Mark Sanders

At only 28, Mark Sanders is a veteran. He started playing at a young age, and went right to work. Amid the usual career ups and downs, Mark has toured with major acts and free-lanced in the L.A. megalopolis, recorded critically acclaimed albums, and done demo and jingle work. His most recent major accomplishment was a three-year stint with the legendary funk band Tower of Power, filling the seat vacated by David Garibaldi. Some drummers might have found that intimidating, but Mark took it on as a challenge, and in the following interview describes how he approached that challenge musically and mentally. Mark also explores the subtle infusion of funk into the “new music”—from technopop to hard rock—being played today.

RVH: Fill us in on a little of your early background.

MS: I was born July 8, 1955, in L.A., California. The first time I fell in love with drums was when I saw a drummer doing a casual in the condos we were living in. I must have been 10 or 12. When I saw a cymbal with rivets shaking in it, I was fascinated—I just loved drums. I got a job in an Orange Julius stand at 13, working to get enough money for some drums. My mother took me to the local music store drum teacher, who was pretty good, and I studied for a while. Then I started teaching myself through just playing to records and listening. I got in a few garage bands and I was having fun. The first songs I ever played were “Sunshine Of Your Love” and “Wipeout.” I used to practice to the Doors’ first record, with “Light My Fire” on it, just constantly. I have to admit I wasn’t hot out of the gate, but I was a determined kid, and the neighbors put up with me.

When I got into high school I was totally into rock—a hippie type. I did play in the orchestra, though, because I could read and play well enough. But then I changed to another high school—Van Nuys High— which was really a very good thing, because that’s where I really started to round out my musicality. At Van Nuys High I was in the concert band. When we’d play some Chicago tunes that required a set drummer, I would play drumset. Somebody asked me why I didn’t try out for the jazz band, so I did, and made it. I met some really great people who I want to talk about. One was Larry Klein, who was the drummer in the jazz band the year before I was in it. We were different types; he was into jazz and cruising Van Nuys Blvd., and I was into rock music and having long hair. But we became real friends. I’d teach him rock beats, and he’d teach me how to play jazz and swing, and how to read charts. I had another close friend there, a trumpet player named Bill Lamb, who’s since played with all the greats in the business. He’s a fabulous player and also a good drummer, and that’s how we became friends. And of course, there was Sid Lasaine, our band teacher. What he did for us kids was incredible—teaching us phrasing and swinging; getting us to play when we were all into fooling around. I think all band teachers should be commended for putting up with high school kids, and somehow getting them to sit down and study enough to play charts and sight read. I can’t say enough good things about that big band experience in high school; what it does for musicians in general is a great thing.

I met the Porcaro family, including Joe, Jeff, Mike and Steve, when I was playing with Steve and Mike in a band. They were my age. The Porcaros were very instrumental in my growing as a musician; I can never forget the faith they had in my playing and what they’ve done for my career.

RVH: How and when did you first become interested in funk music?

MS: Before I graduated high school, I heard Tower of Power on a live radio broadcast from San Francisco. All I could hear was this very syncopated open-and closed hi-hat, sticking out from the music. I remember thinking, “What is that? What is going on here?” Of course, it was David Garibaldi playing drums. I’d been into rock ‘n’ roll drumming, but what was happening here just totally turned my mind around. I immediately became a Tower of Power fan. I started telling everyone in L.A. about them, and they were my favorite band. From there I became a soul and funk fanatic, listening to Sly Stone, Larry Graham, Donny Hathaway, James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Of course, Bernard Purdie with Aretha was like an idol, as was Fred White, who at the time was playing with Donny Hathaway. Fred did a live record with Donny back in the early ’70s that is so incredible. Stevie Wonder was a big influence on me musically, because he’s such a musical drummer—especially the Music Of My Mind record. To this day, these records are still inspirations to me. They have some of the most soulful, exciting foundations for all the funk music in the world, as far as I’m concerned. That’s how I got turned on to soul.

RVH: How did your professional career develop prior to Tower?

MS: After I graduated high school, I went on the road with Michael Franks, with Mike Porcaro on bass. I came back from that gig, and I was setting up music stands for Earl Palmer—a great drummer and nice guy. Earl had to go to Europe, and he asked me to sub for him one night! I was a nervous wreck. It just so happened that the Jackson Five came in, heard me play, and asked me to be their drummer for a while. So I was their drummer, off and on, for two and a half years. That was, of course, an incredible experience.

