John "Willie" Wilcox

Musician Make The Best Drummers

I’m really anti-drum in a sense. Obviously you need facility and technique, but I subscribe to music, “states Utopia’s Willie Wilcox. He has spent recent years becoming a total musician, developing his talents as producer, singer and songwriter, within the band and independently.
But Willie spent his early years concentrating on the facility and technique. Raised in the small town of Glens Falls, New York, Wilcox, at 13, was fortunate in finding his first teacher, Freddie Blood. In addition to delivering newspapers, Willie worked in Blood’s drum shop, learning to repair and clean drums in exchange for free lessons. One of his earliest highlights occurred when Gene Krupa, a friend of Blood’s, came to town and the three spent some time together. That same night, Krupa performed in town and called both Wilcox and Blood to the stage, relinquishing his drums to Willie while Blood took over the percussion and the two guests played a number with Krupa’s band.
“When you ‘re a baby, somebody has to take enough interest to help you believe in yourself during the period when you ‘re so fresh that you don’t know what to believe. Freddie did that.”
After Blood instilled the love of jazz in his student, Willie went on to Berklee and the Manhattan School of Music to further his education. There came a point, however, when he realized it was the practical playing experience he craved. And he has been getting this experience ever since with such artists as Hall & Oates, Bette Midler and Utopia. For the consummate musician, his current situation with Utopia is ideal since he is afforded plenty of time to work on his other areas of musical interest. Recently he moved from Florida to be closer to New York, the hub of the music business.
While Wilcox is cognizant of the fact that the music sometimes becomes a business, he has developed certain philosophies and perspectives on the less than positive aspects. Mere contemplation and understanding of the situation are positive traits, both of which are evident in the following interview. Our conversation took place in upstate New York during the making of Utopia’s Oblivion album, which was released earlier this year.
RF: Since you’re in the midst of recording a new album, let’s talk about Utopia’s recording process. How much overdubbing is involved?
WW: All the Utopia things had been done live until this present record. The method with this album, so far, seems to be that we lay down the basic form of the tune, instrumentally. Then I go back and put down my ultimate drum track, and they overdub to that. The other times we all played the track and waited until everybody as a band got the take that they liked. This time, we fell into this sort of pattern. It wasn’t discussed. We just started doing it. I actually like it in a way. It gives us a chance to think about it a little bit, especially since most of the tracks that we put down aren’t songs when we start. They’re just tracks with no lyrics or melodies. For instance, on this new album, we don’t have any idea what we’re going to do.
RF: Is that typical?
WW: That happens, but we also work sometimes with completed songs. Somebody will come in with a track or a completed song, and we just put it together and see how it comes out. This time, we only have a month to do the album, and so far, we’ve been doing a track a day, writing it and recording it. We’re doing pretty well. Somebody will have an idea, then somebody else will have another part and we link them together. It makes the songs different because they’re not conceived at once and they’re not conceived so much in a style. We can take any kind of musical idea and turn it into something else. The whole attitude could change depending on what sounds are used on it, how it’s played, at what tempo and other things. I thought I had two pieces of material for the album, each being its own separate piece, but the band only liked certain parts of each one of them, so it ended up that I used a verse from one and the chorus from the other. That’s one thing that’s different about writing for the band, and writing for myself or other people. We all have different musical styles, and a lot of times, the style that you may do naturally might not be totally right for the band. There are, however, certain parts of your style that the band can use.
RF: Or they can use what you’ve written and make it into their own style.
WW: Right. “Utopiaize” it.
RF: Continue with how you actually work in the studio.
WW: We play the arrangement live and get that down. Then we play with the drum machine. We’ve been using the Linn lately, but we have an Oberheim too. I go back and get the drum track really tight with the Linn. Then I get a chance to think about my part a little more and exactly what I want to do. I start to realize the different changes in the song. When you’re a studio musician, a lot of times you don’t get to hear the song, which is a big complaint. It’s like, “God, if I would have known that this was the bridge leading into the chorus of this section, or if I would have heard that melody, I would have done something totally different.” The way we do it, even though I haven’t heard the lyrics yet or the melodies, at least I get a chance to sense what the flow of the tune is, and play something I will be happier with later.
RF: How do you feel about the synthesized computer drums?
WW: I think it’s really starting to get exciting. I’m not at all threatened or put off by synthesized drums. Now that they’re digitally sampling all these sounds, it’s great. For a drummer to be able to play in real time and store this information in the drum machine, is great, but it needs to be expanded. When they get to disc storage, it will even be easier. I want to do it for re cording possibilities. Live, there is a lot to do also. When you’re working with a machine, you’ve got to play with the machine, so it’s going to involve playing with a click track, live, but I love doing that. I’ve been doing that for a long time anyway, since I started playing with the metronome years ago and doing the Utopia albums when we used a drum machine. I’d play along and practice playing solos with these things, so it’s not foreign to me. It’s something that I think is valuable for new players to learn how to do.
