In The Studio-On The Road with RICK MAROTTA

Rick Marotta was born January 7, 1948 in New Rochelle, New York. And, apparently, he was also horn to play drums. For without any formal training, Marotta’s natural “feel” for the instrument has made him one of the world’s most in-demand session musicians. Currently, James Taylor, Carly Simon, J.D. Souther, Warren Zevon and Steely Dan rely regularly on his services for recording or touring. His playing has also helped bring hits to Roberta Flack, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Hall and Oates and Peter Frampton. And yet, Marotta’s nonchalance about all his accomplishments puts them in refreshing perspective; as he says, “It amazes me when I get a call for ‘my jazz shit’ or ‘that on top stuff’. What jazz shit, what stuff? I don’t know what it is that makes people want to call me.”

We spoke with Marotta at his Manhattan home, just before he went on a long national tour with Ronin, the recently formed rock n’ roll unit he’s a fourth of (along with Waddy Wachtel, Dan Dugmore and Stanley Sheldon).

MR: Was there music in your home as you were growing up?

RM: Yeah. Both my parents were dancers, in ballroom and Latin styles, and they gave lessons for a living. In fact, I think my father, Chris Marotta, introduced the mambo into the United States, in Miami years ago. Later, when we moved to Cleveland for six years, my father and my uncle had a local TV show affiliated with the Arthur Murray studios. My sister, who’s two years younger, and I would be taught different steps, as a demonstration that they could teach anybody to dance.

MR: Steve Gadd was a dancer, too. I wonder if there’s any connection. Anyway, when did you start playing drums?

RM: After a year of college.

MR: Where did you go to school?

RM: Athens College, in Athens, Alabama. I wasn’t a motivated student, but it did introduce me to psychology and sociology, which I didn’t know existed for Italians. I had always thought that if you were an Italian and you were from New Rochelle, you became a garbageman, and if you were Jewish, you became an amazing, wealthy businessman.

MR: So you didn’t go back for your second year?

RM: No. I hung around Harrison and New Rochelle with (guitarist) David Spinozza and (drummer) Andy Newmark. They had their own bands, and I was the non-musician hanging out with them. Spinozza and I used to go to dance contests all the time; either he’d win or I’d win. Anyway, he kept saying he wished I played drums, so I could be in his band. Finally, his drummer got drafted for three years, and I agreed to watch his drums while he was gone. So, one day I started playing them. And, a month later, I joined David’s band.

MR: What kind of band?

RM: Rhythm and Blues circa 1967-8. James Brown-type music. We were a half-white, half-black group that played for all kinds of crowds, all around Westchester. I also subbed for Newmark, and worked in a few other bands. Andy and I lived in a hotel together during this time.

MR: Did you learn a lot from Newmark?

RM: Yeah, but we were unbelievably different drummers. He was very studied, and I was self-taught.

MR: Did you learn by playing along with records?

RM: Yeah, Dino Danelli with the Rascals, Al Jackson, Bernard Purdie—all the records they played on.

MR: But did you see this as a career? It all happened so suddenly.

RM: That’s true. I just set ’em up in the room, and pretty soon I was playing. The first two weeks were unbelievably frustrating, but finally I could play the beat that Dino played, after working eight hours a day for a long time. I finally got that “boom-dit, boom boom dit,” and I said to myself, “Wow!” I felt like a king. But I guess it was because I had danced so much that it finally came to me; after all, there was rhythm in me all the time.

MR: So, after those show bands, what was your next step?

RM: Well, Spinozza was only 18 or 19, but he was already doing session work; they called him “Youngblood”. And because we played well together—going eight bars out and still staying right with each other, he began recommending me for his dates. Plus, he had a 10 or 12-piece band I was in, called Soul Company. Later, we changed the name of the group to Giant, and did some sessions. But the first outside session I did was an r&b date Spinozza took me to. I was the only white guy. They had these three chick singers and everything, and I was real nervous. But I did it, and I heard it on WLIB, the soul station in New York, about two weeks later.

