You’d never guess that Tom Ardolino is a drummer just by looking at him. He’s neither lean and sinewy like Ginger Baker, nor is he the smooth, cool Kenney Jones or Charlie Watts type. He doesn’t have that tense, ready-to-spring look that so many drummers wear constantly. No, Ardolino looks like a carefree young boy with bouncy black banana curls and a shy, tentative smile. He’s even a little chubby, with a bounce in his step.
However, for anyone who has ever seen him work, it’s hard to reconcile this perky, impish youthfulness with the demon he becomes behind his drums. He is the fuel used by NRBQ, the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, a band that has been around for more than a decade playing Eastern colleges, inner-city clubs and cow towns with equal relish. Finally, NRBQ is getting some attention, largely due to its 1983 album, Grooves In Orbit, which is the best and most fun piece of business the NRBQ guys have ever etched into vinyl. The album got people all over the country out to see this group, but it doesn’t explain half of what NRBQ is really about.
The phrase that came to me one night, while watching the band play its annual hometown show in Louisville, Kentucky, is “anarchy made fun. “I think that phrase describes more about NRBQ than any thing on the group’s albums—originally recorded on the Red Rooster label, but now available on Bearsville. What you get at an NRBQ show is an evening of surprises, regardless of whether you are a new fan or an old one. First, they’ll tear into a pop standard like “This Old House, ” taking it entirely seriously and making it more joyous than it has ever been before. Next, they might decide to dismantle entirely something they don’t think too highly of, such as Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald,” under the pretense of playing the crowd’s favorites. They might bring on Skeeter Davis, one of the group’s favorite artists, or they might pull out “The Box, ” into which fans can place requests that the band actually plays and seems to enjoy. They promise that no song will stump them.
This is not to say that NRBQ is a cover band. Their own tunes, such as pop ditties like “When Things Was Cheap” or raunched up rock like “Me And The Boys, ” are the best songs they do. These various styles are held together by the enthusiasm and attitude of the performers. The band is comprised of Terry Adams, primary composer and keyboardist, Al Anderson, guitarist, Joey Spampinalo, bassist, and Tom Ardolino, drummer. At present, NRBQ also includes The Whole Wheat Horns: Adams’ brother Donn on trombone and Keith Spring on sax.
Ardolino is actually the newest member of the band, with ten years in the saddle. NRBQ is his first and only band; he stated that he can’t imagine playing with anyone else. Some of what Ardolino says tends to sound ingenuous, but that’s not what he’s about. Instead, he conies across like the world’s last great innocent, and he comes across that way every time you talk to him. When I caught up with him just after a gig, he was thrilled to be interviewed, but surprised that such a scripts and technical publication as Modern Drummer wanted a story about him. “I really don’t know much about drums, “he said, but we persevered.
LN: When did you become interested in music?
TA: I remember records all the way back to age two, but the first one that really got to me was the Hollywood Flames’ “Buzz, Buzz, Buzz.” And I was stuck from that point on. I’ve always been around records since then. I had two brothers who were both in their teens when I was a toddler, so there was music around the house for as long as I can remember.
LN: What inspired you to become a musician?
TA: The Beatles had a big effect on me. For my ninth birthday, I picked out Meet The Beatles. I already had records, of course. I had the Chipmunks first album, and I always liked the Coasters and the Monkees. I was still young enough for that stuff. I knew, even then, that they weren’t the Beatles, but they were fun.
I’d started drumming on pots and pans. I’d go out to the kitchen, and take out all my mom’s pots and the lids. Then I’d just play around. I guess I just liked the sounds, but then somebody gave me a set of brushes and that kept me going. There was this kid down the street who had a set of drums. He wanted to borrow some of my albums, and I made a deal with him. He could borrow my albums if I could play for an hour on his drums. I just went at it and had fun. I played with the records I liked, but I didn’t really think about it. I just really liked doing it. I didn’t think I’d be doing this forever. For a while, I wanted to be a DJ—when I was about eight or nine—but I knew I wanted to be connected with music.
LN: What about your education? Did you ever study drums or play in the high school bands?
TA: I guess I was a good student. In high school, I was in the honor society because it got me out of class. Getting good grades was easy. Music also got you out of class, so I played the piano. But the principal didn’t like it because I’d play Cecil Taylor type music. By the time I got to high school, I was already that way, but I never was in a band or music classes. Marching band was just not for me. I had a friend at a different school who would always want to play stuff like “Up, Up And Away” with the stage band, but I always just wanted to play the stuff I liked.
