The Rhythm of Chicago
by Robyn Flans
Seated at the poolside patio of his Tudor style home, equipped with a small 8-track studio, Seraphine looked the picture of California, complete with shorts and golf visor hat, as he sipped his iced tea and seemed to enjoy the interview.
Seraphine began drum lessons at the age of nine on a Slingerland set. He studied at the neighborhood music school in Chicago. He spent two years with one of the better instructors, but when that teacher left the school, Seraphine was disappointed with his replacement and departed. For about five years, Seraphine remained content teaching himself and felt he had become a substantial rock, funk and r&b player, but finally realized that in order to progress, he would need to find a new teacher.
It was about that time when he met up with Walter Parazaider and Terry Kath. Parazaider recommended the head of percussion, Bob Tilles, at De Paul University, where Parazaider himself, attended. Seraphine, only 15, and not having completed school, was not eligible for enrollment at the university, but was elated when Tilles, after hearing him play, agreed to take him on privately.
“He was really the turning point in my playing,” Seraphine recalls. “At that point, I had studied a bit, but with no one as proficient. I was more or less a good, self-taught rock and roll drummer. But as far as stretching out and taking it further, I had a hard time because my knowledge of the instrument technically, was limited. It broadened my scope in all kinds of music, as far as reading, knowledge of other forms of music, how to approach them and just understanding. I needed direction and he gave it to me, along with a lot of confidence. He said I was better than any of his students because I had the combination of the ears and I could read, so I was developing a thing where I had a balance of a really good technique and feel, whereas most of the guys had no feel and all technique.”
For two and a half years, Seraphine studied with Tilles, while playing with Parazaider and Kath in a horn band called Jimmy Ford and The Executives. “In those days, all a good musician could do was back up single artists like Lou Christy. We played sock-hops and stuff like that, while we were also Dick Clark’s road band to back artists, which was a great experience.”
Having started out a “jazz fanatic,” Seraphine’s very first influence was Gene Krupa, soon followed by Buddy Rich. “There aren’t enough great things I can say about Buddy Rich. He was a tremendous influence on me and always has been, and even still is,” he adds. “When I need to look back to what I used to be and what got me there, that’s where I go.” Seraphine relates that one of his all time career highlights was when Rich told him he thought Seraphine was a great drummer.
“Then I started to get into guys like Tony Williams and it turned my head around because Tony Williams was a jazz cat who played like a rock cat. To me, he was an extension of Max Roach, who I also listened to a lot. Max Roach is an extension of Jo Jones.
“I never really got to play be-bop like I should have or sit in with big bands. I never really had the time, because once Chicago got together, everybody was totally devoted to the band.”
Chicago actually originated from Seraphine’s meeting with Walter Parazaider and Terry Kath at the try-outs for Jimmy Ford and The Executives. When the band eventually split up, threequarters of its members went on to become LeMob, a horn band out of Chicago, while Danny, Terry and Walt went on to form a band called The Missing Links with additional members.
“Terry was playing bass at that time, Walt was playing sax and I was playing drums. It was a rock and roll band. When that band started to fall apart, Terry was going to go to Los Angeles and Walt was about to get his bachelors degree and was planning on teaching. He was thinking about getting out of the performing end, so I kind of talked him into giving it another shot. It didn’t really take much,” Seraphine recalls, laughing. “So we decided to put together a band of tremendous players and talked Terry into staying and playing guitar. Walt knew Jimmy Pankow (trombone) and we’d already been friends with Lee (Loughnane, trumpet) who was in another band. They joined up and we heard about this keyboard player on the Southside, who was going by the name of Bobby Charles at the time. His real name was Bobby Lamm, and we got him to join up.”
By the time Pete Cetera (bass) joined up, the group called itself The Big Thing, until they journeyed to Los Angeles in 1968 and manager/producer James Guercio renamed them Chicago Transit Authority, which was later shortened, when the real CTA threatened to sue.
