The Fabulous Thunderbirds are the real thing alright. Hailing (both literally and spiritually) from Southwest Texas (Austin, to be specific), the T-Birds seem to sum up the earthy spirit of the entire Gulf Coast region, playing axle grease fried blues and roots rock ’n’ roll with the kind of outcast authenticity that can only be learned, not earned. From the tops of their Wildroot heads, to the pointy-toed tips of their feet, guitarist Jimmie Vaughn, electric harpist and vocalist Kirn Wilson, bassist Keith Ferguson and drummer Fran Christina exude commitment and no-nonsense enthusiasm. Their music seems to have chosen them every bit as much as they chose it, and one can half imagine them pickin’ their teeth with barbed wire after chowing down on a hearty meal of barbequed armadillo and cactus fritters, before draining a draught of thirty-weight and packing up their grip on the way to another party, in another bar.
All of which is captured with spooky vehemence on their last Chrysalis album T’Bird Rhythm in a winning collaboration with producer Nick Lowe. And so strong has been the word-of-mouth on this band that Carlos Santana himself brought them onboard for his latest solo album, so that he could “feel the earth underneath him.”
Which is why it came as something of a surprise, when I finally met drummer Fran Christina, to discover that, in spite of the roots authenticity of his upbeat Texas shuffle on “Extra Jimmies” (from their earlier Chrysalis outing What’s The Word), he hails not from the physical state of Texas, only from that state of mind.
Christina was born February 1 1951, in Rhode Island, but, as he puts it, “Musically, I never left Texas. I’m just a product of everything I’ve ever listened to, from Chicago to New Orleans to Texas. And most of the bands I’ve played with, especially Roomful Of Blues, Asleep At The Wheel, and the T-Birds, have reflected the sound of Texas r & b to one degree or another.”
Kind of a strange buzz for a young man to get living in Rhode Island, hardly a hotbed of the blues. “It was strange, now that you mention it,” Christina reflects. “It was a freak because we were playing music that nobody else was back then, and I have to credit Duke Robillard with that for bringing me out. Him and my brother. They were record hunters, and there were also a couple of good radio stations back then that played rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, r & b and blues; a station out of Providence playing the stuff that we all gravitated towards. I think the first real buzz I got off of anybody was Muddy Waters and Elmore James, and it just went on from there to people like Rockin’ Sydney, T-Bone Walker… you name it.
“Actually, I have to take that back, about the first things that grabbed me. I was younger than that. You see, I grew up in a Catholic family. I used to go to my grandma’s house on Saturday night and stay over there with my cousin so that I could get up early on Sunday to go to Mass with her. But there was this Negro Baptist church down the street, and they all sang and got off, great gospel. So me and my cousin would go down there after Mass to check it out every Sunday; I mean, if my parents ever found out they would’ve killed us. Then we started going in the church. Oh, man, it was something the way they were getting down; it was just sonic. And that was probably the very first thing which turned me onto music.”
And that big beat, with everybody slamming their feet down on the church floor in unison.
“Yeah,” Christina smiles, “that was the whole deal. And it all came back to me later. What I just described happened to me when I was like seven or eight, then it started coming back to me when I began hearing all this r & b and blues. I started hearing all those sounds again, you know, Ray Charles and all that, and I made that connection and realized that’s what I’ve been hearing all along, that it was all the same. The hard blues, the rockabilly, the gospel, the r & b, the rock ’n’ roll. All of it came full circle and I realized where it all stemmed from. It all fit, and I haven’t had time to think about it since. I’ve just been doing it.”
Thus, without benefit of British midwifery (having American r & b fed to us by English bands), Fran Christina entered a musical continuum as rich and as varied as the people who make up America. “It’s funny, isn’t it,” he muses. “It keeps coming back and hitting ’em right in the face. It just blows my mind; I can’t understand why they want to deny it.”
So with that big beat echoing away in the back of his mind, Christina was drawn into the popular music of his day and its blues roots. But why drums?
