Andreas who? Vollenweider? If you haven’t heard of him, it’s not likely that you’ll know who his drummer and percussionist are, either. The Swiss group, headed by composer and electric harpist Vollenweider, is best selling in Europe (where critical acclaim includes an Album Of The Year award in 1984 over the likes of Michael Jackson—not too shabby). And their credits are starting to add up to more than a cult following here in the U.S. (Two New York City appearances in one year, including Carnegie Hall, are definitely not small time, either.) This is a decent achievement for drummer Walter Keiser and percussionist Pedro Haldemann, both in their very early 30’s.
Switzerland might well be worlds away from the music world we have come to expect as standard here in America. (Vollenweider’s gentle, flowing music is one clue to that.) But the views of his percussion players provide a more dramatic example of how a career in music can be different from the “fight-your-way-to-the-top” syndrome that is an integral part of the competitive American way of life. Keiser and Haldemann are still good musicians and savvy professionals, adept at fulfilling the recording industry’s requirements in order to sell records. As one of the following statements reveals, they’ve done it their way; it just turned out to be a commercial success (ahh, the artist’s dream of having his passion be a salable one).
Walter and Pedro are two very warm individuals who happen to be a driving force in some top-class music. Have a look at their world.
JS: How would you classify the music you play?
WK: Pop music.
JS: Do you consider it commercial music? Is it money-making, as opposed to artistic?
WK: It’s a kind of commercial music. For me, that means it’s not only “musician” music. It’s music that people who don’t make music like. They can listen to it. In this way, I think it’s commercial, but it’s honest.
PH: It’s not done to be commercial. It turned out to be commercial, but the intention was a different one.
JS: It’s too pop for jazz and too jazzy for pop. That leaves you somewhere in the middle.
WK: Yeah, even the record company’s always in trouble about where to put it!
JS: It’s been called mood music.
PH: That’s a good word for it.
JS: How popular is Andreas in Europe? A lot of people don’t know of him here.
PH: It depends on which place you’re talking about. For example, in Germany and Switzerland, the group is quite popular; in France, it’s not so popular.
JS: Didn’t the album win Germany’s Audio Magazine award for Album Of The Year?
WK: Yes, and also the Edison Prize, in 1985. That’s a prize given in Holland every year for the best record.
JS: Does your background include formal study?
PH: I studied in a Swiss jazz school: drums for two years, and then I changed to percussion. I had private teachers, besides going to school.
JS: Did you study ethnic music in particular? It’s obvious that there are Latin, Brazilian, and African influences in your playing.
PH: I played in a Latin band for three years. I’ve also been in Argentina, Brazil, and northern parts of South America.
JS: How about your study, Walter?
WK: I studied by listening to records from America actually. I was taught for one year by a friend of mine, but we mostly talked instead of played. The other things I learned from listening.
JS: How did all this come together as a group?
WK: Switzerland is so small that everyone knows everyone. Pedro played in a band called Ojo, which was almost the only Latin band in Switzerland that played Latin music like it should be played. I heard about the band and met him. We played together before joining Andreas.
JS: In what sort of bands?
WK: Mostly studio gigs—commercials, TV.
PH: The country’s so small that, most of the time, we were together.
WK: He’s the only percussionist-player in Switzerland! Really!
JS: I can’t imagine knowing all the players in the country.
PH: Yes, but Switzerland has less people than New York City. It’s hard for you to understand how small it is.
JS: How about some people who influenced your style of playing?
PH: Oh, I could tell you lots, but not just one—some Latin players, some African players. A big dream of mine is to go to Africa. I want to stay in Nigeria, for example, and get into the Yoruba mentality and play one of these monster sessions they have. They play for 16 hours and have about 50 drummers there.
JS: How about you, Walter? You should have some American names for me!
WK: Sure. I really like Steve Gadd.
PH: Me too!
WK: Since I saw him playing live, I’m sure he’s the best drummer I ever saw. He plays the way I try to play, and I thought, “Yeah, I’m on the right track.” I don’t play the stuff he plays, because that’s his style. I try it sometimes, for myself. But the real influence for me, I have to say, is Russell Kunkel. He is one of my absolute favorite drummers, because he plays so simple, and so straight and on the point. That’s absolutely the way I like to play. It has something to do with the age you are. Years ago, I tried to sound like Billy Cobham. I like him, too. Now I like to sound like Steve Gadd. And I like Jeff Porcaro a lot. He plays very on the point. I was at a country festival in Switzerland where I was watching John Ware on drums with Emmylou Harris. I thought it was the greatest how he played drums. He just played so straight, and he played just the right thing. I listened to these guys, playing from the ground up, and they can count. For a rock ‘n’ roll band, it’s just very important. I have the chance with Andreas to play in this direction. But what is very good is that I also have the freedom to play more out than in a usual rock ‘n’ roll band.
