Not long ago, two readers wrote separate letters that said, “I just saw the movie Woodstock. Who was the young drummer playing with Santana?” That “young drummer” was Michael Shrieve. Michael has traveled many literal and figurative miles since 1969 and Woodstock. His brand of drumming, mixed with the rock/Latin music of Santana took most people by surprise. “Evil Ways,” “Jingo,” “Black Magic Woman,” “Everybody’s Everything,” “Oye Como Va” and “No One To Depend On” were some of the Santana hits that Michael played on, and he was the last of the original Santana members to hang on in the midst of numerous personnel changes.
After leaving the group, Michael recorded an album entitled Blessing In Disguise that is listed in the Paiste Profiles of International Drummers, but in fact was never released. The formation of Automalic Man came next, followed by the realization of a five-year dream to work with Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta. Together with Steve Win wood, Michael and Stomu recorded three albums with this group GO that were very well done.
When GO disbanded, Michael wrote music with his brother Kevin and started rehearsing a band called Patterns. This was when I interviewed Michael for the first time in the Oct./Nov. ’79 MD. Even before that interview hit the press, Palterns had disbanded and Shrieve had decided to forget about bands for a while.
This interview picks up where the last one left off. Shrieve has returned to the stage with Novo Combo, who’ve released, two albums on Polydor Records. In addition, he’s still actively pursuing his concept of blending “earthy” percussive rhythms with “ethereal” electronic music. The gist of most of this interview is in how he’s dealing with it. Michael is a complex man; sometimes hard to interpret but always interesting.
Rather than being an interview about drumming per se, the conversation seemed to lean more towards what Bill Bruford called “life past the cymbals”; the aspects of a musician’s career that involve the creation of music and the marketing of music.
SF: The last time we spoke you were rehearsing Patterns. Shortly thereafter you disbanded the group.
MS: That was a group I had with my brother Kevin. I just didn’t want to spend any more time doing that. It was really great, especially working with Kevin because of his ideas and concepts.
SF: What happened between Patterns and Novo Combo?
MS: The first thing was I said, “Forget about bands.” Even before Patterns there was Automatic Man. There’s so much that goes into a band: the making of it; the working of the music; the personalities involved. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes. The audience never sees that part of it. It’s really a complicated process, especially if it’s not the right energies together.
Kevin and I went to Germany and worked with Klaus Schulze for a month. I’d been listening to his music for quite a while. He was supposed to be in Patterns after we got it to a certain point it never got to. We made some music that was, and still is, wonderful music.
Prior to Patterns and going to Germany I was very interested in working with the relation of sound, rhythm, color and graphic images. I was always watching computergraphic video tapes I’d acquired from computer artists. I’d sit home and look at those tapes with different music. By putting the same visual computergraphic images with color videosynthesis, and putting different music to the same images, it was phenomenal. Your eyes and body perceive the images in different ways. Same image, different music. That started fascinating me. I’m sure that filmmakers and people who do film scores deal with this all the time. But these were abstract computergraphic images that were really beautiful and seemed to be speaking some language. There seemed to be something encoded there. So I was anxious finally—after playing everybody else’s music—to make some of my own music with these videotapes. That was also part of my reason for going to Germany.
I came back, finished the tapes in New York, put them with the visual images and was really in heaven watching this. There was no furniture in the house except my video machine. It was real Zen. I was gearing up for videodisc too. I went to record companies trying to sell this for about a year. I just couldn’t sell it. Everybody I played it for liked it. Even people in record companies. It was beautiful music because it had a rhythm to it, yet it had a flow above it. So you had something that was grounded. It wasn’t just space music. With a lot of electronic music, I loved the sound and what it did to me, but I was hungry for maybe just a little more solid rhythm. Not necessarily heavy handed either. Just a pulse that would keep you there. I felt that we were successful in doing that. I’ve just had a hard time selling it.
SF: What was the record companies’ response to it?
MS: “Where’s the hook?” In retrospect, I obviously went to the wrong places. Now I’m going to smaller labels who are more interested in that kind of music. You can’t put expectations on certain types of musical ventures. You have to go into it with open eyes, an open heart and a real love for it; with no false expectations as to what you’re going to receive from it monetarily, or in the amount of people who are going to appreciate the music. You have to do it understanding that it’s only going to reach a certain amount of people, and most likely those people are going to love it. But, you can’t be bitter because more people don’t hear it. It’s like we were discussing once about bitter jazz musicians who say things like, “Well, John Coltrane never had a hit record.”
