WEATHER Report reaches the part in “D Waltz” where they bring it down real low. The drummer is smoothly and effortlessly executing a feather-light roll pattern between the hi-hat and snare, catching all the synth and sax accents with his kick. In the expectant hush, someone in the crowd yells, “Ommaaarrr!” A moment later the drummer slams a resounding fill and the band heats up for a wild finish. Both of the drummer’s long, gangly arms rise high over his rack of toms, the left crashing with equal fervor to the right. His head swings up and down, nod- ding a big ”Yeah.”
As Weather Report leader Joe Zawinul told Keyboard magazine in March ’84, it was getting perilously close to the start of a tour in 1982 when he called jazz violinist Michael Urbaniak in New York, asking about musicians to fill the spots vacated by Peter Erskine and Jaco Pastorius. Urbaniak was lavish in his praise of Omar Hakim.
Says Zawinul, “I got in touch with Omar, and at that lime he had a deal coming up with Warner Brothers to do his own record. He sings and plays all the instruments and wanted to do his own thing, so he wasn’t sure if he could make it. The time for the tour grew closer and closer, and finally he said he would do it. We had never met, but I asked him to find a percussionist and a bass player.
We trusted Omar to bring the right musicians.”
The then 23-year-old drummer, a nonsmoking, non-drinking vegetarian, recruited his friends, bassist Victor Bailey and percussionist Jose Rossy. Zawinul’s trust paid off. “In 1983 we did 86 concerts with this band, and it really developed into something else,” Zawinul told Keyboard. “In my opinion this is the best all-around band we have had. We can play anything and everything. Everybody is excited and everybody is trying to learn. Wayne [Shorter] is playing twice as good as he’s ever played and I’m doing my best to improve myself. It’s an incredible little ensemble.”
Hakim’s visibility has certainly increased since taking the Weather Report gig, but his reputation was already blooming prior to that. He had come up through New York’s “Fameous” Music and Arts High School, and had already been working with the likes of Mike Mainieri, Gil Evans, Carly Simon, Labelle, Melba Moore, Kazumi Watanabe and Tom Browne. He recorded David Sanborn’s As We Speak album and did overdubs on Kenny G.’s G Force. He contributed his talent and feel to two of the year’s truly smoking dance grooves, David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love.” “Being With You,” which he wrote for George Benson’s In Your Eyes album, won a Best Pop Instrumental Grammy. He recorded an album with high school classmate (guitarist) Bobby Broom, sparking their version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” with fluid, dynamic soloing. Hakim plays with the feel of a jazz veteran, not altogether surprising considering he’s been playing drums for nearly 20 of his 25 years.
Omar just finished tracking David Bowie’s new album in Montreal, with Hugh Padgham [The Police, Phil Collins] engineering. “The drum sound is beautiful,” says Hakim. “I used a Ludwig Super 400 chrome snare that you could hear three rooms away.” Hakim will be starting work on the next Weather Report album soon, and hopes to be putting some serious work in on his own solo record this year. “I like this idea of being where people don’t expect you to be,” smiles Hakim. “I think it’s so much fun. It shatters barriers. I dig that.”
RT: On David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album you are working with Nile Rodgers as a producer.
OH: I’ve known Nile Rodgers for about eight years. We had a band called Brown Sugar that played at Great Adventure amusement park. We had three ladies up front singing, Nile on guitar, myself on drums, a keyboard player named Denzil Miller, who now plays with Lenny White, and the bass player’s name was Rick Tell—not to be confused with the guy who shot apples off the top of people’s heads. Who was that, William Tell? Corny joke, oh well . . . [laughs] Yeah, Nile had asked me to join him and Bernard Edwards when they were putting this band together, Chic. I was going to high school, so I didn’t join the band. I must have been 16. Carmine [Rojas, the bassist on Let’s Dance] was playing with Labelle when I met him. When the drummer Tony Thompson went to join Chic, I took his place in Labelle, and I met Carmine. So it’s all connected; we all know each other.
RT: I understand that you started playing when you were very young.
OH: Yeah, I started playing when I was around six years old or so.
RT: Just the basic pots and pans?
OH: Yeah, I did the pots and pans until the Ludwigs came along. But I kept getting gifts, you know. An uncle from down South or somebody would give me a drum with a paper drumhead on it. There are some pictures of me holding up drums at a very young age.
RT: When did you do your first gig?
OH: I was nine years old and I was playing with my father’s band, called the Nomads. It was a jazz thing—playing standards. I was first into playing jazz with my pop, and I was always listening to all the other stuff. My father was always playing records by ‘Trane and Miles around the house. And he knew these people. I remember going to John Coltrane’s house when I was a child and sitting in his living room. His daughter used to babysit for me. My father, Hassan, was pretty active in music. I don’t really know why he didn’t pursue it—if it was because me and my brother came along, or whether it just got hard. Back then it was different. He had been playing with Duke Ellington and Count Basie, but club owners at that time weren’t ready to have a lot of Muslim bandleaders. A lot of the musicians at the time were taking these names back. People weren’t ready to deal with that whole religious-pride kind of thing.
RT: Were you born “Omar Hakim”?
OH: Yeah, that’s me from day one.
RT: Have you ever encountered any problems about your name?
OH: Nah. The kids teased me when I was young, but lately I get more compliments. People like the name. It’s not uncommon now to meet people with international-sounding names. I think people are more surprised that I was born with the name. My parents had converted to Islam after they were married. I’m not what you would call a true, pray-five-times-a-day Moslem. I deviated from that and started studying a lot of other paths. My parents never forced anything on me. They’re definitely what I would call “jazz parents.” They never said, “Hey, don’t do that.” It was, “If you see something, go for it.” And I think that was a great help to me as far as playing music is concerned. I did a lot of different kinds of gigs in New York. I wouldn’t say no to a gig—anything from a bar mitzvah to an after-hours club at six o’clock in the morning. Then I would go to school, and play with the orchestra or the marching band.
RT: The school you went to sounds a lot like Fame high school.
OH: Well, that movie was based on that particular high school— Music and Arts High School.
RT: So you are the Fame drummer.
