras for one day, there are 350 musicians working and it can get very complicated.
RF: How much percussion does somebody who does what you do have to know?
SS: Quite a bit. Even if I play 90% on the drums, just to be able to go out and do some of the orchestral cues is important. If you can’t, you’re just wasted there. From the dollars-and-cents point of view, you’re more viable if they can use you in more areas. But then on certain pictures, if you’re too versatile at anything, it can work against you. Everybody wants a person who does that specific thing the best. So if they want a rock ‘n’ roll track, they’re going to think, “Who is the best rock ‘n’ roll drummer I know who can play that style? ” If it’s for one specific thing, it’s human nature for people to want the specialist. Anybody who does a lot of things well is not going to be thought of as being as good as a specialist.
I had to make the decision a long time ago as to how I was going to deal. If I wanted to be a specialist, then I couldn’t be known as “Mr. Versatility,” but if I wanted to work every day, make a good living and not go back out on the road again, then I had to look at it as a business. I hate to have to do that, but it’s really an important part of the way things work. I got involved with music because I love music. I didn’t think about the fact that I wouldn’t make as much money as a doctor. I didn’t care. My family did, but I didn’t. I did it because I loved it and I still love it. But there comes a time when you have to make a decision. I enjoyed playing in an orchestra. I got a chance to play in the film area, which was different music every day—totally varied. Psychologically, what used to affect me was, when I played with one band and something happened with the personnel in the band—which was always the case—the band broke up or something really horrible happened. There I was again, unemployed or feeling really weird vibes, so I decided, “I want to get to a point where, if a relationship for some reason goes bad, I’m not dependent on one person.” I imagine everyone would like that.
RF: What made you feel that you didn’t want to go back on the road?
SS: I spent 12 years on the road—three planes a week. I could give you a whole interview on the fun part of the road. It’s Disneyland. There’s no reality except for the job. The whole day is your own, you have no responsibilities except to the job, and you don’t have to worry about anything. But the end result is that it didn’t mean anything in the big scheme of things. It didn’t establish any security, because the day the tour ended, I was back in an apartment figuring out what the heck I was going to do now, dealing with the realities, and not having any kind of real life. Room service became the life, but that’s not reality. I remember sitting in a hotel room and thinking, “I want the rest of my life, other than music, to have some meaning. Right now I’m living for the performances, but the rest of the contributions that I need to make for myself are being stifled. I’d like to be in one place and play good music—different music—all the time.” I wanted everything. I feel that I’m the luckiest guy in the world because that’s what I do.
RF: Do you miss the audiences?
SS: Yeah, I guess I do. I get off on that. You really get up for those kinds of things, but now I get up for the other musicians that I’m playing with. When the time comes where I miss it enough, I’ll do it.
RF: Can you think of specific sessions that were particularly creative, difficult, or fun to do?
SS: I’ve worked with a composer named James Horner for a while now, and he’s innovative in a lot of ways. On the movie 48 Hours, he used a real unusual combination of percussion things. I had Linn, Simmons and acoustic drums. 1 was in a drum booth on the stage at Paramount Studios, which is now called Stage M. Danny Wallin, who is one of the premier engineers in the film industry, was the engineer. From San Francisco they had flown in Andy Narrell, who plays steel drums like Gary Burton plays vibes. It was a gigantic percussion section: Emil Richards, Larry Bunker, Kenny Watson, Peter Limonick, Bob Zimmitti and Joe Porcaro— all these great players. Horner writes everything out, but then he wants an interpretation. James wanted somebody who he could communicate with and who he knew would work in this particular context. We got Joe to play this 32nd-note part on the hi-hat that didn’t stop. Joe is an effortless player who can do something like that all day without falling apart. So he was playing this bass drum and hi-hat thing, outlining the piece, while I played these fills, and was weaving in and out between time and free stuff. The combination worked really well. The music was hard, with all kinds of odd times and intricate rhythms that were written out. It was hard, locked in the booth with Joe on the sound stage. We couldn’t really hear each other, but we had worked together so often that the previous communication paid off. It came off great. People thought it was one drummer who was playing this particular thing.
Al Silvestri is unique. We really went to town on Romancing The Stone with the electronic drum things—two Linn machines playing live with a live orchestra. It’s never been done. People play a Linn machine and put down the track, but when you start programming on a date and push a button, if one thing goes wrong, you’re dead. It’s just not done.
There’s Tom Scott, who is totally innovative, and who I have an occasional chance to work with. There are Pat Williams and Dave Grusin, whose music is so special. There’s a composer named Jerald Immel, whose music is intricate and very musical. I’ve sweated on some of Jerry’s dates. Jerry Goldsmith is no slouch either.
Bill Conti is a good one to talk about. If there’s a great player who can’t dedicate himself to what Bill is trying to do, he doesn’t lose any respect for the player, but he really has no use for that player. He has a real specific thing in his head and the player has to find it. A guy like that looks over and wants to know that you’re really trying to get involved with what he’s dealing with. If for one second you’re not interested and he’s making some changes, the communication will be gone. It’s really intense. He knows what he wants to hear. It could be a really simple thing, but to get to that, we have to travel a long distance just to come back to a specific thing. The percussion and brass are a major part of his works, even in a movie that has relatively little drums. His stuff is real percussive and he’s somebody I spend a lot of time mentally preparing for, before I go to work. I sweat when I work for him. I enjoy it, but it’s a real challenge. I’ll kill myself to find that one thing he’s looking for, and when I do, the reward is the best because he lets me know that’s exactly what he wants.
RF: With all the hours you work, where do you find time for a home life? Your work is so consuming. Isn’t it difficult to maintain your relationship?
SS: Yes. It takes a special kind of person to be able to deal with the kind of insanity that I have to put her through. I’m real fortunate to have a great relationship with somebody I love who is dealing with all these things in a way that is very healthy. She makes it possible for me to have a normalcy to my life when I come home. Without that, I’d be a lunatic. At this time in my life, with all I’ve been through, I owe a lot to Shana for keeping me together now. And I owe a lot to my family, who has been there l,000%. That could be the missing link in a lot of people’s ability to get to that place we were talking about. That aspect has destroyed a lot of people. That’s really an important thing, because if you can’t show up to work in a good frame of mind, you’re not going to play well.