On the advantage of formal study.
Formal study is paramount for any drummer who’s looking to be versatile enough to sustain a career. Unless you happen to be lucky enough to be in a band that’s already successful. But being a sideman in today’s industry, you’re going to have to go into a lot of different areas comfortably. As far as feel, you’re just trying to listen and learn from the players that feel good to you and home in on what that thing is.
On the preparation needed to embrace music as diverse as Earth Wind & Fire, Bette Midler, and Steely Dan.
First of all, EWF’s music is incredible and encompasses so many genres. Conversely, the touch and feel required to play behind Bette Midler or Steely Dan is something completely different. I spent a lot of years playing behind singers and for theatrical productions. I got all the “Broadway” experience from doing that for years, and that really helped. I couldn’t have done any of it without reading. That’s why I’m an advocate of formal training for younger players.
On teaching in the digital age: more fun, or more challenging?
For me it’s less fun. Although you have FaceTime, Skype, and other tools at your disposal, it’s just not the same as being in the same room with the student. When I assess a cat’s playing, I look at what their body is doing while they’re playing. You can’t really see what’s going on without that. Digital time is cool, but real time in the flesh is the shit.
On the importance of learning another instrument.
Keyboards or guitar is very important for drummers to learn—any chordal-based instrument. It broadens your palette and you start to experience drums in a different way.
On thinking in terms of melodies or rhythmic patterns when soloing.
I do both. I also emphasize dynamics. I grew up listening to a lot of straight-ahead jazz, and I always try to play as musically as I can.
On the development of the new album Love Is the Greatest by Sonny Emory’s Cachet.
Earth Wind & Fire’s Maurice White said something very poignant to me back when we were making my first solo album, Hypnofunk, in 1995. Maurice coproduced the album, and we were about halfway through the recording when he walked into the studio and said, “Sonny, I’m passing the baton to you.” At the time I didn’t quite understand what he meant, or the magnitude of that statement. I spent thirteen years with EWF, and it was thirteen years of grooming. I feel blessed just to have been a part of his and the band’s legacy. It took a while to put Cachet together, because of all my touring commitments. I let the material dictate the direction of the band. With this album I wanted to display my funkier side and embrace all generations. I hope I’ve succeeded.
On self-producing: total freedom, or constrictive?
Believe it or not, it can be constricting. You can only go as far as your thoughts will take you, and you may need some outside influences to help you see the light at the end of the tunnel. In hindsight, I think it’s a lot easier when you collaborate. On the other side of the coin, it’s emancipating to produce yourself. This time I wanted to sit in the hot seat alone and test the waters. I wanted this record to sound the way I wanted it to sound.
On advising young drummers.
The first thing I talk about is humility, attitude, and keeping the proper perspective. As sidemen, we have to respect that. Sometimes younger players are not down with what they’ve been hired for, which is to play the music that they were contracted for and that’s all—at least until and if the artist gives them the green light to go further. Accept the professional challenge, go out each night and play that music to the best of your ability, and keep it moving. Also, honor your word. If you commit to a gig, honor it and the commitment you’ve made to that artist. When all is said and done, that’s how you’ll be judged.
Emory plays Yamaha drums, Zildjian cymbals, and Toca and LP percussion, and he uses Vic Firth sticks, Remo heads, Shure mics, and Meyer sound systems.