The Rhythm and the Heat
Few musicians get to play on albums that define an artist, an era, an entire aesthetic. But that’s exactly what this drummer did on Peter Gabriel’s groundbreaking post-Genesis recordings. And in an unusual turn, today he gets to recreate the sounds and grooves he conceived in the early ’80s, reminding us just how shockingly satisfying they were—and still are.
Jerry Marotta’s drums have forged the groove to dozens of landmark recordings, from Peter Gabriel and Daryl Hall & John Oates to Stevie Nicks and the Indigo Girls, musicians who called upon the New Yorker’s skills to create their best-selling albums. Marotta also appears on such popular discs as Marshall Crenshaw’s Downtown, John Mayer’s Room for Squares, David Sylvian’s Everything and Nothing, and Robbie Robertson’s Storyville, as well as hundreds of other pop and rock releases from knowns and unknowns alike—the lot of the studio musician.
At the core of Marotta’s method is an organic, punchy tone and angular rhythms that make a groove pop with singular style and wit. Though older brother Rick Marotta tracked equally impressive records, Jerry’s touch and tone are unique, and in the music of Peter Gabriel in particular, the effect can be chilling.
As part of the Security Project, which features vocalist Happy Rhodes, Warr guitar player Trey Gunn, keyboardist David Jameson, and guitarist Michael Cozzi, Marotta replicates his magisterial drumming from such ethereal Gabriel standards as “Lay Your Hands on Me,” “The Family and the Fishing Net,” “San Jacinto,” “Games Without Frontiers,” “The Rhythm of the Heat,” and “Shock the Monkey.” Not only does Marotta drum with incredible faithfulness to the original recorded event, the sound of the Security Project is shocking in its fidelity. This is not a Peter Gabriel tribute band; it’s more akin to the New York Philharmonic performing Beethoven. The band’s presentation is serious, startling, and as formidable as Gabriel’s material itself.
Recorded before the overuse of technology enabled today’s largely artificial production aesthetic, the albums Peter Gabriel made between 1978 and 1982 (his second and third self-titled LPs, and Security) are recordings of great innovation and imagination, and Marotta replicates his drumming on them in the Security Project as both muse and master. You can hear Marotta breathe life anew into the Project’s albums Live 1, Live 2, Five, Contact, Here Comes the Flood, and Slowburn.
Never one to take it easy, Marotta recently collaborated with singer-songwriter Flav Martin on the album Soul Redemption, performs with Steely Dan tribute band Reelin’ In the Years and with early-American-music purveyors Annie and the Hedonists, and plays double drums with his brother Rick in the Marotta Brothers, covering material they either originally recorded or that inspired them back in the day. He also operates Dreamland Recording Studios in upstate New York. We start our conversation there
MD: You run a professional recording studio in addition to drumming around the world.
Jerry: Yes, Dreamland Recording Studios. It’s in a big church building and has a phenomenal selection of gear. I’ve also had a studio in my house in Woodstock for many years called Jersville. Dreamland is in Hurley, which is the next town over.
MD: Why operate a recording studio?
Jerry: I’ve always had gear to record, write, and produce music. But when Dreamland came about I wasn’t sure I was going to still have my house with my studio in it. The studio started in the mid ’80s, and tons of albums by everyone from Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock to Yo-Yo Ma to the B-52s were recorded there. It’s a converted church built in 1896, with a 38′ x 42′ live room, four or five iso booths, and tons of vintage gear, including drums from Yamaha, Ludwig, Gretsch, and Slingerland, plus hand drums, gongs—all kinds of stuff . We had Snarky Puppy in recently. The Pixies did their new record here. But it’s a labor of love. I don’t make any money doing it. I work with people who have small budgets and work it out so that everybody gets to experience Dreamland.
MD: Your drum sound on the Security Project records and live videos is incredible. It sounds exactly like your drums from the Gabriel records. Has owning a studio, your years of session work, and having a home studio helped you to create a unique and personal drum sound?