“Well, you know how it is when you’re 12 years old. You go around banging on things, right? And then your older brother, who you really idolized, plays guitar with his grease-monkey friend, and they say ’Come on, we need a drummer.’ So they got me a pair of sticks. We used to be working the night shift in this guy’s garage, and we’d set up a bunch of oil drums, and they’d hook up their amps,” he laughs. “We’d do covers of Everly Brothers stuff; Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker. Which sounded pretty good on oil drums.
“Afterwards, I was in my little cover band in the bowling alleys. That was my pre-musical period from 12-14. You know, covers of “Get Off Of My Cloud,” “Wipeout”… bowling alley music. When I started, I had a set of Winstons, you know, but then my cousin had a boyfriend who had a beautiful set of Slingerland Radio Kings, and I wanted those bad. That was like my dream kit, so he was giving it up, and he sold me all his drums, hardware, cases and cymbals for $200. Beautiful cymbals, too; I had those for a real long time, until they were stolen on my wedding anniversary. There was this big 22″ A. Zildjian medium ride; really nice, even tone; good ping to it; and no big buildup, until you hit it in the right spot for that great big backbeat/r & b kind of thing… you know, where you want it to build up like a wave. Yeah, and a 20″ A.,” he continues digressing wistfully into his lost cymbal bag, “and 19″ and 18″ K. Zildjian crashes, and a 14″ K., that was a Turkish K., that was the neatest little crash/splash you ever heard it was so fast and dark. God, they were just great. I haven’t been able to find any cymbals that good since.”
Currently making do with a 20″ A. medium ride, and an 18″ (Canadian) K., and a pair of 14″ New Beat hi-hats, Christina obviously hears something in those old cymbals, and seems mildly put off by today’s heavier modern cymbals. “There’s something wrong with most of the cymbals I see on the shelves these days. They’re either too dark or too light; too much buildup; too slow or too fast; not enough ping. The main thing is I can’t get the sound out of each section of the cymbal that I like. You ought to be able to get an articulate, even sound all around the cymbal; something distinctive from the bell; a sort of clear half-crash in the middle; and a nice controlled explosion that doesn’t swamp the sound when you come back in the ride.
“I may be wrong,” he continues, “but it seems like the quality of the brass, or how they’re processing it, or the way they mix it, or the way they finish the cymbal seems different. The new cymbals don’t sound like the same instruments that they were 10, 15, 20 years ago. Something’s wrong. I’ve heard some Paistes that I like…but you get a one-formula cymbal and they make them all sound the same. Who wants to sound like everyone else?” he laughs. “Oh, this is the Formula such and such, this is the most popular one, the one so and so is using.’ Big deal. I don’t want to be popular. I want to sound like what I like.”
How Christina sounds is partly a product of his lack of formal training (coupled to an abundance of practical experience and the encouragement of musical friends like guitarist Duke Robillard). “One of the reasons why I never developed a habit of practicing, was because I felt like everybody was being bugged by it. So they threw my drums in the basement, and what I used my drums for half the time was basic frustration-vent go down and take a two hour drum solo and block out everything. Then, around the time I was 14, the desire went away, and I stopped playing drums for a couple of years. Then Duke came along and said, ’Hey, man, I’m starting this band, and I want you to play drums.’ And I said, ’Nah, I can’t play the drums, you guys are too good…’
But Christina got talked into it, which is how he ended up playing the hardcore Texas r&b of Roomful Of Blues and the driving Western swing of Asleep At The Wheel. He soon began incorporating his many influences into a southpaw’s style. “I was into everyone from Baby Dodds to Sid Catlett; from Elgie Edmonds to S.P. Leary. And Mr. Al Jackson, I really took a hankering to him and all of the New Orleans drummers, like Earl Palmer they had such a great feel. I’m pretty much a product of that Louisiana sound. I got turned on to those rhythms again when I had a chance to go to New Orleans with the T-Birds. Before I went there I knew what it was they were playing, but when I went down there and saw it I knew why they were playing it all the styles from Zydeco to the jazz. It all has that little extra hip shank in it; that street dancing, the grease, and that second line call and response. I got really turned on to the whole attitude of those rhythms when I got to see them up close, in the context of the community.”
