You would have thought that Carl Palmer had never seen New York City before. “I can’t believe this traffic! The only reason I got here at all is because I jumped out of the cab a couple of blocks from here and walked the rest of the way.” He didn’t seem to be mad, or frustrated, or even slightly irritated by the delay caused by the traffic. Rather, he seemed amazed, it was as if he had just discovered some incredible new fact about New York, and he was fascinated by it.
The question is, how can Carl Palmer be fascinated by anything? Surely by now the man has been everywhere and seen everything. As a member of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, he toured the world, sold millions of records, and enjoyed all of the many benefits of success. And now he’s doing it all over again with Asia. After all these years, he has every right to be jaded, as are many rock musicians who have been around awhile.
Instead, Palmer enjoys life with a wide-eyed innocence more befitting a 23-year-old than someone who’s 33. But it’s that ability to approach things as if he’s doing them for the first time which has enabled him to remain fresh in a business where the emphasis is always on the new. For example, after all of the “supergroups” who have failed, no one expects much from a group made up of seasoned players. But the problem with many of those groups was that the members were more interested in trying to maintain the success they already had, than in trying to create something new and make it grow. Carl didn’t take that attitude when he joined Asia. He was willing to forget about past successes and approach Asia as if it were the first band he had ever been in. Rather than trying to project his “drum star” reputation, he chose to let Asia’s music dictate his drumming, and if the songs called for a more basic type of drumming than he had been known for in the past, then so be it. Except, of course, for his solo.
Plenty of drummers do solos, but only certain ones become known as “legendary” soloists. Carl Palmer is one of those few. His solo is well thought out, combining drum pyrotechnics, theatrics, musicality, and a little show-biz. Yes, a lot of it is calculated, but it’s still exciting and never fails to bring an audience to its feet. One may wonder how a player can keep something like that fresh every night, and make it exciting rather than mechanical. In Carl’s case it’s easy. He just does it the way he does everything else in his life—like it’s the first time.
RM: When you did your previous MD interview, you had just started the group PM. What happened to that group, and how did you end up in Asia?
CP: The group PM was started in the year 1979, if I recall. The group made one album on Ariola records, which wasn’t released in America; it was only released in Europe. The band had five people—four Americans, and I was the only English member. I put the band together, and we had a reasonable amount of success in Europe, but we never played any concerts—we only did a couple of television shows. The record sales were very, very slow, but I didn’t feel disheartened; I didn’t feel it was actually necessary to take the band on the road and perform, because the record sales didn’t warrant it. In rock music, if you don’t have the record sales, it’s pointless to go out and perform. If I hadn’t made money in the past, I would have had to do that just to live, but to go and play just to eat just seems irrelevant to me because I like to promote a product when I play and I think it’s a better way of doing things. So that band never actually toured, and then I broke it up a year or 14 months later.
I then carried on recording on my own, and I was working with a guy named Mike Oldfield. I recorded a couple of pieces with him which were for my solo album. One side had already been recorded—it was a concerto for percussion, which I’ve had recorded now for about seven years. It’s a classical piece and it shows me playing all of the tuned percussion family—vibraphone and marimbas. That was recorded with the London Philharmonic. On the other side of the album I was going to put a sort of electronic classical music—not a concerto again, but just small sections. Mike Oldfield seemed to be the ideal person for me to work with. Anyway, I recorded a couple of pieces with him, and then he called me up one day and asked me if he could use one of them for an album of his, and I said “Fine.” The piece was called ‘ ‘Mount Teidi” on his album Five Miles Out, and it was named after a volcano where I live.
It was during that period—that would be the beginning of ’82—I took some time off, stayed at home, did a little bit of studying and what-have-you, and tidied up some of my personal business. It was around then that I got a phone call asking me if I would like to come and play in a band that had Steve Howe in it. Well, I’d known Steve for a long time, and I’d also known the manager for a long time. I came along and played; there was John Wetton, Steve Howe and myself—there was no keyboard player. I wasn’t too happy with that because I feel that with the amount of technology available today, not to have a keyboard player is a bad idea. So I suggested that we have a keyboard player, and Steve Howe, having played with Geoff Downes in the last configuration of Yes, suggested that we try him. It seemed good to me, so the four of us played and we decided to be a band after about a week because it felt good. So that’s the history up to when Asia began.
RM: People have assumed that, given the reputations of the four of you, Asia had it made right from the start.
CP: Well, as you know, that’s a completely false impression. It just doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to realize that when the average age of the band is mid- 30’s, you’re considered as a dinosaur and a big risk within the music industry today, regardless of how good a player you are. You know, we could all make a living in a studio, but I’ve never been someone who wanted to be paid a wage; I’ve always wanted a percentage of something. If I can see a percentage grow, I become happier. Fortunately enough, the attitude in America is slightly different than in Europe. It’s like when George Best came to America years ago to play for the Cosmos, or whoever he played for. He was enjoyed by the American public who thought he was a great soccer player— and he is—but in England he was thought of as being too old and finished. Here in America there’s an attitude like, “Well, if you were good once, you should be able to be good twice. So what if you’re slightly older?”
We managed to get tied in with Geffen Records. David Geffen heard what we were trying to do. He loved the idea—the musical concept that we had—and he immediately said, “Okay, let’s do something.” We decided to have an objective view within the group, i.e., a producer, who was an English chap named Mike Stone. We worked on the first album for about five months, and the record company was happy with it. We took nothing for granted, like, “We’ve got a name so we’re going to be okay.” You must realize that if you have got a name, you can only use it once. There’s a list as long as my arm of “supergroups” who have got together and been gigantic failures. I always say anyway that I don’t care who’s a super musician and who’s not. I’d rather hear bad musicians playing good songs, than great musicians playing terrible music. And a lot of people you’d classify as “supergroup” musicians don’t play good music, whether it be the brand of music I choose to play, or fusion/rock, or whatever.
