If Jerry Marotta had his way, we’d still be doing this interview. That’s not because Jerry’s particularly enamored of interviews, but to continue means to never conclude. He’d much rather keep experimenting and trying to obtain the perfect interview than allow me to write it. But that shouldn’t have surprised me, for that’s how Jerry is in the studio: willing to try anything and explore every option.
It’s true that portions of many musicians’ personalities can be detected through the way they approach and play their instruments. Jerry Marotta becomes visible through his philosophies and his work. If you listen to his tracks with Hall & Oates, Joan Armatrading, Tears For Fears, and his mainstay Peter Gabriel, you can uncover many facets of him that his interview should confirm.
One thing is certain! Jerry’s talent is in great abundance. If Jerry was ever concerned that he would forever be known as drummer Rick Marotta’s little brother, those fears should have been put aside long ago. At 29, he is not only one of the most revered drum innovators of current times, but he is also a respected saxophone player, keyboard player, and singer, doing all of these things constantly on record. Now Jerry has entered production, having his own studio in Long Island City, New York, called Wigtown. Recently, he produced the debut record of a German band called 12 Drummers Drumming. No matter what he does, Jerry excels at it.
Most people are unaware of the warm, communicative, sensitive, and deep side of Jerry Marotta. There seems to be a mystique surrounding him, and little is known about him. During a recent trip to L.A., Jerry sat down with me, and we talked for hours.
RF: What made you decide to become a drummer?
JM: Actually, originally I didn’t think about being a drummer. I took saxophone lessons when I was very young. It sounds strange, but really, if it weren’t for Vietnam, Rick and I would not have been drummers. Rick had a friend who was drafted. His friend had a drumset, and Rick told him he’d take care of it for him. The drums went up into the attic of our house, and they certainly got a lot of use. Rick was either just finishing high school or in his first year of college, and I was about ten. That’s really how the whole thing started. We had this little record player, and we just played to records.
My brother got very good, very fast. By the time his friend got back from Vietnam two years later, Rick was already in a band with a brand-new drumset. The old drumset was moved to my part of the attic, and finally, I was playing with musicians around school. I had no aspirations to become a professional musician, though. I didn’t even know what a professional musician was when I was 12. I wasn’t aware that that was an option. Of course, at that age, I wasn’t thinking of becoming anything.
RF: So what changed?
JM: As I got older, I realized more and more that I enjoyed playing drums, and as my brother became successful, I realized more and more that you could make money playing drums. I just saw what was going on with Rick’s career.
My brother took a lot of stick from my parents, because they didn’t want him to be a musician at all. They wanted us to become doctors or lawyers, which we wouldn’t have become anyway. They were very tough on my brother and gave him a lot of trouble until he started making a really good living. Then they changed their tune.
My brother really paved the way for me. He definitely got his ass kicked a number of times for me and for himself. I think my parents knew it was out of hand by the time I was ready to make the decision. My parents and I have a fantastic relationship, and I think that they believed in me a lot. They believed that I would be good at whatever I felt I wanted to do, and it would be okay. They believed in my ability to make decisions.
RF: Was there any rivalry when you were growing up together?
JM: Not at all, because we were so far apart in age. My brother was really working by the time he was 22 or 23, four or five years after he started playing the drums. He was very happening. When he was 24, I was 16 and certainly not a threat to him. I was as into playing soccer as I was into playing drums. I had a job, I was into sports, and I was a very well-rounded child.
RF: It’s often difficult for two people who are close to one another to be in the same business. For two brothers, each one must have experienced busier or more successful times than the other in his career. How did that affect your relationship?
JM: To be successful as a musician, you have to be competitive. It’s all competitive, but then again, so is life.
RF: Are you competitive by nature, or do you think this business has made you competitive?
JM: I think by nature I am very competitive, so much so that I play down rivalry because I think I’m more competitive than a lot of people and it makes me feel uncomfortable. I’ve always done well at everything I’ve ever done, and it comes easily.
Both my brothers are musicians—my brother Tom is a bass player—and that can create a problem, but I don’t feel competitive with Rick. If there’s any difficulty between me and my brother, I bow out. We don’t get in each other’s way, and we don’t do one another’s gigs. Rick plays with Linda Ronstadt, and I play with Peter Gabriel. The two just don’t go together. When we were growing up, I was always Rick Marotta’s little brother, because he was very successful when I was just a kid. Then, I developed my thing. I got my own jobs and my career started happening. Since then, I’ve never really had a problem with it. I guess you’d have to ask Rick how he feels about it. We’re supportive of one another. If there was ever a competition between us, now it’s worse than it’s ever been. I guess my brother and I are each going through our own stage right now. We’ve always had our differences. We see each other and talk to each other all of the time, but we argue most of the time. We bug each other a lot.
