In setting up this interview with Chris Steffler, drummer of the hugely popular Toronto band, Platinum Blonde, I was impressed by how easy he was to reach. After only two calls to his management, I was able to talk to the lean, lanky percussionist for one of Canada’s most promising and impressive new bands.
My ease in contacting Chris is surprising if one considers the recent overwhelming success of Platinum Blonde. After touring extensively with a number of big-name bands, their recent headlining concert at Toronto’s City Hall attracted some 25,000 fans. Their debut album, Standing In The Dark, has sold well, both in the States and overseas, and has gone appropriately platinum in Canada, edging closer to double-platinum status.
In his comfortable Toronto apartment, Chris and I discussed some of his child- hood experiences, his learning to play the drums, his period as a drumming instructor, and his newfound success with Platinum Blonde. He also talked excitedly about his most recent “toys and outboard gear,” referring to his array of sophisticated gadgetry.
He is a unique fusion of solid, versatile playing and keen, technical insight in dealing with innovative electronic percussion. About Simmons, drum machines, and other synthesized percussion, Chris comments, ”It’s a 1980s approach to entertain- ing.” Chris Steffler, complete with his complex electronic equipment and a dynamic southpaw style all his own, is certainly a drummer of the ’80s.
SP: How and when did you get your first drumset?
CS: Actually, when I was in seventh grade, my aunt played drums in a C&W band. I walked upstairs to her room one night and saw this set of drums. The drums just seemed so ominous, and they were so big and sparkling. They were really cool, and I thought, “Man, these things are so huge compared to a mouth organ or a guitar.”
They were a ninth-hand set of Olympics, but they had reasonably good cymbals. I remember that they were an English drum, and I broke the head on the tom-tom after I owned them for a while. Nobody had a metric head for it, so I had to get one made out of calfskin. It sounded like garbage, because it didn’t match up to the plastic ones.
SP: Who were your earliest influences?
CS: Probably Keith Moon, Ringo, John Bonham—’70s types—and a dash of Gene Krupa. I tried to retain something that was interesting from everybody. But it was mostly the heavy glitter-rock thing, because that was what was happening when I became interested in music, while I was in high school.
SP: Who do you listen to today?
CS: I like everybody—rock and jazzish. I tend to go for more of a new music sound, because those are the records I buy. But I’ll buy a Buddy Rich or a Louie Bellson album, just so I can see if I can steal something, [laughs] Not really, it’s more the new music.
SP: What made you become a professional musician? Can you remember when you made that decision?
CS: Actually, the one thing that really made me decide that drumming was the thing for me was when I was working for a ship-building company. I was welding in the bottom of a ship in a frozen harbor. You could hardly stand up in this thing, and it was pitch black down there. I came up for lunch, and my face was black with soot. I walked up onto the deck—it was freezing out—and I just said to myself, “I think I’m going to practice more.” [laughs] I knew it could be better for me, if I put my mind to it. I just threw myself into a major scene and moved to Toronto from this small town.
SP: Did you get a lot of encouragement from your family in the beginning?
CS: I have to thank both of my parents a lot. Without them, I couldn’t be what I am now. My mom would drive me to drum lessons and would pay for them when I was a kid. Not only that, but my parents would put up with endless hours of excessive “crash-boom-bamming” levels.
SP: Aside from formal lessons, how did you learn?
CS: I would play my stereo, put sweaters over my drums, and beat away at them to get the feeling of playing along with other musicians.
SP: Did you work with a metronome as well?
CS: I would suggest that every drummer bow to the metronome. Playing time is really important. I would say that the metronome is one of the gods of drumming. Anybody can play tons of notes and do all kinds of fancy things, but you have to be able to sit down, put the chemistry of a good arrangement together, and play it right in time, especially in a studio situation. That’s when it really counts.
SP: Would you consider yourself a “natural”?
CS: I had to work at it. I taught for about five years. What I saw was that some people are gifted with a natural ability, but I think that everyone has to work on it a bit. No one is just going to walk in and expect to play time well without playing with a metronome.