Just last year, Chicago changed its producer to Phil Ramone and its management to Jeff Wald, and since its inception, over 12 years ago, Chicago has only undergone two personnel changes. One came about in 1975 with the addition of percussionist Laudir de Oliveira, and the other was imposed upon the group in January, 1978, with the tragic death of Terry Kath, who accidentally killed himself while toying with a gun. For the close-knit group, it was a difficult adjust ment to make, but Donny Dacus was eventually added on guitar and vocals and his first album with Chicago, Hot Streets≠, followed suit of the previous 11, gaining platinum status.
Seraphine feels extremely fortunate that he was always given the freedom to “stretch out and experiment” by the other group members. “I think because I was fortunate enough to be able to lay it down on record, I was part of an evolution where rock drummers were really able to take it a few steps further than it was and bring in other influences. I think Bobby Colomby of Blood, Sweat & Tears and I were among the first to really do that.”
After the move to California, Seraphine obtained the name of teacher, Chuck Flores, “who really helped me a lot. At that point, I had a lot of technical knowledge and I was just looking for avenues for utilizing it as far as rock drumming. Chuck really had a beat right into where I was headed and the direction I wanted, which was incorporating the technical jazz thing into rock. He really helped to bring the two worlds together for me. He gave me a lot of bass drum exercises to develop my foot because the bass drum is so important in rock and roll, much more important than in jazz, but has since become incorporated.”
Seraphine remains grateful for the continuous educational experiences Chicago has afforded him. “I remember when we were doing our fifth album, we were in New York for about two months and I was able to take brush lessons from Jo Jones. To put into words what I learned from him would be a little rough. What a totally different concept it is to play with brushes rather than sticks. I had used them before, but never like that. He pulled out some of his old records and I was amazed at what he could do with brushes. It still has helped me because when I pick up a set of brushes, I don’t feel lost. I feel pretty proficient. Though Chicago never played the kind of music where I could get the most out of it, it was still a great education. He taught me a lot of little things, like posture when I play and things like that. It was a great experience just sitting in the same room with that cat and having him talk to me about his approach and philosophy on music. When I listened to his old records, I could see where guys like Buddy Rich learned a lot from Jo Jones. When you see that, there’s a lot of merit to that alone.”
He enjoys the friendships of a great many respected musicians and continues to learn from them as well. “I try to pick people’s brains,” Seraphine reveals. “Not for licks, but for philosophy, because that helps me more than anything.”
Seraphine has adopted much of what he considers to be Elvin Jones’ philosophy. “A good musician should be able to play everything, to really be able to express himself. But always a good musician must compliment whatever is going on around him and always keep his ears open. My objective was to play any kind of music put in front of me as good as it could be played, and to compliment the music, while at the same time express myself. My favorite thing is that I really just love to play a good drum part.”
He often emphasizes the intangible qualities over the more learned technical points, often using the word “sensitivity” when describing his priorities. “A good drummer to me is a combination of feel, playing with your heart and soul, and also technique. Of course, you have to have good time. That’s probably the hardest thing of all, steady tempo, and probably the great drummers are really born with it. I always keep the actual tempo in my head and then take it off from there, but always maintain the pulse. As long as you maintain that pulse, you can do anything. There are some good timekeepers who are boring as hell, and some who are very exciting and flashy, but have bad time. You have to get somewhere in between and add the fire that needs to be added, and also give the guys a solid bass for them to latch on to. If the drummer is not on, say at a live gig, it’s very hard for the band to cook. It’s a little better if he’s rushing than dragging. As long as it’s not too outrageous, at least it gives everyone some energy. On records, it’s a little more critical and you have to lay back a bit more and be exact. Being a drummer is a lot of responsibility because it’s a very physical thing, and if you’re tired or something, you really have to push yourself.”
Soloing is not one of Seraphine’s favorite things. “I think drum solos are basically kind of boring,” he explains. “People seem to love them at live concerts, but the average person wants to hear a drummer play as loud and fast as he can. I’m not putting people down for it, because obviously they don’t have the same knowledge as somebody who has made his life out of drums. If you’re that kind of drummer, that’s alright. But if you’re a really creative drummer, and try to really say something, it’s difficult. When I do a solo, I try to really say something, and at the end of it, I’ll give them their razzle dazzle bullshit and get them up on their feet. That’s not to say I haven’t done some solos I’m really proud of, but solos can end up being an exercise in ego. A solo is hard in the sense of your playing the changes. Say your sax just took a 32 bar solo right through the changes. A real challenge for a drummer is to do the same and musically say something and come right back in on the 33rd bar. Normally, the way most drum solos are structured, they don’t do that. What I try to do is lay something down that’s related to the song, unless I’m doing a showboat solo, because people like that kind of solo.”