Cindy Shrieve: But electronic music is more successful now, I think, because of film scores and stuff.
MS: That might be the place to go for it rather than going to Columbia records. So…you also learn where to bring it. We’re talking about how to get your music released once you’ve recorded it. It’s up to the artist. If you can’t find a way then create one. There are alternative ways to do it. I’m just learning that it’s part of my job and responsibility—if I’m going to make music that’s electronically oriented—to find out who’s interested, put a package together that’s interesting and have them release it. It’s easier said than done. I’ve gone to a lot of places. I don’t have any doubt that this album will be out. Either that or it’ll be like Muzak on the Space Shuttle!
SF: What was the inspiration behind Novo Combo?
MS: After attempting to sell the electronic music, working more with Kevin and a few things that happened personally—I had a bunch of equipment stolen—that stopped my process of looking at the screen and the visuals. I began to be hungry to be in front of an audience again. Enough people had come to me and said, “We wish you were playing. Where can we see you play?” So after saying “no more bands,” actually I missed it. When you’re raised and weaned in a band like I was, you start to miss that feeling of your mates and the camaraderie of doing things with other people.
This was when the record business was just beginning to get really rough. I figured, “Best to get started now because surely it will come out of the slump.” Here we are three years later and it’s worse than ever in some ways. In other ways it’s the same as it is with the electronic music. I really don’t see barriers or obstacles, although it may be more difficult. Less artists are signed. Less records are being played on the radio. But, still there’s nothing that’s insurmountable. It’s a matter of seeing it for what it is and moving towards that. Looking at it with real eyes.
I wanted Novo Combo so that I could be in front of audiences again. Also, the idea of beginning a band from the bottom up was appealing. And no matter that I’m Michael Shrieve who used to play with Santana. “Hey, remember me from Woodstock?” In the record business, they just want to know when your last hit record was. Although they may have respect for me, it’s down to dollars and cents and what kind of band you have.
We started like every other band and played every little dive in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey. When guys come up to me and say, “It’s easy for you!” I think, “You didn’t see me carrying equipment up stairs. You didn’t see four guys in my apartment sleeping on the floor.” I don’t want to hear about it. I really don’t. I’m sure all this experience has been really good for me, having been from one side to the other. Starting from the beginning. Just like when I was a kid living in California, I wanted to move to New York. I used to live and re-live 52nd Street when Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles and all those guys were there jumping from one club to another, all on one block. That aspect of moving to New York was always exciting for me. So I did it.
It’s the same thing with the band. There are certain things that you dream about doing and eventually you do it. Novo Combo provides a working situation that, hopefully, I can continue to grow in. In a band, that’s always a touchy situation. Are you growing at the same rate as other people? Are they growing at the same rate as you?
SF: People probably do assume that you can just call a record company and say, “Hi, this is Mike Shrieve. I’ve got a new band,” and they’ll say, “Oh yeah? Great! Come on down and we’ll give you a contract.”
MS: I didn’t think it would be easy. In fact, part of the whole thing was the challenge. I knew too many people in the record business around here and I’d heard them talk about other people. I gathered that they must say the same thing about me when I’m not around. It’s cold out there!
SF: Did you ever kick yourself for leaving Santana?
MS: No. I followed that through until it was really time for me to go. Seven years was a good length of time. At this point, Carlos, Michael Carabello and I are talking about doing something else together again. I’m sure that we will. I’m sure that will come full cycle. We’ve seen each other more in this last year than we’ve seen each other in the last six years, and there’s still that real strong camaraderie and bond.
SF: In Novo Combo you’re still playing with an “open” drum sound. You haven’t fallen into that “dead” studio drum sound.
MS: That’s one thing I insist on. Stylistically my playing demands it. I’m finally getting to the point where I do have some what of a style. Sometimes people call me up for sessions and I’m good at some things and not so good at others.
What I do, I do well, and it doesn’t always work in every situation. With Novo Combo the best thing for me to do is play how I play on the rim and off the toms, and a lot of upbeat things on toms. More and more now, from the second album on, I use timbale a lot in the drum kit. It would just sound silly if the drums were flat sounding and taped up. They have to ring out. It’s a good thing that my style doesn’t sound good without an open sound. That’s the approach I have to drums.
SF: Do you miss the progressiveness of the music of the ’60s?
MS: There’s progressiveness happening right now. In the ’60s there were so many bands. It was easier to get signed and it was easier, in a sense, to be freer with the music. You could experiment more and people would listen to it. I think there’s a lot of good stuff happening now, but I will agree that it can be very stifling being a musician and wanting to make a record that a lot of people will hear, because of the state of the record industry and radio. They are extremely different now than they were in the ’60s. Especially radio. The record companies react to radio, actually. They want to hear a group that has a song that radio will play. They don’t want a song that they like. They want a song that radio will like. So, really who’s got the power?
