Dance Oriented Rock: It’s been a long time coming, and now, hip-hopping into our ears from every blaster radio, MTV cable box, and local dance club west of the Berlin Wall, it is shaping up as one of the most dominant musical directions of the mid- ’80s. Yet who but the most dedicated discophiles truly saw it coming?
The musicians, as always, anticipated this contemporary synthesis by the simple act of loving the musics that now comprise the groove, and by refusing to acknowledge the stylistic distinctions that were imposed by the media and a color-blind culture. And why should it be any more surprising to discover that young black musicians might be head bangers at heart than it is to realize that young white musicians can get up off of that good foot?
Together with guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, drummer Tony Thompson made up one-third of the most potent, ubiquitous rhythm section of the late ’70s and early ’80s—Chic. Denied the opportunity to stretch out and strut their stuff during the height of the jazz-rock craze (because, unless your name was Herbie Hancock, black fusion bands did not get signed or promoted during this era), they shuffled back into the modern equivalent of “race records,” which in 1976 meant disco.
Their succession of monster hits, beginning with “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)”and “LeFreak,” culminating in “Good Times, “set the standard for R&B rhythm sections, such as Motown and Stax-Volt had in the ’60s.
It was a clean, open, commodious groove, and its effect on the disco and R&B rhythm sections that heard it was electric. Accepting the four-on-the-floor Zeitgeist of dance music as a given, Chic engaged in a bit of musical role reversal. Rodgers’ polytonal rhythm figures and his percolating, choppy attack conveyed much of the energy usually carried by the hi-hats swinging the hustle beat. Edwards’ bass lines, lithe yet rotund, breathy and syncopated in the manner of a tuba, slid in and out of the groove, not merely outlining the beat but orchestrating the rhythm.
All of their innovation left Tony Thompson free to rethink the accents in the groove, because his section partners were already covering most of the strong beats. Once Thompson had underscored their accents, he began to discover some subtle cracks in what most drummers would regard as a monolithic one-TWO-three-FOUR coal-mining operation. On songs like “I Got Protection” and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” his bass drum and hi-hats slip and slide around the regular snare accents, giving the impression that he is simultaneously rushing and dragging the groove. Chic’s groove was more than the sum of its parts, and you could set your watch to it.
And many did. For a lot of musicians, each successive Chic album constituted a stylistic crutch, even as the band continued to evolve, leaving their old styles to the commercial wolves in a series of grossly underrated albums (culminating in the glossy technocratic new-Gospel of Believer, their last for Atlantic). Chic became better known for their work as hired guns, whose stylizations revivified the careers of Sister Sledge and Diana Ross, among others. As more and more rockers began to get the funk, Chic spent less and less time on their own music to the point where they seem to exist no more as a band in their own right.
Yet for Tony Thompson, Chic’s status in limbo has liberated him from the sideman role, and allowed him to emerge as one of contemporary pop’s most original power players with the likes of David Bowie (on the Serious Moonlight tour), Bill Laswell and Material, Jeff Beck, and Mick Jagger. Now his thundering, tom-tom inflected energy has been framed in a new setting, The Power Station—a collaborative band that promises for the first time to fully depict Tony Thompson’s prowess as a pure rock slugger in a setting that might best be characterized as heavy metal funk. That Tony
Thompson’s roots in this music run as deep as they do is but one of the surprising insights to be garnered from this garrulous, easygoing drummer.
CS: What are the origins of your new alliance?
TT: When I was with Bowie, I met the bassist and guitarist in Duran Duran [John Taylor and Andy Taylor] in the South of France, and they were really into the Chic thing. They said we should do a record, but it was just talk for a while. Then I saw them again in Sydney, and they were still really interested. So we finished the album last year with Robert Palmer as the lead vocalist, and the name of the band is Power Station.
CS: How appropriate—your studio away from home.
TT: Right. It came out on Capitol, and in the interim, I did Madonna’s album. It’s unbelievable that they’re selling like they are, but what can you say?
CS: What is the status with the Power Station these days?
TT: Just a rest now. Andy and John are going to go back to Duran Duran. They’re going to go into the studio and do another album, and they’re talking about doing a tour. I don’t know. I just finished doing the theme song with Power Station for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new movie called Commando, but that was the last project. We might release a live album in January. That’s up in the air right now. Or we might do another studio album, but that’s also up in the air. It’s a time thing for everyone, when everyone’s available. If we do a studio thing, we’ll either use Michael Des Barres or Robert Palmer, but we’ll consider using both, to tell you the truth.
CS: So where does all of this leave Chic?
TT: My next project is an album with Bernard and Eddie Martinez—the guitar player who played on Jagger’s stuff and played with Lenny White. I grew up with the cat. This is something that we always wanted to do. Eddie’s been writing some stuff, and right now Bernard is producing Missing Persons. Once he finishes that, we’re going to get down to the studio and lay down tracks. I might have to go to California to do that, but that’s the next project for us. I don’t know about a Chic album. I don’t really see that happening. Nile’s been quite busy and so has Bernard. If it does happen, it won’t be in the near future, as far as I can see.