We have tried to create a sound collectively rather than project as individuals. I was in a band where I could do nothing else but project as an individual for eight or nine years, so I’ve had enough of that. I can go a different way now, and Asia is that, for me.
So that’s what happened with the record company and internally, with the band getting the music together. As far as dates were concerned, I decided that with Asia my personal view would be not to come to America and play for 5,000 people, or even dream of trying, even though we could have possibly sold that many tickets, with or without an album, first time around, just from the pure intrinsic value. I thought it would be better to come in and do the complete extreme—play in very small places, say 1,500 seats. Two thousand seats was the maximum for the first six weeks. I recall playing in an 1100 seater in Upstate New York.
RM: Having been in a group that was used to playing such places as Madison Square Garden, wasn’t that a letdown?
CP: For me, it was perfect, because I didn’t suddenly want to be in Madison Square Garden. I wanted to build it as though I’d never been in a group before, and this was my first time, and I was doing it from scratch. On a concert level, it’s like a house with a good foundation. Once you burn out a few promoters, it’s impossible to go back. So we worked for about six weeks, and during that time, our album took right off and went to Number One, stayed there for a couple of weeks, dropped back down, then went back to Number One for seven weeks. By that time, we had moved up to 5,000-7,000 seaters.
Now, our new album entered the charts at Number 29, and it’s Number Five in the English charts, and our single is strong. But we’re still taking it very, very easy, as far as where we play and the amount of people we play to. We know that we can’t just walk in and sell out 18,000 seats. We know it’s possible to do between 8,000 and 10,000, and feel comfortable about it. That’s fine; it doesn’t have to be more. Even with the success we had with our first album and the success we’re having with this album, the marketplace is so congested with groups touring, it makes it a little difficult. So we really do plan the movement of Asia, because we really don’t want to waste any time. I think that’s because we are all slightly older, and we don’t want to just go around in a circle in a pointless way. We’d like to go around America, and every time we play, it will actually mean something.
RM: Could you describe the difference between being the drummer for Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and being the drummer in Asia?
CP: Well, Emerson, Lake & Palmer was basically an instrumental group doing adaptations of classical pieces which we would arrange for three people, with the one lead instrument being the keyboard. So I basically had to play a role of not only keeping time, but having to play a lot of unison passages with the keyboards, just to make it sound as fat as possible. Having the technique I’ve got, it was real easy for me to fall into that and go with the flow of that. Plus, there was a classical environment there which suited me because I’d studied with James Blades at the Royal Academy and Gilbert Webster at the Guild Hall, so that was a perfect setting for me, musically, at the time.
The job I have today is a lot simpler than that; I would say it’s probably 50% less pressure. I think the equivalent would be being in Emerson, Lake & Palmer as opposed to being in the Beatles. Ringo Starr did not have a very big job to do, but what he did had to be right. That’s basically what I’ve got here. Okay, the music is a little more arranged than the Beatles, but I’m just trying to make the point that it is that different. And quite honestly, I’ve never been in a group that has played this type of music before, so I find it very fresh and rewarding. I still do my solo; I still have that element of release. But I enjoy creating an overall group sound much more now, because in the past, it was Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and we all did our own thing. That’s great too, but I think it’s time to change. I like the attitude of trying to get an overall big sound for a group, with the individuals playing for a piece of music rather than for themselves. I think it’s great, providing each individual has a chance to stretch out on stage. I will always play a drum solo in any band I’m in, because if I didn’t do that, I would feel very strange. I can play less than I used to in the music, but the time comes when I have to say, “Hey, I do this too.” So it works out real good right now; I have the best of both worlds, and I’m doing something that I’ve never done before. I’ve never been in a sort of pop/rock group before, and judging by the amount of albums we’ve sold, there must be something there, because people don’t have a lot of money these days to buy records and go to soon wears off if the product isn’t there. I mean, there are many famous musicians from groups—who I don’t really wish to name—who can’t get arrested playing on their own. It seems such a shame because it’s a waste that they haven’t gotten to the train of thought where they say, concerts. So there has to be some quality on the records which people are seeing. The intrinsic value of having these four, so called “famous” musicians from England playing together “Well, let’s get a group happening; a group sound. Personal identities can be injected later.”
RM: Did the audiences accept the “new” Carl Palmer, or did they expect you to play more?
CP: I think they accept me, yes. I think if I didn’t play a solo at some stage, then I’d be cheating the people who have followed my progression through the years. I’d also be cheating myself. I think people understand that I’ve never played what’s called “four on the floor” in all my life, until I joined this band, but I think people realize that there comes a time when you have to do that in certain things. In the music in this band, sometimes I have to do that; there’s nothing else that sounds as good. People might say, “Well, you could be more original.” I’ve tried swapping things around, but at the end of the day, it’s just “thump, thump, thump” on the floor which works. The art is in simplicity, as you’ve always heard. I only play “four on the floor” if I feel it’s needed. If I can get out of it, I will. But in several cases in this group, I’ve not been able to get out of that. I felt that it needed that, and that’s it. Closed door. Get on and do it.
RM: Drummers have to remember that they can’t play just to impress all of the drummers in the audience, because most of the people in the audience are not drummers.
