Many drummers have cited Bobby Colomby us one of the driving forces behind a new sound during the ’60s. As a founding member of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Colomby was indeed a significant contributor in the creation of that jazz rock fusion.
While his livelihood is no longer in playing the drums, Colomby is still instrumental in a portion of the music we hear today through his position in Capitol Records’ A&R department.
In the following interview, which took place in his office, Colomby shares his accounts of the past in his usual articulate and humor-filled manner, as well as, speaking candidly about the present state of the music industry.
RF: When and why did you start playing the drums?
BC: I grew up in New York City, which is quite an advantage for someone who is interested in music. My two older brothers were involved in the business side of the jazz world, as they managed Thelonious Monk. They were involved in the careers of many jazz artists who frequented the apartment where I lived with my mother. She cooked for the likes of Miles Davis and a long list, and the only music I heard in my house when I was a young man was be-bop. Since I got so used to that sound, it became virtually impossible for me to understand why kids liked rock & roll of the ’50s and very early ’60s. Harmonically it seemed lame, and rhythmically it suffered and it was just not interesting. When I would hear records, I would find myself playing with a pair of brushes on the backs or albums and I would keep time with the records.
RF: How old were you?
BC: Ten, eleven, twelve; a little kid. It was just my way of being a participant in what was going on in my house. Aside from athletics, school at that early stage in my life was not the most interesting or exciting phase of my life, so I was fascinated by jazz. I almost automatically started playing the drums because there was no other instrument in the house that I could just pick up and be a part of. Being an impatient fellow, I didn’t have to worry about the sound because there was an album jacket and brushes. January 20, 1960, my brother got me a set of Gretsch silver-sparkle drums with a hand-made 18″ bass drum, the first ever of that size, that had belonged to Max Roach. I didn’t have cymbals yet. I had to borrow $30 from my friend, Harold Bloomfield, so I could have a cymbal.
Before I had the official set of drums, I was playing on an old snare drum with a jacket over it. What I had done after the brushes and album jacket, was, I had a little game which had two round, sort of like tambourines with heads but no jingles, with a birdie you would knock back and forth. I don’t recall the exact name of the game, but I used those as tom toms and I put the snare drum with the jacket over it on a floor-standing ash tray. (That became the recording technique of the ’70s.) The vertical pole of a lamp was my cymbal. There was no hihat or bass drum. I would play along with things, which now, I realize how complicated they were. There was a Tadd Dameron record on Prestige that was called “Philly J. J.,” featuring Clifford Brown, a trumpet player, and the drumming of Philly Joe Jones and it was incredible. I learned all the solos, of course not with the same hand stroking technique, but kind of a sound-a-like style. And I would go from record to record like that, even “Topsy, Part II” which was relatively easy to play if you had gotten by the “Philly J. J.” But it was a source of delight for my brother who would bring people in and say, “You’ve got to hear my little brother, who is 13 years old, play this music. He’s close. I mean, it’s not great, but damned close.”
So then I got the set of drums and the cymbal, and two weeks into my having a set, and right about the time I was able to get a hi-hat, cymbals and a bass drum, I played with a band for a NYU fraternity party at the Broadway Central Hotel on New Year’s Eve. I was 16 and there I was playing with a big jazz band. The upright bass player who was standing over me had the unique ability to, from a smile, vomit. He gave you no indication that he was getting sick. So, he was standing to my left while we were playing, and since it was New Year’s, he found it a prerequisite to get very drunk in order to play this gig. While he was smiling at me, he vomited on my left shoulder, which is about the time I realized that I did not want to do this professionally. Absolutely true story. So then I found myself being a ringer for rock and roll bands. In other words, the drummers who were playing rock and roll at that time were a sorry lot. It was usually a bunch of kids in a neighborhood all playing the guitar and they would all turn to one and say, “Since you’re the worst guitar player, why don’t you learn to play the drums so we can have a drummer.” That’s how most rock and roll drummers, especially out of the folk scene and pop scene, got started. So I had quite a head start. I was listening to far more complicated music and I aspired to heights, not stardom heights, but prowess heights. I really wanted to know how to play that instrument. I really enjoyed it.
