To deem Bill Maxwell a “Christian drummer” is a half-truth at best. The implication is similar in effect to calling someone a “blues drummer” or a “country drummer. ” It imposes limitations. Bill Maxwell stands out as one of the most unlimited drummers around. He might be a little uneasy in a classical percussion selling, but don’t even think twice about having him play in a small jazz group, a blues band, a Gospel group, a funk group, with a contemporary orchestra, on a TV or movie score, or even behind Sammy Davis, Jr. or Harry Belafonte! Not a problem for Bill Maxwell.
But, let’s set the record straight. Bill is flattered when referred to as a “Christian drummer,” but he sees it as only one spoke in a wheel of many talents. As a record producer, he’s primarily involved with contemporary Christian music and musicians like Andrae Crouch, The Winans, Denny Correll and Keith Green. And anybody who hasn’t heard these artists on record with Bill Maxwell on drums really ought to. You’re in for a treat.
On the other hand, Bill can be heard with Freddie Hubbard on his Ride Like The Wind album. He also worked with John Williams on the soundtrack of Return of the Jedi, and recently toured with The Crusaders as a replacement for Stix Hooper. But, Bill Maxwell’s heart is mostly into Koinonia, a band he formed with other L.A. studio musicians.
For the last three years Koinonia has been house band at The Baked Potato in California. They’ve recently recorded their first album which is being released in Europe right now and is in negotiation for U.S. release. The band toured Scandinavia last March after the release of the album in that country. “We wondered if anyone would know who we were,” Bill said, “or if anyone would come see us. Our first concert was in Copenhagen at the Montmarte club. During the soundcheck I looked outside and they had a line of people all the way around the block. Almost every night was sold out. In some places they had to book us on our days off to be able to get all the people in. In Stockholm they had to turn away more people than they were able to let in every night.”
In his letters, St. Paul wrote about God giving each of us different talents. Bill’s talent is music. Not only does he have a ball performing and producing, he also sees his music as a ministry. This combination is exemplified in this exuberant, funny, successful and down-to-earth, human—in the best sense of the word—human being, Bill Maxwell.
SF: How did you get from being the drummer in an Oklahoma bar band to being the drummer/producer on a Grammy Award winning Andrae Crouch album?
BM: It was a continuous trip. I was in the same band from the time I was 14 or 15 up until 1971—the Third Avenue Blues Band. We started out in clubs in Oklahoma City. I started touring as soon as I got out of high school in ’67. I stayed with that band up until 12 years ago; seven years with the same guys. We had one album out on Uni Records and I don’t have it. I don’t even care to! But, the band was real good, real tight. It wasn’t commercial. We played blues shuffles—a cross between Jack McDuff and B.B. King. It was an unusual band, not necessarily geared toward the popular music of the time, although we thought we were.
I finally reached the end of my rope with that in ’71; I moved to Nashville and joined a band called Barefoot Jerry. It was there that my life just plummeted totally downhill. I was into drugs very heavily. My wife was sick and everything seemed wrong. I was so miserable. That brought about the change in my life: accepting Jesus.
I went outside and prayed one day. I said, “Lord, if you can give me some peace, I’d give anything.” And I heard something back that spoke to me so loud it literally scared me. He said, “I want you to leave here and go back to Oklahoma. I have a plan for you.”
The first thing I did was run back inside with this band and smoke a joint and try to forget it. I didn’t want any part of it.
The next day the band decided to go in a different direction. The lead guitarist I liked was leaving, and they didn’t know if they were going to stay together. I said, “I think I’ll go back to Oklahoma.” And I did. I didn’t know what was going to happen there. I ran into Hadley Hockensmith, the guitar player who had been with me in the Third Avenue Blues Band. He was working and playing guitar in a mission on the streets with winos. So, I started working in this little church/mission, having decided “I’m going to quit playing music and just try and get my life in order.” We got our organ player from the blues band and led him to Jesus. Two weeks later, Harlan Rogers—who’d been in a mental hospital—had a miraculous recovery. Then we got the trumpet player, Fletch, who’d been heavy into drugs. We prayed for him and he had no withdrawal. So we said, “This stuff is very real.”
At the time I was thinking of joining Bill Chase’s band. He offered me a good job and lots of money, but I just decided to work in the mission.
From there I met Andrae. He was one of the only people at that time who was actually making a living playing contemporary Christian music. We were the first professional musicians he’d met who were Christians. Professional musicians who could play. It shocked him. He started trying to hire us immediately.
SF: How long did you work at the mission?
BM: Eight or nine months.
SF: Were you working on the streets?
BM: Yeah. We’d talk to winos and we’d take in people who didn’t have a place to live; feed them, pray with them and try to give them clothes. We were actually trying to do what Jesus said. We weren’t going to play like we were in a church. We were trying to follow Jesus’ example. It was miraculous because we were really involved in helping people.
