A Drummer’s Circle
by Jeff Potter
The original set player in the most famous Latin-rock band of all time has always placed a dedication to the larger musical picture well above any attempts at stylistic authenticity. And in doing so, he’s succeeded magnificently in becoming exactly what the music has always needed: a uniquely qualified facilitator of rhythmic magic.
It’s a heady ride having a hit album on the charts. Michael Shrieve has been there many times before. But this time the success is even sweeter. When Santana IV debuted at number five on the April Billboard charts, the drummer, who’s now sixty-seven, thoroughly enjoyed his domestic bragging rights. “I was able to say to my twenty- and twenty-five-year-old sons, ‘Who’s your daddy?’” he laughs. “Above Kanye! Above Bieber! Above Drake!”
The album features the reunion of five members from the classic lineup last heard on 1971’s Santana III: guitarists Carlos Santana and Neil Schon, percussionist Michael Carabello, keyboardist Gregg Rolie, and Shrieve, supported by two current Santana members, percussionist Karl Perazzo and bassist Benny Rietveld. True to the band’s original ethos, the new material on Santana IV combines infectious melodic tunes driven by Latin-Afro-rock grooves, interspersed with jam explorations.
Mega-band reunions are often contrived affairs, but Shrieve happily concurs with the disc’s glowing critical reception. “It doesn’t just sound like an excuse to make some money,” he says.
Santana broke big, really big, on stage at Woodstock, just prior to releasing its classic 1969 debut disc. With the performance of “Soul Sacrifice,” Shrieve became enshrined in the firmament of Great Rock Moments when his feverish extended solo was highlighted in the Woodstock film. He went on to drive Santana through eight albums as the group evolved from Latin rock into jazz/rock fusion terrain, before his departure in late 1973. But even if Shrieve hadn’t made his mark as a member of one of rock’s great bands—as acknowledged by his 1998 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—his career would still stand as impressively prolific, diverse, and adventurous.
Upon departing Santana, Shrieve itched to venture further afield, forming the prog-rock/fusion unit Automatic Man and later joining the experimental supergroup Go, featuring percussionist/leader Stomu Yamashta, singer/multi-instrumentalist Steve Winwood, guitarist Al Di Meola, and synth wiz Klaus Schulze.
Pursuing a growing interest in electronic music, Shrieve collaborated with Schulze on 1984’s Transfer Station Blue. Subsequent solo discs featured cutting-edge notables, including Mark Isham, Andy Summers, Shawn Lane, Jonas Hellborg, Bill Frisell, and Wayne Horvitz. And in the early ’80s, Shrieve ventured into grooving power pop/new wave with Novo Combo.
Shrieve’s recording credits include tracks with the Rolling Stones, Steve Winwood, David Crosby, Pete Townshend, George Harrison, Dave Edmunds, Pat Travers, Bob Moses, Mick Jagger, Roger Hodgson, Jim Carroll, Jill Sobule, and the quartet Hagar, Schon, Aaronson, Shrieve. The drummer is also an accomplished producer as well as a composer of film and television scores.
Currently Shrieve is juggling multiple projects, including leading the Seattle instrumental band Spellbinder, whose eponymous second disc was launched in June. And soon to be released is a long-gestating labor of love, Drums of Compassion, a project combining ambient and world music sounds with improvisations by guest drum/percussion masters.
Watching that Woodstock moment again today, you’re struck by the intensity in the eyes of the just-turned-twenty Shrieve and his bandmates. The message is clear: “This is our moment, and we are taking it.” Forty-seven years later, Shrieve has no intention of losing that edge. “I think the record sounds really strong,” he says of Santana IV without swagger. “It’s got some balls. We put the record out ourselves, so we didn’t have anyone telling us what we could or couldn’t do.”
MD: When you started with Santana, fusing Latin and rock was new terrain. The Latin music community often held fast to certain “rules” of that genre. But you and the band forged ahead. In the decades since, you’ve acquired a greater Afro-Latin vocabulary. Did that knowledge influence how you approached the new disc?
Michael: I did learn new stuff in the interim between the early Santana and now. But to tell you the truth, when I came to the table, I didn’t try to insert any of that knowledge; I approached the music the way I always did. I do not play with anywhere near the authenticity of a Latin drummer. I just don’t. I took lessons in the ’80s with Frankie Malabé, and I’ve played with some great guys in Santana over the years. But I just bring what I bring to the table, and the mix is what makes it interesting.