As for being a lefty playing a righty’s kit, Christina pleads ignorance. “I didn’t realize it until I was 17 years old, that I played backwards and upside down,” he laughs. “I guess what happened is that people started telling me that, and I hadn’t noticed. When I first started seeing drummers, most of them were right-handed and set up that way. And I was looking at them, so when I got my first set of drums, I set them up to feel comfortable, without anyone to tell me how. It’s weird. I throw with my right hand, but I write with my left. So I don’t know if that has anything to do with it, but that’s how I feel comfortable.
“The thing is, there are patterns that right-handed drummers play real easy and natural that I have to think about, and vice-versa. But there are a lot of things that come easier to me than for a righty; just getting around the kit on certain things. It’s like the left side of my kit is pretty much played with the left side of my body, and the right side with my right. So I might tend to accent like a mirror image of the way someone else would.”
Moving around from Roomful to California, Kentucky and Ann Arbor, Christina increased his playing experiences even as the entire music scene was coming under the spell of the new popular rock of the mid-to-late ’60s. “How’d I take to rock?” Christina asks rhetorically. “Well, I went to Shea Stadium to see the Beatles, and that sort of turned me off to rock concerts forever; pressed up against a chain-link fence, with 40,000 screaming girls crushing against you, and no sound to speak of, it was terrible. But I got caught up for a short period of time, certainly. You’ve got to respect the Beatles, of course. And the Stones and the Byrds. It was a weird period, because here I was presented with all the popular rock of the day, like Traffic, and I’d been listening to all this blues. Still, King Crimson and Jimi Hendrix got to me for a while, and I guess I was captivated by it all for a year or two. But I was pretty wide open to anything back then.
“But the stuff that stuck with me after the infatuation passed was like, Carl Perkins. I mean, I played it all, and once I realized where all of this stuff was coming from, I began checking out the original roots of everything that was breaking: Louisiana, South Texas, Memphis, Chicago, that’s what originally drew me to music, and that’s what kept me in it.”
But after the Ann Arbor music scene more or less dried up, Christina found himself discouraged by the day-to-day rigors of the music business, and after 10 years of playing, he decided to hang it up for a while. “I’d gone up to Nova Scotia to visit a friend, and I found a chunk of land and a house up there real cheap, and I just moved up there. I was getting real tired of club owners screwing me around, so I didn’t want anything to do with it for a while. It’s actually Duke Robillard’s fault that I left Nova Scotia and began playing again, but I was up there for a good four years, and in that time I started playing with the T-Birds. A friend of mine, John Nicholas, who used to play with Asleep At The Wheel, was the one that put us together.
“You see, the T-Birds came up to New England and they brought along a drummer who had never been out of Texas before… I guess he was like 45 or so, and he just didn’t know how to handle it when they hit Boston. And they woke up one morning and he was gone, no note or nothing, right in the middle of a long tour. So my friend John heard that they were looking for a drummer, and told them there was this guy who lived up in Canada. And they called me up. Well, they didn’t call me up. I didn’t have a phone, so they called the Canadian Mounties, and had them deliver the message that ’The Fabulous Thunderbirds need you to play drums next week in London, Ontario.’” Christina breaks up at the memory. “So then, I had to hitchhike from Nova Scotia to London, just south of Toronto, about 1500 miles, and it took me a couple of days, because I didn’t think I’d have that much trouble getting rides. All I brought along were my sticks and my snare, because when their drummer split he just left the drums, so I used his old set of Slingerlands, which had been through a pretty thorough beating.
