Did you ever meet someone who speaks only when it matters? And who means everything he says? Aynsley Dunbar plays drums like that. Not content to fill a song with superfluous drum chatter, Aynsley strikes each note with the conviction that comes from knowing exactly what can and should be done at any given moment. At the same time, he maintains the freedom to respond to whatever is being played by the musicians around him. If one word was needed to describe Aynsley’s style, that word would be “eloquent.”
RM: How did you first get involved with music?
AD: I started playing violin when I was nine. I wanted to play violin when I was seven, but my parents wouldn’t buy me one because they thought I would just waste the time and money. They finally gave up and got me one, but by that time it was too late. If I had started two years earlier, I would have gone out and taken lessons, but by this time, I was too shy and I didn’t feel confident. So I decided to try and teach myself. I did manage to learn a lot about music by looking at it and trying to discern what was going on. Eventually I got bored with the screeching sound of the violin.
My sister started playing guitar at that time, and I didn’t want to be in competition with her, so I decided there must be something else I would like. I saw this English rock and roll program where they had three drummers sitting together doing a drum trio, and I got knocked out by what they were doing. It wasn’t anything special, but I thought it was neat. It was a different sound—sort of a power thing. So I decided to try drums.
I started out with tin cans actually, to see if I could develop anything, but I got bored trying to get a sound out of it so I finally got a drum and started practicing on that. For about six months, I worked with just a snare drum. Then I went out and got a bass drum and hi-hat and started playing with that. Next I got a small tom-tom, then two cymbals, then a large tom, and sort of built up the kit bit by bit. It worked out better because if I’d had the whole drum kit, it might have been too much all at one time to understand. By just having the snare drum first, I spent more time practicing the basics. Then when it came to the rest of the kit, I could get used to the sounds and the feel of the drums one at a time, and not be overpowered by the immensity of the whole situation.
RM: I noticed you using traditional grip at times.
AD: In my solo, yeah. I use traditional grip when I’m playing anything other than rock and roll, because rock and roll doesn’t call for a lot of notes. The matched grip keeps you simple enough to hit the drum that way. The traditional grip is more complicated, but it’s easier for me to play.
RM: Where did you learn traditional grip? Did you take lessons?
AD: I picked up a feel for it by watching drummers, looking in books and practicing it.
RM: So you did buy drum books?
AD: Oh yes. Then I finally got lessons when I was about 13. By that time I was actually playing rudiments better than my teacher, so all he could do was help me read music and understand it. We’d sit down and play along with big-band charts. That was pretty interesting and he was a great help. But he didn’t really extend my feelings—he just helped me understand something I wanted to be doing, which was reading music.
When I was with Zappa, I wanted to learn to play vibes, and I wanted to be able to read faster, so I took some lessons from Mitchell Peters, who is with the L.A. Philharmonic. After being on the road, I’d spend a couple of months studying with him once or twice a week. Then we’d go out on the road again and when I’d get back, I would have to start over again because I wouldn’t have the chance to practice on the road. I got sick and tired of doing that because I wasn’t advancing. When I get involved in something I like to keep it going, day by day. I’ve still got a set of vibes at home that I play, but it’s not the same. Even now, I need a teacher to drive me so I practice and advance more. But I don’t think there are too many people in San Francisco that I want teaching me. Most of them are in L.A.
RM: How did your professional career develop?
AD: I left school when I was 15, and immediately formed a trio with a sax player and a keyboard player. We were just playing dance music, but because I had been practicing for a few years, I was able to play along with all of the people who were my heroes. I thought in my own mind that before you could even go out there and play, you had to be as good as the people you were listening to on records. So when I hit the scene in Liverpool, I startled a lot of the drummers that were hanging around, because they hadn’t heard of me and all of a sudden I was getting gigs and playing all over the place. They sort of got uptight with me because I was much younger than they were. There was one guy who really gave me a hard time—taking apart everything I did. But when I went through Liverpool on a tour with Zappa in 1971, out of all the people I knew in Liverpool, he was the only one who actually turned up backstage to shake my hand and say how well I was playing.
RM: You started when?
AD: Early ’60s.