RF: How is it being part of a band that seems pretty democratic?
WW: It’s always been sort of Todd Rundgren and Utopia, but we’ve tried to be as democratic about the situation as humanly possible. Todd was a successful solo artist before the band formed, but the rest of us weren’t. So the band, through the last seven years, has become Utopia. But through it all, we had to deal with a lot of people saying “We want to hear Todd as a solo artist.” Even the record company, Bearsville, was interested in Todd only as a solo artist and not that crazy about the band. But Todd always had a strong allegiance to the band and believed in the band. When you deal with yourself, you set up all your own goals and parameters, and you create your own environment. When you’re in a band situation, you have to exchange with other people and that automatically puts you in another position. Specifically in Todd’s case, on his solo records, he plays almost everything himself, so when he is in the band situation, he not only has the benefit of the expertise of other members in the band, but also of other minds and other feelings to react with. That in itself is a benefit of playing in a band. Plus, in this band, he doesn’t sing all the time, because we all sing lead vocals and backgrounds. We all take different solos and share the spotlight in different periods of the show and on the records. So the pressure isn’t on him all the time to be the main focus.
RF: You’ve done some sessions. What do you perceive as being the difference between that and being a member of a band?
WW: The big difference between being a studio player and a band member is that, after seven years, everybody kind of has a trust for everyone else, in that we have the freedom to play the parts we want to play. If somebody is not crazy about a part, that person will say, “Try doing this,” or “I don’t like this.” Your idea is like your baby, and when somebody is commenting about your baby, it’s natural to have a strong reaction to it. You can express that feeling in any situation, but it always feels more severe in the studio situation where an artist is making a solo record and a producer is trying to produce the song as best as possible. The producer has hired these musicians, wants to hear this and has got to get this thing to happen. The whole thing is based around money, finances, deadline and budget. At the same time, the producer is saying, “Listen, we’ve got to cut these tracks as fast as possible because we have a budget to stick to. I want to get great takes. Just be relaxed, and be creative. Ready? Go.” It gets to be a very uncreative situation. Utopia has its own studio, so we can sit in there for three hours and not figure out something. After being in a band for so long, I’ve been involved in the production aspects of all the Utopia records, and I have a lot to say about what happens on the record. Studio musicians can’t do that, but I find that I can’t keep quiet. I don’t mouth off, but I’ll approach playing the drums like a producer. I can bring the same experiences to the song as a producer. I think that’s the big difference between a studio player and a person who has been a member of a band and a producer. When I first started playing sessions, I would just wait for the producer to tell me what to do. I thought my function as drummer was to be able to play any style of music well, so if somebody asked me to do something, I could do it. That was my challenge. But now, I’m more concerned with what’s right for the music and creating the best part. Instead of the producer saying, “I’d like to hear this or this,” I’d like to be able to sit down and play something that is creative and right for the tune. The producer may say, “Do this,” and I ‘ l l say, “Yeah, I can do that, but you should think about this because this will have a great effect.” I can bring a lot more to the session than just playing the licks other people want to hear. That has its place too. I think when you’re a studio player, that’s your job. You’re there to provide a service for those people. They want to hear what makes them happy. If what makes them happy is what you do on your own, then that’s fantastic. You have to find the balance in between all that.
Then it gets to this whole other level which is the psychological trip that is played. Everybody is a professional, but beyond the professional, personalities start to enter into the situation. I think it’s important for young, aspiring drummers to realize that there is a lot to consider. Aspiring drummers worry about their fills and their time. They become so preoccupied with asking themselves questions about their performance, but a lot of times they’re doing what they should be doing. There might be other musicians, though, who are doing what they shouldn’t be doing and those people use other people as psychological whipping boards for their frustrations. They can all be very professional people. It happens at every level, but the inexperienced people automatically think, “What have I done wrong? What’s the matter with me?” I found out through the years that there’s a lot more going on in these incredibly complicated human beings than just what meets the eye in terms of the music. I think it’s important to realize that you should always be aware of how well you do with your craft, but at the same time be aware that you’re not always at fault for things that go on.
RF: You almost have to be as much of a psychologist as you do a musician.