RF: And yet, you’re close.
JM: We have to be. We have the same mother and father.
RF: So? There are lots of siblings who aren’t close.
JM: You’re right, but somehow we are. We’ll have to see what happens in the future. I’ve always felt that Rick’s a much better player than I am, anyway. He’s much more of a drummer than I am.
RF: Why do you say that?
JM: He just is. I don’t compare myself to him. I don’t think we’re in the same league. He’s a better drummer. There’s no doubt about that. I don’t feel bad about that or uncomfortable. There are things I may be better at. He’s a great drummer, though. He’s influenced so many players, and I don’t look at myself as being that way. I don’t feel that other musicians would be influenced by the way I play drums. I think my brother has been doing these things for so long and really has been creating a style that nobody else had.
RF: Here your brother was playing for Linda Ronstadt, which is a completely different style from what you ended up going into. However, there is a similarity between you and Rick. There’s a kind of behind-the-beat feel that both of you have.
JM: There are similarities because I learned how to play from listening to my brother. I continue to love the way Rick plays. I think he is in a class of his own with a small group of people. There are a lot of drummers out there, but not a lot of drummers like my brother.
RF: If you learned a lot from listening to him play, why didn’t you go into the same kind of thing as he did?
JM: I tried to and I had every intention of doing that, but I started working with Gabriel. That had an incredible effect on my style, because I tried all sorts of different things. It was hard at first, because Pete writes these songs that you can play very conventionally—funky or rock—and he made me understand that, if we do it that way, it’s going to sound like everything else. That’s what is great about Peter. Working with Peter can almost be like a group therapy session, where these sessions go on for hours and hours, breaking down people’s defenses—where you exhaust people and they start to drop their guard. You’re trying to get beyond the surface and layers of years of conditioning. We get pissed off a lot and crazed working with Pete. I think that helped me to take a left turn, style-wise.
RF: When I suggested that there were similarities between you and Rick in your playing, you agreed. What do you see as the similarities?
JM: My brother plays rings around me, first of all, so that’s not similar. I honestly think that. I’m not trying to stroke my brother.
RF: Don’t you see this as a lack of confidence?
JM: No, not at all. I know exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t think I’m not good. I just think my brother is that good. I think I’m less interested in the drums, also.
RF: What exactly do you mean by that?
JM: I love the drums and that’s what I play, but I really don’t consider myself just a drummer. Drums are a vehicle for me to participate in a conversation. I think about songs, the singer, and all of it. I could just as easily be playing guitar or keyboards, and I think I’d be just as happy, but it was fate that I became a drummer.
RF: Seriously, why did you even choose to play the drums when you were already playing sax?
JM: I don’t know why. I think the drums may have been a better release for a ten year old than a saxophone. You had to sit still to play the saxophone. What I loved about the drums was that you could practice and still carry on an argument with your mother at the same time.
RF: In your opinion, what are the attributes of a great drummer?
JM: I think the attributes of a good drummer would really be the attributes of any good musician. This is a hard question for me to answer because I never sat and analyzed what it takes to be a good drummer. I have never premeditated anything about my life or anything I do. I think first and foremost in terms of ideas, really, with a capital “I.” Chops don’t mean anything to me. Most of the musicians I love play like they don’t know how to play their instruments. I suppose it’s good to know how to play, but don’t get bogged down with the idea that you have to be Steve Gadd or that you have to have tons of training to ever work. In England, I work with a lot of people who do not know how to play at all. I’m not sure why that is.
RF: It might be because a lot of musicians over there have never had any training. Have you ever had any formal training?
JM: No, never.
RF: So how did you get so good?
JM: Probably because I never learned someone else’s bad habits. I just listened to records and copied what I heard.
RF: What records were you listening and playing to?
JM: Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, James Brown—soul records, Stax, Memphis, Motown. I don’t even know who played on some of those records. This was when I was ten. I wasn’t into rock at all.
RF: In retrospect, are there things you wished you had learned, or do you feel completely content with the way you learned?