I never took formal lessons. Late in my career, after I’d achieved some notoriety, I had a lesson with a person whose name I won’t mention, out of respect. For the first hour of the lesson, he told me what trouble I was in because everything I did was wrong and that I had a long way to go. After that, when I gave him my name and he recognized that I was the drummer in BS&T, he asked me how to play half the stuff on the record he had on hand. So from being a colossal mess, I became his idol in one name. It kind of made me feel okay about not having studied for a long time.
Studying is very important, though. I mean, you have to learn, but to my way of thinking, the best way to do it. Although many will disagree, is to learn to play yourself. If you maximize your basic talent and then study, it’s great. You hear from people, “Yeah, but if you do that, you have to unlearn all these bad habits.” I would sooner unlearn bad habits than realize that my basic musicality was never realized because I was simply imitating some teacher and that’s all I’ve done and I’ve never gotten the chance to realize what it is in me, musically, that is special. Everybody who plays an instrument has a special feel and may never realize it because he’s simply a clone of his teacher.
Drums to many people are simply a matter of athletics. Who is the fastest runner; who is the fastest drummer? That’s what kids appreciate. Their values are pretty twisted, because they’re kids. Their values are immature, obviously, so it really is the guy who can jump the highest, the longest or the fastest. That’s fun too, but sometimes it gets overemphasized because the great drummers usually are great drummers, not because of a technical prowess. I had people ogle in awe, thinking I was an incredible technician. I’m not at all. I have all substitutions for things that are supposed to be played. I just have my own little tricks to make things sound exactly as they sound with the least amount of effort. I’m not a great technician. As the instructor did indicate to me, I play all wrong.
RF: Did you learn those little tricks just from yourself?
BC: Yeah, because I wanted to sound like Elvin Jones and Max Roach. I wanted to play like that, but you see, I was miked well. I was in the right place at the right time and people thought I was a genius. I wasn’t. I was a very average jazz drummer. The secret to my success was simply a matter of being with a band that was perfect for me and typified what I could play best. It was a band that would take those jazz elements and convert them into a pop performance.
RF: How did you learn that? That was something that was new with BS&T.
BC: There was no way to learn it. There was no one playing that way.
RF: Exactly, but you said that is what you knew best.
BC: Because of the fact that I was one of the only people who enjoyed playing jazz who would “stoop,” in quotes, to play rock and roll. It was the absolute sacrilegious thing if a jazz drummer was caught playing with a rock band. I frankly didn’t give a shit because I had fun playing, and if it meant I was a ringer in a rock and roll band. cool. If it meant that I was going to play at a Bar Mitzvah, cool. No problem. I loved music, so it didn’t really matter. If I was playing with some people and someone said to play a merengue, great. That’s some of the hippest stuff in the world, or to play in a Latin band. To me, you’re an idiot if you stick with one type of style forever, because you’re limiting yourself. You should be in a situation where for a week of your life, you actually play as a lefty, because if you do that, you’ll be a different person. You’ll start hearing completely different licks. You won’t get bored of your own licks, which is what happens to a lot of musicians, not just drummers. You should find a way to really give yourself a kick in the ass so you can grow. Once you stop growing, go get another gig. Find something else to do. That’s why I stopped playing the drums. I got real bored with my playing. I was just doing the same thing too long. I could be enticed into playing again. There are certain groups and styles, names withheld, that I would certainly love playing with on an occasion, but not for employment or on a permanent basis, because I’d get bored with that eventually.
When you go to a concert and hear a great drummer, you don’t know how much more he can do than what you’ve heard. You also don’t know how long it took him to get to even play one of those things. You also don’t know that there’s a good possibility that he’s played every lick exactly the same, with the same expression, every night that week, or every day that year. The problem is that kids idolize so damn easily. Learn to idolize yourself, not that you have to go into massive ego erection, but you should give yourself a little credit and understand that everyone has magic. Everyone has his own little magic that no one can duplicate. Here’s the most important thing I’m going to say today, I think. When you imitate somebody, the best you’re going to do is be almost as good as what you’re imitating. It is impossible to be as good as something you’re imitating. Theoretically, it’s impossible. So the best you do is that you’re almost as good as that thing you’re imitating. Is that worth it? Take your influences, gather them, throw them in a big pot and then find out who you are. Those are your influences simply because they were the ones you were drawn to, so it’s the closest to what you instinctively feel.
