Pat Torpey

The founding member of Mr. Big, whose hits included “Alive and Kicking,” “Just Take My Heart,” and the ballad “To Be With You,” passed away on Wednesday, February 7, from complications of Parkinsons disease. He was sixty-four. Here we present his June, 1990, Modern Drummer feature story.

 

Pat Torpey specializes in power drumming with a relaxed, confident groove, managing to radiate strength without pounding or bullying his drums. The Cleveland-born, Phoenix-bred drummer has achieved his professional reputation primarily as a quick study and team player on several major-league tours. But as the backbeat of Mr. Big, the heavyweight band featuring super-bassist Billy Sheehan, guitar wunderkind Paul Gilbert, and vocalist Eric Martin, Torpey may well become as familiar on radio and MTV as he is on the L.A. session scene.

 

MD: What made you want to play drums?

PT: When I was young, my parents would go to a park on Sunday afternoons, and there would always be a band. I could sit on a railing behind the drummer. He was only a kid, maybe twenty years old, but looking down at him, I was just mesmerized. Eventually I think I got one of those $20 snare drums from the Sears catalog for Christmas and just banged on it. In high school, I played in marching band, dance band, and orchestra. Someone must have said to me at a very young age, “Learn to do everything; some of it you won’t use, some of it you will, but it’s good to have it all.” I’m not really a reader, but when I was in high school, I could sight-read anything. After high school, I had a band in Phoenix called Be that played the clubs in the Southwest. We did some originals, plus some Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith.

MD: What were you into? Were you a Zeppelin fanatic?

PT: For a while. And I had my jazz-fusion period—Billy Cobham, Tony Williams. Then I thought that those guys had to come from somewhere, so I started listening to older drummers, like Roy Haynes and Connie Kay, who had this amazing, very pristine sound. I was just thirsting for drum knowledge.

MD: What about other kinds of knowledge? Did you go to college?

PT: When I graduated from high school, I was going to go to Arizona State University to study to become a math teacher. Math was something I was always good at. But I said, “Mom, I want to be in a band.” I always felt I had enough determination to make it. When you’re eighteen years old, you have that “If I don’t get a record deal by the time I’m twenty-one, I’ll kill myself” attitude. Then you’re twenty-one, and you say, “If I don’t get a deal by twenty-five….” But after a while I realized I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.

MD: Was there a good music scene in Phoenix?

PT: Be was the big Phoenix band, but I realized we’d gone as far as we could. I wanted to go to California. It scared the hell out of me, though. My girlfriend at the time actually had a lot to do with me saying, “Well, ohhhhh-kay, let’s go,” because it was intimidating—just to jump out there. I had no job. I was only in L.A. a short period of time, then I went up to Monterey and auditioned for a band with backing—you know, money! It was a progressive kind of rock thing, and I was really into that. I was the drummer and lead singer of the band. We moved back down to L.A. and eventually broke up. Then I just kicked around for a while. I was in a band with the bass player from Giuffria and House of Lords, Chuck Wright, who also did the first two Quiet Riot albums. He and I had a band called Exposure, another labor of love. We put this band together, and we were determined to make it. We got real close to getting a deal.

It’s funny how some people break into the whole scene in L.A. I met a lot of people through playing softball. A lot of musicians play softball out there. I heard about this entertainment softball league, so I joined that. I was on Neil Geraldo’s team; he’s Pat Benatar’s husband. I was the catcher and ended up tearing up my knee and having to get a knee operation. I realized maybe I shouldn’t take this softball stuff too seriously.

MD: Who else played?

PT: Myron Grombacher used to come out, the guys in Toto, Fee Waybill, Gregg Bissonette’s brother Matt. And Gregg came out a couple of times.

MD: So you got your breaks in the music business through softball?

PT: Well, I became really good friends with Rick Phillips, who used to be in the Babys, and now is the bass player in Bad English. He hooked me up with a couple of things. When I ended up getting the John Parr gig, Rick was the bass player. That was the first major tour I did.

MD: Did you record with John Parr?

PT: I didn’t even know John when he did the album. He came over to do some promo and he was going to be on American Bandstand, but he didn’t have a band. Rick Phillips had some connections who said they needed to get some guys up there to lip-synch. So Rick called me. I didn’t see John for about six months after that. I was in the house band for this W show, a kids’ show with a David Letterman vibe, and John Parr was a guest. I said, “Hey, remember me?” He said, “We’re auditioning drummers because we’re going to be opening for Tina Turner.” So I went down. Next thing I knew, I was in England, rehearsing.

