For starters, Frankie Banali looks like a heavy metal rock drummer. His long, shaggy and curly black hair coupled with a face of innocence turned sour seems just right for one who pounds the beat for an outfit such as Quiet Riot. At the time of this interview, Banali claimed he could count the number of times on one hand he had spoken at length with a journalist. Yet Banali carried himself with a surprising confidence and an ability to answer each and every question asked him. Much of that is due to his incessant eagerness and infinite energy, which are two characteristics, by the way, that fit perfectly with his drum style.
As Banali tells it, he’s been playing drums and been in and out of bands for a lot longer than most people think. The fact that Quiet Riot has made a dent, and a big one at that, in the contemporary music scene is, as his friends say, a testament to his persistency and dogged determination to make a living playing drums. “I’m the type of drummer who thinks drums all the time and feels that, without my input, the group would fall apart,” says Banali. “That way I’m constantly striving to be the best I can whenever and wherever I play.”
I caught up with Frankie Banali between dates with Black Sabbath, just as Metal Health, the band’s best-selling debut album, was settling in at the top of the charts. Quiet Riot was on a roll and everyone in the band, especially Banali, was thoroughly enjoying their newfound success.
RS: I think the huge success of Quiet Riot and, especially, the album Metal Health took a lot of people by surprise.
FB: That’s very true. I don’t think anyone expected us to do as well as we did with Metal Health. We knew the record was real good, but we didn’t know how many people out in the real world would agree with us.
RS: A lot of people who bought the record have no idea that Quiet Riot, in one form or another, has been around for some time.
FB: Yeah, the original band started out in 1975, but even beyond that Rudy Sarzo, the bass player, and myself have been working together for 12 years. We met in 1972 when I was in a three-piece band back East called Ginger. At the time, we were doing a lot of opening slots for headliners like the Faces and David Bowie. The last gig Ginger did was in late ’72. I didn’t know Rudy at the time, but he was out in the audience for that show. About a week later I was in a bar and Rudy came up to me and introduced himself. He thought I was Ginger’s bass player and began telling me how much he liked the drummer. I just sat there and let him make a fool of himself for about a half hour, and then I told him who I was. Well, he just turned and walked away. That’s how it started with the two of us.
RS: The old Slade song, “Cum On Feel The Noize,” was Quiet Riot’s breakthrough single. Whose idea was it to record the song?
FB: When we were recording Metal Health, our producer, Spencer Proffer, wanted what he called a “safety” track. The thing with “Cum On Feel The Noize” was that it was a hit for Slade everywhere but in the United States. Spencer thought the song would fit in real good with our originals, so we recorded it. We didn’t even rehearse the song because the band wasn’t too crazy about doing it. So we didn’t take it too seriously, which is probably why it sounds so fresh. We sat down and ran through it once. Between Spencer and myself, we worked out the arrangement and fine tuned it. Then the band cut it. It was that simple.
RS: Do you do a lot of the song arrangements for Quiet Riot?
FB: Yeah. See, what happens is Kevin DuBrow, our lead singer, and Carlos Cavazo, our guitarist, will get together and write a tune. Then they’ll play it for me, and we’ll just sit around and bounce ideas off each other. I’ll tell them things like, “Put this part over here” or “Take that riff out” or whatever. They leave all that up to me. They trust me with my job, and I trust them when it comes to writing the songs in the first place.
RS: I’m sure you must have a lot to say about what drum parts go with what song.
FB: Yeah, I do, but my main concern is not playing drums. My main concern is playing songs. I’m really a song-oriented musician. I’ll find the right feel for the song and take out all the drum fills that shouldn’t be there. I take out the things that most drummers would definitely like to put in and keep in. My job is to find a tempo that is comfortable for me and for the rest of the band. Once I find the pocket, I stay there.
RS: Quiet Riot’s sound is very aggressive, very bold, straightforward and quite heavy. Your drum style, it seems, can be described in pretty much the same terms.
FB: It could. You’re right. I’m finished with trying to prove to myself and everyone else that I can do this and that on the drums. I’m beyond that sort of thing. I don’t ever expect to be voted the winner of any drum awards or drum polls because I’m a band player. I don’t like to stick out.
RS: As a heavy metal drummer, what is your most pressing responsibility?
FB: To hold down the fort. My role is to keep the group in the pocket at all times, no matter what’s happening around me. For example, if Kevin or Carlos does something really crazy, I can’t jump on the bandwagon and go along with him. If I did, the song would become a free-for-all, which I’m not really interested in being a part of.
RS: Heavy metal drummers, on the whole, have a reputation for being very loud players. Would that include you?
FB: On stage I have to play pretty loud because of the nature of the music and all the activity that’s going on in front of me. The rest of the band has got to hear me, so they never have to wonder where the bottom is. I want to make sure that, if Rudy, Carlos or Kevin wants to go out on the edge, he won’t have to worry about not being able to come back down. I haven’t got any illusions about being up front or in the spotlight because that’s not the drummer’s role. Sure, I have to give our fans some thing to watch as well as listen to, but I have to do it in a controlled way. The big thing for me is to believe that no matter how good I think our band is, if I didn’t have my drumming together and I wasn’t happening, then Quiet Riot wouldn’t be happening either. Once I stop functioning properly, then so will the band. I like to put that kind of pressure on myself. I like the challenge of playing a big part in the function of the band. The band knows that if I’m together, they’re together. And that’s all I really have to know.
RS: Let’s talk a little about your background. Where were you brought up?
FB: In New York—Queens to be more exact.
RS: You were living in Los Angeles, however, when you joined Quiet Riot, right?
