Casey Scheuerell: With Feeling

by Robert Carr

Casey Scheuerell is the high-powered drummer who is best known us the driving force behind Jean-Luc Ponty’s eclectic violin, on such albums as Cosmic Messenger, Jean-Luc Ponty Live, and A Taste For Passion. He spent two years with Gino Vanelli (Pauper In Paradise album) and has appeared in concert with both artists in Japan, Europe, and North America.

RC: How did you get involved with music?

CS: It started when I was ten years old, and I guess the Beatles were my first real influence. I heard their music and it really drew me in. I had a couple of lessons on piano before that, but there was no piano in the house to practice on. So it was kind of hard to get into really studying music, but when I was ten, I started to take drum lessons. It was an inexpensive instrument to learn, because all you needed was a set of drum sticks. My father was really supportive. He took me to see a lot of local bands, and when I was 13, he took me to a Who concert to see Keith Moon.

RC: Were you really locked into the English music? Is that all you wanted to play?

CS: Actually, I just wanted to play—all kinds of music. The first lessons I took were playing supposedly orchestra music. It was actually just a bunch of kids playing together, but it was as interesting to me as playing any kind of rock-and roll music. I just enjoyed figuring out how to play music and make it happen. I felt I wanted to play jazz, or rock, or big band, or anything that I could get my hands on.

RC: You played with Gino Vanelli, who’s basically a commercial pop music artist, and you’ve spent quite a bit of time playing with Jean-Luc Ponty, who’s more avante-garde or jazz-rock. They seem like opposite ends of the spectrum. Are there similarities between the two groups that you can relate to that made you feel comfortable playing with both of those artists?

CS: They are different, but from a drumming standpoint, there are similarities. When I worked with Gino. we were doing what I don’t really want to call fusion, but it was a kind of high-powered drumming. Jean-Luc required basically the same thing, even though the overall format of the music was different. Gino’s music called for a lot of thought in the arrangement.

RC: You needed a lot of concentration?

CS: Yes, we didn’t really stretch; nobody really took a lot of solos. If there were solos, they were only 24 bars at the most and that’s the only place you really got a chance to open up. You never got a chance to develop a hypnotic thing like you would with Ponty. There we’d play on a groove for 10 minutes and people would take turns soloing. There was no definite time limit to any solo. It was just when the soloist felt he had stated what he wanted to say that it would go on to the next soloist. Jean-Luc’s music was hard in different ways. With Gino’s music you’d often have rhythmic figures that were very tricky to play—not your common figures. The arrangements were everything. With Ponty’s music, there were sections that were worked out— like the beginning of the tune and the end of the tune—and then extended sections that were geared basically towards improvisation. Maybe the entire introduction would be a complete compositional part in itself, where there wouldn’t be much improv at all, and then the next section may have the head and the ending worked out, and the center would be all improvisation. One of his big things was always to give the musicians that freedom to play at some point. With Gino, since everything was worked out, it was more a matter of trying to keep the music fresh every night within that framework.

RC: Were all of your parts worked out, right down to the notes and the exact rhythm patterns?

CS: No, not that much. It was more dealing with form. The form was all worked out. Let’s say you play 12 bars and you knew a fill was coming up. You’d know what the rhythmic figure was that you’d have to play around, but as far as the notes that you play, that was up to you. You wouldn’t play the same fill every night, but the overall figure that you’d play would have to fit in with the rest of the orchestra.

RC: Since everything was fairly well worked out with Vanelli, do you feel that led to more of a consistency from night to night in terms of quality of music you played?

CS: Really, neither gig left that much to chance. With Jean-Luc, there was enough composition, enough arranged parts to be sure they would get over in concert. Neither one of the gigs left that much to improvisation where you wouldn’t be sure whether the band would catch on that night or not.

RC: How much freedom did you have when the arrangements were being made? Were either or both of the artists open to creative input from the individual musicians?

CS: There was actually a great degree of freedom. Both artists would want specific things at particular times, but for the bulk of the music, there has to be a give and take between the artist up front, the arranger, and the musician playing the music. There have to be ideas coming from all of those involved. There has to be a balance. Gino never had anything written out. He would just show us the arrangements at the piano, and then we’d work the arrangements out from that.

RC: So everybody was there when the arrangements were being done?

CS: That’s right. Everybody had a voice in putting the specific song together in terms of the arrangement.

RC: Was working with Jean-Luc a similar situation?

CS: With Jean-Luc, it was a little bit different in the sense that he would write out all the arrangements. From there, he would say many times, “Well, let’s forget that part. Let me hear one of your ideas. Let’s see what you can come up with.” But on the whole, the drum parts were very open. He didn’t really write out “play this on your kit.” With him, I would say there was a little bit less input from the whole band.