SF: You think radio is dictating to the recording industry?
MS: Without a doubt. The playlists are shorter and shorter. They have demographics and whole companies to find out, “Well, what songs are we going to play?” Then 400 stations play those songs. There are about three companies that determine what America listens to. They’re the ones who determine what’s going to work. That’s what you’re dealing with. Again, you can look at that as stifling—which sometimes I do—because I’m eclectic in my taste and in the things that I desire to do. I could say, “Who wants to bother with that? I’ll just move to Germany! I’ll move to Europe.” That’s a possibility that’s always there. I walk a thin line between staying in America doing this or going to Europe or Japan. I always have. It’s like an actress doing commercials to make a living instead of acting.
SF: After you’ve auditioned, rehearsed, done a demo and found a record company that releases an album, what determines whether that record is going to sell? How much control do you have over what happens to the record?
MS: Not much. That’s why all those steps have to be thoroughly taken care of beforehand. With a new group you have to choose management wisely. Then between the group and the management you have to choose a record company wisely. You have to make sure relationships are good in the record company between the company management and the company, and between yourself and the record company. Everything is changing so much in the record companies. One week your man in the record company is there and a week later he could be gone! It happens all the time. I mean, 300 people were fired from Columbia this last year. We’re talking about people that’d been there for a long time.
What we’re talking about is having a hit record. And building a group that over a period of time really becomes something that’s speaking/or you. A group that you can feel proud of musically and proud in building and continuing, that’s worth all the time and trouble it takes so in the outcome you’re going to feel pride on a multitude of levels. It’s not an easy thing to do without compromising yourself too much. That’s what’s the thin line for me. Because I grew up in America listening to the Beatles and loving songs. I never saw myself as like Ringo Starr because I was listening to Max Roach, Tony Williams or James Brown. I loved the songs the Beatles played. I still love songs. So, the idea is to play me in the songs and have me playing myself within a good song. It’s always a thrill to play a really good song with a real good singer behind it with the band pumping. It does pump the blood and there’s a rush that you get from being in front of an audience responding to you. It’s something that I can’t deny. Now, how much you have to go through for that nowadays is the question you have to keep asking yourself. Especially somebody like me who has other opportunities available. Most of my opportunities—although other bands ask me to play with them every once in a while—are geared more towards the experimental side of me.
SF: Such as the film score for The Tempest?
MS: The Tempest with Stomu or stuff with Klaus. Any number of things that I could get together.
SF: You don’t have to respond to this, but it seems that your heart is more with the music you play with Klaus and Stomu than it is with Novo Combo.
MS: Why do you say that?
SF: I don’t know. It’s just a sixth sense I have. I liked Novo Combo a lot. One of the first things that impressed me about the band was that it was playing good songs. But, it seems that your heart is more into the electronic music; that there’s an inner struggle of how to create that kind of music and still make a living.
MS: I guess I want to do both. To start a new band takes a lot of your energy and time. That’s what’s been happening with me. I’ve been willing to give my time to it and put everything I have into it because it demands it and deserves it. I guess in explaining the process it can sound like a real troublesome thing.
SF: My thought was that you seem to have a great affinity towards wanting to help people through music. I wonder if what you’re trying to do is possible in a rockband format? Did that ever cross your mind?
MS: It often crosses my mind. “What am I doing with my time? Is it being well spent? Am I spending it effectively? Am I being as effective a musician as I really can or should be?” It’s difficult. In some ways wherever you are or wherever you go is never going to be just now you envisioned it. Which doesn’t mean that it lessens the effectiveness of it or the quality that you’re receiving from it or what comes from you. Maybe I’ve learned, or been thinking that I learned, that there’s some patience required and a building process in getting to a desired place with other people. The place where you are being most effective. Then again, a rock-band format is clearly not the place to do some things. I know there are things I want to do and will do that won’t be within the confines of that kind of music; that can’t even possibly be considered within that structure because of what it’s geared for and how it’s geared.
It’s true, since the last time we’ve spoken, that I haven’t done much with my interest in sound, color, light and bringing those kinds of things together for healing aspects. I was just really starting to get into it enough that I was buzzing with it. I was feeling it really deeply and feeling some sort of lineage or heritage with it. It’s a strange feeling. It’s like how certain jazz drummers feel that they are carrying through with their tradition; that there is an actual lineage back to Africa. A heritage they’re going to stay with. They align themselves with it. That’s a really beautiful place to be.
