You’ve seen the ad: an enormous double-bass outfit with eight deep-shell tom-toms, and behind the mighty set, the affable, but powerful, Chester Thompson. The picture is captioned with the quote, “If you ‘re gonna rock with a band like Genesis, you’ve got to roll on drums like Pearls.”
Drummer Chester Thompson does just that, but he also does a lot more. He writes music for his own band, plays with saxophonist John Klemmer, shares a floating drum seat with Alex Acuna in an obscure third world band in L.A., does Broadway musical road shows and has recorded and toured with Weather Report and Frank Zappa. And, oh yes, he drums for Genesis on the road.
The key to Chester’s approach to music is versatility, and the best way for someone to acquire Chester’s percussive services is to offer him the opportunity to do something different. Chester likes to keep busy, and he likes to occupy himself with the challenge of the new, the different. He is probably most widely known as the road drummer for Genesis and he was preppingfor another evening of art-rock extravaganza when I talked with him.
SH: When did you start your professional career?
CT: I’ve been working every week damn near since I was thirteen. I did an occasional dance when I was twelve.
SH: Did you take any lessons, did you study at all or did you just figure it out yourself?
CT: It’s hard to say actually. I guess I was about eleven when I started. There was a guy named James Harrison who was living in Newark. He was a jazz drummer around town so I started studying with him. He was teaching me the basics of playing jazz. I was playing along with records and stuff, and he explained what to listen for and how to approach it all. After that it was school bands and stuff.
SH: So you took band in school?
CT: Oh yes, I always played in whatever school band there was, but I have been actively gigging since I was thirteen.
SH: Did you learn to read in school?
CT: I was actually reading before I started playing drums. They had little plastic flutes in elementary school so I did that. They wrote numbers on the board to show you which finger to put down. I wasn’t really satisfied with that, so I had the teacher just explain the basis of reading notes. Then when I got into junior high school, that’s when lessons actually started as to actively reading. There was one point in high school where I had a private teacher for one semester. A guy was sort of passing through town, named Tony Aimes. He was with the Washington National Symphony and he was teaching at Peabody, so I took one semester of private lessons down there.
SH: Do you play anything else besides drums? There was a note on one of the Genesis tour programs that listed you as playing drums and flute.
CT: Yeah, I came off the road in ’71. I had been on the road with local groups based out of Baltimore working clubs mostly in the South. I was out for a while in 1970 with an organist, Jack McDuff, who was my first major-name jazz gig. I got sort of tired of that and, in ’71, I came off the road and came back here to go to college. I went up to Community College of Baltimore and I had a really good time because all of the faculty was from Peabody. They moved so they could run the department the way they wanted. So I went there for two years.
It was pretty limited at that time however, because I was taking a full load. The summer I got out of there is when I went to California, but I started taking flute while I was in college because you have to take a different instrument class. I sort of fell in love with the flute, so I started taking it.
SH: The first major group you were with was Frank Zappa’s. How did you hook up with him?
CT: I’m from Baltimore. Zappa’s road manager at the time, Marty Corellis, is from Baltimore. So is Frank for that matter. The situation was that he had Ralph Humphrey at that time who was a technical wizard, but he wanted a little more feeling I guess, and a little more funk, and so I auditioned and stayed.
SH: When you went out to California to do the audition with Zappa, how did that work? Did he throw charts in front of you?
CT: Oh man, it was weird. Mainly what he had in mind was, like I say, for the feeling thing. However, when I met him and went out to his house, he gave me a chart to look at that night to see if I could play it the next day. I had never seen a mess like that in my life! It definitely was the hardest piece of music I had ever looked at, including any orchestral music I had ever played. Quite pointedly, no, I could not play it in a night. It was a piece called “Kung Fu.” We recorded it but the tapes got lost at the studio he was working at so that sort of ended that, but it was difficult. I mean, I could read fairly well when I got there because I had actually spent some time up in Towson with Hank Levy, so I was sort of familiar with time signatures. But hell, compared with what Zappa was doing, that was nothing. He really likes to turn it around. While I was with Zappa I probably learned more about reading and interpreting than at any time I had spent doing anything else, including college.