Ultimately, Seraphine prefers recording to concerts. “Playing live is creative, but the actual creation of what brings people to that point, is the record,” he states. “When I first started recording, it freaked me out because it’s kind of an unnatural way to play. You really can’t have the drums too live because you get all these weird overtones fighting each other and you lose isolation, but I’ve gotten so used to it now that I really enjoy it. I prefer the studio because it’s more controlled and sensitive. I’m lucky because I play with a group that plays good music. I guess if you were a session guy who played one enjoyable session out of ten, you wouldn’t feel that way — you’d be really itching to get out on the road.”
Seraphine, himself, would enjoy doing more sessions. “I guess people just assume that I don’t have the time because I don’t get that many calls. I would really like to do more,” he says enthusiastically, having worked on Helen Reddy’s latest release.
But Seraphine admits that his time is, in fact, scant, and one of the things often pushed in the background is practicing. “I don’t really have any set practice times anymore. If we’re getting ready to do an album, I ‘ l l start practicing maybe an hour every day, or two hours one day and then nothing for two or three days. I don’t have a schedule anymore. When I do have the chance, I just go through the single strokes and then do the Buddy Rich exercises I’ve learned. One exercise Bob Tilles taught me, which I’m pretty sure is a Buddy Rich exercise, is hard to describe, but you do single strokes and then flip your wrists back as far as they can go, using conventional grip. Just one at a time for a few minutes. It’s a pretty good loosening up exercise. Normally I’ll do four strokes in one hand or triplets hand to hand or I’ll go from one to ten on each hand. Another exercise I’ll do is start with one, each hand, then I’ll go to two, then three, four, five, six, seven, up to ten, and then back down, which is really hard, but good discipline. I really try to loosen up before doing a show so that when I go for something, I don’t stiffen up and play with my arms instead of wrists. You don’t need to practice really, if you’re on the road a lot, because you’re playing all the time. I would learn things, weird, complicated things, and try to pull them off on a gig. They would never come out, and then two years later, all of a sudden, they would come out without my thinking consciously. If there’s a special thing I want to try for, a sound or a special groove, I’ll sit down and think it out in my head and just experiment.
“When you’re studying, you need to practice a lot. It would be good for me to study again now. I should take a refresher course in reading, but I don’t have the time. If you can read, that really helps. I’m not a good reader anymore because I just haven’t had the opportunity to do it enough. I really have to think back now, but if I do a few sessions, it starts coming back to me.”
Clinics are also something that Seraphine has not had time for, although, he admits, “I’m not really a clinic man, anyway. I don’t feel that comfortable doing them, and my reading has gone downhill. Most of those cats can read better than I now, anyway.” Seraphine has done clinics in the past and says that if he were to do them again, he would, “just try to get my approach across — the philosophy and what I think is important. Normally you find that 90% of the clinic is answering questions about recording and how you get this sound and that sound and what to look for. A clinic really amounts to the people attending and what they want to know.”
Seraphine has endorsed Slingerland for seven years, for they have managed to fulfill all his needs. “I prefer Slingerland because they’re really good drums,” he declares. “They’re strong and good for recording and live performances.
“Snares are really finicky. I’ve had some crazy days with snare drums, but I’ve been dampening it with tissue — Kleenex and tape in different amounts. I’ll just line the inner rim with tissue and tape it. That’s kind of a nice way to dampen it because it’s still kind of a live thing you get.
“Basically, I like wood drums because they’re warmer sounding. I hate plexiglass drums because I think they sound plastic and I think no matter what kind of music you’re playing, a warmer sound is always going to be better.
“Right now, I’m using five toms: 8″, 10″, 12″, 14″ and sometimes, instead of a 16″, I use a 14 X 14 for timpani rolls and things you can’t really do on concert toms.”