RF: How did BS&T come about?
BC: I was in graduate school and I was playing with some different people. I had stumbled upon a scene in Greenwich Village in New York City where there’s a million types of music and people to play with and there weren’t any drummers who were saying anything. So I became a genius because I knew how to roll. That was a miracle to these people. They had never dealt with a drummer who had even the slightest idea of what the instrument could do.
RF: What were you studying in school at the time?
BC: Psychology. I was playing with different people and I was very friendly with a fellow named Steve Katz, who was in a band called the Blues Project, that was nearing its demise. Since Steve and I were so close, we thought we would continue together and come up with something. Al Kooper was also in that band and quit before its demise and he decided he was going to go to England to be a record producer. To get enough money to go, he was going to do one last performance at Cafe Au Go Go on Bleeker Street in the Village. He had asked me to play with him and I had said, “sure enough.” He had a bass player by the name of Jimmy Fielder and I suggested that since Al and Steve had had a real angry parting of the ways, it would be nice if they played together again on this day. I was confident that Steve would, in fact; come and play this date for him. It was all gratis from our standpoint. Join ing us on the bill, to help get people into this club which held 250, were Judy Collins and Paul Simon and we didn’t have enough people there to draw flies. So the four of us played this date and I loved the tunes.
A lot of the tunes were Al’s and I said, “Ya know, Steve and I are going to start this band and those tunes are great. It’s going to be a jazzy feel and we’re going to have horns in it.” And Al said, “Yeah, I always wanted to start a band with horns in it.” And that was that. And all of a sudden, I found out later, that not only had Steve asked Al for the tunes, but he invited Al to be in the band. Al not only had decided not to go to England, but he decided to be in the band and take over the band, which was just a bit much and in the long run, it didn’t work out. After six months, after he realized the band was a failure, he quit. He quit because there was a mutual problem and it became a mutual decision for him to leave. He’d really had it anyway, but he kind of insisted that he was forced out. He was, in a sense, but he had been leaving anyway. The fact is, there were people in the band who felt, not that he should leave, but that we should get another singer who would have the strength to carry over the horns. Al didn’t want another singer, so he left and we got David Clayton-Thomas.
RF: Let’s back up for a second. You’re on Al’s last gig and you’re saying that you had this conception in your mind of a jazzy/pop feel. Where did this conception come from, since it was something that had never been done?
BC: Out of a complete hedonistic approach to music. I could not stand rock and roll. Rock and roll has changed since. I loved the Beatles and stuff like that, but didn’t like most of the rest. So I found myself wanting to combine jazz with some of the elements of pop. I liked the rhythmic strength that emphasized things less subtly, having a vocalist who sang decent songs and having a youthful presentation, which were the pop things. On the jazz side, I wanted chords that were voiced much richer, a horn section so you’re doing other things than just a rhythm guitar part, and saxophone and trumpet solos rather than guitar solos all night long.
RF: Where were these tunes going to come from?
BC: Most of the material of the band, not at that point, but when we were successful, came from outside the band. We would find tunes on records that we knew we could arrange our way and make it sound palatable and fun for us to play. The Eric Satie tune obviously was written a long time before, and “God Bless the Child” was obviously written by Billie Holiday and Al Hertzog years before. “When I Die” was a contemporary piece by Laura Nyro, which was on her first album, so it was more in the arranging and the approach than in the songwriting. Although “Spinning Wheel” was penned by David Clayton- Thomas, those chord structures have obviously appeared more than once, and it’s a cute little ditty, but I don’t think it’s going to turn music around. It was the arrangement of that song. It was really intended to be comedic. When it was being put together, it was supposed to be funny. Why would you put a horn line, which I can’t sing in an interview, in a song like that? The horn lines are absurd for that song. It was comedic, but we were so hot that everyone took every damn thing we did, seriously. Why put a jazz be-bop solo right smack in the middle of that song? I mean, it was a little pop song and all of a sudden it went into a be-bop thing and back to the other. It was a joke. It was fun.