RC: Working in both of those situations must have required a high level of concentration.

CS: Oh, of course. Many younger players don’t realize how much concentration is needed to work in a real professional situation. The key, I think, to working with any people in music, is to get one idea and work with it, instead of jumping around to a whole bunch of different ideas and not really remembering any of them. Let’s say Jean-Luc comes in with a new tune and says, “Okay, this is what the groove is.” Then, after playing it for a little while, you find that you can change a couple of accents here, and maybe the bass player finds that there’s a few notes that he can change over there. Each of the changes is very simple, but soon the whole song takes on a different character, and the groove might change. Now all the musicians have to remember all the changes. Those changes can go on for a couple of hours as a tune is being shaped and formed. Your concentration has to be developed to remember those changes. And then at the end of the session, you can sit down with a tape recorder and record the tune as you finally developed it. That way, you’re able to remember it the next day, or you’re able to work on it that night when you get home. Concentration is really a matter of being able to remember the form of the tune. That way you know where certain figures are to be played and where the A section might lead to the B section so that you know when you are supposed to change the feel and when it’s supposed to stay the same.

RC: How involved do you get in the emotional content of the song? For example, an actor, when he plays a particular scene, will think of some thought that will evoke a feeling in him which will, in turn, inspire him to play the scene more realistically. So he will react in the scene, rather than act. Do you feel that applies to music?

CS: It’s funny you should ask that, because I was just talking to some friends a few days ago about the exact same thing. That happens to me a lot. In fact, one time when I was in the studio, I was very bummed out about a certain situation in my life. When it came time to play, I was having a hard time getting into the feeling of the song, because of what was on my mind. Then it dawned on me, “Here’s a perfect means of expressing myself.” I took what I was feeling and put it into the ballad. Even though I wasn’t feeling exactly what the ballad was saying, the emotion was related and it worked great. To manipulate those kinds of emotions in a live situation is what I am striving for. You have to feel something. You can’t just play the tune or it will always sound like it’s mechanical. It’s important to sum up your emotions.

RC: Is there really that time though, in a live situation to be able to program yourself, so to speak, between each song?

CS: When you’re getting into playing a concert set, you realize that there is a flow to the set. Overall, the whole concert runs into really being almost like one song.

RC: Instead of being a concept album, it’s a concept concert?

CS: Right! Once a song starts, I get into a particular feeling. When that song ends and it goes into the next song, it’s very related. When one tune ends and the next tune starts, I can relate the two together. While I’m actually playing, there’s really not much thought about the emotion. Maybe during the day, I’ll see something I really like that will affect me in a certain way and I’ll sort of subconsciously think, “Well, I’ll let that come out later while I’m playing.” You’re just reacting to the music and whatever’s in your subconscious, comes out.

RC: So while you’re playing, everything that you’re doing is just reacting. You’re not thinking about anything that’s technical. It’s all feeling once you get behind that kit?

CS: Yes, it is all feeling. Once the tunes and arrangements are all worked out, there are parts that have to be played the way they’ve been worked out in order to make the tune sound the way everybody knows it. As those become automatic— since you’ve played the song so many times—it’s like using your name, or language. Really, all you think about is just the idea you’re trying to express.

RC: How much technical training have you had in terms of school and teachers?

CS: Well, I studied with Alan Dawson at Berklee in Boston for about nine months, and he was very inspirational. He made me very aware of form.

RC: Are you speaking of contemporary song form, or classical song form?

CS: More of contemporary jazz song form—A A B A, A B A B, etc.—but primarily to become aware of form. Once you learn contemporary form, it’s easy to absorb any other types of form, like classical forms. He got me into looking at a piece of music as a whole. It’s not individual parts.

RC: So you always have to keep an overview of the song that you’re working on?

CS: Exactly. I got the chance to study with Allaraka Kahn, the great player from India. To me, the man is amazing. He plays with a fire that someone just starting out would have. He does everything with an energy that shows you he’s totally engrossed in the drums. I visited him one evening for dinner and all during the meal, he did nothing but sing rhythms to me.

RC: Is there any other technical training that you had?

CS: When I was growing up back in Madison, Wisconsin, Jim Lattimer was my percussion ensemble teacher at the University of Wisconsin. Even though he didn’t teach technical per se, he was excellent in evoking the spirit of a piece and showing you what spirit is all about.

RC: You mean pouring your emotion into the music?