SH: Did he throw a lot of drum charts on you?
CT: Yeah. Most of the stuff the first year-and-a-half with the band was charts. He’d even write out the fills in some cases, even as far as which drum he wanted them on. It was an amazing challenge. But further down the line the band was actually tight enough that he could come in and say, “I want this,” and we could do it.
SH: You played with him long enough to learn how to interpret his ideas.
CT: Yeah, everybody sort of knew his way of doing things. At that point he sort of backed off writing charts, which said a lot about the band really.
SH: How long were you with that band?
CT: Pretty much two years.
SH: And how long did the double drum happen with you and Ralph Humphrey?
CT: That happened about the first year, I think. Just about a year.
SH: And after that it was just you?
CT: Yeah. Well, Ruth Underwood was in the band most of the time, and she was playing straight percussion.
SH: Did you enjoy working with a percussionist?
CT: Oh yeah. I don’t work with a lot of percussionists. There aren’t a lot of them I’m crazy about working with actually, conga drummers especially. I don’t know, the way I play, depending upon what kind of music it is, I tend to think along those lines anyway. So what happens with conga players is we end up in each other’s way a lot of the time, as I’m already doing the things they do. Brazilian percussionists probably fit better with what I do because it is like lighter stuff and they tend to play sound effects as opposed to drums.
SH: Triangles and little cuicas?
CT: Yeah. Drum sounds tend to get in my way because I tend to get a little busy anyway.
SH: You started using double bass drums with Zappa. Do you prefer playing double bass to playing single bass?
CT: Depends upon what it is. I like it when I want it. I don’t use it all the time, but when I want it there it’s good to have it. It’s like, you don’t play all the notes on the piano all the time, but when you want them there, you want them there. However, with a lot of things I end up doing in between tours, there’s not always room for that. If you are in a studio, you may or may not have a rehearsal. In a lot of cases you walk in and sight read it; run it down once or twice and then record it.
When there is room for interpretation or the music is really free enough that I can play it a little bit, then yeah, I definitely prefer the two bass drums. When it is that sort of straight ahead, to the point, business situation, I am still more comfortable with one bass drum actually. When I was with Weather Report I played two bass drums because there was space for it. With Genesis, I am playing mostly parts, so there’s not always room for it.
SH: You played with Zappa for two years. Did you then go straight to Weather Report?
CT: It was weird. Alphonzo Johnson is a real good friend of mine, has been for a long time, and he was with them at the time.
SH: How did you meet him?
CT: Here in Baltimore. He’s from Philly but we were both with an organization called Premier Attractions which was into managing local groups. It was mostly into promoting concerts around the country. But they had a couple of other projects going. One was a group of girls from Washington called the Feminine Society—a really good girls’ singing group. There was another singer named Renaud. His band was called Renaud and the Junction.
I was playing with the girls and Al was playing with Renaud and we were sort of always together. We played a really long time in Boston where we got to be really good friends, and we played together every chance that we got. We always tried to get each other on gigs when we could. He had sort of been needling me, “Come on and join Weather Report,” because they had really been having drummer problems for a couple of years.
SH: Who did they have before you, Ndugu?
CT: No, he recorded with them, but he was never in the band. He did the Tale Spinnin’ album, but he never played any gigs with them at all. This all happened about the same time; they were rehearsing for Tale Spinnin’ and they were trying drummers left and right. They were just flying people in from everywhere. It wasn’t working out and Al was telling them at that point to check me out, but schedules sort of conflicted and they had a deadline at the studio so they went with Ndugu. They were pretty much finished with the album by the time I came along, but I actually began playing with them. I went to rehearsal one night because Zappa had cancelled a couple of tours. He had some stuff he wanted to work on himself. It was a matter of me not wanting to be out of work because I had no connections in Los Angeles whatsoever. I went down one night to rehearsal to just sit in with them, and it was like magic from the first night—there was no backing out at that point.
