Bill Gibson

 

Bill Gibson frees the padlocked garage door on his Marin County rehearsal warehouse, where he’s been hashing out demo tapes for the past 11 years. But these days the drummer is arriving at the old practice place in a shiny black European sedan, because the band he’s a very big part of is Huey Lewis & The News, and unless you happen to be Rip Van Winkle, you know that they are huge.

That’s the way it’s supposed to happen in the biz, isn’t it? Drummer works hard for years and years, keeps his act and the beat together—then gets big payoff. But Gibson could easily have faded into obscurity like so many other talented Marin County musicians. Lewis & The News is one of only a few bands ever to break out of this sometimes-too-comfortable and isolated hamlet just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Indeed, they’ve become a very visible face on MTV airwaves, awards shows, and at concerts around the world.

Because the group has a policy of putting all of its members in its videos, not just using Huey, Bill Gibson is probably one of the more exposed drummers on the video channel. But he didn’t get to his now-enviable position by flashing extraordinary chops or being a super-showman. Gibson is, on the contrary, a consummate ensemble player who beats a rock solid groove, knows when to throw in the fills, and—maybe even more importantly—believed in himself enough to keep at it until he landed in something big.

You’ve probably heard Gibson kicking out the pulse of “Heart Of Rock And Roll,” providing the current for Johnny Golia’s sax or Huey’s harmonica. His fancy fills on the Lewis & The News hit “Heart And Soul,” played between agogo bells and timbales, highlight that track. He slams up a storm on “Walking On A Thin Line,” cymbals ablaze, pounding out some impressive tom-tom breaks.

Gibson was born in Sacramento—California’s centrally located state capital—and moved with his family to Marin at the age of nine. Bill’s dad was a jazz drummer who. was constantly beseeching his son to listen to drummers other than rock ‘n’ rollers. Bill developed an early love for jazz players like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, and today likes jazz-rockers such as Rod Morgenstein and Omar Hakim in addition to more pop-type drummers.

The News’ self-titled debut album in 1980 was recorded very dry, and the strong, sometimes frantic drum performance by Gibson sounds muffled. But the drummer feels the band may have turned things around when it decided to produce itself on the next album, Picture This. Taking more time on the record to get the sounds they wanted, the band scored their first hit, “Do You Believe In Love,” in 1982. A year later they recorded Sports, an album with so many hit songs that the group had to wait nearly three years to record another album for fear of overloading the marketplace.

In his first Modern Drummer interview, Gibson talks about the depth of his involvement with The News, the band’s musical roots, his concepts about drumming and being a partner with technology, and more.

RT: You told me that you’ve been rehearsing at the same studio for 11 years. Have you been with Huey that long?

BG: No, but Mario, the bass player, and I have been playing together since 1969. And Johnny joined our band in 1972. So I’ve been playing with him for 13 years.

RT: Well, that explains why you and Mario sound so tight. You go way back together.

BG: Yeah, we learned how to play together pretty much. We learned how to improvise and all that. Each of us pretty much knows what the other one is going to do next.

RT: And Huey was with Clover during this time?

BG: Huey and Sean were with Clover, right.

RT: What was the band you had with Mario?

BG: It was called Soundhole. We backed up Van Morrison, and played at a club in San Anselmo called the Lion’s Share. Soundhole and Clover were kind of rival bands.

RT: So you knew Huey then.

BG: Oh yeah, I grew up with both Huey and Sean.

RT: What kind of a band was Soundhole?

BG: Funk music, and rhythm & blues. We were a horn band. Everybody in this band [Huey Lewis & The News] grew up listening to black music, except maybe for Mario, whose brother John played with Quicksilver Messenger Service.

RT: Mario seems to have a pretty good ear for the funky stuff, too.

BG: Yeah, he can play all that stuff.

RT: It sounds like you’ve paid some dues. You’ve been at this for a while.

BG: Yeah, I’ve been playing those clubs a long time. We played four sets a night, five or six nights a week for years, and never made anything. We just kept at it, and it’s paid off.

RT: I don’t think records get much bigger than Sports.

BG: Not many of them do: six million in the States; that’s not too shabby. I never expected it to do that, though. That blew my mind.