For example, one man in our mission came home and found a guy robbing his house. Instead of calling the police they got the guy and said, “You shouldn’t be doing this. You need help in your life.” They prayed with the guy and the guy was so touched. They moved him in and he lived with them for two months.
We went about things in a little bit different way than the standard church. What the Lord said is a very powerful, vibrant thing. The church wasn’t. It was very boring. I hated to go to church. But, this mission was happening. You’d see junkies coming in off the streets, get prayed for and not want smack. That’s supposedly not possible, but we would see that.
SF: Were you in church often as a kid?
BM: No. Nothing. I have one memory of this 300-pound drummer walking into a club we were playing one time. He handed a Bible to everybody in the band and said, “I claim everybody up here for the Lord Jesus.” I kept thinking about that. I still have that Bible.
When I got ready to leave Nashville, some people tried to give me a pound of dope as a present. I wanted it so bad. I’d never turned any down since I started. Never. But I said, “No. I don’t think so.” I got in my car and wanted to get high so badly. I said, “Why’d I leave that dope back there?” I found this Good News for Modern Man Bible and didn’t even know what it was. Every time I felt like getting high I’d read, and I started getting higher from reading than I had by smoking a joint. By the time I got to Oklahoma I didn’t want any. It’s been that way for 12 years. It was a literal miracle to me because I was snorting coke, taking acid, snorting heroin…I was starting to go the whole way of being a burned out musician.
In June ’72,1 went to work with Andrae. He had another guy producing his albums. He was starting to sell and do well. He said, “I want to produce my own albums.” Andrae asked me if I’d hire musicians for him because I knew guys like Dean Parks, Joe Sample and others. He asked me if I’d hire the band and get better players.
So I did that and Andrae liked the tracks that we were doing. Then it came time for him to sing a song. He’d ask me, “Are you coming down to the studio?” I’d been sitting down there and telling him if it sounded good to me or not; if it was in tune or what was happening. When he got ready to mix, he said, “We’re getting ready to mix the album. You’ve got to come in to mix.” I said, “Wait a minute! You’re producing this.” Andrae said, “No. You’ve been producing this more than me. We’re co-producing it. I’ll split the deal with you.” I didn’t know essentially what a producer was, but I guess it was what we were doing! We finished that album called Take Me Back. It was the first album I worked on as a producer and it won a Grammy. Andrae’s first one. So, immediately people thought I was a producer. That’s where that started.
I liked producing. I always felt very limited as a drummer by not being able to express the whole scope musically. When I play drums, I don’t think drums as much as I think of the whole band. I’m thinking the top end with my cymbals, or I’m thinking of where the pulse is and with my foot, what the bass player is doing. I’m very aware of all the vocals, the moods and the key. Playing drums, you can’t get as fulfilled as when you’re producing or when you’re in charge. You really have a say in every aspect of the music, including the way it’s put on tape. That was very, very interesting. Just like a broadening of playing drums.
SF: Is there pressure in Christian music circles to not play secular music?
BM: I don’t think so. Most people are supportive of a lifestyle, or they should be anyway. Where there’s resentment is like if Andrae put a pop record out. He’d automatically lose everything he had. They’d feel that he’d be deserting what he had. But, if a pop artist becomes a Christian, I don’t think they expect the artist to desert their earlier music. I can understand, and not understand that. I don’t think Andrae should be doing anything else. He’s so gifted at what he does. But, other people… maybe not.
SF: But, Andrae’s music is as accessible as any pop music.
BM: Oh yeah. He’s a great musician. He has people like Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder saying, “This guy’s one of the greatest musicians we know.” You could ask any of the great musicians of our time. Andrae doesn’t have to hide anything musically. He never has. He’s felt that music in itself is a pure art form totally. It’s what your words are saying that pollutes it or brings life to it. I agree with that 100%. I don’t feel any stylistic boundaries. Some old church person could say heavy rock guitars are of the devil. Somebody else will say pipe organ is terrible. I love music if it’s well done.
I feel in my heart that what I have is the truth. If someone doesn’t have it, I still love and respect them for what they’re doing. I don’t have any bad feelings towards them. There are a lot of Christians who’ll say, “Why are you playing with this person? Why would you work with Freddie Hubbard?” Because I like Freddie Hubbard! I love the way he plays. He’s a beautiful musician and he’s a friend. I don’t feel anything’s wrong about associating myself like that as long as I’m a good example. Maybe we can be a little bit of a help. I know Jim Keltner’s been a help to some people. If you did any little bit of good, it’s worth it because there are a lot of hurting people. There are especially a lot of hurting musicians. They just have rough lifestyles.
Instead of pointing fault at everyone and telling everyone how bad they are, the Lord walked around healing people and helping people. That’s what the church is supposed to be: a light. An example of love. Not an example of criticizing, paranoia, fear and all the stuff I read in the newspaper.
