Heroes are hard to find. And they’re often tougher to pin down. Vinnie Colaiuta, for one, refuses to bend to expectations—and he doesn’t think you should either.
It might be different on some other life-sustaining planet, light-years away. But here on earth, we sure have a funny relationship with our heroes.
On one hand, we allow them to influence us in intellectual, emotional, and even physical ways. They define what’s possible. They move us to tears of joy and of sadness. They impact our listening and viewing habits, how much time we put into practicing our craft, the instruments we play, the clubs we visit, the cities we move to, the clothes we wear, the slang we use—even the people we allow ourselves to get close to.
On the other hand, the intimacy we experience with a singer, actor, or drummer when we truly connect with his or her art—like the closeness we feel with people who take on important flesh-and-blood roles in our lives—can give us a certain misguided sense of ownership. We begin to demand things of those people. We start to feel that we deserve some say over not only the art they make but their behavior on and off stage.
Drumming has given us many heroes, and in modern times few have been as studied, celebrated, and wondered about as Vinnie Colaiuta. The attention paid to Vinnie’s individualistic and daring playing with Frank Zappa, Herbie Hancock, Sting, et al, reflects the wonderfully intense enthusiasm drummers have always had for their idols. Yet sometimes the discussion can wildly miss the point of what Vinnie himself values. Though in conversation he’s always clear about his appreciation for fans’ recognition of his talents, in our last cover story with him, six years ago, Vinnie rightly pointed out the unhealthy relationship with sensationalism and hero worship that so many people exhibit—not only within the music world but throughout the culture.
Many longtime fans find it refreshing that Colaiuta has absolutely no qualms pointing out wrong-headedness, greed, insincerity, and just plain old dopiness wherever he sees it, let the chips fall where they may. The fact is, he simply doesn’t care if people think less of him for his outspokenness. And that’s not us saying that; he insists as much. But it’s a statement rooted not in arrogance, or defensiveness, or a lack of care. Quite the opposite. While he understands that modeling is a natural step in an artist’s evolution, Vinnie feels deeply that we, as mature individuals, must arrive at a point where we have to be our own men and women, to think and act for ourselves. He’s happy to play some stuff for us— assuming it’s musical, and within the right context. But he gets just as excited about the possibility of drummers finding their own voice—without analyzing his or anyone else’s every move, as if the secret to drumming success can be found by dissecting another player’s DNA. Vinnie wants us to be us—he practically demands it—and by example he offers fascinating potential routes we can take. And if those aren’t the signs of a hero, and a leader, then we don’t know what are.
MD: In conversation, your enthusiasm is infectious, even though you’re not afraid to denounce what you see as wrong. It’s common for people to mistake that for being jaded—which it’s easy to be today.
Vinnie: It is easy to be jaded. But enthusiasm is pleasantly infectious.
MD: When you create music for a living, in the studio particularly, do people’s emotions come into play a lot? Or is it just another day at the office at the top levels of recording?
Vinnie: It’s a bit of both. It’s been said that one of the hallmarks of professionalism is being able to put your problems aside and do your job. There’s an element of psychology to this that goes on just like in any other kind of interaction. It’s meritorious to want to get along with people. At the same time, there are political elements, and it really gets involved. Some people get very crafty at selling themselves. Some people are inherently confident and don’t feel the need to take any attitude other than, “This is who I am and this is how I play.” Others are more timid, and there might be an inferiority complex or something, and somehow that translates. Or they might sabotage themselves in some way, as well as another person. So there is a heavy psychological element to it—you can’t escape it.
MD: Do you ever see musicians throw their hands up in the air and say, “I can’t take this psychological cauldron anymore”?
Vinnie: Yeah, some do. Maybe they realize they don’t have the wherewithal and just think it’s futile, but they can’t understand why it’s not working for them. Some realize the dynamic that’s going on and say, “I’m just not that guy to play that game—is there a way for me to be true to myself and still be effective?” I think that there are ways to deal with it, depending on your inherent type.