JS: It seems like you do have a fair amount of freedom. How much participation does Andreas allow you in the actual construction of the music? Does he have charts?
WK: A little bit. He has some ideas, of course, since he plays the bass line on the harp. We try it his way, and sometimes it works perfectly. At other times, it doesn’t sound right, because he is not a drummer or a percussion player.
JS: Are the percussion tracks laid down at the beginning, middle, or end?
PH: All three. Usually, we start with the three of us doing basic tracks. This is the main part of it. Afterwards, we do the overdubs.
WK: On the recent record, White Winds, we did one alone, without Andreas. I won’t tell you which one.
PH: We did the basic track alone, and Andreas did the overdubs. We practiced the whole day on it, and he was tired, because the harp’s very hard to play; the fingers get really sore. He uses electric tape on them. In the evening, he was tired and told us, “Let’s make it tomorrow.” We said, “No, today!” We were on the point, and on the first take, we had it.
JS: So things are worked out in a group situation and evolve over a period of time?
PH: Yes, and we have an incredible amount of freedom. That’s because, when we started, we were playing a lot of times with only the three of us: Walter, Andreas, and me. It was a very good situation, because he was the only one who had to care about harmonies, and we were playing the rhythms. This is a perfect combination.
JS: It’s interesting that there are three harmony players in the band now: guitar, harp, and synthesizers. I was wondering how they avoided stepping all over each other.
WK: It was a lot of work. We did work on it, so it really sounds together. It’s heavy.
JS: Were you both in the band that played in Montreux that included Andreas and four percussionists?
PH: Yes, with John Otis, and Bobby Reveron, a Puerto Rican from New York. We keep trying to reach him now, but we can never get in touch with him. We also did a gig in Detroit with the same band. But four drummers were a little too much, because each one could do only “ping,” and then you had to wait until the time when you could do your next “ping.”
JS: That’s one thing I notice between you: Walter is so sparse that it allows for interaction between you and gives you both space.
PH: That’s because we love each other so much! [laughs]
JS: You definitely have fun on stage. In New York, which is a city of technique priorities, it’s refreshing to see.
WK: Yes, a friend of mine is living here, and he told me that the people here are starving for something like what we did yesterday. Normally, when drummers do solos, they go crazy. I can do that, but I don’t want to do it.
JS: The quiet section of your solo was beautiful. The crowd was almost reverently quiet, and you took it all the way down to brushes and fingertips.
WK: It’s fun. If you can do that on stage in a theater like this [Beacon Theatre], it’s fantastic. It becomes very small—a very friendly atmosphere. I do that because, if I bring it down and down, everybody comes together somehow. It’s such a nice feeling.
JS: Okay. How about equipment? Can you give me a rundown on what you were playing last night?
WK: I am an endorser for Premier and Paiste. I’m very happy with them, actually.
JS: How about your drum sizes, including that little snare drum up on the left?
WK: That is a child’s snare for education. I saw it in the Premier catalog, and I thought, “I have to have that.” I imagined the sound high-tuned. And it does sound incredible—really nice. I have specially made drums, including six toms: 9×8, 9×10, 9×12, 10×14, 14×16, and 14×18. There is also a 20″ bass drum suspended in the rear. The regular bass drum is 14×22. I have an 8″ deep snare drum and a deep 12″ military snare drum, also up on the left. With this music, I sometimes need a really deep sound—a soft, long sound with a lot of bass. At other times, I need that “pink” high sound and then sometimes just a usual sound. So I thought, “Since I have some room up here, let’s use some snares.”
JS: Pedro, can you tell me about some of those little “toys” you have hanging around—especially the long parallel hanging tubes?
PH: Those I did by myself. I went to a metal factory, and asked a worker if I could have one, about a meter long, because they sound great. He looked at me funny and then cut a one-meter length. He held it like this [grasped] and hit it, and it wouldn’t sound. But you have to know where to hold it because of the overtones. I held it on the right point, and it made a nice sound. He freaked out! This guy was working for ten years and didn’t realize that they sounded just so. Then he showed me the whole manufacturing process. They’re aluminum, and they are not like what you can buy in the shops. They’re clearer in sound; others are not so warm.
JS: How about the rest of the percussion instruments?
PH: The timbales are Premier timbales.
JS: Are you also an endorser for Premier?
PH: No, I just bought them because I like them. I like brass material, and these are like the brass. I’d like to have old brass timbales, but I could never find them. My congas and bongos are by LP; I’ve got a lot of LP stuff, as well as Paiste.