SH: When you played with them, were they working on material from Tale Spinnin’ or were they working on Black Market stuff?
CT: No, it was one of those bands where material tends to get written just before recording it, even though they may have been working on it awhile. With Zappa, he doesn’t record anything until he has taken it on the road, gone over it and changed it. Then he records it. Most bands, including Genesis and Weather Report as well, just before going to the studio, they finish the music, go in and record it, and then play it on tour. That’s what happened when I came in. They were going over the Tale Spinnin’ stuff and Black Market charts.
SH: Did Joe Zawinul give you charts for that?
CT: Oh yeah, they’ve got charts for everything.
SH: Drum charts?
CT: Not so much drum charts as lead charts. Their stuff is so different and there is so much room for interpretation. There is always a structure to the song, but you’d have to have a different way of looking at things to even recognize it.
SH: But you did have charts of some sort?
CT: Oh yeah, there were charts and we sort of had a couple of rehearsals before going to the studio, and that was it.
SH: I know Alex Acuna played percussion on that one. Did you record separately?
CT: No, we were in the band together. He was the percussionist in the band and we had been on tour together and we did it all at the same time.
SH: Did you tour with him before you did the album?
CT: Yes. We didn’t do the Black Market material but we were used to playing together.
SH: How do you like working with Alex?
CT: Hell, he’s a dream. He’s just so tasty; he never plays the wrong thing, whether he is playing drums or percussion.
SH: He really seems to have that third world swing; he can go in any direction.
CT: Oh, yeah. Like his drum playing lately has become phenomenal.
SH: What kind of percussion did he play? Did he do a lot of congas or did he do mostly timbales?
CT: No, he did a little of it all, and he knew when to do what. Whatever was needed at the moment he could do. Some guys have a few licks that they know and they hold onto those for dear life, but he was always ready to go for anything. Weather Report was magic; it got a little weird at the end, but that was just one of those things.
SH: How long did you play with that group?
CT: For a year. We must have done about five or six tours in that time.
SH: Why did you jump out of that situation?
CT: Alphonzo had quit and I was in Baltimore for Christmas. When I came back, Al and I had been so close that they had naturally assumed that we were forming a band together. They had already started calling in drummers, which got to be a very embarrassing situation. That’s how Michael Walden ended up playing a couple of tracks on the album. I was in the studio and in walks Michael Walden, and it’s like, “What are you doing here?” “I’m with the band. What are you doing here?” It was a very embarrassing situation.
SH: Just a misunderstanding?
CT: Yes, but it was one of those kind of things where they were unable to clear it up, and once the vibes get funny with a group like that, there’s just no way.
SH: It seems like Joe likes to control the situation; the band goes the way Joe feels.
CT: In a lot of cases. But now that I am away from the situation, Joe and I are still fairly good friends. Joe is one of those people who is very clear about what he is doing. No one else may be very clear about what he is doing, but Joe is, and he will do what needs to be done in a very direct, straightforward kind of way. But because other people don’t always know what he has in mind, it comes off sort of funny sometimes. I mean, he is so straight ahead that it’s sort of a blessing or a curse, depending which side of the fence you are looking at it from. There are a lot of stories about his bullheadedness and all, but now that I know him better, I think it is just his European directness—he doesn’t feel it is necessary to apologize for his actions, which is okay. When other people are involved though, they tend to take him differently.
SH: After you worked with Weather Report, what happened then? Did you go to Genesis or was there something in between?
CT: There was a lot in between. I didn’t do a lot of work that year. In fact, I sort of went into a panic.
SH: What year are we talking about?
CT: Beginning of ’76. It was real panic time—you go crazy for a minute. Especially when you are with a major group and all of a sudden you don’t even have a gig. It’s like, “Well, maybe it’s all a dream anyhow.” I was in L.A. and I had just bought a new car, new apartment—now what am I going to do? What can I say? I feel like I’ve really been blessed because everything has worked out and it definitely wasn’t my own doing.
SH: What did happen?