CS: Yeah, letting the feel of the piece be the important thing. Just before he would conduct a piece for the ensemble, he would always say, “Percussion, sing.” He had a way of getting all of us absorbed in the music before we even played the first note. Most of the technical training, as far as learning the right hand does this and the left hand does that, has been self-taught, primarily by watching other drummers and listening to records.

RC: Do you feel that putting too much emphasis on technique can actually be detrimental to your playing?

CS: Oh, yeah. If you practice technique all day, and then play that night while you’re thinking about the technique you’ve been playing all day, it’s going to get in your way. But if you practice certain techniques and think about how to apply them in musical ways, you find technique is only a means to express yourself. So as soon as you’re doing technique for technique’s sake, it’s in your way. I don’t think any amount of training will hurt, as long as you keep in touch with the essence of why you’re playing.

RC: Do you still practice very much?

CS: I still practice as much as I can every day.

RC: What do you do when you practice?

CS: Some days I practice reading. Maybe I’ll have a page of rhythms and try to figure out as many ways as I can to play those rhythms. You know, backwards, forwards. Say you have a dotted quarter-note, eighth-note pattern. I’ll try to fill in sixteenth notes and thirty-second notes between them in as many different ways as I can, using as many different sticking patterns or as many combinations of feet and hand coordination that I possibly can. You can make exercises out of just about anything. Sometimes I’ll just sit down and solo, and let anything I think of come through. I always try and pick up different approaches to the drums whenever I can.

RC: How often do you practice, and how long do you practice each day?

CS: Sometimes an hour and a half, sometimes six or seven hours a day. It all depends. I go in cycles. Sometimes I can practice a whole lot every day; other times I’ll be gigging a lot and won’t practice at all.

RC: Do you usually practice on the set, or with pads?

CS: I don’t use pads very much.

RC: Don’t you feel it’s useful?

CS: Well, I will play on something else if. drums aren’t available. I’ll play on a pad, a chair, a table, pots and pans, anything that’s available. Primarily, I like to practice on drums. You know, you have to keep in touch with your instruments. Touch is a harder thing to keep up while you’re on the road with a band, because most of them are pretty high volume all the time and it’s very easy to lose touch with playing softly.

RC: Do you feel you lose a lot of subtlety in your playing when you’re on the road?

CS: I found that I was, but I don’t think you have to. I’m finding out now that you can probably hold on to that touch as long as you work on the right things. For a while I was just into playing real heavy, with heavy sticks and playing very strong. It was beneficial to a point. Now I’m into using the full dynamic range playing intensely, but quietly.

RC: What kind of set do you have?

CS: Sonor drums. I use those in concert. I’ve been playing Sonor for about two and a half years. I was turned on to them through a friend of mine, Steve Smith, who’s with Journey. They are a very well-built drum. I’m endorsed by them, but our relationship is very shaky. They don’t offer much in the way of support for their artists. I just play the drums because I like them. I play mostly Zildjian cymbals. They’re great cymbals, especially when they age. They’re pretty pingy in the beginning, but after they’re played a little bit, they take on a character that’s very unique to each cymbal.

RC: Do you mean after a year or so?

CS: They just have to be played for awhile. Some cymbals change very fast, and some take a little longer. Eventually, they get a nice, mellow sound. I like a lot of stick sound on the cymbal and an older cymbal will give you a lot of that stick sound.

RC: What kind of sticks and heads do you use?

CS: The sticks vary. If I’m playing very loud, I’ll pull out a very heavy stick— about 2B for that louder type of playing— and I avoid breaking sticks. I prefer playing with a lot lighter stick. Occasionally on a live date, you need heavier sticks but I usually use the thin ones.

RC: Have you customized your set at all?

CS: The only customizing is the hardware. It’s a combination of many different kinds. All the rest is very standard.

RC: What size drums do you have?

CS: Right now I’m using mounted toms which are 8 x 9, 10 x 9, and 12 x 9, and a 16 x 16 floor tom with a 22″ kick. The snare drum is about a 7″ and it’s made out of wood. I prefer the wood sound over the metal. I used to use a lot larger drum, but I’ve gone to the smaller size because you can tune them looser and get a higher pitch. You get a tubbier type of sound but still stay in a nice audible range. It seems that drums tuned real low don’t melodically travel through the room very well. Even in the studio they don’t sound good to me. The smaller drums sound much better in the studio.

RC: Do you use single or double heads’?

CS: I use double heads on all the drums—Remo Ambassador on the tops and Remo Mark 5 on the bottoms.

RC: I noticed that you have a double bass set up in your studio.

CS: I always like to use a double bass if I can. Around town, I usually use only one, but I like to use two different sizes. I’m going to a 20″ on the left pretty soon. I prefer the different pitches, and I can use them very melodically.