Eventually, David began taking me to more sessions, and he helped me learn to read. And people began calling, all by word of mouth. Suddenly, I was a “studio musician.” I’d go into a date with long hair and a beard, and sit next to a guy in a suit— this was during the transition period around Woodstock, in 1969 and ’70. I played my own hybrid style and could barely read a note of music, and the old-timers probably wondered if I even spoke English.

MR: I know you have a younger brother Jerry, who’s also a pretty well-known drumer. During all this, was he playing, too?

RM: Yeah, I got him a set when he was thirteen, around this time. He’s 24 now and has been on the road playing and recording with Peter Gabriel. Also, he works a lot with Hall and Oates. And, our youngest brother, Tommy, who’s 21, is a bass player. He’s on the road with Martha and the Vandellas, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and The Marvellettes.

MR: When did you buy your own drums?

RM: A group I was in in 1970, called The Riverboat Soul Band—we did one LP for Mercury—bought me my first set. I picked them out at Manny’s: a psychedelic Ludwig set. I had no real preferences at that point. Later, that set was stolen by a roadie in the next band I was in, so just as well.

MR: Did you keep doing sessions at the beginning of the Seventies?

RM: Just enough to get by. Mostly, I was involved with a band called Brethren. I did a prom one night with a band from Long Island, called the Vagrants, which was (now session player) Stu Woods on bass and Tommy Cosgrove on guitar and vocals. And from that, the three of us put together this band Brethren. In 1971, we went to L. A. and did an album for Tiffany Records, which was a short-lived subsidiary of Scepter. Dr. John played keyboards on the date. The band was really something, everybody thought we were gonna make it. It was an r&b-based rock’n’roll band, the first one I’d been in without horns. Cosgrove sang like Stevie Winwood, Stu and I sang backgrounds. We went out on the road opening for every act on Chrysalis/Island at the time: Joe Cocker, Traffic. It was a great band. Our managers were Sid Bernstein, and later, Howard Stein.

MR: So, what happened?

RM: Well, the first album was great, but poorly produced. Let’s just say it was a great learning experience. But we kept touring and kicking ass. Except, the better we did musically, the more self-destructive we seemed to be offstage; they were watching (keyboardist) Mike Garson, who we’d added by now, and I, do duos, the whole set. And the crowd was loving it! And Stu and Tommy were urging us on! You see how crazy it was getting, like a situation comedy.

The point is, when the band broke up after the second album on Tiffany, I decided never to work for other people in this business again. I didn’t care if they were going to put the Beatles back together and shoot Ringo, I wouldn’t fill in. You can’t rely on people, because you don’t know what their parents did to them when they were growing up. And so, I went back into the studio and started working for myself.

MR: This was about 1972 or ’73?

RM: Right.

MR: Did you have to cut your hair to get accepted back into the fold?

RM: I always looked different. I’ve never followed any of those kind of rules. Like, I wouldn’t cut my hair to do the Broadway pit for “Grease.” Or for on-camera jobs, either. And contractors, artists, and musicians all told me to stay in town, so I wouldn’t miss calls. None of that stuff concerns me. Because, for example, I like playing live. I’ll just take off and go on the road, which in those years I used to do with Roberta Flack all the time. And even if I miss a lot of high paying dates that way, I’m happy. Because if I stay at home all the time, I become a blob. I go on the road for two weeks, and I come back feeling like a million bucks. But, of course, I’ve mellowed with age.

MR: From 1973, it seems like everyone started using you on dates. How did it happen, exactly?

RM: I never say I’m the hottest. I never want to be number one.

MR: Okay, let’s just say you needed an accountant all of a sudden. How does that sort of thing happen?

RM: In my case, it just happened right away. For some reason, I was working so much I almost burned out. But whenever I got close to that, I took off or went on the road. There was even a time when I wanted to race motorcycles, so I took two days a week and practiced that, no matter what other calls came in.