CT: There was always a session—enough to get me through. As it turned out, looking back on it, I definitely needed to get off the road. I had been on the road constantly for three years and you forget who you are. At some point you need to be still and check yourself out because each group has a certain vibe and you get caught up in the vibe of the group and all that. Like with Zappa’s band, it’s full of inside jokes which, by the time the public hears about them, they don’t mean anything any more—they just sound funny. Imagine the culture shock. I mean, playing in a little jazz club on the weekends in Balitmore and then being with Frank Zappa. Let’s face it, Baltimore, to a black, is quite oppressive. There are a lot of us here—that’s not saying you can’t get it together here, because you can in fact. But until you leave this city and find out what is going on in the rest of the world, you find that you think things are a certain way. Like I say, all of a sudden I found myself with Frank Zappa and a bunch of people with all kinds of ethnic and cultural backgrounds who were in a position to be almost whatever they wanted to be and to do things almost any way they wanted to do them. That was quite a shock. That was quite an awakening for me actually. Then Weather Report was a whole different trip altogether. I mean, I had idolized these guys for years. After that I did one album I was really happy about; they only used one track, but I was still happy about it, the one with the Brazilian guy Hermeto. He plays keyboard, guitars, woodwinds and he has a brother who has been with Harry Belafonte for years and years and they look almost alike. He was some kind of different genius. I mean, fifteen years ago in Brazil he was doing what Zappa’s doing. I got to do some stuff with him in which I learned a lot.
SH: He has a weird approach to percussion?
CT: That and just music period. Just his approach, his daring to get away from the conventional way of doing things. This guy does concerts in Brazil with live farm animals on stage. The sounds they make fit in perfectly with his compositions. It’s not there just to have; he uses it.
SH: I heard an album he made a few years ago. I think Airto produced it. He played apple juice bottles on it.
CT: All the top session players in New York were playing bottles—it was weird. That’s the trouble, his budgets go so far over he has to sell too many albums to break even.
After that I went out with “The Wiz.” There was a company that started in L.A. That was good. I had never done a Broadway show. I had done some small-scale things, but I had never played with a major show. My whole trip is I want to do everything.
SH: That’s a real nice score, especially the first half of the show up to the intermission.
CT: It was beautiful. It was that kind of thing. I did that for a while, and I was doing that when Phil called. I was in San Francisco playing with ‘ ‘The Wiz” when all of a sudden I got this phone call saying, “Hi, this is Phil Collins. Do you want to join Genesis?”
SH: And you said, “Who is Genesis?”
CT: No, I knew who they were, only because they were Alphonso’s favorite band. When we were playing with Weather Report, he’d be playing Genesis tapes all the time. That’s how I knew who they were, and what I heard I liked. I’m really into playing something different. I’m not at all about one thing—I don’t consider myself a jazz drummer or rock drummer—I just consider myself a musician. If the job calls for something I don’t ordinarily do, so much the better. One thing I had never played was any real English music and it’s such a different train of thought from anything I had ever played, I just couldn’t turn it down.
SH: Is there a different concept behind drums over there?
CT: Oh, yeah. The main thing is that whereas we tend to embellish things a little more, a little flourish between the beats, probably coming from jazz roots or whatever, they sort of leave all that out—straight to the point. That’s why a lot of times it sounds so skeletal, just bass and snare, without all that stuff in between. Real basic and powerful, and they play right on top of the beat. Because there is so much space, we think they are playing behind the beat. In fact, they are playing with space, but very much on top of the beat, which was the biggest thing I had to learn.
SH: You mean exactly on beat?
CT: No, dead ahead of it, pushing it a bit. But because there are not a whole lot of beats in between, you think they drag. Most Americans, when they try to play something English, play behind the beat. Especially with drummers, everybody makes it sound like it’s dragging. English drummers don’t, which is what I finally found out. Even though there is space, they are pushing the beat. That, for me, was the biggest difference, because I was into a lot of left hand, rolling stuff in between. But you see, that doesn’t apply any more because Phil and I have had this weird sort of cultural exchange, that’s the way I look at it. All of a sudden, he sounds more like an r&b drummer and I’ve been playing a bit more disciplined on some things, which is great.