JM: I’m happy with the way I learned. It’s hard for me to talk about formal training because I haven’t had it, although I did study the saxophone. With drums, I would go as far as I possibly could without being formally trained. I never had a lesson to learn. Sometimes that becomes a limitation to me. I did as much as I could and never felt the pressure about practicing, so I practiced a lot and I enjoyed it. Now, I do wish I could do more and had more of a vocabulary on the drums to draw from. It’s one of those questions I could spend the rest of my life debating with myself. If I had more ability, would that make me a different kind of player? Would I not play the way I do? I’m not a very flashy player at all, not having those chops.
RF: That’s one of your assets.
JM: It is. That made me concentrate a lot more on being solid, just supporting the song, and not being a virtuoso. When I was younger and I did club dates in a piano trio with a singer, they used to love me because I never played very much. I never got in the way, and they loved that.
RF: Are there drummers who fit your definition of great?
JM: Jim Keltner, who is a very unconventional player. When I listen to him play, I don’t know what the heck he’s doing, but it’s great. When I was growing up, I liked Keltner’s playing and Russ Kunkel’s. Then there are other types of people like John Tirabasso who used to play with Warren Marsh. I used to listen to a lot of jazz when I was growing up. Recently, I’ve heard this guy Steve Jansen, who is a good drummer from England. He used to play with a group called Japan. He’s the brother of an artist I like a lot, David Sylvian. I also like the guy from Tears For Fears, Manny Elias. As drummers, we’re very similar in approach, and I hope we’ll do a project together one of these days.
The dancer George Ballanchine has been more of an influence on me than have most drummers. He is probably the most famous classical choreographer of modern times, and he has been an inspiration to me because he has had a very different approach to a very conventional thing, rather than just conforming. Seeing something like The Four Temperaments, which is a ballet that Ballanchine choreographed, I think, in the 1930s, is more influential to me than other players. Van Gogh is an influence. Mark Rothco is another example. What I try to do with my playing is what those guys have done with what they do. I think dance is the purest expression of one’s feelings, because it’s what people do with their own bodies. They don’t need anything but themselves to create that. After that comes painting and then music.
RF: So back to your life, what would you consider your big break? Was that Orleans?
JM: Orleans was certainly a big break. I had been out of high school for about a year and a half. Orleans was great because they were my favorite band at the time, so it was like being asked to be in the Beatles. I loved them. They were the hottest playing band. They were funky, white rock ‘n’ rollers, and I think we all had the same musical influences.
RF: How did you get the gig with them?
JM: They were auditioning drummers, and I had been working up near Woodstock, in Bearsville. It was 1975, and my brother was producing this project with a girl named Allee Willis, and John Hall was somewhere around the studio. He spoke to my brother, and the next thing I knew, I had an audition to play with them, which I was excited and very nervous about.
RF: What did you have to do in the audition?
JM: They had been rehearsing in a barn in Bearsville. They had all the equipment set up and we just played. We played some new stuff that I wouldn’t have heard, to get an idea of what I’d be like playing on something I hadn’t heard before, and it was great. Of course, there was another drummer in the group, Wells Kelly, so there were going to be two drummers. I didn’t like the idea of having two drummers, and I still don’t like it, really, although, the two of us playing together was okay. It wasn’t great, but it was great to have two drummers and both of us were able to play other instruments, because Wells was a very good musician. He played keyboards and guitar, and he sang. Everybody in that band was a multi-instrumentalist and played everything well. On some songs we played double drums and it was kind of fun, but we always sort of got in each other’s way. Wells was much more of a personality player, and I would inhibit him from doing whatever he wanted to do. I’m much more of a straight-ahead solid player, and he had much more of a style than I do. He was a great player, especially back when I heard those first Orleans records. I hadn’t heard anybody play like him.
RF: Was Orleans your first recording experience?
JM: I had done a little recording before but not much. That was certainly my first recording experience with a band. We did a song called “Still The One,” which was a big hit, and I played drums on that. It was exciting to have done that at the age of 19.
RF: What happened after the two years you were in the band?
JM: John Hall quit the band. It’s really a shame, because I think that, if the band had stayed together, it would have continued to be a very popular band. When the band was first formed, John was the only writer, but all of a sudden, Larry Hoppen and Wells were writing, and even I was trying to throw in a song or two. It just flipped John out, because he wanted to have eight or nine on the record. So, John Hall just called everybody and said he was quitting the band. I spoke to him at the MUSE concert a few years after that, and I asked him about it. He got tearful when he was thinking about that time, and he told me that, when he called everybody, I was the only person who tried to talk him out of quitting the band. He said that everybody else kind of wanted him to leave.