MR: But, especially as someone who’s self taught, and by your own admission, not the world’s greatest reader, how did you come to work so consistently?

RM: Well, it’s true that people want me because of the way I play . . . and I’m not concerned with how fast I can play. I play simply, keep good, solid time. I can play with maniacs, but I always feel better playing just a little behind the rest of the band, making everyone strain a bit to become relaxed. People feel real conscious of time when they play with me. Which means they think I have good time. They’ll ask me if their time is okay . . . and meanwhile, I have no idea! Maybe it’s from the dancing, though. I always feel when I drop the sticks, they just seem to land on the right beat. And, I really like to play the backbeats.

MR: When the younger players started moving into the studios, do you think that created a place for more “feel” drummers?

RM: Well, before I came in you had Bernard Purdie, who plays with a lot of funk, Russ Kunkel in L.A., Alan Schwartzberg, Herb Lovelle, Denny Seiwell for a while in New York. I guess, though, there was nobody who played like me.

MR: When did you start moving out of the New York studios and gain a lot more notice as a rock sideman?

RM: Around the time of Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams album (released in 1977). I was out of New York for about two years. Linda hired me for recording and touring out of Los Angeles. And I also did sessions with Warren Zevon. I think he’s great, incidentally. He lets me do things other people won’t. Like on his new album, I slam down on the tom-toms and do weird beats—simple stuff, but very oddball. I went on the road with him, too. And, J. D. Souther also became someone I really like to work with. He’s a drummer, and he makes me play stuff so simple-sounding, it’s really hard to execute. Like on “You’re Only Lonely,” he knew exactly the pattern he wanted, and I had to play it. We couldn’t do any fills. And so the more we did it, the harder it was to play. On the whole album, we did four takes on each song, and the production took over a year. And, Steely Dan are great, too. They’ll tell me what to do but also give me a lot of latitude. For example, if Chuck Rainey and I fall into a nice groove, they say, “Whoa. Stop. Do it like that.” And the songs are so incredible, they inspire you. Because Fagan sings them live; he cuts them first at the piano, and then I play to just him. I even came in one time when the whole band was on the record, and they took off the old drummer and put new drums on.

MR: Who else have you liked recording with?

RM: Jackson Browne, because he sings and writes and performs well. He sings, in fact, while we’re cutting the tracks. And I like that, because I want to be part of the music. I don’t want to just lay down tracks and months later hear horns and strings added on. That’s why Karla Bonoff is another, amazing person to record with. And that’s why I like working in Los Angeles. New York, sometimes, is too over-dubbed and segmented in terms of production.

MR: Does your playing style change from session to session, depending on who you’re working for?

RM: Sometimes, it has to. With Roberta Flack, I play sensitively and quietly. With Goro Noguchi, this Japanese teen idol I played with recently in Japan, I got a real knocking wood sound going, a real showy, Vegas style.

MR: Let’s talk about Ronin. Why did you decide to get into a band again?

RM: The people in Ronin are my friends. And everyone in the band wanted to play rock and roll before we got too old. We’ve been together for three years, since Waddy Wachtel and Dan Dugmore and I worked with Linda Ronstadt. We know each other separately and together. Do you know what I mean?

MR: I think I know. You like to play and if you can play in a band with people you know, it’s an enjoyable experience for you. And if the record (Ronin, Mercury), doesn’t sell a million copies, that’s okay, in a way.

RM: Right. It’s not going to be agonizing.

MR: And, if you do have commercial success, the band is mature enough to handle it and will not go off in a million directions. Which is the kind of stability you’ve been aiming for, because you really do like roadwork—you like crowds liking you.

RM: Exactly. And on the day our tour ends, we’ll go right to rehearsing for James Taylor’s tour and our next album. Which means that I’ll have a great chance to observe my own playing— how I’m functioning as a drummer, as a musician. Plus, it really helps having Peter Asher behind us, managing and producing, and helping us in every way. Believe me, I’ve already felt in every way how great proper management is. I know when he calls me to do something, I’ll do it and there will be concrete results.