JS: How many octaves of crotales do you use?
PH: Two and a half.
JS: And weren’t you playing those with spoons?
PH: With ice cream spoons! I couldn’t find hard enough mallets. They were always too soft.
JS: Are the brass bell mallets too awkward for the quick things you play?
PH: I don’t feel comfortable with them. They are too heavy.
JS: You used the spoons on the xylophone, too. Is that a Kelon?
JS: Aren’t the bars worn?
PH: Yes, but I got it cheap from a drummer who wouldn’t play it. I really love it. It’s amazing how it lasts; it’s the third year, now.
JS: And are the spoons stainless-steel or silver?
PH: [Laughs] I got them during our first rehearsal, from a woman behind the bar in a restaurant in Switzerland. We were rehearsing in a big room in the rear of the restaurant. I said that I needed them, and she said, “You can keep them.” They’re perfect!
JS: Are a lot of the sounds you use with Andreas manipulated in the studio?
WK: With the drums, not a lot—only with reverb, and they use the Lexicon digital-delay unit. Most of the “manipulation” things are done with the percussion, and with the water and other “nature” sounds.
JS: How do you do those nature sounds in the studio?
PH: Well, for example, at the beginning of “Caverna Magica” there’s the sound of water drops, which most people think is synthesizer. It’s just this [taps cheek with fingers] played with the spoons!
JS: That’s your face on the album?
PH: Yes! It sounds electronic, but it’s not.
JS: What about the other water sounds, such as the diving sound at the end of “Pace Verde”?
PH: Some were off tapes of water waves. But that dive really happened. They taped it in a public bath in Zurich. Somebody jumped in the water, and they put some mic’s on it. Also, some underwater sounds were taped in the middle of the night in the lake near Zurich.
WK: We heard it right after Andreas did it. It was so fantastic! The imagination: to let down a microphone to hear what’s going on under there.
JS: A lot of the bird sounds were actually whistling that you did yourselves. I was amazed at how real they came out on stage.
PH: Most of the time, that’s the responsibility of our soundman, who is really a genius at getting everything. It’s an incredible technique. Most of the time, we have little mic’s directly on the drum skins—which get the high-pitched sounds—in combination with the overhead mic’s—which get a full sound. The little ones are Countryman mic’s, only an inch long. The xylophone, for example, is miked with only one Countryman mic’, inside the frame. They can also be used inside the snare drum.
JS: I noticed that the overall volume level of the band was not loud.
WK: We really care about that. If it’s too loud, then you don’t hear everything; you don’t hear the difference between the instruments. Sometimes it has to be loud, but then we play it loud.
JS: At some loud points, I noticed that the drums actually backed off to make room for percussion and synthesizers.
WK: Yes. If the drums are too loud, it’s not nice or friendly. It’s a very aggressive instrument. I play it aggressively when I play a backbeat, but I back off when it’s not needed. Then Andreas and Pedro do most of the synths.
JS: You do the synthesizers, too?
PH: Some of them. It’s hard to get all the natural sounds in the right tuning, so we usually have to work with the speed of the tape. Or we change the xylophone two octaves higher, for example. This gives a very glassy sound, just to double a line.
JS: The whole band seems to be a blend of acoustic and electronic sounds, but I didn’t notice anything electronic among the percussion.
WK: No. I have electronic drums and a drum machine at home. I use them only in studio work. My brother is doing a lot of TV jingles and composing. I leave him my machine, so he can practice with it and make demos. When I come home, I just sit in and play what he needs.
JS: Have drum machines reduced your work opportunities? That’s a big worry here.
WK: I think that, if you don’t want to be pushed out, you have to work together with these machines. I try to find really new rhythms—very modern, very pop. Sometimes I go into the studio just to do programming. I get the same money. Most keyboard players can’t program a drum machine. I’ve heard some drum breaks from keyboard players, and they don’t sound right, because a drummer would never play it like that. You hear this nice groove, and then the tom breaks completely push you out of the groove. It’s because they’re not from a drummer. Then I program a new drum break, and you can hear that it still sounds electronic but it also sounds good.
JS: Are you tempted to use this sort of thing with Andreas, since his music involves a lot of repetition?