CS: Pity. It’s hard to get a rhythm team together, and you guys were a section. How many real rhythm sections are there in pop, jazz, or R&B?
TT: I guess I always took it for granted how important it was for me to play with Bernard on all those records. It has the kind of feeling that would make it easy for any guitarist with half a groove to fit right in. Andy Taylor just jumped in and hooked up with me on the Power Station album, and simply played his ass off. There was maybe one track where we did the basic tracks with the bassist. Other than that, Bernard laid all the basic tracks and John Taylor overdubbed over that. It seemed that with just me and Bernard the foundation was right there.
CS: Well then, how would you characterize the Chic sound?
TT: I guess it’s the funk foundation and a certain feel that we have: an open, spacious kind of groove that’s never cluttered. I can lay it down—the simplest of drumbeats—and Bernard will just fill in the holes. On every record we’ve ever made it’s the same type of feeling—never any overplaying. It was just something that seemed to work, and I only get that feeling when I play with Bernard.
CS: Do you find that a lot of what is getting over as R&B, funk, or whatever they’re calling it these days is on the dense, cluttered side?
TT: Not everything. But it seems as if they’ve locked into something that sounds familiar from the old days. I’m not exactly sure what the formula is, because you see, we didn’t have a formula; we just played.
CS: Well, in a way, Chic is responsible for a lot of the popular scratch, rap, and breaking sounds, vis-a-vis the Sugarhill Gang’s appropriation of Kool & The Gang’s “Good Times” on Sugarhill’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
TT: Yeah, we finally saw royalties from that—the Chic Organization did anyway. That’s been dissolved, too, and we’re no longer on Atlantic. We’re dickering with some majors for a new recording contract, but first we want to make a little noise to let people know we never left. We thought we’d be signed by now, but then we all got involved in these other projects. But honestly, the album I made with Andy Taylor, John Taylor, and Robert Palmer is so hip. The Power Station is something else.
CS: They wanted another kind of identity outside Duran Duran?
TT: The whole reason the album came up was because Andy and John had wanted to play with me and Bernard for years. That’s their thing—funk. And Robert Palmer’s been living in the Bahamas, so he’s been away from the scene for so long that he became sort of an underground rock hero. He’s so talented, and as a result of this project, he realized that Bernard was the producer he’d been looking for for years. With all of us rubbing shoulders this way, it can only lead to better things.
CS: What other projects have you been working on? Didn’t you play with Jeff Beck?
TT: I did a wonderful tune on his album, written by Vangelis, called “Arthur’s Tune.” It was a rock ‘n’ roll jam out— just great. I’d always wanted to play with Jeff Beck; he’s one of my idols. But as it turned out, either the record company or Jeff felt it was too rock ‘n’ roll, and out of context with the rest of the album.
CS: Too rock ‘n’ roll? Jeff Beck?
TT: Well, Jeff sings on the album; Nile produced it; it has more of an R&B feeling. So I guess the rock ‘n’ roll tune stuck out like a sore thumb. And that was all I got to do on that date.
I played on four tunes on Jagger’s album, but only one of those was released, a song called “Hard Woman.” Jagger was right behind me dancing away as I played. He was just a sweetheart to work with. And the rhythm section I got to work with consisted of all monsters: Jeff Beck, Colin Hodgkinson, and Jan Hammer. You would have thought that it would have been a hot rhythm section, but it never worked out, I guess because here were four cats who just like to play—simple as that. “Hard Woman” was a slow ballad, and man, it was so hard to get into it and lay it down.
CS: So it was hard to get them settled?
TT: When you have all that talent in one room, things happen, and some of the jamming that went on when the tape wasn’t running was incredible. Jan Hammer is something else, man. But it never really came together. I’d rather not elaborate on that at all. I also did Diana Ross’s album, but I didn’t get any credit, because there wasn’t enough room to list credits, so to speak. Me and about 20 other musicians were pretty angry about that.
CS: The Motown/Rolling Stone syndrome: all those anonymous musicians who made those records for Berry Gordy, and the way the Stones would use someone like Sonny Rollins and not even credit him. Anyway, did you get to play with Diana? How do her sessions work?
TT: Well, Bernard was the producer on a number of tunes. So he came in with a cassette of the tunes he’d done with this keyboardist Denzil Miller. There was this one tune, “Telephone,” that I listened to, we talked it down, we did one take, and I was on my way home.
CS: Were there vocals on the tape?
TT: Nothing. Just a groove. So I ran it down with the two of them, and that was it. We had a track.
CS: That’s interesting, because when you listen to a lot of pop, particularly tracks you, Bernard, and Nile have been involved in, it sounds as if you were all playing there live in the studio. How do you account for that feeling?