WW: Absolutely. I remember playing at a club when I was younger with two guys who were much older than me. They were pretty good players and would always say, “Watch the time.” They were so into that kind of stuff that I would go home crying. I wanted to do so well, but somebody was always mentioning something about something. It was really traumatic at that early period when I really aspired to be successful at what I did and wanted my peers to accept me. That was a rough period. There seem to be all these different levels of escalation along the road, but they always lead to the same place. Whenever you get to one level, you’re still approaching a new level. The approach is exactly the same once again, even though you always thought, “Once I make it… I always said I had to make it by the time I was 18. I got to be 18 and I said, “Well, I’ll give it until I’m 21. So what if Tony Williams was a star at 19?” But priorities change as you go along and the goals change. One of the hardest things for me was when I was knocking around in clubs. Then I got into the Hall & Oates thing, and then the Bette Midler thing. Finally when I got into Utopia, that was an achievement I had wanted to accomplish: being in a successful pop band that had wide recognition. I got there and I enjoyed it for a certain period of time. Then, all of a sudden, I got to that level and said, “Okay, here I am. I’ve made more money than I ever made, I’ve gotten some attention and I’ve started to develop as a writer, a player, a singer and a performer. Now what?” And now there’s another transition; it’s like starting all over again. When I was younger, I thought, “If only I knew all this stuff.” Now I know all this stuff, but all of a sudden I’m back at zero again and I say, “Now there’s all this stuff to know.” That’s the eternal challenge. That’s part of the excitement and the frustration. I realize that that’s always going to be there. It’s never going to be finished.
RF: What are some of the pros of working together in the studio with people you know so well?
WW: We really joke around. It’s amazing because the morale is incredibly high for a band that has been together this long. We’ve been through a lot. When you’re in a band, you’re married and you start to know all the stuff about each individual, every aspect, musically, emotionally, egotistically, and that stuff settles. Occasionally, people ruffle their feathers and have their own cloud of dust, but after the dust settles, you kind of know where their boundaries are. You don’t know that in a studio situation where you’re meeting people for the first time and maybe the only time. But that has its own excitement too and that produces its own demand.
RF: You likened being in a band to a marriage, and sometimes after a while, maybe some of the passion leaves and is replaced by comfort. But comfort has its negative aspects as well as its pleasures. Do you feel that you can continue to grow or do you find you have to push yourself to grow?
WW: Personally, I’m always pushing myself anyway. I’m my own worst enemy in that aspect, so whether the band situation pushes me or not, I’ll do it to myself. Maybe that’s my saving grace in the situation. Everybody in the band is like that. Having interests outside Utopia kind of keeps kindling that. The band concept is almost like the grand studio concept. You can draw the parallel that we never jam or get together socially except on occasion, and that’s had its advantages and disadvantages too. If we were a jamming-type band, I think the music would be a bit different than what it is. It’s a very different situation than I’ve ever been involved in. I have a lot of friends who are in bands and that’s what they do full time. They are putting their energy into that band, and the members spend the better part of each year thinking about that situation or taking the time to make that record and playing together, whether they’re on the road all the time or not. They’ll go out on the road, play their tunes, get them tight, and then go into the studio and record. We never do that. Our approach is always more—I don’t want to say calculated because it makes the situation sound sterile, but in a sense it is—calculated inasmuch as we go in and it’s like a laboratory. We go in there, write sections of music and put the situation together. Then we go out and tour. It’s fairly business oriented to a degree. The part that isn’t business oriented is that we don’t write totally commercial music. So it’s funny. It’s a calculated assembly of production, but what we’re assembling isn’t calculated.
RF: Since you have known each other for eight years, you can’t help but have a bond that transcends business.
WW: Even though we don’t hang out all the time, there’s a bond that develops through time. What that bond is, I can’t even venture to say, but there is a bond.
RF: How did you get involved in Utopia initially?
WW: Todd had produced the War Babies album for Hall & Oates when I was in that band. Daryl and John used Todd’s bass player, John Siegler, and Todd to produce the album. John and I became tight as a rhythm section. We really enjoyed each other’s playing and became friends. Utopia was an assembled band at that time with one album out, and they were replacing their drummer. John had talked to me about it when I was playing the Bette Midler show, Clams On The Half Shell, and we had done a pre-Broadway week in Philadelphia. I went back to my hotel one night and there was a note in my mailbox that said, “Welcome to Utopia.” John Siegler had called to say I was going to be in the band. When the Bette Midler show went to New York, it was a very crazy time, but I loved it. I like being really busy, and when I’m not, I go crazy. I was doing the Utopia rehearsals from about 12:00 noon to 6:00 P.M., and the Bette Midler show was at 7:30 or 8:00 until 11:00. Then from 12:30 to 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning I was recording her album, Songs For The New Depression. That went on for about two or three weeks.
RF: When we had talked about that time previously, you said that got you to a point where you didn’t even want to look at the drums anymore.
WW: I was just kind of OD’d. I was fried. It’s funny, though, when you get fried, some good things happen. There’s a fine line there. There’s a whole creative moment involved in the frying period, which is really good. You’re only fried at one point and then you burn to a crisp, which is when you can’t function anymore. But during that fried period, there’s actually a creative high before you do your final entering into space and disintegrating.
RF: What do you do in the burn-to-a-crisp period?
WW: You just do things to get away—sit in a corner to think. You just need time. Anything becomes interesting, like taking walks. Any kind of diversion from what you do normally becomes relaxing. The silliest things can become entertaining and exciting.