MR: Would you want to lead your own band?

RM: I don’t know yet. Right now, I want the best of both worlds, touring and jingles. On the road, I get to play differently every time I go out with someone—which way, I can’t predict. I can discover myself playing a new way on the road and that one experience can make a whole tour worthwhile. The live situation enhances invention, because you play the same song every night and if it gets boring, you can give it a new nuance. People in the audience may not notice it, but you do. But at the same time the audience creates a tension. We’re putting ourselves on the block, and they’re holding the axe. And in the studio, I like the caliber of the players, and of the writing we interpret. It’s creative. It’s satisfying. And it’s taught me an awful lot of important things.

MR: Let’s talk about your equipment. How many sets of drums do you have?

RM: Basically, I have sets in New York, one in LA, one in Japan. The Yamaha is a Japanese set I checked out through Steve Gadd; the company has them in storage for me now. I never endorsed any drums before these.

MR: Why?

RM: I never liked any. I end up making each of my drums myself. They look unbelievably funky; I buy ’em, take ’em apart, drill holes in them . . . but they sound great to me. And that’s all I care about.

MR: What brands did you buy?

RM: My New York set is a 10 year old Gretsch. The 8″ and 10″ tom-toms are Pearls, I got rid of the 14″ and mounted a 13″ Ludwig on the bass drum. I also have a 16″ floor tom-tom. They originally all had one head, but I drilled holes, put casters in and on the bottom of the 8 and 10 I put Diplomats. On the bottoms of the bigger toms I use Ambassadors, because I like the way they resonate. I’m even probably gonna try the Ambassadors on the smaller ones, because I never get enough tone out of the small toms. The bass drum is a 22″ Gretsch; I use a hydraulic head on it. It’s funny, Gadd and I always have this big discussion: I try to get him to use Ambassadors and Diplomats, and he uses hydraulics on all his drums. We use the opposites, yet I like the way his drums sound, too.

MR: What about your LA set?

RM: It’s exactly the same, except Ludwig instead of Gretsch; the shells aren’t as thick. They’re the drums I use most on records.

MR: Why did you buy those particular brands in the first place?

RM: I bought the Ludwigs a long time ago after the roadie hocked my drums when I was in Brethren. Then I gave the Ludwigs to my brother and bought a big set of Gretsch. I wanted to change. I didn’t want any heads on the bottom. And they had darker wood; they were good-looking. They sounded okay, too, but to my ears something wasn’t quite right, after a while. So I went back to my Ludwigs, after using the Gretsch for two years. Then I went back to the Gretsch and put bottom heads on ’em, and took the dotted rock and roll heads off— I hate those heads—and the difference was night and day.

MR: What kind of sound difference did you get?

RM: I like very loosely tuned drums, that will ring forever. You hit ’em, and they don’t sound like jazz drums. They’re rock n’ roll drums. You hit ’em and the notes bend, and they flap and they’re noisy. They sound like garbage cans.

MR: What about the Yamahas?

RM: They’re prototypes the company has given me, along with Gadd and one other drummer. They have 8″, 10″, 12″, 13″, 14″, 15″ and 16″ tom-toms. I don’t use all of them; I like the 12 but not the 14. There’s a 22″ bass drum. The casing in the drum shelves is very thick, which means they really don’t resonate enough for me. But for recording, they ought to be great, after I put my usual heads on them, re-tune them, and get them into the studio.

MR: What’s the set-up other than the tom-toms?

RM: With the snare drum I use one drum, the same one, which I carry back and forth between coasts. It’s a Ludwig, with an ECM 50 microphone inside. I’ve had great luck with that. But, at the same time, Yamaha has given me a couple of snare drums, which I used when I was in Japan, and they were amazing. They’re wooden, and they have a trashy, open sound I like. The sound hits, and it spreads all over the place. Exactly the opposite of what most Modern Drummer readers want, right?