About a month after the band broke up, I came out to L.A. just to relax and visit my brother, who was working out here. I was only out a couple of weeks, and I was asked about doing a Peter Gabriel gig. It was in the fall of ’77 that I started working with Peter. I didn’t know who he was. I had never heard of Gene- sis or Peter Gabriel. But I listened to his first solo record.
RF: What did you think of it?
JM: I love that record. That’s my favorite Gabriel album. I didn’t know where he was coming from, though. I had never heard anything like it before. I had no way to categorize what I was listening to. I had been listening to the Doobie Brothers, and then I heard a barber shop quartet with a tuba intro. I really just did it for the job. There wasn’t anything tremendously artistic about it. It was just a job, and it paid a lot more money than any job I had ever had before. Peter had listened to a record I was on. I think it was an Orleans record, but I have a funny feeling that he listened to a record I hadn’t even played on. Some other drummer out there should have gotten that gig. So they flew me to England.
RF: As you said, the music is very different, so what do you feel is needed in the Gabriel gig from the drummer?
JM: It’s always very different, even unto itself. Peter never does the same thing twice, although now he’s settled into more of a groove, I guess, than before. The first four albums were very different from one another, and I imagine this new album will be very different from them. I don’t know much about the new album because I didn’t work all that much on it. I think Stewart Copeland played on a couple of tracks, and a French drummer played on some of it. I played on as much of it as I could, but when Peter was recording that record, I was working on the Paul McCartney album.
A lot of patience is required in the Gabriel gig and a good, solid croquet mallet. We actually spend as much time playing croquet or Risk as we do working. He’s usually pretty untogether about what he’s doing. Then there are all sorts of equipment problems. It’s gotten a lot better than it ever was, because he’s got his studio more together now, but he’s still very unsure about specifics. He gets these vague ideas for a concept for a song or a drum pattern, and that’s the whole song. That’s what we have to work with. There’s a lot of input on everybody’s part. I enjoy having that input. There’s always the idea of trying to do some- thing different with Pete, which opens up a big area for a player, like doing this thing with no cymbals. I don’t know how many players could handle that. Just take all your cymbals away and play. That was on the third Gabriel album.
RF: Why did that come about, and how did you feel about it?
JM: I think it made a lot of sense to do that, because basically, you have your drums, which sound a certain way, and then you have these metal crash things that don’t sound anything like your drums. I guess the way I look at it is as if you were trying to record a voice and a guitar solo with the same microphone on the same track. You’d never do that. What we wanted to do was pull out those unexpected crashes. We wanted to set up the drums in a room and get this incredible sound based on drums, not on cymbals. We never thought, “We’ll never put cymbals on here.” We just thought, “Let’s not hit them right now and wait for a separate track.” As we went through the record, we felt less and less that we wanted to have them, and it worked. It made a lot of sense, and I do that a lot now. Being able to go with things like that is important in the Gabriel situation. When Tony Levin first brought the Chapman Stick around, he was having enough trouble just making sense of the instrument, and Peter came in one day with all these thimbles. He wanted Tony to put thimbles on all his fingers to play the Stick. Enter patience. On this past record, Tony and I did some takes where Tony fingered the bass, and I played the sticks against the bridge of his bass. That was already done about 40 years ago by Gene Krupa, where he actually played sticks against the strings of an upright bass while the bass player fingered the bass. That’s the wonderful thing about playing with Peter, which makes me a bad sideman when I work with other people. I like to set stuff up around the drumkit—it could be anything—as if I’m not going to use it, and then during a take, I’ll take a shot at something.
RF: Like what?
JM: Anything! Snares lying on the side, chairs, producers—anything. I like doing that kind of stuff. It’s not miked up, and nobody’s expecting it. It drives engineers crazy
RF: Do you recall any tracks where you did stuff like that?
JM: Sure. We did a song with Peter called “Games Without Frontiers,” which was a pretty big hit. We must have recorded one full reel of tape where we did this song in six minutes, which left nine minutes of insanity. We started banging snare drums together, and I was throwing things around the studio. I held an overhead microphone down in the corner and threw a glass down on the floor. Then the producer, Steve Lillywhite, walked in and screamed at the top of his lungs. He threw something, and then I threw my floor tom-tom. Peter became very primal, so we had nine minutes of absolute insanity. If you listen to that track, they sped the tape up at the very end, so it sounds very quick, percussive, and punchy, whereas when we really did it, the track was normal tempo.