SF: When you started seriously studying the Bible, who gave you guidance?
BM: Two guys at the mission, Jimmy and Bobby Hall. Jimmy used to be one of the best shuffle drummers I ever knew. He quit playing and became a preacher. Both those guys cleaned up their act, went to Bible school and were running the mission. I just sat with them and a couple of good preachers who came through town. I listened to a lot of tapes. I’d go to local churches. It was a radical change in lifestyle.
SF: Had you quit playing drums at that point?
BM: I never really quit when I was in the mission. We’d draw crowds in the mission because our band was a big nightclub band. It wasn’t like anything you heard in church. We played Jimmy Smith-style jazz. We’d jam in the church on the same type of songs we used to do, only it was looser. There are not many places like that mission that I know of where we had the freedom that we had. We were all ex-doper musicians with long hair and that was the only place we could fit in.
SF: Did you initially want to be a studio drummer?
BM: No. I like playing music. I wanted to play with good people. All I ever did was live playing. I’d get called in and do records but it wasn’t my favorite thing because there was no audience. I like making mistakes. You can’t make mistakes on records. I like to go for things. I wanted to play live with somebody like Miles Davis.
SF: Are you a self-taught drummer?
BM: Yes and no. I had an unusual background. My mother was a jazz piano player who died when I was two months old. She was pretty good. I heard a record she’d done. I’d shown some musical ability as a baby, so my grandparents sent me to a little children’s music school. I played keyboards and had a little toy drumset. Then I got a violin and played it when I was three, but not well. I played trombone and started taking piano lessons when I was about nine. I learned how to read music doing that.
When I was 12 they had summer school band in between 6th and 7th grade to prepare you so you wouldn’t have to start in the beginning band. The Band Director said, “What do you want to play?” I said, “I think I’ll play drums.” He said, “OH NO! I knew your mother. She was a great piano player. And for you to be a drummer…! Why don’t you play a good instrument like clarinet or something?” That really made me madder. “No! I want to play drums. That’s what I want to do.”
It came so easy. Literally, within six months I had a drumset and was playing dances. I started working with older guys real fast. Maybe there weren’t that many good drummers when I was young. I could keep a beat, liked a lot of different music and playing drums was just easy.
I took a few private lessons from Tom Gauger. I think he’s with the Boston Symphony now. There was another teacher named Eddie Lockhart and then Johnny Johnson. All this was in about one year. Then I quit. I could read from playing piano and the books were starting to seem easy. It was getting to where it was real easy for me to create things on the drums. My teachers started asking me how I did things and I started feeling like I wasn’t getting as much out of it. I had enough groundwork.
The only thing I wish I would’ve done was learned how to play matched grip totally from the start, so I could play with my left hand on my left side. I play now with matched grip because there’s so much more power for popping a backbeat. It just doesn’t go as well using traditional grip.
SF: I have a quote from J.D. Salinger’s book Seymour: An Introduction that seems to perfectly depict not only the lifestyle role model for most musicians, but also the stigma that’s put on musicians by non-musicians:
“It seems to me indisputably true that a good many people, the wide world over, of varying ages, cultures, natural endowments, respond with a special impetus, a zing, even, in some cases, to artists and poets who as well as having a reputation for producing great or fine art have something garishly Wrong with them as persons: a spectacular flaw in character or citizenship, a constructably romantic affliction or addiction, extreme self-centeredness, marital infidelity, stone-deafness, stone-blindness, a terrible thirst, a mortally bad cough, a soft spot for prostitutes, a partiality for grand-scale adultery or incest, a certified or uncertified weakness for opium or sodomy, and so on, God have mercy on the lonely bastards.”
BM: It sounds like J.D. Salinger knew me. That’s really a great quote. Really true. In order to produce something original or artistic, you really dig deep inside yourself and you can come up with some beautiful art that way. But, the further you dig the more alone you find that you are. What comes out of that is a lot of escapism. The reason I liked to get high all the time was for no other reason than it made me feel better than the way I was feeling. It was an improvement over the way things were.
With escapism there’s a void of man not being in communication with his Creator. They’re trying to fill that hole and it’s always with the wrong thing. God makes for healthy people, not sick people. Jim Jones was not a man of God. God brings out good fruit and a well-rounded personality. People caught up in drugs and alcohol are lonely and miserable. I was lonely and miserable! I still get lonely but I know how to get filled up. Once you get down to the real being of that person you see a phony camouflage of trying to be hip or cool. And it seems so shallow. How can I compare working on a record with saving somebody’s life? It puts things in a different perspective.
SF: Do you teach drums?
BM: No. I burned myself out doing that. I became a drum teacher when I was 15 or 16. It was too much playing six nights a week, going to high school, teaching drums in the afternoons after school up until the time for the clubs, and then teaching all day Saturday.