MD: During this time in L.A., did you have any other jobs?

PT: I always had a job. I worked at record stores. I managed a rehearsal studio in North Hollywood. Guys would come in, like Warrant—they were just little kids—and tell me to set up the microphones. And now they look at me and say, “I never knew you were a drummer.” They always thought I was just some lackey. But I’ll do what has to be done. I’m not proud. If I have a bill, I’ll go out and work to pay it. I have a pretty good work ethic. I’ve been lucky the last couple of years in not having to have a daytime job. It took a while to get to that point.

MD: So it’s not as if you arrived in L.A. and the next day you were touring with Robert Plant.

PT: Absolutely not! But what got me out of that rehearsal-studio job was an album I did with Jeff Paris, his first album. He was auditioning a zillion drummers. I got the job, and with what I made from that album, I was able to quit the rehearsal studio and put a lot of time into beating the ground. I started doing a lot of TV shows, a lot of lip-synch stuff. I got a really good connection at Atlantic Records, and they would use me. I did shows with Mike & the Mechanics, Roger Daltrey, Marilyn Martin, Bob Geldof, Melissa Manchester. And it led me to get the gig with John Parr. Every little move you make over your career has to be a move forward. Because when you’re not moving forward in this business, you’re falling back.

MD: How about auditioning? A lot of people find that difficult.

Pat Torpey
Photo by Rick Gould

PT: It is difficult. But it’s something you have to learn how to do. It’s not just how you play. I think a lot of times, with auditions, your playing ability is a given. I mean, they figure you can play, or you wouldn’t be there. It’s how you act, your personality, how you get along with the people. And how you look—that’s just as important. And it’s really hard when there’s five guys waiting in front of you, people you hang with, friends. You feel like, “I just want to get out of here.” In L.A. it seemed like all these drummers would come in to an audition—375 guys or whatever—and they’d just call Mike Baird. He’s gotten a lot of those gigs. A lot of guys were like, “Why audition all these people, why not call him in the first place?”

MD: Why do you think they do that? Are they trying to find somebody cheaper?

PT: I admire Mike Baird for his success. He’s a very active player and he definitely has what people want. I’d like to find it myself! Not that I’m going for that kind of thing anymore. Recently, I was at my Sunday softball game, and a drummer buddy of mine had just auditioned for Cher. He was telling me, “Yeah, this guy was down, and this guy…” all the guys I know. And I was thinking to myself, “Boy, am I glad that I’m out of that.” It was just a relief to be in a band where you know you’re wanted.

MD: Do you think it’s particularly hard for drummers? Drummers are generally not the people who write the material or front the band.

PT: There are a lot of jokes that go around, like there’s four musicians and the drummer. There’s such a heavy guitar mania. I mean, it happens with our guitar player, Paul Gilbert. He’s an amazing player, and deserves everything he gets. Billy Sheehan, also. But I don’t think there are as many drummer heroes as there used to be. The way a song is perceived is that you have music and lyrics. Something I would like to see changed is for drums to be considered music. When Mozart wrote a symphony, he didn’t write all the music and then say, “In the drum section, oh, you guys improvise.” He wrote the drum parts down. So, when a guy comes in with a guitar and says, “Here’s my song,” and the drummer sits down and actually gets creative with it, it’s just as much a part of the music. A lot of drummers don’t get credit for that. I really don’t think Jimmy Page told John Bonham what to play, actually I know he didn’t, because I talked to Robert about it.

MD: To get back to your own history, you toured with John Parr….

PT: We opened for Tina Turner, and we opened for Heart. It was great, very educational. But when that got finished, John became kind of inactive. In the meantime, I was trying to survive. Belinda Carlisle was auditioning drummers because she was going to tour with Robert Palmer. So I got the gig, lucky me, and toured with her. When that ended, at the end of ’86, I joined the reformed Knack. We did the soundtrack for some odd little movie, made some money off that, then went in the studio with [producer] Val Garay and did a great four-song demo. But record companies were so, “The Knack—no way!” But I had a lot of fun with them. We played around Los Angeles, did a lot of clubs, and we were selling out everywhere, getting really good reviews. We almost got a deal, got very close, and then Billy Sheehan called me. I said, “Guys, I see an opportunity here, and I can’t pass it up.”

MD: How did you know Billy?