We were all so young, and we had all of this energy that we used to do these shows with. But during this period, none of the older musicians told me about the music business—how you can be up one day and down the next; how you’re supposed to save your money because you’re not always going to have a gig. What happened was, after the Jackson Five, nothing else really came in, so I wound up free-lancing in L.A., and working the Nevada lounge circuit. Harvey’s Inn—how many drummers can relate to a little light that goes on over the stage that says “too loud” because people are trying to gamble? It’s quite a way to make a living. Even though I loved soul as much as I did, my roots were in rock drumming, so I did a lot of rock ‘n’ roll gigs: Spencer Davis, Al Stewart, and a lot of different rock ‘n’ roll bands around L.A.—clubs and top-40 bands. It’d be like, I’d get a gig with Al Stewart, tour the U.S., come back, do casuals and freelance; then I’d go to Japan with Al Stewart again, come back, and do club gigs and casuals. What I’m really trying to say is, living in L.A., there are so many great drummers that to survive you really have to play a lot of different stuff. So I’d be in a rock band, a soul band, a jazz group, I’d do a jingle, I’d go on the road with a group, I’d be in a disco band, then boom—I’m in a new wave band called Sumner, playing the L.A. club circuit and signed with Elektra/ Asylum.

RVH: So how did you get from there to auditioning for Tower of Power?

MS: During my time with Sumner, I decided that I wanted to further myself and take lessons. So a friend of mine—Carlos Vega—recommended a teacher named Murray Spivack. He’s an incredible man. I started studying with Murray, and he just turned my head around. He gave me the basic training I never really got when I was a kid, because I had never really studied or practiced heavily. When I started taking from him, I started losing my desire to only play rock ‘n’ roll. I was looking for a change, because I felt that I had gained all this new technique, chops and beats, and I was looking for a place that I could utilize them. Then what happens? My friend Bill Lamb, from Van Nuys High, was playing with Tower of Power off and on through all these years, and he told me that they were looking for a drummer—David had left again. I said, “Well, I’ve loved this band since 1970.” Just to play with them at the audition was going to be fine with me. So I flew up to San Francisco to audition. When I was walking through the Oakland airport, I must have seen three or four drummers with cymbal bags. I really couldn’t believe it, but drummers were flying in from all over the country to audition for this band. I tell you, I was scared to death.

RVH: How did you go about actually learning the tunes for the audition?

MS: I had 11 songs I had to learn. I got the records from Bill Lamb and wrote out the beats. I sat on my patio for hours with a tape recorder, rewinding and transcribing on my own, songs like “On The Serious Side” and “Soul Vaccination”—really hard beats. I wouldn’t have been able to transcribe these Tower of Power beats if I hadn’t studied with Murray Spivack. He helped me with my reading tremendously, to the point where I could understand beats like David Garibaldi played. When I finally got the actual transcriptions of these beats, I was amazed at how close I really was. Anyway, I auditioned and I played pretty well. I got to listen to my audition tape a couple of years later, and you could tell I was pretty nervous, but I was playing. I got home and told my girlfriend, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I spent a hundred bucks and I’ve played with my favorite band, and it’s cool.” Right when I was talking to her, the phone rang and it was Emilio [Castillo—leader of Tower]. He said, “I want you to play in my band”—just like that. I just about hit the ceiling; I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even know what to say to him. I told him I’d have to call him back to talk about the money and what I was going to do about the other band. That was August 5, 1980.

RVH: Coming from a new wave rock group, how did you adjust musically and mentally to the funk style of Tower?

MS: I think the main thing that I had to get used to was hitting the hi-hat in the middle of the top cymbal with the tip of the stick, as opposed to hitting it on the edge with the shoulder of the stick. In rock, you dig into it at an angle. I had to learn to tighten up my playing so that everything was executed very cleanly. There’s hardly any open hihat playing—everything’s very exact. That took me a while to get used to. Mentally, it was really just a confidence thing of knowing that it was a musicians’ band, that people were coming to see this band really play, and knowing that every guy in the band was a great musician in his own right. There’s no room for slack. You have to really take control of Tower. You can’t be timid, because no one is timid in this band.

