Mark Craney
Photo by Lissa Wales

Just three years ago, at age 27, Mark Craney felt he had reached the peak of his career, with no more goals to attain. Life, with its inevitable twists and turns, showed him he was wrong.

“One day I gave a guy in a gas station my check and he said, ‘Wow, you play with Jethro Tull! I guess you can’t get much bigger than that.'” Craney recalled. “I went home and thought about it and realized that most of my dreams had been fulfilled: a record, a piece of a record, touring, compatibility, great guys. It was kind of a shock to think that there was nowhere else to go.”

With the security of actually being a part of a band for the first time, Mark, his wife and daughter moved from L.A. back home to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, purchasing their “dream” home. It was less than a year later, however, when Mark received a letter from Ian Anderson explaining that it made more sense to have his entire band be comprised of people living in England.

“At first I was in shock, and then after that, my wife and I honestly got excited again about what might be around the corner. I began to feel more like an artist again rather than just a comfortable guy. Since then, I have a whole new batch of goals and dreams to get going. The sky’s the limit.”

It certainly seems that way, considering the fact that Craney continues to play with pop artists without having had any formal training, except briefly in the eighth grade, while still using traditional grip. “I changed to matched grip in ’76 when I joined Jean-Luc Ponty because it was such an intense band. It was the peak of fusion days and we were like a band of Jack La Lannes. I could get around much better with matched grip. The transition was a little bit difficult at first, control-wise, but it was worth it for the accessibility you get out of it. I’ll still go traditional on bebop or something like that if I have the occasion. I play left handed, and in eighth grade, when I went to band lesson, when the teacher found out I was right handed, he tried to make me play right handed, so I just left. My dad played drums and that’s the way he played. In the deep Midwest of South Dakota, you don’t know any better. You get a set of drums, you set them up and you bang on them. My dad was probably the only guy in town who was playing drums at the time.”

Mark also feels that the lack of musical activity in his hometown may have actually helped him to develop his own style. “If you don’t have that many influences, you still develop it, but it doesn’t come out sounding like a lot of other people, comparatively speaking. I guess your style comes in mostly ideas, approaches, and when you get to a spot where you think you dare put a little something in, you do, and maybe it will be some sort of a signature. But it really may have been to my advantage that I couldn’t see people and compare myself to them and their playing.”

Although his influences were limited, he cites Ginger Baker as his prime inspiration and began playing double bass drums at age 12. Billy Cobham followed (“He was just an idea dispenser; they flew off of him.”) as well as Jack DeJohnette (due to a George Benson album, Beyond the Blue Horizon), Dave Garibaldi back in the club days, and Tony Williams, one of his alltime favorites. Today, his favorites include Steve Gadd (“When he does stuff, you can’t help but think, ‘How in the heck did that work? Let me go try that out.’ He gives it everything he’s got, every beat, and he’s one guy who could just coast. He could play the way he plays with about 1/10 the energy, but he doesn’t do it the times I’ve seen him.”) and Terry Bozzio (“He really digs in! Anybody who digs in is okay with me. That makes a big difference. I don’t like these guys who let the machines do most of the work in the studio, or even live, where they let the sound system do the work. I really like somebody who digs in like Bozzio or Tony Williams.”).

As far as his own playing preferences, they are as varied as his musical experiences. “I suppose my preference is funk and Latin kind of stuff because you can really use a lot of different figures and patterns and you can use both arms and legs real well. But I love to back up a singer, too, with a nice quiet groove, and when the singer starts to get excited, I like to go right along with him or her. In an instrumental solo, I like to just kind of trail along behind it, always keeping the feel there, of course. That’s the most important thing, but they’ll go into any sort of figure where I’ll get on two kicks just for a minute or even pound out with two kicks at the peak of the solo. With a vocalist, I love to just color around it and do real slight little things. That’s what I really love to listen to in the privacy of my own home, like James Taylor’s last album with Rick Marotta. There’s some brilliant drumming on there and it’s real subtle. But I love to mix and match with music, and the same with gigs. When I was back in the Midwest, I would play little club gigs and haul my own gear, and then I would go to Madison Square Garden with someone. There was a club band I played with at home and we played everything from Al Jarreau to Foreigner. The band was real expressive and the bass player and I go way back. We went out on a limb on every tune and that’s what I loved about it. I never ended up playing a Foreigner tune the way they play it.”