I worked very hard. It came easy to me but when I first started playing drums I loved it so much that that’s all I did. Before I went to school I’d play for an hour and a half. When I came home from school I’d play until I went to bed. That’s why I was playing professionally in six months. In that amount of time I put in the practice hours that most people would put into four years because it was fun.
SF: What did you practice?
BM: I turned up the stereo. I had an Art Blakey record, Elvis Presley records, Brenda Lee records, Andre Previn records. A weird assortment but I liked playing with them all. Even symphonic records. I practiced by myself. I liked Freddie King instrumentals. I just started playing with the music. Then I’d work on my hands. If I couldn’t do something I’d try to figure out why I couldn’t do it. I’d keep doing it until I could.
SF: Do you still practice drums that much today?
BM: No way. I should but I’m playing so much. When I play a full day of sessions, I’m doing nine or 10 hours of playing. You run through different stages of working out your coordination to where you can do different things. I’m at a stage where it’s not very hard for me to work out anything. I could do it sitting here just thinking about it. I’m doing enough sessions to keep my reading at a comfortable level. I’d really like to be able to do more things with less effort. That comes from just dealing with it. I have a little Gretsch set at the house that I play on every now and then. But, I really find more fun playing my piano.
SF: Do you compose on the piano?
BM: A few things—only one of which has been out in the past couple of years on record. I like to try to find chord voicings. You can play rhythms with a piano just like you can with drums. Being a drummer helps your piano playing.
SF: How was your timekeeping at age 12?
BM: The first band I was ever in, the guitar player had really poor time. I didn’t know it. I was just wanting to play. He’d drop the beat and I’d turn the beat around to try to get with him. I thought, “Gosh, I guess this is what you have to do.”
Another guitar player came and played with us about a month later. He said, “No, no. That’s not the way to do it. All you’ve got to do is lay down the beat and we play with you.” I said, “Is that all there is to it? Boy! That makes it a lot easier.” From then on I just grooved.
SF: So you never had trouble keeping time?
BM: When you play live a lot you get a tendency to play on top of the beat a little and rush. When I had my most trouble was in the first couple of years when I switched from doing drugs. I was so used to playing in a state like being on downers, which smoking dope will do, that I learned to feel the time in that way.
When I didn’t smoke dope any more I was more up. It took just a little while to get it back together. There are examples of some great drummers right now where you can tell that if they’re not loaded they don’t play good. Because they’re used to being that way.
Now I can cut with click tracks all day long and I like them. If you want them fine. If you don’t want them, fine. I don’t care. I’ll just play right around them and find the time. My tendency now is to play with good time. The only problem is that once I developed time on that level, it made it real hard to enjoy a lot of music I used to enjoy. When you start defining your time and really getting your time feel down, you’ll find how few people play with real good time.
SF: Do you naturally play on top, dead center or behind the beat
BM: It depends on the song. If I’m playing Latin I feel I’m playing on top of the beat because it gives it that lift. If I’m playing bebop I’m playing on top of the beat. If I’m playing funk I play pretty far back. With r&b dance music like disco I play in the center. If I’m just playing straight ahead funk I play back.
SF: Can that be taught or learned?
BM: I guess. It’s a matter of listening, hearing and feeling. All music is, is a feel ing and then transcending the feelings through instruments. If I’m doing a session and someone asks me to play like another drummer, I have no idea how another drummer plays. I couldn’t sit down and play like Tony Williams, or you, or Elvin. But, maybe I could create the feeling of what they did just because of the feeling they gave me. There’s something about the way that they feel the time that I can relate to. Instead of licks, it’s the feeling of the music. If a person’s in tune with that then they’ll understand.
SF: If you were playing a straight-ahead funk session and someone asked you to play more towards the center of the beat, how would you do that?
BM: I’d try to do it. If it wasn’t what they wanted I’d say, “Okay, give me a click track.” And I’ll hit right exactly with it. I’ll try to give them what they want however they want to do it, but I need to know that whoever I’m working with knows what they’re talking about. If they don’t then I’m as confused as they are. I hate getting in the middle of confusion.
SF: How did you develop your bebop drumming?
BM: Moonlighting. We would do maybe one jazz song a set. There was this black club called Trevas Club in Oklahoma City where I grew up. I started going in there when I was about 16. They had Sonny Stitt come in, Roland Kirk, Kenny Burrell. mostly the black traveling club acts. I’d go hear them all. Roland Kirk was very nice to me when I was 16. I’d talk with him about music and his feelings. He could tell I really appreciated it and he let me play with him. He was real encouraging. In those kinds of situations I’d play bebop.
There were some pretty good musicians around there. At night after everybody quit, we’d have instruments set up and we’d all play free music. Anything that came to our mind. No form. We’d play it all night long and we’d get into bebop during that.
SF: What’s the drummer’s main function in a band?