Jerry: It teaches you where you get good sounds and who gets them—what studios, which engineers. I’ve learned a lot from doing records with engineer Tchad Blake and producer Mitchell Froom. I lived in New York for years, and then I did a lot of work in London and L.A. I’ve also had my own studio for many years, and I’ve collected gear. Getting good drum sounds is not rocket science. And sometimes people try a little bit too hard.
MD: “Try too hard”?
Jerry: They screw with the sound, the EQ…. Oftentimes microphone placement alone has a lot to do with the drum sound.
MD: But the drum sound of the early Gabriel records is your sound, which you also hear in the Security Project albums.
Jerry: And the thing about the Gabriel records is that every one of them was done by a different engineer.
MD: When recording as a sideman, how do you get a drum sound?
Jerry: I’ll set up my drums, and the engineer and the assistant will mike them up. I’ll bang around on the drums, and it’s their job to get the sound.
MD: How do you tune the drums?
Jerry: I tune the bottom heads a little higher to get a little more tone. I don’t tune the toms super deep. My traditional setup is 10″ and 12″ toms and 14″ and 16″ floor toms. I work my way down from the high tom. I try to find the sweet spot on the first drum, and then I work my way around.
MD: Sometimes you use as many as three snare drums. And your first tom is actually a snare drum with the snares off.
Jerry: That’s almost always my setup. I used to have 8″, 10″, and 12″ toms mounted above the bass drum. But years ago I replaced the 8″ with a 10″ snare drum with the snares off . It sounded like an 8″ tom, so I have the luxury of both, and I like the three-snare setup. The main snare, the one between my legs, is the really punchy one. A 10″ snare is the higher-pitched one, and then to the left of the hi-hat is the fat snare. It’s a little deeper. I have it tuned to where the lugs are almost rattling. That’s my standard setup—three completely different snare sounds.
MD: Will you use three snare drums most of the time?
Jerry: Oftentimes I do. I might change for a bridge or a chorus, or alternate between them on 2 and 4. I’ll mix them up so I can work the three of them in, in some kind of a sensible way. I’ve been doing that for years.
MD: What’s your advice to drummers in how to develop their own touch? You have a more unusual touch than even your brother.
Jerry: Sadly, because of computers, and what that’s done to recording, drummers are getting lazy with tempo, time, and touch. When I started playing the drums in 1966, the only way you could vary any sound was with the way you hit the drum. In the ’70s it was all about the groove, the pocket, touch. I was lucky. I had good influences, and I learned that and really took to it. Now engineers can sound-replace the drums. They can snap your playing to a Pro Tools grid, and that removes the unique and individual nuance of your playing.
MD: What’s the theme behind the Security Project?
Jerry: We are mostly focusing on Peter Gabriel’s Security album, and my time with Peter from 1977 to 1986. No songs from So; we don’t play “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer.” This is the earlier, ethereal music Peter was known for. There’s no getting away from how the music was recorded, like “Lay Your Hands on Me,” “The Family and the Fishing Net,” and “San Jacinto.” We don’t reimagine them. But “I Don’t Remember” and “Intruder”—we’ve put our own spin on those.
MD: Generally it sounds like you’re replicating the drum parts note for note. I imagine you played all of these songs with Gabriel live on tour.
Jerry: I recorded all of the songs and played them on tour with Peter. But I was very cautious about this. I was constantly listening to what we were doing, and I’d compare that to the recorded version. I would find YouTube clips of me playing those songs with Peter and compare how well we’re doing it. And then I’d check Peter’s contemporary versions. I feel like what we’re doing is easily as good as any of them. I won’t say which ones I think we’re doing better, but I wouldn’t do them if they didn’t come across really well.
MD: How did you record the drums on the early Gabriel albums?
Jerry: The first one I recorded was Peter’s second album, which was produced by Robert Fripp, half at the Hit Factory in New York and the other half at a studio in Holland. Steve Lillywhite produced the third record, which was recorded in the barn of an old country house in England.
MD: Did you record live or layer tracks?
Jerry: Both. In 1977, technology was very different. We’d get together and jam, Peter had some ideas, and it was usually Tony Levin, Larry Fast, and various guitar players. We’d just get together and play, and that’s how we put those records together.
MD: How did the practice of recording drums and cymbals separately, or no cymbals at all, begin?
