Willie Green sits backstage at the Chicago Blues Festival and taps out a funky beat with his fingers on the table next to him. He is nervous, but he’s smiling. “This is my first interview,” he says almost proudly, but with just enough of a confessional tone so that, if anything should go wrong, he can point to his inexperience in such things.
Nothing does go wrong, however. It might be Willie Green’s first interview, but it surely won’t be his last. One of the hottest young drummers to come out of New Orleans in some time, Green is just now beginning to get noticed for what he does behind a drumset. As the drummer for the increasingly popular Neville Brothers, that New Orleans R&B/soul/funk/blues/rock/reggae outfit, Willie Green is in the right place at the right time. In a few minutes, he’ll get to show his stuff in front of 100,000 people who have packed Chicago’s Grant Park for the free festival. The following week, he’ll play the final Amnesty International concert at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey, which will air live on MTV.
“I can’t help but feel things are really going my way,” says Green. His smile broadens. “I’ve worked hard for this chance, and I’m going to take advantage of it. I want people to know that Willie Green is a pretty good drummer.”
Willie Green is a pretty good drummer. He’s been a member of the Neville Brothers for the past five years. Born in the parish of Jefferson, some 15 minutes outside of New Orleans, Green eventually moved to the Crescent City to earn his keep as a drummer. “It was the right decision for me,” reflects Green. “I love performing. I love playing the drums. I express myself best when I’m up on the stage playing.” Confident—at times even a bit cocky— Green has all the tools necessary to become a top-notch, highly respected drummer. His style echoes his Louisiana roots, but it’s difficult to say what drummers have influenced him most. He plays with finesse, power, and most of all, conviction.
“I do what I have to do in order to make the music sound right,” he says. “And I’m always willing to pick up new things to make myself a better player. That’s about the best way to describe me—always moving— always working on things to make my drumming better tomorrow than it is today.”
Green nods his head, obviously pleased with the comment. He’s smiling again. Then he looks at the tape recorder and me, and asks, “So how’m I doin’ with this here interview anyway?”
RS: The Neville Brothers band embodies the musical spirit of New Orleans and has become its most noted act. How did you wind up playing drums for the Neville Brothers?
WG: Well, I guess you could say I came up through the ranks. I started out with a local cat, a keyboards player, in 1974. After that, I played with a Temptations-like group called Tabasco. From there I joined the Uptown All-Stars. Before the All-Stars, I was playing commercial music—Top 40 stuff. There was little originality in the songs. But after I joined the All-Stars, I got to work with original music, which helped me develop my own drum style and my own sound. See, the Uptown All-Stars were together before I got with the band. The old drummer had a head trip, so the group asked me to sit in. I did one gig, and they asked me to sit in again. I did another gig, and Aaron Neville and his wife were in the audience checking the group out. After the set, Aaron went up to the All-Stars and said, “Who’s that drummer playing with the band?” And they said, “Willie Green.” Aaron said, “Well, we ought to get him in the Neville Brothers.” You see, the old Uptown All- Stars’ drummer was also the drummer for the Neville Brothers at the time. So two or three months later, I got a call. I had worked real hard, and I stood out among the other drummers in the New Orleans clubs. It was more a heart thing than anything technical.
RS: What you’re saying is that you don’t read music or consider yourself a technician.
WG: That’s right. I play everything from feel.
RS: When did you begin playing drums?
WG: In ninth grade. I guess that was 1971 or so. I got some drums as a gift. But my interest in drums and beats goes back much further than that. I remember being a young kid—like in third grade—and banging my hands on the walls. The kids at school would start dancing, and I thought that was pretty cool. In school, at the grocery store, at home—I’d always be knocking out a beat with my hands. My mom would say, “Son, this is a piece of furniture. It ain’t no drum.” Finally, I realized that I had a God-given gift and that God was telling me something. So from that point on, I looked at drums in a more serious light. And my interest in drums just grew. I didn’t have any schooling, lessons, teachers, or anything like that. I just picked it all up naturally.
RS: When did you decide you wanted to make drums and music your career?
WG: Well, I was kind of confused as a kid. I didn’t know what I really wanted out of life or my ability to keep a beat. I didn’t know if I’d eventually get bored with the drums and move on to something else. But I just kept playing, kept getting better, and kept having fun. And my name got around New Orleans, so before I knew it, I was making music my career.
RS: What drummers do you cite as major influences?
WG: Harvey Mason, for sure. I’d also have to say Bernard Purdie. Later on, I started listening to Billy Cobham, Neil Peart, and Steve Smith a lot.
RS: Do you think a connection can be made between your drum style and that of other New Orleans drummers—say, someone like the great Earl Palmer?
WG: No, I don’t really think so. To me, I’m in a class all by myself. I’m not brag ging; I’m just telling it like I see it. As a person and as a drummer, I’ve always tried to develop my own style and my own feel. I don’t fall under any stereotypes. Suppose you have on a certain pair of shoes. Somebody might come up to you and say,
“Wow, man, where’d you get those cool shoes? I want to get a pair of those.” I’m a cat that buys something, and you’ll ask me where I got it from. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s the same with my drumming. I’ve always wanted to be me—no matter what I buy or what I play on the drums. That’s just the way I am. It’s also the way I plan to stay.
RS: Watching you play the drums, it occurred to me that you’re probably ambidextrous. Are you?
WG: Yeah, I am. That’s why I play the way I do. I invent things when I play the drums that other drummers might not think of or be able to play, because of this talent that I have. I don’t know anyone at home who plays drums the way I do.
RS: What’s the current New Orleans music scene like? Are there many up-and-coming bands ready to follow in the footsteps of the Neville Brothers?