MD: Have you always known that the nonmusical aspects of being a professional musician were things you could deal with?
Vinnie: I’ve always gone out and played a lot of gigs. As much study as I’ve done—and practice is a solitary thing—I mixed it with real-world experience. That allowed me to, A, apply it, and B, witness how it all fit with human interaction. If I had just practiced, practiced, practiced but had no real-world experience, I wouldn’t be getting any kind of feedback at all, and suddenly I’d be jumping out into the world and using this. And then any number of things could happen, like I could choke. Just being presented with the opportunity to do it—you could get stage fright or whatever. Or you wouldn’t be able to handle any feedback.
What happens if you get all your vocabulary together, you learn some tunes, then you get up on the stage thinking, I know what to do, but somebody counts the tune off too fast? Now everything that you thought you wanted to play suddenly doesn’t make sense. So you have to figure out how to make that work. There’s something else about that—it’s called flow. Our ability to control things and analyze things is in direct opposition to a mantra that I have: Thought is the enemy of flow. People ask me, “What do you think about when you’re playing?” The answer is basically nothing. Thought happens in a completely different way out of flow. Out of flow, it’s contemplative and analytical and problem solving. In flow, it’s completely different. It’s like a real-time program running in the background that doesn’t interfere with what’s going on. The ability to adapt in a given moment is beyond the scope of another type of focused thought process.
All this partially depends on how you’re taught—which, I can’t stress enough, is the importance of a great teacher, especially with someone who’s at a young and impressionable age. That is really where it counts, because people are so impressionable when they’re young. Sometimes there’s too much praise lavished, or too much criticism. There has to be a good balance. And the teacher has to see the type of person that he’s dealing with. It’s really important, like another version of being a parent.
MD: Did you ever have a mentor who gave you a lot of real-world advice, or did you pick up nuggets of wisdom over the years?
Vinnie: It happened in nuggets with me, with various people I met along my journey who imparted that kind of wisdom through statements or actions or a mixture of both. And also, different teachers who were really encouraging—in realistic ways. Some of them were very transparent. They didn’t lavish praise or criticism; they were neutral about it in a sense. And at other points, maybe they’d say, “You’re further along than people would normally be, you already understand these concepts, so you need to go out and do this professionally.”
It’s easy at a young age to get someone to say something that’s damaging to you, and that’s the one thing you want to avoid. If someone gets into teaching, they should know what kind of responsibility they have, and that these kinds of things are not easy to undo.
MD: Sometimes it seems that an increasing number of young players are impressed with themselves. Or is that just cranky-old-dude talk?
Vinnie: Well, if I say to you, “No, you’re not being a cranky old dude,” it would be easy for anyone to come back and say, “Well, look at Vinnie, at his age….” This is something you have to tread very objectively on. You have to look at it through a sociological and historical lens.
One of the benefits of being older is that you’ve lived long enough to have amassed a certain amount of historical perspective, versus what information you’re fed. I know what it was like growing up in a time when things really were different, and I can say that objectively. It’s been commented on by some scholarly people and from a wide variety of sources that sociologically speaking, and from a historical vantage point, we’ve seen a shift that’s tied into the ability through technological vehicles for all of us to transmit information instantaneously. Andy Warhol said that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. That’s an understated prophecy.
What has happened in the last hundred years is vastly different compared to the previous five hundred. The technological revolution, the information age, has been so explosive and so accelerated that it’s mind-boggling. Now, with the YouTube phenomenon, modeling is an effective way of gathering information. When you’re young and impressionable you model someone just because they impress you. But you have to have enough sense of discernment to say, “This works for me, and this doesn’t.” And if you as a person don’t have enough self-esteem, that may interfere with that discernment, regardless of the technology. You just want to be like so-and-so. Eventually you have to be comfortable with the fact that at the end of the day all you have is you.
I’ve even heard younger people talk about many of these issues. That awareness is a promising thing. We want to be awake. Be here now. That’s a good thing, for self-empowerment and for the benefit of society.