In late 1975, Mark moved to L.A., and just a month later, he landed the Ponty gig. “I didn’t come out, pay my dues and play the blues and all that. I came out with a club gig, with money in my pocket and a month later, I was in Jean-Luc’s band and it was great. It’s been proven to me a million times.

“I learned a lot from Ponty. It was my first major gig and he coached me along real well, taught me a lot of ins and outs, accompaniment and stuff. I learned about not shifting from the hi-hat to the cymbal real abruptly when backing someone up because it changes the color of the solo and things like that. He and I used to do a big duet in this 7/4 section which was a lot of fun. His energy was always terrific and it was a real good band. In the studio, he wasn’t sure how it was going to go because it was my first record. As it turned out, though, it went real well. I always ask for a little spiritual help when I go into those confrontations and it always gets me through. I couldn’t have been happier with any of it—the gig, the tours, the response. It was a great way to start out because he’s a very respected artist.”

Mark remained with Ponty throughout most of 1976, during which time they toured consistently and recorded Imaginary Voyage. Even after leaving Ponty, Craney returned in 1980 to record Civilized Evil. He left, however, to tour with Tommy Bolin, who he had known, since they were both from the Midwest. “We had a great time. He was a real gifted guy. Rather than overkilling with wild guitar playing, he was special at sort of teasing the audience. He’d put you on the edge of your chair, begging for some sort of hot little thing and then he’d give it to you.”

Following Bolin, Craney toured with the Mark-Almond Band and recorded an album with them that got shelved, then played with a Latin fusion band, Caldera, for a short time.

“That was a lot of fun,” he said. “There was lots of percussion and lots of noise with endless solos and stuff like that. They were really wired. I play sort of on top of the beat, myself, but with those guys, the further on the top of the beat, the better. They probably thought I was dragging.” Shortly after that, Mark happened to be talking with Ponty’s manager one day, who mentioned that Ponty had just hired Gino Vannelli’s past drummer, Casey Scheuerell. Mark immediately phoned A&M Records and a half hour later, he was talking to Vannelli. The next day, he found himself under scrutiny at Vannelli’s house.

“I was in a small room with his brothers and dad there, and it literally was being put under a microscope. He had his new tunes and he was just developing the Brother to Brother concept with guitar and bass, because everything prior to that was all keyboard. It had a lot of different feels and he had me play real slow, real frisky stuff, a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and it was in real cramped quarters. It’s the most intense audition I’ve done. Since then, I’m ready for everything. I love auditions and it’s not a matter of what’s wrong with me if I don’t get it, ever. People should try to realize that, because so many artists are fickle, or it could be that someone else is a friend, or it could be pressure from the company, or it could be a number of things. It’s a waste of time to sit and grill yourself about what’s wrong with you. The other thing is that you’ve got to try to accept the fact that there’s room for everybody, rather than come back from an audition and say, ‘Oh, this bum got the gig and I can play circles around him.’ That won’t do you any good either. I experienced a lot of that in Ponty’s band. We’d play these little jazz clubs where you know the whole crowd is just musicians out there saying, ‘I could do that. I want that gig.’

“I do believe that there’s a certain cockiness that you have to have when you’re young, though. In high school, I thought I was pretty cool. I had the longest hair and the most drums in town. My folks took me down to see Buddy Rich and that’s just what I needed at the time. Ever since I’ve seen him, it’s just been nose to the grindstone. Be proud of what you can do, but do your best and keep quiet about it. I was giving lessons back home to one guy in particular who is brilliant. He was just 17 and he’s from an even smaller town than Sioux Falls. He could get a grip on just about everything I showed him and he was wearing that cockiness, but I’m just waiting for it to fall by the side, like it has to. That initial cockiness is so important and it’s a real crucial point in a player’s career when he gets enough confidence out of it and then he can just leave it behind.”