It used to be that there were some licks that were mine and some that were his. Now, if you listen to things that either one of us is on, you don’t know where they came from any more. I actually prefer Phil’s playing to any of the other English drummers I’ve heard, aside from Simon Phillips. I love Simon Phillips’ playing. Other than that, Phil is probably my choice—my favorite drummer over on the other side of the ocean. Phil has a little something that I like that’s hard to explain. The whole point about Phil, which I didn’t realize until I had been in the band for over a year, is that a lot of stuff he ends up doing is his way of trying to do what American drummers did.
He did stuff, I’m especially talking about the older stuff, that was really quite adventurous for the group at the time that they did it. It always came out as fresh and new because he had an English background and he played his interpretation of the way American drummers played. The other cats in the band definitely weren’t playing like Americans at all, so the result was something pretty fresh. Everybody always asks how is it to play with two drummers, but with Phil it’s easy. With Ralph Humphrey we both had to be constantly working; we had two entirely different concepts of playing.
SH: If he’s one of your favorite English drummers, who do you like on this side?
CT: My favorites go back years, and they are still my favorites. My two favorites in the world are Max Roach and Elvin Jones, then Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette. I love Steve Gadd’s playing.
SH: Do you go back to Art Blakey too?
CT: Oh yeah, I love Art. I still go to see them whenever I can because they all are still on the road and they are all still playing their butts off.
SH: And they all still wind up at the Famous Ballroom. Do you ever go back up there to those little jazz clubs?
CT: Sure. I even played those places. The last group I was in before I left Baltimore was O’Donnell Levy on guitar, Charlie Covington and myself. We had a lot of amazing stuff we were playing. It was a serious band.
SH: Did you manage to live off that while you were in town?
CT: Sure, it didn’t cost much to live in Baltimore then. I lived at home until I was eighteen or so and then I started gradually moving out. O’Donnell and I usually shared a place together as well so it was still pretty cheap. I had one other job; a paper route when I was a little kid. When I was in college I couldn’t play more than a couple of nights a week and make my grades, so I took a job at the Rec Center working in the gym, coaching basketball. That’s the only other gig I have actually had to do. Everything else has strictly been playing.
SH: Do you practice a lot?
CT: Oh yeah, I still have to practice but it doesn’t take as much as it used to. Before every show I have to spend some time warming up. Between tours I especially have to practice.
SH: The thing with Genesis is an ongoing, pretty steady gig?
CT: As steady as anything ever has been up to this point. I really try to take it one day at a time. It’s a good gig; it has been a steady gig. I’m still not in the band, you see, so I try not to be too dependent on it. So I still have to keep my things going.
When I first went out with Zappa, I didn’t know anybody out there and it got really weird after a while playing nothing but his music, which is really intense. As much as I love Frank’s stuff and as much as I’ve learned from him, Weather Report was a welcome change because not knowing anybody out there, it was kind of hard. Here you have a couple of clubs, and you can just go sit in and jam. You don’t have that in L.A. They are few and far between. You have thousands and thousands of musicians and very few places to play. If you don’t know somebody it is hard to get some place to play. A lot of the playing goes on in people’s houses. When I want to play now, rather than worry about a gig, I just call a bunch of cats and say, “Come over and play.”
SH: And that’s mainly where the players get the outlets?
CT: Yeah, that’s where most of the playing happens—at different guys’ houses. The unions have rehearsal rooms for like 50 cents an hour and they have plenty of them. There’s always somebody down there playing. There are rehearsal bands; a lot of big bands that are rehearsal bands and they do that until somebody starts booking gigs. There are things to do, but you really have to actively pursue something to do out there. Now I know that, but when I first went there, I didn’t. It is not a place where you can sit around and wait to be called.
SH: What are you using for this tour right now?
CT: I’ve got a Pearl kit. It’s custom made. They have since put itinto production—calling it the Genesis model. It is two 16 x 22 bass drums, all the toms are two inches oversized, and there’s an 8 x 14 maple snare. I started using Pearl towards the end of ’77.