LN: You said that you never studied music, but you played Cecil Taylor. How did that happen? Could you read music?
TA: Well, I had an old clavinet at home, and I’d just play by ear. But with Cecil Taylor, what I meant was, I like the way he gets wild. I didn’t know what I was doing; he does. But I was letting it all out—what I had heard in his playing—sort of relating to his ideas. But, no, I can’t really play Cecil Taylor.
LN: What about other bands before NRBQ? When were you first in a band?
TA: NRBQ is my first band. I always just played by myself down in the basement, to my records. One Christmas, I got one drum and a cymbal. The next Christmas I got a really cheap set. After that, I was always in the basement. Friends would come over and play my clavinet. One guy had a bass; it was wild to play with a bass player.
LN: Did you say that NRBQ is your first band? How did you get into such an accomplished group if you’d never played before?
TA: Well, it’s a crazy story. In 1970, when I was old enough to see bands playing live, I went to downtown Springfield, Massachusetts, to a movie theater where bands would play. That’s where I first heard NRBQ, and something just came over me, like a smell in the room or something. So I wrote a letter to Terry and he answered me. We started trading tapes. I finally met them, introduced myself, and Terry invited me to visit. By this time, I knew all of their music, and they were my favorite band.
I visited Terry, and one day when they played a club, they got an encore. Well, the drummer had gone off stage and just never came back. So Joey said, “Get on the drums!” I was so afraid, but Joey said, “Do it!” Terry had seen that we thought the same through our letters. Even now, a lot of times, we think the same thing. Everyone’s like that in the band; we’re all good friends. Anyway, we played the encore song—”Do You Feel It”—and Al couldn’t believe it wasn’t the regular drummer. He was really surprised! We got a big laugh out of that, because he’s usually laid back and low-key, but he was really shocked.
LN: So they just asked you to join, right then and there?
TA: Well, no. It was a few years later, when I was about 19. Their drummer was leaving because the band was moving to Florida. Terry found me at my job at KMart—the only other job I’ve ever had—and asked if I wanted to join. I said sure. It just about knocked me over, but I knew all the songs. I had known them for years by then and I knew how all of them ended. Once we started rehearsing, it was easy. My biggest problem was playing too soft, and Terry would keep saying, “Play louder!” We’d do full-hour rehearsals at which I would play as loud as I could to get in practice. For the first couple of months, I had six fingers that would bleed every night. Not any more though—I have real big callouses now. No Ivory Soap ads for me.
LN: What is it like to work with guys like Terry and Donn?
TA: You never know what’s going to happen next, and that’s what keeps it interesting. Our sets are never the same. Terry calls them, and sometimes there will be something we never played before. All of a sudden, we might do a Tom Jones medley—” It’s Not Unusual” and “What’s New Pussycat”—because we listen to all kinds of stuff all the time. A lot of times with a new song, we just do it on stage. Sometimes, the first time is the best.
We did an album with Skeeter Davis called End Of The World, which is coming out in England. Everyone in the band likes her, and Red Rooster was going to put out an album on the Davis Sisters 45s. But we’re open to all kinds of influences. I like a lot of people—Jonathan Richman, the Japanese, the Incredible Casuals, who have a 45 on Red Rooster. That band has a drummer who was a friend of mine in Springfield—the guy in the stage band in high school. I also like Akiko Yano, Sun Ra—well, everyone’s crazy over Sun Ra. The Shaggs are our favorite! And Burt Bacharach. We’re just trying to make the best music we can.
LN: Are you putting me on? That’s a pretty diverse list of influences, and I doubt that anyone would ever think of Sun Ra as one of NRBQ’s influences.
TA: No, it’s no put on, really. Sun Ra just plays anything. There are no rules but it makes sense, and yet it’s always surprising. I believe he could do anything and make it understandable. Burt Bacharach, on the other hand, writes great songs—real songs. Lately, so much of the stuff I’ve heard has no real melody, and his melodies are great. Of course, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson’s melodies are the best; they give me goose bumps and I like that. The Shaggs are just unique and unaffected. They have no outside influences; they just go at it, and I think that’s what all of us like about them.
LN: Do you rehearse a lot when you’re not on the road?