CP: Right. I think that’s why the drum solo is there. It’s a release for me, and it’s for the people who enjoy that type of thing. I’ll tell you quite honestly, I’ve timed my drum solos, and I play roughly 7 1/2-minute drum solos, and in that solo, I play about 2 1/2 minutes for me. During the other five minutes, I basically perform as an entertainer. I actually have a complete programmed drum solo, which happens the same every night as far as the “landmarks” are concerned. There is a certain time I play the tambourine, a certain time when I play the gongs, a certain time I juggle, a certain time I play my electronic drums, and a certain time I play my timpani. In between all of those things, there are little bits and pieces that I do for myself. But all of the things have been put together in such a way as to gain the most audience reaction. That’s the way I like to do it; it’s almost like a classical pianist with a cadenza that’s completely worked out, leaving small areas along the way for ad-libbing, but not having something which is ad-libbed from beginning to end. I like to guarantee a build, and a certain amount of audience participation—clapping with me, or whatever. I think that’s real important, so that’s how I program what I do. So like I said, there’s about 2 1/2 minutes for the drummers in the room who have come to check that part of it out. But the rest of it—a lot of people could play it if they could piece it together the way I do.
RM: Interestingly enough, Bob Moses told me recently that he feels that most jazz could benefit by more structure and arranging, because not too many people are capable of improvising for long periods of time without getting boring.
CP: I think that’s true. I can truthfully say that I could sit up there and improvise for 7 ½ minutes, and it would be interesting, but it wouldn’t go down as well as what I have now. If you could see how I write out my drum solos, I mean, it’s almost put together like theater. I even have a time when I take off my shirt; I take it off every night at the same time, and it’s when the audience is clapping. This has nothing to do with drumming; it’s the entertainment part, but when they see me do that, they start clapping even more, and that sets me up for a little bit of ad-libbing. That really juices me up to play real well. So I’m getting something from them, as well as supplying them with something that they want to see.
A lot of great performers like Pete Townshend and Keith Emerson have said things like, “It’s only the theatrical stunts that people remember.” It’s true, and it’s a shame. They always remember Townshend doing his windmill. This guy is also a great guitar player, but they remember him for his windmill. I think probably that’s what Gene Krupa was all about when he first started out. I don’t mean to call them gimmicks exactly, but they’re theatrical—that’s a nicer word—if they draw the audience into you, and then make you play. The audience doesn’t actually understand what flam accents are, or flam paradiddles, or ratamacues. They don’t know, and I’m not there as an educator; I’m there as an entertainer. But while I’m entertaining them, they’ve got to let me get off a little too. So I try and slot it in, and I think that taking a third of the time for me is not extravagant. I’m giving them five minutes, because they bought the ticket. It’s fair.
RM: They might remember the theatrics, but if there’s no musicianship to back it up, it’s worthless. Plenty of people can out-windmill Pete Townshend, but . . .
CP: But they didn’t do it first. Originality is something. To me, originality means much more than somebody who’s a great copier. I’d rather hear a terrible band who’s playing their own songs, than a great cover band. Something that’s original is something that’s unique. If a guy does do as many windmills, or does juggle like I do, or whatever, was he doing it before me? Juggling is a poor example, because drummers have juggled for years, but I think originality is important.
RM: Even if someone else did it first, it needs the music to back it up.
CP: Yeah, both have to run parallel. You can’t be just an entertainer; you’ve got to be musical, for sure.
RM: You mentioned that Asia wanted a producer to get an objective opinion. A lot of people who have been around awhile feel that they know what they’re doing, and they don’t need anyone else.
CP: Well, I disagree. My personal thought is that when you have four people, having an objective point of view is worth a lot. Also, it took a lot of pressure off us. We didn’t have to get involved with the recording of it; we could concentrate on the playing. Once we were happy with the playing, then we could get involved on his side, and say, “Well, we feel we need a bit more of this,” or “Could you change the EQ on this?” or whatever. So I think it’s a real good thing.
RM: When I first heard your album, I was struck with how much sound there was. Every crack was filled.
CP: There’s a lot of orchestration. That’s part of the thing about four musicians going for a collective sound, more than trying to project as great soloists all of the time. I think it pays off, myself. We do have a group identity, and I think that’s important. I think the public likes to see a group, playing as a group. They see a family; they see a unit. I think the days of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and all these groups of great musicians… so what? There are lots of great musicians, but are there great bands? I’d think the most fulfilling thing for a musician would be to be in a great band, going after the same goal.
RM: How does the group put all of that sound together? Do you rehearse all of that beforehand, or do you build those arrangements in the studio as you go along?
CP: We have roughly six weeks of rehearsal prior to the first recording date. During that time we discuss basic bass and drum arrangements, and basic keyboard arrangements in conjunction with guitar and vocal backing. We also go through the overdubbing process—what could be distributed between organ, or synthesizer, or guitar, or whatever. We also talk about things I could do on top from an electronic point of view. I was always a bit reluctant to do that, but now I’ve succumbed. So in a six-week period that would all take place. Then we go into the studio and lay down backing tracks, only really recording, depending on the piece of music, bass and drums, and maybe one other part— rhythm guitar or maybe a rhythm keyboard—just to get the feel and the right emotion. After that, we go through various overdubbing stages which we had previously discussed. Obviously, it’s all subject to change, but there’s always a good idea. It takes a couple of months to lay down 14 tracks. We might only use 10, like we did. We have 14 only because we want a choice; we don’t want to just lay down 10 tracks and say “That’s our album.” We’d rather do more and have the choice. After that, the overdubbing period takes the same. The reason it takes so long is because when you’re overdubbing so many things, you’ve got to make sure that nothing clashes. We also used a 48 track. We recorded all the bass and drums on 24, and then we put the overdubs on the slave, and it does take time to get that all set up properly. This album took six months and the first one took five. I think the reason this one took slightly longer was that we moved to Canada.