Jerry: In that barn we started to experiment with compression, distortion, room sounds, and really twisting the sounds. When you over-compress drums and start to add distortion, the drums sound fantastic. But a cymbal doesn’t sound anything like a drum. It’s like recording a ukulele and a tuba into the same microphone—you’d never do it. Hugh Padgham, the engineer, got these awesome drum sounds. But every time I hit a cymbal it sounded horrible. So we pulled the cymbals down and figured we’d overdub them. When it came time to overdub cymbals, it didn’t seem necessary. There was nothing missing. So that was it. No cymbals.
MD: How do you create a drum part?
Jerry: I listen to the song a few times, as much as I need to. I try to basically formulate a drum part in my head before I sit down at the drums. Then I refine it. And then I start hitting the drums.
MD: What things might change on the way to a finished take or part?
Jerry: Well, you never know. You think something is going to work in your head, and you sit down and have to refine it. Nothing changes dramatically. What might change is that I’ll get a part exactly where I want it; we might run a take and then try something totally different to see if anything comes from it. It’s very simple.
MD: What if someone throws in their two cents?
Jerry: Often people just let me do my thing because they know me, and they want my thing. If someone wants me to change my part, that’s no fun. That’s why I don’t do a lot of sessions. What’s really bad is when I come up with a great drum part, and it’s very “Jerry Marotta,” very unusual, left of center, and then the producer and the artist get together and think they have a great idea, and they’re singing me a drum thing that sounds like every other record. That’s when it gets really frustrating: when I think I can really take the song to a whole other place and make it unique and then I get shot down.
MD: Regarding So, there’s some controversy as to which tracks you and Manu Katché played on.
Jerry: I never heard about a controversy. I had minimal involvement with So. I know I played on “Red Rain.” I’d been playing with Peter for years, and initially I was slotted to do his record, and then I was hired to record with Paul McCartney. Peter changed his schedule at the last minute, which coincided with McCartney’s recording dates. That was McCartney’s Press to Play. It was just Paul, me, and Eric Stewart from 10cc. I couldn’t back out of that. I worked on So when I could, but by that point technology had completely overwhelmed Peter, and I think it became his demise. So was successful, so…that’s his prerogative.
MD: What advice can you give drummers to develop a style and sound as you have?
Jerry: My brother and I are self-taught. I just listened and played along. My thing was, in the ’60s I was a real snob about black music: Motown and Stax, and I would play along to those records. That’s how I learned to play. It’s changed so much now. To find one’s own style, I’d say to work with players that are in the same place as you are. Develop the sound together. The day of the session drummer is over. And music has changed so much that a twenty-year-old doesn’t have the same sensibility that I do. They’re listening to a whole different kind of music. A lot of it’s programmed and composed on a computer. I suggest kids listen to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and Steely Dan’s Gaucho, The Royal Scam, and Aja. Listen to records that were made before technology had any impact on a drummer’s feel, style, or sound. Maybe that’s the way to go. Listen to the Beatles; listen to old records.
MD: Are you from a musical family?
Jerry: Our father was a dancer; he taught ballroom dancing and Latin dance.
MD: Do you think that influenced you and your brother in how you felt rhythm?
Jerry: Absolutely. My parents played big band music, lots of great music around the house. My sister and brother were older than me, and they were buying records and playing them at home all the time. All of that was very helpful.
Marotta’s Security Project Setup
Drums: Yamaha PHX
A. 7.5×14 Brass snare
B. 5×14 snare
C. 4×10 snare
D. 6.5×10 tom
E. 7.5×12 tom
F. 12.5×14 floor tom
G. 14×16 floor tom
H. 17×22 bass drum
Heads: Remo, including Ambassador Coated snare batter and Clear snare side, Emperor Smooth White tom batters and Ambassador Clear resonants
1. 14″ A New Beat or A Custom Rezo hi-hats
2. 22″ K Constantinople Thin Overhammered
3. 20″ K Constantinople Thin High
4. 22″ K Constantinople Thin High
5. 22″ K Constantinople Medium
Sticks: Vic Firth 7A nylontip and 5A wood-tip, wire brushes
Percussion: LP cowbell and agogo bells