There’s Vinnie Colaiuta, and then there’s everyone else.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a drummer say that. Within the last couple of years, I have felt that Vinnie quite possibly is the greatest drummer of our time. That’s quite a statement to make, I know, but watching Vinnie, you know he doesn’t think like anyone else. He’s an innovator, a pioneer, and explorer—daring to venture into the unknown; willing to go out on a limb without inhibition, although not without some fear. He admits that taking risks can be scary, but knowing he has the facility gives him the confidence to stretch to his limits.
Vinnie spent most of his young life in Pennsylvania honing that facility. Besides the normal junior- and senior-high music programs, he took lessons with local teachers and spent his summers at music camp held at West Virginia University. A chance meeting with drummer Steve Smith prompted his enrollment at the Berklee College of Music.
One would hardly think a year at Berklee would be sufficient, but for a drummer of Vinnie’s caliber, it was. After two semesters, teacher and supporter Gary Chaffee suggested that Vinnie go to New York. Money was scarce anyway, so Vinnie left Berklee, but he hung around Boston playing top-40 gigs and whatever few jazz gigs there were.
In 1978, Vinnie moved to L.A., and a few months later, the polyrhythms he had practiced in his attic as a youngster came in handy on the audition with Frank Zappa. Playing Terry Bozzio’s drums, having never played double bass before, Vinnie won the gig. His work with Zappa is still acclaimed as unparalleled.
He left Zappa in 1981, hoping to get some studio work that would keep him closer to home. With the help of such staunch supporters as bassist Neil Stubenhaus and drummer Jeff Porcaro, Vinnie’s name began to spread around town. It’s been a slow process, but today, trying to reach Vinnie on the phone is difficult because he’s always working. Between his daily gig with the Joan Rivers show and sessions with such artists as Irene Cara, Jennifer Warnes, Billy Joel, Jose Feliciano, Alan Pasqua, The Temptations, Natalie Cole, Bill Myers, Jack Wagner, Barnaby Finch, Robben Ford, Martha Davis, Greg Rollie, Maurice White, Eric Martin, and Bryan Ferry, or such commercials as Western Airlines, Maxwell House, Pizza Hut, Oldsmobile, Kent Cigarettes, 7-up, CMC Trucks, Chevy, Honda Scooters, and Polaroid, or TV shows like Alf, Still The Beaver, New Gidget, Simon & Simon, Crime Story, and Sledgehammer, there aren’t enough hours in the day. And that’s when he’s in town. In the last few years, he’s also taken road gigs with Joni Mitchell, Tom Scott, Chaka Khan, Lee Ritenour, and Dave Grusin to create the perfect balance—or almost. Actually, what seems to create the perfect balance in Vinnie’s life is all of the above combined with the anchor his marriage to Darlene provides.
I’ve seen a maturation in Vinnie in the past four years since I did the last interview with him for Modern Drummer.He’s still the same warm, vibrant, intelligent, fun person, but there’s a stability and responsibility about him. He’s less hyper, doesn’t smoke anymore, is concerned about his health, and cares about his career. His feet seem to be planted more firmly on the ground, and he’s a little more sure of himself.
He still doesn’t know, however, how great he is. A few hours after he blew an audience away at the 1985 Percussive Arts Society Convention, Vinnie was talking to some friends about taking lessons and changing his technique. Most laughed, but he insisted that he was serious. Some of us were appalled, so I vowed to obtain an explanation.
RF: You made a comment recently that you would like a teacher to revamp your technique. Could you explain that comment?
VC: [laughs] It’s self-explanatory. I was looking for somebody who I could sit down with and say, “Hey, look. Here are my hands. What do you think of them?” I’m at a crossroads, where I’m just doing whatever is coming out and not really thinking that much about how I’m hitting the drums. Consequently, I’ve developed some bad habits, I think.
RF: What kind of bad habits?
VC: My left hand is kind of funky.
RF: How so?
VC: The posture of my left hand is not so good. My sitting posture is weird now. I was going through a little changing thing before. It was a period that had to do with my changing the way I approach the drums, and it changed the way I thought about playing.
VC: Oh yeah, it was an attitude—a concept. It made me feel a certain way, and I just wanted to approach the drums from that angle when I played, which is part of the reason I sat so low.
RF: You’re speaking in the past tense.
VC: I’ve raised my seat height.
VC: First of all, because I was starting to develop some lower-back problems. One night, I made a move while I was playing, and I was frozen still. I screamed out, and it was horrible. So I’ve been gradually changing it; I’m still changing it, because I want to get better leverage. My right foot feels weird, which I think is partially because it’s still healing since I fractured it.
RF: How did that happen?