RF: But it sounded so good.
BC: Yeah, and everyone loved it because it was a relief from the crap they were hearing. Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in the theory of right place, right time, when it comes to most success stories.
RF: How much input did each member have at that point?
BC: It was not quite as democratic as we wanted people to feel. There were people who were more pushy than others and I was one of the very pushy people.
RF: So in what year was the group actually formed?
RF: And you stayed until?
BC: 1976 or 1977. I didn’t participate as a drummer up until the end, but I produced and was involved in the business part of the band.
RF: When did you stop playing?
BC: I officially stopped playing in 1975.
RF: You were into production. Where did that come from?
BC: I was as fascinated with the recording aspect of music as I was with the music itself, from day one. I was always playing and tinkering with tape recorders, editing and trying crazy things. I was very much into audio as well, more than just needing to have the best hi-fi set on the block. I loved it. I was a consultant to some rather large companies in fact.
RF: So when did you start producing?
BC: 1970. I did a lot of the BS&T albums. And every time I would produce an album I played on, everyone complained that they couldn’t hear the drums. It was always the case, because I knew what I was playing, so I knew it already and would make it softer and softer until there was nothing left.
RF: You said you got bored with the music.
BC: Yeah, playing the same music, but I couldn’t disassociate myself from the band because it was still my love, so I just got involved in other aspects.
RF: Did you lose your love for your instrument?
BC: Absolutely. There was just not enough to be said, or that I could say, on that particular instrument, and I found that the art of recording could allow me more latitude. The horizons were expanded to an unlimited height, as opposed to being what I had found to be very limiting in the drums. Again, as strange as it may sound, I had very little confidence in my drumming. I didn’t think of myself as very good and I thought of myself as having been at the right place at the right time. I never really gave a lot of credence to my ability as a drummer. I think I was more an inventor than a drummer. I also found that more interesting. If I was concerned with my talent as a drummer, I would have practiced more than five minutes in my entire career. I never, ever did. I never cared about that. It came very naturally to me. I just played with music, with people and that was it. That was the fun of it—sitting in a room, smacking away. I mean, I knew, by first names, every police officer in the 34th Precinct in New York City, because they were at my door every day. I was just playing with records and having fun. But advice time, ladies and gentlemen: You cannot play with records too much because then you end up slowing down when you play with a band. Your time gets real raggedy because if you’re playing with a record, you’re not playing with a metronome. You’re playing with a human being who has his own set of emotions and he’s approaching that particular music his way and when you start to let him lead your time around, when it’s your turn to play with someone, there’s no one doing that for you. It’s your job to keep that pulse.
Drumming got very interesting. The idea of less is more started happening. Again, the immature can’t buy that. The best studio drummers were the guys with the least technique; the guys who had the great feel, evenness in playing, that had a bass drum that wasn’t limp, and there was an evenness with all the limbs flailing away at the same intensity. They had a good sound. Every drummer who hits the drum gets a different sound and these elements became essential to successful drumming, where, when I began playing, you got the feeling that you were actually being paid per beat. Now it’s very different.
RF: I want to discuss the changes you’ve seen in a lot of aspects. You’ve been talking about a group who got together out of a love for music. I’m wondering how much of that you see today.
BC: It happens all the time, but it doesn’t happen in L.A. or New York. It happens in Montana and Missouri where people don’t have the option of getting a hundred different bands together and deciding which group is going to be the star group. They’re playing with a bunch of friends because of logistics; they’re close, the parents are friendly, they all kind of get into the same music and decide to be participants in this music by playing instruments. It’s important, when you’re playing, not to condescend. When you’re playing music beneath your talents or desire, you are not transmitting the energy level that is created by the honesty of performance. You need to be scratching at your potential. By scratching, I don’t mean mildly dabbling with it, I mean clawing to reach the top of your potential. If you break down the components of a really successful band, often you’ll say, “Well, this guy isn’t that good and this song isn’t that good, they don’t sing that well, they don’t look that good, why is everyone going crazy?”