RT: You had an inkling of what was to come on Picture This. You had a couple of hits on there, didn’t you?

BG: Yeah, “Do You Believe In Love” went to number seven. That was our first hit. The other ones went Top 40, but the album didn’t really do much.

RT: By that you mean it didn’t go platinum?

BG: It just went gold a few months ago. It didn’t do as well as it looked like it was doing. It hit number 13; that’s as high as it got. It looked like it was doing really well, because there were three hits on it. But geez, then you get an album like Sports, and it just goes wild on you. I had no idea.

RT: I guess it can be deceiving to the general public when they see a hit or two off an album. They think, “These guys must be cleaning up.”

BG: That’s right. We were still struggling after Picture This. We had to go out and play clubs all around the States. Even after Sports was in the can, we had to do a long tour just to pay the bills, because we were going through some differences with the record company. Chrysalis was folding, essentially, and we said, “We know we have a great album, but you’re not going to get it, because you’re not going to be able to distribute it properly.” They wanted the album, but we said no. We took the tapes from the studio and stuck them in our office. Finally, they got their thing together and got a new distribution deal with CBS. I think good distribution is really what was responsible for Sports doing so well.

RT: And those videos . . .

BG: Oh yeah, the videos always help if you do them right. We finally got into producing our own videos like we produce the records, and it made all the difference. The first couple of videos we made from Picture This were just horrible. They were done by these L.A. guys who didn’t have a clue as to what we were all about.

RT: The whole band is very visible in your latest videos, and that’s good.

BG: Yeah, we wanted it to be a team effort. That’s the way we write songs. That’s the way we do everything. When we make decisions, it’s all done by committee. Each guy has as much to do with it as the next. It’s not just Huey Lewis and his backup band, like a lot of people would like to think.

RT: Huey is rarely seen without the rest of the band. Of course, there was the Late Night with David Letterman show, when they said that they couldn’t afford the rest of the band.

BG: That’s right. That’s a true story. Actually, I saw Paul Shaffer in New York and said, “Listen Paul, I don’t cost that much, man. Really, I’m cheap. Next time, tell David I’ll do it for nothing.” [laughs]

RT: There’s a good deal of blues influence in the band now, and you play well on the blues feels.

BG: Huey likes the blues more than anybody. I’m more of a funkster/jazzer/rocker. Since Huey plays harmonica, the blues is what he learned to play. I mean, blues for a drummer is pretty boring— not that it’s not challenging. You’ve got to know what it’s all about to be able to play it right—to shuffle and all that.

RT: If you loved funk when you were learning, you couldn’t have escaped hearing a lot of David Garibaldi.

BG: I was a big Tower of Power fan. We all were, as witnessed by us using them on our tours and stuff. Garibaldi used to say that, if you could find the “1,” he wasn’t playing it right. Rocco [Prestia, bassist for Tower] used to tell me stories about how they’d be playing along and have to stop and say, “Dammit David, where are you?” And he’d say, “Just play your own part; I’m playing mine.” “Yeah, but we can’t follow you.” “I’m doing it right.” “Yeah, but it’s backwards.” “That’s right!” He’s excellent.

RT: The band sounds real good with the Tower Of Power horns on “Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do.”

BG: That was written by a friend of ours from Atlanta, Michael Duke, who used to be in Wet Willie. He wrote that tune and sent it to us on a demo. Our manager said, “Man, you guys have got to hear this. It would be perfect for Huey.” So we worked it out. We were in the studio cutting it for the record, and we said, “This song would be great with horns.” We had always wanted to work with Tower Of Power, so we decided to see if we could get them to come and listen. We didn’t put it together with horns in mind; it just kind of happened after we were sitting in the studio listening to it. Greg Adams came down and wrote an arrangement on it, and it just came alive. That’s my favorite tune to play live with Tower Of Power. It still gives me chills.

RT: Who else did you listen to that influenced you?

BG: My dad was a jazz drummer. He raised me up on those big band 78s, with Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Sonny Payne, Jo Jones, and all those jazz drummers. So I listened to a lot of that. Then when rock came along—electric rock—it was pretty much Mitch Mitchell. And there’s a drummer here in the county named Bill Bowen, who was the original drummer with the Sons Of Champlin. He was my hero for years. I thought he was fantastic.