BM: I saw a Ray Charles interview. One of the questions was, “What’s the function of each instrument in the band? What’s the drummer supposed to do?” Ray said, “Keep the damn beat.” I thought, “Boy! I wish somebody would’ve told me that when I was younger because I was a flash drummer. I liked Joe Morello’s technique. I’d try to show-off. I went through a period where I’d play badly instead of listening to the music. That’s bad news. That aspect of drumming really bugs me. It’s like: Why did they get all the technique first? Why can’t they get the feel first? Then the technique would be so much more meaningful. They go about it backwards.
SF: Who was your main inspiration for your funk drumming?
BM: I don’t know a lot of their names. The drummer I like best is on a Bobby “Blue” Bland album called Two Steps From The Blues. They had a song on there called “Don’t Cry No More” which was the same kind of beat as “Turn On Your Love Lights.” I don’t know who that drummer was but he laid it in their perfect.
Then whoever played on the original James Brown records during his Apollo time before “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” To be truthful, I was mostly influenced by black drummers. But, I could never put my finger on the drummers as much as I could the music. I heard an Albert Collins’ shuffle and I loved the way it felt so I liked the drummer. I liked Stax Records. When I was 16 or 17 I went to Stax and we were working cutting tracks with Al Jackson as our producer. I liked him just because the feeling of those records was so great.
When I’d listen to jazz I’d hear Joe Morello. As I started getting more tuned into music I’d hear Elvin and I’d say, “Boy! This is what I like.” I liked Elvin immediately. He did one thing that got me, and I try to do the same thing. He would never play “2” and “4” anywhere. He might not even play “1” and “3”, but you felt it so strong because of the way he built everything around it. It was all placed impeccably underneath. Somewhere, based around that feeling, you felt like you were dancing. Elvin was playing all kinds of polyrhythms because he felt the pulse so strong inside. I figured out when I was about 16 that if I could get that pulse inside of me, I wouldn’t lose it. That’s what Elvin had. I still think about that. It doesn’t matter if I drop a stick. It doesn’t matter if I break a drum head. No matter what happens, it’s inside and not with my hands. I’m not going to let my hands and feet dictate what I play. Once I have a feeling for the song, it’s coming from inside.
SF: Do you feel that up-and-coming drummers are overly concerned with equipment?
BM: I don’t think any of that’s bad as long as they don’t lose the basic function: the feeling of the music. You can take any one of the things that’re important and make it your major thing. You’ve got to keep clear what’s most important about what you’re doing. Are you going to be a drummer? Or are you going to be a rock ’n’ roll star? I’ve always found that to be very fleeting. Being in music since I was 12, I’ve seen a lot of guys come and go who were real famous, but they weren’t real good musicians. So if you set your hopes on being a rock ’n’ roll star instead of the music, you might get that. But you won’t keep it long.
SF: So there are no guarantees. Is there anything a person can do to help insure longevity?
BM: If they really love music, then they’re going to be involved in it. Always try to do it as good as you can and treat it with respect and integrity. Try to improve upon it. Don’t make light of any particular form of music. If it’s a pure form of music. whether it’s Dixieland, classical, avant-garde, if it’s being done in its highest form then it’s beautiful music. Be open minded and then you’re always ready for change.
SF: Is it safe to say that when reading music, if you can’t sing it then you can’t play it?
BM: It’s not the case with me. I don’t relate to the paper very well until the music starts. Once it starts, it makes sense; as soon as I hear what the feel is going to be.
There’s one great arranger in L.A. named Bruce Miller. He thinks I’m a great reader. I’m not. Here’s what it is: I don’t read his music first. I feel it and try to catch as much as I can. But, I’m going to feel the feel of the music before I sightread it. So many guys sound stiff when they sightread. I just try to play the song and try to catch as much of the chart as I can the first time. Then the second or third time I hope I’ll have it. That’ll make him think I’m a better reader than I am. He’ll think, “Boy! He’s gotten right into the heart of it.” Well, I’m feeling the music first.
SF: You’ve developed your ears as well as your eyes.
BM: Oh, the ears came a lot ahead of the eyes. But, in general, totally reading stiffens you up. I just relax, play it and scout it out four bars ahead. When I see a big punch coming up, I think, “Oh, I’ll get that one perfect.” Maybe down the chart there’s a little punch coming up or something.
Very few guys I work with write out the whole tom-tom part unless they have a very specific thing in mind. Then usually the guys I work with are good enough to where it’s very playable. It feels very natural.
SF: Do you always play drums on records you produce?
BM: Most of the time. I’ve used Jim Keltner and Mike Baird before. It’s not an ego thing with me. It’s just that when I’m working with the songs I know what I want out of the drums, and I don’t feel like laying it heavy on another drummer. I’ve spent a little more time with the music than they have because I’m involved with picking the songs and the arrangements.