RF: What was it like working in Clams On The Half Shell?
WW: It was exciting. It was my first real experience working with a lot of heavy players in a big band. Jerald Jemmott of Aretha Franklin fame was in the band, and that was very exciting because I’ve always been a real R&B fan. I play some bass although I’m not an incredible bass player, but at that time, I was really involved with the bass and Jerald Jemmott was one of my heroes. I learned a lot about playing bass from him.
I really love Bette. She’s a real sensitive woman. I think some people have found her crazy to work with because she’s so artistic and demanding in a certain sense, but we always got along really well. It’s amazing when she sings a ballad because she has so much feeling. When you listen to her, you want to cry because she’s crying. She’s actually feeling the words. I love that sensitivity because the music transcends the players playing and the singers singing. You’re interpreting, which is the real art. Then it doesn’t matter how complicated or simplistic the execution is of whatever technical thing is happening at the time. The end result is that magic, and that magic can occur whether you’re playing a thousand notes a minute or one every minute. That’s the whole essence of what’s happening. That’s one thing I really liked about that situation. They had horns, a 20- piece band, and we did some Gospelish music in the show, ballads, and rock ‘n’ roll stuff. Then Lionel Hampton had his portion of the show, and I was the drummer for his band also. We did “Hampton’s Boogie” and all his great stuff, which was wonderful.
My ambition was to be a jazz player. I started playing when I was about 13. Until I was about 21, I did nothing but listen to jazz records and emulate all the jazz drummers. That was it. The scary part of the story was that, when I got the gig, the musical director, who I knew very well, said he knew I could play rock ‘n’ roll and jazz, but he didn’t know if I could play in a big band situation. And I said, “Sure, no problem.” Well, the truth was that I had never played in a big band, and this was the second time this had happened to me. The first time was at the Concord Hotel when I was going to the Manhattan School of Music. I was trying to finance my way through school and I wanted to play at the same time. I had heard about this gig through one of the percussionists at school. It was a show band with about eight horns. I had to read the charts and there were no rehearsals. I had to go out and play cold. So I met the man. I was about 19 and the other musicians were all about 35 or 40 years old. They had been playing in those mountains since they were babies. The guy asked if I had played in shows before and I said, “Sure, no problem.” I did the first show and I got the most incredible headache that I had ever gotten. The funniest thing was that, in the first show I played, there were dancers spinning and doing all their moves. The drums started off for the first eight bars and the chart said, “Very fast.” Well, I had been practicing to be able to play fast. “Very fast,” to me, meant almost as fast as I could play. I was really nervous about the situation, so my “very fast” was faster than I had ever played. I started out the first eight bars and the dancers started dancing. They were trying to dance and at the same time turn around to say it was too fast. When they finished, they were sweating buckets. The dancers said to the bandleader, “What is your drummer trying to do? Kill us? Is he crazy?” It hadn’t seemed fast to me, because I was so nervous. That was my first experience playing a show. The next situation was with Bette Midler, and I had never played in a big band.
RF: It’s one thing to read a chart and it’s another thing to make a band swing. How does one…
WW: How does one do that? That’s the question I was asking myself as we started to do the rehearsals. I was always very conscious of time. I had been studying with a teacher by the name of Jim Blackley for the last couple of years, and we had been working with a metronome in all different times from the slowest to the fastest. Obviously, for a drummer, time is the big trip, right? So I was very aware of that. I thought I had it fairly under control in all the other situations I had encountered. But all of a sudden I had this big band, and here were these saxophone players who were laying back way behind the beat, which they’re famous for doing. This isn’t a dig against saxophone players, but it’s fairly true. Also, I found out that the saxophone players were playing off the drummer, and it was the first time people were using me to groove. When you’ve never done that before, your tendency is to slow down, because when they’re doing these emotional, dynamic kinds of lines, you’re listening to them and you’re getting emotionally involved. You want to feel the feeling that they’re playing, but it doesn’t work because you’re slowing down. It became a little bit of a problem. It was a very pressured situation because I was fairly young—about 20—and there were all these heavy New York studio players in the band. Just playing with all these people was enough to make me nervous about the situation. Then, taking it upon myself to do something that I had never done before made it worse. But I’ve always been like that and had the attitude that, “If I’m not going to do it now, I’m never going to do it, so I’ll just do it. I’m going to get the experience somewhere, so I might as well get it here.” I did it and after a while I got the hang of it. It’s been a while now and I can’t really say what I found out, but I think you just become stronger within yourself as a person. You have all those doubts about yourself as an up-and-coming player, but it’s all just a part of the maturity process as a musician. When I was younger, I played a lot of different things that I don’t play now, and some of those things, I wish I did play now. You forget about those things, but what does develop, I think, is a more well-founded sense of being within yourself as a person, which has more to do with playing than being technically proficient. You just become a bit more settled as a person. I’ve found that, as I have gotten older, I’ve become a little more settled. I believe in myself a bit more, so that sense develops.