Continuing about his teaching approach, Mark says, “I usually just watch them play for a while in the beginning. I try to see where they’re wasting energy, where they’re crimping up, if their bass drum heel is on the ground, which is how a lot of them are taught, I guess, although it doesn’t make much sense to me. Most of them want to get out there and hit hard and you’re not going to do that with a heel on the ground. After that, I just try to get an idea of what they can absorb, and try to keep their interest. I don’t drill at all and I don’t deal much with books and rudiments because most of them are doing that in school. I try to give them what I think they’re looking for, and that’s the rockier and funkier stuff. As far as their developing their own styles, there’s probably more of my own style in them in the beginning, but if someone comes back with something, doing it wrong, then there’s his new style maybe. Basically, I try to help them discover their own ideas. Any little idea that they come back with differently, or they forget exactly how it works, is something new and I really encourage that. There’s no right or wrong to it as long as the time is there.

“I really believe in taking chances, also. When I go sit-in at a club in L.A., for instance, where everyone just expects the norm, I’ll go in the other direction and go out on a limb. There’s always one guy who is wrinkling his nose at you, but the important thing is to give it a go. All the players I lived with back home are deathly afraid of coming out here, but what’s it going to take? Six months and you’ll know if it’s for you or not. I think if you can come out with a straight attitude and really search and not get in your own way, you can find out. What is more worthwhile than finding out right away, rather than wondering for the rest of your life and crying in your beer? If you come out and your nose gets broken, you can go back and go into business with dad or something, but you can be happy the rest of your life knowing you gave it a try. If I woke up tomorrow and couldn’t play for some reason, I’d find something else. It doesn’t have to be the end of the world.”

For Craney, however, that day does not seem to be in the near future. He got the gig with Vannelli in 1978, recorded the Brother to Brother album and toured with him as well. Vinnie Colaiuta, who, Craney comments, is a great drummer, recorded Vannelli’s Nightwalker, and it was at that point that the Jethro Tull gig came about for Craney.

“That was another lesson in learning not to complain. I went to New York to do a very low-budget demo with Eddie Jobson [keyboards] from U.K. and I groaned all the way. I took the subway from the airport, my arms were stiff from carrying cymbals and everything else, we did the tape and I was sitting there wondering what I was doing there. As it turned out, though, Eddie was called to do Ian’s solo album, so he was in London and the drummer they had didn’t work out. Eddie had the tape I played on in his pocket and put it on. I was in L.A. with our savings dwindling, out mowing the lawn, and I got a call to go over there. I was on my way to London the next day. The solo album turned into the Tull A album and we turned into the band, so it happened pretty magically, as usual. It always seems to work out that way when you least expect it.

Mark Craney“It was a great gig. I just slid in and it was an equal thing with the other guys who had been there for 12 years. Everyone had a piece of the album. I’ve been very lucky in that the people I’ve worked with have been pretty straight ahead. If Gino tells you something, it holds up. It isn’t some late-night lush response. Everyone thinks Ian Anderson is a maniac. The furthest he or myself has ever gone are a few beers now and then. I think he’d rather be thought of as more of an intellectual than a rock ‘n’ roll singer. With the A album, he kind of went out on a limb. It was a different avenue for Tull fans. There’s a song called ‘The Pine Marten’s Jig’ which has a million twists to it. I don’t know what time it was in. I’m fairly acquainted with odd times, but these guys just learn something and say, ‘Well, it kind of goes like this,’ and then you learn it the same way. They don’t have any charts and they don’t even know what time most of the stuff is in. It’s kind of a soulful approach and I like it. That song was basically three or four sections and we took it section by section. The bass player, Dave Pegg, worked with me mostly on it. They all had about a twoweek jump on me because I got over there a little late. I would listen to it and take the tape back to the hotel and just play it while I was brushing my teeth or something, and so I got real familiar with it. That whole gig was just wide open for me and nobody ever said ‘Play this or play that.’ It was all just my own contribution, which is ideal. Even on the old stuff, nothing was ever said about what to play when we rehearsed for tours.”