RM: What type of music was being played in Liverpool?
AD: R&B was happening, and traditional jazz.
RM: What exactly is traditional jazz in England?
AD: Dixieland, or sometimes more of a swing-type sound. I used to play with a group called the Merseysippi Jazz Band. All the other guys were about 40 and were married. They all worked in the daytime and they’d come together at night to play jazz. During one of my first gigs with them, they gave me a drum solo. So I’m up there playing away and I decided it was time I finished, and all of a sudden I look over at the bar, and they’re all sitting by the bar drinking! So my drum solo lasted about 20 minutes. Nowadays I get complaints about long drum solos, but in those days they wanted me to keep on going so they could go over to the bar and have a drink.
RM: Who were the drummers you were listening to then?
AD: Joe Morello, Bellson, Roach, Elvin Jones, everybody who was playing modern jazz.
RM: So you were into bop?
AD: I was into everything. I was interested in anything I could get ideas from. But there was only so much I could get. In England, at that time, American records were about four years behind. It was through the Beatles that they started moving records across the ocean faster. So the Beatles not only opened up new designs of music, but also faster distribution. But before that it was ridiculous. I would read in down beat that so and so’s new record was out, I’d go to the shop and never see it. Then one day a few years later it would finally turn up. So everything was really out of date. It made it really hard to keep up with the jazz.
RM: In America, a musician usually has to go to New York or L.A. to make it. Is it that way in England? Did you have to go to London?
AD: Oh yeah. I was taken to London by the Mojos. They were one of the top bands in England at that time. I always had the idea in mind that you never go to a big town unless you go with a band. Never go as a musician because it doesn’t work. So I just waited, knowing it was going to happen sometime. I had complete confidence in the whole process. Sure enough, I was playing a gig and they just popped in and said, “We’re looking for a drummer and we’d like to know if you would like to move to London and join us.” So fine—I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity. I spent 18 months with them, but they were going through a slow decline. So I left them and was out of work for two weeks, which was the longest I had ever been out of work.
Alexis Korner, the blues singer, invited me down to a club where he was playing. I went down there and sat in with him, and boy, it was horrible! He didn’t have any idea of which side of the beat he was on half of the time. So I thought, “Oh no. This is not for me.” I went home, and the next afternoon John Mayall called me up and said, “I was sitting in the audience last night and I was wondering if you’d come down and sit in with my band.” I didn’t know who the hell John Mayall was, so I asked my wife, and she said she thought he was a country/western singer. Oh no! I had been uplifted when he called, but when I heard “country/western” I went back down. But he was nice enough to call me, so I thought I’d go on down and listen to him. I sat in the balcony and he had Peter Green and John McVie with him. I was completely overawed by Peter Green’s playing, but I didn’t think the band was backing him properly. He was doing all these great solos, but the band was always playing the same level of intensity behind him. I wanted to play.
So John said, “Well, we’ve got a gig tomorrow night. Be at my house at so and-so, and have your drums there and we’ll go up to the gig.” So the first gig I did with him, I was just learning the songs. No rehearsal—just get on the stage and play. He’d just call out a song and tell me whether it was a shuffle or whatever, and give me a nod if there was a break. I just kept my eyes on him all evening. Then I did the A Hard Road album with him, and that helped me understand the songs a little better.
That only lasted for six months, because Mayall wanted me to stop playing as much as I was, and become more of a “blues drummer.” I didn’t want to do that, so I decided to leave. The next day, Jeff Beck called me and asked me if I’d like to join his band, with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood.
RM: This was the first Jeff Beck Group?
AD: Yeah. I did four months with Jeff, but he only liked to work about one day a month, which was not enough for me. I went from playing seven days a week with Mayall to one day a month with Beck. Your playing tends to diminish from lack of work, so I formed my own band and worked it like Mayall did his.
I had that group [The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation] for about three years, and we built a following around the country. Then the band’s ego got too much for me to cope with and I had to dump them. They couldn’t see any further than where they were at. They thought that because we had got to the point where we were selling out everywhere and making quite a bit of money, that we had reached stardom. No way could I tell them that they had just reached the first step and we had a lot more steps to go. They were already acting like stars. So I decided it was time to get rid of that band and start another one. I started Blue Whale, which was an 8-piece band.