OH: Get out of here! [laughs] I graduated the year before they started filming the movie. A lot of the people that were in Fame were from the Gospel choir of the High School of Music and Arts. Marcus Miller and I used to play for the Gospel choir. We’d get to rehearsal early and jam. Marcus and I would be playing some funk groove, all the kids would be dancing, and then the teachers would come in and say, “Alright, cut, cut!” It was a great environment for playing. There were composition and theory classes, the jazz band, the concert band, orchestra and Gospel choir. And then we would give these little shows on the side. Everybody was into it. We would get the auditorium at school on a certain day and do a concert.
RT: Did your name get around because of the bands you were playing with at school?
OH: Well, I had been gigging since I was about nine. By the time I was 11 or 12, I think a lot of people began hearing about the kid in Queens, doing gigs on drums. And then I started to do a lot of funk and rock gigs with local bands. That snowballed into club gigs downtown with a man named Weldon Irvine. When I was in high school, I started getting a lot of gigs downtown in the clubs.
RT: Do you have any idea why you ended up on drums?
OH: I tried different things. I was torn between the bass and drums. But the low Fon the bass was too far for me to reach at the age of ten. So the drums were a lot easier, [laughs] It seemed more natural. When I sit behind a drumset, I feel comfortable. I goof around with piano and guitar. I think it helps your drumming to experience another instrument. When you go back to your main axe, it helps.
RT: Can you remember who your early influences were on the drums?
OH: Of course, man. Art Blakey, Max, Buddy Rich— West Side Story killed me—and those albums that Elvin did with ‘Trane.
RT: What was it about those jazz players that you loved?
OH: What used to kill me about Art Blakey was that press roll that he did. He would build it up—”Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt Crash!” That used to knock me out. I liked his power, his rawness, and the feeling. His sock cymbal on those records knocked me out. It would just cut through everything, and the time was so solid. Also, I dug Elvin’s rawness and emotion. He’s a real emotional player. Later on, in high school, I started listening to Philly Joe Jones records, and he played some stuff that knocked me out.
RT: Something about your style reminds me of Al Foster, Miles’ drummer. I guess it’s the smoothness that you both have.
OH: He does have that smoothness and finesse. I dig it. I admire all these cats. I can’t really say who my favorite drummer is, because I’ve spent time and listened to everybody. You asked about early influences and I named Elvin, Max, Buddy Rich, Philly Joe, and Art Blakey. I listened to all those guys and I can’t say that I dug one more than the other, because they al l gave me something I really admired. Then when I got older, Billy Cobham came along and turned my head totally around. And then I heard Lenny White and he flipped me out. Now I’m admiring the stuff that Stewart Copeland is doing with The Police. I like the feeling. I listen to Al Foster, and I’ve been listening to Terry Bozzio. I’ve also been listening to Steve Smith’s work with Journey and his solo album. What I like is that he plays parts and you can hear them. He’s composing parts. There was a tune on one of Journey’s albums where there was one pattern that really knocked me out; it was with the bell of the cymbal and the tom. You could hear the part.He’ s listening. You’ve got to listen, and keep your ears open. I think that keeps you young—keeps you open. I mean, look at Joe and Wayne. They’ve been listening; they’ve been associating.
[Bowie’s “Modern Love” comes on the radio, kicked off by Hakim’s strong drum groove in 6/4 time.]
I know that record! It was fun doing this one, man. You know it’s going to be a take when you hear it in the headphones while you’re playing, and you’re going, “Shit, this sounds good.” You just know, because of the feeling in the studio. What I like about this is that the beat is so simple but it keeps moving ahead.
RT: Who was playing with you when you recorded it?
OH: Me, Nile, Rob Sabino, and Carmine. We were tracking live, and David was singing.
RT: How did you come up with the “Modern Love” beat?
OH: Nile said that we needed an intro in 6/4, and he wanted that dance feeling. He counted off the tempo, I just played, and that was what was nice about the session. They let us go—you know, “Play.”
I’ve been involved with a lot of different types of music, and I think that helps me avoid being typecast. I don’t want people to say, “Oh, he’s a jazz drummer. Oh, he’s a rock drummer. He’s a funk drummer, but he plays in Weather Report.” I just believe that a musician should play music. There’s a slight attitude change between the types of music, but once you’re able to listen to different music and identify the things in that music that make it what it is, then you can go for that feeling and still be yourself, no matter what it is. So I don’t feel any more restricted playing Bowie’s music than I feel playing with Joe and Wayne. I think you can lend some fun, some art and some feeling to the music wherever you go.
When I was in Europe, people thought that I was David Bowie’s drummer. They didn’t even know I was playing with Weather Report. Maybe the Procession album had just come out. So the Bowie record sort of reached another audience for me. I’m really happy for it. And then there’s even talk of a Mick Jagger record; somebody called me the other day. So I’m into it. I think it’s great. It might lead to more projects where I can take a creative kind of energy there. Then somebody called me for a Chico Freeman session, which is like the total opposite. I don’t know if either one of those sessions will happen, but it’s interesting to look at the calls I’m getting. I’m really happy about it. I just try to take a good feeling to whatever session it is. I did some tracks for Melba Moore, then I turned around to do some tracks for a funk bass player from Washington, D.C., who had a record out called “The Smurf.” I do all kinds of dates, but I have fun at every one of them. I figure that you can learn all this music, you can learn how to read, you can learn how to do all the rudiments, you can learn all this, but it doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t make any music. For the sake of music you really have to let that stuff go, and call on it only to speak through your instrument. It’s like you learn words, not to be conscious of the fact that you have this giant vocabulary, but so you can call on it to relay a feeling to somebody. That’s what those things that you practice are for. So I think you should learn them and then put them away. Just let them come out when you’re playing. Don’t worry about whether you’re playing a double or a triple ratamacue.
RT: By the way, is that what you’re doing on the hi-hat on “D Waltz”?
OH: I don’t know. It’s something with the left hand, because I’m also playing the snare drum in there. But I don’t know. See, that’s what I mean about those tricks. When you’re involved with the expression of the music, you’re not really thinking about what you’re using. It’s nice to have technique, because it will enable you to say things more clearly and enable them to come out easier. So you can call on it to squeeze those ideas out. If you’re hearing a certain pattern on the hi-hat, you don’t have to say, “How am I going to do that?” You can just sort of put yourself out there on the limb, and if it happens, great.