For instance, I’m often not playing cascara types of rhythms. When the other guys are playing Latin rhythms, I’m often playing a jazz swing on top. So I’m limited in how authentic I am with all that stuff, and that’s part of the reason why Santana sounded like it did: Nothing sounded “authentic”—it sounded like authentic Santana.
MD: More important, you infused the rock energy, the inherent feel.
Michael: Yeah, the energy. It had a rock feel—there was that kind of rhythm with the guitars and Gregg Rolie, who’s coming from a more rock ’n’ roll place. But I was coming from more of a jazz place. And I just tried to fit in with those guys.
MD: There was also the challenge of finding the space—fitting in your kit parts with two percussionists in hard-driving grooves.
Michael: I remember that when I first played with them in their rehearsal space, I approached it with a lot of hi-hat, then started adding cymbals. I did work in snare and toms, but because I was coming in there without an authentic knowledge of Latin playing, I wanted to listen more, stay out of the way, and add to the fabric of what they were doing.
Also, choosing pitches was important so that we weren’t all in the same frequency. We even ran into that problem on a couple things on the new record, regarding what drum selections to make. But my stuff with Santana was pretty straightforward until we started moving into the era of Caravanserai , Welcome , and Borboletta , when it became much more influenced by Jack DeJohnette—and I always listened to Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, and all the greats.
MD: In addition to the rhythmic/pitch space, you had to make it work at high volume without stepping on each other’s toes.
Michael: It’s much louder now, I’ll tell you. [laughs] When you listen to those early records, the mix is very low, so it’s hard to hear exactly what I’m doing. It was very much a blend of the percussion section and, in fact, the whole band. I know there were tom things I did that were similar to the congas. But it all felt good with a swing on the ride. And then there was stuff I picked up from people like Chico Hamilton that he did with Gabor Szabo.
MD: Santana eventually leaned more toward jazz influences. But even in the beginning, jazz was already evident in your drumming—in the feels and certainly in your chops and strong rudimentary skills. There was even some Buddy in there.
Michael: Definitely. I studied out of Buddy Rich’s book, and I was a big fan of his West Side Story record [Swingin’ New Big Band]. I played in a big band in junior college, and I used to go see Count Basie with [drummer] Sonny Payne. I couldn’t believe that stuff. And then I started getting into small jazz groups. In the ’60s that was hot stuff—Art Blakey, Miles with Tony, and Coltrane…come on! Also, I was a fan of the Kinks, the Stones, and the Beatles too. You had to be a super jazz snob if you were sixteen or seventeen and didn’t like that music. [laughs]
I played in marching bands too, so I loved the rudimental stuff. So when I got to Santana, I certainly wasn’t a rock drummer, and I wasn’t a fully blossomed jazz drummer yet; I was not fully formed. Being thrown into that situation, with congas and timbales and electricity, I had to find my way into it.
MD: On the new disc, “Shake It” is a real burner with a tom-driven groove, and the toms are melodic.
Michael: I played with the guitar line that Neil Schon wrote. When he first wrote that, I didn’t know what to play. Initially I was playing a backbeat groove, trying to do it like a John Bonham syncopated half time. But once we got into the studio, it felt more natural to beat the toms like that—they were tuned—and add a snare accent when appropriate, like on the pre-chorus buildup section. It’s one of my favorites to play live. It feels like a combination of Led Zeppelin and old Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green.
MD: You were in your early twenties during the Santana years, and you’re now in your sixties. How did you prep for the physical demands of revisiting the band?
Michael: I wanted to be ready. I went to physical therapy three times a week for three months. I was having issues with my thumbs, starting to get arthritis. I was also concerned about locking up, cramping, because the music is so intense. I went to the gym, I juiced, I practiced at the set for hours a day, and even did it with the heater on so it was like hot yoga—so I wouldn’t be surprised by the heat of the lights on stage.
MD: After leaving Santana, Go offered you a chance for radical genre bending.
Michael: That was exciting for me. After playing Woodstock, I was being known for a drum solo, so I was required to play a solo every night. I was always listening to the greats, but then I started seeking out listening outside the normal realm of jazz and rock. And then I heard Stomu Yamashta in a record store in Berkeley. His percussion stuff just got to me. I got his records and just fell in love with them. So I sought him out. I had wanted to do avant-garde percussion stuff. When I finally met Stomu, he was already putting a new thing together.