RM: Why Canada?
CP: Well, the studio was excellent for what we needed to do. That was the first priority. Also, the producer had some tax problem with living in England. For me it was okay anyway. The rest of the band lives in England, but I haven’t lived there for 10 years, so I could go wherever we wanted. It didn’t make any difference to me.
RM: After you’ve finished recording an album, do you stay involved with the “product”?
CP: I’m interested in the business side of music; I enjoy getting things done properly within the structure, mainly because in the economy of the music business, there’s not a lot of money for promoting records. So I enjoy making phone calls and making sure the wheels are turning the right way. I enjoy taking care of the product.
RM: Do you ever see yourself getting more involved with business than with playing, or are you only interested in the business that relates to your own music?
CP: Yeah, I think it’s because I’m in it. I couldn’t do it any other way. I couldn’t become a manager. I mean, I could, but I wouldn’t, because I’m a player first of all. It just so happens that I can’t sit around and say, “Well, I’m just the drummer. The music will take care of itself.” That’s not a modern way of thinking. If I’ve been with something from its embryonic stage, I’m definitely not going to hand it over to some clown in a record company and assume he’ll take care of it. I’m going to be on his back and want to know what’s going on all the time.
RM: Is this a lesson you had to learn the hard way?
CP: Yeah. I learned it real quick when I was 18. I had a Number One album and single at the same time here in America with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and I would be too embarrassed to tell you how little money I made from that, considering the amount of units that were sold. So you do become aware.
RM: You once said you wished more people would ask advice on how to collect royalties rather than on what kind of drumheads they should use. Do you see a trend where musicians are becoming more involved in their own business?
CP: The only trend is to be super careful. The reason why I made that statement is because you can always find out information about drumheads—that’s not difficult— but there are certain things you have to know about the running of music, which I think are important. I mean, I go to see Buddy Rich play, and I can learn everything about his drumming by watching and listening. When I’m talking with him, we don’t actually t a lk a lot about drums; he talks more about drums than I do. I ask him about how he runs his band, how he runs his life, how he keeps certain things together, when he is going to make another record, and all of that kind of stuff, because that’s all part and parcel for me, you see. There are certain people who can talk about drums all day long, but at the end of the day, I don’t want to be just the greatest drummer in this room. I mean, I could be a lot more visible than I am. I could do clinics all across the country, make drum videos, do a lot of interviews, and go with companies who would take out ads in all the magazines, but that doesn’t interest me. I don’t get off on that. I like to make good records and be a great drummer, but I don’t like to use drum clinics, and teaching people, and personal exposure in drum magazines as a way of making a living. I want to do things like that because I really want to do them, not because they’re going to be a source of income. I’d rather put my energies into something that does generate money for me and for the group of people I work with—because I always think of who I’m with; I don’t just think of myself. I don’t exploit myself as “Carl Palmer the drummer.” For example, our first album sold four-and-a-half million copies. I’m surprised that no drum companies have offered to give me things in return for a line on the back of the album that says “Carl Palmer plays such-and-such drums.” I could go out and chase that if I wanted to, but it doesn’t interest me. I’d rather put my energy into making a good record. I’m talking broadly now; I’m not trying to pinpoint any one particular thing.
RM: A couple of days ago, I turned on my TV and saw you sinking into a pool of quicksand. That leads me to believe that the music business is not what it used to be.
CP: [laughing] Yeah, well . . . Video is another way, really, of promoting a product, and with MTV and the programs you have here in America, it’s a perfect way of getting your product played. It’s another way of putting across an image of a band without being real serious. The reason why I think this is healthy, apart from it being a great promotional vehicle, is that I know that there are certain groups who are going to come to America from England who have not had a lot of concert experience, and might not be great on stage. Even though they have record success, they might actually get booed off the stage. But what they might turn into, during the period of time that they’re learning what to do on stage, is a video group cum record group, or record group cum video group, which means that there’s another outlet for them while they’re getting themselves together as far as putting on a good live performance. So I think it’s a healthy thing for the business; I think it’s encouraging, and I think it might stop a certain amount of groups from breaking up who can’t go out and play as much. They can make videos, and I think the term “video group” is not a bad thing to talk about. At least it sort of gives them a chance. Okay, so they might not be playing their drums; they might be falling down the side of a mountain, or falling into quicksand, or whatever. But so what? If you’re a fan and you bought the record, but you can’t see the group in concert for whatever reason, you can see a video which was made under controlled conditions, and at least you’re getting to see the group do something after you’ve purchased the record. So I like the idea of video.
I don’t know how successful video will be for teaching purposes, as far as drum videos are concerned. But it’s possible.
RM: Have you seen any of the drum videos yet?
CP: No. But I’ve just done a series in England for the BBC, called “Rock School.” I did it about four months ago, and what they do is run a series in which they talk to various drummers, and in every program there is a five- or ten-minute Carl Palmer spot. I don’t do drum clinics, but I decided I would do something like this because it would be more personal. It was on television, on a show, and I thought that was a better way of doing it. I mean, I could take all of these and put them together on an educational video, but I thought that was a little bit cold. I think that the idea of looking forward to something, just like I used to look forward to my drum lesson, and getting your last one down before you look in at the next one is great. I think it came out pretty good. I might do another one next year on tuned percussion, and maybe include a little bit about electronic percussion, depending on how well the series is accepted.
RM: Do you think the series will be shown in America?
