Eli Konikoff

In any conversation with Eli Konikoff, the word “human” pops up with the regularity of sign posts on a highway. His own, highly personal odyssey has taken him around the world, yet his memory is marked less by a spirit of place than a spirit of people; those he has influenced and been influenced by. Music is a thing alive rather than a mere livelihood. For him, human contact and communication are the threads that unify his musical life. His willingness to share his experience and transmit the inspiration he has received from others to younger players, reflects his deep understanding of the long chain of tradition.

 

JD: How did you get started playing drums?

EK: Actually, I started with the trumpet in the fourth grade, you know, when they offer the kids an instrument. I played trumpet for two years, which gave me a basic melodic training. My brother, who also plays trumpet and was much better at it than I was, would come in and practice at the same time. He’d make me feel inadequate because he was so much better than me, so in 7th grade I changed to drums. One reason for that was, I think, because it was the early ’60s when rock really started coming out and I saw a lot of drummers playing rock.

I was brought up pretty much on the big band era drummers; Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich were a big influence, and my family was heavily involved in big band music. My father is a Dixieland trombone player. He’s had his own group for 30 years, so Dixieland and big band music was pretty much what we listened to. When those bands came to town, we would go to see them.

JD: Who did you study drums with?

EK: My first teacher was Jack Shilling, a drummer in Buffalo, and he really started out with all the basic stuff, you know, the rudiments. Not only that, but also reading music out of books and how to play the trap set, as well. Jack had a real great feel for big band-type stuff.

Then later on, after about four or five years, I took a break from lessons. Then I went to Johnny Roland who was the head percussionist with the Buffalo Philharmonic and an unbelievable teacher. Johnny taught great independence and a reading ability. He was unbelievable.

JD: Did you major in music when you went to school?

EK: Music was the strongest influence all through school mostly because there was music throughout my family.

JD: How did you become involved with Spyro Gyra?

EK: Many years of prayer [laughs]. No, it was a long time. I had been playing on the road for eight or nine years, playing with different groups, traveling and hoping to make enough contacts to get with something that would become successful. I’d left Buffalo for that purpose. Musically, Buffalo is good if you’re a local musician. You could play every night of the week in a different bar, because they’ve got a lot of bars. But as far as going anywhere, doing anything big, writing your own music and performing it, Buffalo wasn’t the town to do that in. So I left and started touring, hopefully to meet the people or group who would have an opening. The whole thing was so ironic because after years and years of doing that, I got a phone call to go back to Buffalo and play with Spyro Gyra.

I met the guys in the bars and I played with them when they were making like eight dollars a man for a night, six or seven nights a week. I left the band for a while because I needed to make more money, but I got called back. So, I just met everybody through playing in the bars in Buffalo.

JD: How did your approach to playing change as you adjusted to arenas from clubs?

EK: Each place has its own unique problems, so you have to take each as it comes. It takes an adjustment of touch and technique. The judgment you use in each place goes back to your own experience in playing and realizing what your job is in the band and what it should sound like in the mix.

JD: What is your concept of the drummer’s role in a band like Spyro Gyra?

EK: It’s the heaviest position to be in, in this type of band. It’s the hardest job because, to a certain degree you’re directing and controlling the other musicians. You’re a cohesive part of the other members as they’re playing. It’s a very hard position because it’s very demanding physically as well as playing wise. By that I mean the physical aspect is so important because our shows are around 1 1/2 hours long and the energy level is passed real quick.

JD: There’s a lot of percussion used in Spyro Gyra. What is your goal as the drummer playing against it?

EK: That’s a good subject to talk about— drummers and percussionists. They should work together, I feel, in very clean, arranged parts. There should be room for expressing yourself but it should be like a sixth sense. In other words, you should know when something’s going to happen so you don’t start playing parts over each other and playing too busy. I feel that a good drummer and a good percussionist works well, and they’re both “tasty” when they both know what they’re doing and know the skeleton of what’s going down so they can work off that. Once they get comfortable, they have that sixth sense. You just pick it up. When he’s doing a fill, you don’t, or you’ll be stepping on each other and it gets too muddy. I like everything arranged.