TT: See, I’ve gotten used to filling in certain spots where I think the singer will be doing something wild or laying out. I guess I’ve just gotten used to the formula of Chic— knowing where to fill before or after the singer completes the phrase. The David Bowie album was the only time I ever got to do tracks with the singer at the same time. He was standing there in the booth right in front of me, singing with my rhythm, and it was great, because I could see where the tune was going. That was really helpful. There was no guessing, like Bernard telling me, “Tony you played just a little too much there. That’s where I have the singer coming in.” With Bowie I could see where the tune was going, and knew when it was time to lay back and when to seriously jam. I had eye contact with him, and I wasn’t even listening to myself half the time; I was just reacting—going with the flow. It was fun. I’d never done that before. On the Power Station album, Robert [Palmer] and I did a tune called “Go To Zero” with just a click track when everyone was late—just me and him. It was hip. And with Bill Laswell, I did the same thing with just handclaps.
CS: What do they write for you on a typical rhythm chart?
TT: They don’t; I never read, except for that track with Laswell. I don’t work that way. No producer has ever come up to me with a rhythm figure. I just play. I’ll listen to the rough demo, and then just lock in with handclaps for a click track. They’ll set the tempo, usually on a Linn-Drum, and I make the groove. I don’t use the handclaps for the feel—I provide the feel—but mainly for time. Still, I can’t deviate too far from that.
CS: You know, most of the great bebop drummers had some big band experience, so that when they scaled down to a small combo, they were playing orchestrally: maybe suggesting brass figures with the snare. Do you see anything analogous in that to your work with Chic?
TT: That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way, but it makes sense. In certain places I’ll put the bass drum in when Nile does one of his little licks, and I’ll just react— still keeping the groove. Or sometimes he’ll go with something I’m doing. On some of the tunes we’ll add strings, horns, or voices, and it sounds like we’re playing together, because Nile and Bernard will write parts off of the little spots where we go off together. So perhaps as a rhythm section we do suggest orchestral parts.
CS: Do they generally forego room sound by just shoving you in the isolation booth and waiting for you to come up with the $64,000 rhythm?
TT: Just the opposite. I’m usually out in the room, and everybody else is isolated. That’s how I prefer to play, and that’s how I get that big, fat, live sound I’m known for—which I prefer. Sometimes we go for isolation, but, man, you can get a much more exciting drum sound if you make the room work for you—taking advantage of all that resonance. It’s a lot easier to mix down a drum track than to make a dead-sounding set of drums sound live.
CS: Are there any tricks you employ to obtain your characteristic drum sound at the Power Station?
TT: I’m most pleased with the drum sound I’ve been getting lately with an engineer named Jason Corsero. We’re a little team now. I don’t know what the hell he’s doing, but he’s gaining the daylights out of the traps, and it sounds like all bedlam’s breaking loose. Of course, the room sound contributes so much, and those rooms at the Power Station are so big and resonant that a 10″ mounted tom ends up sounding like a big floor tom. I’ll just tweak the drums until they sound good together, just to get some basic tonal things happening. Then he has me hit the snare, hit the bass drum, and then I go in the booth, where we finish tuning up the drums together. In ten minutes, we’ll have a terrific drum sound. Other engineers can’t do that all the time. This one cat wanted me to come in two hours before a session to get a drum sound. Two hours! Man! That’s nuts. All those knobs and you need two hours?
CS: So sometimes he’ll electronically tune your drums with gates. How does that affect the pitch?
TT: It depends. Sometimes he’ll tune them from the booth, and then I have to work with the heads just to get it fully together. There’s no prescribed method for doing it. It depends on the sound we’re going for. But basically, it’s a John Bonham sound; do you hear what I’m saying? That sound in a funk context is my goal.
CS: In a recent Modern Drummer feature on Bonham, it became apparent that drummers going for that Bonham sound were going about it the wrong way, because Bonham used to favor a wide-open kit with no muffling—right down to the bass drum.
TT: Interesting. I find that, as I progress, I’m taking out more stuff—more padding. I don’t pad my toms at all.
CS: What motivates producers to make drummers do that in the studio?
TT: Sometimes there’s a ring. They can’t get it out.
CS: What’s the matter with ring? Your cymbals ring.
TT: Thank you. It really depends on the producers, and if they can’t deal with it, you have to get rid of that ring. Sometimes they want me to get rid of drums, you know? “I can’t get the ring out of the drum.” Well, that’s your problem, buddy. That’s my sound.
CS: Strange, because that John Bonham sound is resonance.
TT: That’s how my kit is heading these days, and it’s been working, especially with Jason’s contribution and the great sound of Studio C at the Power Station. Just the raw drums and that room combine for a kicking sound. I’ve been using Yamahas, the Recording Custom kit, in a cherry-red piano finish—real nice drums. Those are what I used with Bowie. This kit has a 26″ bass drum, which is weird. The only time I ever used anything larger was in my rock ‘n’ roll days. I saw Carmine Appice with Cactus, and he had two 28″ Ludwig bass drums, so I went out and copped them.
CS: But you do a lot of syncopations with your foot. Doesn’t a drum that big tend to give you a really slow response?
TT: Not really. See, I can feel the bass drum. That way, whenever I lock into a groove, I can feel it. I want it to come back at me. And bigger bass drums do that for me, particularly on a live gig like Bowie’s. I had the 26″, and the monitors were up so close that they nearly made my ears bleed. All I wanted was bass drum; that’s all I wanted to hear. The bass drum gave me a feeling, and let me lock into whatever the bassist was doing.
