On The Cover

Paul McCartney’s Abe Laboriel Jr.

His personality is big yet intimate, just like his drumming. And now, with the release of his first-ever solo recording and a singularly experimental Paul McCartney album, it’s a perfect time to get to the bottom—the deep, booming bottom—of his signature sound.

Interview by Cam Patterson and Billy Amendola
Photos by MJ Kim

There’s something special about getting access to a stadium that’s being rigged up for a rock show. Everything about it is oversize—the stage, the screens, the lights, the crew. But more than that, it’s about the anticipation of what’s to come, and even more so when it’s a Paul McCartney show. In just a couple of hours, forty thousand people will fill the cavernous bowl that is Winnipeg’s Investors Group Field, and they’ll let the music transform them into a cheering, stomping mass dazzled by the sight and sounds of the former Beatle. And Abe Laboriel Jr. will groove them all.

MD meets up with Laboriel’s drum tech, Paul Davies, who shows us the man’s kit—a sprawling DW set that’s clearly made to play big notes. The setup is unique, with the single kick drum placed where the second drum of a double bass kit normally goes. Davies points out Laboriel making his way backstage to us, greeting crew members like they’re family, some getting a smile and a hug. It’s immediately clear why Abe is respected in the industry as much as he is: He genuinely likes people, and the more you talk to him, the more you come to understand that the basis for his musical passion is the same as what pushes him through life—his desire for human interaction.

Laboriel grew up around some of the biggest names in music. His father, Abe Sr., is among the most influential bass players of our time, and one of the most loved in the business. If there’s any truth to the adage “like father, like son,” you certainly see it in Abe Jr. You get no sense of entitlement from him, despite the privilege he’s enjoyed of hanging with some of the giants in the drumming world. And there’s no arrogance from having played with some of the hugest names in music—including Eric Clapton, Sting, Steve Vai, and McCartney—only the poise of a gentle soul and the quiet confidence of a man who is simply glad that Modern Drummer came by to talk drums today.

Smart From the Start

MD: Can we kick things off with a first-drumkit story? Growing up in such a musical family, I’ll bet you have a good one.

Abe: I do, actually. I was four, already hanging out with my dad, going to rehearsals back in Cleveland. At that time Dad was working a lot with Jamey Haddad, a percussionist who teaches at Berklee and plays with Paul Simon. Back then Jamey was a kit player doing gigs with guys like Joe Lovano. While they were working out songs, I’d be hanging out in the background, singing along to every tune. I was able to sing along to all those Keith Jarrett melodies and all this crazy stuff. So Jamey put together a kit for me out of bits and pieces—you know, flipping a floor tom for a kick, putting up a little snare—and he made me this very simple little cool set. So that was my very first kit, in Cleveland when I was four.

MD: When did you move out to California?

Abe: About two years later we moved to Santa Monica. My dad had already been gigging with Johnny Mathis and Henry Mancini, and it was Henry who told my dad he should come out to L.A., because they were desperate for good bass players at the time. At the time when my dad made the move, so did three other amazing guys, so suddenly there was this influx of hot bass players in town. But my dad still managed to find his way into the scene, so I grew up hanging out in studios. The guys were all good with it, because they loved my dad so much. The engineer would set me up with headphones next to Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, John Robinson, Steve Jordan, Chester Thompson… Jeff Porcaro! I remember Jeff walking into the studio. He just had that commanding presence. It was like, he’s the guy, and he was so cool. Jeff had a huge impact on me, and I still play Paiste today because of him.

So I got to sit there and watch them work and record and interact and see the whole process. I’d see how the artist dealt with the drummer, see the producer come in and shape it, learn how the arranger handled things and what the engineer did with mics, how they tuned…. I know it sounds silly, but by the time I turned ten I had a very serious conversation with my dad, telling him that this is what I wanted to do. “I love this. It’s what I want my life to be. I’m in!”

MD: And what did he say?

Abe: He tried to talk me out of it! [laughs] Of course I was just seeing the positive side of it, and he wanted me to see it realistically, to know about the negatives and hardships, that for each guy that makes it there are thousands who are equally good but who aren’t making it. But I’m a bull-headed Aries and was determined, so he said, “If you’re serious, then do it right—get lessons and learn more than just the drums.” So I started taking lessons from Alex Acuña. He was my teacher from the time I was ten to about eighteen.

MD: And that came about because Alex was playing with your dad.

Abe: Right. Alex was a great teacher, because he wasn’t rigid. He was more than, “Here’s Syncopation, page 2— start there.” It was much more about learning grooves and developing a drum language to be able to jump off and make it my own. It was still about learning the basics, like the rudiments, but also learning some funk, Latin, rock, jazz—whatever. Because Alex has that incredible arsenal, he definitely opened my mind to all that.

Then when I was fourteen or fifteen I went to the Dick Grove School of Music in L.A. So while I was in junior high and high school, I was going to night courses at the college two or three times a week. I studied with this really great jazz drummer there named Peter Donald, while also taking ear training, harmony, and all that stuff. Shortly after, during my last two years of high school, a music magnet program opened up in L.A., and I got in that.

MD: What was that about?

Abe: It was an advanced-placement program that specialized in the arts. They’d bus kids from all over L.A. County to this one school. It was a really cool program. I was there the first year it started—’87, I think. I was doing that while I was still at Dick Grove, playing in the jazz and marching bands. I was trying to build my arsenal of musical tools.

MD: Berklee, then, was a logical choice in terms of continuing your education.

Abe: It was, but there was another advantage to it. One of the things that my parents did that really helped me was protect me from being one of those childhood phenoms, the prodigy around town who everyone’s saying to check out, who can do amazing things at sixteen—but then burns out. I could’ve gotten gigs and done some things around town, but I think I really did need to go away for a while to build my thing. So they very smartly encouraged me to go to Berklee.

Both Sides of the Glass

MD: Earlier you mentioned getting to watch how not only drummers worked in the studio but engineers and producers as well. You’re doing some producing now, right?

Abe: I started producing more when Paul’s tour schedule slowed down three or four years ago. But we’ve been working a lot recently, and [some of the shows are arranged] kind of last minute, so it’s not like I can know that I can produce this or that album two months from now. And this gig is such a gift that there is no way I’m walking away to pursue a career as a producer. That will happen more later on, I’m sure. But what I did during our downtime was work on my own record, which is streaming on SoundCloud and available digitally worldwide. I wrote all the songs, played all the tracks, and did it all myself in my home studio. It’s a fun, up-tempo rock record—thirty-five minutes of joy. I’m proud of it. It’s under my fake college ID name, Lance Sprinkle. [Search for “Sprinkle.”]

MD: Why that name?

Abe: Well, I was kind of worried that there may be some preconception of what an Abe Laboriel Jr. record might be. You know, he’s a drummer, plays some jazz and rock. So I decided to take away any of that thinking by putting it out under a persona. And it really does play more like a singer-songwriter/guitar-rock dude’s album than a drum record.

I’ve always loved guitar, and I would write these mellow riffs while sitting on my couch. I’d record these vibe-y demos over the years, but one day I realized that I wanted to make a rock record. So I reworked my music, simplifying chords and lyrics and bringing the tempos up, and I started tracking.

MD: What was your recording process?

Abe: I’d throw down a rough guitar and vocal, then set off on creating the drum part. It was a cyclical process—finding the right tempo and feel, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone on all instruments. My only rule was to not edit to death. Sometimes I’d cut and paste an entire section from one take to another master take, but never less than that. I wanted to capture the performance and give the record a live feel.

MD: What drums did you record it with?

Abe: I played a killer DW set with a 24×24 kick, a 9×13 rack tom, and a 16×16 floor tom. Simple and punchy, and I got a great variety of sounds by using different snares and cymbals.

The grooves are all built around the guitar parts. It was all about supporting yet anchoring my riffs. Working on this record made me a better musician overall.

Playing With Paul

MD: Tell us about the latest Paul McCartney album, New.

Abe: I’m really excited about it. It was recorded over the last year and a half in the U.K., New York City, and L.A. Paul worked with four different producers—Giles Martin, Paul Epworth, Mark Ronson, and Ethan Johns. [McCartney’s touring band] was involved mostly on the Giles and Ronson sessions, although we added little touches on most of the tracks during the finishing stage.

MD: Are you playing drums on all the tracks?

Abe: I played some drums, as did McCartney and Epworth. There’s some programming as well. Paul would bring in a song either on acoustic guitar or piano, and we’d all get the vibe and discuss the direction it could go in. Then we would start jamming and come up with the groove and arrangement. It was a very liquid process. Even after the basic track was finished, we would continue to tweak the arrangement and sometimes add entire sections with a different drum sound. We had fun searching for real drum sounds.

MD: What kinds of things did you do?

Abe: We would put drums in stairwells or super-small, dead rooms. A couple times Paul and I had our kits facing each other and we tracked double drums together. We used everything from vintage Ludwig 20″ and 22″ kicks to new DW 24″ and 28″ kicks. The record is a sonic feast, with the mix handled by Spike Stent. It’s a record that we’re all proud of and one that I enjoy playing live.

MD: Speaking of live, you handle a lot of background vocals with McCartney.

Abe: As a kid I was always drawn to melody. My parents say I would sometimes sing familiar melodies but would often make up my own as well.

I mostly focus on the melody and the lyrics, which has been key to how I’ve connected to playing the drums. It’s not necessarily about playing simpler but rather supporting the melody and the intention of the lyric. I took vocal lessons from a singer in L.A. named Ode Wannebo, who’s a great Wagnerian basso profondo operatic singer from Norway. Ode taught me a lot about the technical and physical tricks of singing. Posture, support, and balance are very important, and I found myself experimenting with vocal-mic placement and arranging my kit ergonomically in order to achieve that balance. I made a mic stand out of DW cymbal hardware parts. I have it so that it’s right in front of my head but swings away easily.

MD: When did a singing drummer first grab your attention?

Abe: When I saw Genesis’s Mama tour with Phil Collins. That show completely blew me away. I already was a fan [of his singing and drumming], but I had no idea that Phil could do both so fluidly and seemingly independently. Levon Helm is another who amazed me with his ability to groove so intensely and deliberately and sing so comfortably behind the beat. And Paul is a self-taught musician/singer, but I see him naturally do things like planting himself to the ground, elongating and relaxing his neck in order to produce a pure tone. That’s what fifty-plus years of performance can do for you!

MD: With Paul you get to re-create the classic parts of another singing drummer, Ringo Starr.

Abe: That’s one of the great things about playing with Paul. Ringo is a great song player. His parts were always so interesting and integral to the hooks in all of the songs. He could play quiet and tender, then switch to thrashy garage-rock parts.

MD: How do you approach playing his parts?

Abe: I tend to stick to the original grooves, but luckily Paul doesn’t treat the music like it belongs in a museum. We have the ability to treat it as a living entity, and there are times when each of us, with a twinkle in our eyes, adds little bits of our own personality. I grew up listening to and studying Beatles records. I don’t go as far as to lead fills with my left hand, as Ringo does, but I tend to stick to the original grooves, which is essential on some of the songs.

But there are some songs that were recorded very intimately, and the intensity comes from the mix, so I have to tweak the intensity for a stadium setting. For example, the Beatles song “Getting Better.” The groove in the verse is kick on 1, snare on 2, and hat on the “&” of 3. It sounds huge on record, but when we play it live I play four on the floor, flam the snare backbeat, and add a floor tom to the hi-hat on the “&” of 3. Same groove, stadium intensity.

I do something similar with the Wings tune “Let Me Roll It.” The original recording is Paul playing really small and vibe-y drums. When we play it live it becomes a hard-hitting rock tune that usually ends in a “Foxey Lady” jam.

A lot of the Wings tunes we play are the ones that Paul recorded drums on. We also do “Live and Let Die,” which Denny Seiwell recorded brilliantly. I do my best to keep the intent of how he breaks up the bars in the crazy instrumental sections. He hits those accents so perfectly!

“Junior’s Farm” is another fun one to play. Geoff Britton originally recorded that and gives the song such great forward motion. “Listen to What the Man Said” is another—Joe English originally recorded that one. A great groove. And he was another drummer who could sing and play brilliantly. Paul has played with such great musicians over the years. I am honored to be among them.

The Big Rig

MD: We began our conversation talking about your first little drumkit. Today things are quite different: Your rack tom is larger than what’s in vogue, and your floor toms are flipped-over bass drums. Is this because of all the years playing big stadium shows?

Abe: Yeah, absolutely. You can do some cool, intricate fills in a club, but you’re not going to hear any of that in a stadium. All you’re going to hear is boom, bah, boom, bah. You’re lucky if you get a 16th-note fill clean enough. I mean, I see why some guys think, Why is he playing so simple, or so washy? It’s because I’m playing in a stadium and I want those cymbals to wash, and I want ring on the snare, and I want the toms to be big and thuddy—because that’s what’s going to hit the very last row. Sonically you have to play to the room you’re in.

Another reason I play such ginormous drums with Paul is that I can tune them low and they don’t choke when I hit them hard. I rely heavily on Remo Black Suede heads and TunerFish lug locks to hold the tuning. And the reason I use such large cymbals has to do with not overpowering them when I hit them hard. And when I hit them lightly to medium hard, they have a natural compressed sound and sustain.

I’ve always enjoyed playing different drum sizes and setups. Every situation calls for a different approach. When I was with Sting I used smaller cymbals and some splashes. My tom sizes were 10″, 13″, and 16″, with a 26″ kick. The last time I was out with Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood, I used a kit with 12″, 13″, and 14″ rack toms, 15″ and 16″ floor toms, and a 24×24 kick—a little tip of the hat to Ginger Baker.

But one rack and one floor is enough to make a noise out of—though I’ll also admit that I liked that setup because I don’t like carrying my drums. But I love big drums. I love the feel, the sound. Smaller drums are great in the studio, but when I’m playing stadiums I want to dig in and have that drum respond. And with Paul I don’t have drums in the monitors, so I really want them to resonate for me.

MD: No drums in the monitors at all?

Abe: I only play to what’s acoustically in front of me. There isn’t even kick in the stage mix, because we don’t want that cycle of bleeding through vocal mics, which clouds the main mix. We don’t do in-ears either. They can be very insulating, and that would just take the intimate rock-band feel out of the gig. And that’s our vibe—we want to be able to play to each other and have that connection. So I just have a couple floor wedges with my and Paul’s vocals, maybe a touch of the guitar amps that are a little too far away. It’s very civilized on stage. It’s pretty rad.

MD: How did you come up with the idea to put the kick drum on the other side of your hi-hat?

Abe: It was practical. You know, we’ve all sort of fallen into that thing of, “This is how the drumset should be.” I found that with the 28″ kick and the 15″ rack tom, I had to set the tom way out to the side to get it low enough to play. I was fine making that spread between the rack tom and the floor tom, but by reaching for the rack I was stressing my arm and getting tennis elbow. Also, I’m not only playing the rack; I’m stretching for the crash way over there. And that’s over a three-hour show. So I was sitting on the kit one day, and I looked at my double pedal and my kick and thought, What if…. Problem solved! Then to even it out I put another floor tom on the left side. So now I can play more naturally for myself. My elbow is better now—and it looks weird! [laughs]

MD: Ideally, what would you want young drummers to get from your playing, and from your artistry?

Abe: I would hope that I inspire people to think more about what music is, as opposed to only what their musical instrument is. Music is about community—it’s a communion of how we all interact. Of course, we all have to practice and hone, making ourselves better. But you get so much better when you’re playing with other people— that’s the biggest thing. That’s one reason why I don’t do a lot of clinics, or the solo-drumming thing, because that feels clinical and technical for me. Music for me is all about interaction.

Abe’s Setup

Laboriel plays DW ivory ebony drums with a dark gray stain, including a 10×15 tom, 16×18 and 18×20 floor toms, and a 20×28 bass drum. He plays a 6.5×14 DW Black Ti snare. His Paiste cymbals include 15″ 2002 Sound Edge hi-hats (bottoms only), a 20″ 2002 crash, a 24″ Giant Beat ride, a 24″ 2002 ride, and a 22″ 2002 crash. Abe’s Remo heads include a Coated CS snare batter and Ambassador snare-side, Black Suede Emperor tom batters and Black Suede Ambassador bottoms, and Black Suede Ambassadors on both sides of his bass drum. He plays his Vic Firth signature sticks, LP percussion, a Roland SPD-SX, and Dauz pads, and he uses TunerFish lug locks and Protection Racket cases.

Video Interview Series with Abe!