RT: My dad is in music, too. He’s a trumpet player. I think that had a lot to do with my getting interested in music.

BG: Yeah, my dad gave me my first pair of sticks and bought me my first drumset, so he could play on it, too, of course. He wanted it as much as I did.

Bill Gibson

RT: What was your first set?

BG: It was a Ludwig 1965 silver sparkle Super Classic. I still have it. It was top of the line—$400. And he always told me that Zildjian cymbals were the only ones to get.

RT: Did your father teach you how to play, or did you study with someone?

BG: My father taught me how to swing, the “ray ba-do” beat. He said just to think of it like “ray ba-do, ray ba-do, ray ba-do.” I also picked up a lot of stuff. I listened to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys, so I was thrashing around playing rock. But he really taught me finesse more than anything else. He said, “Anybody can play rock, you know. Those drummers are carpenters. Here, learn how to play something classy.” He was funny. Yeah, I put the headphones on for hours and hours and hours, and listened to all kinds of music. I liked Bobby Colomby of Blood, Sweat & Tears; I listened to him a lot.

RT: Did it just come naturally for you when you were a kid?

BG: It did come natural; I had a knack for it. But I played with the headphones on five hours a day for ten years. I drove everybody crazy.

RT: You said that you were in rival bands with Huey and Sean. How is it that you guys got together?

BG: We always liked the way the other guys played, you know. Clover was kind of a country band—country and rock. When Sean and Huey joined the band, they brought in the R&B kind of thing. Then they went to England and played for a while. They thought they’d try to make it over there because they couldn’t do it here. It didn’t happen for them, and when they came back, all six of us were in different groups. Huey was hanging out with Johnny, our sax player, trying to get something together. Then we started putting together these Monday night jam sessions at a club here in Marin. That’s basically how this band started. We all quit what we were doing on the same day to form this band. Basically, we were interested in the same kind of music. We just said, “We like the way you play; you like the way we play. Let’s go.” That was 1979, and the next year, we put out our first record.

RT: You’re carrying a surfboard on the cover of that first album.

BG: That picture is an exact replica of the Beach Boys album cover, Surfer Girl. We’re trying to keep that sense of humor, you know.

RT: When I interviewed Russ Kunkel last year, he said that he’d been influenced by surf bands like the Surfaris.

BG: I was, too. The first songs we learned in the very first band I was in were “Pipeline,” “Penetration,” and all that stuff. Yeah, we were influenced by the surf stuff. Our vocals are definitely influenced by the Beach Boys in the block harmonies and stuff like that. I love singing. I don’t do much singing when I’m playing, but on the a Cappella stuff, I’m able to come down from behind the drums and just sing. That’s a gas. The band has a good blend, too. We sing all the time. We go to parties and end up singing.

RT: It’s getting to be a familiar sight to see you guys do the National Anthem before a football or basketball game.

BG: Yeah, I love that. My legs are just shaking when I walk out on the 20-yard line at Candlestick with both teams lined up. It’s wild.

RT: Do you get more nervous for that than for a big concert?

BG: Absolutely. When I’m behind the drums I’m not nervous at all, but you get out there with nothing, you know, and 50,000 people staring at you and quiet . . .

RT: The double-time snare beat you go to at the end of “Hearts” is nice. Do you write all your own parts in The News?

BG: I pretty much write my own parts, but everybody writes everybody else’s parts, too. It’s hard to say. Huey will come up with something that he thinks sounds good, and I’ll try it. I’ll come up with something for the keyboard player.

RT: That democratic approach works for you guys.

BG: Yeah, it really does. I wrote that song, “Hearts.” I have an 8-track setup, and I write a lot of songs. I pretty much spend most of my time recording. I play keyboards, guitar, and bass as well. The only time I really practice drums is when the band practices. I want to build a studio in my new house so I can play drums there.

RT: How did you learn to play piano and bass?

BG: Self-taught. We always had a piano at our house. My sister and mother played piano. I would just sit down, figure out chords, and learn songs. I just picked it up and started playing. I think it helps me to play drums more musically.

RT: The other guys in the band must like you, because you leave space a lot of times. You don’t always feel the need to put a big fill in.

BG: My theory is, “Less is more,” in most situations. The less you play, the more it’s going to mean when you do hit it.