MD: Since this issue of MD is concerned in part with the evolution of the instrument, what are your thoughts on where the art of drumming is going?
Vinnie: It’s probably tied to where music is going to go. Is it evolving toward more technique and polyrhythms? Polyrhythmic vehicles have existed for a long time in various cultures—they didn’t evolve overnight. Where’s music going to go? Electronica mimics acoustic things. Electronics also models, and you have robotics and artificial intelligence. But I don’t know if it’s going to be one thing, because there are so many different strata of music. Theoretically there will always be a place for the drumset or something like it, even though the drumset is evolving. We see the changes happening so rapidly, yet we see guys going retro, almost as if that’s a backlash, going back to meaningful content.
I couldn’t possibly be a psychic and say where it could go, but I think that another question is, Where does it need to go? And how quickly does it need to go there? We have to ask ourselves, What are we saying on the instrument, and is this instrument going to suffice? Will there be any permanence for specific types of music in our culture and the instruments that we use to play them? Are the ways things are changing enabled by technology or somehow forced by it? Will instruments even be necessary anymore, because the meaning of being human will be redefined?
These are large, looming questions. If humanity retains its humanness and longs to create a language that really is a permanent part of our culture that has relevance, then the drumset and music as we know it will always have a place. If we have any kind of value of what’s beneficent to society, then we will question those things and hopefully be our own monitors and valued gatekeepers to that kind of language and commonality that we can all hang on to and preserve.
MD: The interest in Levon Helm in recent years seems to represent what you were saying about the retro movement. On the other hand, planting yourself in 1965, when life was less complicated, seems strange. You have to deal with the fact that it’s 2012.
Vinnie: But some people do plant themselves there. I know you’re saying it’s unrealistic, but some people say, “Screw it, this is where I want to go.” One could see that as escapism, or one could see it as: At least he knows where he wants to be. Some people make careers out of being retro.
I think that Levon was comfortable being who he was, and there was a beauty in his simplicity and the absolute depth of what he was saying. And that’s what I’m talking about; that’s part of the permanence—depth and meaning. As long as we don’t lose sight of what that means, those are timeless elements and principles that are a big part of what the meaning of life is. That’s what we have to hang on to. And that ties into the purpose of the drums.
There are people who feel like they have to use a certain type of gear—they’re afraid of being ridiculed for playing something that’s unique to them, and they feel that they have to conform to everybody else. But none of that is being yourself or basking in the beauty of an honest statement. And I can’t think of anyone more honest in that way than Levon Helm was. And this is a timeless, elemental part of life.
When we talk about permanence, it doesn’t mean you’re afraid of change. I’m just saying, as I said earlier, always be yourself, because that’s all you’ve got. And if we can hang on to that value, these kinds of massive evolutionary changes, for the sake of change, one-upmanship, sport, sensationalism, or marketing, will be seen for the transient values that they are. Progress is sometimes good and sometimes bad. But purpose is a whole other thing that’s not always tied in to progress. Sometimes progress is a flag that’s waved to sell something, but sometimes progress is really progress, like being able to do something you couldn’t do before.
History is cyclical and usually repeats itself, and it can teach us a lot. We as humans have the ability to sort of have an eye on the future. This has nothing to do with not living in the moment, but it’s important to know that, because sometimes you can get blindsided if you don’t know where your place in historical context is. By the same token, one could counter that you can get blindsided if you get caught up in the historical perspective. You may try to copy things from any period of time, say, 1947 to 1962, and become so caught up in that that it defines you. Now, that’s your problem or your advantage, however you want to look at it. But without historical perspective, it’s real easy to think that you invented everything. And really, you didn’t. So own that, first of all.
Secondly, it’s definitely beneficial to respect others that came before you for what they contributed, because if they didn’t, it’s unlikely that you’d be playing the way you do. You really need to honor and understand that, because there’s intrinsic value to it. It will give you a perspective on quality.
MD: Has there been an evolution in terms of what drumming represents in your life?