JD: Do you consider yourself a jazz drummer?

EK: No, I don’t. I consider myself an r&b, funk and rock drummer. There have been a lot of influences, but I think what I play is a more r & b type of drumming.

JD: What do you think about or concentrate on while you’re playing?

EK: I don’t focus on any one point, because if I get focused on one point, I lose the concept and the feel of everything else. The drummer should just “be there,” but not locked into any one idea or thought. It’s just a total immersion into everything that’s happening at the time.

JD: What is your approach to playing a ballad?

EK: You immediately become a lot more sensitive because it’s a lighter tune and it calls for a different kind of sensitivity. I approach it with that kind of head.

JD: Do you ever use brushes?

EK: Not in a live show, but in the studio, yes. I think it’s becoming a lost art. I enjoy brushes.

JD: What grip do you use?

EK: Matched grip. I was taught traditional for the rudiments and all that, and for big band playing, but the power and speed you get from matched grip just can’t compare, as far as I’m concerned. Especially for the type of music I’m playing.

JD: You’ve updated your set recently.

EK: That’s right. Recently, we’ve been to Japan four or five times and the band is very popular there. So, Yamaha was interested in working with me. They gave me sets to try out but they were not to my particular liking so, through negotiating, they built a set to my specifications based on the Recording Series. All heavy-duty hardware. Even so, I’m breaking hi-hat and bass pedal footboards. I’m an animal when I play. I break rims and shatter synthetic sticks. Sometimes, the band’s sound level gets pretty loud and the demand on me to keep up the volume is intense. Especially in arena situations, it becomes painful, I have to play so loud.

JD: Does this affect your choice of drum and cymbal sizes?

Eli KonikoffEK: Sort of. I have a 24″ bass drum, 8″, 10″, 12″ and 16″ power toms, a 16″floor tom mounted on the bass drum and an 18″ floor tom on the side. That’s all the drums, except for a 6 1/2″ snare. I use all Zildjians. A 20″ ride, an 18″ heavy crash, and an 18″ Swish. I break these all the time and I’m considering going to larger sizes and heavier weights. I’d like to say that Lenny DiMuzio is the greatest and he’s always right there when I need him. I almost forgot to mention my 15″ New Beat hi-hats.

JD: What do you look for in a set of drums?

EK: I look for a wood sound. I like a real thick wood shell to give me a real big, deep, low sound, which I like.

JD: What do you look for and listen for in a cymbal?

EK: The tone, especially in the ride cymbal. I look for a cymbal that doesn’t build up too much overtone. When I do the bell work I want to hear a clean sound without too much overall buildup. In crashes, I like different sounds, a high-pitched crash ring and sustaining cymbals that have just the right duration that I want. You have to work with a cymbal to get to know its characteristics; how long it’s going to be there when you hit it.

JD: When you record, do you use your own drums or the drums that are already in the studio?

EK: That’s an aspect I’ve been lucky at. I’m always allowed to use my own drums which means there’s more money involved because of taking the time in a studio to set them up. You have to pay the studio time while you do all that, so I’m really in a good situation that I can use my own drums. We spend anywhere from 10 to 14 hours getting drum sounds and in a lot of situations it can run into a lot of money, but, you know, it’s very important.

JD: The same drums and the same set-up?

EK: No, I use one bass drum in the studio. The same exact set-up, except I don’t use the 24″ bass drum.

JD: Do you alter your tuning for recording?

EK: I don’t like to alter the settings for the studio. I just put new heads on a day or two before so they stretch out and get a nice melodic sound. Then I tune them the way I want them to sound. You know, everything I do is monitored by our producer who is a drummer, too, so he knows me and we work well together.

JD: What is your opinion on muffling the drums?