RT: I guess it’s even more that way in the studio.

BG: Yeah.

RT: When you guys are writing songs, what is going through your minds? Are you thinking, “This one is going to be a single; this one’s going to be a big hit”?

BG: I’ve never written a song thinking that it was going to be big. I guess we’re kind of thinking that way with the songs we’re writing now because we know we’ve got to come up with some hits, right? But it’s not like we’re real worried about it or anything. We figure that, if we write good songs, we’ve already got the base of support, so people are going to listen. I was the last person who thought I Want A New Drug” was going to be a hit. I heard two songs off that album being hits: “Heart And Soul” and “If This Is It.” I said, “Hell, no, ‘Heart Of Rock And Roll’ is not going to be a hit. There’s no way. ‘New Drug’? Forget it.” I thought people wouldn’t even play that song. Then all of a sudden—boom. You never know.

RT: The fill you do on kick drum and snare on “Heart Of Rock And Roll” sounds kind of like one you do on “Who Cares,” from the band’s first album.

BG: Yeah, I like doing stuff like that.

RT: How would you compare the sound of the drums on the first record to what you’re getting now?

BG: About that big [holds his thumb and forefinger an inch apart] compared to about this big [spreads his arms wide]. We did the first record at a little studio in L.A. Oh man, it was like an army surplus studio—big rotary faders, rotary pots, and each different section of the EQ had different little sliders and knobs. It was the funniest looking place. And we went in there wanting to get a real live sound. What we got was a real dinky sound, you know.

RT: Did you know much about recording drums at that point?

BG: No, not much at all. Our first big mistake was having somebody else produce it. But after that album, we started producing ourselves. We spent more time, and got Jim Gaines to engineer. He really knew how to get a good drum sound. And then I just started getting more interested in figuring out how to get the best sound. I wasn’t really that interested then. I had never cut a record before that album, so I really didn’t know how. But now I know how. I just got my new Yamahas, too, and they are fantastic—big, deep toms. I’ll be using them on the new album.

RT: Does Jim Gaines just record your drums the way you have them tuned, or do you work with them?

BG: I have to work with them. I’ve played Sonor drums for the last eight years, and they took a bit of work. We just demo-ed up a couple of tunes last week, and I took the Yamahas in to record with them. I couldn’t believe it. I just set them up and did a little bit of tuning, but they were even all the way down the line. It was great. I can’t wait to get in and really work with them. Gaines was what we needed. He’s the link between us and the studio; you know, you’ve got to go through the board—this big piece of technology—to get it onto tape. And if you don’t have that down, you’re in a world of trouble. That’s really all we needed. We knew what we wanted to play and what we wanted to sound like. We just needed someone to get our sound through all those circuits and make it sound right. Jim really knows how to do it.

RT: Where did you record the drum tracks for Sports!

BG: We did all the drum tracks and basics at Fantasy Studios, and all the overdubs were done at The Record Plant, in Sausalito. But nowadays, it’s kind of sad because it really doesn’t matter where you do the drum tracks. They’ll just take the tracks you have and trigger off an AMS machine. Like on “The Power Of Love,” it’s not my snare drum or kick drum. It’s me playing, but they just trigger off the AMS, and it’s Andy Newmark’s snare drum, and somebody else’s kick drum that they have sampled into the machine. Yeah, it’s getting real technical.

RT: What do you think of all that?

BG: As long as it’s me playing, I really don’t mind how they get the tone, although I’d rather spend the time and get it right initially. Nowadays, it doesn’t seem like they spend that much time trying to get the tone initially. They just think, “Okay, we got the track; we’ll just trigger it later.”

RT: They can save some bucks . . .

BG: Yeah, or just get the fantastic tone by triggering. I guess that’s cool; I don’t mind. But what I’d like to do is get a couple AMS machines, go into the studio, and have my sound in there. Then I can trigger my sound instead of having Huey come back and say, “Yeah, man, how about that snare drum? That’s Andy Newmark’s.” And I kind of go, “Uh, yeah.” I also program. We use the Linn on some tunes. We’ll use the Linn snare and kick, and I’ll go in and overdub cymbals. “Back In Time” [from the movie Back To The Future] is all LinnDrum, with me playing overdubbed live toms and cymbals. The rest of it is Linn; it’s not me playing at all.