BC: Exactly. It’s that intangible that is, in fact, not intangible. It’s the honesty, it’s a level of intensity and it’s the magic that these three, four or ten people together, are able to make. That’s really the key.
RF: Knowing what you know today, would you say the qualities you saw in musicians, or specifically, drummers, have changed? Those things you held in esteem or admired?
BC: They’ve changed a great deal, but the basic elements are exactly the same. You see, it’s changed for me, I guess more than for most people, because I was into a different kind of music and there’s just a whole new set of rules as far as playing it. But for me, when I would hear a Philly Joe Jones, I would hear music being played on the drums. When I would hear some of the rockers, I would hear pounding on the drums; reckless abandon. I wouldn’t hear the same music. Today, people are enjoying the musical drummers again, the Steve Gadds, the Jeff Porcaros, the drummers who have the ability to play music and enhance the feel at the same time. The feel and the musicality meant nothing in the ’60s. It was chops and the way you looked when you played and nothing to do with those other things. It was an entirely different set of values. I once had someone say to me in the ’60s, “Man, you’ve got to hear this drummer.” “Why?” “His hair is down to his back.” I looked at him and it was, “Oh my God! It’s come to that!”
RF: Now you’re in a position of putting players behind an act.
BC: Sometimes, and hiring drummers to record. It’s making marriages. I ‘ l l find the right producer or the right drummer when it’s called for. It’s a very small part of my job, but it is part of my job and it’s something I can be helpful with. Again, it’s the matching of colors. Everyone has his own little magic and you just have to be lucky enough to find the right combination and there are always things you don’t expect.
RF: In 1976 you stopped playing with BS&T. Were you independently producing at that time?
BC: Actually, by around that time, I hada production agreement with CBS Records where I was recording. I built a studio in my house in New York and that definitely made it more fun to record and be on the recording end. This was during the later stages of my being with BS&T, but I was still actively playing with the band.
RF: Were you working exclusively with BS&T?
BC: For the most part. I had little time to do anything else. In ’75 I entered into a production agreement with an artist by the name of Jaco Pastorius, who I was lucky enough to have heard in Florida. Because of the good graces of Steve Popovitch at Epic Records at that time, I was able to go into the studio with Jaco and produce a record. I knew that it was simply an attempt at trying to introduce a fabulous instrumentalist to the scene and not to get your big hit record, which I didn’t think would come out of that. But it would be a lifelong seller, instead of a flash in the pan.
RF: When did you actually move to L.A. and within the corporate structure?
BC: August, 1977. I was asked by some people at CBS Records if I’d be interested in running the A&R department at Epic in Los Angeles. It took about six months to get into the idea, but infiltrating had its benefits. I could still help. I’m a crusader. I was a crusader from the beginning and I always wanted to see a higher brand of music get to the people. I felt I had contributed through my sneaky little ways until that point and I was really wondering how I could continue. Doing an album with Jaco was certainly in line with that way of thinking, but I wanted to do more. At first I was a little skeptical of doing a “day gig,” but it turned out to be wonderful. Not so much at Epic Records, but at Capitol, and I’m extraordinarily happy.
BC: Well, this is going to sound like a ridiculous advertisement for Capitol Records, but understand that I would not really be here unless I felt this way. The artist is viewed as an artist. He’s not the slob that must be dealt with or “that pain in the ass.” He’s the artist and the people who work at this record company never step beyond those bounds in trying to be the stars themselves, egotistically needing to be more important than the artist. They don’t work like that here. It’s a much healthier environment and that, to me, is the essence of it. You have to know what you do and respect it and form a respect for what you are doing and who you are working with. That’s very important.
RF: Can you specifically describe the duties within your position?
BC: My responsibilities, because of my background, are rather extensive. As I previously mentioned, I could very easily help organize some musicians to play behind a singer. I also could very easily sign the singer, I could also find the producer for that singer or all the songs that singer is going to sing. Or I could be working a tremendous amount of time with acts that have already been here for many years to kind of help them mature and roll with the changes.
RF: Have you found that your playing background has helped you with your functions, and with the respect of the artist?