WG: The New Orleans scene is pretty cool, but I usually don’t stay on top of it. I do know that there are a few bands that would probably do pretty well outside of New Orleans if they had some publicity. But record company people don’t swarm down there like they do in L. A. or New York. It’s pretty laid back, I guess.
When I’m at home, I don’t usually hang out at clubs, unless I’m playing one. I stick around my house and hang out with my girlfriend. I keep a pretty low profile. It’s easy to do, and it’s the best way.
RS: Why do you say that?
WG: Because you stay fresh that way. You don’t burn yourself or your style out. I don’t enjoy sitting in with other groups all that much anyway.
RS: But when you’re not on tour with the Neville Brothers, you play in and around New Orleans with the Uptown All-Stars.
WG: Yeah, but that’s all I do. That’s my gig when I’m not out on the road with the Neville Brothers. It’s Cyril Neville’s local gig, too.
RS: What’s happening with the Uptown All-Stars these days?
WG: Well, they’re still happening. We play a lot of reggae, and that’s a nice change. I get to do some things on drums that I don’t get to do with the Neville Brothers because of the type of music they do, although we do a couple of reggae things in the set.
RS: Did the reggae offbeat pose any problems for you when you first attempted it?
WG: It took me half a year to figure it out totally. But now playing a beat backwards is real easy for me. Another thing that took me some time to master was playing triplets on my bass drum. That took me three years to get. But now I can put them in anywhere and then go back to the beat.
RS: What, in your opinion, are the qualities that constitute a good funk drummer?
WG: Once again, I’d have to say having a good feel behind the drums. In New Orleans, people walk out of clubs where the musicians in a band lack that certain feel for the music they’re playing.
RS: I’ve always envisioned New Orleans to be a sort of musical melting pot of jazz, blues, R&B, rock, cajun, reggae, and Lord knows what else. Has this had a significant influence on you?
WG: Yeah, it really has. I’ve been able to take a little bit from all those kinds of music. I think every New Orleans musician has been able to do the same thing. New York, L.A., and Chicago are pretty straight. But in New Orleans, there’s real variety. Maybe it’s because it’s located at the bottom of the country and everything kind of flows down to there. Sometimes I find myself playing two or three different rhythms. It just happens. As long as I can keep one going, I can put in all this other stuff on top or underneath. It’s great, as long as I don’t get too busy and people don’t start misunderstanding where I’m coming from. So far, that hasn’t happened.
RS: How many Neville Brothers’ albums did you play on?
WG: Just one: the live album called Neville-ization.
RS: So, virtually all your work with the band has been road work.
WG: Actually, the touring didn’t start to pick up until two years ago. That’s when it got steady. We’d play outside New Orleans before that but on a different level. We’d play the same clubs we’re playing now but for less money. We’re more in demand these days, and that’s good.
RS: Were you with the Nevilles when they opened for the Rolling Stones?
WG: No, I was doing some things with Dr. John. I did a month-long gig with him. He’s definitely a cool cat to play with. He’s a legend in New Orleans.
RS: I heard through the grapevine that you did some recording outside the band recently with a rock artist we haven’t heard from in some time.
WG: That’s right. I flew out to L.A. and recorded five songs with Robbie Robertson.
RS: That’s great. Does his new material sound anything like the stuff he did with the Band?
WG: I don’t know. I never really heard those guys before. I never even saw Robbie’s movies, to tell you the truth. It’s real strange. He called me about a year and a half ago and asked me to do these sessions. Things didn’t get together until recently. When I went out and listened to the tracks, I was told, “Listen to these tapes, Willie, and don’t think about the beat.” They wanted me to create new beats for the songs. They also said, “What you play with the Neville Brothers is not what we’re really looking for.” They said they wanted that other side of me that I wasn’t using in the Neville Brothers, which kind of surprised me. See, it was through the Nevilles that I got that gig. Robbie went to one of the brothers and asked who he thought he should get on the session as a drummer. “Willie Green, man—get Willie Green,” was the response he got. And so I went out to L.A. and did the sessions. It was a lot of fun.
RS: Have you done any other recording outside the Neville Brothers?
WG: Not really. That’s been about it.
RS: What kind of drums are you presently playing?
WG: I endorse Pearl drums. I have a 22″ bass drum, 8″, 12″ and 13″ rack toms, 14″ and 16″ floor toms, plus Simmons pads and an SDS9 brain. I’m going to trigger the Simmons from my acoustic drums in the near future. I play K Zildjian cymbals.
RS: Do you find it easy to work the Simmons drums in, given the kind of music you’re playing?
WG: Yeah, it’s really no problem. To me, Simmons drums are used for coloring: You hit them here and there, and then they’re out. People start saying things like, “Wow, where did that come from?”
RS: Journalists and critics have a number of different phrases they use to describe the Neville Brothers’ sound: New Orleans funk, New Orleans soul, contemporary rhythm & blues, ‘8Os-style funk, rock ‘n’ soul. What would you call it?
WG: Funk, but with definite elements of reggae, R&B, and doo wop, all coated over with an island-type feeling. I don’t know if that’s any better than what the journalists say. But if there are five songs, there are five different beats and five different styles. Maybe you can’t categorize the sound of the Neville Brothers.
The Neville Brothers have a history of going through a lot of drummers. But I have something in my playing that they like. It was something they were looking for, I guess.
RS: What did you bring to the Neville Brothers that other drummers couldn’t deliver?
WG: A certain feel that fits the music they play. I’m more up to date. I’m not the ’50s and the ’60s. I’m the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. I don’t go backwards, and I don’t ever stop trying to get better. Once you stop, you’re doomed. You lose all that you ever gained. I don’t sing and I don’t write songs, so I have to be the best drummer around. That’s what I’m shooting for.