Saying that the world is his stage doesn’t come close to describing the drummer’s career. The New York-bred, London-based player is like a musical, modern-day James Bond, globe-trotting from country to country while supporting cutting-edge artists and established stars alike.
In 2019 alone Chris Vatalaro toured and recorded with alt-rocker Trixie Whitley; saw the release of two soundtracks he played on, Yesterday and Wild Rose (on the latter he also appears on-screen); and took on the rolls of percussionist and musical director on composer Philip Glass’s “Tao of Glass” 360 video, a theater piece performed at the Manchester International Festival. As we went to press, 2020 was looking busy as well, with tours in Australia, Germany, and elsewhere already booked.
A one-time student of Steve Gadd, Vatalaro’s virtuosity and diversity are highly regarded in the music industry. Yet despite his success, the man remains remarkably humble, and is quick to credit others. MD caught up with Chris just as he’d returned home from a tour of the continent.
MD: The interplay between you and Trixie Whitley as a duo is amazing live. Is the show heavily rehearsed, or intuitive?
Chris: Trixie is a fantastic rhythm player. She’s coming from a dance background, she can play drums, and her guitar playing captures an entire groove on its own. When we rehearse, it’s in order to figure out how to augment what she’s already doing. She also grew up doing quite dense electronics, and that’s the flavor on her new record, so I’m handling some of that onstage. The interaction and balance between essentially live stuff and electronic song forms is something that I have a bunch of experience with at this point.
MD: In some instances you use a strippeddown kit—snare, bass drum, cymbal—with an electronic pad for toms and various other sounds. Your personal “sound” is like the best of both worlds, combining the organic and the digital.
Chris: I first played drums in the ’80s, and it seemed like the whole world was just MIDI drum sequencing or trying to play acoustic drums like sequencers. So I quickly gravitated to listening to players from before that era, just because it seemed like more fun. By high school, I got into layering digital sounds live in a budget kind of way: plugging my drums into a used Alesis D4 drum machine and blasting those sounds through a keyboard amp. It’s twenty-five years later, and I’m still essentially doing the same thing. Except now I don’t have to carry a rack of stuff, just some pads, a MIDI controller, and a converter, and the laptop takes care of the rest.
To get away from just playing straight samples, in a typical set I’ll mix it up. So the pads might be playing straight samples, trigger bass lines, or set up conditions and parameters for the kick and snare triggers—for instance, additional layers or effect sends. I’ve learned that integrating electronics in this way can be both subtle and absurd, but somewhere in there is music. I still have the basic acoustic sounds of kick, snare, and hi-hat if required.
MD: You’ve played with a wide range of acts: Antibalas, Imogen Heap, Leo Abrahams, Sam Amidon, Mark Ronson, Philip Selway…. How do you prepare for such a diversity of genres and artists?
Chris: I listen to and enjoy lots of music! Also, I try to understand where the artists are coming from and where they want to go sonically and emotionally in the abstraction that is music. Nowadays it’s really easy to access a lot of recordings, and there’s this danger of devaluing everything. But the way in which performers are interacting with the sea of knowledge varies. Some folks are very eclectic in their tastes; some folks are deep into very specific things. We live in a time when both dispositions are part of our culture, so for me it’s been best to develop a respect for how vast the landscape is and how beautiful ideas can be within that. Everyone brings their own intelligence to their sound, and they come with totally different biases and value systems. If you can’t respect that and maintain good and inquisitive humor, then you shouldn’t be on the gig.
MD: What new projects are coming up?
Chris: I’ve been working on a project with my friend John Dieterich [Deerhoof] a few days a year for the past few years. I’m excited about the music, as it’s the first original stuff I’ve worked on in ages. We did a bunch of improvising and then composed songs around those ideas. I ended up playing a lot of percussion and vibes.
Aside from that, Sam Amidon is working on a new record, Imogen Heap is touring, and I’m doing another bit of touring playing theater music by Philip Glass, a show that we premiered last July.
MD: This year you were also involved in two major motion pictures: Wild Rose, and Yesterday, whose soundtrack was recorded at Abbey Road Studios. How did those opportunities came your way?
Chris: When they cast Jessie Buckley in the role for Wild Rose, director Tom Harper made a bold decision to have her sing the songs live as they shot the fi lm. So I was brought in at an early stage to help her work up some country style. I don’t know much about country music, but the dramaturgical idea wasn’t to be a super slick Nashville band. The idea was to play like a stomping Glaswegian band—Glasgow is a fantastic place to play on tour, by the way. When the opportunity came to participate in the filming, I took the job because it was a great band and because Jessie is such a special singer and an understanding storyteller.
In the case of Yesterday, I was called in much later in the process. The music director, Daniel Pemberton, was working alongside Adem Ilhan, a great all-around musician whose album I worked on a few years back, and who played bass on a Philip Selway tour with me. The movie has this surreal premise that no one can remember the Beatles except for one guy, and he tries to record all of their songs from memory. So we went to Abbey Road and recorded vaguely remembered versions of a bunch of Beatles songs.
MD: What was the experience of tracking at Abbey Road like?
Chris: Abbey Road’s Studio 2 is a great place to play drums in. It’s shaped a little like a high school gym or something. It has pretty high ceilings, but it feels awesome to hit the drums in there. There’s a very peculiar sonic focus, and it’s easy to tune the drums. The pianos and bits of the signal path also feel familiar, like, Oh, yeah, I’ve heard this before. I’m used to working in a variety of cool lo-fi situations, but it’s a real treat to be in a very hi-fi one. I got super into using tea towels and chamois [to muffle the drums], for the hell of it. It’s easy to get reverent in these places, remembering the playful spirit and technical innovations those bands and engineers created day in and day out.
MD: What’s your advice to young drummers as far as navigating the ins and outs of today’s musical landscape?
Chris: My goal was never to be super proficient or competitive; it was to be able to take my skills to different places and play with friends. Getting to that point meant ear training, working on rudiments and classic feels, and figuring out how to incorporate things I was interested in within professional applications—without fear of it falling flat the first few times. But it could be different for other folks. My main piece of advice would be to find people who you respect to curate some listening for you, especially older people. Records can teach so much, but they’re too easy to find—and too hard to find.