RC: Are they tuned to specific pitches or are they tuned just relative to each other?

CS: I pretty much just tune them until they sound right to me. A lot of times they end up being pentatonic. Some nights they will be higher than other nights. The pitches will vary depending upon whether or not they are new heads. New heads I usually play kind of loose and as they get older, I tend to tighten them up because they don’t get as good a resonance.

RC: Do you usually try to get the drums in the key of the song that’s being played?

CS: No, if there’s a conflict between the sound of the drum and notes that are being played on the other instruments, then I’ll change it. Occasionally, I might change a snare drum or maybe I’ll change a hi-hat cymbal, but most of the time I don’t change the tuning of the drum from song to song.

RC: What size cymbals do you use?

CS: I have 14″ hi-hat cymbals, a 16″ crash, and a small 8″ splash. I use Deepride which is a new line that’s out by Zildjian. I use a pang cymbal occasionally, and a cowbell. Actually, just about anything I can find.

RC: Do you use electronic drums very much?

CS: I tried them when I was with Gino Vanelli. That was the Syndrums and when I first got them, I really liked them. I used them live and on some live recording dates. Eventually, I heard so much of the same sound, I got burned out on them, but I feel they’re valid in some cases. Right now, I basically use all acoustic sets. I just feel the overall warmth of a wood set, even opposed to a fiberglass set, is a much more desirable sound. It only absorbs certain harmon ics, whereas the fiberglass tends to shoot out all of the harmonics.

RC: Do you use mostly matched grip when you play?

CS: Right. Mostly matched grip. Just recently, I’ve started to play traditionally again. I grew up studying that way. Then I changed to matched when my elbows started to bother me—almost like a tennis elbow. That happened when I was about twenty and I played strictly that way until about three months ago. Now I’m starting to develop the traditional method again. Since I learned that way, it feels very natural. Very often, by going to a traditional method, I can relax my hands while I’m playing. It uses different muscles.

RC: Who are your favorite drummers that you listen to now? Who are your current influences?

CS: Well, I listen to just about everybody. Actually, the people that I used to listen to a while ago were Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, and older cats like Art Blakey and Max Roach. I still go back and check them out occasionally, because I still get a big kick out of them.

RC: You mean older recordings, or new recordings?

CS: Both.

RC: Is there any particular thing you listen for when you listen to those albums?

CS: Well, when I listened to them when I was younger, I would listen with more of a technical ear. I wanted to see more of the technical aspects of what they were doing. Like Buddy Rich was one of my first major influences. I listened to a lot of his techniques. But now, as I listen to these records, I hear more of the music, much more of the overall compositional approach that they make. Someone like Max Roach will be very melod ic, whereas Art Blakey throws in polyrhythms at certain points in a jazz tune. I think it’s very important to know who all the forerunners on the instrument are. These people are the real innovators. It’s important to see how the drum has developed and it gives you a better overall concept of your set.

RC: What do you think the function of a drummer is in a rhythm section?

CS: Being a timekeeper is part of playing the instrument, but I don’t believe that’s a chore that should be placed solely on the drums as many people feel. A lot of musicians will look at the drummer and say, “You keep the time, and we’ll just play along with you.” But time really has to be something that everyone in the band is locked in to so that the drummer doesn’t have to worry about the time and is free to play music, just like everybody else. The time becomes a subconscious thing. Occasionally the drummer should be a soloist and I would say the drummer’s main function is to tie everything together. The drummer is basically the common ground between the keyboard player and the bass player and the guitar player and the reed player. He’s the common denominator. Even though they may be harmonically playing together and they sound nice, the drums seem to bridge the gap between the instruments.

RC: What are you involved in presently?

CS: For the last few months, I’ve been working with Chris Rhyne, the keyboard player who worked with me with Gino and has since worked with Santana and Jean-Luc. We put together an 8-track studio and have recorded some of Chris’ material there. From a drumming standpoint, it’s given me great opportunity to learn more about my kit in terms of miking, and the electronics of working with a control board. I’m learning what drums to use with a particular song, how to EQ them, and just generally learning the technical aspects. I relate much better to an engineer what I want to hear when my drums are recorded.

RC: What do you see in the future for yourself?

CS: I’d like to get into doing much more studio work around town and I’d also like to do some clinics and a lot more teaching. I find that when I’m teaching other people. I really learn the most. It makes me think in-depth about what I’m doing. A lot of times it gives me a fresh way of developing concepts in my own mind about how I approach the set and how I approach music in general. It’s growth. Isn’t that what life’s all about?