Larrie London

Country: 1985

WHEN Steve Perry called Larrie Londin to do Steve’s solo album last year, it was obvious that Perry knew something that a lot ofpeople don’t know—or at least weren’t aware of yet: that Larrie is so much more than a country drummer. Perry wanted someone who could give him a great R&B feel, and that’s what he got.

That same year, Adrian Belew called Larrie to work with him. He needed a more commercial sounding drummer for his music. The material was as far away from Merle Haggard as one could get, but Larrie was as right for that music as he is for the music of Dolly Parton, Hank Williams , Jr., Charlie Rich, Charley Pride, Crystal Gayle, or Barbara Mandrell.

As a young man, Larrie never imagined that he’d play with the likes of Elvis Presley or become Nashville’s leading studio drummer. But when the Headliners, the band he was a member of, became studio staff players for Motown in Detroit, it was an auspicious preface to a notorious career.

In 1964, Boots Randolph and Chet Atkins suggested that Larrie make the move to Nashville. After he did so in 1969, it was Atkins ’staunch support and encouragement that persuaded Larrie to remain there when the going got lough. Staying in Nashville was the best thing Larrie could have done. It was also best for Nashville.

Larrie has been given repeated credit for helping bring the drums more into the foreground in the home of the Grand Ole Opry—an institution that, at one time, didn’t even allow drums on its stage. Just a few years ago, Larrie took the application of the drums in Nashville studios one step further, by introducing Music City to electronics.

There are few in Nashville who haven’t utilized Larrie’s talents, and while his schedule is packed, he somehow always manages to find the time for his family and friends. Often, with an hour between sessions, you can find him at his wife Debbie’s drum store, chatting with his cronies or helping some up-and-comer with equipment ideas or work strategies. Warm, sensitive, and giving are perhaps the best adjectives that describe Larrie Londin— giving of his talents and his heart.

RF: Do you feel that the attitude towards country music has changed in the past ten years?

LL: I think it’s definitely changed. I don’t think it’s changed for the best in all cases, but in some cases it has. It has gotten more positive as far as my end of it goes: being accepted as an all-around player, and not just a country musician. Probably 75% to 85% of the players in Nashville who are doing most of the work are not totally country musicians. Maybe that’s the change in the music’s sound. I’ve been accepted outside Nashville and country music, but it all stemmed from country music—Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Elvis, and all these different people. It’s very difficult for musicians who are from Nashville or the South to get credibility. But the attitude is more positive, and it has grown over the years.

I think the negative side comes from the fact that country music has changed so much. All these rock ’n’ rollers have moved in and taken over. There are those who can’t make it in the pop field, so they figure they’ll make it in the country field. If it really is a country session—a country artist with country tunes—there is nothing more fun than that. I like country harmonies, but I think a lot of that has gone by the wayside. There are a lot of records that come out which are labeled country, but it’s hard to distinguish whether they’re country, pop, or R&B. I’m a little tired of that.

RF: How does that affect you from the playing standpoint?

LL: A producer will bring in an artist and say, “We want this to be really country.” Then they give us songs that are sexy sounding, or that have a real heavy pattern to them, or that are done with a lot of electronics. It’s a new style of country. In that way, I’m pretty much playing what I would play on a pop date. If indeed I was playing for the Judds, Ricky Skaggs, or Jerry Reed, and it was a country sort of tune, then I would play country—a stick and a brush, on boxes, if need be. I enjoy that. The playing totally depends on the song, and then on how the producer feels it should be played.

RF: The equipment end of things has changed considerably. In fact, you were probably the first person in Nashville to use electronic drums.

LL: I was the first to use Simmons. I used it on a Merle Haggard session for Ray Baker, who is a really fine country producer. Merle liked the addition of the electronics.

RF: Isn’t the fact that you’ve been so instrumental in bringing electronics to Nashville a contradiction of what you’ve been talking about?

LL: But this wasn’t a country session. If it was really going to be a traditional album, it wouldn’t have had drums on it at all. That first time, I really didn’t know much about what I was doing. I used the Simmons pads along with acoustic snare drum and cymbals. The engineer questioned it and I said, “Put the phones on and listen to it.” He listened to it and liked it. The engineer and I really worked hard to get the sounds accepted. He knew it was a good sound, and I knew it was a good sound. But the producer looked at these pads, and it didn’t please him a bit, because they look so strange. He asked me to bring my regular drumkit to the next sessions, because he liked those sounds better. And indeed he might have, but the record I used the Simmons on was a hit. It was something so strange for Nashville. I had some people request it immediately, but most of those were pop people. The country people weren’t into it. Now, you can hardly find a country record that doesn’t have some kind of electronics on the drums. They’re doing it to enhance the sound. But if I was doing a traditional album, I wouldn’t use the Simmons—not that I couldn’t.

RF: When you first saw the Simmons in England, how did you know it wasn’t a fad? How did you know this was something that could work in Nashville?