I can’t remember specifics, because I feel that I always try to do something unusual. I did some records with an English guy, Johnny Werman, which weren’t released over here. They’re really great records. The whole approach to making them was different. Plus, I got to do whatever I wanted on them. We tried anything. We did this one track where I had this idea to get everybody who was in the studio to get some sticks. We did a pass on this song of everybody just banging the shit out of the drums.
RF: You’re kind of in an interesting in between place in that you’ve been with Gabriel for so long, but technically, you are an independent player. How do you feel about being a gun for hire?
JM: I’m not sure I actually have made a conscious decision to be or not to be in a band situation. It’s hard to get a band situation together, especially in New York and with the way the business is nowadays. Take a group like Tears For Fears. These are a couple of kids from a little town in England where the only thing to do is put a band together or go to a pub and get drunk. I didn’t grow up in that situation. I grew up in Westchester, just outside of Manhattan, where there are so many things you can do and so many ways you can spend your time. But I like the security of being in a band. I’ve been trying to put bands together every so often, but it’s awfully hard to do. I’ve made so much more money working as a free-lance player, I guess. Although, if Orleans had stayed together and we’d become very successful, I’m sure I would have made a lot more money.
I don’t feel that I’m a sideman. My brother and I are very different. My brother is the classic “get him in and he can do anything.” I don’t look at myself as the kind of musician that almost anybody can call and hire for a job.
RF: So how do you see yourself?
JM: I just never saw myself as a sideman. I’ve been with Peter for eight years. I worked with Hall & Oates for a couple of years and did three albums with them. It’s hard for me to say.
RF: And yet, lately, you’ve been doing a lot of recording where you’re not involved with them past the album.
JM: I did that with Fee Waybill, which was a good experience. I don’t do that a lot, although I don’t know if that’s because it doesn’t come up a lot or because I choose not to do it.
RF: How did you get called for the McCartney gig?
JM: Through Hugh Padgham, an engineer/producer who did the last couple of Police records, the Bowie record, Phil Collins, and Genesis. He had engineered a Peter Gabriel record, which is how we met. He called me in January of 1984 and asked what I was doing next April. He said that he couldn’t tell me what it was because it wasn’t definite, but that it was something very big. Then he called me about six weeks later, and told me he was producing McCartney and he wanted me to do it.
RF: What was that like?
JM: It was an interesting experience working with somebody like Paul McCartney, who is certainly the most successful working musician alive.
JM: Because I’m interested in being a Paul McCartney myself—a songwriter and more of an artist. So it was nice to work with the most successful composer of modern times.
RF: He’s also a drummer.
JM: He kind of plays the drums. He might be able to play the drums on a record, but just about anybody could play the drums on a record because of the wonders of modern technology. To have him play a live gig would really be the true test. I couldn’t see him doing that at all. But he’s got very good ideas as a drummer, and he’s a lovely guy. I respect him and his family. His prime concern is his wife and his children, which I love about him.
RF: In that situation, did you feel like a sideman?
JM: Definitely. I felt a little uncomfortable. That’s a good point. I never really thought about what I didn’t like about doing that record, but there were a couple of times on that record that one person or another said to me, “You’ve got to do it this way, because that’s the way I want you to do it.” I don’t like that at all, and most people I work with wouldn’t say that to me.
RF: What about working with the temperamental artists such as Joan Armatrading?
JM: I’ve always been misunderstood or misconstrued. I used to be much more explosive in my temperament. People used to pigeonhole me as crazy or high, or whatever. From that, I learned not to judge people on their initial reaction towards me. I try not to take any working relationship personally. I think, when I was younger, I took it personally. Now that I’m more experienced, I better understand people’s reactions to the pressure of recording and performing, and that people have to blow off steam.
Joan Armatrading does demos at home, note for note, of everything she wants. She plays all the instruments and has a drum machine. You can feel that she’s very protective of what she’s doing, and she doesn’t want anybody to get too free with interpreting her ideas. As it turned out, I think she loved the way I played, and we did two albums together. I was conscious of her anxiety about that, though. I was able to be myself and I think, ultimately, what happened was that she ended up trusting me and what I would play, and let it go at that. It’s just like people’s relationships with one another, making friends, getting to know them, and trusting them.
RF: Were you initially turned off in that situation where you weren’t allowed to offer your creative input in the beginning?