EK: A lot of drums are over muffled, over taped and stuffed. They try to eliminate a lot of ring and overtones that are just there. I believe in a little tape and a little reduction of overtones, but not too much muffling. I like a live drum which will explode when you hit it, and when you hit it lightly, it will respond properly to your touch and technique. A lot of drums don’t respond at all, even if you really lay into them. A drum should respond to you for the situation you are in.

JD: So, you’re not into putting pillows or whatever inside the drums?

EK: No. I mean, I have blankets in my bass drum, but as for really heavy muffling, I’m not into that. The bass drum is a very tricky instrument, and it depends a lot on what situation you’re in and what kind of sound you want.

JD: Tell us something about the cage around your drums.

EK: The cage I’m using now is a design that we never got to complete. It was going to be enclosed in plexiglass to give the drums a better sound on stage, a sound with more definition. The sound wouldn’t leak out into the other microphones on stage.

JD: What is your opinion on reading music?

EK: I think that reading music is a very necessary part of being a drummer and a musician. Every drummer should know how to read music or have experience reading. It’s up to each one of us to keep our reading chops up. It’s very hard when you’re away from it for a long time—you have to start all over again. But it’s very vital.

Studio musicians in New York are very proficient because they read every day, but when I’m in this situation where I travel eight months a year, I get no chance to read music or practice on my drums. When tunes are brought in for Spyro Gyra, the artist brings us a sheet with chord changes and maybe some kicks and hits. I read off that, but they don’t really write drum parts, so I’m allowed to make up my own parts and sections and I just follow the chord changes.

JD: So there aren’t any set charts?

EK: No, not with Spyro Gyra. There are certain sections that I have to follow, but no explicit drum parts. Everything is pretty much what I feel, or what everybody feels.

JD: Are you realizing the musical goals you set yourself with this band?

EK: Yes. Over the years with this band, I’ve definitely seen myself grow and I feel that my chops have gotten better. I never used to be a soloist. They’ve given me a feature spot and I’ve had to fill that spot. I’ve learned how to do it.

JD: How do you think about soloing?

EK: I don’t stick to the tune. I try and formulate ideas as I go and grow with it—take it someplace and bring it back. I state a theme for a while, then go off into what I feel; whatever flows out of me. I try to make it fluid rather than jerky; no abrupt changes. It’s not as scary now, because the more you do something, the more comfortable you get. Same with the studio. When I used to be in the studio I wouldn’t know what to expect or how to approach it. Through the years, I’ve gotten better because I’ve relaxed due to my previous efforts and experience. A feature spot for the drummer gives him a chance to express himself, but I don’t think he should get carried away. I’ve seen too many drummers go on for too long.

JD: I know that drummers who are just starting to play with bands have a tendency to play fills as fast and as loud as they can. Your fills are very tasty. Do you have any helpful hints that you can share?

EK: Well, it’s just from being an accompaniment player while the musicians are in front soloing. Try doing just the part you’re supposed to do, stick to your role, keep it tasty and sensitive.

JD: When you play, do you tend to play ahead of the beat, right on the beat, or behind it?

EK: My concept is to play a nice big pocket for the type of tune we’re doing, whether it’s Latin, funk or a swing section. I like it to feel not on top, yet not behind the beat, but right on the beat with a fat feeling. The only other way I can explain it is that it’s got to feel good.

JD: When you see other drummers play, what do you look for?

EK: I watch their coordination, the way they move, the coordination between their hands and legs. I don’t sit there and try to analyze what they’re doing technically. I just watch and try to pick up what they’re putting out. I don’t like when people watch me and think that I’m doing this beat or that combination. Don’t analyze me, man! Just feel what I’m doing! I don’t look at other musicians that way. I never try to analyze, so I hope they don’t analyze me, either.

JD: I noticed on the Carnaval album that you’re listed as co-author of the tune “Dizzy.” How did your writing come about?