I think it’s really important to develop yourself as a person. Everybody gets so wrapped up in playing and talking about drums, paradiddles, and the latest and best equipment that’s available. That’s all secondary.
The more consideration you give to your life as a human being, the better you’ll be able to do what you do, the more you’ll be able to give to other people, and the more you’ll be able to share. When you’re playing music, you’re communicating with the people you’re playing with. How can you communicate music when you’re not in communication with yourself? That covers a lot of aspects of our lives—the spiritual aspects, although I’m not heavily into religious spiritualism. It’s more of a spiritualism of the soul. And that has to do with egos, emotions and dealing with people.
I’m coproducing Kasim Sulton’s album, helping him write for it, and I’ll be helping him put the players together. I think that awareness comes into play very quickly being a producer. When you’re working with artists, you’re writing and working with them. Those people are complicated systems. They are trying to write a song and they have their careers at stake. They’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, and at the same time, they are sitting with you and you’re trying to help them find themselves. Having the intuitive vision to be able to be with somebody and bring out the best in that person is a good quality to develop. That’s what I’m after— the music. I’m not after “Willie Wilcox wrote this part of the song.” I like helping other people in terms of production, and even playing-wise. That may be why I haven’t been driven to do anything on my own as a solo artist, because one of the things I enjoy doing the most is working with other artists and making them be the best that they can be. I think that’s directly linked to that whole development as a person.
RF: Back to the Bette Midler situation, there’s a difference between making a big band swing and being the bottom of a rock ‘n’ roll band.
WW: That’s true. In particular, there’s a big difference between rock ‘n’ roll and jazz playing. With swing music, the time is on the top, and it’s in the cymbal and that type of concept. It’s totally different from rock playing. It’s just something that I grew into in the situation. I finally found out what made it work and then it became a ball. All of a sudden, there were all these textures, all these sounds, all these musicians and it was this overwhelming party.
RF: What is fascinating to me is that you have a real love of jazz and a foundation in that, but Utopia is what I would call a pop-rock band, and much of the material you write is R&B oriented. Where does your heart actually lie, or does it really and truly lie in all those things?
WW: My problem is that I love music. That’s kind of a sappy statement, but that’s my problem. I love heavy metal and would love to be in a heavy metal band. I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but I love playing that. I like playing the Utopia stuff, but I also love to play R&B. I like to write songs, and sing sometimes. I like to do it all. The one thing on the down side of my situation is that somebody can’t say, “There’s Willie Wilcox. He’s that so-and-so jazz drummer.”
RF: But then you would be labeled as one thing.
WW: The thing about me is that the drums alone don’t fascinate me. When I first started, they did. I spent eight years of my life not seeing people. I didn’t have girlfriends. I didn’t go to parties. I didn’t do anything but play drums and think about drums intensely. That was my life.
RF: Sometimes when you’re only immersed in your instrument, it makes you self-centered, and then playing with other people is difficult.
WW: I grew up in Glens Falls, New York, which is not a big town. It’s far away from everything and there was nobody to play with. I would go on weddings and play like Tony Williams—or try to play like Tony Williams. I was selfish in that whenever I played I wanted to play the kind of music I liked to play. The only chance I had to play was when I went out on a wedding, and I wanted to play my stuff. Well, I’d play my stuff while they were playing “Satin Doll” or something. The people couldn’t dance and the players couldn’t play. There was just no place for me to play, so I would play with records. When the big bands like Woody Herman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington would come to town, I would go to see them. Freddie Blood, the guy I studied with originally, was friends with all these people. When the bands would take their breaks, I’d go behind the bar with the big stereo and play drums with jazz albums. I was 16 years old, and I was playing all the Freddie Hubbard and Miles stuff. I was just into jazz—period. I would transcribe all the solos. I knew all of them. During the breaks, I would play and the musicians would come up and say, “Yeah, man, you sound great.” Yeah, I sounded great, but I sounded great playing to a record. I wanted to be with those bands.
RF: You had mentioned to me that college was a growing experience on a personal level even more than on a musical level, having come from a small town.
WW: In high school, I was a hell raiser and school was a very difficult period for me. I didn’t want to be in school at all from the time I was in kindergarten. But I had studied drums intensely. I had done all the reading, played all my jazz albums, and transcribed all this stuff. By the time I got to Berklee in 1969, my teacher, Gene Roma, finally said, “What are we going to do, really, that you haven’t done?” It wasn’t that I was incredible, but I had basically gone through what Berklee was able to give me the first year. So Gene said he had a gig he couldn’t always do and asked if I would sub for him. Plus, at school, studying piano was great. There were also some workshops, and that was my first experience playing with other players. I had never known what it was like to play with somebody who was imitating the kinds of things I was imitating. Nobody in Glens Falls really had the desire or the need to do the things I wanted to do. I wanted to be a professional player, but for everyone else it was a hobby. When I got to Berklee, I found other kids who had the same feelings I had. It was my first sharing experience.