I had an offer to join the Yardbirds, with Jimmy Page, when they did their last tour, but I’d just started Retaliation. I couldn’t leave the people in my band just to do some wandering around the country, although it would have led to the Led Zeppelin gig, which was offered to me as well.
I also played with Jimi Hendrix. Jimi would come down and sit in with Retaliation and we would have a ball. He offered me the gig with him at 20 pounds a week, which at that point, was like 60 bucks. But they went on to make a lot of money. He was great at the beginning—very wide awake and eager to play. Then he started hitting the drugs, because I think he got bored, and he started becoming a space case. Every time I saw him he was more spaced out and blank.
I first met Zappa near the end of Retaliation, at a big rock and blues festival in Brussels. My band was there playing and Frank was on stage introducing the bands. I got a message that Frank wanted to sit in. So he sat in on two songs and then he came back and sat in my car and we started chatting about session work in Los Angeles and how much money could be made and how I could make a good living out of it if I moved over there. So I thought about it, you know, and I went back home.
Shortly after that, I disbanded Retaliation and formed Blue Whale, but I could never get the same brass section to stay in the band. They’d get a gig somewhere else paying a couple of pounds more, so they would send a substitute to play with me. The substitute would not know the charts, would not be able to solo or adlib or anything else.
RM: What kind of music was Blue Whale playing?
AD: It was sort of progressive rock. While all of that was going on, Zappa came to town and left a message for me to talk to him. So I went to this club and we chatted about me coming over and joining his band, but I couldn’t give an answer because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to disband my group. But a few more days of the hazards of what was going on made me decide that it was time to disband Blue Whale.
I didn’t sign any contracts or anything else with Zappa—just moved out of England. He sent me the ticket the day before I left. I arrived in L.A. and his wife picked me up at the airport and took me to his house, where I lived for nine months. I played with him for nearly three years and had a great time.
RM: How much musical freedom does Zappa give his band?
AD: I never had any problem. If there was a certain part that he wanted me to play, he’d tell me. But most of the time I had a free hand.
RM: You did a lot of different styles of music during those three years. For instance, The Grand Wazoo was almost a jazz big-band record.
AD: I did eight albums with Frank, starting with Chunga’s Revenge. Grand Wazoo was charts. Most of the drum parts on that were written down. Waka/Jawaka was also a jazz album.
RM: Does Zappa know a lot about drums?
AD: He’s a drummer by nature. He’s great at all of the percussion things. But he is more of a marching-type rudimental drummer. On one song he gave me a chart that was all marching-type drumming— roll after roll, flams, drags, ruffs—and it was great. It was crazy, but it was great. I like doing that sort of thing because I’ve got the technique to play it. You forget about it if you don’t play it, and most rock bands don’t tend to play it. That’s why I enjoy playing “White Rabbit” with the Starship. It has a lot of open rolls, 16th notes, 5-stroke rolls and triplets in nice little combinations. I like doing all of that.
RM: You also did the movie 200 Motels with Ringo and Keith Moon.
AD: A funny thing happened with that. Jeff Simmons was our bass player, but when he read the script of the movie, he told Frank he wouldn’t do it and left. We were all sitting in a room and Frank said, “Whoever comes through that door next will play bass in the movie,” and Martin [Lickert] walked in. He was Ringo’s chauffeur and funny enough, he played bass. But some little old woman could have walked in. It was crazy.
RM: Ruth Underwood also played on 200 Motels. Did you enjoy working with another drummer?
AD: The only times we would actually play together was maybe when she would be playing vibes. I was playing in the band, and Ruth played drums with the orchestra. She’s the most amazing reader—very disciplined. I’m not that disciplined. I don’t like to have every thing I do so organized that I spend all of my time reading every little note. That part she had was incredibly difficult, but she did an amazing job. She would be on one side of the stage with the orchestra, and I would be on the other, so there was a gap between us. It was kind of weird, because as soon as we started cranking up, the orchestra sort of disappeared. We really couldn’t hear them a lot of the time.