Mark is back with Vannelli now, finishing the Twisted Heart album and beginning his third album with Gino. While the process is grueling, it is also rewarding since Vannelli uses the band’s imput to finish his music.

“He comes in with a few changes and some lyrics and we go through every possible combination of bass, drum and guitar, punch-ins, and things like that, and I throw out what I think he might like. He has lots of ideas too. And after seven hours, going bar by bar, we end up with a track, somehow. It amazes me. By that point, everybody is sort of pulling his hair out. It’s like a chess game, but we get it done. The saving grace of it, though, is that we get to put in our two cents.

“This album is actually pretty interesting with drums because I’m triggering a drum machine. I’m using a real snare and a real kick drum that is triggering the Linn machine, then real cymbals. The toms I’m using are Syndrums that are plugged into the Linn, so it’s a real adjustment because there are no dynamics to it. So far, we’ve used it throughout the entire project. It’s really strange though. If I hit a tom, it’s just the same level throughout, plus, if my mind is off while I’m doing the track and I have to hit the floor tom, here’s this floor tom about the size of a tea cup and I’ve got to stop and think, ‘Oh, where is that sucker?’ It’s kind of tough. Gino is talking about taking it out live like this and I think if we do, I’d have to go with those mic’s that go inside the drum, the May EA mic’. This system we’re using now makes sense and there’s separation and the kick sounds great and it’s real clean, but to play it, it’s strange. Then the weirdest feeling of all is when he hasn’t got the toms up in the phones and I’ll go to play them and there’s no sound there. At least it’s me keeping time, though. The material is really good and quite electronic. Joe, his brother, is playing all synthesizer—no Fender Rhodes or any of that stuff. It’s a good record and the chemistry we have now with Gino is real magical with Jimmy Haslip on bass and Mike Miller. We do good take after good take. Sometimes they want it a little faster or a little slower and then he may change the arrangement after he takes it home and listens to it. Then we’ll have to go back in and re-cut it just to change one little push beat or something, but it’s good. The listening part is probably the biggest part for me. It’s an obligation to keep my facility together, like having a well-tuned car and then you can do whatever you need to do with it.”

Mark has managed to keep his abilities honed by practicing. While he is back living in L.A. now, his time in South Dakota had both its advantages and disadvantages. Of course, it isn’t easy keeping your name alive in the hub of the music industry while residing in the Midwest, but as Mark explained, the time and serenity actually did his art a lot of good.

“I had the world’s most inspiring drum room there and I could just play around. I had several different kits and cymbal setups so I could work with whatever mood I was in from a little jazz set to a big monster-tom set. I did more woodshedding there than I’ve done all my life. It was kind of frustrating to be sitting back there, playing better than I had ever played without putting it to real use, though. I’d been provided with all the finest instruments I could possibly hope for and there I was sitting back there.

“When I practice, I usually start off with my warm-up, which is just really to play around, all over the place, whatever I can think of. Then if I stumble across something that’s interesting and I like the way it works, I’ll go back and dissect it and figure out exactly how it works and then improvise on that. I find teaching is helpful with that too, because when somebody is asking how something worked, once I explain it to them, I realize I’m just discovering it myself. A lot of the stuff I do is just from the hip. It really is. It’s real effortless and always has been. It’s just expression to me. I think of myself more as an artist than a musician, I think. With Jethro Tull, the lighting director wanted me to try to keep my solo similar each night so he could do his lights, and that was probably the toughest part of that gig. Once I’m into a solo, it’s my time to just express myself.”

With Tull and Ponty, he used his double bass drums a lot, but only uses them some of the time with Vannelli, who is a stickler about the drums and feels they aren’t able to get the desired separation when he uses both drums.