RF: What about, on the other side of it, that first discovery of the word “competition”?
WW: I’ve always been competitive inasmuch as I have a high standard for myself. You have to in this business. You have to be into what you’re doing, and nothing comes without work. At that time, I really wanted to be the best drummer in the world. I went to Berklee when the school first really started to happen. It was the time of the Viet Nam war. They closed off the streets where we lived at the dorm and it was just a really incredible period of time. Kids were nuts en mass. There were rallies and demonstrations. The Beatles had exploded, and everybody wanted to be a guitar player or a drummer. With all these drummers, my own interest was sustained and it was very exciting. The things that inspired me about other people I adopted for myself, or they made me think about it. That’s one of the things about a school environment that’s good. The competition was a healthy thing. And then there was the adjustment of leaving home for the first time, being a kid on my own, and that was traumatic in its own way. But my love of music overcame the things that seemed traumatic in my life.
RF: Are the technical aspects as important as they are made out to be sometimes?
WW: Well, they’re all just tools. Playing fast only becomes a tool within an idiom, so if I’m playing in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, obviously playing fast is going to be part of the music. If fast playing is used because it’s an emotional peak, or solo-wise, playing fast is an expression of your emotion at that point, you have to have the facility to express the emotion. I guess that’s the emotional challenge, as well as the never-ending crusade and quest for mastering the instrument and the art. You’re trying to convey what you’re feeling as a person, musically, and you’re always striving to be technically proficient to do that. This may mean being able to play fast at a certain point. It may mean having the necessary restraint. It may mean being able to do abstract things that you hear but that don’t flow naturally with the limbs—the stuff you hear in your head that you can’t play, because there are a lot of boundaries and things that make it difficult.
RF: If you hated school since kindergarten, whatever prompted you to go to Berklee, instead of just going out and getting a gig?
WW: My parents really stressed that it was important. Also, all the high school teachers said, “Well, it’s okay to want to be a performer, but you need something to fall back on.” When you’re a kid and your peers are saying, “Listen, not many have made it. It’s a long, rough road, and the chances of making it are so slim that you’d better have something to fall back on,” you listen. So I thought I’d go to music school where I could play and study this other stuff—the academic part of it which I didn’t like—so I could teach. But oddly enough, I did great. Then I went to the Manhattan School of Music right after that.
RF: Why did you leave Berklee?
WW: It just didn’t seem right for me. Boston didn’t seem happening at that period of time and I wanted to do more. I had studied so much before I went to Berklee that I was prepared at that point to start working. I really didn’t know that at the time, though. A lot of people who did a lot of playing needed to go back and study, but I had studied and really needed to play.
RF: In retrospect, was going to school the right thing for you to do? Did you learn? Was it valuable?
WW: Yeah, I learned. It’s all an experience. The things that were really valuable weren’t the drum-related things, but the piano and such. Again, I am a music-oriented person and I play other instruments. Whatever situation I’m in as a drummer, I’m a musician and I contribute to the music. The more I know about the music, the more I can give. I don’t feel that I’ve given enough just by playing the drums. I don’t have the drums mastered by any means, but it’s not enough for me as an individual just to do that. I need to contribute musically too. I like that total feeling of creating. The ear training and piano playing were great at school. Mostly, what I got out of it was just listening to other drummers say, “Hey, did you hear this record by so and so?”
RF: You had been much more into the player aspect before, and in school, you really got into the ensemble effort. What changed?
WW: What changed was being in pop music. That was the big difference.
John "Willie" Wilcox
RF: Why did you go from jazz to pop?
WW: There were two reasons I did it: a financial reason and a social reason. When I was younger—19 or 20 years old—I found it distasteful to be playing in clubs in the Bronx. It just didn’t seem to be healthy in terms of a young person growing up and having a balanced kind of life. Maybe an artist isn’t supposed to have a balanced life, but you don’t have to drive yourself down that road deliberately in order to be great. It isn’t going to ensure any kind of greatness or success. I didn’t like being 20 and hanging out with people who were 40 just because it meant being able to play jazz. I wanted to experience people my age. I was into listening to George Benson and Chick Corea before that was hip. Then when Chick and those artists started doing their fusion stuff, all the young people started saying, “Wow, check out George Benson and Chick Corea.” I had done that already when they were first doing the stuff in the purest form. Then they started changing for financial reasons, because very, very sadly, in this country, jazz music is not supported. We’ve heard it a million times and it’s true. It’s the most disgusting neglect of the American people not to support these players who are tremendous artists and who have dedicated their lives to this! When I heard that Jack DeJohnette was doing a project with Andy Summers, I thought it was just fantastic because it will give people a chance to recognize somebody who is a true artist. The reason I didn’t go into the jazz direction was the social reason and then I started playing with local rock groups. Well, I had much more facility than was necessary at that time to play rock. Also all my time was on the top and I had to learn about this whole other thing.