CP: I very much doubt it. Television here is very different. If it’s not a soap opera, it’s a detective, and if it’s not a detective, it’s the weather or the news you’re looking at. Or you might get a disco program if you’re lucky.
RM: That kind of thing could be shown on PBS.
CP: That’s possible.
RM: In our annual Readers Poll, you always do well in the classical category.
CP: Yeah, that’s strange, isn’t it. [laughs]
RM: I guess that all goes back to ELP doing Pictures At An Exhibition.
CP: Yeah, that’s where it comes from. There’s nothing I can really tell you about that. The funny thing is, I’ve played in the London Symphony Orchestra for maybe four days in my whole life. First of all, my roots started in jazz. I studied with a jazz drummer, Bruce Gaylor, who was a student of Ralph Pace. Then I was in a sort of Lawrence Welk-type orchestra until I was about 15 1/2, which was quite good for my reading. From there I joined a group, and I’ve been in groups from the age of 16 until now, which is a considerable length of time—17 years. With Emerson, Lake & Palmer, however you want to put it, it was a rock group playing classical adaptations. I’ve recorded that percussion concerto, which no one has heard, and my ambition is to play at Radio City Music Hall. I have a complete program set up for that, including dancers and stuff. But I think people term me as a “classical” rock drummer becaue of what has happened in the past, and because they know that Emerson, Lake & Palmer toured with an orchestra, and when Keith [Emerson] played his concerto, I didn’t leave the stage—I couldn’t resist playing some crotales or whatever. So I think that’s where it all comes from, but it’s ironic, really, because I’ve made my living being a rock drummer. That’s what I do best. I think it was the fact that I hadn’t toured in this country; I didn’t tour from ’79 until last year. People tend to remember how you were, instead of what you’re actually doing now.
I did better in your last poll than I have ever done, and I think it’s because of the success of Asia. I’m actually out there working. That means an awful lot. The more times people see you, the more times you can actually influence them. So all of a sudden I ‘m in two or three of those categories there, whereas from ’79 to ’82, I was lucky to be in one of them.
RM: Did you ever have any ambitions to be a classical percussionist?
CP: I like dabbling. If I had my life to do again, I might not be doing what I’m doing. But if I had to choose within music, I think I’d love to be a timpanist. The thing is, my pitch is good, but not as quick as it should be if one is going to pedal things fast. I think on the tuned percussion side, I could never have been a Gary Burton, but I could have been up to standard for the repertoire. I don’t think I could have been a master at vibraphone, but I think I could have been a pretty good timp player. From the first studies I took with Gilbert Webster, it was like a fish to water. It was so easy; I felt really comfortable with it. Playing drumset, you know, I’ve always felt that. But the timpani have such a grand sound, and I’ve always liked bass frequencies anyway. I have a set of the Ringer timpani, and they’re great. I also have a set of the Saul Goodman chain timps—three of those—and I have the Premier Elite timps, which I play on stage. I just love timpani.
RM: You have had more formal training than most rock drummers. What do you feel that gives you that they don’t have?
CP: Well, what it did was improve my reading, number one, because you don’t really get that in jazz training, where the emphasis is on independence and stuff like that. And I just wanted to see that sort of classical snare drummer side; I sort of wanted to know about xylophones and all of that, and just dive a little more into my instrument. I didn’t want to be known as just a rock drummer—it doesn’t seem that I’m known as one anyway. I wanted to check it all out. I realized that there were only certain ways I could make my living and still be happy. I know I could be in an orchestra and sit in that section. I might not be able to go straight in and be the timp player, because I really don’t have as much experience, but I know that is what I’d like to do. There was an attitude within my family, because my family is musical back to my grandfathers, that you should always kind of get set up for the next job. To call yourself a “blues drummer” is like wearing the same jacket your whole life. I like to know that I can go off and play in an orchestra, or go play in a great rock group, or even in a punk group downtown. I think being a drummer, or percussionist, you’re crazy if you don’t open all the doors, because it’s one of the few instruments—if not the only instrument—with which you can use your own style for various types of music. From that point of view, it’s the universal instrument. I know from a composing point of view, piano is number one, for sure, and I love piano. But if you just want to play a lot of different kinds of music on a high caliber, being a drummer or percussionist is one real good way of doing it, if you’re prepared to study.
I think taking classical training opened that side up to me a little more, because that was a side where there were a few dark areas that I needed to know about. I’m very inquisitive. I’ve lived in Spain for 10 years, and I’ve become a great hand-castanet player. I’ll never use that for anything, but it was something I just wanted to know. That’s not to say that I’m a great studier. I just like to know a bit about different things. I wanted to learn how to do a single-stroke roll with one hand, and a lot of people said, “Oh, you can’t do that.” I said, “Well, okay.” Then I met someone in a terrible bar in the southern part of England who said, “I read an interview where you said you wanted to do a one-hand roll.” I said, “Yeah, I know it’s possible.” He said, “I don’t play, I just learned this gimmick.” So I said, “That’s great! Will you show it to me?” It’s kind of interesting; you sort of use the drumstick like a paintbrush. It’s of no value, unless you just want to impress somebody. It’s not going to sell another record; it just gives you another feather in your hat. But at least I know it. It’s never going to bring me any fame or fortune, but I think gathering knowledge—whether it’s playing castanets or doing something like that—keeps you aware. So I’ve got a wide outlook, and I think the classical thing just happened to open a few doors for me. I don’t think it made me a better rock drummer than anyone else. I just know that if I was called on to do certain things, I do have experience in those areas, which I think is valuable.
RM: Have you ever been in a situation where you have had to restrain your technique?