MR:What do you mean by that?

RM: Well, most engineers hate them. They say, “You can’t record with this. You have to deaden this. You have to squeeze the sound smaller. I go crazy, pull the pads off of the mikes, lift them up a bit, hit them hard. Sometimes I see the engineers’ hair stand straight up. But I just like a livelier snare sound.

MR: Are you going to work with Yamaha on any projects?

RM: They are sending me a fourth set, of their new Sunbursts, which are wood drums, and thinner on the shells than the other prototype, but similar otherwise. And if I have an idea, I call them. Already I’ve told them on their hi-hat stands, the footplate is at too much of an angle, and it ends up hurting my leg. Anything a couple of centimeters off can be a problem for me.

MR: What cymbals, sticks and pedals do you use?

RM: Pearl footpedals and Pearl hi-hat stands. In cymbals, I like four: from left to right, an 18″ crash, usually an A. Zildjian; a live 16″ crash, either Paiste or Zildjian; a 22″ Medium Ride, usually A. Zildjian; an 18″, 19″ or 20″ Chinese gong with sizzles in it, which is an oddball cymbal to have, but I always carry one because I never know when I’m gonna slap it.

MR: How about sticks?

RM: I used to have a sticked called a Rick Marotta stick, but then they changed the name to an Elvin Jones stick because Elvin sold more of those in Japan. This was about five years ago. Frank Ippolito made them at Professional Percussion in New York. It was a good stick. I liked the bead, the neck, the butt end, the weight.

MR: You went through others before that?

RM: Yeah, 5As, 5Bs, everything, skinny, big. Right now, I use a stick I found in LA, at Professional Percussion there; their rock stick. It’s sturdy, though sometimes too sturdy. I vacillate between it and a Manny’s rock and roll stick. I like a heavy, solid stick. Jazz players like it light and smaller; rock and roll players like a big baseball-bat-like stick. I’m right in the middle.

MR: What about your pedals?

RM: I used to like Speed Kings, but I would break them playing with my toe as much as I do. Jazzers tend to play flat-footed, and I play on the ball of my foot. So now I use Pearls.

MR: What drums do you take on the road with Ronin?

RM: I’m gonna take the Sunbursts as soon as they come, but most usually, I take the LA set. All my road cases are in LA.

MR: You’ve talked about some of your favorite recording situations. Do you have any good stories about jingles, like the best and the worst you ever worked on?

RM: Once, we did do a hair-raising, 30 second spot, that took us 2 1/2 hours to finish. They wrote the music to the visual, and then they took the film and cut out frames, so none of the hits landed properly. So we had to rewrite the commercial. So the arranger was writing three-fourth bars, quarter bars and seven-eighths bars. It was nuts. There was a horse in the commercial. Everytime I see it, I feel like shooting the horse. On the other hand, I did one for the United Negro College fund, about five years ago, that Deodato wrote. We did it to a clock on a wall. It had to be 20 seconds long. The bass player was Richard Davis and Airto was on percussion. They just gave us a downbeat and we had to play a certain number of bars in 20 seconds. It’s pretty rare to improvise a jingle like that, though the changes were written out for us. It came off really well, and it was a challenge.

MR: Who are some of your other influences?

RM: Jimmy Keltner, for sure. He just plays real funky, slappin’ everything all over the place, like on Delaney and Bonnie’s “When The Battle Was Over.” You can’t say drums without mentioning Keltner. He’s a monster. And Hugh McCracken, the guitarist here in New York, because of the way he plays. He’s so laid back, it’s like putting a hand in a glove. I’m intense, I want to get a job over with, but when he comes, he packs a lunch. I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if he brought a tent to the gig. He’s so patient! And he’s such an inspiration, he’s unbelievable.

MR: I don’t know if we still captured just how you sound.

RM: I play differently. I don’t think someone can really peg me. Except to say that I play just like I did when I was a kid.