Now, it’s true that what I do with electronics and just the thought of combining electronic sequential rhythms with traditional rhythmic instruments sets me off. There’s something about the idea of using a primitive, traditional instrument with a relatively new medium of music that just speaks loudly to me. It feels like there’s something that has to do with that simultaneousness of time past, future and present; where it’s all happening at once. That kind of thought concept just stirs these real deep things in me.
It’s the same thing as sitting enthralled with abstract computergraphic images, like a child watching a TV screen with no picture on it, just watching the dots and the colors changing. There’s something there that felt right. Something encoded. Something we don’t even know is occurring. Without trying to sound nebulous or real abstract…
SF: Too late!
MS: [laughs] We really don’t know what the effect of television is on us yet. We don’t know what the effect of sound from the city is on us and all the things that attack us aurally.
SF: The use of TV has undermined mankind tremendously. It doesn’t require you to think.
CS: It’s passive. Think how it’s integrated the way we’ve grown up. We’ve all grown up on it.
SF: Watching videos on TV is not like the visions one has when listening to a song on the radio or on record. These videos are dictating the interpretation of the songs. So that wipes out…
MS: Any interpretation on your own.
MS: That’s one of the big questions about video and music. A lot of people complain about that. We have to recognize that people didn’t realize, before they were watching these visual interpretations, that they were actually interpreting them themselves. Do you know what I’m saying? Until that was taken away, they didn’t realize they were doing it. It’s the same as saying you don’t miss something until it’s gone. Now that MTV is there, I’ve heard people say that they don’t like to see somebody else’s interpretation of the song. It’s saying, “Oh! This is the way it is? I thought it was this way or that way.”
CS: At least we realize that that image is being taken away from us. Kids just cease to create images in songs. They just wait for the video.
SF: It’s like reading a great book and being disappointed in the movie.
MS: There you go. Why didn’t I just say that?
CS: It’s still entertainment though.
SF: But at what price? There’s a controversy now about how video is affecting the recording industry.
MS: In actual fact it’s helping the recording industry. It’s helping new artists because kids will see a group on MTV where they might not hear the record on radio. They’ll buy the record because they’ve seen the band on TV. It’s been a boost for several new artists. Men At Work and Missing Persons are good examples. And it reaches millions of people.
How many concerts do you have to play to reach that many people? How much money do you save for an investment in a videotape?
It’s a form that’s in its infancy. I’m sure it’ll develop in some ways and in other ways it won’t. But for some artists—and this is true with anything and always will be true—it will be the perfect medium. For artists of the ’80s born with that duality of vision, they will seize it as an opportunity, as a means of expression they otherwise wouldn’t have, so that the music is just a part of their expression. They need visual images to fulfill the expression more. Eventually it will even create a different type of artist. It’s going to be good for some, but others are going to use it with the same unoriginality they use to deal with songs.
It could be the same as the way you approach any instrument. You sit down at the drums and it’s either something that keeps a beat or it’s more than that. It could be your means of communicating on another level.
The whole electronics era is, on one hand, going to take away a lot of things we might have to use our minds for. But, on the other hand, if we’re responsible as human beings, it’ll allow us more time to do things that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. So the questions are: What’s the quality of your time now that you have more time? If you had a million dollars, how would you use it? Now that you have this gift, what will you do with it? It will always come back to those same questions. You can say that the computer age is going to ruin us as sensitive human beings, but to the right people it’s going to open up possibilities that were unheard of before. It’s all in how we perceive any of the tools available to us. These things are here to stay. The right people will most likely be the artists and the creative thinkers.
SF: Why didn’t you work the electronics into Novo Combo?
MS: I wanted it to be high energy and good songs. The tendency with electronics was to get too carried away. But now I’m ready for it to be put into the group and I miss it. I miss the sound of keyboards and electronics. It’s so prevalent in today’s music.
SF: Why did GO disband?
MS: Stomu Yamashta put it together. The nucleus was Stomu, myself and Steve Winwood. I met Klaus through that. In a lot of ways it was terrific, but in a lot of ways it wasn’t quite what I had in mind. With Stomu, I had it in mind to do some “out there” percussion stuff. I wanted to work with him because he was a crazy, avant-garde classical percussionist. I didn’t want to be playing songs really.
SF: You didn’t expect to be playing drumset in GO?