CP: Well, I do at the moment, in certain songs. I mean, I could do a lot more, but it wouldn’t be beneficial to the song; it would be beneficial to me. I think that providing I can have that release in my solo, then it’s fine. If you’ve got a lot of technique, then obviously there are more chances you can take; there are more ways of playing the same thing. But unfortunately, when you’re dealing with structured songs, sometimes you do need to play a chorus the same way twice. It’s the way it is, you know what I mean? Okay, you could be a complete innovator and play it different every time. Our music doesn’t go with that train of thought, so we have to be a little more structured.
RM: People are always striving for technique, and yet, those who have a lot of technique are often criticized for being cold and mechanical.
CP: You can’t win, can you. I mean, the thing is, you have to have a lot of technique, really, to have my sort of way of doing things. The way I look at percussion in general, you have to have a certain amount of technique to get any enjoyment out of experimentation with different music. You’ve got to have good technique to play certain snare drum parts, and you’ve got to know your way around the vibraphone a little bit. So it’s all relevant.
RM: How do you think your knowledge of instruments like vibraphone, and your knowledge of melody and harmony, have affected your drumming?
CP: I don’t really think it’s affected my drumming at all. I don’t think it’s hindered it; I don’t think it’s helped it too much either. It makes you more aware, but they’re two different instruments completely, to me.
RM: Sometimes drummers are accused of not knowing anything about music; they just play beats.
CP: Well, you know, as far as songs are concerned, I always map out a rough part of like intro, middle eight, link passages, choruses, verses, or whatever. I always like to know the complete structure. I don’t need to have the chords written down, unless I want to play the piece myself. I’ve got a little Casio keyboard now, with a drum machine in it. I don’t play keyboards very well, but it does help to know it. However, there are some great drummers who know nothing about tuned instruments, so it’s hard to say really. As they say, “Differences of opinion make horse racing possible.”
RM: Fair enough. Let’s talk about drums. You’ve changed companies since your last interview.
CP: Well, I’ll tell you how extreme I am about equipment. I have been with Premier drums for, I guess, five years. I’m still playing the set they gave me five years ago; a set which I got them to make for me with all-metal shells. There are two 24″ bass drums, 10″, 12″, 13″, and 14″ standard depth tom-toms, two floor tom-toms—one is 18″, the other is 16″—a Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum with Premier die-cast hoops and a Premier 2000 snare release, and all Premier hardware. I use Paiste cymbals—22″ ride, 20″ crash, 18″ and 16″ crashes, 15″ hi-hats, 22″ and 24″ China type. Then I’ve got a couple of timps, three Simmons modules—a snare drum module and two tom-tom modules—and the gongs, one about 30 centimeters, the other about 50 centimeters. That setup, apart from the Simmons, which I’ve only just added, is a five-year-old setup. I’ve not really changed it, except when I added the 10″ drum. I figured I was odd on top; I had three and two, so I figured it should be four—like a chord sounding. I’m intending to scale down and not have as many. I think I could get away with two tom-toms, two floors toms, two bass drums and some Simmons equipment, and maybe even some small electronic timps instead of the real ones, some cymbals and the gongs. I haven’t changed anything as of yet; it’s been this way for about five years. I just purchased a Leedy snare drum from Charlie Donnelly. It’s a wood-shell drum which I’ll be playing tomorrow night. I’ll try it out, and if it’s better than the Ludwig, I’ll use that for a while. I’ve been considering playing some wooden drums, which I did try with Gretsch, but I got despondent with the company because they kept changing their address and it was hard to get a hold of anybody, so I went to the nearest thing, which was Premier.
RM: Gretsch seems to have stabilized in the last couple of years.
CP: Well, I think they’re an excellent shell, and those die-cast hoops are fantastic.
RM: Some people complain that everyone’s drums sound the same these days— that dead studio sound—but yours are real open.
CP: I don’t really confess to being a greater tuner of drums. I’m never happy with the sound I get. I get a good bass drum sound, I get a good snare drum sound, and I’m good at picking cymbals. I’ve never ever got what I consider to be that “happening” sort of tom-tom sound. Whether that be my tuning, or using metal-shell drums instead of wood-shell drums, or just the drums themselves—the depth, the diameter, or whatever—I’ve never even heard someone else’s where I say, “That’s the sound.” They just don’t ever sound as good as they should. I’ll be honest with you—the people at Premier are going to love this—I know that the Sonor drums sound pretty good, but you have to hit them so hard. I’m not such a big guy, and the sticks I use are not like telegraph poles or anything like that, so I don’t know if I could actually hit them hard enough to get a good sound out of them, but they do sound good. I don’t know what they’d sound like in a band—that’s another test, as it were—but they do sound alright.
RM: I always thought you had a “classical” snare drum sound; I can really hear the snares.
CP: Yeah. I mean, producers don’t like that sound, because they like the old “thud.” I don’t play that way. I’ve got this Black Beauty which really is a loud drum, and it’s tuned fairly tight. I must have about 500 snare drums, and I’m still buying them; this is a fetish with me; I keep thinking that one day there will be that one. Anyway, I’m going to try tuning the drum the way I always tune it, but I’m going to use a wooden shell, so ‘II get the best of both worlds. I get a little bit of that sort of meaty sound, but I’ve still got the top end in there for me. When you use the metal shell, it’s not as meaty sounding, but it is bright, and it does tend to cut through. I tend to think that with Asia, that top end is good, but I need something a bit in between. I’m going to try this Leedy drum and see if it helps. But then, you could talk to me tomorrow and I’ll say it’s the metal shell.
RM: You should get with Jim Keltner; he collects snare drums too.