BC: With the respect of the artist, undoubtedly. With my functions, as much as I would like to believe that only a musician can have the ability to find other talent, I don’t believe that for one minute. I think the greatest A&R person in the world is a 15 year-old girl who has to take her disposable income to buy a record. That’s called passionate buying. We don’t do that anymore. We’re spoiled. We get a lot of these records for nothing.
RF: How long were you at Epic?
BC: About a year and a half.
RF: And you’ve been at Capitol how long?
BC: Almost three years. My immediate plans are to stay here. As you can sur mise, I am happy here, enjoy the people I’m working with and the acts at this label. I’ll tell you, there’s a noticeable difference in personality between the acts of today and the acts of yesterday. That archetypical stereotype, dumb artist being ripped off wasn’t so far from the truth. There was a lot of that going on. They weren’t what you would call business- minded individuals.
RF: But wasn’t that because the business was so new at the time and the age of the artists at that time was younger?
BC: But I think the level of intelligence has changed.
RF: You don’t think it has to do with the maturation of the industry and the age of its participants?
BC: Well yeah, but Bill Haley and the Comets weren’t teenagers either. The point I’m trying to make is that the intellectual level of the artist today, I believe, is much greater. I also believe that makes it more of a pleasure for record companies, agents and management to deal with them. It’s easier to deal with them. Artists aren’t the bungling idiots you have to direct and it’s more fun. Artists have more fun too.
RF: Do you find that the record companies aren’t taking as many chances with new talent these days?
BC: Definitely. They are not taking as many chances. They can’t.
RF: They’re not allowing for any Beatles, if there could be such a thing, or another Blood, Sweat & Tears?
BC: They’re allowing for all those things and they’re taking chances, but you would not believe the crap we have to listen to. Music has almost grinded to a halt. People are imitating each other and they’re imitating the wrong things—slop. We need a healthy shot in the arm. We have to come up with something, take our chances and gamble. It’s almost a gamble today. It isn’t a matter of $15,000 or $20,000 and even if we screw up, we’ll sell about 15,000 or 20,000 albums and we’ll still recoup. Now, you’re looking at $100,000 to make a record and another $30,000 to put the thing out correctly and if you get lucky, maybe on a first album, you sell 15,000. It’s real scary. Unless you get lucky, you end up selling between 8,000 and 15,000 and the difficulties of breaking a new act today are unbelievable. The consumer knows when he buys a Bob Seger album that there’s going to be very little chance for disappointment and he’s just going to add to a collection of albums he’s very much in love with. Why should he go buy John Smith and the Smiths? Because he heard one single he liked, a $9.00 investment? No thanks. Maybe two singles, then he’ll buy the record. Maybe three, then he will buy the record if he liked all three singles. But then you know what happens? The band comes to town and he’s just bought the album. He won’t go see them and spend another $8.00 or $15.00 unless he’s bought several albums from that band and he’s convinced that the band is worthy of attendance.
RF: So you’re saying the basic difficulty today lies in the financial aspect.
BC: No, the difficulty lies in a combination of elements, and we can’t consider the smallest of which being inflation, because that is a big part of it too. But we’re dealing with higher costs to make records and consequently higher prices, and artist royalties are much higher, so it costs more to buy a record. Also, less interesting marketing approaches. People have kind of run dry in the sales technique, less interesting artists overall, as far as being revolutionary, and the consumer with a disposable income that is limiting itself to his choices in the entertainment field which has now expanded to include video games. There are more things to buy, which, as far as I’m concerned, are just as interesting as records. Unless we learn to market these records in a way that is as unique as the artists we are trying to present, this thing is going to lay around a while, suffering.
RF: You’re saying not as revolutionary…
BC: By revolutionary, I’m saying evolutionary.
RF: Change, which is what I want to ask you. You mentioned the “slop” you have to listen to. I’m going to ask you to be an authority here…
BC: I can’t be an authority. I can’t tell you why kids are not progressing…
RF: Are they simply trying too hard to confine themselves to a market?