MS: I did. But, after the third album it was like I was playing funk. Stomu was wanting to get into Western song forms it seemed, and I was wanting to take it out there into some percussion extravaganza. Somewhere along the line it got off-base.
I’d like to do more percussion things too. I still love the sight of a lot of drums onstage. I enjoy sitting down and playing but I also love standing up and playing. It’s a whole different experience. I’ve always loved to move. I remember a young drummer told me once that someone said to him, “You don’t dance, huh? You just play the drums?” And he said, “We maybe don’t dance, but we make the people dance.” I thought that was true, but wait a minute! When I see a guitar player crying on his instrument—I used to try to extract that out of the drums. I went through this process of, “Oh man. I play the drums. Man, I want to be crying and make people cry.” I went through this whole thing and then a voice spoke to me and said, “Son! If you want that then you have to do it from your instrument.” Then I said, “Okay, let’s get deeper into it. If you want to do that, pour it out of yourself and translate it through your instrument.” That happened early on in Santana. I just went deeper into myself as far as feeling and being unashamed. Not just keeping a beat, but going someplace else with it.
That’s a real deep part of me. Part of my responsibility is to go to the place in myself that cries. Naturally the best thing is to have music around you that will bring that out of you. You give out to that and it gives it back to you. It’s important for me to feel that.
SF: Can you express that more with electronic drums?
MS: On the electronic drums, when you play a roll using the snare sound, ring modulation and the echo processing the sound, the sound sweeps down and the echo continues it out. That’s the way I had always heard it on an acoustic snare drum. Like a press roll where dynamically you’d bring it up and then down. I remember with the big crowds with Santana, in my solo I’d try to experiment by playing loud and then come down real soft so that it was just dropping the stick on the drum, to see what I could get away with! I really loved doing that. I loved the sound of a stick dropping on a drum, or touching a cymbal. It’s the same with certain combinations of sound, like using the drums with sequencers. Electronic drums extended the sound out. This was, in a way, how I’d been hearing it.
I’d really like to get a solo performance together. To do something on my own, make it a musical statement and keep people interested. It’d be the kind of thing where I’d be standing up. Part of it is just for the expression. Part of it to feel that if all else goes wrong, I’ve still got myself and I can do this.
SF: When you compose, do you use a tape recorder?
MS: I can write some things on keyboard and a little on guitar. I can write drum parts. I don’t have a need to do it that often but I can write down ideas and read them.
SF: How “attitude” affects musicians is a study that’s fascinating to me. Could you comment on that?
MS: We all went to school and were taught certain subjects. A lot of us found that we were short-changed in how to live, or what to expect from life itself. If people had taught us how to deal with life on an everyday basis, and how to come to terms with ourselves in relation to whatever we wanted to do, then we would approach things with much more confidence and direction, instead of having dissipated energies and doubts as to what we really want to do, and why we want to do it. Anything that helps you to prepare yourself better for life, I’m for.
You see people in any field with a low self-worth image, so it puts them in a negative approach to their life, what they’re doing with it and how they’re moving towards the things they want. There’s a lot of clearing out to be done with our attitudes; things we came up with since childhood; things that have come upon us in our individual life experience.
I’ve done work on that lately to try to get to ground zero with myself in terms of what I want to do and what I have. It’s important, first of all, to come to terms with yourself and begin to love yourself. From there you can begin to look at things around you with a much clearer perspective and not be so affected by outside stimuli, whether it’s things around you or people around you. The untolled effect of all the things around us is that we’re reacting to situations instead of acting. That’s nothing less than second best in dealing with your life. And it’s not an easy process because there’s so much junk that we’ve all accumulated. You have to be willing to do some work on yourself.
SF: When you first told your parents that you wanted to be a drummer, did they encourage you?
MS: Yeah, and they gave me a lot of room to do things I wanted to do. I wanted to get away from where I was and where I grew up. I worked really hard to do that when I was young. I felt like I wanted to get somewhere fast. It’s funny when I hear people say, “You were 18 at Woodstock. That’s so young.” And it feels like I had so much that happened to me even before that. When I was 15 and 16 I was playing in bars. The only white guy in all black clubs playing James Brown tunes and stuff like that. My parents were very encouraging. My father used to drive me there!
SF: How did you relate in school to your teachers, and vice versa?
MS: Well, that was a different story. My grammar school memories are clearer than my high school memories. I feel like I was already gone in high school. I wasn’t participating in the activities that everybody was participating in. I was into music and I was hanging around with musicians. It was at a time where it wasn’t happening to be in music. So I didn’t feel like I was really there in high school and I ended up going to several different schools. Getting kicked out of one and going to another.