I produce much better playing than I do in the booth. When I have the headphones on and I’m playing a track I can really think. I know the guitar player is on my left and so-and-so’s on my right. I can tell you as soon as the take’s over who made a mistake and in what bar, because I’m concentrating on every bit. The worst thing is that usually the last thing I get to concentrate on is my part. I’m too busy worrying about if it’s sounding right. But, fortunately I can usually read the music they have for me and the part falls naturally with everything else.
SF: Have you ever stopped a song in the middle of a take while your drums were cooking because you heard something you weren’t happy with as a producer?
BM: All the time! Someone said it’s like playing with a machine gun ready to come down on their head if it’s bad. I go for different feeling in tracks. You can make a mistake and fix that. What you can’t fix is a feel. I try to get a feel throughout the track that feels spontaneous, loose; like we’re playing the chart well. I go for early takes. First, second and third takes.
There’s something that happens before you listen to a playback. If I listen to a play back I’ll say, “I love what I played on the chorus, but that little cymbal thing…I don’t know if I like that. I shouldn’t do that next time. And when I get to this part I’m going to play the tom-tom…” It just totally messes with the whole feel. By the time you analyze and break it down it takes away from the feeling of it. I don’t like perfectly planned out, calculated music. I like what happens when you put people together.
I always try to be encouraging as a producer. The worst thing someone can do to me is discourage me. A producer who comes in very heavy-handed and creates bad feelings, gets bad music out of me.
If, for instance, someone’s rushing on a date I’m producing, I won’t say, “Hey, you’re rushing. Stop that.” I’ll say, “This feels good. That feels good. But, I need you to lay it right in the center of the beat.” I’ll try to put it in a way that’s positive to get the result I want without tearing anyone down. The best performance usually comes from encouragement and not discouragement.
SF: Have you ever had to fire a musician from a date?
BM: Yeah. It’s sad. Sometimes they just can’t cut the music. Certain people sound real good doing one thing or you might think they’re better than they are. To be a musician today you really have to be broad. Doing the Christian records I’ve done, there’s a lot of broadness. Everything from ’30s type Art Tatum music, to swing, to big band and beautiful orchestras. You have to be very careful how you cast a record. That’s one of the main arts of a producer.
SF: Does it matter if they’re Christian musicians or not?
BM: Not to me. I ’d never discriminate on a record that I did. But, it just so happens that most of the best players now are Christians.
Joe Sample’s one of my favorite musicians and he doesn’t say he’s a Christian. And I don’t care. I love Joe and I’ll play with him anywhere. I’ll do anything for him. When he comes in on a session he gives you his whole heart. If I hire somebody for a session or they’re working on a session with us, I don’t expect any big egos like, “I’m a star.” I expect it to be, “Let’s just go in here and work as hard as we can and make great music together. Let’s try to give to it.” We’ll have a good time and we’ll all encourage each other and hopefully it’ll be good. I don’t want to see anyone down. I want to see everybody try.
SF: As a player, have you been in a recording situation where you were so uncomfortable with the music that you had to leave?
BM: I’ve been on one. It devastated me. But only once. Most of the guys I work with now are people who know me and I know them. It’s a real encouraging atmosphere. I had a hard time getting over the discouragement of that session because I felt like the man was mean.
SF: Were you having technical difficulties?
BM: No. It was all vague. It was like saying, “Play more green.” That’s as much as his directions meant. Then they’d say, “Play this fill that’s out on this record now.” I don’t do that. It’s not a matter of my own integrity. I just don’t copy licks as well as I’d play something that I feel like playing.
SF: Has Andrae been inspirational to you?
BM: A good friend. He’s been gracious and as good a friend as I could’ve had. In that way he’s inspirational. I don’t see Andrae Crouch as the black Billy Graham or whatever people have thought. To me he’s a man; he’s a friend. He’s had his problems and I’ve had mine. I know him very well, but one thing is I really love him and I really care about him.
He is a genius musician, a gifted musician. He learned to play piano by being prayed for. They prayed for a piano player in a church. They prayed for him and the next week he was a piano player. He calls it a gift of music that God gave him. The guys that know, know that harmonically he’s extremely advanced, like a Gil Evans. Everything you hear is a little simple melody. But start to analyze it and you have to add up notes to get what he has in his chords. He doesn’t play that much, but as a piano player he’s an awesome accompanist and rhythm player.
He’s been very inspirational in that I’ve seen a guy who was using his music for the Lord; yet when it gets right down to above and beyond all the flash, musically he was as advanced as anybody, and the real musicians found that out.
SF: Can you offer any tricks of the trade for backing vocalists?
BM: I always keep my eye on the vocalist. They’re leading the band and I won’t go against them. If they turn the beat around I’ll try as gracefully as I can to get everybody to follow them. My job is to make the music feel good behind them. I always try to keep in tune with what they’re doing, even if it’s wrong. The first thing is to sup port them. That doesn’t mean follow everything they do and try to copy it on drums. That’s a terrible habit. Your spots will open up. A drummer can find where his fills are. It’s actually a mental attitude of being supportive of who you’re working with. If you’re not supportive of him. don’t work with him.