TA: No, not really. Sometimes one of the guys will arrange something, and we’ll all try it out. The real basic stuff about reading or arranging I can understand, depending on how it’s put to me. But usually, I just go for it, and we work things out when we’re all together. We’ll start playing, and if it isn’t right, we hear it right away. That comes from everyone liking the same stuff. We’re always trying to find something new to play.
LN: Do you have any off time on the road? What’s that life like?
TA: We do a lot of riding and a lot of listening to tapes on the bus. And we eat a lo of grilled cheese sandwiches; Al’s the only one who eats meat, so usually we end up at HoJo’s. I’m always trying to find a record store in every town we play. I like used record stores, and I just like to rummage. Sometimes I’ll go to “collectors’ ” stores, but they charge you a lot more. Basically, we go to eat, get ready to play, play, watch TV, sleep, and then do it all over again.
LN: But that can’t keep the band going. That sounds awful, in fact. What does keep the band going, especially in light of the need to succeed or be out of a label?
TA: It’s just the love of playing music and doing it our way. People are always trying to tell us not to go in too many directions, to concentrate on one thing, and then we’ll be a hit. But that would be useless. We have to like what we’re doing first. We hope the people will like it too, but first we have to like it.
LN: Do you all have families? Do they ever travel with you?
TA: Well, not families. I don’t plan to have any kids. But everyone in the band has a girlfriend. They don’t travel with us, because it would be confusing. When we’re playing, it’s just the band and there’s nothing for them to do.
LN: Which drummer influenced your sound most? Who do you continue to listen to and like?
TA: I thought Frankie Dunlop, who was with Thelonious Monk in the ’60s, was really great. And I liked Ringo, of course, and Charlie Watts. I really like what Watts plays. He plays the beat really well, and he’s just right there without ever butting in. There aren’t many soloists I can listen to, but I love Art Blakey and Earl Palmer.
I have a lot of old records they played on. I also like the Meters and the Neville Brothers; it’s as much fun to play second line as it is to listen to.
LN: What is it you like about Palmer and Blakey?
TA: Both of them just play great on any record they’re on. It’s everything—the beat, the dynamics. Sometimes it’s what they don’t play rather than how many beats they can fit.
LN: Do you do exercises or anything to keep your technique together?
TA: Well, I’d always like to do more, but we’ve been happy the way we are. It seems like hardly anyone really swings anymore, and I like my playing to be more feeling than technical.
LN: Have you ever worked with a metronome or a click track?
TA: No. A metronome seems like it would be really wrong. Why would anyone do that? It doesn’t seem like a good idea to me, because it would get too mechanical. No, that seems really wrong to me.
LN: Do you have a “philosophy” of the drums or a strict idea about how you want to play?
TA: I just want to back everyone up well. I don’t have any real technical knowledge, so it’s basically modifying my playing to whatever’s happening, which changes every night. Every single night it comes out differently. I don’t like complexity for the sake of complexity. And I’m a loose player; not tight. I like to fit with everything else going on. Once in a while, I’11 flip out and play something funny—not to show off, but just for fun. Mainly, I don’t want to be bored, so I like the idea of no rules. There’s also no group discussion. I just wish everyone would play softer so I wouldn’t have to beat so hard all the time.
LN: What equipment do you use?
TA: Just regular drums—one tom and one floor tom. I don’t have a thousand drums around me, just a regular old kit. A lot of times, I won’t even see my drums until we go on stage. And I don’t tune anything. I just try to keep the sound I like.
LN: Have you tried any of the new electronic drums?
TA: No, not yet, but it seems like it might be fun. There must be some good way to use them, but maybe I just don’t like them. It just seems like people are using them instead of good drummers, and they have a machine-like sound I don’t like. Or at least, I haven’t heard anything I like so far.
LN: Do you still play in your basement?
TA: No, I don’t play by myself anymore at all. I don’t even have a drumset at my house or a practice pad. I’ve never had one.
LN: So where are you now? Are there worlds yet to conquer or goals you’ve yet to reach?
TA: Well, no one’s going to tell me what to play or how to play—especially not in this band. I get a little input from my girlfriend or other friends, but life really revolves around the band. There’s really nothing else but the band. Really, there’s no thinking about the future, even though we know things will change. There’s always change, but we just go from day to day. But I don’t think we’re missing anything. In fact, I don’t think we could do anything else. And I know there’s no one else I’d like to play with. This is the life right now.