But, getting back to the point that there are things that we have to clear out, it’s just important to be in tune with yourself and what your desires are. There has to be some sort of higher reason or higher force behind them. You can’t just always work on what’s happening in the world. It has to be something more than that. You have to touch base with some deeper side of yourself everyday.
SF: In other words, work on yourself first instead of trying to solve the world’s problems.
MS: Definitely! It’s going to have to start with yourself. Because otherwise you’re just going to be contributing to whatever mess everybody else is in. You can’t take it for granted that everybody out there— even though they look together—is together. Or that their decisions are being based from a clear point of view. Everybody has a responsibility to take a good look at themselves and do some true homework. From there you nurture yourself, take some time for yourself and then you move out into the world. Who knows what happens when you look into yourself that way? You may change what you do! You may decide, “What I’ve been doing is not really what I want to be doing. I have something completely different to offer. Something much better for me and something much more positive to give to people. It could probably make me more money if I’m aligned with myself and doing something that’s really right.”
Often when I was younger, I would go straight for the heart of myself and do what I wanted to do. And success came to me. Now I find myself 12 years later and clearly it’s not the same. As much as I try to do what I want to do—whether it’s a band I want to put together or a record company, or that the market place is completely different—all those things have to be dealt with. Then again, you have to ask yourself, “Do I want to be in that marketplace or is there something I can do that’ll make me happier and make music that’ll be much more fulfilling to me? I could still make a good living from it.” I don’t need to be a millionaire. I just need to be happy and not at all in poverty.
SF: The “starving artist” myth.
MS: I don’t believe in the “starving artist” myth. I’m not saying I have loads of money. I’m saying that from the point of view that I’ve been around a lot of people who haven’t had money. I’ve had money and I haven’t had money. I’ve run the gamut of it and I still don’t believe in the starving artist. If somebody wants to play a certain type of music, then they have to say, “I’m going to play this type of music and I realize that there’s not a big market for it.” And you go to the audience that most accepts it. And you can’t yell at the rest of the world for not wanting to hear your music. There’s a lot of negativity you can put on something when people don’t want to hear it.
In light of that negativity, it demands a certain amount of self acceptance of what you’re doing. I’m not saying to bow down to anything, but there’s a certain amount of acceptance that you have to have in your heart to say, “This is what I’ve chosen to do.” If some love comes from it and into the music, I’d be willing to bet that there’d be a more positive reaction to what you’re doing.
SF: You can tell by listening whether it’s positive or negative energy coming from the music.
MS: Yeah. Sometimes you hear things and it’s just like somebody yelling and screaming, “Listen to me! Look at me!” It’s like the child in them saying, “Look at me!” Or they’re angry. And it’s all part of each individual’s evolutionary process. There’s no lying. There’s no getting around it. So, it’s up to us individually.
As far as drummers are concerned, I think it’s valuable to get into the history of the drums and the lineage of the drums, and see where it comes from. Then you’ll see what the drums meant in other times. You’ll see the respect that came from the instruments and the people who played the instruments. The people that played the instruments had a lot of pride and a lot of dignity in what they were doing. And there’s a power in that. There’s a shamanistic power in the drums, in the rhythm. Rhythm is still the heartbeat of everything that’s going on. There’s a pulse to every thing that’s happening. To get into that would enable one to be more accepting of what they’re doing.
SF: Do you think that when kids are looking for the keys to going from obscurity to fame, they center their attention too much on technique and equipment?
MS: Those aspects of drumming are necessary. But you’re going to have to under stand that there’s something even before that. Sooner or later you’re going to have to ask yourself “why” you’re doing what you’re doing. The natural response would be, “Because I love it,” or “Because I want to be in a band,” or “Because it brings attention to me,” or “It’s the thing to do.” But the more serious you get about it, you find that you were brought into that because of some other reason that’s deeper than you thought. Because those other things aren’t going to last.
Let’s say you get what you want. Let’s say you go for it and you get rich and famous. You’re going to have to ask yourself, “Well, now that I’m here, what is it that I really want from it? Is it all this stuff that’s happening around me or is it the instrument itself? What is in me and how does it come through the instrument?” Which opens up a whole lifetime of work, which can be very exciting. When you find your life’s work, it can be a very exciting place to be.
SF: Do you find the journey toward success more rewarding than the arrival? After Santana hit big, was it somewhat of a letdown?