EK: Well, through a lot of encouragement from the people in the band, especially the keyboard player and my roommate, Tom Schuman. When I had ideas for different beats or melodies, I’d put them on tape and play the tape for him. Or I’d sing certain rhythm lines or melody lines to him and he’d help me write them down. I’d keep these ideas in mind and come up with a few more bits and pieces, and he’d collaborate with me. We ended up writing several tunes together, so Tom helped me realize that I have the ability to write, and helped write them down so they can be used.

JD: Do you plan to continue composing?

EK: Oh, definitely. It’s something that I’ve only just started.

JD: How do you react to someone saying, “You’re only a drummer”?

EK: I laugh because it’s either a joke or it’s not worth even getting mad about. It’s something that they either understand or they don’t, so I usually just laugh.

JD: Do you feel a drummer should know more than just drums, such as other percussion instruments or even piano?

EK: I definitely think that the drummer should have some training in melody. When I was in college, all drummers were required to take a minor in piano. I think that it’s important and necessary.

JD: What is it like being on tour and playing with a group like Spyro Gyra?

EK: It’s wonderful. It’s great. This is my dream come true. I always wanted to be successful, to play in different countries where I can’t speak the language, but can communicate with the music. I always wanted to be able to write music and perform it for people all over the world. It’s a dream come true, but it is starting to wear me out a little. We don’t take much time off. I would like to be able to take a little more time off for writing or just to be at home, relaxing.

JD: Your touring schedule for 1982 was awesome.

EK: Yeah, 1982 was the busiest year for the band out of the last five. As far as road work is concerned, travel abroad through Japan and Europe, I’d say it’s been our best year. We worked more jobs than in previous years. Financially, it’s been very good. The band’s music, everybody’s individual writing and careers, all seems to be growing, so I feel pretty good. Tired but good.

JD: Have you been touring so much partly as a result of the economic crunch and the necessity for keeping the band in the public eye without a lot of record company support, dollar-wise?

EK: The company has other groups that are top priority. We aren’t their main concern as far as promotion. When an album is released, to coordinate advertising and radio spots for concerts and pushing the album is the company’s concern. If you don’t get that push, then touring has to supplement advertising, or lack of it. We tour nine months a year to make up for the lack of promotion.

JD: Is there a strategy behind your touring campaign?

EK: We work colleges, night clubs, anything, from 500-seat clubs to 10,000-seat arenas. The idea is to work everywhere. The idea is to work.

JD: Are there things that you do regularly before you play?

EK: I don’t eat for four hours before I play, because I can’t play if I do. I’ve seen guys eat a big meal and then go on stage and play. But I don’t eat. I try to stay light; do a few exercises just to warm up a little bit. Definitely, the better physical shape you’re in, the better you will perform. There’s no question about that. I know from personal experience. Playing today’s music in this type of a band, for most drummers, it’s a very physical thing. If you don’t have yourself together, you’re not going to do the job as well as you could. I want to stress the point that it’s a very physically demanding job.

JD: What about the emotional strain of touring?

EK: Being a road musician and trying to maintain some kind of normalcy, some gravity in your life, is hard. I’m in a town on an average of 12 hours. The day-in-day-out of the “fast lane” is: flying or driving in, going to a sound check, back to the hotel to change, back to the hall, back to the hotel to sleep, up at five in the morning, drive eight hours to the next gig, and do the same. It’s grueling emotionally. You have to learn to deal with being consistent on stage with all this strain.

JD: How do you do it?

EK: By giving myself a good ground. I have a great wife and a wonderful home. Nutritionally, I try to watch what I eat. I take vitamins. I turned into a vitamin freak a couple of years ago. The vitamins give me extra energy and take care of different organs of my body that don’t get all the necessary nutrients that I’d get from three meals a day. Sometimes I only get one meal a day so I’m really jammin’ these vitamins to keep in shape.

JD: What about exercises?