Lately I’ve been trying to open up my heart on the drumset when I sit down. Seriously, I don’t know what’s going to happen on the gig with Weather Report. To me, it’s like I’m going to the gig with the audience. It’s going to be just as much of an experience for me as it is for you. Maybe that’s a good attitude, because I’m just going to go there and speak to the audience. That’s how I’ve been trying to approach it—just sit down and really speak, play, laugh and cry for them, and have some fun. Jazz has been taken so seriously. Everybody comes on stage with their eyebrows pointed down, and everybody acts like “I’m going to play my ass off tonight.” Who cares? You can make music and still be light, and still have that feeling. Narada Michael Walden did that. He was giving so much. People slept on Narada and what he was doing, as far as I’m concerned. He sort of went by unnoticed because he played with energy and love for the music, but he wasn’t really concerned with chops, even though he had the most amazing chops. He would bleed for the music. I’ve experienced music that way too, where I’ve cracked my knuckles on the drumset and didn’t know it. There was blood everywhere but I was so into the music I didn’t know what happened. But you know, when you really get absorbed in it . . .
RT: Sort of like athletes playing with pain.
OH: Yeah, and you sort of rise above it. You don’t feel tired. You might play two hours, and those two hours go by like a flash.
RT: Didn’t you tour with Gil Evans’ big band?
OH: I did that in ’81. The year before I joined Weather Report, I toured Europe with Gil. It was one of the hardest tours I’ve done, but one of the most musically rewarding tours. It was actually a perfect gig for me to do before I joined Weather Report, because Gil’s music is so open and so out. It’s structured and it’s not. It was a total freak out for me sometimes. Hiram Bullock gave me a great bit of advice. I would always ask Gil, “Well, what groove do you want on this?” Hiram pulled me to the side and said, “Look, he hired you because of the way you play, so be yourself. That’s why you’re here. If he didn’t want you to play your stuff, he wouldn’t have hired you.” So that stuck with me. You know, some people give you a landmark line. That was one. Wherever you go, do your thing. They asked you to be there because of what you’ll contribute—your personality. So every night after that I was going for it. And I was able to bring that attitude to Weather Report, and every gig that I did after that.
I had confidence before, but playing with Gil and having everything so open . . . It was a little scary to me at first, but that’s part of being a musician, I guess. In this interview Gil did, he said something to the effect that by leaving everything open, he counts on the fact that if it gets too hairy, one of the musicians will bring every- thing back together again. He knew that if we had a few musical train wrecks or something, somebody was going to come to the rescue and spark that thing again. So we would be playing, and maybe George Lewis would stand up and do something, and everybody would follow him. And then Hiram would do something and everybody would follow him. Then I would take it. It was really exciting. And to me, that thing of passing the ball in the music, is what Weather Report is about too.
RT: How has Weather Report been different than you thought it would be?
OH: It’s weird to be a fan of a band like that, and then join the band. That was really funny to me. And when Joe called me, I didn’t even audition. He just called me. He got a recommendation from Michael Urbaniak. At the time I was real busy with Mike Mainieri, and I was doing stuff with George Benson. I toured Japan with Mainieri, Warren Bernhardt and Marcus Miller, for a guitarist named Kazumi Watanabe. After that I worked with Mainieri’s band. Then I went out with Carly Simon along with Warren, Mike, and Mark Egan. So I had been in that circuit, and was doing a lot of club gigs with a lot of people. Mike Urbaniak was around at that time. So after Peter Erskine joined Steps, I guess Joe called New York and asked who was drumming around town and what was going on. Mike was kind enough to give him my name. So Joe called me. We didn’t talk much about music though. He asked me what I was doing. I was in the studio doing a solo record at the time. Warner Brothers had given me some bread and I was going to do an album as, like, a singer/keyboard player/ drummer/guitar player. The night that I came back from mixing the stuff, Joe called. So we were talking about where I live, where he lives, and his garden with the tomatoes—nothing to do with music. Then after we finished talking he said, “Well, okay, you’re in.”
RT: You must be quite a conversationalist.
OH: It was funny to me, but I guess maybe Mike had already convinced him, or maybe he had seen my name on some things or heard me. Miles was sneaking around the clubs. You know how those guys are; the word gets around.
RT: A gig in Weather Report is like a dream to many drummers.
OH: I flipped. My mother was funny too, because she said, “You got a call from L.A. about a gig. The guy has a funny name. It starts with a Z. He said something about a weather report.” I said, “Weather Report! Zawinul! What’s the number?” It was a dream-come-true gig for me. I had been buying the records, and going to gigs. I was playing a gig one time and Narada was there. He said, “You know, you’d be perfect for Weather Report.” This was like six years before. I thought that was so strange. But for me it felt like a natural place to be, after I got the concept together. The first week was pretty rough. It’s a matter of learning where to place your thoughts in the music. I had a headache all the first week, just from the concentration, the excitement of being there and learning the music. He’d hand me charts that were so long the pages would fall over flapping to the ground.
RT: Was that different from Gil’s approach?
OH: Well, yes and no. What Joe does is to improvise and let the tape recorder run. After he’s finished, he writes it down and that’s the tune. Then he hands you this chart. Sometimes you use all of it; sometimes you don’t.
Joe called me in February but we didn’t rehearse until early May. So that time was spent looking for a percussionist, and trying to talk Marcus Miller into doing the gig. We had played so tight together that it would have really been a lot of fun. He had been working with Miles and didn’t know if he wanted to leave Miles. Then he told me he wanted to concentrate on his solo album. So around that time I had started working with Miriam Makeba, and Victor Bailey was on the gig. I thought to myself that maybe I should call Joe and tell him about this guy. So that worked out.
I had met Jose Rossy with Carmine Rojas in Labelle, and working with Jose had left an impression on me because we had so much fun together—an instant rapport. I just told Joe to get Jose Rossy. Now Mino Cinelu is touring with us, from Miles Davis’ band. He’s another guy that knocked me out when I saw him. And when they said time for a new percussionist, I suggested Mino immediately.
RT: You were coproducer on the Domino Theory album. What does that mean, exactly?