CP: Oh yeah? I was offered five yesterday, but I can’t just collect them. I’ve got to be able to play them, and this Leedy is a playable drum.
RM: You told me that you were trying to get a Gladstone drum. Surely you wouldn’t take a drum like that on the road.
CP: Oh yes. That will not go in any cabinet. The only cabinet that will be in will be on stage. My whole thing in life is, whatever I’ve got, I use. I don’t sit in the kitchen and have dinner; I go into the dining room. A lot of people don’t; they keep it all nicely polished, just to look at. No. If anyone’s going to scratch that table, it’s going to be me. That’s how I look at things. The same with the drum. I mean, I would clean it, and obviously look after it, and I’d probably take it away with me and not let it go with the equipment, but I would definitely use it. It’s pointless to have it if you don’t use it. You’re only here once; life’s short. I played Shelly Manne’s Gladstone drum once. It was fantastic.
RM: So we should watch for a Gladstone snare drum on stage with Asia?
CP: Oh yeah. If I get it, it’ll be there every night.
RM: Moving from the old to the new, in your previous interview you said that you were resisting electronics. Now, you’re using Simmons drums.
CP: Yeah, I do. Well, prior to that interview, I had actually recorded on electronic drums with Emerson, Lake & Palmer on the Welcome Back My Friends album. I had eight synthesizers which were built for me, about the size of cigar boxes, and I recorded a piece by Ginastera, called “Con Brio” and I had an electronic drum section in that which I think people still assume was Keith. With the electronics I had, the acoustic drums triggered the synthesizer, and I had the sound of the drum and the synthesizer mixed together. I enjoyed them, but I didn’t think they were musical enough. That was the only time I recorded them. They gave me a lot of trouble, to tell you the truth; “Will they work? Won’t they work? Will the octave divider switch work?” I used them for maybe two or three years, and then I stopped all the electronic gadgetry. It wasn’t until about six months ago that I got hold of some Simmons, because I liked the way they sounded. Unlike everyone else, instead of having the Simmons pad, I’ve got the ones that look like a man’s head. I use the snare drum module within the music, and I use the other two as part of my solo, just as another color. I’ve been thinking about doing a changeover completely, or maybe a 70/30—70% electronic and 30% still basic drumset. But to get different sounds with these Simmons, it does mean you have to carry a certain amount of outboard equipment. So it’s something I’ll have to think seriously about. I think it’s possible for me to get the best of both worlds, but I can’t do it with the equipment I’ve got. As wonderful as the drumset is played by many people today, I personally think that in rock music, it has become the dinosaur of the stage environment. In other words, there is no way you can hear these thunderous tom-toms. They always sound nice, but they never sound like “WOW! What is that!” I think it’s about time that it all got updated a little bit.
RM: Have you ever used anything like a Linn machine?
CP: Yes. We have a Linn machine which we use onstage. I like the fact that if you put something in the machine that is odd, it’ll actually correct it for you. We don’t use it a lot. I tried recording with one playing at the same time, but it didn’t work. Next I tried recording that on its own, with me coming in on the middle eight, and that didn’t work. Then I tried it the other way around—me playing and the machine coming in—and that didn’t work. So it’s like all or nothing. It’s either the machine, or it’s the drummer. It’s hard to get the combination together.
RM: There are still people who worry that the drum computers are going to put drummers out of work.
CP: It’s not really enough though, is it? The problem is, I’ve noticed that the choruses in our songs speed up a bit, and there’s no way that by the time we finish it’s going to be the same tempo as when we started. I don’t think that anyone could truthfully say that that’s bad. I think that the drummer can actually give a bit more excitement because he does speed up. I think this cold, regimented thing that goes on is very nice to make demos, and it’s excellent for disco records, but it does take away a little bit of the emotion. Even though you can put fills in and program the shit out of the thing, there comes a time when all drum machines fall down. This has to do with my analysis of time. I always think that the bass plays right on the beat, any lead instruments play behind it—so they can weave in and out—and I always think the drummer plays in front of it— always giving the edge; always making it go. But with the rhythm box, it’s always so much on the nose that it feels sterile. I think the Simmons drums might help the situation because you can get all of that sound happening, and you can physically play it.
RM: Most drummers talk about laying back; you’re one of the few I’ve talked to who plays ahead.
CP: Well, that’s my way of thinking about it. I expect the bass player to be right on it, the drummer to give it the excitement, and the lead instrument to give it the emotion.
RM: That reminds me of Peter Erskine’s belief that drummers shouldn’t just mark the time; they should propel it.
CP: Well, that’s what I mean by being in front, you see. Not racing away—it’s just a small thing we’re talking about here. But that’s the way it’s always been in bands that I’ve been in. I’ve always been a bit “edgy.” But that’s what drums are meant to be. I don’t think a drummer should be right on the spot. It’s boring. It should be to the point where it’s exciting, although not to the point where it’s pulling. It’s not as extreme as that. It’s a fine line, which I think is probably the mark of a lot of good jazz drummers. It’s basically a jazz drummer argument really, not so much a rock musician argument. But I think it is valid.
RM: You mentioned that your roots were in jazz. Do you ever play jazz anymore?
CP: I haven’t played any for a long time. We don’t jam at all. I can’t remember the last time actually.
RM: Is there still a jazz drummer inside you somewhere who’s going to reappear at some point?
CP: Maybe. It’s just that I haven’t been in the right environment. The last time I sat in with a band was at some rock concert in Spain.
RM: Do you ever go out to hear jazz musicians play?
CP: Well, I went out the other night to hear Louie [Bellson] and Buddy play.