CS: What were you using on all those Chic albums?
TT: A standard studio set of Ludwigs with a 22″ bass drum that’s still there at the Power Station. It’s one of the best recording kits I ever played on. It was old Ludwig, and not even a kit. It’s composed of all these mismatched wood finishes: 8×10, 9×13, 16×16, 18×20. And I’d usually bring my own snare drum, which was a metal Premier for a while. It’s a nice sounding, nice feeling kit, where you don’t have to tweak with it— just slap on a set of clear Ambassadors, top and bottom. I like the sound, feel, and response I get from them. I played a rehearsal recently on a Yamaha kit fitted out with Emperors; for me it was a drag. The kit felt so sluggish, and as much as I was doing on the toms, nothing was coming out. With Ambassadors, I know what’s going on because the sound comes right back at me. I can hear and feel what I’m doing, because the drum is resonating. It’s essential to feel what I’m doing, which is why, when I’m recording, I leave one ear open with the can over the other ear so I can hear what’s going on. On stage, I would use earplugs in one ear, just to give me the house sound mix and to let me know what I’m doing up there for real.
CS: A lot of people seem to be going for a clear Emperor on top, and a clear Ambassador or Diplomat on the bottom.
TT: That doesn’t work for me. I’m a hard hitter, but thick heads don’t give me enough of what I need. In my mother’s basement in Jamaica, Queens, I have an old wooden Gretsch set with a 20″ bass, and 8 x 12, 9x 13, 12 x 15, and 16 x 16 toms. That’s a great sounding kit, and I practice on it all the time. It’s Ambassadors all the way, although I have an Evans Hydraulic on the bass drum with a frosted Ambassador up front. It’s a happening kit, and the sound I get in my mom’s basement is great.
CS: Were your parents a source of encouragement to you in pursuing the drums?
TT: My mother was, and my father was too, after a while. You know how it is: When your son is eight years old and says he wants to be a drummer, you say alright, and then blow up the kit with firecrackers the next week. But my mom was with me all the way. A week after hearing “Toad” by Ginger Baker, I told her I wanted to be a drummer. I just got an insight listening to Ginger about what I wanted to do, which was play drums like that. Ginger Baker changed my life. I didn’t want to play baseball or any of those other kids’ games anymore. That was it; I knew what I wanted to do.
So I came home and started banging on tables, pillows—the works. Then I went to visit a cousin in Connecticut. He could play “Wipe Out” on the table with his fingers, and he wasn’t even a drummer. I’d heard that tune for years, and I couldn’t play it, so that really psyched me. I had him show me what he was doing, and in two hours, I had it down the way I heard it off the record. And that’s how I started.
My parents are still behind me. I have an apartment in the City, but when I come out to their place, I can blast 24 hours a day and they don’t care. They’re beautiful to me, and I love them for everything they’ve done for me. I think it’s because they see me out there doing something with it, but even in the old days, I used to have band rehearsals there. And if I was out of work or between gigs and I said, “Ma, I need a drum lesson” or “I need sticks,” she’d take it from the food money. So we were a team.
I remember coming home from school and listening to WPLJ. I just grew up on Led Zeppelin and Hendrix; that’s all I did. I’d come home, do my homework, and just sit by the radio with my drumsticks and my pillow. My father bought me my first snare drum. It was a Kent or a Zumgar or something: a cheap, mother-of-pearl thing with a cymbal attached to the side. I used to beat the shit out of that thing, literally, 24 hours a day for a year, or so it felt. It took my pop awhile to get me a whole kit, and I just wanted to join a band so badly at that time. I was around 11 or 12, and I used to have to borrow a kit. I thought I played quite well then. The first group I belonged to was called Reggie & The Atlantics. They already had a drummer, so we had to switch, but this guy never wanted me to play, naturally: It was his gig. I guess I played better than Roy . . . rest his soul. He just passed away recently. He used to study with Billy Cobham.
CS: That’s right, Billy Cobham comes from that area in Jamaica, Queens, where you grew up.
TT: Yep, out on Springfield Boulevard. That’s where all the cats grew up. Springfield Gardens High was jumping with musicians—Omar Hakim, J.T. Lewis. J.T. played in one of the best bands in my high school. It was a three-piece band called Freight Train, and they would play Led Zeppelin tunes to death.
CS: All you’ve been talking about so far is rock: hard rock. You haven’t said a thing about R&B.
TT: Oh, man, I never listened to R&B at all—maybe just a few tunes where I could get with the groove, like Marvin Gaye on ”I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” But all of my record collection was geared towards rock n roll. I had to have every new rock album that came out, even if I never heard of the group. My ambitions were always geared toward being a rock drummer. They still are, but I’ve incorporated a lot of other elements over the years.
CS: Many black drummers have talked of an interest in rock, but because of typecasting, black rockers were discouraged from pursuing those directions. You made a name for yourself in R&B. How did you get involved?