SH: Before that you were using Ludwigs?
CT: I didn’t have any endorsements. I was using Ludwigs that I sort of happened by when I was with Zappa. Ludwig sent Zappa two double kits, so Ralph and I had these identical kits from Ludwig. I played them until they almost fell apart. Fortunately, at that point, Pearl was interested and I liked what they had, so it worked out.
SH: When you went with them initially, you were using fiberglass?
CT: Yeah, they weren’t doing wood over here. I went to Japan. The other kit I was talking about, I actually bought from them in Japan because they aren’t allowed to give away drums over there. I got a deal with them, paid factory cost for a maple kit, and it was much more happening than any other kit. I really loved it because the Japanese wood is just supreme. Even though Japan is industrial, they’ve got such good wood there. They just started doing the maple kits here. I’m real happy with them. The only problems I have are ones that just exist with drums, which is if you play rim shots, the rods will loosen up right where you hit the rim shots. These days I tend to shy away from rim shots. I don’t like the sound of them. I don’t like what they do to my hands. My hands are in awful shape right now. This tour has been so crazy, they are actually split open. I have like four holes in my hands right now where they actually just split open because we have been working so much. Last year and this year—maybe it’s age, I don’t know—I actually have to tape up before a gig now.
SH: Do you put tape on your fingers?
CT: Only on the bad spots. I’ve got a split on each thumb; I have to tape each thumb. My forefinger, which is sort of the main job on my right hand, split last night. I have to tape that tonight so it is going to be weird. I have no choice because I have to finish the tour.
I use Paiste cymbals, with the swish cymbal being the only thing that’s not Paiste. I even have Paiste hi-hats I can use, because they’ve always been weird.
SH: What was the problem with the hi-hat?
CT: They just never sounded right to me.
SH: The Sound Edges!
CT: I had been trying them, but I didn’t like the sound. They sounded great with just your foot, but once you hit them with the stick it was too weird. I’ve got some 15″ heavy 602 hi-hats. I’ve got a Rude 22″ ride cymbal which I love. It’s a beautiful cymbal. I’m using a Zildjian swish, which is a 22″ and Paiste 2002 crash cymbals.
SH: So the cymbals hold up?
CT: Yeah, I crack a lot of Zildjians; I don’t crack Paistes so much. Phil cracks Paistes and he doesn’t crack Zildjians so much, so it depends upon how you hit it, I suppose. It’s really weird. So as a result, he is endorsing Zildjian and I endorse Paiste. We used to both do Paiste. It is really more practical for him to use Zildjians. I use Fiberskyn 2 batter heads, heavy on the snare and medium on the toms, although when I get back to L. A. I am going to switch to all heavies. I think I like them a little better. I use clear heads on the bottoms.
SH: Are the Fiberskyns holding up?
CT: They hold up better for me than anything else I have used.
SH: I saw your snare drum—the batter head looks shredded.
CT: But that doesn’t really change the sound; it’s the amazing thing about those heads. It sort of peels away in layers and there seems to be just hundreds of paper-thin layers in there. I’ve heard people complain about pitting them and stuff like that, and that they go really quickly. But I find that even though they get a little pitted, the sounds still hold up longer than, say, the black spots or anything like that. But it is about how you play them. When you hit a drum you are supposed to hit it and release immediately. You don’t press into the head. You hit it and back off of it so the sounds will happen, you know. If you play them that way then there is no problem. If you sort of dig into them, then you are going to pit them and it’s not going to make any difference what kind of heads you use—they just aren’t going to last.
SH: What pedals and hardware are you using?
CT: I’ve got two Ghost pedals. I love Pearl pedals, but I really feel good with my Ghost pedals. It’s weird because some Ghost pedals I hate, but I have lucked onto two that really do it for me. I use all the newer Pearl hardware, the 900 line. I am using a single Syndrum on the snare drum. I’ve got a pickup mounted in the snare that leads into the Syndrum.