RM: I’m always amazed by the fact that English rock drummers always talk about how much they were influenced by jazz drummers.
CP: The first drum record I ever had was Drum Crazy on Columbia records, and it was the soundtrack from The Gene Krupa Story, with Sal Mineo playing the part of Gene Krupa. The second one I had was Buddy Rich Sings Johnny Mercer. I traded that one for This One’s For Basie by the Buddy Rich orchestra, and then it was off to the races. I think that I then listened to stuff like Elvin Jones. My family liked jazz.
RM: Did you ever try to imitate the styles of any of the jazz drummers you were listening to?
CP: I didn’t consciously try to play like them, but I guess I played like everybody when I was a kid, because I’d play along with a record, and sort of get sucked into playing that style. I think that’s part of the process of learning. I’m a great thief, you know. I lift a lot of things. I love it. I like to lift stuff and play it better. It’s all been done before anyway. The real trick is taking whatever you’ve stolen and trying to do something different with it, but using that as the source; using that as the foundation. I think it would be possible to imitate someone like Elvin Jones. But to come up with that and be that original is another kettle of fish. That is difficult. However, there are a lot of people who can copy styles. There are drummers who, if you don’t listen to too hard, you might mistake for Buddy Rich, because they have obviously copied Buddy Rich. Anyone can learn someone else’s licks.
RM: Have you ever heard a drummer who you thought was trying to copy you?
CP: No, not that I can think of. If I heard someone play something that I had played before, I think I would notice it. To tell you the truth, I don’t actually listen to an awful lot of drummers. I didn’t even hear Neil Peart play until recently. I kept seeing his name turn up in your magazine, so I went to see him. I mean, I had heard of the group, but I hadn’t paid a lot of attention, because the music they play is not generally my style, not to say that what they are playing is bad. So I end up going to see drummers only when their names keep turning up, because there are so many. Of course, you can learn something from even the worst player, but I don’t tend to go out and watch a lot of drummers play, unless they are of exceptional quality—and I do mean creme de la creme quality. There are a few, but not that many. I went to hear Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich together. Certain things that they play might not be as up-to date as you’d like to hear, but the actual technique, what they do, and what they stand for is fantastic.
RM: And they were both innovators. People complain that all drummers today sound the same.
CP: Yeah, that’s what Buddy was saying to me yesterday. He said, “Why do you all have to do those stupid triplets?” I said, “Well, I have to do a certain amount of those because the music really calls for it.” I can’t do some of the more off-the-wall things, because our music is not like that. It’s not jazz, you know what I mean? That stuff is really needed. It’s like French fries need salt.
RM: Ask Buddy why all the jazz drummers go “ting-ting-a-ting” on the cymbal.
CP: Right, [laughs] But, you know, I’ve had that argument with him, and he’s pretty cool; he understands, because I think he knows that I could play something else. If I say that I think that’s what I should play, he considers that I’ve obviously thought about it, but he still can’t accept the fact that everybody plays those triplets. I do as many of those as anyone else. Billy Cobham built a career out of that, you know, so what can I tell you?
RM: Do you think that there are a lot of things that influence musicians besides how much they practice and who they listen to?
CP: Yeah, I think your day-to-day existence affects that hour-and-a-half performance for sure. I thrive on a certain amount of aggravation, myself. I like to go on in an aggressive mood, if I can. Not from a relationship point of aggression, but from an aggression of “I’d like to be the greatest; I’d like to be in the best group.” The question of “Why haven’t we sold the hall out?” stimulates me to play. If I know that we are one ticket short of selling out, that puts my nose out of joint enough to get wired up. And when it’s full, it’s the other way around—I’m just so pleased that I thrive on that excitement. I can’t spend any time at the concert hall after the sound check. I leave, go back to my hotel room and lie down. I have to walk into the hall 20 minutes before I go on stage and feel the excitement like I’ve never been there before. I go through any quick warm-ups that I have to do to spark up the adrenalin, and then go for it.
RM: What about when the tour is over? What are some of the other influences on your life?
CP: I enjoy a healthy climate. I’ve lived in Spain for 10 years, in the Canary Islands, and I’m very happy there. I’ve got a daughter now. I teach some little kiddies at a school—I studied karate for several years; I don’t actually practice myself any more, but I’ve got a gymnasium in my house and occasionally I’ll work out, and I teach some kids from five to 12 years old. I get off on that, mainly from the point of view that they don’t ask questions. You get kids who are 15 and they really want to know “Why?” I like people to learn things from an animalistic point of view; I like them to learn it through their bodies. Karate is real good for that. Actually, drumming is also something you can learn through your body. Just have a go, you know? You don’t have to write it all down; you don’t have to be that analytical. Although I’ve studied that way, I’m saying that the actions are natural. It’s also some thing that has to be preserved at an early stage if possible.
I enjoy being healthy; I enjoy being fit, active, going to bed early, not drinking a lot, and not smoking. I play two ball games—a bit of tennis and a bit of golf. I like swimming, I go fishing, and at the most, I might practice about 45 minutes to an hour a day. I might end up having dinner at night with a classical record playing, and waking up in the morning listening to a noisy rock ‘n’ roll band playing, and in the afternoon, it depends on how I feel. I don’t go to too many concerts; I go to a little bit of theater. Those are basically my activities.
RM: I guess that’s why you’re still vital. Some rock ‘n’ rollers don’t live to be 33, and if they do, they look like they’re 43.
CP: Right. Well, there’s only so many bottles of wine you can drink. I’m going to be around for a long time, so I don’t have to suck up all this stuff right now. There’s no big rush, really.