I guess I’d consider myself a natural to a degree, but I’ve seen studio players who do things I wouldn’t even walk out of the control room to try. Some people have got it so together that it’s scary. It’s good; it’s amazing; it shows you that you can do it.
SP: Do you think teaching drumming influenced your own playing at all?
CS: Yes, it helped me to read and to understand music more on a mathematical basis. It helped me to understand where I was making mistakes when I would watch other people make mistakes. And there were some students who were learning so fast that I had to keep up with them. So it pushed me to get my act together faster.
SP: Would you recommend teaching as a practical alternative to the up-and-coming drummer who can’t find work right away?
CS: It depends. You have to have experience to teach, and most of all, you have to have patience. Like a doctor has to have a bedside manner, you have to have a “drumset-side” manner or else your students won’t stick around. You have to take the people you’re teaching in the direction they want to go, because if you don’t take them in that direction or you bore them with mundane, routine drum stuff, they’ll leave. You have to be very versatile.
SP: You play your hi-hat with your left hand, hitting the snare with your right, yet your setup is right-handed. How and why did you develop this unique style?
CS: When I got this set of drums, I sat behind them and thought, “How in the hell do you play these things?” I was playing rock with my buddies who had these loud amplifiers, and I said, “Man, the snare drum isn’t loud enough.” So I started hitting it with my right hand, [laughs]
Actually, it wasn’t a good way to learn. When I started getting into more serious playing, I found that your strong hand should divide the time. The finer the time division, the easier it is to hold the time. On the hi-hat, you have finer time happening, but on the snare, you have greater time divisions, so theoretically, it’s my weak hand that’s holding time. That was kind of a drag, but then I started getting my timing together and I realized, “Hey, I’ve got a different approach from other drummers.” So it helped me develop more of an individual style.
There are drummers who use the traditional style of grip that can do things I can’t do. I have trouble doing a cut-time shuffle, for instance. But then there are these off-side beats I can do solidly. So it has kind of worked out for the best.
SP: Did you ever try the conventional grip?
CS: I got into it for a while, but I just wasn’t strong enough with it. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I became so settled in my way that it felt the best and the strongest. To feel strong and commanding is what it’s all about when you’re laying it down. You have to feel that way, or else the rest of the band won’t feel that way.
SP: Yours is a right-handed set. Do you find that your style affects your coordination?
CS: Yes and no. At first it did, but I worked it out. I had to set my ride cymbal in a place that was convenient, almost dead center in the middle of my bass drum. I sacrificed my tom setup a bit, but it was worth the physical balance when playing to do it.
SP: How do you work out your fills?
CS: Usually, the tune will dictate the nature of the fill. What I’ll do sometimes to get an original fill is do a rudiment, but take one hand over a practice pad and play the rudiment, with my other hand on the kit. All of a sudden, I’ll get this off-side sounding feel that helps give me original ideas.
SP: What are some important aspects of drumming, in your opinion?
CS: A lot of people reading this article already know this, but as I was learning, I found that less is more. I used to want to put in a lot of notes and have a busy bass drum, but I think that I’ve gotten over that now. 1 also think that arranging is important. Drummers should get into thinking, arranging, and building a tune, as the producers do.
I found that even having fewer drums helped me. I used to have tons of stuff, but I saw what some of the jazz greats were doing on those little sets and I thought, “They’re making those drums sing!” I realized that I would sometimes have to reach too far to play something, which could make me come in too late for a change. So I dumped the cymbal, or what- ever it was, and all of a sudden, I felt like I was right on top of things. Even equipment-wise, having less is more sometimes.
SP: Let’s talk about your current setup. What are you playing right now?
CS: I have a Ludwig 8″ deep Coliseum snare drum now. My three toms are all Simmons; I don’t use any acoustic toms. I have a Ludwig 28″ bass drum, which is in front of my Simmons kick drum, and holds up my ride cymbal and my stick-holder. [laughs] I also have a timbale, which is basically an old Stewart snare drum with the bottom head taken out. I had a real timbale, but I wasn’t getting enough crack out of it and I wanted a weirder, more different sound. So I tried this thing and cranked it to really get a crack.
SP: What about cymbals?