JM: In Joan’s case, she has such great ideas that it didn’t bother me. Honestly, though, she didn’t have a lot to say about the drums. She would play bass, guitar, and piano on her demo, and she would want those parts to be pretty much note for note. But drumwise, it really was left more open to my interpretation.
RF: What about working with various producers? How do you know when to be aggressive or submissive, etc.?
JM: The psychology of working with producers is to do the best you can and good luck. Seriously, when you go to work, your only concern must be doing what you’re supposed to be doing, not the psychology of how to work with the artist, producer, or the engineer. Probably one of the best producers I’ve ever worked with is Steve Lillywhite. He always seems to get what he wants. He doesn’t make any demands. He just records the music. Steve is always the same no matter who he is working with. He’s consistent. He’s very good, and he’s not out to prove anything. What that means to me is that he doesn’t have to get on anyone’s case, because he doesn’t have to justify being there and getting his salary. Other people who really shouldn’t be producing records do that. There are so many different types of people you have to work with, and you have to try to draw the best out of them, too. I’ve worked with David Foster on a Hall & Oates record and the Fee Waybill record. Steve Lillywhite doesn’t play any instruments; David usually plays on most of the records he does. David was great to work with and you know the final product is going to be fantastic, but he’s a bit more picky about what he wants, and you’re doing what he wants. He’s going to experiment to an extent, which is good and which is probably why he’s so successful.
RF: A lot of musicians are getting into production, which you, yourself, have done. What do you have to know to be a good producer, and where can your past as a drummer teach you any of this?
JM: It’s a mystery. I’ve worked with all different types of producers. With Lillywhite, you don’t labor over things. That’s not to say he doesn’t work real hard or that he’s not meticulous, but you never feel like the pressure is on at all. He’s such a natural kind of person. He’s not a musician, and he may have had some experience as an engineer, but other people engineer his records.
RF: Can you be more specific? What do you mean by there’s not any pressure? As opposed to what?
JM: Part of it is that most producers and artists I work with would rather be playing the drums themselves, but they can’t. Most people think they can do it better. I always felt that Steve hired me because I did what he wanted or he understood the idea that, “This is the guy who is on this session, and I want him to do it his way. I don’t want to force him to do it my way.” A lot of times, I get people who love what I do. I used to think it was all a mistake, and they really wanted my brother. That was because of years of growing up where no one knew anything about me. I don’t take myself seriously like that. But people really love the Gabriel Security album. It seems to have had a major impact on people. When I go into a session, I think people either expect to hear that sound or they expect whatever they’re doing to be turned into a Gabriel record.
I was with a producer recently, riding to the studio, and he said, “I just did a drum program. I want you to do whatever you want to do, and I want it to be like you. I have a couple of ideas . . . .” Then I knew. I even said to someone else on the date, “Watch what happens.” I could tell that this guy didn’t really want me to do what I wanted to do. He wanted me to do what he did with the drum machine. That happens a lot with producers.
RF: When you’re producing, do you give the same creative freedom to the players as you like to have when you’re playing?
JM: I really do try to. Even at the very worst, what I’ll do is leave the room and let somebody do what it is they feel should be done if they feel strongly about it. I never say no. You can’t do that. Of course, the people I love working with are the ones who let me do that, and the people I really love working with are the ones who, if I’m fiddling around at the piano, will come out and say, “Is that an idea? Do you want to put that down?” They won’t say, “You’re a drummer. You can’t do that.” More times than not, though, it’s a vocal part I’ll start singing around the studio. Some people don’t want to be bothered, and others will throw a mic’ up, and say to go in and record that. In five minutes it’s over, and we know if it’s good or not.
RF: Why did you start your own studio, Wigtown?
JM: I needed someplace to blow off steam, because I become more and more frustrated as time goes by. I wish I had done Wigtown ten years ago.
RF: Frustrated by what?
JM: Lately, I’ve been having trouble. I haven’t been going into Wigtown, because I have this block. I’m so used to being triggered by someone else’s chord and bouncing off something else that I’ve neglected my own creativity. It’s very frustrating. Hopefully, over a period of time, Wigtown will help me rediscover that part of me that is an originator. I should be making my own records. I’ve never been that much of a writer, but when I do write, people seem to like it. Wigtown was a place for me to start working on my own, keep working with other people, and take that hourly clock-watching pressure off. It’s a 16-track studio, and we’ve done some great things out there.
RF: Did you score something for PBS?