SH: Is that like a contact mic’?
CT: Yeah, that’s what it is. I had a Barcus Berry that was made onto a snare for me which somebody stole at one of the gigs recently. I’ve got a contact mic’ in my maple snare that’s glued to the shell inside.
SH: And that hooks up to the Syndrum?
CT: Yeah. It goes through a little pre-amplifier.
SH: Do you guys use drum machines on stage?
CT: Yeah, we use it on about three songs.
SH: Do you find it weird to work with?
CT: On one song it is a little bit uncomfortable, but it doesn’t bother me for most of it.
SH: Which one?
CT: “No Reply.” On the record you only hear the hand clap sound but there’s actually a lot of stuff that goes on in between that. It can be a little weird. It doesn’t really bother me because the other songs we use it on I play very sparsely in, and it works out.
SH: Are you guys doing a lot of double drumming now?
CT: Not as much as we used to. Phil’s doing a lot more out front stuff these days. He is not playing as much as he has done in former tours and it’s fine by me, of course. We are both playing on a few things; probably a quarter of the show.
SH: How did you guys work the parts together? Did you sit down with the charts?
CT: No, they don’t use charts. It’s amazing. I have to write my own charts. They don’t read at all. I know Tony, at some point, had classical piano and learned the basics of it, but he hasn’t had to use it for years and years. Mike and Tony have never been in another band in their lives. So they don’t need it, they sort of play what they want and do it. At each rehearsal we try to have a day to sort of tighten up the small things and sort of lay out a plan for the solo. Even though it is different each night we do have a basic plan for it. It is really easy because if there is a question about what the part is, Phil can just sit down and play it. Rather than have somebody, a non-drummer, try to explain what the part is, he can just sit down and do it, so it is easy that way.
SH: You are faced with the situation where Phil records the drums and you have to come in and reproduce what he has already done.
CT: That’s basically what I am here for. I can change things a bit, but they do what they do and it works well for them. And I have a lot of respect for Phil’s playing so I don’t feel I have to turn it all around, because what he has done is usually really good.
SH: How did you originally get the gig? Did you audition?
CT: No, Phil called and said, “I saw your last Weather Report gig in London. If you want the gig, you’ve got it. There’s no audition.” The manager called and said there may be an audition required, but I had already talked to Phil. It was really weird because when he watched the Weather Report gig, at that point they were still looking for a singer so he could stay on drums. His thoughts in the audience that night were, “If I’ve got to play with another drummer, I’d rather use that guy.” Bruford did the first tour, but Bruford moved on.
SH: Did they contact you before they used Bruford?
CT: No, I was still with Weather Report at the time. I think it was kind of down to the wire for them because they never intended for Phil to be the singer. They were auditioning guys to do the album, but they didn’t find anybody, so he did the album. Then they were still looking for guys to do it out front on the gigs and they still didn’t find anybody they were satisfied with, so there he was.
SH: So they decided to get a drummer instead of a singer.
CT: He and Bill were pretty good friends, so it was like, “Help me out.”
SH: When he called you up to offer you the gig, what did they want you to do? Just woodshed the tapes and then go on?
CT: Yeah. There was about a month before we got into rehearsals, so they got some tapes and records to me.
SH: So it works like that with you and them. Everytime you come in, the material is already there?
CT: I’ve gotten the tape about a month before, but I try not to get too locked into it. Even though you are trying to do what someone else did, although you basically know their style, it’s still not the same once you get there. So when we get to rehearsal, we sort of fine tune it. And that’s the way we work it out.
SH: How much time does Genesis take up?
CT: Usually about six months out of a year. We didn’t go out in ’79 at all, but in ’77, ’78, ’80, ’81 and this year, it’s been about six months out of the year.
SH: What do you do the rest of the time?
CT: I used to do just whatever session I could get. I’ve got a family now, but before, I’d take tours maybe in between, occasionally do things with Klemmer or there seemed to be enough sessions to keep things going.
SH: And most of these you did in L.A.?