“All I knew about the T-Birds, because I’d never heard them you understand, was that my friend John thought that they played my kind of music and that we’d work out well together. And from the first note it was like, ’I’ve found my brothers!’ Me and Jimmy just kept looking at each other, surprising the hell out of one another. He’d respond perfectly to some idea I threw out at him, and it was fantastic; it was just the way I’d always been thinking about this music. So I’d play with them on the road in New England anytime they were up in my neck of the woods, and it just grew from there.
“The role of the drummer in this music is just about as basic as you can get. Forget the flash and the trash and just get down to drivin’ the band from the bottom, kick ’em in the butt. I know that the simpler I play, the more straight-ahead, the better the band plays, especially the guitar player. With harp players… well, harp players get a drive happening out of accenting the groove; there’s a certain kind of push that harp players need from me. When they go to accent things, it really has to have that push. That’s where I would use accents more, whereas guitar players like Jimmy, I don’t know about most guitar players, but what Jimmy likes is something to ride on. He has a sense of time that’s so strong, he doesn’t need me to remind him of the beat, just to make it bigger and prettier. The great thing about this band is that we all have a similar time sense; we don’t think about the time, it’s just a feel that we share. Keith and I are so tight I don’t even have to listen to him. he’s always there. It’s really a shock to me on the infrequent occasions when he does stumble a bit, which is like, never. The way these cats play is so laid-back, unpremeditated and spontaneous. Everybody is playing at it, and not playing. Down there in Texas, most of them grew up with their instruments in their hands, listening to the same sources, some really raw shit happening musically, something that you can’t shake. It’s a thing that’s indigenous to Southwest Texas and Louisiana, that real ancient rhythm & blues.
“That’s why we can play as a unit the way we do. When you don’t have to think about the music and the time, it’s so easy, because you don’t have to be considering, ’Well, how should I play this fill, or where should I put this accent?’ Then you’re playing music, and that’s when it starts to happen. That’s why it’s difficult in the studio, because you start planning. ’I’m going to do this here, and put that there.’ You can’t play music while you’re thinking about arithmetic. You’ve just got to let it breathe and come out of the sticks.”
All of which brings us beyond a discussion of musical attitudes and into a bit of background on the different kits and setups Christina has used over the years; the peculiar challenges of playing live or in the studio; and coping with musicians who possess differing styles and time feels.
“I always loved the sound of those old Slingerland Radio Kings,” Christina enthuses. “They have an incredibly fat, warm sound. I’ve had a number of sets of them over the years, and that’s what I’ve got now at home in my little practice room. They’re my favorites. The only drums I’ve ever found that I liked as much were an old set of Fibes… which is an interesting story. I was just home at my folks last week, and my younger brother, who plays drums too, called me up to tell me he thinks he found my set of drums. You see, I had this set of Fibes stolen when I came down from Nova Scotia to play with Scott Hamilton, Chris Flory and Mike Ashton (who play with the Widespread Depression Orchestra); we have this little four-piece bebop band called the Whiz Kids. And I’d gone down to Boston, stayed over at a friend’s house and had my drums in the back of the car, I had a gig with these guys that night in Providence. So that day, my wife, who trains horses, had a horse running at Suffolk Downs. I went to see her horse and didn’t even bet on the thing, and it came in at like 30 to 1. So I came back to my car to go to the gig, all bummed out because I didn’t bet on this horse, and when I opened the trunk the Fibes are gone, and those cymbals I was telling you about, too,” he added with an audible sigh.
“And these Fibes were a really neat set of drums, like one of the original sets when the guy started making ’em, just before he got bought out by Martin; I’d really fallen in love with those things when I heard Mose Allison’s drummer playing a set. I liked the way those drums were real punchy and crisp, a little too crisp, in fact, for me. So what I did was put calfskin heads on ’em, and it was neat, because you got a warm sound but it was still punchy. So these were stolen like nine years ago, just as I was getting used to them, and my brother’d been looking for the same type of drums, and he found a set of Fibes and they were those drums, believe it or not. So right now they’re owned by my sister-in-law’s cousin’s son, with all these thrashing marks on ’em so I know they’re the ones. Pretty wild, huh? I’m thinking of going over and asking him if I can buy them back.