RT: Was that a first for you, or did you do it on Sports!

BG: We did it on “New Drug.” I fooled Jeff Porcaro on that one. He and Paul Jamieson said, “Man, you played great on that one. It’s right in the pocket.” I said, “Yeah, thank you.” [laughs] But we do do that on some of the tunes that call for just a real steady beat. Now what we’re getting into more is just having the beat going on the Linn, and I’ll play to it, which is still me playing, but it goes in and out a little bit. It sounds more human, but it’s still steady.

RT: One tune you sound great on is “I Want You,” from the band’s first record. It’s rocking.

BG: Yeah, we played that in our old band. Brian Marnell, who wrote the song, played in Soundhole, too. I played with him for years and years. Yeah, that was a tune he wrote for the old band. We thought it was a good rock tune and might sound good. We pull it out and play it live every so often. It’s a good coliseum tune. There are a lot of fills and stuff. I wish we could rerecord that now, because it sounds so dinky on that album. There are a lot of good tunes on that record, man; it’s just that they’re all so fast, small-sounding, and dry that it just doesn’t do them justice.

RT: Are they faster than you would play them now?

BG: Oh yeah. That was back in our frenzied days—our punk rock days. We were playing everything fast and jumping around like maniacs on stage. We play everything much slower now.’ ‘Trouble In Paradise” rips on our first album, man.

RT: The song “Change Of Heart” on Picture This is high-energy, and you and guitarist Chris Hayes push it along.

BG: He hangs right in there with me. He’s really good rhythmically. He’s always right in there, and he can play anything he wants. He’s a fantastic player and very tasty.

RT: That’s a nice beat you play on “Whatever Happened To True Love” [Picture This], with the tom-toms and tambourine in there.

BG: That was Huey’s idea for the tambourine. We demo-ed that song up ten times, ten different ways, with ten different producers, and it never sounded right. Finally, we produced it ourselves for the record. We still have yet to nail that song. It’s a better song than we have recorded.

RT: The sounds on the Sports album are much bigger—the overall drum sounds.

BG: It’s that big room over at Fantasy: Studio A. It’s a big, square room—fantastic drum tone.

RT: What about the tom-tom sounds on “New Drug”?

BG: All the toms are live, cut in the hallway at the Record Plant. Actually, I did go back and overdub the snare drum over the Linn, all the way through. So there’s a Linn snare drum and a real snare drum.

RT: Did you record in the hallway because you didn’t like any of the studios for recording drums?

BG: Yeah, the rooms are horrible for drums. So we had to wait until all the other sessions were over. It was about 1:00 in the morning before I could set up in the hallway there. It was real bright, but that’s what we wanted. The rooms are so dead that all you hear are the harmonics; you don’t hear the drum really.

RT: I just picked up the extended dance mix of “Power Of Love” done by Jellybean Benitez. What does doing a dance mix involve for you?

BG: Nothing for me, usually. Those guys just get back there, and start cutting and putting stuff in. It’s really absurd, man. I hate that. “New Drug” lends itself to that, but “Power Of Love” is not a disco song, and they just started cutting it up and putting this absurd arrangement on it. I listened to it and thought, “This is absolutely meaningless.” I thought it was terrible. They’d do a dance mix on anything. They’d do a dance mix on “Satin Doll” if it was just released. Those people get in there and go crazy. They put their own arrangement on it, and sometimes they add parts, too. They’ll go in and record on your tape. They put a keyboard part on “Power Of Love,” and I thought that was taking it a little too far.

RT: One of the strongest drum tracks on Sports is “Heart And Soul,” with the well-placed crashes, and open and closed hi-hat work.

BG: Yeah, emphasizing the 2 and 4 on cymbal crashes sometimes in the chorus. That’s fun to play. I’m sick of the song, but it’s fun to play that part.

RT: When you record, how much do you put down live?

BG: We’ll put down the drums, keyboards, guitar, and bass. And nine times out of ten, we’ll go back and scrap everything but the drum track. Well, if somebody hits his part we’ll keep it, but nine times out of ten, we’ll redo most of it, except for the drums.