I don’t take jobs I don’t like. I’m there because I want to be there. The money helps, but that’s not a reason to do it. That’ll mess you up. You’ve got to have the attitude that “This is who I want to play with and I’m going to give him my all.”
SF: Is there a tradition of great Gospel drummers?
BM: No. It’s so funny to even think of Gospel music as a tradition. I really don’t, because I recognize that Gospel music is purely the good news of the Gospel. It’s had so many different kinds of music. You could say that Bach’s music is Gospel music because every piece he wrote, he wrote on it, “For the Glory of God and God Alone.’’ That was the church music of that time. So, they’ve had many different traditions. Black Gospel music is the same music as the blues that they played in the fields. There’s been no drummers really. There have been some piano players. Usually a lot of the players that just play Gospel were limited. The fine musicians in Christian music are happening today, other than the 1700s or 1800s with the classical composers.
SF: What’s your present drum and cymbal setup?
BM: For live playing I use a 22 x 16 bass drum. I have power tom-toms. 8 x 8 , 10 x 10, 10 x 12 and 11 x 13, all double-headed, and a 16 x 16 floor tom-tom. All my drums are Pearl. For recording I use a smaller bass drum, a 16 x 20. I carry an assortment of about six different snare drums to the recording sessions. I endorse Pearl because they make the finest drums there are right now.
My favorite snare is a Ludwig 6 1/2″ Black Beauty, they’re not making anymore, customized by Valley Drums. Nothing rattles. They’ve got special snares on the bottom, a Pearl strainer and different hoops for more even resonance. I have Lug Locks on it for recording. I can get any sound I want, lock it in place and it’ll stay for the take.
I use Gauger RIMS on all the tom-toms because it gives much more resonance. The other five snare drums are a 6 1/2″ brass Black Beauty, a 5″ bronze Ludwig (also customized by Valley Drums), a 6 1/2″ wooden Pearl snare drum, an 8″ wooden Pearl snare drum and a 6″ brass Pearl snare drum.
I have only one old K. Zildjian 22″, my baby, that I use mostly for a ride cymbal. I offered to give a guy a drumset for that cymbal because it sounded like Elvin Jones’ cymbal, but he gave it to me. I use a 20″ K. as an alternate ride and I have an assortment of crash cymbals. Mostly I use an 18″ crash. The K.’s aren’t as bright as the Paiste’s. I have Paiste hi-hat cymbals. One is a 602 and the other half of the set is a 2002. They’re real bright. That’s my general set-up if you see me playing live.
SF: Do you have a drum head preference?
BM: Right now I do. But, if you talk to me next week it might change. For tom-toms I like Remo clear Ambassadors on top and Diplomats on the bottom. They’re tuned pretty tight so I get a lot of resonance, almost timpani-like. For the snare I like the rough coat Ambassador on top and a clear Ambassador on bottom. I’m using an Evans head on the bass drum. I don’t particularly like it. It gives the impression of having a lot of bottom end, but it doesn’t. It’s not true bottom end when I analyze it while recording. I don’t use any muffling unless I’m asked, and then only the snare and bass. No tom-tom muffling.
SF: Do you have a tuning preference for your snare?
BM: It depends on the song. If I’m going to play a certain kind of funk, I like that old tubby sound, like your drum has been sitting in the rain too long. If I’m playing another type of funk I’ll tune it tight and poppy. I’ll change it by the song. I’ll even do that live if I’ve got enough time.
It’s the same with my tom-tom tuning. If something’s not working with the chord structure of the song.if I’ve got a big fill and the tom-toms are resonating a half-step from the chord, I’m not going to do that. I’ll make sure that when I hit something it feels like the music that’s going on around it.
On Andrae’s new album, Finally, on the last song of side one and on “Let’s Worship Him,” that’s more my drum sound. Also the sound of the drums on the second track of side two. That’s more the sound I get when I do Chaka Khan type stuff. How I tune my drums depends on the style. I don’t have any ego about it. As long as it doesn’t go against my integrity, I ’ l l do anything they want me to if I can.
SF: Is it important for you to associate with people who’re positive and empathetic with your career?
BM: It’s important for me to be with people who love me and I love them. Even if we don’t agree about anything else, we can agree to care about each other as people. I need that very badly and I think people do too. The people I work with in the studio are family.
SF: Tell us about your band.
BM: I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my band Koinonia is what I’m supposed to be doing. That’s the most enjoyable musical experience I’ve ever had. I’ve never been involved in anything that powerful. Spiritually it’s the first time we can play the highest form of music we’re capable of and feel so much communication with each other.