Seraphine alternates between a 20″ and a 24″ bass drum, since they suit his tuning purposes. “I tend to use smaller drums because you can tune them lower and they’re still high enough where they’re not too tubby. I found that to be good in the studio, because when you get drums that are too big, in tuning them low, by the time you get to that low tom, it’s dead.”
Seraphine is looking forward to being even more articulate on Chicago’s current recording, which, by the time of this article’s printing, will have already been released. To him, that means perfection tuning, which he does solely by ear. “I’m going to take more time and really concentrate on each individual tom and get a pitch that’s perfect in relation to the others. It’s hard to do because you’ll get a pitch relationship between the toms and they won’t all actually sound good by themselves. So, you really have to find the right tonal scale, and since I only use ear, I start with the high tom and get it sounding good, but high enough so that the low one isn’t so low it’s nonexistent.”
Slingerland is making Seraphine a stick now which has his name on it. “I like it because I’m caught between two worlds — the finesse and hard rock. I have to have a stick that’s not too heavy nor too light. It’s a kind of in between and fairly long stick, but it’s not super heavy. I don’t believe in super heavy sticks because I can’t pull off what I want to do. By the same token, I can’t use too light of a stick because I go through them too fast.”
Seraphine’s relationship at Zildjian is also outstanding, and Lenny DiMuzio hand picks and sends him cymbals. “I tell him what I want and he’s got really good ears and just sends me the stuff. For the last album, he sent me a 25-year-old crash cymbal, handmade, and that sounded great. It was a small 16″ crash and it was crystal clear. I like to use pang cymbals for certain things like accents because they’re really powerful, or a funky kind of a ride cymbal. I generally use two crashes, an 18″ and a 16″ and maybe a 20″ ride and the pang. It really depends on what kind of sound I want, though.”
An old established friendship with Remo provided Seraphine with the change from calf head to FiberSkyn because, as Seraphine relays, smiling, “Remo and I got to be real close and he said to me one day, ‘I can’t have you playing calf heads — I just can’t have that.’ Remo and I used to have a lot of fun,” he recalls. “He would come over to the house and say, ‘I’ve got something for you to try.’ Different ways— the clear head with the black dot and all sorts of things. I had told him I wouldn’t play anything plastic because they’re just not warm sounding to me, so finally, after a lot of experimentation, he came up with the FiberSkyn. For the studio, they’re really great and I use them live too, because I want to reproduce my sound.”
In detailing what Seraphine thinks is his sound, he describes, “What I try to do is get a fairly melodic sound, which I think I’ve done. I have a trademark sound which is what I get with the concert tom-tom and the way I record them. I try to get a very melodic, rich, full sound, the entire spectrum of the frequency range. The high frequency range with the cymbals, really crisp and clean; the bass drum, very low, but also very punchy; the snare drum, mid range and cutting, but there; and then the toms, very melodic and full.”
Another attempt at reproducing his album sound live is Seraphine’s use of headphones on stage. “I had this problem in the early days when we went from clubs to nice concert halls to the toilets, which I consider the big arenas and forums because they sound like toilet bowls. I had this idea that maybe headphones would help because it would be direct sound rather than hearing sound bouncing off walls, or not hearing at all. Now I’m used to playing the big arenas and outdoor places. The headphones really help a lot, because if you get the mix right, you can hear your foot, which is usually a problem unless you’re recording. You don’t have to play as hard. To me, you can only play drums so hard and then they get distorted. You can only hit the cymbal so hard and then it loses its resonance. The problem with playing live is that everyone is turning up so loud because they can’t hear themselves and it becomes a big battle. The monitor philosophy really doesn’t work because when you have monitors, they feed into the microphones and you get feedback and lose clarity.” Equipped with his own mixing board for the headphones, Seraphine admits that it is tricky and could be a nightmare if done incorrectly. However, he feels it is the solution to a problem and more drummers should use the headphone system.
Seraphine is constantly experimenting and has already asked Slingerland to send him a double-headed drumset to try on the next album. “It’s a little bit harder to get on a double-headed set of drums because it’s harder to control the ring,” he says. “If you tune them too loosely, they ring too much and if you tune them too high, they sound tinny, but it can be done. It’s just a little more work. Actually, double-headed drums are a little easier to play because they have rebound and they’re faster, which is the aspect I like about them.”