RM: What did you do when you left Zappa?
AD: I went out with Flo and Eddie and played around the world with them. I stayed with them for about six months, just to help them out because there wasn’t really any band around that I could join that could take over from Zappa. I had to cool out a little bit. It was like getting over some kind of love affair, you know. I had to spend some time doing something which didn’t take too much mental thought—something I could just have fun with. So I went out with Flo and Eddie, working as the opening act for Alice Cooper.
Then I got a call from Bob Ezrin, the producer, and he asked me if I would do an album with Lou Reed. So I went to Toronto and looked at the charts, and then went to London to work on Lou Reed’s Berlin album. While I was doing that, David Bowie called and invited me to one of his gigs. Lou had called a day off, so I was going to go, but when Lou found out about it, he called a recording session for that night. I think he disliked Bowie so he was giving him a hard time, and me too. I ended up going to Bowie’s party after Lou’s session, and Bowie asked me if I’d like to join him. I told him what my deal was and he agreed to it. While I was with him we did the Pinups album, and Diamond Dogs.
During the time I was with Bowie, I also did Nils Lofgren’s first solo album. Then I had trouble with Bowie’s management. The manager sent me a piece of legal paper with about ten different things on it, written out by hand, and said, “Sign it.” I told him I never sign contracts that are one-sided. So he said, “Well, if that’s the case, I guess we don’t need you in our organization.” I said, “That’s okay with me. Bye.”
I left London and went to San Francisco to check out Journey, because they had been calling me up ever since I had been with Bowie. I thought what they were doing was interesting, but what I didn’t realize was that what they tend to do is copy themselves. There was no ad-lib with them. The guitar solos are note for note just like the album. They wanted me to play note for note behind them, and I wouldn’t do it. So they put up with it for about 4 1/2 years before they told me to get out. So I have a lawsuit against them. It was a pretty heavy situation.
Everyone thought I would move back to L.A., but the Starship required a drummer at that time so I joined them. After being with them for 3 years, I’m still having a good time. The band is getting better and better, and with everyone writing, I have more opportunities to play different feelings on songs.
RM: I was listening to your Starship recordings, and then I listened to the records you did with Zappa ten years ago, and I noticed that you played a lot more notes with Zappa. Would you say that your style has changed over the years, or is it just the difference in the music you are playing?
AD: It’s the difference that’s required by the song. Now, I’m not playing with the idea of filling in a lot, but if I were to go back and play with Zappa, I’d play as much now as I did then because Frank’s music creates more freedom. When I’m playing rock and roll with the Starship, if I sat there filling in all over the place, it would sound messy. I’ve decided in my own head what sells records and what doesn’t. What doesn’t is a scrappy rhythm backing. If you want to make a song a hit record, it’s got to be clean, crisp, and to the point. You can’t have million-note fills all over the place because people can’t hear them, they can’t understand it, and so they won’t want to buy it. It might appeal to all of the drummers in the world, but we only have X amount of drummers who are going to go out and buy that record. We have a million other people out there who want to hear something.
You can play as much as you want when it comes to solos, but when you’re playing behind vocals, you don’t want to be scratching around all over the place. You want to leave it so you’re backing them, rather than leading them. When there’s a soloist happening out front, I can push him along, and then when it comes to my solo, I can do whatever the hell I want. Which is basically the way I like to do it.
RM: Do you structure your solos any particular way?
AD: Completely ad-lib. Sometimes I like to come out of a song, explode into life, and then create a dynamic situation. Other times, I might just powerhouse it right through, depending on the time I have, what the audience is like, and what’s going on. It’s easy to keep going at a high level of intensity for a four minute solo, and just go through fast and end it. A lot of times, that goes down a lot better than sitting there being a technician. Only certain people understand the technique parts. Most of them get bored by it. Speed is what most people see. The idea of playing tunes on drums is beyond most people. They don’t understand it.