JM: Tim Cappello and I scored “Child Savers,” which was for a series of. documentaries called Frontline. I’ve been recording some jingles in there, too. I wrote and played on a Clairol jingle. I’m working on a project now with a singer named Robbie Dupree along with Larry Hoppen. Robbie Dupree is an artist on his own, and Larry is from Orleans. So the three of us are working on this project, of which I am involved in the production and the playing. Tony Levin is also involved in it.
RF: Have you learned anything about production from having Wigtown?
JM: Having the studio affords me the opportunity to play around with things much, much more: sounds, EQ, delays, reverbs, all sorts of effects, tape speed up and slow down. It’s giving me a chance to really explore more. On a very basic level—just getting a drum sound—I can do that on my own now. I can set up mic’s myself.
RF: How do you get a good drum sound?
JM: There’s no formula to getting a good drum sound. The thing I’ve found that’s great for me is to walk into a session and ask, “Do you have PZM’s? Do you have a 414? Which direction are we going to face the drums in?” I’m not leaving it up to anybody to mess around with my drum sound. The thing I’ve really learned that nobody can argue with is: Let’s just try things. Some people don’t even want to try it. That’s the amazing thing I’ve found. Take a couple of pressure-zone microphones and throw them on the floor, and I mean throw them. I was working on a session in New York with an engineer named Nico Bolas from L.A., and I flipped him out. We had this great sounding room, and I was in there by myself. I said, “Let’s try these mic’s.” Fortunately, he was into it.
He said, “Where are we going to put them?” There were four of these PZM mic’s and I said, “Let’s put two of them on the floor.” “Where?” “Throw them on the floor.” By the end of the session, I actually had him throwing the microphone, or at least putting it down and slid- ing it on the floor, and it sounded incredible.
There are four people involved in Wigtown: myself; Mark Mandelbaum, who is the engineer; Todd Levine, who is the second engineer and my drum roadie; and Frank Del Torto, my business manager and cousin. We can spend an entire evening putting microphones in any conceivable place. That’s helped me to understand more about walking into a room and figuring where to put a mic’, unlike the people you work with in New York who are jingle-oriented and set up microphones one way for every drumkit. Because there’s pressure on them, they don’t feel they can experiment, and they seem not to have control over what they’re doing.
RF: In the realm of working with other producers, you now have certain people you work with usually, but when you first walk into a session with an unknown producer, how do you know how to be?
JM: I try to be as nice as possible. I’m very good at sussing people out. I walk into a situation, and I’m very flexible and open to anything. I’ll sort of sit back and see where it’s all at. I’ve realized what a great person I must be to work with, now that I’ve had to work with other people as a producer. People are crazy. I’ve worked with people who are so unprofessional, untalented, and have attitudes. They try to overcompensate for what they can’t do by being intimidating. I just don’t get intimidated. The combination of someone being unpleasant and incapable is something I just can’t stand. If someone isn’t capable of doing something and says, “Look, I just can’t do this,” then fine, we’ll find something they can do and we’ll make it work. I can’t tolerate people who try to bamboozle their way through situations. So working as a producer, I see the advantages of working with someone like myself. I’m a really good professional. I come in and get the job done. If you want ideas, I’ve got ideas. If you want me to shut up, that could be a problem. [laughs] I don’t get called a tremendous amount to work with other people, though, because they think I’m unavailable and that the musicians who play on the Gabriel albums are impossible to get a hold of. There’s kind of a mystique to us and him. Plus, Peter is such an interesting and offbeat kind of an artist, anyway.
RF: What kind of an artist are you?
JM: I’m a starving artist.
RF: What kind of music do you create?
JM: I don’t know how to describe it. It’s kind of European, I guess. The only way I can explain what I’d like to do, not necessarily what I’ve done yet, is that there are two albums I wish I had made, which I could see myself making. One is by a group called Blue Nile and the other is by David Sylvian, on Virgin. David Sylvian was the lead singer in a group called Japan, and he has an album that is about two years old now called Brilliant Trees. Anybody who reads this article should definitely try to find both of those records, because they’re incredible. I don’t know how to explain why they’re great, but I think I look at them like most people look at Peter Gabriel records. However, I don’t see Peter Gabriel records like that because I’m too close to them. I think those two artists do accessible pop, but that they maintain total artistic integrity. They’re what Top 40 should be.
RF: You spend a lot of time in England. Is there an English sound you seem to be compatible with?