EK: I do a lot of sit-ups, push-ups and back stretches, what they call “free hand” exercises, where you don’t use any weights or equipment. You only use what’s available in your hotel room or at the airport and just do the basic back stretches and leg bends. Hotel furniture works well for limbering up. You really can’t take weights with you, or even grips, so you utilize whatever you can.

JD: What about practicing while you’re on the road?

EK: Practicing for me is about nil while I’m on the road, because I only get to my drums during sound checks and performances. As far as practicing on a pad in your room and on the bus or in the airport, that’s good, because it keeps your wrists limber. But it can’t compare to practical application on the set. I believe that you have to practice on the set to get your ideas and to get comfortable.

JD: An interesting controversy is going on today about beginning drummers wanting to get paid for everything they do from the start, in spite of their lack of experience. What is your opinion on this issue?

Eli KonikoffEK: Two weeks ago I was asked by a friend to do some demos for him. Now, to begin with, scale for a three-hour session is around $135.00. When my friend called about the demos, I didn’t know what he was going to offer me as far as money, and I didn’t know what the time involved would be. It comes down to time and dollars. It turned out to be about 15 hours of work and I did it for $50.00. So, I think that answers that question. I think you should do everything you can do to get better at something. You should even do it for nothing just to gain the experience. I didn’t get great money for doing it, but I feel that I need much more experience in the studio situation. The only way I can get better is by doing it regularly, regardless of the pay. Any time I do something like that, I know I will learn from it, even if it’s the worst studio job I’ve ever done, working with amateurs or whatever. You learn in any situation, so jump at the chance and go do it!

JD: If you were in a teaching or clinic situation, what would you say to young drummers?

EK: It’s important to know that part of playing is working with other people. One reason that the band is successful is that we get along well. I try to understand how I feel and how someone else feels and then come to some kind of an agreement about how to work together. There’s a lot to deal with on the road that you may not want to deal with. You have to find a way to accept what you can’t change. We fight but we all love each other. I mean, I spend more time with the band than I do with my wife and family. That’s painful. You have to take opportunities on the road to be with people, even if you’re only in town a short time. I meet people, other drummers, and I try to give myself to them. I listen and I’m genuinely sincere about my response to them. It’s not, ‘Hey man, how ya’ doin’?” and walk away and forget the person. I take an interest. I try to be helpful. I want to transmit the inspiration I’ve felt from other drummers to still other drummers, younger players.

JD: Who did you find inspirational?

EK: Those who play the simplest, like Bernard Purdie. He’s amazing! I love him. I spent the summer on tour with the band in Europe and Japan. He was with Dizzy Gillespie. Along with us were Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Sample and Ron Carter. I spent most of the time with Bernard. Tony stays more to himself. Bernard talks to anybody and that’s all it took for me. We traded lots of information. He was an idol, you know. When you meet someone like that, it’s strange to actually get to know them.

JD: Right. You learn to play by studying their licks, and suddenly you meet the flesh-and-blood man behind the lick.

EK: It’s important to take ideas from people, and the fact that you’re taking the idea continues the tradition of passing it along. All the ideas have come from others and have been played before. When you play them, you put your personality on them, like a fingerprint. It’s bound to sound different. So, it’s good to have idols but don’t let their accomplishments intimidate you or get in the way of your growth. Don’t put yourself down for borrowing, listening and learning. Don’t say, “I’ll never be able to do that.” You can! You are your own obstacle and I’ve learned that the hard way. Drummers who’ve influenced me are Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, Alex Acuna, Harvey Mason, Bernard Purdie, Neil Peart, and I could go on and on. They all have their own style. It took a long time to realize that what I have to say is as important as what they have to say. Important to me! Sound like yourself, because you will anyway.

JD: You mentioned once that you had some dealings with Gene Krupa. Can you tell us something about that?

EK: Whenever the big bands would come into town, my father would take me to see them perform. That had an unbelievable influence on me. When I was a little kid, not only would I see my father on stage performing with his own band, but he would show me other bands and it was an invaluable education in the big band era. You can’t get that today. The kids growing up today will never be able to get that and I really feel that’s the reason for a lack of versatility in drummers. They grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and never really got any of the influence of the ’40s and ’50s.