MS: It wasn’t a letdown. And I don’t want to say that I love to struggle. But the process is exciting to me. It’s something that I feel good about feeling excited about because I do feel like I have a lifetime to do it. Everybody wants to be recognized for what they do. Anybody would be lying if they said they didn’t. And it’s terrific to be recognized for what you do. It’s feedback from people.
SF: When you knew in your heart that it was time for you to leave Santana, were you scared?
MS: I don’t think I got scared because there was a two-year period before I left where I thought, “There are things about it that aren’t the same. And it’s not doing the same thing to me anymore.” But, at the same time, I said to myself, “Listen, this is—for a drummer—a great place to be. Playing with great people.” I recognized that and said, “I’m going to stay until the time is right for me to leave.” It’s just like any other relationship. You look at the reason you’re there. You look at the common bond. You look at what you can add to it and you look at what you can receive from it. You look at the flow of energy that’s happening from it. If that is still flowing then it’s still a good thing. And if it’s not, either you check it out and work on it and talk about it, or else you say, “Listen, maybe it’s time for me to go somewhere else.”
SF: I think people outside have a hard time understanding why successful bands break up. It’s as if they’re thinking, “Why would they break up when they had such a great thing going?”
MS: It always looks different from the outside. That’s true, I’m sure, almost with anything. Even if you were looking at somebody’s life and you’re saying, “What a great life.” But look at things in the longer rhythm. Things aren’t always as they appear. So be patient with people even if they look like they’ve got everything going for them. It’s much better to look at somebody without jealousy and say, “Who knows what he’s going through?” He may have many more problems than you. Maybe he’s not even happy doing what he’s doing, even though it looks like it’s what you want.
And that’s the other problem with people saying, “Oh, I want this,” or “I want to be like that.” Relax. Forget about that and see what is right for you. There’s got to be some level of peace and happiness inside yourself from what you’re doing. And those things all come in a certain amount of time. People have to be patient with themselves.
There’s more to life than just being a big star and making a million dollars. It’s important to be aware of that. I just want to try to do my part and have my awareness aligned with my life with music. It’s just like the song that says: “Be careful what you’re dreaming/Because your dreams, they might come true.” And it’s true. All the things you think and do make up what you are. So by being aware of all those things, the work becomes a real joy. One of the best things in the process is the work! All the processes of drumming, of practicing, of interacting with other musicians and putting music together is a real joy. Performing is a real joy.
On one hand you’ve got your music/ drums. On the other hand you’ve got your life. Try not to separate them. Try to bring them together so that they’re harmonious with each other. If you’ve got a situation that’s difficult, bring it into balance with yourself in relation to the music. Let it drive you to higher heights. Naturally there’s practice and work involved in developing technique and feel, and getting in touch with that feel in yourself. There has to be a way to integrate all those things. Part of the reason we have difficult times with our music or lives is because we see everything as separate entities, when really it’s all a part of a whole. The more we can see everything in our life as integrated parts making up a whole, the clearer we’re going to focus on problems and situations, and be able to deal with them, rather than it being a scattered mess.
When I sit at the drums for four or six hours—whether I’m playing one rhythm for a long period of time, or playing with a rhythm machine or something like that—it creates a real trance-like quality. That’s what I love best about drumming. That trance. It’s the happiest place for me. It’s the deepest place inside and it makes me understand “why” I play the drums. While I’m in that place, it seems that a lot of other things going on inside me work themselves out or become more clear. All of a sudden I’m able to see things in a different light. Almost like a dream-state, or as if I was in meditation.
So that’s a place I like to go to. I just sit down and repeat a rhythm over and over. It also brings me to understand that that’s what drums were really always about. To induce a trancelike state. Then, within that, other things occur. That’s why I really like extended rhythmic pieces that repeat themselves.
SF: There’s a truism that the way we play an instrument is a reflection of the way we are as human beings. You’re talking about finding a balance in our lives and a peace within our lives, and I’m certain that will sound vague to many readers. The next obvious question is, “How do I go about attaining those things?” As we sit here it’s interesting to me that you have a huge record collection that includes music that everybody listens to, to music that nobody listens to. And you have a healthy library of books on subjects not all relating to music. How much have these things affected your outlook on life and your approach to music and drumming? And if someone’s total input was PacMan, AM radio and TV, what kind of effect will that have on their lives and their approach to music?
MS: They’re going to go for what they know in the beginning. They’re going to play the instrument for the reasons they want to play it. And they’re going to be affected only by what input they have. But at a certain point it’s not going to be enough. Then they’re going to ask themselves, “Well, what else is there?” And they might start listening to other things once they want to delve into it deeper.