TT: Well, my first big gig was with Labelle, which certainly split the distance between rock and R&B, and I was introduced to Nile Rodgers by the guitarist in the group. At that time, I was also playing with this guy named Jamshid Almarad, who was like a Persian Tom Jones; he needed a guitarist, and Eddie Martinez gave me Nile’s number. So Nile came and played, doing all this slick chord-melody stuff, but he hated the gig and split. It was all this Vegas-type stuff, and he just read it down cold like it was nothing. And I thought, “Damn, here’s a guy I’d like to play with.” Months later, when Nile was looking for a drummer, Eddie put us back in touch. I got the gig, and we’ve been together ever since—going on about eight years now.
When I first made that audition with Nile that turned into Chic, I had chops coming out of the wazoo. I was studying with Narada Michael Walden at the time, and he was a very, very important influence on me. Michael was the only teacher I ever had who analyzed my playing from a musician’s point of view. He would never show me things on the drums; he’d play piano and analyze my playing from that perspective. He’d play different time signatures and grooves. Then he would criticize my tempos, point out that I was playing too much, or let me know that the groove was fluctuating. I dug that because it wasn’t just about drumming; it was about music.
CS: Michael Walden was one of the first drummers to bridge the stylistic gap between hard rock and hard R&B.
TT: Oh man, Narada is a monster. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him with Mahavishnu. I was just in awe of the cat—still am. He’s a beautiful, beautiful cat, and he taught me a lot—not just about music.
I remember the first time I heard Billy Cobham. I didn’t want to play for a year; he scared me to death! That was a time in my life when I was just getting into Bitches Brew and that new kind of electric jazz, and I was at the point in my life where I didn’t want to play rock ‘n’ roll at all, you know?
CS: Sure. Everybody goes through their jazz-snob period.
TT: That’s right, but I didn’t even want to play fusion, let alone funk or hard rock. I hated Bitches Brew the first time I heard it. But my friend kept hitting me with it, and all of a sudden, I got the message. Then I got into Weather Report real heavy, copped some bebop records, and really tried to swing—tried to swing from the roots.
CS: That’s a hard transition when all you’ve played with are electric rockers.
TT: Yeah, but I had a friend who was an upright bassist, and we’d played in these rock ‘n’ roll bands together. His name was Billy Cole, and he had a big influence on me. He felt he’d mastered electric bass, so he took up the challenge of acoustic bass. He mastered that and sort of led me into all this new music, which really opened me up. We were swinging our asses off, and I began taking lessons to tighten that up. And from there I got into fusion and Billy Cobham.
CS: He seems to loom rather large in your memories.
TT: The man just blew me away. I’d met John McLaughlin at this church on Fifth Avenue, and John invited a bunch of us to his concert; Mahavishnu was opening up for John Lee Hooker. I didn’t know what to expect. Billy was just checking out some sticks to see which ones were good or something. He did this open roll that was soft and so even, and his arms were this high! I said, “What?” Then they broke into “Meeting Of The Spirits,” and I was just floored. I didn’t want to play for a year. I saw every concert they did. Back in ’72-’73—WHOOSH! He was just the greatest drummer in the world. His albums got a little self-indulgent after a while, and maybe I wasn’t into chops so much as I got older, but I was then. Man, he just passed through those toms like butter.
But I’ll tell you who really tore me up back then: John Bonham. He was my major influence, and that’s who I’ve been trying to gear my playing back to lately. Bonham was so solid. I’ve listened to a lot of old rock albums, and there were plenty of cats who had chops. With Bonham, when it was time to really play, he was out there, but mostly he was a timekeeper. He had that ability to stretch and explode, but mostly he held it together. That’s how I like to think of my playing. At least, that’s what I hope I’m doing. I just lay it down and make it a song. I’m not playing for myself. I mean, I sit in my parents’ basement on my old Gretsch kit and just knock myself out, but that’s where that kind of drumming should be kept.
CS: At Live Aid, you actually filled Bonham’s chair for the Led Zeppelin reunion. Can you tell me how that whole thing came about?
TT: Yeah, I was on the road with the Power Station in Virginia, and Robert Plant called. He said that he and Jimmy Page were listening to the Power Station album, and they really enjoyed my playing. He wanted to know if I would consider doing Live Aid. I kind of told them no at first, because I was really worried that we weren’t going to have a rehearsal. I was kind of leery about going on stage in front of a couple of billion people and messing up. I went to Sarasota, Florida, after that, and they kept calling. Phil Carson, who manages Robert or something like that, said that they were willing to come to Sarasota to rehearse with me. It finally worked out that we rehearsed the day of Live Aid in a recording studio about an hour before we went on.
CS: Are there any words to describe the feeling of sitting in Bonzo’s chair?
TT: For me, it was just a dream come true. It’s as simple as that. They could have called any drummer in the world to play with them, and they called me. So it was an honor. It really was. I had such a good time in rehearsal. It was amazing. I just wish that Phil [Collins] would have come to rehearsal, because a lot of people just assume that it’s easy to play that kind of stuff. It really isn’t. There were a lot of those Led Zeppelin tunes I had played in bar bands, and when I finally got to play with the real guys, it was like the way I had played them was totally wrong. They just showed me little things that Bonzo used to do, and it was just amazing.