OH: Well, producer is such a vague word, but for me it did have a meaning. I was mixing the record. I have a great interest in studio stuff. All my friends know I’m fanatic about that stuff. I have books laying all over the house about it. And Joe knew that too. I would do four-track tapes that sounded like they were done on 32-tracks. I did these tapes in my basement on a Fostex cassette machine. A friend of mine let me borrow an Otari four-track, so I had really become versed in making stuff sound good with a minimum of equipment. I feel that if you can do that, then you can go crazy in the studio. Joe knew I was a fanatic, so he brought me in and he trusted me a lot. I was very involved. It was actually hands-on for all of us. I mixed, and made some suggestions about effects, and made some arrangement suggestions occasionally. I learned so much from Joe and Wayne—just their sense of placing sounds in the music. What Joe would do is say, “You got it.” He would leave the studio and so I would mix it the way I heard it. I would do a mix, Joe would come back and say, “Okay, see you later. Go get something to eat,” and then he would do something. After that, we would work on it together. Then we would program things into the NECAM, and do more things together. Then we would do panning, and set up echoes and delays. Like I said, I’m crazy about that stuff, so we had a lot of fun.
RT: What is the NECAM?
OH: You know the Neve consoles? This is the Neve computer system. Everything is stored on a floppy disk. It remembers the levels and fades and stuff. It doesn’t remember EQs, but there’s a new Solid State Logic system that remembers all that stuff, I think. So we had a lot of fun. That’s something that I intend to definitely get into more. My eye is actually set on a career in production. I just want to become more versed in my arranging skills, and more music stuff, so that I can do that. I intend to be doing that soon.
RT: I like the tune “Molasses Run” that you wrote for Weather Report’s Procession, and that you play guitar on.
OH: Yeah, that was a mistake. Joe said we needed alternate changes on the tune. I had my guitar with me, so I said that I’d work out the changes that night and bring them into the studio. I was playing it on the guitar, and we were trying to figure it out. He was at the keyboards, and he said, “I like that sound. Get a mic’.” I told him that I didn’t want to play guitar on this record.
OH: Well, I don’t consider myself a serious guitar player. I do it in my house where the doors are closed, the window shades are pulled down, and the windows are locked. It’s not something that I really take seriously, even though there was a time when I was working on it, and I was feeling forward motion on it. I’m going to stop clowning around with the guitar and the singing, and do it, because I want to do it on my record. And if I get up enough nerve I will play keyboards—maybe put something together where I’m playing drums, a little guitar and keyboards, and singing.
RT: Is this album that you are working on all original material?
OH: All original material. I’m going to change the direction of the album now, because of Weather Report. Before I joined Weather Report I had plans to do a record more in the pop-funk vein, withme singing. But people know me as a drummer now, and they like what I’ve done. So I figure that maybe I should be a drummer on the record—not that I’m not going to do those other things. I think I can now afford to make drumming my focus on the record. There was some question as to what I did. “Is he a jazz player? What does he do?” The Sanborn project, the Bowie project, and the Weather Report albums have been a great help, and so now I’m going to do a record where I’m playing. I’m also going to try to find an environment to set myself in as a singer. If it comes out being commercial, great. I would like for it to be commercial. I mean, I want to appeal to that audience, because I go to Tower Records and buy records too. I read the charts and I enjoy that music. But at least maybe now I don’t have to be so worried about having to make a hit record. Recently I realized that I can make some music now and not worry about it.
RT: I like what you guys are doing with the vocals in Weather Report now—using them as textural devices.
OH: Yeah. It’s just vocalizing, as opposed to singing. I think I’m going to incorporate that into my music somehow. I intend to get into some other sounds. I also think I’m not going to try to write everything. I’m going to get some other friends and have some fun. I love the way Mike Mainieri writes and I had fun playing his music, so I’m going to get him to write something or maybe collaborate. I just want to play with some of the people that I really love playing with, such as Marcus and Victor.
RT: Your playing on Sanborn’s As We Speak album is real strong. Did you have an open situation there?
OH: Yeah. We would rehearse a week before we went into the studio. All the rehearsals were done at Michael Sembello’s garage, which he turned into a studio. So it was real loose. We would just go there, play the tunes, try things out, and record them. When we went into the studio we knew the music, so we could improvise then, have fun and jam. I remember Sembello sitting in the booth, playing around with all these great sounds. He would get these sounds in the studio that were beautiful. Everything was tracked live. So it was a lot of fun on that session.
RT: Did David solo live on the session?
OH : Yes. I don’t remember what was kept and what wasn’t, but he did solo live. You can feel a buildup in a lot of that stuff because we were jamming. Sometimes somebody would mess up and we’d have to start over, so every take was a performance.
RT: Are there any traits that you especially like in bass players?
OH: I’m really into a player who listens. I’m a team worker, I think, by nature. I work best like that. So if the bass player is a team worker, then that makes it easy. And no lazies—I can’t work very well with someone who’s lazy. They’ve got to be paying attention, because I like to move. I think pretty fast in terms of making music decisions on stage. I guess it has something to do with trusting yourself. Working with Victor and Marcus is so much fun, because they work with me and will take the initiative. There are times when Marcus and I will just sit in a groove, and then there are other times when we’ll say, “Okay, here we go.” It’s the same with Victor. Those are general traits. Maybe I don’t have specific traits because I work well with people, so it’s easy for me to go in, listen to everybody, and sum up the approach for the session that day. I can walk in and listen for a second, or I might walk in the studio and play a beat, just to see what everybody’s going to do. And that’s how I know where the session’s going to be at that day—just from whether the bass player’s going to play hard or light. Mark Egan is a very delicate player with a beautiful sound, so I might play differently with Mark than I would play with Victor. Then I worked with this bass player named Ivan Elias, who used to play with a rock ‘n’ roll band called Scandal. We toured together a long time ago, and he has a very round tone. So I would do bass drum things to help him show off his tone. Some people mistake the attack in Marcus’ sound for a bass drum, so maybe I would play differently with him. I think what I’ve been able to do is walk in, immediately sum up what’s going to happen, and then slightly change my approach, whether it be with a sound thing, or a time thing. Some bass players lean ahead, and some lay back, so I might have to pull on one session, but on another session I might have to play behind the beat. You have to adjust day to day, especially in the sessions. Don’t go in with too many preconceptions. Go in with your creativity. Take your sound with you and all that. Be open. Empty your head of the last one. Leave it and be ready for some- thing new. I’ve even done some jingles, and they’re really strange. The people walk in, you say hello, and they don’t say anything to you. But then again, you just have to learn how to rise above that, open up, and give that the same energy. Then everybody perks up. You really have to be ready to rise above, fit in, or change up, many things.