Mark Craney“In the studio, it’s good to have them there and have the fader up on it, because if we get into a moment of something where it works, it’s great. In the band back home, the Torpedos, I was using the double bass quite a bit, just for fun. It isn’t always shifting gears to two kicks and staying on them. I’ll throw them in on a fast triplet figure or 16th notes and stuff like that. There’s a lot you can do with them. For the readers who might be thinking about it or starting, the way I started way back was I just let my hi-hat foot wander around and a lot of little patterns came up, rather than just consciously sitting and trying to work it out. I just let it wander on the kick drum, rather than the hi-hat, and it worked out pretty well. I haven’t found that I give any less attention to the hi-hat, though, because that is really my favorite piece and I lean on it quite heavily.

“I’ve been using the double with Gino, mostly live, and while it’s only for certain parts, I like to have it. I don’t overdo it and I wonder why these drummers who have a dozen toms and dozen cymbals wouldn’t think to work a little on their other foot and have two bass drums. We’re talking rhythm and pattern here. It just makes sense to me. There are drummers who say they can do everything on one. Fine, but I know what it’s like to kick it in at the end of somebody’s solo or something. Even my mother says when I get on two bass drums, that does it to her. I like to throw it in with two hands and two feet. It’s got to be a real energetic situation or energetic section of what is going on and I like energy, so maybe that’s why I like them. It takes a lot of momentum to get them in sync and do them right, and a lot of energy. Sometimes I miss it when I could be putting-it to good use if I’m sitting-in at some club or something. But it’s hard for me to be objective, because I’ve always had it.” Recently, Craney has been using the Drum Workshop double pedal in stu dio situations where he can’t use two bass drums.

Craney likes a big set and is extremely pleased that he is endorsing Gretsch. He particularly likes their thin shells, and primarily uses 22″ and 24″ bass drums and the power toms in sizes of 8″, 10″, 12″ and 13″. He uses three floor toms ” for the sake of staying limber,” he jokes, which are 14″, 16″ and 18″. He usually uses a 6 1/2″ brass snare and a set of timbales off to his right. He endorses Paiste cymbals and uses a large variety including the 2002 China cymbals, four crash cymbals, a ride or two and little bell cymbals, in addition to his 14″ hi-hats. His plans for the future include remaining in L.A., working with Vannelli and taking advantage of the musical environment. “I really like the little fill-in things, and now that I’m out here, whatever I can pick up just for fun.” Last month he was recording with Glenn Hughes and Pat Thrall (Hughes-Thrall Band) and he is also hoping to get his own project off the ground with a band that is primarily Vannelli’s back-up band.

“I love the idea of starting a band from the ground up again and doubling up on rooms, or whatever it takes, and working on something that you’re really involved with. The other stuff is there and you can fall into that forever. You can go work in Vegas if you want and buy a couple of houses and cars and all that. My bag is still to play for a lot of people, hopefully for their enjoyment, on record, videos and on the road. I ‘ ve always just tried to relax and let it all fall together because I believe in the gift I’ve been given. I’m simply a vehicle for it; it’s certainly not a talent or that kind of thing. I try to stay physically and mentally on top of it so it can continue and I can play for people. When you’re in front of 20,000 attentive fans, you have a responsibility to try to get something across to them and to do a good job. That’s the bottom line. I want to do a good job and provide for my family. When I was young, I never dreamed about coming out to the West Coast or doing records or any thing. It was all just kind of a nice chain of events. To be honest, I was always just very thankful for what was going on at the time. There were hard times, but I don’t really have many memories of that. I just have fond memories and I have my folks and my wife to thank mostly. My folks backed me from age 12 all the way. I never worked a day in my life and they’d give me a welcome-home dinner and a going-away dinner within the same week if there was a gig to be done. My wife is the same way, so I have total support and that really makes a difference. I guess I just always expect the best. Too many people expect the worst and leave it at that. I have always been very fortunate. I’ve always been thankful for the things that have come along and for the gift I’ve been given.”