JM: I think partially it’s from touring and working with Gabriel in England. In Europe and England, he’s been much more popular than he is here. Working in England creates an interesting combination of mentalities between my being an American and not growing up with the typical influences the kids in England grow up with, and still having a different style and being creative. The whole combination of these things works well. In England, as many people will talk to me about a Hall & Oates record as they will a Peter Gabriel record. I think people can’t believe that the guy who played on a Peter Gabriel record also played on a Hall & Oates record.
I work with a lot of bands that nobody’s ever heard of over here, and every once in a while, one of them turns out to be a Tears For Fears, which is a local Bath band. They’re young, they make a record, and all of a sudden, there are three million copies sold in America and a number-one single. There are a lot of those kinds of bands in England. Lately, a lot of people know about me because of the Tears For Fears album, and a lot of people are scratching their heads saying, “What’s this sax arrangement?” They credited me with saxophone arrangement. When I toured with Tears For Fears, I didn’t play drums. I played marimba, saxophone, a bit of keyboards, percussion, and sang. On the intro to the song “Working Hour,” I played a long sax intro on my own, live. Roland Orzabal loved what I played and used to walk around singing the melody I played. When it came time to do the record, I played the drums on it, but they hired another saxophone player and got him to learn my sax part. I guess they felt funny about that, so they put me down as an arranger.
RF: On the completely personal realm, I want to paint an image of you, and you tell me if it’s accurate. The image I have is an eccentric kind of mysterious, unapproachable person.
JM: [reading from a dictionary] It’s “ec,” which is “out of,” plus “kentron,” which is “center”: “Out of center. Not having the same center as two circles. Not exactly circular. Odd, as in conduct. Unconventional …”
RF: Unconventional was the word I was going to use.
JM: You lucked out that that word was in there. You must have been shaking. [laughs]
RF: Do you accept the definition “unconventional”?
JM: It’s hard for me to see myself the way others see me, and I have trouble scrutinizing myself. But I would say definitely that most people think of me that way. Most people’s impression of me is mysterious and unapproachable.
RF: So what I’m asking is, how accurate is that?
JM: I don’t think that’s accurate, personally. I don’t think that’s me. I think that has to do more with how I appear to people.
RF: Why do you think you appear to be unapproachable?
JM: I really don’t know. Why do I appear that way to you?
RF: Maybe it has to do with the music you work with so much. It’s that hip, mysterious . . .
JM: That’s true, and I know a lot of people don’t call me because they think that the guys who are involved with Gabriel are these weird, eccentric, mysterious, unapproachable people—like we live in Nepal. They never think they can hire us. People don’t bother calling me, but when they do track me down and finally muster up, “Would you do this?” and I say yes, they flip out. It’s like, “You go bowling, too?” Then their whole image of me is shattered.
RF: Do you ever feel the responsibility to live up to that image?
JM: I always do. That’s a big pressure, personally.
RF: Would you like to keep the mystique?
JM: No, not at all. I just get worried about bursting that balloon that people have of me.
RF: So you’re very aware of the image people have of you.
JM: I’m very aware and it makes me kind of uncomfortable, because I don’t want to make others uncomfortable. That’s my main feeling.
RF: Is there more to your life than drums and music?
JM: Definitely, unquestionably, unequivocably.
RF: So then, what are the important things to you?
JM: Right now, I’ve been doing a lot of evaluating of things like that.
RF: People seem to be important to you.
JM: People are very important to me.
RF: Relationships with the people you work with almost seem more important than the actual product.
JM: That’s definitely true. It’s good that you said that. Ultimately, people are the most important thing. I could easily exist without the drums, but I couldn’t live without my family.
I guess I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing lately because of the business side of things. If you want to become a professional drummer, it becomes a big business, and you’ve got to deal with that. I’m being overwhelmed by the music business these days, and I’m going through some changes with that. I’ve become more of a businessman than a musician, I feel.
RF: Is the goal being an artist?
JM: Definitely. I’ve really got to stop playing only on other people’s records and start concentrating on my own music. I’ve got to do that. It’s a hard decision to make.
RF: It’s also a financial risk.
JM: Which never was a factor before, but all of a sudden, it seems to be.
RF: That’s what happens when you buy studios and such.
JM: When you grow up, really. Before, I was very cavalier about that stuff, and now that I’ve become a grown-up, I have to get used to it.
RF: Does becoming 30 intimidate you?
JM: Not at all. I finally made that transformation from being a kid to a grown-up, and I have to get used to that now.