LL: To be honest with you, it kind of goes back to 1970 when I first moved to Nashville. Nashville was obviously looking for something different. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and it kind of came my way. Hal Blaine, in Los Angeles, was doing everything there was to be done. If it wasn’t him, it was John Guerin, Jim Keltner, or Jim Gordon. I bought a set of Ludwig concert toms with no bottom heads, because everything that was coming out of Los Angeles had concert toms on it. It was either Hal Blaine, or everybody else trying to imitate Hal Blaine or renting Hal Blaine’s sets. I got caught up in that sort of sound. I was doing Kenny Price in one studio, and Porter Wagoner was next door producing Dolly Parton, with Jerry Carrigan doing the overdubs. They came by our studio and heard me playing these toms, and Porter had to have them. Carrigan asked if he could borrow or rent them. I said, “Well, when the session is over, you can use them if you like.” I loaned him the toms, and he just went nuts. Immediately, drummers started buying concert toms and basically doing what I was doing. What I’m getting at is that my drums created such an impression on people in town. I had something that no one else had, and I was doing something that no one else was doing.

When I saw the Simmons drumkit on Top Of The Pops in London, and I knew it was live and not prerecorded, I thought, “What is this guy playing?” I ran into the guy and found out he was playing Simmons. It took me approximately a year to find them. Finally, I ran into a gentleman named Glynn Thomas at a music trade show, and he had them. I happened to know Glynn, and I was cussing him out for not calling to tell me where to find these things. Of course, he didn’t know I was looking for them. I bought the set he had, right then and there. Your question was how did I know? I didn’t know. And I don’t think anybody could ever know. But in the back of my mind, the first time I saw the drumkit on the TV show, I thought I had to get a set just to freak all these people out in Nashville, because it had to draw attention. But it wasn’t just to be different, because I did believe that there was some sort of sound there that could enhance what I was doing. I was already using Syncussion from Pearl, which was Pearl’s copy of Syndrum. I had gone through the Syndrum stage, because people would request Syndrums and I had to have them. I got to the point where I just hated those things, and then Nashville hated them because they were on all the records and got overused. I think Little River Band used them the most tastefully of anyone I’ve ever heard, on “Reminiscing.” I think the drummer hit them one time on the whole track. Usually when you do something that tasty, the producer says, “I’d like it in the intro, then in the verse, and then maybe in the chorus,” and it ends up getting used all the way through the song.

RF: You say that Syndrums were over- used, but Simmons became that way, too. A couple of years ago, you couldn’t go to a studio in L. A. and see an acoustic set. Has it been the same in Nashville?

LL: For myself, I haven’t let it get to the point where I use Simmons all the time. I try to come up with different sounds for each artist. I have a lot of different sound- ing chips that I’ve put into my Simmons. It’s never the same. Sometimes I don’t use them at all, and I always trigger them from acoustic drums, so the producer has a combination of sounds. It’s never just so blatant. I’ve gotten some bass drum sounds and some incredible snare drum sounds that are digital and very high tech, and I’m really proud of how they sound. But I wouldn’t want just that. In some cases, it works. In other cases, it doesn’t. Sometimes I blend the two to make a unique sound come out of all of that. I don’t always use drum sounds. There may be a chip in there of a frying pan or of a dog bark. Whatever makes a sound is now part of my drumkit. The trap is when everything starts to sound the same, like with the Syndrums. The Syndrum was a really fine product. There are a lot of other sounds in there other than the one you hear all the time, but they would never let us use them. What’s so great about electronics is that what you can do with them is up to your imagination.

RF: Do you see a difference between Nashville, L.A., and New York with regard to electronics?

LL: Basically, the difference is what we’ve been talking about. In L.A. and in New York, most of the drummers are into SDS5s. In New York, they’re really into the Fairlight, so that’s leaving out the drummer. In L.A., it doesn’t seem to be as bad. It’s just that they’re using the same sound over and over again. In Nashville, there are a lot of drummers who use the SDS8 because it’s simple and sounds similar to the SDS5. Debbie’s store, D.O.G. Percussion, has sold quite a few SDS7s, but many feel that it’s too much over their heads or they don’t want to take the trouble. I don’t understand that. How can it be too much trouble to do something that makes stuff better? A lot of these drummers are still thinking acoustic, and they just want to set it up and play it. Well, I like to do that too, but if you care about making the product better, there are other things, too.

RF: What percentage of work do you do with the Simmons?

LL: I’d say about 85% of my work is Simmons now. I don’t like to use just pads, although I have. Some of these drummers don’t want to take the time to set up the drumkit, put the triggers on, and all that stuff. That’s what I like best, though—triggering from the drumkit to the Simmons. It also gives it a little more power when I put a couple of overheads over that, and mike the bass drum and snare.

RF: Speaking of overhead mic’s, what changes have you seen in recording technology? Was it very different ten years ago?

LL: No. The only difference is engineers slowing down and doing longer drum checks. Maybe in some instances, they feel they have to be pickier, but I think that a lot of times they’re searching. I think they’re all trying to make it better, but I think sometimes they’re into overkill. They over-EQ a drumset. They don’t even come out and listen to the kit. They just immediately start EQing before they know what the drum sounds like. When you’re dealing with players who do a lot of studio work, their drumkits usually sound pretty good in the studio. They don’t have a lot of overtones and all that stuff. But invariably I work with engineers who just take forever to get a drum sound. I can remember when I never did a drum check. And I like the sound better on some of those records than on some of the records I’ve made in recent times. There are times when some of the drum checks have worked for these people, but it doesn’t always make it sound better just because they take more time.