RF: Do you feel that the jazz background you have has been valuable in playing rock?
WW: I think so. I found that I really had to edit a lot of my playing. When I first started playing rock, it was just physically different. It was harder hitting the drums and a physically more demanding situation. I had to learn how to relax within that context. Now that I’ve been doing it longer, it’s fine. On this new album I’m concentrating on playing rock ‘n’ roll kinds of things, but with something more to it because it gets very boring. That’s where the restraint comes in. If you’re playing with a heavy metal band, the simplistic playing is part of that music and it creates part of what that music is. If you start diverting from that, you’ll destroy it. I’m experimenting with other ways I can look at those kinds of beats and play those things the way a jazz player would conceive of them, twisting these things around a little. Having a jazz background and a musical background is definitely helpful. I’m not at all sorry that I studied.
RF: You mentioned before that rock ‘n’ roll is a physically exhausting experience. How do you pace yourself during a show, and what do you do outside of the gig that helps you keep in shape and helps your approach to your instrument on stage?
WW: I’ve been through a lot of different periods with that. I’ve always been a physically active person, but I think it depends on the person. Everybody’s body is different, so what is right for one is not going to work for the other person. When I was boxing, I felt great because I was in good condition and eating right. On the gigs, I would keep regular hours, eat good foods and take care of myself. I don’t think boxing enhanced my playing, but boxing was great because my stamina was developed to a high level. I was at the point where I was shadow boxing, jumping rope, working out on the road and then playing the shows at night. It got to the point where it was a little too much because the show was so physically demanding and so was working out. I find it works best if I really lighten up the routine while I’m on the road, and just eat and sleep well. When I’m off, I can be a little more intense about working out. But it’s hard to find time to do all that stuff, if you want to keep in shape, write tunes, do sessions, be in a band and work on solo projects. It’s hard to squeeze it all in, but I guess that’s the challenge.
RF: How did the writing enter into it?
WW: I always wanted to play a lot of instruments and Todd Rundgren was one of the first people to do that kind of thing. I had a few of his early albums and that kind of inspired me to put the piano and bass parts down myself. It started as a hobby kind of thing where I dabbled with it, but I never entertained the idea of being a serious writer. In playing jazz, the changes are so sophisticated that you really have to study to start creating in that idiom. The rock thing was easier to get at. One of the greatest things about getting into Utopia was that it gave me the opportunity to start writing. Then I started playing bass in shows and singing. I had sung background in a few bands, but the first real singing I had done live was in front of thousands of people. It was one of those situations, again, where I had never done it, but jumped right in. It was a scary feeling, but I love being in situations where it’s on the edge.
A good thing about doing a session is that you’re on the edge. When we did the Meat Loaf tunes, “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad” and the flip side, “For Crying Out Loud,” we did it live with a 32-piece orchestra. I went into the session with three drumsticks, none of which matched. On the first take, I broke one of the sticks, so I had two left. The tip broke off one of the others, so I played it butt end, and that’s how I did the session. It was nuts, but it was great.
Playing with Daryl and John was really the beginning of the whole pop thing for me. I auditioned for them and got the call on my birthday nearly nine years ago. I was with them for a couple of years. I love those guys; I think they’re great. It’s too bad I couldn’t have been with them at a later period, because I was with them during the period where they were going through a lot of changes musically. It was really the beginning of their career. They were very inspirational for my writing, though.
RF: What is the situation with Colgems?
WW: That deal came about when I really wanted to do something different. I met David Lasley when he sang background for Utopia on one of the tours. Then I called him on the West Coast and told him there wasn’t much going on. He said he was doing some demos, and I said I’d come out to play on them. I had just begun to dabble with writing. I was sitting at the piano and working on this song, when David asked what I was playing. That was “Got To Find Love,” which he recorded with the Pointer Sisters. We work incredibly well together and wrote five songs in five days. “Never Say,” on his album Missin’ Twenty Grand, was written in one night when the record company needed another tune for the album. David took me over to meet Chuck Kaye, who was the head of Geffen Publishing, and they signed me. Then Chuck went to Warner Brothers, so I was a Warner Brothers writer for a year. My contract ended with Warners and I sought out another company right when the record crunch was happening. Finally I met Paul Tannen, who was at Colgems, and he liked my stuff and signed me there.
RF: You’ve been coproducer on projects, and even the Utopia situation where there are four producers. What is that like?
WW: It’s not easy. The members of Utopia have been together so long that everybody knows what the others like and dislike. On Utopia records, we all give input and Todd usually mixes the records. On the Rubinoos record, Todd was the executive producer, but he really wasn’t around during most of the recording.