He has also just recently taken a set with double-bass drums out on tour. “The first time I ever played double-bass was one night when I was in a club and jammed with a couple of guys from Rufus. The kid whose set it was had double bass drums, so I figured I’d just give it a try. I never played them because I’ve always been against them. I didn’t think they would play as sensitively and that it was an unbalanced way to play. People tend to overuse them, but I jammed with them. I do a lot of double-time things, and noticed with the double bass drums, I could get that locomotive groove happening and play rhythms off the top. I thought that was kind of interesting. In Chicago, there are a lot of power rock and roll grooves that we get into that double bass drums really fit into well. So I tried it this tour. Even for solos it’s good because the people really like when you get into that locomotive, double-time thing on the bass drum, as long as you don’t over use it. If you use it in the right spots, it’s great. If you use it in the wrong spots, it sounds like a guy falling down the stairs with a set of timpani. Guys like Louie Bellson and Ginger Baker are really great on it. It’s really nice, even if I’m just playing four on the other bass drum, it still has more punch to it. I really had thought it would be uncomfortable to play, but it’s not. In fact, I find it more comfortable and balanced. Sometimes I’ll just use the other bass drum to augment what I’m playing, like to accent a crash. I still use the hi-hat when it’s necessary and in the same places I used it before. It’s just that now I have a new alternative and I enjoy that.”
One of the first to use Syndrums, although never on a Chicago recording, Seraphine feels that they have been overused in the industry and therefore no longer accompany his live set-up. “I was using them as a solo instrument for a tune and it really killed the audience because I would get the sustain thing happening in a 6/8 rhythm and play off of it. I think for low tom sounds they can be really nice. You can get really low and mix it in with the actual low tom and it’s kind of interesting. If used right, I think Syndrums are fine. But just give me a good set of drums that I can tune and are comfortable to play. That’s enough for me. They can make all the toys they want, but really, drums are basically drums.
“I’m not the drum fanatic I used to be,” Seraphine admits. “I used to eat, sleep and drink drums.” Finding the need to expand his interests, Seraphine has become more and more involved with the production aspect of music. He and his partner, David “Hawk” Wolynsky of Rufus, with whom he writes lyrics, have formed a production company, hoping to contribute talent to the music industry in that way also. “The production company has to establish itself. We have to make a couple of hit records and then I want to produce just good music. We have to prove ourselves and I figure, once you prove yourself, you get more freedom to do what you want to do.”
Obviously learning that lesson first hand, Seraphine is appreciative of the freedom his success has given him both musically and personally. Although it is evident that he can easily obtain any equipment, and admits that he really has more than he knows what to do with, Seraphine is neither pompous nor pretentious. “When I started to make money, I always felt that I had to give something back. So , I opened a live club in Chicago. It has things I didn’t have when I was a kid, like nice dressing rooms and a good, big stage with a nice sound system. Young bands can play there. It hasn’t totally turned out to be what I wanted it to be. With the music I would like to put into it, I would go broke, the Freddie Hubbards and big bands. Having tried that, now it’s more of a rock club, but it’s still a place where young bands can get a start. Cheap Trick and The Boys started out there. Billy Joel played there between the period of the Stranger album and 52nd Street.”
Seraphine’s sincere concern for musicians and the state of the art all stems back to his overall philosophy. “I think you really have to have the right philosophy when you get into music. When I got into music, it wasn’t to become a millionaire. My motivation was my love for music and I think you have to do it for that reason. There are so many musicians and rock bands who get together just to make it because that’s the thinking in today’s music. You have to be aggressive and sell yourself and realize that there are certain compromises you have to make down the line. When you’re starting out, you have to get a perspective. Find a good teacher, study and learn music. Jam a lot while you’re studying so you get the best of both worlds,” Seraphine advises. “You get to learn the technical part of the drums and all of music and understand what is going on around you. That was an important part of my playing. I understood what I was playing and it made me get better. Once I knew what I was playing, I wanted to move onto the unknown. Study. Practice a lot. Drums are a very disciplined instrument because you’re using both legs and both arms and have to get them going together. Play along with records, anything. If you really contribute something to music, that’s really an accomplishment, and I think that’s what you really have to push for.”