“But what I’m doing now is making a set of drums. I sent this guy MacSweeney at Eames up in Boston my specs for what I want, and I understand he builds great shells; so he’ll send them to me, and I’m just going to paint them myself. I’ve got a good friend in Austin who’s a guitar painter, and he’s teaching me how to use the gun and all, and I’m going to put custom hardware on it, the very best I can find.
“I’m in a different situation now, where I’m not playing acoustic anymore; I’m playing amplified drums, and I hate to admit it, but I have to mike my drums, they have to be miked. I don’t hear them the same way; the sound isn’t reproduced the same way for the audience, so it’s like I’m starting over again. I mean, I had my set of Radio Kings that I found in a garbage can right next door to my house that I refinished, a great set of drums, real meaty sounding and warm with these mahogany shells, but I just took them off the road because they were taking a beating and it wasn’t working out.”
“Weren’t they projecting,” I wondered?
“Well, it’s not a matter of projecting,” he explained.
“You mean that all of these wonderful subtleties of tone which you were used to hearing just don’t carry over live, because the frequencies cancel out?”
“That’s the deal,” Christina concluded. “I have to make a compromise between what my sound is on stage, and what the sound man has to work with. So I have to work with him to some extent; I mean, I tell him what I want and what I’m pre pared to do. Like I’m not going to take the bottom heads off and I’m not going to make the drums feel like I’m banging on a paper bag. I want to be able to get something close to the sound I’m used to. We have our own sound man on tour, and he’s real receptive and understanding, so he’s pretty much got it together. But he’s up against it as well, from playing places that seat 500 to an 18,000-seat hall. Those subtleties just don’t come through, so the name of the game is punch, which is basically the way I play with the T-Birds, probably with anybody I’d like to play with. It’s the kind of stuff I’ve always played, you know, hard blues; straightforward heavy-backbeat kind of stuff.
“The drums are all Premier that I’m using now. The snare drum is like an 8 1/2″ x 14″, I think. I just asked them to send me the biggest, meatiest snare drum they could, and this is what they came up with. It’s what you would call a fairly loose, open-sounding snare drum.”
Sure. Unlike those snare drums that go “thwack,” but choke up right next to the hoop.
“Yeah, I hate that too. It’s like the drum’s saying ’I ain’t supposed to do nothin’; I’m right out on the outer limits.’ I like a snare to sound like a snare. I’m still working with my soundman Dave to get the sound that we both like. I like the snare to have some depth, some shot and some pop. The other drums I’m using are a 14 x 24 bass drum, and a 9 x 13 rack tom, and a 16 x 16 floor tom. With the new kit I’m having made it’s practically the same thing, except the kick drum will be two inches deeper, so it’ll be 16 x 24, and the rack tom will be 10 x 14. I’m hoping that the extra depth on the bass drum will make it more like that donut when the punch comes through there. It’ll be interesting to see how the drums will react with those thick wooden shells. I suspect that with the birch shells it’ll project better, yet still keep the sound warm; it may be a mistake but I have to try it out, because I think that the way we have the drums miked now, we can get the punch out of them, but I still want the warmth, and that’s so easy to lose.”
The whole art of amplified drums, is in miking the kit so as to bring out the fundamental. But how does one bring out the center of the stroke without sacrificing all of the tone and resonance one is used to hearing in an unmiked acoustic kit?
“Well, that’s a challenge. All I really want out of my sound man is to help me project the sound I like to hear, and I’m willing to stretch a little. I mean, I never, ever used to use Pinstripe heads; I was always just a straight Ambassador or calfskin man, all the way. But that was only a minor concession for me, just to get rid of some of the ring, and Pinstripes are a good compromise because they don’t impair my technique, and they have a nice, warm, fat sound. You see, I always like to play drums with a lot of ring, and acoustically it doesn’t make much difference, but in miking it, that just amplifies the overtones and the ring more than it does the fundamental sound of the drum. So I had to compensate for that. I’m always learning.