CT: Yeah. This year I’ve gotten into doing quite a few drum clinics which is a pretty new thing for me.
SH: Do you like it?
CT: Yeah, I enjoy it. I’ll soon find out how much I like it because Pearl just asked me to do the Frankfurt Music Fair, which is a trade show, and now they want me to go on the road in Europe for about a month doing nothing but clinics. I have to work it out to decide how much I really want to take on. It’s real different from playing gigs, and I don’t know how much of it I can handle all of the time.
SH: Do you like the contact you get?
CT: The thing is, I am into helping the young kids. I had a lot of help. I didn’t have a lot of teachers who I sat with for a long time, but I was always able to play with older musicians who were much more experienced. There was one drummer in Baltimore named Johnny Polite. This guy, man, I don’t know how he ever got stuck in Baltimore. You aren’t going to find too many guys who can play more than he played. He would always teach me a lot. If something I was doing just wasn’t working, he would teach me this way or that. I always had a lot of that kind of help. When I was at CCB I had some private lessons for a couple of years with a guy named George Gaylor, but that was strictly by the book.
SH: So you consider these clinics as kind of a payback sort of thing?
CT: Probably so, yes. I’m not into teaching on a private basis. I’m not ready to take in students, but in a clinic situation I don’t mind it.
SH: And the rest of your time you spend with your band out in L.A.?
CT: Well that’s sort of a recent situation. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but it didn’t actually come into being until this past summer.
SH: Who is in that band? Is it a floating situation?
CT: No. We managed to get in three concerts and did a bunch of tapes before I had to go back to Genesis. They’re all really scary players. Incredibly high musicianship in the group actually.
SH: Do you write at all?
CT: Now I do. As of this year I have been writing quite a lot; the last couple of years actually. But this year I finally got a place to use it because I have my own band now.
SH: When you write music what do you compose on?
CT: I sing ideas into the tape recorder. I’ve got enough working theory knowledge that I can work out the chords and melody, and if I have to, I play it on the keyboard.
SH: What kind of stuff is your band doing?
CT: Hard to classify. It’s really weird because there are songs which I hesitate to call pop, although structurally they are probably more pop oriented. Rhythmically I tend to use a lot of weird combinations of African, Brazilian and funk rhythms, and I am doing most of the writing and most of the arranging. But everybody’s got some contribution to it.
SH: Do you give these guys charts?
CT: Strictly head. I can write the charts, but you can’t write the vibes. It’s like, I can write the part, but it becomes a matter of interpretation and there is something about reading charts you don’t really learn. When you read a part all the time, you don’t really learn it—you tend to become a bit lazy and you tend to rely on the music. Whereas, it is much stronger if you have to learn it by your head; it doesn’t go anywhere, it stays and you don’t lose it. I do quite a few experimental things with the band. We’ll get to gether and jam and I won’t play the drums, I ‘ l l play some other instrument like surdo. Or I’ll play some Brazilian stuff on some Africian instrument and it makes them play real differently. And then we’ll learn the material because then you learn with a fresh frame of mind.
SH: Do you guys have a contract?
CT: It’s being shopped for actually. I have a four-track studio at home and I have done some demos there. What will happen now is that they will generate enough interest for me to go into the studio and do most of the tunes over. It has gotten as far as there being an engineer involved who’ll probably be a producer. I don’t really want to mention names yet because if it doesn’t happen, I don’t want to sound silly. There’s someone else from Baltimore. It’s really weird; there seems to be a whole little Baltimore clique out there in L.A. He’s quite known and we’ll see what happens. The demo was good enough and the material is strong, so people are interested enough to take the time to go to a good studio and do it and then just shop for a deal. All the feedback I’ve gotten is really positive so far.
SH: So the rest of the band just gigs around?
CT: Everybody has stuff to do; everybody is working. Fortunately, everybody is in it because they love to do it, because there definitely is no money in it at this point. But everyone just sort of drops what they are doing to come do it. We have a good time. I don’t allow them to play cliches; just leave them home. Save them for your sessions; when you come here, let’s play.