CS: As a matter of fact, I read an interview with Plant where he was talking about when Phil Collins asked if he could sit in. Plant tried to discourage him a little and said, “Have you ever played any of those tunes?”
TT: It’s not easy to play that stuff. And I really found that out in rehearsal. But that was the best time. We sounded so much better in rehearsal than we did when we hit the stage—so much better. I had a really good time. It was an honor, and all the guys were sweethearts. It was really great.
CS: There have been some rumors that the group might do some more dates.
TT: I’m hoping. It would be great. Believe me, I won’t hesitate at all if they do call. It would definitely be a dream come true. It was a gas playing with them on stage, but to go on tour with them would be great.
CS: Getting back to your drumming, to me, you have a really unique sense of the beat. It’s almost an after beat feeling, as if you were playing the tail end of the beat. So sometimes it sounds like you’re playing way ahead . . .
TT: And other times way behind.
CS: Right. And just the way you lay with Bernard gives it a certain gravity and stability.
TT: When I play on records, I try to keep myself happy by not adhering to the norm. I know that, if I have to lay down the 2 and the 4, I can’t vary too far from that. But see, there’s a certain way of feeling it that can give it another kind of lift. I don’t even think I do it consciously, but just because it’s 2 and 4 doesn’t mean you have to play it that one way.
I think that Bernard has had a tremendous influence on me as far as locking in is concerned, because when you lock in and have that foundation, it’s amazing the difference you’ll hear on a record. You have a solid band, and you can hear it. A lot of people can’t hear what I’m trying to do at all, and one of the rarest compliments I’ve ever received is that you can hear that at all. I don’t even think Nile and Bernard are aware of what I’m actually doing.
CS: The most logical antecedent for that kind of displacement of the 2 and 4 you and Bernard get is what Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson did on all those old Motown records. It’s almost as if neither of you was playing the 2 and the 4. It just sort of came out that way. Bernard might go 1-e-and, and then you’ll go -a and complete the phrase.
TT: Sure, but that’s never conscious. That’s a result of caring for each other as human beings—respecting someone not only as a player but as a person. You can’t get that kind of genuine musical feeling unless there’s some real respect. When I first joined Chic, I had chops but I didn’t know where to place them.
CS: So they edited you.
TT: That’s exactly what they did. And when I mention that in interviews, the cats will say, “Look Tony, you had the talent to do it. If you hadn’t we’d have put you out on your ass.” Nile and Bernard gave me a musical perspective, just like Narada did. I mean, I respect Bernard so highly that, whenever it comes time to do a record, it has to be perfect—has to be. I won’t even hear overdubs—never. Anything you’ve heard with Chic has been right on the spot, live—just the three of us and BOOM! That’s it. Bernard and Nile have the opportunity to go home, think about it, and then lay on some overdubs, but not me. There’ll be two or three takes, max, and they won’t allow me more than that.
That discipline has really helped me on other recording projects: listen, play it down once or twice, then BOOM! I guarantee there’s no more than two or three takes, and that’s conditioning. With those Diana Ross songs “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out,” it sounded similar to the final versions, but Bernard stopped me in the middle of the take, said something funny to me, and just really pissed me off. I went back to the drums and played right through it, and he was smiling at me. He said, “See, I knew I could get you to do it.” That’s the type of relationship it is: He felt something was lacking and knew just how to drag it out of me.
What Bernard had asked me to do for that session was write a song: piece something together with a beginning, a middle, and an end. He told me, “I want it to be like a song going into another song,” and that’s where the transition in “Upside Down” comes from: from Bernard forcing me to get a structure together and not just flash around.
CS: Chops are nice to have, but they’re overrated.
TT: Sure, like with Nile and Bernard. Nile hears this rhythm, and he’s so precise that he’s like a metronome unto himself—a great timekeeper. When he’s playing this rhythm, he’ll maybe throw in a little grace note and I’ll feed off of that—do a little fill and take it back inside. It works perfectly, because we’re listening. Those two really got me serious about listening, because they don’t play any wasted notes. Everything counts, so you have to make sure there’s a reason for every beat—no B.S.
CS: Getting back to your kits, how do Yamahas compare to other drums?
TT: I don’t know, because I haven’t played everything. I’ve been playing Gretsch all my life, and recently, I switched over to Yamahas. They’re excellent drums, too.
CS: So that set in your basement is old?
TT: About four years old.
CS: So those are the thicker-shelled Gretsch, which are more like Ludwigs.
TT: Right, but I have some of the old Gretsch kits, too. I have a house full of Gretsch here in Queens, but in the City, I have lockers full of Yamahas. It’s weird, because I like both kits. I heard a cat in concert recently with a set of Sonors, and they sounded really nice, but I never played Sonors. I never played Tamas, either. I was a Gretsch man. I just got spoiled by that sound and refused to play anything else. Then I heard Steve Jordan on this small Yamaha kit at Seventh Avenue South, and it made my nose bleed. I said, “That’s it. ” The first time I ever played a Yamaha kit was at a Bowie rehearsal at S.I.R. The Yamaha reps brought me a set to try with frosted Ambassadors, and they sounded great right out of the box—sounded good and felt good.