Sometimes in the paper they’ll write, “He played a boring, 20-minute drum solo,” and I know perfectly well the guy just doesn’t like drum solos, because I never play anything that long. The only time in my life I ever did was that time I was forced into it when the rest of the band was at the bar drinking. But I didn’t want to play that long. I think anything beyond a 5 or 6-minute solo is a waste of time. There is only so much you can do before it bores everybody to death. To have write ups like that, I know the guy just doesn’t like drum solos. I look at it like this: as long as the solo went down well—that’s fine. Reviewers can curse about them and reconstruct their ideas about them or give you a lousy write up, but as long as the solo went down well that night, you can’t believe anything a critic says. A lot of them are criticizing you because they are frustrated musicians. They like to criticize you note for note as though they have higher ideas about what should be happening up there.
RM: It looks as though you are singing to yourself while you solo.
AD: I am. I sing with myself all the time I’m playing.
RM: Are there any particular drummers whose solos you like?
AD: I’ve always liked Max Roach. His solos are always very musical and he always has something new to say. But I recently heard another famous jazz drummer, and I got very bored. Every song the band did lasted about 25 minutes, and they were all the same structure—head; solos; head. Every guy in the band would take about a 10-chorus solo on each tune. You can only repeat the same structure over and over so many times before it gets monotonous. It wasn’t like, “Well, I’ve played everything I want to play, so now I’ll give it up.” It was more like, “I got this far. I’ll keep going and see if I can get anything else out of it.” But nothing really got any hotter. It was self-indulgent music.
RM: Of all the albums you’ve played on, which ones stand out in your mind?
AD: I like the albums I’ve done with the Starship, of course. Before that, it’s hard for me to remember which would be the most interesting. The Waka/Jawaka album was an interesting session, just because it was completely off the wall ad-lib. Zappa let me do whatever I wanted to with it, so I played like a frustrated drummer. I could play a million notes a minute and get away with it. It was actually overkill for me, but it was interesting because it was so different. I suppose the first Journey album was interesting as well. I had a lot of double kicking happening and it almost sounds like there were two bass drums being used. On the third Journey album, I started using double bass drums. I never had much chance to practice them at home—I practically learned to play them on stage.
I found that I liked using two bass drums. A lot of times, I drive the band, not by playing every 16th note, but by playing the second, third and fourth 16th note, leaving the downbeat and the upbeat open. It sort of gives a rush in the feel, without actually rushing. I leave a gap on the downbeat and upbeat so if I want to play the snare there, it cuts right through without being diminished by the low-end sound of the bass drum. If you play the bass and snare at the same time, you’ll find that the snare drum sound disappears. If you leave that hole, the snare stands out big, and it still sounds like you’re playing the bass drum on that beat.
RM: What set-up are you using these days?
AD: Ludwig. I’ve been with them for about four years now.
RM: Didn’t you use Ludwigs with the Mothers?
AD: Yes I did, at one point. I used a small, jazz Ludwig kit for the Grand Wazoo and Waka/Jawaka albums—a lit tle 20″ bass, an 8 x 12 tom-tom, and a pair of 14 x 14 floor toms. Now, I’m using two 20″ bass drums, 10″, 12″ and 14″ power toms on top of the kit, 16″ and 18″ floor toms, and an 8 x 14 wood-shell snare drum, which is really a good-sounding drum. All of the toms have both heads, and so do the bass drums. At the moment, I have Ludwig Rockers underneath, Canasonics on top, and Duralines on the bass drums. To cut out the over-ring on the bass drums, I have them lined with half inch thick foam rubber.
I use Ludwig cymbal stands and Zildjian cymbals. I’m using those new Quick-Beat hi-hats, with no bell on the bottom and holes drilled in it. They’re really good. I have four 19″ crash cymbals, a 21″ swish on the left and a 21″ Chinese on the right, and a 22″ Earth ride cymbal.
RM: Not too many rock drummers use 20″ bass drums. Do you find that the smaller drums give more “punch”?
AD: Yes, less overtones and more solid “thump.” which is what I’m after. The bigger the drum, the more damping you put inside it, and so you’re playing on less area anyway. So why bother having it? With the smaller drum, I can get a more solid, compact sound, which is better for the audience out front to hear. And the bigger drum doesn’t give you any more sound on stage. By the time you damp a larger drum, you’ll end up with a 20″ head anyway.