People will hire you or fire you based on your rapport, and that’s why I try to have fun wherever I am. I play the music and do the work, but I always want to have some fun.
RT: What rock bands have you had experience with?
OH: Not many. Ivan and I met touring with this guy named Arlen Gale. We were touring with the Doobie Brothers, and this guitarist named Rory Gallagher who used to blow the walls out every night. So that was fun. I experienced the rock scene on that one. You’d look up while you were playing and see Heineken bottles flying. And then with Carly, people were playing rock who had been known for playing jazz. She had Mark Egan, Mike Mainieri, Warren Bernhardt, and myself. I just like the energy of rock music. In the rock bands I’ve worked with, I loved that wall of sound that I heard when the drums were coming out of the monitors just right, and everybody landed on a chord together.
RT: The song “Predator” on the new Weather Report album—what did Wayne tell you about playing on that one? It’s an incredibly funky groove.
OH: Wayne hears those kinds of rhythms, so he handed me a little slip of paper one day and said, “Check this out.” It had a different beat than that actually; I changed it up a little. Wayne will give you an outline and just say to play what you hear. Wayne doesn’t talk much about the music. He’s into the experience. You have to look at where he comes from and what it was like back then—those gigs with Art and Miles. They were doing what I was talking about— going to the gigs and having an experience every night with the music. He likes to keep that in the music, and so does Joe. So we were in the studio jamming and we struck up this groove. Sometimes songs come about that way.
Sometimes Joe will hand you a percussion score. He’ll program the Linn and then transcribe it. Then he’ll hand you a score that you need 12 hands to play, but you’ve got to divide it between two arms and two legs. So Jose and I would be looking at the charts figuring out who would be playing what, with what hand, and at what time. The song “Two Lines” on the Procession album is like that.
RT: That’s one thing about the drum machines. A non-drummer will program them and ask you to do something that it takes about eight people to do.
OH: That’s right. It’s really funny. Joe would send me these hi-hat patterns in New York. I would try to play them anyway.
RT: What are your feelings about touring the world?
OH: I love it. I usually hate touring, but with Weather Report it’s really fun. Last year was the first world tour that I’d done with Weather Report. We played everywhere—Yugoslavia to Israel— and I had a ball.
RT: Do people react the same way everywhere?
OH: They’re nuts everywhere. When we got to Jerusalem, people were dancing in the aisles. They were loving it. I said, “Wow! Look at this!” The Weather Report music lends itself to an international audience. It’s definitely a multi-ethnic-sounding music, so everybody can relate to it. It lends itself to many cultures. You hear Europe, 52nd Street, Birdland, funk, rock. The gig, to me, has the energy of rock at times. You hear Africa and South America in the music. You hear animals. So it will bring out that thing in you that makes you want to dance in the aisles if you’re open to it. It’s a great and wonderful experience for me.
RT: Those blue Yamaha drums of yours are beautiful.
OH: This friend of mine, Christine Martin, got the word to me that Yamaha wanted me to be an endorser. She said, “What color do you want?” She had a pile of gels—like from a paint store—and we looked through them. We cut off one of the blues. I said, “There’s no way they’re going to do this, but I’m going to send it to them anyway.” And they sent the drums back with that blue. I flipped. They sent me 10″, 12″, 13″ and 14″ double-headed tom-toms. They’re Recording Series shells, with Remo Pinstripes on the top, and clear Ambassadors on the bottom.
RT: Do you like the Pinstripes?
OH: A lot. I leave them wide open because there’s enough harmonic overtone there without it being too ridiculous. They just seem to work well with microphones. There’s enough primary tone and harmonic overtone there to give you the brightness that you need, without it going “boooeeeeeaaaaaaoooo.” So I leave them wide open most of the time. On some sessions I might dampen them a little, but live not at all. The bass drum head is also a Pinstripe. On the snare drum I go for the regular Emperor or Ambassador coaled. Sometimes I use Remo Muffl’s inside—the ones that are like a ring of foam. The foam lays in a plastic tray and just sits in the drum. I cut different pieces of foam, which allows me to have the whole head for brush work, but I have just the right amount of muting.
RT: How many floor toms did you have up there?
OH: Three floor toms: 14″, 16″ and 18″. The bass drum is 14×22. The snare drum is a 7″ Recording Series.
The cymbals are all Zildjian. I’m using two China Boys. One is a 22″, and one is a 16″. My crash cymbals lately have been odd sizes. I have a 13″ thin cymbal, a 19″ medium-thin crash, a 17″ thin or medium thin, and then I use a 22″ heavy ride, or I’ll use a K. Zildjian. The hi-hats are the Quick Beats, with holes. I like them because I get the volume and the sound, and it’s good for all kinds of music.
RT: You have one very important piece of equipment, which I don’t think Zildjian makes. It looks a lot like a trash-can lid.
OH: That’s what it is, a trash-can lid. When we were doing the song “Where The Moon Goes,” there was a drum-machine beat, which had handclaps programmed on every third beat. We were not going to use the drum machine, so I had to get something to simulate that sound. We banged on everything in Joe’s house and his backyard, and then I said, “Garbage-can lids.” To his wife’s dismay, Joe got the garbage-can lid out of his backyard. He drilled a hole in it, we put it on a stand, and I used it on that tune. So now the part is there.
RT: So that’s Joe’s trash-can lid up there?
OH: Well, no, I’ve gone through a few since then. They bend up and then they are dead. The “trash” goes away.
RT: Do you endorse any certain kind of lid?
OH: Acme. [laughs] No, just kidding. We get these lids from the weirdest places. All I know is that most of them have the numbers 40/45 on them. Yeah, I think readers would like to know that. You have to get yourself a 40/45.1 don’t even know, does that mean 45 gallon? Maybe we can take a walk and go look at lids.
RT: You’re doing some double bass drum stuff at the end of “Domino Theory.”
OH: Yeah. I’ve got to get my chops up. I go between using a Drum Workshop pedal and a Yamaha pedal. I’ve never played double bass before, and I’m starting to get into the Drum Workshop double bass pedal—good invention.
RT: Has learning to use the double pedal been easy?