One thing that particularly impressed me was that sometimes bigger drums tend to lose tone, but these drums kept their tone and definition. They just sing—really speak right out. When I sit behind a kit, I want to feel like I’m behind a powerhouse. But I’ll tell you, the small Yamaha toms I’m playing now, compared to the huge toms on my Gretsch kit, are louder and give me more to work with. So maybe the answer isn’t bigger drums, but I want that bigger sound.
I don’t know what it is about the Yamahas—the wood, the plies, the shells—but they give me a lot more response. My kit has an 8×10, 8×12, 9×13, 12×15, 16 x 16, 16×20, and the 26″ bass drum. That’s what I’ve been using on my recording and concert work since Bowie. I space them really close, so that they ring together and don’t sound far apart. The next step would be to order the same kit in the power tom configuration. I would imagine that they sound seriously great.
CS: How do your tastes in cymbals run?
TT: Oh, man, I remember that was the hardest thing when I was a kid, because when I started out playing I didn’t have my own drums, so I had to borrow. Then when I saved up enough for a kit, I couldn’t afford cymbals, so I had to borrow those, too. And I’d go to drummers’ houses to practice, but they might be busy or gigging, and they couldn’t lend me their cymbals that night. I vowed that, once I began working seriously, I’d have a whole bunch of cymbals for different applications. Now I do, and Lennie DiMuzio and the Zildjian people have been absolutely great to me, especially during the Bowie tour. When we needed anything, all I had to do was call, and they were behind me all the way.
CS: What do you look for in a cymbal?
TT: I like paper-thin crashes, so that when I hit them they’ll cut out right away. I hate ringing or overtones. It’s the same thing with ride cymbals, where I tend to like a jazz ride sound. I’ve been to concerts where the drummer’s cymbal has a real nice tone without a lot of overtones to it, and it sounded like a ride cymbal. It had a style of its own: It thought for itself; it helped out whoever was playing it. It sounded special to me, and the cymbals most rock cats use don’t impress me that way. When jazz cats pull out a ride cymbal, you can tell they really spent some time on it.
CS: It identifies you.
TT: Right, and that’s the quality I’m looking for: not too heavy, with a touch of spread and a bit of personality to it. Ultimately, it probably doesn’t even have anything to do with the cymbal make: It’s the right cymbal and the right cat hitting it with the right touch in the right spot. But I love the response of Zildjians. They’re lively and there’s a reserve of sound.
CS: So what are your main ride sounds?
TT: I switch around a lot. I have a pair of 20″ and 22″ Zildjian Pings that I use on the majority of my projects, and a hammered out Paiste—a 22″ 2002 Ride. It has a nice personality, and that’s the hardest thing to find in a ride. For me, a ride cymbal has to be heard in relationship to the entire kit, not as something separate. I hear a lot of cats who’ll play the drums, then play the cymbals, and it sounds like two different kits.
CS: They’re not in tune with each other, and everyone notices it but the drummer.
TT: It’s weird. After all, it’s a percussion instrument—it’s a kit—and everything is supposed to work together perfectly, like in an orchestra. You have different cymbals for different purposes, and a lot of things people don’t hear me do in public, I do in my basement, just like all the rest of the drummers. I use K. Zildjians here, where I wouldn’t use them on tour with Bowie, Chic, or the Power Station.
CS: It’s a more intimate sound. It gives you more to work with—more personality. Whereas the A.’s would give you more presence and projection.
TT: I’ve noticed that I could buy countless 18″ A. paper-thin crashes or go through a box, and they’ll all sound roughly the same with some subtle differences, but the K.’s have some serious personality happening. There’ll be a big difference in sound, even within one size range.
For hi-hats, I’ve been using Zildjian Quick Beats—the ones with the flat bottom cymbals and the holes. I’ll switch between 14″ or 15″ socks. I like them because they’re fast, strong, and cut off right away: They give me a lot of swish opened up, and the closed sound is tight. On all those Chic records, I used an old pair of 14″ New Beats, and I didn’t need to go shopping for cymbals because I was happy with the sound I was getting in the studios. With Bowie, we were having trouble getting the right sound on tour, and nobody knew why. Bowie didn’t know either, and thought it might be my kit and my cymbals. So he asked me if I would mind trying a set of Simmons; he wanted me to perfect them at rehearsal and use them at showtime. And I said, “Whoa! You’ve got to spend some time with those things to get the right sound.” That’s when I started using the Quick Beats, and for those kinds of arena conditions, they worked great.
CS: How long have you been playing?
TT: Since I was about eight or nine years old. I was born November 15, 1954, so we’re going on about 20 years now—a long time.
CS: You started out with certain aspirations as a drummer. Do you feel you’ve achieved them yet? Have you gotten to what was inside your head?