SF: I’m sure all the great artists you’ve performed with were not shallow individuals.
MS: No. For the most part not. I prefer to be in an environment with people who aren’t. Not meaning “snobby.” I love street people. There’s always some depth to people who are doing something well, something that you find enriching. The kids will work it out. Out of 100 there will be five that want to do something more. The ones that want to will look for those things that will take them to the next place. There’ll just be that innate desire in those, and the rest won’t have it.
SF: Did you read a lot in high school?
MS: Yeah. Mostly literature. I was into Dylan Thomas and Charlie Parker! I wanted to read everything I could about both of them. When I was younger I was interested in any biographies, so that I could get some sort of perspective on my life, living in a small town, and a perspective on what other people had done and how they thought.
SF: You told me that when you were a kid you had the opportunity to meet all of your drum heroes. What did you talk to them about?
MS: When I was about 15 or 16, I saw Tony Williams playing with Miles outside the Both/And Club in San Francisco. I couldn’t get in so I stood outside. There was a window and the drums were right by the window. I stood out there all night and watched Tony because I was really familiar with his work. That was great. I waited around for him to come out. I didn’t talk to him about anything. I just met him.
When I was a kid I met Buddy Rich. I went to the hotel where he was playing with his band and I was too young to get in and couldn’t afford it. I waited outside in the lobby area of the room he was playing in. He came out and I had always heard that he was difficult to approach. I was with my brother and I just went up to him and said, “Mr. Rich, I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time. I even study out of your book. And we can’t get in.” He said, “Wait a minute.” He came back and two people ushered us into this table right in the front row where we watched the whole performance.
All these things were happening when I was so young. I snuck into a concert at Stanford University with the John Coltrane Quartet, with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner. We snuck in and went up through this passageway, then a window, and ended up in the men’s dressing room, where Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison and everybody were putting their ties on. I was like, “Oh boy! Here we are.” I said, “Listen, I’m sorry.” They just laughed and said, “Cool. We hope you enjoy the concert.” Jimmy Garrison was especially nice.
Another time I met Elvin when I was in Santana. He was playing at The Village Vanguard. I waited around until after and met him. I asked him about his cymbals. He said they were K. Zildjians. He was just the sweetest guy. It was snowing and we were standing with coats on. He just looked at me with those big eyes of his and that big smile and reached down into his cymbal bag and gave me his pair of hi-hat cymbals. Just like that! I’m still friends with Elvin and I see him every once in a while. That was just incredible.
SF: Have you had extensive formal training?
MS: I used to study with Mike DeLuca from the West Coast. He taught at Mickey Hart’s father’s music store. Mickey Hart was just working in the store and he was then the rudimental champion of California or something. Mike DeLuca was a terrific teacher for me. And I studied with Peter Magadini for a while when he was in San Francisco. That was really good too. I also studied with Anthony Cirone for a little while and then Michael Carvin. Michael could imitate any drummer. He was really in touch with his African heritage and the lineage of the drummer and the dignity of being a drummer. I had great teachers and they were all real different.
SF: How about when you were living with David Garibaldi?
MS: David Garibaldi was a teacher too. He was playing with Tower of Power and I was playing with Santana. Tower of Power was just like a local band playing in these little clubs around. I went and saw them and he was just so incredible even then. So I said, “Listen David, I’ve got this big house in Mill Valley. Why don’t you move in?” At that time in San Francisco, everybody— all the young drummers—were trying to sound like David Garibaldi. David had already taken the Bernard Purdie thing a step further. It was like a science to him. When we lived together we used to play together a lot and there were things that rubbed off. But I made it a point of not trying to play like him. In fact, one day he said, “How come you’re not doing that?” I said, “Well, I want to play my way.” We got into a big discussion about it. David and I have to get back in touch. That was a wonderful period when we were living together. There was a lot of music that went on between us.
You were talking about my record collection and my books. My taste has always been very eclectic. I listen to the Thompson Twins, Missing Persons, Thomas Dolby, Kate Bush, and Peter Gabriel. I enjoy that stuff as well as I enjoy electronic music, Bach and other classical music. Jazz. I do! It’s just important for me to listen to a lot of things. It was different with Santana than it is now. I even enjoy the business for what it is now. I’m not complaining. I just see it for what it is and that’s the game of what’s happening. If I choose to enter that then I have to enter that knowing what it is, and what I’m getting into. That’s why I’m not going to bitch and complain about it. It’s what it is. The music industry and music business is different then it was and if you want to be out there you have to have records that are selling. You have to grow in music and you have to grow in life.