RM: What size sticks?
AD: Regal 2B, all wood.
RM: Do you customize your drums at all?
AD: No. I just tune them and that’s about it.
RM: Do you do all of your own tuning or is your roadie able to do some of it?
AD: I tune them. But I’ve taught Scotty Ross how to do it as well, and he’s quite good at it. If he has to replace a head for me in the middle of a set, he’ll tune it so it’s comparable to me. He’s been with me since about 1976, so he’s really got it down.
RM: What do you demand from a drum?
AD: Tone quality, more than anything else. At certain times, I’ve had a drum lose its tone because it has been dropped and the shell has cracked, or something has gone wrong and it’s deader than the other drums and I’ve had to replace it. But a lot of times it’s the head. Ludwig has these cast hoops that fit perfectly. Even if you get a loose tension rod, it will still keep the tone of the drum because it’s so well cast that the rods on either side of the loose one will keep the head seated perfectly. With most rims, if they get dented a little bit, the head will never seat right and you’ll never be able to tune the drum. I found that out with my 14″ drum. I could never tune it properly, but then I put one of the cast rims on it and it made such a big difference, it’s unbelievable.
RM: I presume you could have your choice of drum companies.
AD: Yeah, but I’ve always liked Ludwig.
RM: Have you experimented with any electronic percussion?
AD: No, I haven’t. It’s something I was thinking about, but it is to the point where it sounds like everybody’s done it all with what’s there. I was on an ELP tour, and Carl Palmer was using a sequencer, so he had that happening. Then I listened to Billy Cobham on the Spectrum album, and I like what he was doing. But I don’t feel I want to jump on that particular bandwagon. I’ll just leave it a while and see what else develops, and then I’ll get something. I’d like to sit at home and work on that sort of stuff.
RM: You’re not opposed to electronic percussion in principle?
AD: Oh no. Not at all. They’re bringing out electronic drum kits now, that you can play on stage. Everything’s electronic. The only thing is, it doesn’t look like a drum kit. I like the idea of a drum kit, meaning that when you hit something, you have a percussive feel. I’d most likely end up breaking the pickups if I played them, because I don’t like to play lightly. I want to play so there’s something to look at. If you’re playing nice and relaxed in front of 20,000 people, they’re not going to pick up any energy from that. You can play quietly in a small area and it doesn’t matter, but in big areas, people have to see movement on stage. Electronically, you have to be careful with that because you’ve got electronic components in there that are going to get smashed if you hit them too hard.
RM: Do you do anything to stay in shape so that you can play as hard as you do night after night?
AD: I used to do a lot of push-ups, situps, and all that to keep myself feeling healthy, but I was still getting drained. For about 5 years, every day I’d get out of bed and do exercises, and then I’d do one arm push-ups to pump blood into my arms before I went on stage. But I would always come off stage at the end of a set feeling totally and utterly exhausted, and I was always getting sick on the road because I would be so run down from pushing myself to the limit all of the time. It was getting annoying.
We came off the road for several months to work in the studio, and I thought maybe I should try some other way to keep myself feeling fit, because I was feeling tired and weird all of the time. David Frieberg, our bass and keyboard player, had been going to Nautilus for about a year, so I decided to go along and try it and see what it was like. I went down there and found it to be great. It’s an hour-long workout, in which you push yourself to the maximum. They have machines for all the different muscles in your body. At first, I was scared about really doing it, because I thought, “What would it be like to be muscle-bound and go on stage? It would really slow me down.” But then we started playing again and I couldn’t believe it! I came off stage feeling perfectly happy and wonderful, whereas I used to come off stage being on the very edge. If somebody said anything to me, I’d blow up, because my nerves were shattered from being in a complete state of exhaustion. Now, I come off stage feeling great, happy, and everything else. On our third gig, we played two, 2-hour sets, one after the other. After not having played on stage for several months, that was a lot of strain, but afterwards, I felt like I could have gone on and played some more. That, to me, is completely amazing. I would suggest that anybody who feels tired and worn out on stage, check out the nearest Nautilus center and go into a program.
RM: How often do you go?