JD: So you met Gene Krupa through your father?

EK: About twice a year, Gene Krupa used to bring his band into the club where my father worked. On Sunday afternoons, Krupa would have an open jam session for all the local drummers and all the parents would bring their kids. From 4:00 ’till about 8:00 at night they’d let the kids sit in while their parents were there. They chose an old standard like “Sunny Side of the Street,” a nice, medium-tempo jazz tune. The kids got the experience of playing with Gene’s band, on his drums, in front of their parents and a club full of people. Gene gave back to the kids by talking to them and relating what it was like to be a professional drummer. It was an invalu able experience and I hope to be able to do the same some day.

JD: That leads me to ask you about your doing clinics.

EK: Unfortunately, I’m on such a busy schedule right now, that trying to schedule clinics is pretty hard. But as soon as I can get the time, that’s one of the first things I want to do.

JD: Do you have any ideas as to what you would do?

EK: I’m sure I would perform at the clinics, play drums, show a couple of different beats. But I’m sure that most of it will be questions and answers relating to what it’s actually like being on the road, how my life is influenced, how do I practice, and those are the things that I like to get across. They want to know how I handle it, do I take drugs, what do I eat, all sorts of stuff, so I really like to relate what it’s like to be on the road 8 1/2 months every year.

JD: Taking what you just said about drugs, what is your opinion about that?

EK: No matter what you take, it’s going to affect your playing. I personally don’t take drugs when I play because it affects my playing. A lot of people smoke pot and use cocaine and amphetamines while they play, but it doesn’t matter what you use: It still affects your playing and you’re not being truthful to yourself, it’s as simple as that. The cold truth is that anything you ingest into your body alters your playing. My playing requires so much of a physical effort that I couldn’t have anything in my body affecting it.

JD: Your style seems to me to be very big band oriented. Is that only because of the type of music you grew up on, or did you do a lot of big band playing before Spyro Gyra?

EK: It was my influence as I grew up. Dixieland music is sort of big band-ish with arrangements, you know. When I was growing up, through high school and when I went into the service, I played in all the big bands. We played all the standard charts, and yes, I was influenced by it. But I still consider my style to be more r & b, funk, rock and soul, as well as having the big band influence.

JD: When you were in the service, was music the main thing that you did?

EK: I went to the Navy School of Music. I went to school and played music all day. Of course, I had military courses, but music was the main thing. I was a musician by rating in the service.

JD: Big band music is what you listened to while you were growing up. What do you listen to now?

EK: A lot of black influence. Earth, Wind and Fire. I still listen to James Brown. I enjoy really good music; music with beautiful changes in it and aggressive playing. I listen to the Brecker Brothers. They amaze me. They’re unbelievable. I listen to George Benson and Harvey Mason.

I still listen to Buddy Rich and I’ve got some Cozy Cole records. I’m talking years and years ago, you know, but I think that in today’s contemporary music, what I like to listen to is a really solid, fat sound.

JD: Tell us something about the techniques you use with your feet. For instance, do you use a heel-toe motion on the hi-hat?

EK: I like to have it arched up on my toe. I like to play with my foot up in the air with the toe wedged into the front of the foot pedal on the hi-hat. That way, I get better response for what I do. For the bass drum, my foot is flat on the board, but I lay a lot of pressure up towards the tip of my toe and toward the front of the plate. My right foot is flat. My left foot is on its toes on the tip of the plate.

JD: Any unfulfilled goals?

EK: I want to do my own album. I want to do some writing/recording work. I want to do some clinics. After I do those, I’m sure ten more will come up. You know, it never stops. I would really like to have more time to put back a lot of things that I’m giving up now by touring. I’m giving up my home life and stuff like that. I would love to be able to stay home a lot more than I do now.