BC: I think music took a big step backwards. I think everyone started to get excited about a certain type, I don’t know what you want to call it, punk, or whatever, but I think that it took a giant step backwards, and kids, rather than aspiring to be great talents on their instruments, all decided to be punk rock stars, where the fashion was as important as the music and the absurdity of performance was more important than the essential music. I think it took a big step back because record companies all figured this was next and they ran and stumbled over each other to sign some real rotten music and they’re stuck with those bands for a while. It’s no surprise that the records that sell three or four million are great records. The consumers are just not buying the junk as much.
RF: Have you seen many changes in drum equipment through the years?
BC: Really, very little. Minute. There are a few things that I marvel at as being time savers; little gadgets. I’m not talking about synthesizers, I’m talking about the actual drum. I think they’ve made some nice changes, but I would say it would be as easy to recognize a drum set of 1981 as it would be from 1951.
RF: What about the changes you’ve seen insofar as recording techniques of drums? For instance, they didn’t muffle much in the ’60s.
BC: Now that’s a whole different thing. Not the drums they’re making, but what is being done to them, physically, to create a sound that is more palatable for contemporary music. It’s a whole different approach.
RF: Did you muffle your drums at all back then?
BC: Yeah, I did, a long time ago. I didn’t have a ringing sound at all. Strangely enough, there still is that ringing drum sound for certain kinds of rock and roll, and there is that nice, tight muffled sound for other types of music. But don’t let anything limit you. You should be playing drums that are tuned in a way that naturally came from what you heard, from within you, that feel the best to you, so they are relatable. There isn’t a drummer out there that will deny the fact that there have been certain drum sets he’s sat down at which just sounded so good and felt so good that he could play better. My feeling is that is what you should be going for: the most relatable sound for what’s natural to you. Don’t worry about recording techniques yet because no matter how good your drums are going to sound, you walk in with an aggressive producer, he asks you to go to lunch and he’s tuning your drums anyway.
RF: Have you done that?
BC: I’ve assisted, yeah, I guess, but only when I’m asked to.
RF: By the artist or the engineer?
BC: By the artist as well. But understand that the reason these sounds have changed is simply because some guy had a hit. Let’s imagine all drum sounds were yellow and someone had a hit purely by accident because there was a tiny bit of red on his. So someone heard that and it became off-yellow and someone else heard that and thought he should do that, but of course, added more and it became a little more orange, and all of a sudden, he had a hit and everyone went after orange until it ended up being dark purple and into the blues. That’s how it progressed; it wasn’t something that could have been predicted.
RF: Do you have some drums set up at your house?
BC: I have about 13 drum sets all over the place. I recently packed my set away to make room for other things. But I’ve always had drums set up where I would go in there and marvel at how great I am for about five minutes and then what a disaster I am in the first second after the five minutes are up because I’m exhausted. But it’s fun for the first few minutes because I haven’t stopped growing musically, so I come up with some things that are far more musical than I had been. On occasion, if I’m lucky, or unlucky enough, as the case may be, to hear something I’ve played on on the radio, I usually just shake my head and think, “God, was I lame.”
RF: I’ve been listening to B, S & T Greatest Hits for the past several days, and it still conjures up the same rush.
BC: Because we played with abandon and we played with tremendous enjoyment and that’s why you feel that way. We really did enjoy what we were doing. I was in ecstacy, it was so much fun.
RF: But that spark exists so rarely today. For those who grew up in the ’60’s, it’s hard to find comparable excitement in the music since.
BC: I think people are too subtle today. Everyone is trying to be too subtle. Consumers, record buyers, concert goers ain’t subtle!
RF: But you said the artistry was so primitive and there’s a higher intelligence today. Maybe the primitive, caveman approach accounts for that spark.
BC: That’s the answer, for sure. It was more fun and less thinking.
RF: Less education and less studio techniques.
BC: That has actually happened. You’ll find that many of the records that are out today could have been recorded with immaculate audio and weren’t, on purpose, to achieve that almost raggedy, demo sound which kids find themselves able to relate to.
RF: What do you listen for when you receive a tape?