AD: Three days a week. There are different ways you can work it. I work hard the first day, then take one day off; then sort of a lighter workout on the middle day, with a day off; and then tough on the third day, with two days off after ward. The idea is not to go in there and try to be Mr. America; the idea is to help yourself. A lot of people go in there and try to blast their way through everything, and then they don’t want to come back because they’ve pushed themselves too hard.
Another thing: I used to race bicycles when I was a kid, so I know about second-wind and going into overdrive. I used to always push for that when I was playing on stage. I would go into overdrive on certain things. But that can make you perspire too much and you can get cramps from the lack of salt. I find that now, though, even when I push myself, I don’t have to go into overdrive. If I did, I might start breaking drums. I still perspire a lot, but it’s just my body working. I don’t feel I’m perspiring my energy away, like I used to. I feel in control of the situation.
RM: What kind of practicing are you able to do on the road?
AD: I work out for about an hour before I play, going through a lot of rudiments and practicing coordination between my hands and feet. That way, when I go on stage, there’s no sloppiness. Of course, there are days when no matter how much warming up you’ve done, your mind still doesn’t want to do anything.
RM: Do you have a set of pads in your dressing room?
AD: I have a snare drum with a vacuum pad over it—the old Gladstone pad. I just work out on that and tap my feet on the floor.
At home, I’ve got a drum kit, but the trouble with a drum kit at home is that it’s so damn loud, it blows your hearing. So I’m setting up a situation now where I’m going to be wearing headphones and have a live mic’ in the room, and also have a click track. I like having a click track to work with, but I don’t just play along with it for hours. I use it to find out how I’m playing—where I rush or where I slow down.
RM: How did you decide on your particular style?
AD: I basically understood what I should be doing by common sense. For instance, a recording studio is one of the best places to teach somebody what they should be doing and what they shouldn’t. Whenever I do a session, I’ll usually play a million different feels on the first take. It worries the hell out of everybody else because I’m changing things all over the place and it almost sounds like a drum solo. They’ll tell me, “I think you should simplify it.” But the reason I do that is so I can listen back to all the things I played and pick out the parts that worked and sounded good. On the next take, I know what should be happening.
After you’ve been around a while, you understand that you can’t play everything you’ve ever wanted to play. Butit’s hard to teach kids that. It’s some thing you learn through understanding what your job is and what it should sound like as a finished product. Less means more to the average person. The less you play, the more they hear. The more you play, the less they hear. That’s basically what it’s all about. That’s how I look at rock and roll drums, or drumming as a whole, actually. The more accurately you play something and make it more defined, the better it can be used as music. We can all play crush rolls around the drum kit, and play every note possible in a drum fill, but it will just sound like mush to the average person. If you were to play maybe 8th notes at that point, people could hear it and understand it.
RM: You seem to have definite ideas about these things. Have you considered doing any teaching?
AD: No, but Ludwig wants me to start doing clinics. I’m definitely thinking about doing it, but I want to have a plan of approach. I still feel like I’m learning to play. I don’t want to do it like some of the clinics I’ve seen where the guy will come out and say, “This is how it is and this is the God’s truth and believe me, this is the way you should do it.” The way I play is based on feeling—not on something I’ve been told to do.
RM: Let’s talk about the Jefferson Starship. How do you go about working up new material?
AD: When Craig writes a song, he will actually make a demo tape with a drum track on it, which is great because it gives me ideas. But he puts the drum track together one drum at a time, so it can sometimes be very abstract. But it’s always interesting because he is a very good musician.
Pete writes these big, off the wall, sort of English rock songs, with big dramatic openings and classical-type things. He will just come in with an idea of what he wants to hear, and we’ll all work it out. Pete is a good guy to jam with because he’s a good bass player and he is capable of hearing things and moving right into them from what he was doing.
Paul comes in with the basic song. He plays rhythm guitar and sings it for a while and we just add our parts to it. On stage, Craig is the person I react to the most because solo-wise, he’s the one who is always doing something new. He is the major soloist in the band. Craig hears drums more so than anybody else because he has a drum kit at home and he likes to fool around with it. So he and I interact the most on stage. Pete also has a lot of input when he’s playing bass. He will sort of jump out and start putting ideas down which I often jump on. We amalgamate our ideas and that usually gets Craig going.