Another thing I had to think about was being myself. I didn’t want to imitate David. You have to believe in yourself and want to project your own personality on your instrument. If you’re a drummer replacing David Garibaldi, or you’re playing with Chick Corea where Steve Gadd used to play, sometimes you’ll have to play a specific beat to a particular song, but you have to play something that is your own for you to believe in it. For instance, some nights I might do the intro to “Squib Cakes” the way David did it, but some days I might change the bass drum or hihat. On our direct-to-disc record, I transcribed the part and wrote it out with a lot of different possibilities. I chose one that I liked and I learned it, which happened to be the bass drum part played with my right hand on the hi-hat, and the hi-hat part played on my bass drum. Some nights I’ll just improvise a four-bar drum intro. If you’re up there just copying something, and it isn’t the way that you would approach the song, then you have to think about it. Are you getting paid enough money to play this, no matter what? I’d have to say it wasn’t so much my physical playing that was hard in Tower, as it was getting mentally prepared for this position.

RVH: You can’t escape the fact that you’re filling the seat of David Garibaldi, who “wrote the book” on the Oakland style of funk drumming. Is that in itself a particular challenge or pressure?

MS: Yes it is, and the particular challenge is that he can do things that no other drummer can do. To this day he can play stuff that just blows my mind. At first, it was a pressure because I’d be playing and thinking to myself, “He’d be playing nine over twelve, as opposed to just a nice funky pattern. He’d be playing this with his left hand only, or playing it on his bass drum.” No one else gave me that pressure in the band. It was my own pressure. When I first joined the band, I felt it was my duty to play these great drum beats. I remembered when I used to see Tower and they’d have other drummers. I’d say, “Well, he’s not playing what David played.” Now, all of a sudden, / was the other drummer playing in Tower, and I was saying to myself,

“Well, now you have to play what David played, because that’s what you wanted to hear.” But what I had to realize was that David is David, and I’m Mark. I sound much better when I play what I play best, which is not the way David Garibaldi plays. I can play what David plays, but I don’t play it the way he plays it. There are some parts that I play of David’s that feel natural to me, and I like playing them. As our keyboard player says, they’re the signature of the tune. I love what David Garibaldi did with the band. But I’m a different player.

RVH: What about the band? What do they want to hear from you?

MS: As long as the time stays straight and it’s funky, they don’t really care. The band needs to be kicked in the ass, as Steven Kupka [baritone sax] says. They want to hear what any band wants to hear: a solid reinforcement; an exciting drive behind them.

Mark Sanders

RVH: What do you do in your practicing to help you create what the band needs?

MS: Mostly I just keep my chops up and practice things that interest me. I practice things that I’m not playing. I’m playing funk every night, so at home I’m practicing brushes, jazz, reggae and Latin music. I love salsa. Sometimes I play with Luis Conte or Lenny Castro. When you play with these guys in a blowing situation, you’d better understand something about Latin music or these cats are going to waste you! I’ve also been working on independence. I couldn’t play these Steve Gadd or David Garibaldi beats without a certain amount of chops, and my teacher gave me that. It takes a lot of practicing, knowledge and understanding of pressure, squeezing, grips, sticks, heads, all that stuff, before you can really play these beats and keep ’em under control.

RVH: In light of the popularity of heavy metal rock, new wave, etc., how do you see audience reaction to funk as performed by Tower?

MS: Funk, as I knew it in the ’70s, is pretty much history. AWB, Sly, Tower—very few bands are still holding in. The new funk is mostly techno-funk. I hear AC/DC playing funk beats. Jackson Browne’s bass player is popping strings now. Even pop music now has drummers playing neat little 16th-note things off the snare. Look at the Doobie Brothers—that was funk in a pop sense. Earth, Wind & Fire seems to be hanging in there. They’re real good at what they’re doing.

RVH: Do you feel dated, or do you feel that Tower’s music has relevance and appeal right now?

MS: No, I don’t feel dated. As I said, everyone’s learning off this, and getting it into the new music.

RVH: Is Tower a nostalgia act, or a contemporary performing act?

MS: In the sense that we do the old tunes, yes, we’re a nostalgia act. But we’re also contemporary because we do a lot of new tunes that we approach with a different style—a more contemporary funk sound. So it’s half and half. When you come to a show you’re going to hear the old Tower of Power, with some of the great old rhythms and syncopations, but you’re also going to hear some real nice tunes with a good groove for the newer stuff. You’re really getting both.