PT: I met him through Brett Tuggle, the keyboard player from Belinda’s band. He went to David Lee Roth in the middle of the Belinda thing. Brett called me when they were doing some vocal sampling for the next David Lee Roth tour. They needed background vocals to put in the Emulator, [sings] “This must be paradise….” And Billy was singing. Brett was saying, “Hey, Pat’s a good singer, but he plays drums great too.”

MD: Did you sing in all these other situations?

PT: Yes, I always sang. I did background vocals on a Ted Nugent album and on Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls album. Anyway, Billy had a meeting after the session, and that was when David Lee Roth and he parted. It was kinda funny: The day I met him, he left. Then I didn’t see him until the NAMM show in Anaheim, when he said, “I’m putting a band together. Would you be interested?” So I ended up playing with him. I really liked the situation, and it moved really fast. We did some showcases up through the summer of ’88, and Atlantic became interested. One Saturday morning in October, I got a phone call from our manager. He said, “Pat, Robert Plant’s drummer, Chris Blackwell, broke his wrist. You have to go to Chicago.” I said, “What about Mr. Big? Aren’t they going to get mad at me?” He said, “Don’t worry about it, we’re in negotiations. You’ll be done in the middle of December, the papers will be ready to sign and we’ll start our album.”

Chris broke his wrist on a Friday night, and Sunday evening I was auditioning. I got there first, and they went, “All right, you want to do it?” I was like, “Oh, yeah, sure,” and inside me fireworks were going off. I had three days to learn a two-hour headlining show, and it was the hardest three days of my life. I went back to the hotel and thought, “I can’t do this, there’s just too much music to learn.” It wasn’t just the songs, it was all the improvisation they had developed over a year, like extending endings. So I was scared to death. I underestimated my learning ability. I mean, I was so freaked out. I didn’t sleep for three days. I was going on adrenaline. I lost about fifteen pounds because I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t keep anything down. I was the only American; everyone else was British, including the crew. But they took me in their arms like a buddy, and I became one of the band. When the tour was over, I had tears in my eyes. It was a great experience for me.

MD: How did you approach the Zeppelin songs? Did you try to do what Bonham did?

PT: When I was younger, I was a real Zeppelin fanatic. I was just like John Bonham to the T. I bought a 26″ bass drum, grew a mustache, did the whole thing. So when I played with Robert, there were just some things I considered sacred in some of those Zeppelin tunes. Chris Blackwell, who was still there—he played percussion, so we were both on stage—had a little different attitude. He wasn’t trying to be as exact about it; he approached it in his own way—like the way we did “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Chris was doing a 16th-note pattern on the hi-hat. I wanted to do 8ths, because that’s what John Bonham did. Chris would do more of his own kind of fills too. Some of the cymbal work he would vary. I kept more to what Bonham did, because I thought some of his cymbal work was brilliant. Cymbals can do so much. They’re the subtlety of drumming. Even on our album, Mr. Big, I try to do things with cymbals that will stand out. There are things you can do that will sit above the music but not be obtrusive.

I also played a different kind of kit from Chris, a single-bass Tama kit. I play two toms, but I don’t put them on the bass drum. I have the ride cymbal low and a tom stand moved to the side, an influence I got from Roy Burns. I love Chris’s playing on Robert’s album, Now and Zen. He’s got a sharp, very tight snare, and a great tom sound. When we did those songs, I tried to stay close to what he did. I did infuse some of my own licks; I couldn’t help but do it, there are things I do naturally. But I learned things from Chris. He’s left-handed and plays a left-handed kit, but he leads with his right, so he plays his kick drum with his left foot—very unorthodox. There were a couple of moves, like in “Billy’s Revenge,” where I thought, “Wow, this is gonna be a book.” Because the hi-hats going, the kick drum’s going, it’s a 6/8, 6/4 rockabilly pattern. That was the strangest one for me. And Chris just did it so naturally. I had to work to get the kick drum down.

MD: Did he use double bass?