Vinnie: What it represents, and where I’d like to be with it, is the reason I started playing in the first place. And that is the sheer joy it gives you and the immersion of being in the moment and the creative flow and sense of discovery. And while you’re playing, letting the music live where it wants to live. These are my reasons for it and what I get from it.
By thinking about it like that, you can find yourself in any moment, no matter what it is that you’re playing, just getting joy out of it. And even if there’s angst in the music, you can convey that emotively. It doesn’t mean you’re projecting your own angst onto it because of things you can’t say to somebody in real life or because of some psychological issues. The angst lives in the music and doesn’t need to be compounded with baggage that you’re carrying around.
You need to be in the moment and just not care what anybody thinks. And when I say you don’t care what anybody else thinks, I mean you’re unaffected by it. I don’t mean being irresponsible and not wanting to have quality being represented in what you’re playing. But what is quality? Is it egoism, or is it the most faithful representation of the music, giving other people joy with what you’re doing and getting joy, and passion, out of it yourself? That kind of stuff is food for the soul, and that’s why we do it. Even if there’s money attached to it and we have to make a living doing it, if we have that sensibility, then it will uplift others. And then any event you find yourself in, you have the chance of making that better. Even if there’s one bitter guy there and you can just smile at him. And that’s something I wish I could do more often.
MD: Are you ultimately optimistic about where things are heading? Vinnie: Even as chaotic as it seems, I still see enough people out there that are giving me hope, people who care about bringing quality back. We just have to somehow learn to silence the noise enough to let those voices come through. It’s up to us.
As Vinnie describes here, he’ll use various gear configurations depending on the gig, particularly in terms of his cymbal choices. These photos of his burgundy sparkle kit from two recent recording sessions illustrate two possibilities. Note the changes in tom placement.
On the 2012 Sting tour, he used mostly Paiste Formula 602s, including a 22″ prototype China; 15″ Medium hi-hats; 18″, 20″, and 22″ Thin crashes; and a 24″ Medium ride. He also used an 18″ Alpha Medium Swish crash and 8″ and 10″ Signature Reflector splashes. While out with Herbie Hancock, he used Paiste Signature Traditionals, including a 22″ Medium Light Swish, 14″ Medium Light hi-hats, 20″ and 22″ Light rides, and an 18″ Thin crash.
MD: Let’s talk about your recent gear changes to Ludwig drums and Paiste
Vinnie: If I’m going to represent gear, there are criteria that have to be met for me: quality, sound, feel, and consistency. And I want those qualities to be true for anybody else who purchases the gear that I use. It’s not, “Vinnie’s got the good stuff, and I’m getting the dogs.”
I did what I did for purely musical reasons. It works for me, and if it works for somebody else, great. With gear it’s so easy to get into minutiae of how things are going to sound. At the end of the day, if you get stuff that is of a certain quality and has a certain amount of character and transparency, and you know how to work it and make it sound good… What you hear on a record is determined by a multitude of factors: how you play it, how you record it, the type of music, how it’s mixed, how it’s mastered. So find what works for you and make sure that your criteria are, first of all, aesthetically in the right place, and secondly, pragmatically in the right place.
MD: You mention feel, which is a subtle concept. How much of a difference is there between instruments?
Vinnie: I’ve noticed it—I noticed it right away on the drums I play now. They feel forgiving, but they’ll give back what you put into them. They’re fun to play. They don’t feel hard, but they’re punchy enough. And the way the cymbals feel varies to a degree, but they’re all within certain tolerances where none of them feel too hard or too soft. Some, for specific purposes, will feel softer, and some will feel harder, and that’s part and parcel of the effect they produce. If they’re heavier, they’ll feel a certain way, and you have to be prepared for that. You may not want to play them with 7A sticks. So you adjust accordingly.
MD: So what drums are we looking at in these photos?