TT: Do you mean when I was younger? I just wanted to play music and be in a popular band, but I never thought I would accomplish anything that people might turn to as a reference for funk or whatever, like they did with Chic. I never thought I’d be in a band like that, let alone play with bassists or guitarists like Bernard and Nile. But what I always, always wanted to do was play rock ‘n’ roll. That was always in my heart since I began. That’s the whole reason I’m so excited about what may come of the Power Station. But hey, getting to play with Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie was a great feeling. That’s in my heart, because I grew up in an all-white neighborhood playing rock ‘n’ roll and listening to the people I’ve just gotten to work with. I never thought I would play with anybody—maybe just have my own band—and now I’m playing with the cats and they enjoy my playing. That’s why I was so thrilled to hook up with Jeff Beck. I seriously studied every record he used to make. In Munich recently I met up with Cozy Powell, and that gassed me because he was a fan of mine and told me how much he enjoyed Chic. I’d been a student of his playing on Rough And Ready. That record was like a bible to me, because it was a meeting of the funk and rock ‘n’ roll thing that I was always after. Beck was doing that ages ago, way before it became fashionable. It had that Motown feeling, but it was still rock ‘n’ roll, and he was blasting.
CS: So your ultimate ideal for your own playing is to combine the funk and the rock sensibilities into one coherent style.
TT: I’ve always loved funk, and I’ve always loved rock ‘n’ roll since I was a kid. Being a black person, of course, and listening to Ginger Baker and John Bonham, I wouldn’t play it exactly the way they did, even though they had a funky feel. Bonham’s thing was basically that 2 and 4 thing where you couldn’t blow him off his stool. He played simple grooves, but his ears were so open. When he did a certain fill in just the right spot, it was like Wayne Shorter to me. Wayne is like the greatest musician in the world to me, because I’ve seen him stand there like a rock with Weather Report, and maybe towards the end of the song, he’ll play some little snatch of melody—maybe only a couple of bars—and it’ll blow you away because it’s in exactly the right spot at the right time.
CS: That’s interesting, because Bonham was a blues cat and Baker was a Dixieland-swing-African drummer. They brought that sensibility to rock, whereas you’re basically a rock player bringing that feeling to R&B and jazz, when the occasion arises.
TT: I like the jazz openness—the flow of the music—and I’d love to play with people that way outside of my basement, but my time has been so limited. Let me tell you something: On the Power Station record, I’m beginning to approach what I originally had in mind. My drums sound bigger than life, and I’m getting to play so much—really blasting off but still working that funk groove. That’s what I’m shoot- ing for. There are a lot of drummers who can play that fancy Billy Cobham stuff—play the chops, pull off odd meters, and deal those polyrhythms—but when it comes down to laying that 2 and 4 in there, some of them are not convincing enough.
CS: Their hearts aren’t in it.
TT: Bingo. And it shows. My heart is in anything I play. I like playing 2 and 4. Sometimes you have to bust loose—that’s normal—but settle things for everybody else first, and then go for yourself.
CS: That would be the Tony Thompson style: disguising the 2 and 4, playing around it and making it more buoyant, without necessarily abdicating the groove entirely.
TT: That’s what I get hired to do, and apparently I do it well enough to get rehired. But I have to have something to keep my interest while I’m doing it. I believe in what I’m doing and I like playing solid, but when I started, I was anything but solid. I had a lot of technique, but I didn’t know where to put it. Playing with Chic taught me the value of solid time and careful listening; I love to listen. Before, if I heard a bass player play a lick, I wanted to play it too. Now, I let the other players breathe. I don’t necessarily have to echo everything they’re doing.
I feel that I’m growing more as a musician to be able to play with that kind of restraint and still get off on what I’m doing. When I listen to these records, I can picture everything as it happened and realize that, by not playing something, the music came alive. Five or ten years ago, I would have been all over the place.
CS: Discretion is the better part of valor.
TT: And not that many cats can do something like that—just let the music come alive. It should sound like a band; everybody wants to be an individual, but first you have to be with the band. When you make records like I do, you have to be a team player. Nile and Bernard taught me the meaning of the drums. I’d bring them records with Tony, Billy or Gadd, and they’d listen without being blown away. They’d look at me and say, “Tony, you’ve got your own thing, and you don’t even know it. Be yourself, and we guarantee that these cats will be talking about you someday.”
Lenny White stopped me when he heard what I did with Diana Ross and Material, and that made me feel so proud, because he’s the kind of cat I looked up to for so long. I’d be at all his gigs, and now to have his respect is so satisfying. I never imagined it would be this good, because all I ever wanted to do was play.
CS: I hope you’re able to keep the idea of Chic alive, because what you guys have is so simple that it’s complicated; it’s so structured that it’s loose. Everybody is playing the backbeat so strong that it sounds like nobody is playing it.
TT: Exactly. That’s just the way I always thought of it. Not too many people are hip to that, and I’m still working on expanding that feeling. I’m not the player I want to be now; I’m still studying and practicing. I’m still searching for the right teacher. I copped a few lessons from Sam Ulano, but then I was off on the road again. There are so many things I’m trying to get to. Like when you’re playing backbeat with 16th notes on the hi-hats, they don’t just have to be 16th notes; they have to groove. Why shouldn’t they? Accent them in some unexpected place; find those offbeats and weird syncopations; slap down the 2 and 4; bring in that bass drum, and you have a groove and a half. If you want to get to that, and you practice it—if you think about it— it will come out.