OH: No, it hasn’t, but I’m going to get it together. It’s just a matter of getting some chops up. They sent me one about five or six months ago, and I didn’t play it in public. I really didn’t have a lot of time to work on it at home because I was doing a lot of work in New York. I wasn’t practicing that much. I was working a lot. But I figured, I’m going to take it on tour, embarrass myself a few nights, and just learn how to play the thing better. [laughs] I mean, that’s the fun. Carlos Santana said something interesting backstage the other day. He said he really appreciated the band because we would take a lot of chances. He said, “You know, you’ve got to lose yourself to find yourself.” I said, “Wow, that is interesting.” That’s a good quality, I guess—to be daring. And I learned that from Joe and Wayne. Look at Joe; no Weather Report record sounds like the last one. He works very hard to make each one sound different.
RT: He comes up with some of the most outside noises. He must be laughing to himself sometimes.
OH: He does. He cracks up, and then he makes music with it—the mad professor.
RT: Who programmed the outrageous drum machine part on “Domino Theory”?
OH: Joe did. Joe’s nuts with that stuff. He’s hearing all these rhythms. Man, he’s crazy. He’s a madman, but he loves it. I think I’ll be playing along with that machine live, because he wants to start it out by himself. Eventually, I’m going to start using some Simmons equipment. I’m also going to find out if Yamaha is doing anything with electric drums. I’m very interested in that, and Weather Report is going to allow me to use that stuff.
RT: What about drumsticks?
OH: Vic Firth sticks. Can’t forget Vic. I’m using 5As with a nylon tip. I like them a lot. I’ve tried some of the other ones too—the Choppers, the SD8s. When I’m doing Bowie I use the Rock model or the SD1 General.
RT: Those are hefty sticks.
OH: Yeah, and I use them because, again, I believe in not using muscle. So I say, why not let the sticks work for you? Let them help you out; that’s why you paid $5.00 a pair for Vic Firth drumsticks, dammit. Let them help you! You don’t want to concentrate on all that. You want to concentrate on the music and letting your arms take your hands to where they’ve got to be on the drumset. I’m a wrist player, so if I need a little extra power, then I’m going to go to a heavier stick so that I can continue to keep my same touch from style to style.
RT: And you like the nylon tips.
OH: I like the nylon tips when I’m playing in a high-energy electric situation like that. The wood tips would never cut through. You have to play for the sound system. I mean, there are great soundsystems, but . . . I can only speak for myself and my touch. Everyone’s different. But for the way I touch a cymbal, nylon tips just seem to help me on the projection. They last longer, too, so I go for the nylon tip. I pick my cymbals with a nylon tip. But with the Rock model stick I’ve been using the wooden tips, maybe because it’s a heavier stick. And I’ve done trio gigs with very light sticks with wood tips. Yeah, I’m real strange with that. I think it’s maybe a little too early for me to lock in. I’m still pretty much finding myself—discovering things about how I play in each situation that I go in—and so lately I’ve been starting to make demands on what I need from the equipment. I think what I need will become more defined in a few years, especially when I get into my own thing.
RT: I noticed that Weather Report recorded Domino Theory at several different studios. Are there any that you feel particularly good in?
OH: Yeah, there are a few. I do a lot of work in New York at the Power Station. They can get a great drum sound, and it just works well for me. And I’ve done sessions at Media Sound where they got a great drum sound. Electric Lady is good, depending on who’s in the booth.
RT: Is it the room or the engineer?
OH: It’s both. And now it doesn’t have to be the room anymore, because you can assimilate any room digitally. They’ve got this processor with which you can actually program the size of the room that you want the instrument to be in. Can you imagine that? There are so many factors, you know. I am very fast in the studio, so I can go to many places and get desirable results, because I know what I’m looking for myself.
RT: Do you think about posture while you’re playing?
OH: Absolutely. That’s very important, because if your back isn’t straight when you play, you’re going to become fatigued. First of all, that’s the cable connection to your brain. So it’s like if you have a hose on the lawn and somebody steps on it, the water’s not going to get through. All the hoses—all the connections—are back there and you’ve got to keep them straight. And breathing is very important, because if you don’t keep a constant flow of air in and out of your lungs, the blood’s not going to have enough oxygen to take it where it needs to be, and you experience fatigue. By constant breathing you keep oxygen in the bloodstream and keep those muscles from locking up. Sometimes I play a solo and I feel myself getting tense, but good posture and breathing cool everything right out. Then I find that I can play. Sometimes it’s hard to relax, but air unlocks all of that. I think the key to expressing yourself, even in a high-volume situation, is total relaxation.
RT: How do you relax your mind? What are you thinking about when you’re up there in the middle of “D Waltz” and just cooking?
OH: Let me think about that. Well, I’m watching the moves that are being made, I’m listening very closely to everybody, and I guess maybe I’m looking for the spark—the adventure in the music. I’m really conscious of the sounds of the cymbals and of each drum. I know that sometimes just hitting a cymbal in the right place is going to do something. If Joe looks at me and I go “bing” on that China Boy back there, he’s going to go, “Yeah!”
It’s hard to say exactly what is going through my mind, but I know that I am looking for the place to take the music higher. Sometimes I know I’m thinking about the groove—how deep I can get the groove to be. I want the groove to dance no matter what I’m playing. If I’m playing bebop I want the groove to dance in the way that a person could dance to it. It’s like a slight difference in attitude, but it makes a difference, and I’m looking for that in the music—the depth of the groove and how it’s affecting everybody. Is everybody connecting with it? If Wayne is going higher, he’ll call you with the horn to give him something—drop some bombs or something. Or if I hear the time getting funny, that’s when I’m going to get deeper into the time. Sometimes I have to be the initiator of excitement. Sometimes I have to be quiet. So I’m just trying to be sensitive to what’s going on at any moment.
RT: Do you think the groove comes more from the hands or the feet? Do you try to play more bottom heavy or top heavy?
OH: There are times when I have to play hands, and there are times when I have to play feet. What I definitely try to do—and I’m sure this is the bottom line with everybody, no matter where you build the rhythm from—is to play the drumset as one instrument, as if it were all meshed together. I hear it as one instrument—each drum as a component of one thing. And you’ll know whether you have to build that sucker from the bottom. Sometimes you’ve got to switch horses in the middle of the stream. In the middle of the song it might call for some bottom or some top. It depends on who’s soloing. Joe is into the top for his solos; he takes his cue off the ride cymbal a lot. I can switch that with Wayne because of the instrument. Maybe I can play less snare drum with Wayne. So again, for me, it’s a total listening thing.