RF: Do you find it difficult playing and producing at the same time?
WW: It gets a little difficult because I would love to be in a situation where I would hire a drummer who would come in and play. I love most of the drummers I hear. After being with yourself all the time and hearing your own things, it’s so refreshing to hear other players play and to talk to people. I hope to be in a position soon where I can produce and bring somebody else in to play. I think that would be good because I wouldn’t make a drummer play what I wanted. If that were the case, I would play the part. But I would hire somebody to do something that I wouldn’t do, or who I thought would do that job really well.
RF: What does your current setup consist of?
WW: I play Sonor drums—the Signature series. The floor tom-tom is 16 x 18 and the other toms are 12 x 12, 13 x 13 and 14 x 14. The bass drum is 16 x 20, and the snare I use is a circa 1926 all-brass Ludwig Super Sensitive. I have a couple of snare drums: a 6 1/2″ Leedy/Ludwig wooden snare drum, and a 1962 5 1/2″ Ludwig Super Sensitive chrome snare drum. I also use the polished brass Super Sensitive that Charlie Donnelly did.
RF: What about heads?
WW: I use Pinstripe heads on the top and the clear Ambassadors on the bottom. The clear heads resonate more on the bottom, while the Pinstripes on the top deaden it a little bit. It all depends on what the situation is, though. For what we usually do, I like the Pinstripe because it’s dead, yet has that kind of edgy, rock ‘n’ roll sound and can sound big. I like the white coated heads too, but I haven’t used those in a long time. On the David Lasley album, there is a ballad where I’m playing brushes. In those cases, I like to play on a regular rough coat white head because the coating provides more resistance and increases the surface friction that the brush rubs against. You have a lot more brush sound on something like that than you would on a smooth plastic head.
RF: What about cymbals?
WW: I endorse Zildjian. The sizes vary, but I have 13″ and 14″ hi-hats. I use my 13″ a lot and really like them because they’re quick. I use the 14″ for a little heavier music where I’m not required to be as sensitive. I use a K. Zildjian 16″ crash, a 19″ or 20″ China Boy, an A. Zildjian ride cymbal, which I think is 20″, and an 18″ A. Zildjian crash cymbal. I use the Sonor heavy-duty stands, which I think are really great. The bass drum pedal I use is the Ludwig Speed King.
RF: Your motorcycle setup was quite elaborate.
WW: God knows how many of us have seen drum solos live and we all know there are lots of great players out there, but as great as they may be, a solo can be grating. A great solo is a great solo, don’t misunderstand me, but I thought, “I just don’t want to go out and play a drum solo. What can I do to make it a little more interesting?” So the band came up with a concept for some kind of a vehicle. We went to a motorcycle shop and started to experiment with that concept. I sat in a chair and thought, “Can I play with my legs up higher?” The laws of gravity say it’s physically impossible to play with your legs up in the air, so we figured the best thing to do would be to keep my feet down and change what I was sitting on. We came up with the motorcycle frame, took a chain pedal, inverted it and hooked an aircraft wire onto the bottom of the chain. It was kept in tension. When I pressed on the pedal, I would pull down on this wire, which was attached to this chain that was about two-and-a-half feet away from me up in front. There was a Remo practice pad up in the front, and a Paia synthesizer with a sensor in it and a regular beater. When the beater hit the Remo head, it triggered the sensor, which was connected to the synthesizer and sounded like a bass drum. That was the thing that was very strange. The bass drum beater was kind of all by itself. We used Syncussion synthesized drums and duplicated drum sounds as closely as we could with that kind of equipment. We did this really quickly. If we had had more time, we could have done a better job. The cymbal stands were exhaust pipes and all the drums were mounted very close in a circle. The one good thing about it was that, on a regular kit, the physical necessity of moving around the kit obviously slows you down. With this situation, all the drums were about 6″ or 8″ in diameter, and they were all located in one central area. I only had to move my hand an inch or so to cover the entire set. It was also motorized and, when I did my drum solo, it spun around and it had lights on the front like two headlights. It was pretty wild.
RF: Is there anything else you would like people to know about you?
WW: I want people to know that it wasn’t easy and I did go home crying from gigs sometimes. The other thing that is important for them to know is that starting in the business is really hard, because you just love playing and then it becomes a business. It becomes very difficult when you’re really making a living doing it and you really have to strive at keeping it alive. You have to struggle to keep the passion within the players you work with, and you have to struggle to keep it alive within yourself. You just keep trying to do that. I’ll have periods where I just don’t want to play, or I lose interest in different aspects of it or lose interest all together. I think that’s natural. The excitement is in overcoming it. Whenever you overcome any situation, then it makes that bad situation turn into another block in the foundation. It just becomes another notch on the gun. It’s important for people to know that it’s a long road to wherever they’re going.