FB: Yeah. I was going back and forth between New York, Florida and California doing the usual drummer routine. At one time, I actually was in five bands at once. This was in Los Angeles, and I did it out of desperation because I really had no other choice. I played with one band because it provided me with a place to live. I played with another band because the guys in the group fed me. I played with yet another band because it paid 20 dollars a week, which kept me in drumsticks. I played with the other two bands because they were better than the other three. [laughs].
RS: When was it that you began playing with Rudy Sarzo, your bass player?
FB: Back in the mid-’70s we were in a lot of bands together. We jumped on the progressive rock scene. We listened to and played a lot of Yes, Genesis and King Crimson. We were in about eight or nine bands that never played anything in four, so much so that when I went back to playing in four, I almost had to relearn it. But these bands we were in never played anywhere; all we did, it seemed, was rehearse and rehearse some more. I think we did one real gig. Finally Rudy split to join a band that was playing the Midwest. This was about 1976. A little later I got a phone call from him. He said the band was having problems with their drummer, so I joined the group for about a year. It was nothing more than a bar band. When the group split up, I decided to go back to L.A. One week later Rudy showed up, but then I left again. I went to Germany, of all places, to do some recording. While I was there Rudy joined Quiet Riot, and when I came back he wanted me to join the group. But I didn’t want to.
RS: Why was that?
FB: Well, they were a great looking band, but they did pop-oriented songs. Now the story really gets confusing because Rudy and Randy Rhoades, the guitarist, left to join Ozzy Osbourne. Kevin then took over and formed a band called DuBrow with me on drums. We hired and fired guitar and bass players like they were going out of style, because we were looking for someone who could play like Rudy and some one who could fill Randy’s shoes. Well, we finally found Carlos, and a few months later, Rudy was back with us. And that’s the true story of how Quiet Riot became Quiet Riot.
RS: During my research for this interview I saw where you once referred to yourself as a “musical whore” in those early days. Did you say that sarcastically, or did you really have such a low respect for yourself?
FB: What I meant by that remark was that working in DuBrow before Quiet Riot got rolling didn’t bring in any money, which made it impossible to live. So I kind of viewed the group DuBrow as my wife, and all the other projects and bands I was in as my mistresses.
RS: Are you a schooled musician? Did you take drum lessons as a kid?
FB: I took formal lessons when I was 14 years old in a little music store on Long Island called Debelles. I took lessons for about a year so I could feel my way through the rudiments. But I realized that, once I had gotten past that, I was becoming a copy of what my teacher was. Well, I didn’t want to be a copy of a drum teacher because I didn’t want to be a teacher. Then I did the usual thing: I listened to the Beatles and put together a couple of basement bands. We did Beatles songs, things by the Dave Clark Five, and by the Stones. From there I graduated to a band that did Italian weddings and bar mitzvahs. We played polkas and “O Sole Mio.” Believe it or not, that was a good experience for me.
RS: Who do you consider your main influences as far as drummers go?
FB: John Bonham of Led Zeppelin was definitely one very big influence. So were Carmine Appice, especially when he played with the Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, and the really important people in jazz like the great Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. I should also mention Michael Giles, Bill Bruford, Tony Williams and Billy Cobham too. These days, though, I don’t listen to that many rock ‘n’ roll drummers because I’m afraid of picking up some of their things. But one drummer I think is totally amazing is Simon Phillips. It’s great to see a drummer who is that good. See, I’m still a fan and I’m still constantly learning as far as playing the drums go. One thing I do is check out a lot of the bands we play with. I get to watch a lot of drummers in really great bands without having to pay the ticket price. And I wind up learning something every night.
RS: Quiet Riot has certainly done more than its share of touring this year and last. Up until recently, however, the group has been mostly an opening act. I know that last year Quiet Riot opened for ZZ Top, Loverboy, Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath among others. Does it frustrate you that, when you open for a major band such as say, ZZ Top, most of the kids in the audience came to hear them rather than you?
FB: No, not at all because it’s really a lot of fun going up on a stage not really knowing whether the crowd is going to like you or hate you. Crowds are notorious, especially in the East, for only going to see the headliner. So it becomes a great challenge to the band and to me personally to win them over. Once the lights go out, we just go out on the stage and do the best we can. I have got to say though that, when Metal Health was climbing up the charts, it was almost like a lot of the kids in the audience considered us co-headliners if you judge by the kind of response we got. That made us feel really great, believe me.
RS: Can you give me a quick rundown of what makes up your drumkit these days?
FB: Well, I’m using on stage two 16 x 26 bass drums; 16 x 14 and 18 x 18 floor toms; and 11 x 13 and 12 x 14 rack toms. All of those are double-headed drums. As for snare drums, I’ve been using a 6’/2 x 14 metal and an 8 x 14 maple, but Pearl just sent me a 6 1/2 x 14 free-floating snare. There’s no hardware attached to the shell. It sounds so good that I’ve stopped using the other snares because I like the new one so much. My hi-hats and crash cymbals are heavies, and I also have a 23″ Ludwig machine timpani.
RS: Sounds like quite a setup.
FB: Yeah, my drum riser is kind of like a condominium. I’m thinking of putting in a kitchenette. [laughs]
RS: Being on the road so much and playing as much as you have been, have you encountered any problems with sounding stale or fatigued on occasion?
FB: We figured that last year we played about 220 gigs. But the excitement level is maintained for me because I’m in a band with all my friends, which doesn’t happen very often. That’s a real advantage. Another thing that keeps me going is that just about all the shows we’ve been doing are made up of kids who have never seen us play before. That makes us want to work extra hard. And finally there’s the fun aspect of it all. Let’s face it, playing rock ‘n’ roll and getting paid for it is a whole lot of fun.