CS: I use mostly Sabian. I have a 21″ ride, 15″, 16″, 18″, and 20″ crashes, and 14″ hi-hats.
SP: Why Sabian?
CS: It’s a solid cymbal. I bought a pair of Sabian hi-hats recently, and I’m really happy with their feel.
SP: Aside from Simmons, have you tried any other types of electronic percussion?
CS: I’m getting in to more technical aspects of music, experimenting with my drum machine unit, the Sequential Circuits Drumtracks. I’m also using MIDI, Musical Instrument Digital Interfacing, which allows me to use my drum machine unit to trigger a keyboard to get some percussive keyboard sounds in unison with me and my Drumtracks. It’s interesting and great for filling the gaps, but you can run into problems with tuning and interfacing the units.
SP: Do you think Simmons will take the place of acoustic drums?
CS: At first, a few players were saying, “Oh my God, these drums are fantastic! They’re the best thing since sliced bread!” Now they’re a sound of their own. I think it will be many moons before something takes the place of conventional drums.
Actually, I didn’t like them at first. They were good for the stuff we did on the album, but for the other stuff where I had all these traditional feels, they didn’t feel right. They took some getting used to, but now I’m spoiled. The rebound is incredible, and the sounds are versatile. They feel great for me for the time being.
SP: How would you feel if critics said that all your electronics are a shortcut or a compromise in your playing?
CS: It’s a compromise, but it’s not taking away from me at all. With all the toys to make you sound good, it’s an art in itself. I don’t feel as if I’m slacking off, because the rest of the time I’m slugging it out with just a trio, giving 115%. So I need a break, especially if I’m doing an hour-and-a-half show, plus encores. And some nights, I don’t feel like I want to be up there, because I’m burnt out from being on the road, or I’m sick or I just need sleep. And if I’m entertaining my audience by doing something visually entertaining, while the electronic units cover the technical aspects, I’m still doing my job.
SP: How did Platinum Blonde come together?
CS: One day, I just looked in the paper and saw an ad for a band looking for a drummer. I saw the name, “Mark” and it said, “established.” I thought it might be Mark [Holmes], an old circuit buddy—and it was.
I was basically there for an audition, but he didn’t look at anybody else. He’d seen me play with other bands and knew what I could do, but we had to see if we could gel together. Mark had a list of about 50 guitar players who had phoned about the ad, but things seemed to work out well with Serge [Galli], who was the first guitarist he auditioned. So we were basically the first two guys he checked out. It just felt good from day one.
SP: Why a trio?
CS: The chemistry felt good with three. We almost did go for a fourth member. We auditioned some bass players, so we could put Mark up front, but the feel didn’t work. Plus, management wanted us to keep it to a three-piece group, because they saw we had our act together and that musically it was good. Also, it was cheaper in those days, so they convinced us to keep it a three-piece group. Instead of paying another musician, we put the money toward equipment that would help us fill out our sound.
SP: How did the band arrive at the name Platinum Blonde?
CS: Mark was into hairdressing for a while, and all these women were coming in, asking for hair colors. One lady said, “I’d like blonde hair,” so he pulled out this tube that said, “Platinum Blonde.” He thought, “What a great name for a band!” So he went for it. I guess it wasn’t such a bad idea.
SP: What does the future hold for Platinum Blonde?
CS: We will record our next album this fall in England or L.A. We also have some Canadian and European dates.
SP: Are there any goals to attain before you can tell yourself that you’ve made it?
CS: Just being independent and being a musician is a goal. To be a professional musician is something I’ve always wanted, and I feel really good about that. I’ve always wanted to support myself by making music.
At first, it was the Gasworks, a local club, that was a goal. Once I reached that, there was Toronto’s Massey Hall, the Kingswood Music Theater, and Maple Leaf Gardens. After that, I really wanted to hit New York. We went there, and then it was London. Also, our international release is extremely gratifying. But really … a good band, talent, the material, screaming fans, and all the equipment are worth next to nothing unless you have that other “real world” as a part of it—your managers, the network of people at the record company, and the support of your loved ones. I’ll never take any of this for granted.