RF: Yet, with the electronic drums, you would think it would take less time to get a drum sound.

LL: It’s supposed to. Not to be vicious, but I think some engineers should go back to school, or at least talk to people. Their incompetency comes out because they’re scared. They’re dealing with something they’ve never dealt with before. When I work with engineers who are really competent, I plug those things in, turn on the mic’s, and all they need to know is if they’re on. They do a small amount of EQ, and they get a tremendous, huge sound. There are very few of those engineers though. Most of the ones I work with want three to four hours in front to get drum sounds. Every morning, I’ve got to come in and do another hour while they redo things, just to check things out.

RF: What about technical changes?

LL: The only technical part that I feel has been very drastic is the digital stuff. I’ve done quite a bit of digital work. At first, I didn’t quite understand or care too much for it. The machine was just so quiet and was picking up everything that it made those little noises bigger than they needed to be. Sometimes I wasn’t sure that it actually sounded better on a rock ’n’ roll date or R&B date. I thought it was wonderful on ballads or symphony-type music, where you heard the bows scrape across the strings and it was beautiful. But for a rock ’n’ roll date, I was never sure that it would really work. However, after buying my first compact disc player and hearing digital on that, I now realize why all of that is necessary. Those compact discs have to be digitally recorded. Some of the analog tapes that are made into compact discs leave a lot to be desired. Right now, I’m very sold on digital. In fact, I’m hoping to do my own big band album digitally, two-track. It will be like doing it direct-to-disc, but without the problems of direct-to-disc. Doing it on two-track, the band has got to do a performance, rather than saying, “I can fix my part,” which you can do on 42 tracks. The janitor can fix his part on 42 tracks.

RF: Has the amount of studio work increased in the last few years?

LL: In New York, it’s decreased from the musician’s side of it, because it’s more one-man bands. Philadelphia is also more one-man bands—all Fairlights and Synclaviers. In Los Angeles, it’s self-contained bands, so there aren’t as many rhythm sections working as there once were. There is a lot of TV and movie work, but as far as records go, they’re not working and they’re hurting a great deal, which is why so many musicians have moved to Nashville. As far as Nashville is concerned, it has just gone straight ahead. The amount of work did decrease three or four years ago, but now it’s on the upswing again with the resurgence of all those country/ western clubs like Billy Bobs.

RF: Do you see a certain way things are moving musically or production-wise in Nashville?

LL: I see Nashville getting younger all the time, or I’m getting older. There are a lot of younger producers coming along now, which has to be, just like there have to be younger players coming along. I just did an album with Brenda Lee. David Hungate and Emory Gordy produced it, not that either one of them are young, but they’re a lot younger than some of the other producers. It was incredibly produced. It was not just fun, but it was great to play for a singer like Brenda Lee, who I think has been recorded wrong, with wrong material and with a wrong direction, for years. Here’s an incredible lady with an incredible voice, and the material this time was picked very well. The sessions were laid out so we didn’t overkill or play too many things too fast. It was a song a session, which is very rare for Nashville.

The equipment is more high-tech—from the players and also from the studio. We cut that on a Mitsubishi 42-track digital machine. There are a lot of producers around doing that now, like Brent Maher. That newness and freshness create a really interesting type of music. Brenda did a real hardcore country thing that she and George Jones do together, and we did a track that Brenda and Cyndi Lauper sing together. There are also a lot of really heavy movie tracks happening in Nashville now. There’s a producer/arranger from L.A., Al Delory, who now lives in Nashville and does a lot of movie sound scoring. He’s just tremendous to work for—an incredibly talented human being. There’s Tommy West, who created a label with Mary Tyler Moore, for whom I did a bunch of sessions. These kinds of producers make incredible music. It’s an honor for me to be a part of it. It’s not just fun; it’s making good music. They demand the high-tech part of it, because they’ve got to compete with records in the pop field that are going triple platinum. People like Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, and Al Jarreau and Jay Graydon get such good-sounding records that places like Nashville have to upgrade their standards in mastering, mixing, and actually cutting the tracks. You have to start out with a better sounding track. Then it’s easier when you get to the mixing and the mastering. They’re spending more money here to do it all the time.

RF: The role of drums in country music seems to have changed so much.

LL: I think that’s mainly because the busiest engineers in Nashville are all from L. A. They couldn’t get that much work happening in L.A., so they’ve moved to Nashville. Then there are those like Brent King and Brent Maher, who have moved on to production. In Los Angeles, the drums have always been more up front. They’ve always had a rounder, lower-end sounding bass drum. Nashville’s bass drums have always been very ticky and boxing sounding. Over the years, the engineers who worked in Nashville have tried to cop some of the sounds of records they hear from L.A. It’s a fuller, rounder sound. More than that, it’s more out in front, so you’d better be right when you play.