RT: Mario seems like a fun bass player to work with. He’s not flashy, but he’s right there with you.

BG: He’s very strong and very solid. He’s not flashy at all, and that’s what I like about him. I’m not flashy. I like to think that I play tastefully, but sometimes I know I don’t. I like the “Heart And Soul” track. I went back and overdubbed all those agogo bells, timbales, and stuff.

RT: Those fills are nice in there. Those are timbales?

BG: Yeah, and agogo bells and cowbells—a bunch of stuff. That was fun.

RT: Do you have any electronics in your set now?

BG: I use three Simmons pads, and I trigger off a low tom. I just started doing this before the last tour. Before that, I had a couple of Syndrum pads, and I triggered off the sounds of my Linn machine. But now I’m using a Simmons low tom, a Clap Trap, and agogo bells triggered by a Simmons pad for “Heart And Soul.” I got the agogo bells chips installed in my Simmons, and I trigger it with a pad. It sounds like agogo bells to me.

RT: Do you see yourself doing anything new with drum sounds on the next album?

BG: No, I think it’ll pretty much be like Sports as far as what we do. I’m sure it’s going to be a better album, because every time we go in the studio, -it sounds better and better. I think it’ll probably be pretty much the same approach. I have a whole Simmons kit, but I don’t like the sound of the whole kit. I much prefer acoustic drums. But you can use a couple of tones tastefully, and incorporate them in your set. Everybody uses Simmons—everybody—and that’s why I’ve shied away from them. I don’t want to sound like Animotion or INXS.

RT: Tell me about your new drumkit.

BG: It’s a Yamaha kit with a 24″ kick. I’ve played a 24″ kick ever since I got my Sonor kit nine years ago. I’ve got the deep toms; I think they’re called the Power Recording Custom. It’s quartz grey, which is a new color they’ve got out. Until recently, I was playing with two rack toms and two floor toms, but I’ve now added a third rack tom. They’re 10 x 12, 11 x 13, and 12 x 14. And then I have a 16 x 16 floor tom and an 16 x 18 floor tom. I use Zildjian cymbals: one 16″ K crash, one 18″ K crash, two other 18″ A’s, and a 21″ Rock ride. Leon back at Zildjian turned me on to 13″ hi-hats; I’ve been playing 14″ hi-hats for years.

RT: What do you like about the smaller hi-hats?

BG: They sizzle. They just seem to cut a little more. I have a bunch of smaller cymbals that I may break out for recording, but I don’t think I’ll use them live.

RT: What type of pedal do you use?

BG: I use one of those Drum Workshop chain-drive pedals.

RT: Is there any stick that you swear by?

BG: Regal Tip 5Bs. I’ve tried a lot of other sticks, but those are just the right size and the right feel. I like nylon tips. Wood tips don’t get it on the cymbals for me. I like that real bright nylon sound.

RT: What kind of snare drum do you use? Is it a deep one?

BG: Yeah, it was custom-made for me by this guy in Santa Cruz named Johnny Craviotto. He collects old shells and stuff, and he built a drum for me that I just love. It’s an 8 1/2 x 14. It’s beautiful. I had him put on a Tama roller strainer, where the snares go all the way across the bottom. It’s a wood drum. I can’t remember what kind of hardware he put on it. He just custom-builds everything. I got that snare right before we left on this last tour and used it for the whole tour. Everybody said the snare sounded great. I paid $400 for it, and I think it’s worth it. I like the sound of wood snare drums. You can make them sound like chrome drums; you really can. Tighten them up a lot, and you can really get them sounding close to metal drums.

RT: I interviewed a great guitarist from Marin County who knows you: Terry Haggerty.

BG: I know Terry very well. I used to be roommates with him. He was in The Sons of Champlin—one of the best bands around.

RT: Bill Champlin has gone on to a real successful studio career, and is now in the band Chicago.

BG: I almost played in his band once, right after he quit the Sons and put out a solo album. That was right when I wasn’t doing anything, and he called me one night to talk about playing. But he got Jeff Porcaro and the Totos to play on the record.

RT: There are a lot of good musicians up here in Marin County.

BG: Yeah, there are. It’s just that Marin’s a very hard place to break out of. We were really lucky to be able to do it out of our own backyard.