VC: I was on a sampling session for Yamaha, of all things. I actually hit the bass drum so hard at a weird angle that I fractured my heel bone. I had to stand up and hunch over the bass drum, slide into the thing, and pull my leg back off it. I had to do that, because when I sat down to play the drum like I normally do, the producer and engineer said that it was insufficient to produce a good sample. I disagree with that, because I’ve sampled my drums on records that sound great—Joni MitchelFs album, for one, where I did all the samples. I just smacked the bass drum good one time, and bingo, it sounded great. They didn’t like the fact that I bury the beater in the head. I don’t pull it back off the head. I leave it in there, which some people think is wrong, but that’s the way I play. I was trying to pull it off the head, so I tried playing with the heel down and snapping it up, and I tried to play it with the heel up and snapping it up, and adjusting my seat height. I can do it, but not with the amount of volume that I can when I really stomp on it and lay into the drumhead. Finally, I found a way of doing it, but after half an hour of doing it as hard as I could, my foot gave out.
RF: What a way to learn how not to hit a bass drum.
VC: I knew that was definitely not the way to play a drum. But I had to go to an extreme to produce a sound they thought was right. It was my mistake to be so stupid. I should have just said, “You guys are crazy. I know how to play a bass drum.” The guy wasn’t a drummer and didn’t know anything about playing drums.
RF: What is it exactly that you want to work on?
VC: My grip—trying to make my hands more symmetrical. I don’t really think it’s possible to be completely symmetrical. Your body isn’t symmetrical. It seems that way, but it’s not. I’d like to strive for more technical consistency. I’m not even sure right now if there is a middle-ground way of playing that will work for everything. I think my problem is that I’m psychologically affected by different kinds of music, and that causes me to hold the sticks differently and hit the drums differently.
RF: Can’t a certain consistency become bland?
VC: Not if it enables you to execute your ideas without any mental blocks. But if you’re talking about consistency in terms of it being middle-of-the-road and never having those peaks that everybody lives for, then definitely, that’s a bland diet. I mean more technical consistency, because I figure that, if I’m going to be in it all these years, I want to come out of it with something.
RF: What do you want to come out of it with?
VC: A really good ability on the drums in terms of a scholarly approach, which I’ve always had anyway. But sometimes I get away from it. I want to maintain a good balance on the instrument from a scholarly point of view, so that I really know the axe, instead of being some kind of stylistic hotshot, if that makes sense. There’s so much out there to learn. I can’t just lay back and say, “I’m going to slack off, because I’ve been playing so many years. I don’t need to get any better chops or get my time better.” You can always improve. There are things I want to do that, if I buckled down and practiced again, I know I would be able to do easier.
RF: Like what?
VC: Like my left hand: getting more even strokes and more control. Sometimes I lose it. Sometimes I go past that threshold.
RF: What pushes you past the threshold?
VC: Lack of self-discipline. I get too lackadaisical. Maybe I’ll be playing something I don’t really feel like playing and . . .
RF: You just go on automatic pilot.
VC: Sometimes, though, when I’m on these auto-pilot gigs, I start concentrating on my hands. Other times, if it’s a real drag, I find myself like a Gumby who is out of control. That’s an attitude adjustment, I think. I really need to buckle down. Those are the kinds of things I’m coming to grips with lately. It happens when I get bored too quickly.
RF: Speaking of boredom, I question the challenge and stimulation of a studio gig for someone of your caliber.
VC: Sometimes it is kind of, “Okay, here we go ….”
RF: Like you said, it’s attitude. How do you mentally adjust to that?
VC: It’s just a different set of challenges. I figure that, if I look at it fresh all the time, it keeps me from becoming jaded. People who do shows for months on end develop a mental psyche state of making it seem like it’s the first time. I just go in and look at it as fresh as I can. I try to figure that I will get something out of it, or I just feel glad that I’m playing. If I do that, it really helps. It depends on what the situation is. Like with a jingle, I know that I’m going to be in and out of there in an hour, so I can always go home and practice. Sometimes I get bugged when I’m sitting on something all day, and by the time I get home, I don’t feel that I’ve played very much on the drums; I mostly counted bars or something. Then I take something there to read.
RF: Do the jingles make you crazy?
VC: No, because they’re fast. They don’t push them into the ground most of the time, so I like it. Doing jingles is challenging. You get the stuff fast, and you can usually tell when you peak on it. Just lately, I’ve been developing the patience to get it better, take after take. I had always been the type to peak in less than ten takes, and then I would be tired of it. “Next.” That’s a big problem of mine—trying to stay stimulated.
RF: You didn’t grow up with the idea of getting into the studio; you just wanted to play the drums and be articulate on the instrument. But I think some young people might have a false illusion that this array of chops they learned at Berklee will make them successful in the studio. I would think that producers would be very put off by young drummers coming in and strutting their stuff.
VC: They could, definitely. First of all, though, let me touch on Berklee and say that Berklee is very different now from when I went there. Now they’ve got four or five recording studios, and you can get a degree in producing, which was unheard of when I was there. I know what you’re saying. When I was there, I wasn’t thinking about how I was going to sound on tape or how I was going to play with a click, so I had to make those adjustments on the job. And machines—I’ve had to learn them on the job.