RVH: What equipment are you using with Tower?

MS: I have a Gretsch set. It’s red rosewood, and it’s beautiful. Gretsch drums have a light, singing resonance that’s incredible. With some drumsets, you really have to dig a sound out of it. Gretsch drums respond to how you hit them—if you hit lightly, it’s going to come out lightly. I’m just in love with the sound of these drums. My current setup starts with a 22″ bass drum. I love all sizes of bass drums, but for what I’m doing, a 22″ is the hip size. It’s just a regular depth—not an extended shell. I’ve got a deep 61/2″ rosewood snare that’s probably the best snare I’ve ever had, and a 5 1/2″ eight-lug chrome snare. I have two power toms to my left over my hi-hat—an 8″ and a 10″. On top of the bass drum I have a 12″ and a 14″, and then I go down to 14″ and 16″ floor toms. I wanted all my drums to be two inches apart, but I went to a 14″ floor tom because I’ve always known how great those sound. All my drums are double-headed except the bass drum, which has a hole cut out in the front head. I use Gretsch Floating Action pedals. I’ve used them for years.

I’m thinking about doing clinics for Gretsch; they’re getting a nice program together. I’m also looking forward to working with Charles Perry, with his Percussion Enterprises program. I’m not really in any hurry to do clinics, but I’m looking forward to becoming a good clinician one day. It is something I want to do.

I’m using all Zildjian cymbals: 14″ New Beathi-hats, a 16″ medium-thin crash over my concert toms, a 22″ K. ride, a 17″ medium-thin to my right, and a 10″ splash right in the middle of my two rack toms. I’ve recently added a China Boy, upside down. I ‘ve grown up playing Zildjian cymbals. They have a personality of their own that I just love—especially the K. ride. When I was growing up, I used to listen to Joe Porcaro, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, and Johnny Guerin. These were drummers who I heard play K. ride cymbals and they used to love them. They had this warm, great sound—especially a jazz sound. They’re beautiful cymbals and I feel there’s no reason in the world why you can’t use them for rock bands or pop music—especially the new ones, because I guess they’re made a lot stronger. I wouldn’t suggest them for AC/DC or Iron Maiden, but they’re fantastic for what I’m doing. The bells really have a nice kind of oriental sound to them, without going so far as a China or Pang type. I also love the hi-hats, and I’m interested in getting the Quick Beats. I haven’t tried them yet, but I want to talk to Lennie DiMuzio about them.

I ‘m also endorsing Calzone Cases, which simply are better cases than any that I’ve investigated, and their prices are very, very competitive. They have an aluminum type—which I’ve got—that costs a little bit extra, but they’re much more protective than the fiberglass or the other coatings that are used. We take these grueling tours of one-nighters, and these cases are happening. Speaking of touring, Jerry Manuel, my equipment manager, is really a big help to me. If we can’t do a soundcheck, I can still sit right down, and know my equipment and sound will be right.

RVH: What’s in the future for Mark Sanders?

MS: The future is all about growing. I read in Modern Drummer about Max Roach, who is still studying to this day, and about all these drummers who always keep learning. Even in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s these people are still growing, and that’s my goal—to always grow. I think about Louie and Buddy, and how at their age they’re still just wailing—playing gigs—and that’s my main concern.

Hal Blaine talks about how you need a balance in your life, and I’ve never really had that. I was always so wrapped up in practicing and playing that I never really had any other hobbies to take my mind off work. And it becomes work, once you start making your living at it, even though I love it. So I’m volunteering some of my free time working for the Teenage Alcoholism Program. It’s been very rewarding. I’ve also been getting into swimming and exercise.

Career-wise, playing with Tower is a very good experience, and I’m looking forward to playing with many people in the future. I also want to do some producing. I produced a demo tape for Vonda Shepard here in L.A., and it was quite an experience. I really enjoyed it, and I feel I have a good knack for it. I’m looking forward to more producing later on in my career.

I just feel that it’s great doing something that I like. I want to grow, keep playing the best I can, and I look forward to a future of always playing.

Just before this story went to press, Mark informed MD that he had left Tower of Power, and was once again pursuing a very busy schedule of free-lance performing and recording in L.A.