Vinnie: I used that kit for an independent project. What happened was, when I first switched, I had gotten these two “black galaxy” kits. I was doing these tours with Sting that required two rigs, because the routing necessitated the leapfrogging of gear. Here I was with two brand-new drumsets that both had to go out on tour. So now I had to do something else. So I got these burgundy sparkles, which are bigger drums. As an experiment I tried to use them in a variety of situations with Giant Beat cymbals, and the drums had a tonal range that would be acceptable for a lot of different stuff.
So while my other two kits were shipped out and being prepared for tours, for most of the sessions I did I used this burgundy sparkle kit. It has a 16×22 bass drum—normally I use a 14×22, but this one really has amazing punch and low end to it—a 9×13 tom, 16×16 and 16×18 floor toms, and a Supra-Phonic 400 snare in various iterations. I also have a 24″ burgundy sparkle bass drum, but I haven’t started using it, because I need to drill a tom-tom mount in it. I don’t want to use suspension mounts for the tom; I want to mount it on the bass drum, tighten it down, and that’s it. Put the floor toms on legs and forget about this extraneous stuff if I can.
And I used [Remo] Coated Emperors, which I found did not make the drums have less attack or kill the tone, and they lasted longer than Ambassadors. They worked really well on the shells. The drums stayed in tune for a long time, which is a testament to the shells, the heads, and how well they work together. And the versatility of them.
And I like one tom up. I played that way for years, to the point where it took me a long time to get used to two up, which is the setup I use with the black galaxies. I couldn’t get the ride cymbal where I wanted it to be without reaching over my shoulder. I did that for years and had problems as a result of it. But I’ve modified it to a certain extent, and now it works. That’s been my sort of generic setup for years—10, 12, 14, 16, 22 in standard depths, Supra-Phonic snare usually, and the Paiste 602s. I also use their Traditionals, which I love. So I gravitate a lot between the Traditionals, the 602s, and the Giant Beats. I can get a huge palette out of those three lines. And each drum tunes so well, it’s astounding the range they have. I tune them up and get the overtones out of them, and they sound like jazz drums. If I tune them in a medium range, they’re throaty. If I tune them low, I can get a big rock ’n’ roll sound. And anything in between. They tend to sound bigger than they are.
When I went to one up, a lot of gearheads asked why, or why is he using bigger drums? Honestly, sometimes I just do stuff. Why now? Don’t get me wrong, I still work a lot, but there was a lot more volume and different kinds of sessions that happened for many years, where I didn’t know what I was going to do and I picked something that would kind of work for anything. That was when people were buying music. Now I’ll do what I want. I went out on a Herbie Hancock tour with a 20″ bass drum, an 8×12 tom, and a 14×14 floor. I used those same drums on a movie date and on a record date recently where it was a loopy hip-hop-sounding track. I’ll do what I have to do.
Friends on Vinnie:
Ask and you shall receive. GREGG BISSONETTE was looking for inspiration—and boy, did he get it. The first time I saw Vinnie play live was in 1978, when he was on tour with Frank Zappa in Fort Worth, Texas. I was in my first year at North Texas State University, and my jaw was on the floor the entire show. The first time I heard Vinnie on an album was the amazing Gino Vannelli album Nightwalker. Again, jaw on the floor: “How is he doing that? I have no idea what he’s doing, but I love it!”
I told Alex Acuña that same year when I met him in Texas that I felt I really wanted and needed new drumming inspiration and that I felt stuck in a rut with my playing and drumming vocabulary. Alex’s advice was, “You should move to L.A. and go see my favorite drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta, playing two nights a week at a club called the Flying Jib.” I asked Alex, “What style is Vinnie your favorite at? Funk, Latin, rock, jazz?” He replied “Everything!”
The next week I quit my band, packed my drums in my station wagon, and moved to L.A. Every Sunday and Monday night I would sit in the audience with every drummer in town, and we would all just burst out with laughter, joy, and disbelief, marveling at the incredibly musical, astonishing, and passionate drummer that had come off the road with Zappa and taken Los Angeles by storm. He was every Los Angeles drummer’s inspiration. His deep placement of the groove reminded me of Jeff Porcaro, and his passion and never-ending vocabulary reminded me of Tony Williams and Buddy Rich. But different, very different. Unique, like no drummer or musician I had ever heard before.