“Through using the Pinstripes, I’ve been able to bring out more of the sound of the drum. I just tune the drums up so that they sound in tune with themselves; not up to pitch, even though it ends up as one; and I suppose over the years I’ve been hearing a particular interval that I like. Mainly, though, I just tune to get the feel of the drum right, and to bring out its individual voice. It’s funny, I’ve heard people play on my drums, and it’s just not the same thing. The way I play, I can’t sit in the house and listen to someone play my drums, because they just don’t sound the way I play them. It has something to do with my technique, I guess.”
As Christina and Dave didn’t bring their own mic’s out for the most recent T-Bird tour, each situation has presented a unique opportunity for trial and error. “Right now we’re just using whatever the clubs have,” Christina shrugs. “Generally we like Sennheisers and Shures. Shures are particularly good for the snare, like the Shure SM57 or 58. Sennheiser 42/s are good, too, for toms and stuff; and we decided that we really liked the AKG D12A for the bass drum. Every gig we try out different mic’s, always experimenting to figure out which mic’s hear what, and we narrow it down to what I like to get out of the drums, and what the mic’s are capable of. So pretty soon we’ll find the mix we like instead of just going with the house mic’s.”
Fran’s road manager interrupts our ruminations with a reminder that soundcheck is at 5:00, and the guys want to get back to the hotel. We walk across the street to the Bottom Line, where we find Jimmy Vaughn struggling to locate a noise source in his signal chain. The sound of his Fender Twin Reverb, Stratocaster and Leslie cabinet is wet and reverberant; his ringing blues phrases hang in the air like a curtain of tears. I see what Christina means about the Thunderbirds’ time sense. They are swinging without a drummer, and apparently they don’t require their drummer to play like a fashionable metronome, digging coal out of his snare drum. Christina begins orchestrating the band’s groove in an offhand but firm manner, feeling free to signify and cajole, yet never getting in the way. He throws out a few smoke signals to me, as well, commenting musically on some of the styles and postures we’d dis pull up a few plums from his other bags, including swing figurations and some stick-juggling flash. “Stop showing off,” says his soundman, teasing him dryly.
I told Fran that I never suspected he had all this show biz stuff together. “Yeah, that’s fun,” he chuckled. “Sonny Payne with Count Basie inspired me to try that; an unbelievable drummer I mean, I just fool around with it. When Basie would be doing these flag waving, uptempo things, Sonny’s one hand would be carrying the beat, and he’d flip this stick behind his back without even looking, catch it, and bring it in on the snare right on the beat, after falling like 30 feet in the air. Man, he had more rhythm in his baby finger than I have in my whole body.
“I guess I picked up on all that big band swing stuff through my experiences with Roomful. Asleep At The Wheel was more Texas/western swing, but that’s a similar groove. I guess my jazz licks come from playing with my friends in the Whiz Kids. I don’t even know where I picked all that up.”
“Well, when you’re not thinking about what you’re doing,” I quipped, “what do you think might be the difference in posture between what you’re doing when playing the low-down dirty beat, and the swing beat?”
“The low-down dirty beat I have no problem with,” he asserts, “because that’s just they way I hear things. I never even knew there was a difference until I started playing with Asleep At The Wheel. Then I realized that there was a difference between playing Charlie Christian/Count Basie swing and country/western swing, which was just a white version, what I call cracker swing.
“You don’t even realize what the difference is until you look at it real close. To me, the beat is like a foot long, and for the kind of thing I usually play, backbeat stuff, that’s just what it is; you play the tail end of that note, and that’s what I think gives it the fatness and the depth and stuff. Now when I started playing country/western swing, it’s more like at the beginning of the top-end of the beat. Do you follow what I’m talking about?”