RT: What was that real fast bop tune you played near the end of the show tonight?
OH : Oh, that was “Fast City.” I don’t remember what album it’s on, but Peter plays on it. He plays his ass off on it; he’s got that touch. So when we do it, I definitely lend more bottom to it. I think I’ve just got a heavier foot than Peter by nature, probably because of my background in rock and funk. So at the beginning, I’m starting it out differently—playing a variation on the original rhythm. But it’s fast, man.
RT: How did you learn to play bop so fast?
OH: I don’t know. With much difficulty. No, with me, playing fast is a relaxation thing. You start to come up with tricks to get that right hand moving. And then it’s not always the cymbals; you’ve got the hi-hat you’re working with. To play that kind of bebop is a hands thing. The bass drum is giving the accents and dropping the bombs during the solos. The bass drum is weaving. “Fast City” is one of the fastest songs I’ve ever played. There were a couple of songs I did like that with Mike Mainieri, but you learn your tricks for doing it.
RT: But it’s funny you would say you had to relax to play at that speed.
OH: You’ve got to relax. Before you tense up, you’ve immediately got to say it’s not fast. Victor and I had a long discussion about that when we were learning it. Don’t think of it as fast. It’s not fast. Never mind the fact that you’re going to pass out when it’s over; it’s not fast. [laughs] I find that the longer I play that song on a tour, the easier it gets. And the funny thing about it is that the longer the tour goes on, the faster I kick it off. It’s like anything; your body becomes conditioned. There was a time when Victor and I rehearsed just playing time together. Marcus and I did that a long time too. We would just play grooves together. I think every drummer has spent a lot of time with a bass player, and it helps the bass player and the drummer. At first it was Marcus, because we went to school together, and then it was Victor and me.
RT: Joe seems to love to write in 3/4 time a lot.
OH: He loves the waltz. He’s from Vienna.
RT: There’s blues in there too.
OH: Yeah, that’s right. Well, look where he came from. He was there, in the midst of all that blues stuff. It’s interesting the way he hears music, and rhythm and time. It’s totally different. I’ll play a rhythm for him and he’ll put 1 somewhere else. And it always ends up being interesting.
RT: He’ll put 1 somewhere else, thinking that’s where it is?
OH: Yeah, because he might hear it in a different way than I do. So it’ll turn my head too. “Really, you hear 1 there?” What I’m get- ting from him and Wayne is an approach to creativity that I admire. They’ll take a chart and change it six different ways before it gets recorded—keep changing keys, take two bars of the chart and play it. So I’m really learning an approach to creativity with them that I am going to incorporate into my own writing—just to keep the openness about it. There are no absolutes, and nothing is final. I mean, you can always go somewhere else with the music. I think that’s what they were saying with the concept of the album: “Can it be done?”
RT: You switch off between matched and traditional grip when you play.
OH: That’s true. I noticed that the other night. I looked at my hand when we were doing “Fast City,” and said, “Oh, we’re playing traditional grip.” I started playing bop with traditional grip, and maybe it’s just very natural for me to play bop with traditional grip. But at one point I forced myself to play matched because I had a giant, ugly callous from playing real hard, and it would get painful. So I switched it up and started to practice. That was like starting over. I practiced all the old things and felt like a kid again; it was weird trying to get that hand to move. But I finally did, so I’m switching now—whatever feels good to me.
RT: So it’s just a subconscious move to turn that stick over and play traditional on bop?
OH: I think my whole approach to drums is subconscious. [laughs] It’s not necessarily a technical approach to playing drums. I understand technique, rudiments, and reading music, but I don’t consciously use those things. I only use them as a means of expressing myself. So if you asked how I did something, I would have to go back and listen to the tape, analyze it musically and tell you what it was. I’m not taking that kind of approach to it; I’m just playing. I always want to keep that attitude because the music is king; you’re just an instrument for it. I truly believe that it has nothing to do with me. I guess it sounds corny, but it’s a real thing to me. That’s why I say that when I go to a gig, I seriously don’t know what I’m going to do and what’s going to happen. I’m going to go and experience it with the audience. I might feel like playing a solo one way that night, and the next night it may be totally different. And I know that it’s not me, because even though we play two hours and I play so hard for those two hours, I’m not tired after the show. So that’s not me relying on physical strength. I’m not a muscle-bound guy. I’m 6’2″ and 145 pounds, which is light for someone 6’2″. It goes to show you that you don’t have to lift weights to play drums hard. It’s an energy that you tap inside yourself. You don’t need muscles to do it. You should be physically fit, though; you have to do something, whether it be a concentration, or a physical exercise such as riding a bike or walking. But playing drums in itself is exercise. It’s a great instrument. That’s why a lot of drummers play until they die. Art Blakey’s still playing, and so is Buddy Rich. These guys are healthy. I guess the instrument lends itself to health.
RT: Where do you buy your clothes? You always look real sharp in pictures.
OH: [laughs] I became conscious about that because I was taking a lot of pictures, and at one point I realized that this is show biz too. So I have a separate suitcase of stuff that I wear on stage. But I’ve been shopping everywhere. You don’t have anything to do on the road, you know, so Wayne would get up with me early in the morning in Europe and we would go clothes shopping.
It was funny to hang out with Wayne. He would just talk about life—wouldn’t talk about any music. We’d go to the movies together and experience different things that we could bring to the music. I guess what I’m getting into is that simple life approach to music. Maybe that’s what I’m looking for every day—that totally emotional aspect of the music. When I’m home, I’m really a homebody, too. I’m there doing things, hanging out with my girlfriend all the time. I try to keep it simple, but I can bring that real-life energy into the music.
You are the music you play. When you talk to Wayne you realize that you are talking to the person that you hear on the record. He speaks the way he plays. There’s something happening with musicians whose personality, instrument, and what they’re saying through their instrument are all one. You draw on all that at a gig. The gig is a reflection of your day, and if you had a good day then the gig is going to be fun. That’s why, when I’m on the road, I explore. Nobody knows where to find me. Like I rented a car and I know San Francisco now. I’m going to take that on stage with me—the old man on the corner with the blues on his face, or the kids with the tight pants at Oakland High dancing in the street and singing. I might see that in my head when I’m playing, and I’ll say, “Let’s make everybody dance.” So maybe I’ll try to get that feeling on the drumset, because I like to dance too.