WK: I used electronics for four hits on the beginning of “Pace Verde.” I made that deep “whomp” with a Simmons pad. But I would only do that in the studio. For this music, we can’t use electronics because of the dynamics of the drum sounds. They’ve tried to make it. Tama has a very good sound at loud and low, but it doesn’t com pare with a real drum. Maybe you know of Dynacord, a German machine. They have a very nice machine with everything you could want: 50 or 60 chips that you can change, from deep bass drum sound to racky snare. You can push one in and—”whop”—it sounds perfect. But when you go down in dynamics, the chip sound doesn’t change. A real drum doesn’t sound the same if you change volume. The sound, the tuning—everything is different. With Andreas, I need that dynamic range. But if I play rock ‘n’ roll or pop music, I like the sound of electronic drums. It’s beautiful and heavy.
PH: Up to now, there is no synth that makes the natural sounds so that they come out sounding natural. Even if you sample it digitally, once you go two or three overtones away, it sounds different.
JS: It’s said that digital is exactly the same sound.
PH: No, absolutely not. That’s ridiculous. To use information for dynamics, plus and minus, and go back to the sound and reproduce it, is impossible. I tested analog— which is not perfect—and digital, using the same tape. You can hear a big difference if you compare the two directly. Analog sounds like “ahhh,” and digital. . . , after a time, you think, “strange.”
JS: Does it have a cold or dry sound for you?
PH: Yes, somehow it does. We wouldn’t tape digitally. It’s not in our interest, for the reason I just mentioned, and also because of some technical reasons to do with the varied tape speeds we use.
JS: Do you ever use click tracks on Andreas’ songs?
WK: We have once or twice. On other occasions, I did the hi-hat before everything, but not often. We only do that if we have something that has to have the same tempo at the end as at the beginning and has some breaks in the middle.
JS: What’s next for you?
WK: I’m going home to care for my lady, take some vacation, and start to work in a school for body-building training.
JS: No kidding?
WK: That’s what I’m doing for the next half-year. I work with Nautilus. I can do this only if I’m sure there’s no touring coming up, so that I can go into it wholeheartedly.
JS: What do you see in the long run for your drumming?
WK: I really don’t know. I like to play like I play with Andreas, and I also like playing in the studio. Before we left for this tour, I got together with the guitar player of Yellow, a Swiss disco band that’s very famous in Europe. I did that record, and I look forward to its release. I don’t want to play with other groups on stage too much. I have a ’50s-style rock ‘n’ roll band at home. We play once a month for fun. I had someone ask me to go to Montreux, but I didn’t want to go.
JS: So the studio supports your career?
WK: I don’t see my career as being too much in music. If it comes, okay; if it doesn’t come, I’m now interested in something else: this body-building. Maybe I’ll make a career there. There are some other things besides drums for me. Sometimes I really have enough of drums.
JS: How about you, Pedro?
PH: I will go home and go in the studio for one day with a guitar player, just doing overdubs. I hope he’s finished the demos! And then, I plan to go to school, too, to study herbs. Actually, I’m studying them now on the road, because this is a world that interests me incredibly.
JS: Do you hope to support yourself through the studio, too?
PH: No, no. I play with Andreas, which is a lot of fun, and I’ll play other gigs if they come. But I wouldn’t want to be a professional musician.
JS: That’s a contrast to the American way of life and competition.
PH: You can hear that, too. If I listen to the radio, most of the time the music speaks for itself. It has to do with hustle and fight instead of being relaxed. Maybe that’s because, in America, there are too many people depending on that profession.
WK: That’s a difference between America and our country. If you decide to be a musician in New York, then you have to practice hard. I saw a drummer on the street corner yesterday. I didn’t like the way he played, but he played his ass off. If you want to do more than play on the street, you have to practice hard. But in Switzerland, I don’t have to be a musician to survive. That’s the nice part of Switzerland. I find work everywhere, and if I don’t have bread, it’s no problem to do something else. I don’t want to get involved with the pop record industry. When I talk with someone from a record company, I sometimes feel like a child. Those people treat you like a child.
JS: They’re business people, not musicians.
WK: I don’t need that.
PH: Nowadays, as musicians, you have to ask yourself very early what the commercial trip is for you. Somehow, I don’t like the kind of thinking that I encounter here. Everyone wants to be a studio musician.
WK: America has a lot of very good musicians—especially drummers. But watch out. There is more to it than only playing fast. I sometimes see American college bands in Montreux with wonderful drummers. But they are so nervous, and they play ten times too much. Maybe in New York you come to play like this. But the people who never listen to music like us, and that’s a very nice feeling. Andreas has a great band to play with.
JS: It sounds more like a family than a group.
PH: We are all a family, even the crew. It’s important that we all feel happy for those two hours that we are on stage. Shortly after this interview took place, percussionist John Otis rejoined the Vollenweider band. Pedro Haldemann wished to concentrate more on keyboards and tuned percussion, so John handled most of the hand percussion for the band’s performances on its most recent tour. John has also played on several of the group’s albums.