“Well, I usually think of jazz as being a horizontal beat,” I said, “rock as a vertical beat, and funk as a diagonal beat. I think what you’re saying has to do with treatment and interpretation of the beat; how you syncopate on or off the beat.”
Christina continued: “It’s like if you took the same song, and had different cats play it, you’d hear a different inflection. Like in cracker swing, if you put a metronome on it, it would probably be right on time, but if you took the same song with some black swing players, it would still be right on time, but the metronome wouldn’t mean so much. It’s like you wait until the last possible second to hit the drum.
“That came up during our collaboration with Carlos Santana on his latest solo album; he wanted the T-Birds to be on the album. People forget, but his original band was the Santana Blues Band. It’s funny, because when we started working with Carlos, coming from the Latin side of rhythm, their time is more on the front of the beat, right on top of the ’one,’ really pushing it; and, well, I play the back of the beat, so far back you almost fall off, but not quite. And when we got together it wasn’t clicking; we were playing the same thing, and it was all in time, but it was like an outer-space docking procedure to get it together.
“We were doing blues tunes, only with Latin percussionists. We had Santana’s fantastic Cuban-wall-of-rhythm, and we came up with some new kind of fusion music. I don’t ever think I’ve heard the blues sound that way, once we came up with a compromise on how to accent the ’one’ so it didn’t just pull apart. We’ve got the most unique version of Bo Diddley’s ’Who Do You Love’ that you’ll ever hear, only I didn’t do the tom-tom thing, just a straight backbeat with the Cuban wall puttin’ their Latin flavor to it, and it was really a gas. That’s like the difference between the cracker swing and the Basie swing it’s a matter of where you put the feel. The cracker thing is a little more on the beat, while the Basie thing is a little bit more of a laid back, up-from-the-bottom kind of push. You really lay back and everybody gets a chance to feel the space in between the notes and to do what they want with the time. It makes it real soulful.”
Which is as good a way as any to sum up Fran Christina’s style of drumming, a triumph of gut feeling over empty chops. Some of today’s hyper-clean jock drummers (and engineers) might miss the point of his sound, inadvertently hear it as sloppy, and try and suggest that he, you know, “Clean up a bit man; muffle them drums; get into that practiced, precision sound.” Which is not to suggest that Fran Christina isn’t takin’ care of biz. No. But Fran Christina is a feel drummer; he knows the language, the vocabulary of the blues, and he ain’t interested in being MOD-Dern or trendy.
“I have the type of drumsets and sound that most engineers cringe at in the studio. They start coming at me with pillows and gaffer’s tape, but I just tell ’em where I’m at when I get there. And then they say, ’Well, what do you want to sound like?’ And I tell ’em, ’Look, just make me sound like Al Jackson.’ They have a hard time doing that nowadays, but you know, those articles you had in Modern Drummer on microphones were really helpful to me the last time we went into the studio to do T-Bird Rhythm. That gave me some good in put to go by when we were working on the drum sound.
“I’ll tell you,” he confides, “I love playing with the T-Birds. I get to play a lot of fills and a lot of energy, but I honestly don’t know what they are, what they’re going to be, or what it is I’m doing or what you’d call it. I try not to think about it I just try to let go and move with the music and I usually don’t have any problems. As far as practice goes, I’ve never been a rudimentary-reading type. Not at all. You know, I make my little attempts from time to time, to learn to read. But invariably I get bored and feel like playing. I’m a little old for that now, but I’ve come this far without it, so what the hell. Besides, I’ve had real on-the-job training in playing this music since I was 15. Practice, and I’m not just copping an attitude or anything, has never been convenient. Drummers know what I’m talking about. It’s really hard to find a space to practice where people aren’t bugged by the sound, and hey, I can sympathize with them. I mean, who the hell wants to listen to somebody practice their chops all day? It’s a drag, and if I had to listen to it, I’d go nuts, too even if it was Art Blakey. Just for myself, I love my drums, and I love my wife, and I figured I could keep both if I didn’t practice.”