MD: You were an early electronic percussion pioneer.
Michael: I definitely was. In 1973 I was using Impact electronic drums, which was a company out of Portland, Oregon. I used their first drums, and I was an investor. They were created by Steve Lamme and his son, Ettiene. I donated them to the Percussive Arts Society Museum a few years back. Bill Bruford used to come by and check out the rig. And the record I did with David Beal, The Big Picture , that’s all from triggered pads—the horns and everything else. I’m about to begin exploring that again and will try to take it to another personal level in terms of using electronic music and playing drums on top of it.
MD: Your record Trilon, from 2014, explores that territory.
Michael: On Trilon I’m playing a kit that looks like a regular drumset, with a bass drum, snare drum, two small toms, and floor tom. But everything except the bass drum is a different-sized snare drum. The “toms” are smaller and the floor tom looks like a floor tom, but it’s a snare as well. That’s why there are no toms heard on the record.
MD: You’ve had an ongoing history as the leader of Spellbinder.
Michael: I named the band Spellbinder after one of Gabor Szabo’s records, to remind me of what my job is: It’s not all about me; it’s that you’ve got to create a spell. You’ve got to play rhythms that bring people in. If we do our job correctly and the rhythm is transporting, we provide a door for the listeners to come through, allowing them to close their eyes, relax, let go, and fully move into the music.
The band formed about five years ago. We played a weekly residency for years at a club in Seattle. Now with the new record out, we’ve started to gig again. The players are great, and people are loving it wherever we play.
On the first album [Live at Tost], I didn’t want to do a “backbeat” thing. I wanted to work within the idea of playing rhythms that came naturally to me, so that the feeling was like a river flowing. All the music utilizes that side of my drumming. But on the new record, there’s much more backbeat stuff. The music’s really atmospheric and ensemble oriented. I don’t want to be a “jazz band,” just because it’s instrumental. And I don’t want three solos every song.
Also, I’m a drummer but I love melodies. I like to play music with beautiful melodies with this band. For instance, on the new record we did an instrumental version of a Dulce Pontes tune, and we did the same thing with “1902,” a song by John Leventhal that I’ve wanted to do for years.
MD: Another meeting of electronics, ambient, and percussion that’s been a long time in the making is Drums of Compassion, a project that features an amazing roster of drummers and percussionists.
Michael: Drums of Compassion is very important to me, and that’s why it’s taken so long. Again, it’s very influenced by Stomu Yamashta. I play sixteen tom-toms in a semicircle while standing up. When I played with Stomu, he used to do that.
The record started from this idea: I asked myself, If I go out to listen to music and come home at two in the morning, what kind of music would I want to listen to? I wouldn’t want more groove music—I’d want to listen to something ambient, or classical or choral music. It was more of a philosophical approach: I want to be able to be in a chill or prayerful state or even a trance space, but it wouldn’t be rhythm rhythm.
I always liked working with ambient synthesis artists—I liked that space. Jeff Greinke, from Seattle, is masterful with that. He and I originally did the whole thing with just drums and electronics, but it felt a bit too new-agey. So I invited Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira, Zakir Hussain, Pete Lockett, and some other artists, and they all contributed. And I even have [a recording of African percussionist] Olatunji doing an invocation at the beginning. It’s pretty exciting.
This record represents the shaman side of me. The whole thing is very much an invocation, a calling to a deeper side of ourselves that can be reached by the sound of the drums, combined with an electronic synthesis. I call it Compassion because it’s a play on Olatunji’s famous Drums of Passion albums, but it’s also “compassion,” because that’s what we need in the world right now.
Tools of the Trade
Shrieve plays a DW custom 3-ply kit in pink champagne finish, with 8×10, 8×12, and 9×13 toms, 13×15 and 16×16 floor toms, and a 14×24 bass drum. His snare is a 5.5×14 black nickel over brass model. His hardware is from DW’s 9000 series, though for gigs around town he uses the company’s Retro series lightweight models. Michael recently began using Istanbul Agop cymbals; though he’s still experimenting with various models, of late he’s been playing 21″ and 18″ rides, 16″ crashes, and 14″ hi-hats. His Remo heads include Coated Ambassador tom batters, a Clear Ambassador snare batter and Clear Emperor snare-side, and a Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter.