Like a drumming magician, he’s made the impossible seem effortless. But increasingly he also enchants with songcraft and the alchemy of instrumental interaction.
A carefree smile has always been the hallmark of Marco Minnemann’s demeanor at the kit. With a commanding confidence, he shrugs off the most masterful performances of complex odd meters and dazzling stick tricks with a casual attitude that seems to say, “Well, that was fun!” while the rest of us watch in amazement.
Concurrent with his heavy touring and recording schedules with countless artists, Minnemann has also released twenty-odd solo albums, the latest of which, My Sister, features such high-profile artists as Alex Lifeson of Rush and dUg Pinnick of King’s X, as well as a number of international collaborators from projects he’s recently participated in. Among the emotionally and rhythmically individualistic compositions on the double album, the beautiful Minnemann composition “Lovers Calling” is nearly worth the price of admission alone. Sung by Maiah Wynne and starting off like a shoe-gaze ballad in the mold of My Bloody Valentine, the tune smoothly moves into a section punctuated by a selection of blistering full-set drum fills, then shifts into an angular workout featuring an exciting Lifeson guitar solo. Bold in every sense, it reflects a musician who has brilliantly figured out how to put the song and the production first while still delivering advanced chops that shredders can appreciate.
Marco hardly stays in one place long enough for us to catch up with his evolving and copious output. As of this interview, his main focus has returned to the Aristocrats, the instrumental power trio that began as a fluke collaboration during a 2011 Winter NAMM Show with bassist Bryan Beller and guitarist Guthrie Govan. As you’re reading this, the Aristocrats are likely between European legs of their 2019/20 world tour, supporting their fourth studio album, You Know What…? The release reveals a well-oiled, laser-focused, and increasingly popular instrumental-rock trio—in fact, one that’s more commercially successful than the players had ever imagined. The fuel behind their growing popularity? “Chemistry!” insists Minnemann.
Indeed, the chemistry among these three masters of their craft is musical and personal. Using late-’60s experimental blues-rock pioneers Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Led Zeppelin as a jumping-off point, Beller, Govan, and Minnemann infuse jazz, metal, prog, funk, rock, and even country elements into their well-structured soundscapes, which are filled with thoughtful and mindblowing improvisations. Between songs, the players interact with the audience and provide humorous “Storytellers”-style intros, which serve to draw us into the creative process, and let us in on the origins of the material and the facets of each artist’s personality.
[Photo by Morgan Brown Photography.]
MD: It’s interesting that your career in the States was launched through your work with Mike Keneally and Bryan Beller, and years later the three of you would reunite as Joe Satriani’s rhythm section.
Marco: That’s true. I haven’t spoken with Mike lately, but that seems to be the way of the music business: you meet great players, you do great work together, and then you move on and enter another phase of your career. And then, unexpectedly, you’re working together again. That’s what makes this crazy business so interesting. You never know what will happen next.
MD: How did the gig with Satriani come about?
Marco: It came out of nowhere, really. I believe Mike Keneally recommended me. They said it would be either me or Vinnie Colaiuta, which was very humbling.
I met Joe for the first time when I was playing with Adrian Belew. So when Joe needed a drummer for the tour supporting his album Unstoppable Momentum, which featured Vinnie, he called me. Vinnie and I then recorded Joe’s following record, Shockwave Supernova, and then I toured with Joe for four years and shot a DVD. Joe also played on my last solo recording, Borrego, and we keep in touch. It was a fun gig, and Joe is a great guy. Who knows what the future will bring.
MD: With numerous requests for your talent in such varied musical styles, how do you decide which gigs to accept?
Marco: At some point you have to remind yourself why you’re playing music in the first place. Then you have to establish priorities. The Aristocrats are selling out venues around the world, and selling records. So you have to step back and realize that this needs to become a priority before other gigs.
After our third album, Tres Caballeros, we took a year off, because we all had several projects going on. Then in 2018 we got back together for a European run, without any new music, just to see what the response would be. We were blown away by the positive response, and we sold out almost every venue. We were playing the same venues that I played with Satriani and with Steven Wilson, and the Aristocrats out-sold them. This was a real awakening for us. It made us realize that we do have something very special, and now it’s time to set priorities for this band.
MD: Do you feel your career shifting from “drum god” to “composer” with your recent solo work, and to “band member” with the Aristocrats?
Marco: Yes! It took such a long time to get people out of the mindset of me just being the “drum dude” to finally discovering my songwriting and really listening to my music. Now when people listen to the Aristocrats or my solo albums, it’s more about the songwriting. We now get more compliments about our music than we do about a particular solo or a drum fill in a song. This is what we’ve always wanted.
It didn’t start out that way. When we first started playing together, we could see people in the front row watching our hands and feet, and so on. Once we really focused more on our writing, our songs weren’t just platforms to shred over, but thoughtful compositions based on the talents of each band member. Now we have a loyal fan base that knows the melodies of our music; they sing along and get excited when we play their favorite tunes. It’s gone way beyond the chops and is now about our catalog of music that the fans look forward to hearing. This is what we’ve been trying to achieve for so long, and we’ve finally reached that special place as a band. And it feels really good!
MD: What’s obvious during an Aristocrats show is the playful, relaxed attitude of the band, and the joy that you each bring to the audience by involving them in the show.
Marco: First of all, we never take ourselves too seriously. The biggest mistake that you can make in a band is to distance yourself from the audience by thinking you’re better than them. We love to bond with our audience and share the stories of how we created our music, and celebrate each gig that we do with our fans. We want them to encounter a very personal experience with us.
MD: With the Aristocrats, each style that you perform sounds authentic, not contrived or forced.
Marco: We’re all about the same age and grew up playing all these styles of jazz, metal, rock, funk, blues, and pop music. So we know how to play it properly. That’s what makes it fun for us, to compose material that flows from one style to the next and incorporates the sounds and structure that really make each style work.
MD: The maturity of your playing is obvious when you’re playing with the Aristocrats. You’re relaxed and flowing, whether it’s an intense metal passage, a sensitive jazz section, or an uptempo funk groove. You’ve mastered the art of stick control and economy of motion around the drumkit. And your feet can play virtually any pattern under all of this.
Marco: After so many years of learning hundreds of complex songs, the rhythmic ideas just start flowing, and all the technique involved in executing certain drum parts just happens naturally. I really don’t practice anymore. I just learn songs and develop new ideas from the music that I write and record. And touring with so many different bands helps to build your rhythmic vocabulary.
MD: What kit are you using on the new Aristocrats album?
Marco: The same kit that I have on tour now with the Aristocrats, which is my old whitewash DW Maple Collector’s series kit with a 23″ bass drum that I’ve had for years, just sitting in my garage. It’s always worked, no matter what the musical situation.
I had a recording session and needed some drums, but I didn’t want to break down my two other kits at home, a Jazz series and a Custom Cherry Wood, because they’re all miked up and sounding good for my home recording projects. So I pulled out this old kit.
I wasn’t sure how it would sound after sitting for so long. But I remember talking with Chester Thompson about how his old DW kit sounded sweeter with age because the wood changes over time. I wasn’t really convinced of this because of all the plies of wood in the shells. I mean, I was certain that it worked that way with guitars, but drums with glued layers? I was skeptical at first.
But after I set up my old kit and began to play it, I decided Chester was totally right. It sounded amazing. So I started using it more and more for sessions, recorded the new album with it, and then brought it on the road for this tour. I’m also using an old Gretsch Brooklyn snare that I found in Japan that sounds and feels unbelievable.
MD: Speaking of drumkits, it seems you’ve found a comfortable setup that hasn’t changed much over the past few years, which is quite scaled down from what you used during your early years on the clinic trail, with the vast array of pedals and triggers and such.
Marco: Yes, I’m very happy with my current setup. Those early years were really more driven by the drum industry, which from the mid ’90s until about 2005 was pushing this shred drumming movement that was all about who could play faster, how many pedals you can play, and all of this crazy independence stuff. Which I could do, but that was not my purpose of playing those things. It was always about the music, and it was very frustrating for me, because the attention was on the drum pyrotechnics instead of the music I was writing.
I’m glad those days are over and people are now taking me seriously as a songwriter, with the drumming being a part of the music that I write and not the focus. I still do some drum clinics and festivals, but that’s not my priority these days. It’s way more fun touring with my band and playing creative music for people that truly enjoy what we do.
MD: Talk about your recent Drumeo performance where you debuted your new song, “Drum for Your Life.”
Marco: I flew to Vancouver straight from the Cruise to the Edge experience, where I played with three artists—the Sea Within, In Continuum, and Steve Hackett. So on my flight home, I stopped off in Canada and spent two days recording videos for Drumeo. I composed “Drum for Your Life” in the hotel room when I arrived. It took me two hours to write the whole thing.
It’s a pretty complicated piece that moves through various permutations and modulations in 15/16. It started as a technical exercise but ended up being a pretty cool song that demystifies this so-called complex time signature and shows that it can become a truly beautiful rhythmic piece of music. I took from the Iron Maiden lyrics “Run to the hills, run for your lives” and came up with “Drum for Your Life.” [laughs] Playing in 15/16 is such fun, because you can divide it so many ways, like three times five or five times three, or modulate it and play it as a shuffle in 4/4.
MD: You’ve played with many progressive artists over the past few years. Talk about some of the more recent experiences.
Marco: These last couple of years have been extremely busy with different bands. The Sea Within is a very cool project. We each wrote songs and brought them to the studio together in London, and recorded for two weeks as a live band. The songs are very well written, and it was a fantastic experience. But this type of band is impossible to tour with, because everyone is in other bands.
Another great progressive recording was with In Continuum. The Cruise to the Edge experience was also amazing because I got to perform the classic Genesis catalog with guitarist Steve Hackett, who was an integral part of their best music. Another progressive project I’d like to mention is the Mute Gods. We recently released our third album, Atheists and Believers. I also get to play guitar and keyboards with this band.
MD: How were you able to memorize so much complex material with three bands for the Cruise to the Edge experience, in such a short period of time?
Marco: I booked a hotel room in Florida before the cruise and scheduled each day to learn two songs, maybe three or four on a good day. I spend half the day learning songs, then take a break, and then spend the second half of the day writing for the Aristocrats. It worked out well, and I was able to learn about sixty songs for the cruise, plus write my songs for the new Aristocrats album.
MD: You’ve written some very diverse, emotional, and complex music on My Sister. Talk about the various influences on this release, especially the Indian ones that are prevalent on several tracks.
Marco: From my musical collaborations on several projects and tours in India in recent years with bassist Mohini Dey and others, I was able to invite several incredible artists to record my music, which really brought a unique sound to the new album. When I started working on the tune “Lovers Calling” with Alex Lifeson from Rush, we each brought artists into the recording. I brought Mohini on bass, and Alex brought Maiah Wynne to sing the lyrics. Longtime Rush engineer Richard Chycki mixed that track, which sounds incredible.
I was invited to Bangladesh recently to perform on Wind of Change, a popular TV show with many amazing musicians. So I invited some of those artists to perform on my new music as well, such as violinist Anna Rakita on “White Sheets” and vocalist Aditi Singh Sharma, who is huge Bollywood star.
MD: How did you develop a musical relationship with Alex Lifeson?
Marco: When I started to record my last solo album, Borrego, the label contacted Alex to play on it. He replied that he would be delighted to. He’s a fan of the Aristocrats and knew of my playing, which was very flattering to hear. Alex played on three songs on Borrego, and we developed a friendship from there.
When I wrote “Lovers Calling” for the new album, it had his sound all over it. So I reached out and he was excited to record again. Ironically, we’ve yet to meet in person. I’m hoping to work with Alex again. We’ve developed a great musical chemistry.
MD: How did you recruit bassist/vocalist dUg Pinnick from King’s X for the track “Arrogance”?
Marco: He and I played together in a trio in Hollywood at the Whisky and became friends. He came to my house to record the track and nailed it. He’s such a cool guy to hang with. I wrote this song specifically with him in mind. It’s aggressive and bluesy, just like dUg!
MD: The insanely fast instrumental track that really allows your fluent, syncopated oddmeter playing to shine is “Shuttle,” with bass player Mohini Dey.
Marco: “Shuttle” was originally written as the coda for “Lovers Calling” with Alex Lifeson. But Alex said, “No, I’ve already played too many notes!” [laughs] So I arranged it to feature Mohini on bass. There are actually three pieces that I wrote for the album as “transport” pieces, “Shuttle,” “Ferry,” and “Car,” which all transport you into the next song.
MD: At this point in your career, do you have any goals that you would still like to accomplish?
Marco: I’m very happy that the Aristocrats are doing so well. I already have a few tunes in mind for the next album. I just want to continue to grow musically. I feel that if you ever think that you’ve done it all, then that’s when it’s time to move on to another career. I’m still learning, creating, and growing. That’s what I love to do.
Drums: DW Collector’s Series with maple shells
- 7×14 wood snare
- 22″ gong drum
- 5×14 steel or brass snare
- 8×10 tom
- 9×12 tom
- 7×8 tom
- 14×16 floor tom
- 16×18 floor tom
- 18×23 bass drum
- 14″ Avedis hi-hats
- 14″ K hi-hats
- 12″ Avedis splash
- 8″ K Custom bells (2)
- 20″ Constantinople Medium Thin ride
- 18″ Avedis Medium crash
- 17″ K Dark Medium crash
- 19″ K China
- 20″ Platinum Custom ride
- 21″ Armand Beautiful Baby ride (optional)
Hardware: DW 5000 single- or double-chain double bass drum pedal and hi-hat stand, cable hat
Heads: Evans G1 Clear on gong drum batter, ST snare batters, G2 Clear tom batters and G1 Clear resonants, EMAD or G1 Clear bass drum batter