PT: Double pedal. I also used a double pedal with Robert, because there were some moves where he wanted it. I’ve always played a single kick drum until Mr. Big. Now I’m playing double bass. I used the double pedal on “Addicted to That Rush,” in one little passage in the middle. Here’s why I ended up using double bass, though: When David Lee Roth was looking for a drummer, he auditioned everybody in L.A. I got a call, but I heard they wanted someone who played double bass. I couldn’t even fake it, because I had never even done it. So I was intimidated and didn’t go down. About a week later, I started thinking to myself, “Boy, what an idiot I was. Why not learn how to play double bass? Why have to pass up a gig just because you’ve neglected something in your left leg?” And in a lot of ways, I had this attitude about it: “Hey, I play single bass drum,” when that’s like saying, “Hey, I play guitar, but I only use five strings.” Why just forget about an appendage if the technology’s there? And you don’t have to motorboat all the time. I mean, Simon Phillips uses it brilliantly. So I called Tama to get a double pedal. I have a practice-pad kit, and I just went in there and woodshedded.

MD: How long have you been endorsing Tama?

PT: I got with Tama when I went with John Parr. I called up all the drum companies. Most of them wouldn’t even talk to me. But Tama did. What’s nice about Tama in general is that they were interested in me as a person—how I conduct myself and so on and so forth—not in the gig that I had. I’ll always remember that. I’ve been with them since ’85. Cymbal-wise, I’m a Zildjian endorser. They’re great to me too, and they’re a great company. And the same with Pro-Mark.

MD: What was it like to work with Robert Plant?

PT: Obviously, Robert Plant is one of my heroes. I was walking around in a daze. I mean, every time I would see Robert Plant, I’d be looking at him out of the corner of my eye, thinking, “That’s Robert Plant; I’m sitting here with Robert Plant.” Really, it was hard to get over that. It took me about a week before I was able to settle down.

MD: Did you ever see Zeppelin?

PT: Twice. I talked to Robert about all this too. I saw them do a show in Phoenix when he was really sick, and he remembers the show. And even though he was sick, I didn’t care, I couldn’t believe those guys were on stage in the same building as me. I thought they must be from Mars, aliens or something, they were so good. Robert is a very personable, normal guy, and can be very self-effacing. He doesn’t have this “Hey, I’m the rock star legend” attitude or anything. He’s always got time for his fans, signing autographs, talking to people. He’s a very gracious human being.

MD: So when the tour ended, you went back to work with Mr. Big.

PT: The tour ended December 16, 1988, and on January 3 Billy, Eric, Paul, and I were in pre-production, making sure everything was together. The beginning of February, we went up to San Francisco and recorded our album in record time. And we came in under budget—because we did a lot of preparation.

MD: The Mr. Big record not only sounds like people playing together, but the time is right on: It doesn’t sound mechanical.

PT: It’s not stiff. When you’re listening to a click track, you do adjust. I used a click track on a couple of ballads, like “Anything For You.” I don’t consider it there just to make sure I’m keeping it all together, it’s the guitar, everybody. Our producer, Kevin Elson, understood the kind of band we wanted to be, and that’s a band where we go in and play. There are two songs on the album that are first takes, right off the bat—“Addicted to That Rush” and “Take a Walk.” The only thing that was weird was that I said, “Kevin, I want to try a piccolo snare.” It was a Tama brass piccolo, and it sounded good, so we ran the track down and didn’t even listen to it. It’s great. I just love the way it sounds. Obviously we did some vocal overdubs, but the basic tracks were first takes. If you listen to Zeppelin albums, you hear them in the studio. You hear the people breathing, what is going on. That’s why we left little tags and funny things on.

MD: With all of the sampling today, they still never manage to take the sample of John Bonham and make it really sound like him, the actual human being leaning into the drums.

PT: What’s weird is that in “commercial” music, for lack of a better adjective, music that people listen to on the radio, they’re getting more used to hearing sampled sounds or a drum machine than real drums. So when they hear real drums they immediately go, “What’s that? That’s too heavy. That’s heavy metal.” A real snare drum doesn’t go [makes sound of sampled, gated snare]. You lose all the subtleties, all the grace notes. Drum machines are fine in some cases. They serve a purpose. I love it when a band combines real drums with a drum machine, like using a machine for percussion. For instance, on Robert Plant’s “Ship of Fools,” there’s a drum machine pattern with Chris playing along with it. I love the way that sounds. But when it replaces the drummer, when it’s, “Yeah, get a guitar player, we’ll just use a drum machine…” it’s one thing for making demos, but now they’re making records, million-seller albums.

MD: Do you own a drum machine?

PT: Yes I do, a Roland 707. But I use it to practice with, to work on my time. I don’t need it for anything else. To play a slow groove with a drum machine, what I do is have it play for four bars, then sit out for four bars. I hold the beat and see where it comes back in. I’ll do that for a half hour. You lay back a little bit and you realize you’ve laid back a little too much. After a while you get that feeling. It becomes second nature. I try to get to where the time is something you can forget about. Because when you think about time, that’s when you have problems. I pity young drummers who have these guys saying, “Hey, your time, your time!” It only makes them worse. I want to be able to just forget about the time when I play. I work on it a lot.