I very quickly saw what the rest of the world would see over the next few years. Alex Acuña nailed it: Vinnie could do anything. Any style, any groove—spot on with the click—soloing with a never-ending vocabulary, and most of all doing it all with the one thing that comes to mind when I think of Vinnie Colaiuta: passion.
Jeff Porcaro told me on many occasions, “Yo, Vinnie is the man!” That funk/fusion band at the Flying Jib was called the Dave Boruff Band. Another amazing band he played with in L.A. was Los Lobotomys. The next unreal band in L.A. that I saw Vinnie play with was Dog Cheese, a fantastic trio that reminded me of the Police, Missing Persons, Miles Davis, and tons of other influences, but all passionately played in a way never dreamed of before, because of Vinnie. We would next see and hear his fantastic musicality and passion with Sting. The list goes on and on and on: Herbie Hancock, Pages (Mr. Mister before they were Mr. Mister), Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell, Randy Waldman… There was one time when he played on Faith Hill and Megadeth albums in the same week. Vinnie’s musical drumming vocabulary is endless!
Vinnie and I have become close friends over the years. One of the biggest thrills of my life was getting to record a double-drum tribute to one of our heroes, Tony Williams, together with David Garfield, on an album called Giving Back. The song is called “Tune for Tony.” It was such a blast really groovin’ and displacing with Vinnie, because he plays so musically, with such passion, and he wrote the book on that stuff. I also had an amazing time playing drums along with Vinnie on the film The Bourne Supremacy. He is the best of the best. And he is every bit as great a man as he is a musician. All I can say is that I am so thankful that God gave us the amazing Vinnie Colaiuta.
MATT CHAMBERLAIN: No need to sleep on it. The first time I ever heard Vinnie was on Zappa’s Shut Up ’n Play Yer Guitar records. It completely changed me forever. I used to take naps in college with those records on, hoping that subliminally I’d absorb some of it. Ha! Silly me. Vinnie is a force of nature.
TERRI LYNE CARRINGTON’s appreciation for Vinnie never stops growing. I ran into Vinnie a couple of weeks ago at the Monk Institute Drum Competition & Gala and told him how much I loved his playing on Herbie Hancock’s CD River: The Joni Letters. He said he barely played, something I often say and feel about some of the recordings I’ve done. But I strongly disagree with him. He played great on it, yet without some of the signature Vinnie-isms we all love. Before the CD came out, Herbie played it for me, without telling me who it was, and I could not figure out the drummer. Of course I knew Vinnie had been playing with him, but I’d never heard him play like that. My respect for him went up several notches because of his use of restraint, his ability to play only what was appropriate for that recording, and also the deep musicality displayed there. His artistry really shined for me on that CD. And some may not agree, because you don’t hear a lot of drums on the album, but I guess it depends on how you “hear” the instrument.
GIL SHARONE was already deep into Vinnie by high school. He’s just as knocked out by him today as he was back then. My earliest Vinnie story goes back to when I’d been playing for just a couple months. My parents took my brother and me to Catalina Bar & Grill, on a school night when we were in the eighth grade, to see Vinnie and John Patitucci on bass. Even though we didn’t get to see the show, my parents knew how bad I wanted to meet him, and I was hoping that would happen. I remember walking to the small artist area, and Vinnie was just chillin’ in there. Not only did he take the time to talk to me, but he grabbed a pair of sticks and showed me a bunch of stuff on the table. I was so excited and inspired by that meeting.
Vinnie is one of my biggest influences and one of the drummers I always wanted to be like. He plays it all and kills it all! Whether it’s straight-ahead jazz, odd-time fusion, a pop tune with some Disney artist or Sting, everything he plays is perfect. He’s one of the drummers that showed me you can have a ton of chops, but versatility, feel, and taste are what’s important on a gig. Vinnie rules!