RT: I heard that Weather Report was doing a video.
OH: It came out really nice. It’s the song “Swamp Cabbage.” It’s going to have some animation and maybe some computer-print stuff mixed in with us playing. We went to a soundstage and “lip synced” on our instruments. It’s very hard to do that with Weather Report. It’s easy to do when you’re just playing a simple rhythm. But I freaked doing it with Weather Report. Everybody else can get away with it, but if you look at the video and the drummer’s off you go, “Oh the drummer’s lip syncing!” I had to do a lot of remembering, so I could look halfway like I did the record. But it was fun. I’m sure it came out well. The producers seemed pleased. I’ll have to see it.
RT: Are you on a retainer with Weather Report? Do they pay you year round?
OH: No, I just do the work and they pay me flat fees. I’m a sideman. It’s cool. I’m not tied down to it, but I’m enjoying myself. I’m going to stay here as long as I’m able because I’m playing what I want to play in terms of having the freedom to express myself. There are not many gigs that you can do that on and get paid for it. Weather Report is a very unique band in the industry in that they’ve got a commitment from a major record company to do an album every year. They’ve been making records for so many years; some of them have been popular, and some have been totally experimental and have gone by the critics. It’s good. I hope I can find a record company that is so committed to me as an artist. I feel that I have a lot to say, and I don’t know if I can say it in one band. I don’t know if I could say it in a deal that’s considered a jazz deal, or a deal that’s considered strictly a pop deal. It’ll be interesting to see what happens this year.
RT: Do you listen to the radio a lot?
OH: I do, man. I have to keep up with what’s on the radio because I’m a songwriter. I listen to it all; I’m not locked into anything. Joe and I had a discussion about that once. He was saying that musicians shouldn’t listen so much. I told him I didn’t agree with him, because my work relies on my staying abreast. When you have a record deal with a band called Weather Report, and it’s your deal, you can afford to be in your own little world. But when I leave here, I’ve got to go out there. So I have to stay open, listen to what everybody’s doing, and fit myself into that. I’m definitely wide open. I’ll listen to the easy-listening station for a while, switch to the bop station, go to the funk station for about an hour, you know—just take it all in. I’m hearing arrangements, lyrics, grooves, solos, changes and stuff. It’ll influence you and give you your own perspective on creating music. I wrote a song for George Benson’s last album, called “Being With You,” and that’s like a pop-instrumental song. That’s probably the product of listening to a lot of music. You just sit down and hear all these things.
RT: Where did you learn your funk chops?
OH: From listening to records. I played with my father from when I was nine until I was 11, and I was listening to all the pop music even then. Then I joined this local funk band for a talent show. So at that point, all I had to get was strength. They used to tease me.
They would put their heads in my bass drum and say, “Can’t hear the bass drum.” Two years later they were telling me, “Don’t play the bass drum so hard.” But I learned from practicing with records—Motown and James Brown records.
RT: Did you listen to David Garibaldi in Tower of Power?
OH: Of course, man. In high school, if you couldn’t play the hi-hat thing in the intro to “Squib Cakes,” man, you weren’t happening. I really enjoyed his playing—a very original approach. I played a lot of funk in school. Most of the gigs were funk and rock. In fact, I strayed away from jazz then for mostly funk and rock gigs at that time, only occasionally doing some jazz gigs.
RT: Do you ever worry about ear damage?
OH: No, because I don’t have the monitors loud at all. In the rock situations, I want the amps in front of me so the sound goes away. The hardest thing for me to hear in amplified situations is the drumset. So in my monitors I have a balanced mix of the drumset in proportion to what I’m hearing on stage. I get enough of Victor, the bass player, because he’s usually next to me. And Joe will crank for you; you don’t have to worry about him. I get Wayne in my monitor, and my singing on tunes like “Where The Moon Goes.” I don’t have my monitor loud because I want my ears when I’m doing work in the studio. And my hearing is pretty good.
RT: I was really impressed with the dynamics you play with on “D Waltz.” Is it hard to play real soft?
OH: You do have to work on that. I have to thank my father for saying, “Whatever you practice, practice it loud and soft.” My father gave me a lot of hip advice about drums, from a horn player’s perspective. I think the band gets off on it too. That whole thing of it getting softer and softer happened on a gig. Joe and I were making these faces, and sinking lower into the chairs. So it was a communication thing, and that’s how that part of the song happened. We were on stage laughing—cracking up, you know— until it was real soft. One night, we did it about eight times and just kept getting softer. The humor of it was to come back full-out again, and to hear somebody scream in the audience.
RT: Did you hear the guy scream in the audience last night? “Ooommaaarrrr!”
OH: [laughs] It was so funny, man. But it’s involvement. You need that. But getting back to it being hard—yeah, it is, because when you get it softer you tend to slow down sometimes. The key is in getting softer and keeping the intensity. A lot of the old-timers could do that great. Billy Higgins and Max Roach could do that. I want to even get more into using dynamics this year with the band.
RT: It gives people’s ears a little break.
OH: It does. They hear it in another light. Then they appreciate the bashing when you start to dig in.
RT: That was a great moment with that guy yelling, and you hitting those flams and starting to bash that kit like crazy. Your head was swinging up and down.
OH: I saw a video of myself one time and freaked out. That’s what I mean about you becoming absorbed in the music: You don’t really know where you are sometimes. I remember sometimes doing things that made me dizzy on the drumset. The stage would be spinning. People know who’s jiving and who’s not, so I think when you give from the heart and are sincere, then you can’t be denied, even if you’re playing the sloppiest stuff in the world. If it’s from inside you, and you love it and you mean it, they feel it. It may be sloppy, but it feels great; it sounds good. I’m going for the feeling—make them dance, and experience what I’m feeling with the music. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to burst because I experience so much, and it seems like I can’t get it all to come out. And sometimes it means reaching back here and hitting that cymbal, just to bring it from the depths and just feel it. Oooooooohhhhh! Wayne plays like that, and he does it so serenely because he stands still. I’ve listened to him play acoustically this close, and felt his heart come out of the horn. I guess I heard a lot of musicians like that up close—’Trane, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I’ve been there and heard the sweat. And I guess maybe I want to play like that. Then nobody cares what you play or how you did it, because the soul just takes over.