MD: It sounds like you practice.

PT: I’m still heavily into working on my faults. I’m constantly frustrated. I have a practice pad kit in my apartment. My neighbors are real nice people, and they don’t mind that dull thud. In fact, I went out of town and the woman who lives above me said, “What happened? I’m used to hearing that sound. I can’t go to sleep!” [laughs] And two or three times a week, if we’re not active, I go sit at my drums and blow it out. The practice pad is one thing, but sitting at a kit—that’s when it’s real.

MD: Traditionally, the drummer’s supposed to play with the bass player, but in Mr. Big, you’re working with a phenomenal bass player who plays like a lead guitarist. Does that skew things?

PT: The first time I played with Billy and Paul, it was different, because Billy approaches things differently from other bass players. He’s got this enormous sound. It covers a huge area of our sound. He’d go up the neck and some of the bottom would drop out, but he’d come right back and be right on. He’s got perfect time. He is a guy who’s put more of his waking hours into his bass than not; he lives with it. And it shows in his playing. When it comes to just laying down an AC/DC hard rock groove, Billy can do it like nobody’s business. And I love his aggressiveness on the bass. In a band where there’s just three instruments, you need that big fat thing, and he can definitely do it. Paul Gilbert is really young, but he’s also a great player. He’s not just, “Hey, look how fast I can play.”

I didn’t know Paul before this band. I just wasn’t in that scene of Racer X, the band he was in in Los Angeles, and I was expecting this cliché rock god guitar player. I walked in, and there was this normal, nice, intelligent young guy. I talked to him and thought, “Wow, he’s really on the ball.” Then I played with him. It’s easy to see why Billy and Paul have gained the reputations they have—especially from my point of view, because I see them every day. They’re real people, but they’re real dedicated people. They put a lot of time into it. It’s something they live and breathe. I’ve been in a lot of bands where a lot of people come up and say to me, “You’re great, man, what are you doing in this band? These guys, they’re okay, but you’re great.” You get sick of hearing that. I wanted to be in a band where everybody was great. In this band, I have to keep up with Billy and Paul! They make me strive for perfection. And I see no end in sight. Hopefully we’ll be doing our twenty-fifthth anniversary in the year 2015 or something; it’s the last band I ever want to be in.

MD: At this point, would you say you’re more accomplished as a live performer than as a recording artist?

PT: Hopefully, I’ll gain a recording reputation from the Mr. Big album, and from our next album, and so on and so forth. What I’m hoping for is, sometime in my career, to come up with a song that starts with drums, and the minute it starts, like “My Sharona” or “Mellow Yellow,” every time you hear that, you know exactly what it is. That’s a goal for me. Then you’re really being musical, as opposed to just playing licks and trying to outdo everybody.

MD: Do you write?

PT: I’ve never written a song without collaborating. I can play a little guitar and a little keyboards, but my biggest tool, writing-wise, is my voice. With your voice, it’s all there. I can hum a melody, I can describe something musically to somebody. For instance, the song “Wind Me Up” was a lick Paul came up with, and I suggested how to structure it, and then the melody came.

MD: What about doing more singing?

PT: Eric is our singer. I’m happy being the drummer. I used to have people saying, “You know, you should give up the drums, be a lead singer.” Drums are just something I love. And what would I hide myself with? Eric and I sang the backgrounds with Sammy Hagar at the Bammies, and we had to stand up there. I felt like my pants were down: “They can see me!”

MD: Are you working on a second album?

PT: Right now, we’re just out promoting the first one. We did some shows with Winger. Then we started headlining our own shows. We’ve sold out every single one of them. We’ve had incredible shows. The audience is on their feet from the first note. Winger would have us come out for their encore. I’d play Rod Morgenstein’s kit, which is left-handed. I had to think about that.

MD: Do you have any thoughts of consciously trying to come up with singles that might expose Mr. Big to a bigger audience?

PT: We just do what we do. It’s funny, some people think we weren’t heavy enough. Other people think it’s too hard rock. So basically, we just have to think, “What do we like?” I like all kinds of music—a Beatles melody as much as crunching AC/DC rock. I just want to sell a zillion records, because that’s always fun.