BC: Songs. The quality of the tape, to me, is insignificant. Arranging, or how much went into making that tape, is insignificant. I think it’s a waste of money. I like to think that I don’t need all those things to hear talent. I need to find conceptually, something interesting: songs that have the basic essential elements that, to me, make for successful careers; good melodies and lyrics and a performance which is impeccably honest, and that’s kinda it. It either strikes you or it doesn’t. The way I can describe it best is if you’re driving in a car and you’re having a conversation with someone and the radio is on real soft and all of a sudden you go, “What the hell is this?” It’s that little thing that jumps out at you. Really, I don’t need it to be prepared to a radio level. Just let me hear the changes and what it is you’re trying to do. Admittedly, it would be rather difficult today if there were a new Bob Dylan to have that much success with it. I mean, if there were a drummer as great as whoever you want to imagine and he came in with a big band jazz group and said, “See, I’m the best, this is the best band,” it would be very difficult for us to do anything with it because the markets have dwindled in certain areas. So it is part of my responsibility to show advances in music and help it get on the right track again, and also, if I can, try to help recoup some of the losses that are taken by companies that do go out on the limb for new artists that don’t usually come through for them. It’s just a matter of quality. I think if you wait for things to change and imitate it, you’re a sucker and you’re ordinary and you’re like most record companies. But if you take the bull by the horns and decide that is your responsibility to the consumer if he’s going to pay $8.98 and you have a good marketing campaign all set, you’re probably going to fool a lot of people into buying the record, then make that record good. It should be valid, artistically.
RF: What kind of advice can you give to that drummer who is playing with his friends, getting a rush, but wants to do more?
BC: Here’s the advice I’ll give, not only to that drummer, but to any musician. The idea of playing an instrument is to participate in something that gives you tremendous enjoyment. To expand that original motivation is simply to share your joy and enthusiasm with other people and that’s it. That’s really what you’re doing and trying to do. Every time you add auxiliary objectives that are further and further away from the core of what made you do what you’re doing, you lose your center and you lose your direction. The reason for someone to play an instrument may ultimately be to make money, but that’s a lot of steps away. You’ve got to go one step at a time and you’ve got to know what your motive is and never lose sight of that original motive. Even if you change direction, know why you’re doing that. Once you lose why you’re doing what you’re doing, don’t bother, because you won’t make that money and won’t do these other things that you’re expecting will happen. It won’t happen. It can only happen because you’ve accomplished those early stages successfully.
RF: Let’s talk realities for a second and the realities of your position. A record that comes out, you’ve got an artist and you have to put players behind him. . .
BC: I very rarely have to do that, incidentally.
RF: My question is, we have a Jeff Porcaro and a Steve Gadd. How does a John Smith get in there? He’s every bit as good as Porcaro.
BC: It’s a funny world. A Jeff Porcaro and a Steve Gadd are the first guys to compliment other drummers and genuinely adore other players more than themselves. If someone’s intention, for example, is to be a studio drummer in New York or Hollywood and he lives in Montana, he’s going to be filled with enough frustration from the inception of his drumming career on, to probably be a pretty rotten drummer by the time he would be in a situation where he would be a competitor in that world. That’s what I’ve been trying to say. Play an instrument because you want to and want to enjoy it and the next step is because you want to share the enjoyment with people. Don’t worry about being a star yet.
RF: What about making a living?
BC: Don’t worry about making a living yet.
RF: Let’s stop talking 15 years old and talk about 29.
BC: Once you’ve reached the age of 29 and you’ve been playing for 15 years, you already have a real good indication if you’re going to make money or not because you have been, hopefully, playing with people. You have been heard by people, hopefully, and a determination will have been pretty much made if you should get on a plane and go out to California or New York or not. If, in fact, you feel that confident that you have the ability, then take the shot. Come out, but before you get on the plane, you figure out where you have to be and who you have to play with to be heard by the proper people to get this type of introduction into the business. There is no set formula, there is no way to do it. Usually people are brought in because of word of mouth. A lot of musicians will hear somebody and say, “God, this guy is something else. He’s got to come out here and work.” And when he does, everyone will help him because he’s that good. It behooves the contractors and bandleaders to hire the best people they can. So you just have to be there and sit in and play with people, and hopefully, you’re good enough to get that kind of recognition. Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro didn’t say at age 15, “I’m going to do this when I grow up and be a top studio guy.” They didn’t even know what the hell it was. There’s simply no set formula.