Koinonia is a group of us musicians who started playing together on sessions in Los Angeles. Three of the people were in the Third Avenue Blues Band: Hadley Hockensmith, Harlan Rogers and myself. When I started doing sessions with Abraham Laboriel he asked me about starting a band. It took three years but we finally did it and hand-picked everybody. I told Abraham that it’d be great if Alex Acuna could do it and it shocked me when Alex said yes. Alex is playing percussion and drums. Dean Parks is the other guitar player. John Phillips is the saxophone player and Abraham is on bass. There’s seven of us.
It’s the best group of musicians I’ve played with anywhere in my life, and it’s very enjoyable music. We recorded our album in the Fall essentially live in the studio, with Phil Schnee producing. We paid for the album ourselves and decided to do something unique. We’re leasing the masters ourselves to each country individually, instead of going to one major record company. If you sign with a record company they usually give you 50% royalty on all foreign product. We felt our music would be as big, if not bigger, overseas than it would here.
The first country that took it was Scandinavia on Royal Music. We did a tour for a month in March all over Scandinavia. They told us the other day that they think this will be the biggest selling instrumental album by far this year in Scandinavia.
The music we perform was written by band members, or for us by people like Victor Feldman and Michael Omartian. We have a book of about 55 songs.
We’re trying to release it in each country and then back it up with a tour. All of us are treating the band as a much more serious endeavor. We want to go into it full time if we feel that that’s what the Lord would have us do with it.
The name Koinonia is a Greek word from the New Testament. Leave it to Abraham Laboriel. He speaks four languages fluently and only he could come up with a name that no one could pronounce! It means communication or fellowship while sharing equally. That’s exactly what we do.
Koinonia is a band where we also have very spectacular substitutes. We’ve been playing the Baked Potato on Monday nights for three years. It’s the only band where people will call the club and ask if the regular band’s going to be there tonight. If they say “yeah,” then they won’t come. They want to come hear the subs. Larry Carlton has been subbing on guitar. Joe Sample usually subs on piano. I’ve had Steve Gadd sub for me. Ernie Watts subs for John Phillips. And Paulinho DaCosta subs for Alex.
We hope the album will be out in Japan in the Fall. We’ve just signed with Sparrow, a Christian label, to put the album in Bible book stores only. We’re real close to having it distributed throughout the United States in record stores too.
SF: Who are your favorite drummers today?
BM: Alex Acuna. I’ve never seen him not be able to do anything that he’s been called upon to do. He’s totally spontaneous. I can play with him every week and he never repeats himself. There are no Alex Acuna “licks” that I know of. And he makes me play! They haven’t even been able to capture him on record.
In the old style of playing I love Elvin Jones. Another guy, on given days, is Jim Keltner. He gives you a feeling of heart in his playing.
I liked Bernard Purdie the times I’ve heard him live. A sax player I work with who used to play with Bernard, says I play like him. I don’t notice or feel that. But, I know that the r&b roots that Bernard and I have are similar.
SF: There’s a part of Scripture that says, “Without vision, man will perish.” Does the misery and loneliness that we’ve talked about have to do with not having a dream or a vision?
BM: Yeah. Say someone’s dream was to be the drummer on the Tonight Show. Once he became the Tonight Show drummer. that’s just the same old ordinary life. You’d think, “Is that all there is?”
Everything I ever did that I’d built up ahead of time in my mind.when I accomplished it, it wasn’t nearly what I thought it would be. It didn’t give the satisfaction that you’d think it would because it was a goal. It was like you were always reaching for it.
Jesus said, “If any man is thirsty, he’ll come to me and he won’t be thirsty anymore.” That’s the first time I wasn’t thirsty; when I got something that I still wasn’t craving more of it in a bad way. I’ve never found anything else to give that fulfillment.
The reason I play Christian music or Gospel music is not for the art form. My gosh! It’s been a pretty primitive art form most of the time.
I remember when I came to Los Angeles. I wasn’t the best drummer in the world but I knew I could play. I’d hear a couple of people say, “Aw, I wouldn’t hire him. He’s a Gospel drummer. A Christian drummer.” And it’d hurt me a little bit be cause I felt I could play. Then I read a scripture that said, “Be proud if someone discriminates against you for the sake of the Gospel.” I was being discriminated not for the way I could play, but for my belief. I had to get over that a little bit.
I can’t think of myself as a Gospel drummer. I’m a drummer. I’m a musician. In my productions I do music that has Christian lyrics. That’s all I’ve ever done as a producer. But, I can play whatever kind of music. Now, some of the same guys who discriminated against me are people that I’m working with now. It turns around.
I kept on working for 10 years in L.A. It’s never stopped. But, I’ve seen session players go in and out of favor. I’ve constantly had more work than I can handle. I’m literally one of the busiest guys I know. I’m working everyday doing something in music.
So, the Lord’s been good to me.