RM: I noticed you and Craig looking at each other a lot.
AD: When he’s soloing, I tend to try and watch him because it’s not only hearing— it’s also eye contact. But sometimes I can just close my eyes and let him ride out a while. Then I’ll jump in and push him a little bit into other areas.
RM: And he, in turn, will take you to different places.
RM: This all ties in with what you were telling me the other night about how you base most of what you do on listening to the melody.
AD: When I started off listening to music as a child, I always followed the lead instrument. Then I was playing lead lines on the violin. So I got a basic instinct for listening to leads, whether it be a guitar solo or the lyric.
RM: Do you ever write out charts for yourself?
AD: Sometimes I’ll write out something just to remind myself at rehearsal, but I’ll usually just remember it. Hearing the music rather than counting it is always the best way. As soon as you get stuck into counting, you forget what is happen ing out front. You spend more time counting out the bars than you do listen ing to the music and understanding it. So I find it better to listen to what is being played on the top and then react to that. Once I lock into a song, the rest of the band comes together fast, so I’ve decid ed that it’s my job to learn the arrangement and then just play it.
RM: The Starship rhythm section is really solid.
AD: The guys in the Starship know how to lock in and play as a band. Anybody who plays in a group must realize that everybody in the group must always be aware of everybody else. There are other people playing with you and there’s a courtesy involved—you can’t be trekking on each other’s toes.
It’s a situation that you have to grow into. It took years for me. When you’re first starting out, you have to make a name for yourself, and you don’t make a name for yourself by being hidden under the name of something else. Once you’ve made your name, you can go into a band, say the Jefferson Starship, and people will say, “There’s Aynsley Dunbar. He’s with the Starship.” But if you don’t have a name, then you’ll always be “the Starship’s drummer.” There are a lot of good musicians out there whose names are not known—even with some of the top bands. When I did the “Stable of Stars” ad for Ludwig, I was talking to a lot of people I didn’t know, and they were the drummers for certain bands.
RM: Earlier, you mentioned that you don’t like playing songs note for note the same every time. How do you draw the line between playing freely enough for yourself and at the same time, being consistent enough that the rest of the band knows what you’re doing?
AD: On “Freedom at Point Zero,” I play a 16-bar drum opening, and it has to be the same, basically. It might change a little bit in the middle, but there’s a definite lead-off and a definite end. Otherwise, the band would never know where the hell I was. So, there are certain parts of the song which have to be played the same because they are part of the music. Drums become a lead instrument at that point. I agree to that, but I don’t agree that everytime you have a fill, you have to play exactly the same thing that’s on the record. If the fill is part of the song, fine. But if you’re backing up a soloist, the fill you played on the record might not fit behind what he’s doing on stage at that particular moment, because he’s doing something different. So you can’t rehash what you did before if somebody else is playing something new.
RM: You’ve done quite a bit of recording. Would you ever be interested in doing “regular” studio work, such as commercials?
AD: I stay away from commercials. I have to price myself above that sort of stuff. See, if you price yourself as an average session man, you get every Tom, Dick and Harry calling you up for sessions, and I’m not into doing just anybody’s session. I like to do studio work for people who want me—where they respect what I’m doing and why.
I find studio work less fulfilling, actually. I like to do it when I’m not on the road. It’s fun while you’re there, especially if you’re building something you want to build—like a song that you will be performing on stage. For a while, I was doing too many studio gigs, and I couldn’t wait to get on the road. In the studio, the only appreciation you get is from the guy you’re doing the session for, or the producer. That’s self-indulgent as far as I’m concerned. I like to play on stage and have that good feeling that comes from the people. But then, the grass is always greener.
RM: You’ve had your own groups in the past. Do you think you’ll have your own group again sometime?
AD: There’s always the chance. I know I’m going to do an album sometime. I’ve been collecting material for it. At this point, it seems that it will be a rock and roll album.
RM: Will you sing?
AD: “Sink” would be the word. No, I’ll leave that to somebody who can do it professionally. I only sing in the shower.