Yes, the producer can be put off. When I first came to L.A., it was, “Yeah, Vinnie plays great, but I couldn’t use him in the studio.” I was playing all my stuff, and I think some people thought I’d play that stuff on a date. I wasn’t playing clubs like I would play a track, though. It’s a whole other thing. Now that I’m established and have an identity, so to speak, I go in and they say, “Do your stuff.”
RF: People had to give you the chance to prove that you could provide what was right in the studio.
VC: Yes, and it’s hard to get that chance. Now it’s even tighter. There are less people working now, but because a lot of people show up with a couple of samplers, a couple of DX’s, and all that. I’ll tell you, it’s techno shock. When that stuff first happens, it usually tends to get overused. Now it’s leveling off a bit, even though technology is moving just as fast as it was before. People are adapting to the pace now. Also, I’ve noticed a lot more people saying, “I want to put real drums on this.” People are getting more used to the equipment they’re using, and they’re getting a perspective on the difference between musicians who can really play and machines.
RF: We were just talking about technique. Can you worry so much about technique that you lose your feel?
VC: Yes, if, when you’re playing music, you’re just thinking about your chops. Before, I wasn’t talking about thinking about my chops on a gig. Don’t get me wrong and think I’m saying, “I want to clean up my act on the instrument, and all I need to do is clean up my chops.” That’s not what I’m saying. I think it’s to my advantage to revamp the way I hit the drums, because it makes things a lot easier. But also, I need a little refresher course on things I haven’t played in a long time. It’s funny how I took a lot of things for granted when I was playing with Frank [Zappa]. I didn’t take them for granted, really, but I was so hung up doing them that I didn’t realize a lot of stuff I was doing and learning. I haven’t played that stuff in a while. Who plays odd times anymore? Once in a while, you hear it in Chick’s band or something, but that’s it. When that stuff was popular, everybody and his mother did it. You heard so many records where they were doing odd times, but a lot of it sounded corny, too, and that gave it a bad name.
RF: Your mentioning Frank Zappa made me want to ask you this next question at the risk of offending you: I have noticed that Zappa’s drummers are traditionally real hotshots, but somewhere along the line, when they first leave his group, their feel isn’t there. Do you relate to that personally?
VC: I don’t think that happened to me, because I was too interested in playing music on the drums, not just chops. I wanted to get a good feel, because I was listening to a lot of drummers who I admired liked Jeff [Porcaro], who is serious feel. Feel is real important to me.
RF: But when I first saw you after Zappa, although I was blown away by your capabilities, it didn’t have a lot of feel. It obviously came together after a bit, but immediately, no.
VC: When I played at the Gib, I was sowing my oats.
RF: How so?
VC: There were tunes I made feel good, but then I’d go for stuff, too. I don’t know if I was always keeping the feel while going for stuff. I was overloaded with so much energy, and that was a weird time period in my life. I can’t really say I had it together then. I was trying to carve my little spot. I was always pushing myself to my limits, playing that style of music. That was important to me at that time, in order to grow. And I think that it’s better to take yourself out as far as you can, physically and mentally, and then pull back. Then you know how far you shouldn’t go, instead of not being able to go there.
RF: But now I hear you take things out with feel.
VC: Everybody is saying to me that it is always feeling good. It comes from exceeding that limit, so that when I do it now, it just comes out in the way I play. I’ve taken the chances over the years to go out, and I know what’s there. Instinctively, what should happen is, if you have talent, you nurture that talent and develop it. You go out to Neptune, and you should be able to come back saying, “It’s cold, the atmosphere doesn’t support life, and there are a lot of rocks,” so you know you need to wear a space suit and certain shoes. In other words, when you go there, you find out what’s there and how to handle it. So if you’re going to go out there, you develop it to the point where you’re in control of it. Then, if you want to go out to a place you’ve never been, you’re at least brave enough to go there. You can come out of it somehow smelling like a rose, because you can do it in the name of creativity. Besides, one little excursion that doesn’t work is not going to make you fall on your face. But if I had never tested it and gone as far as I could go, and I just tried to do it right then and there and keep it relaxed, I couldn’t because I’d be unsure of myself. Once you know you can go 180 miles an hour, top speed, it’s nothing to cruise all day at 95. And I’m not just talking about speed or chops. I’m talking about the ability to just do things, think things, execute things, and put it all in place. That analogy I mentioned didn’t even consider playing the right things at the right times, musically being aware of structure and song form, and the whole gamut of musicality.
RF: Speaking of song structure and all that, what are the things you have to consider when you’re playing a date or a gig?
VC: That’s a hard thing for me to answer, because on a date, it’s a real specific thing. You know exactly what you have to do. You’re going to document something forever, so it has to be as right as it can be, depending on the producer’s concept of it and your ability to deliver that concept, mixed with your own concept, if you feel that your own is as right as the producer’s. You just know that your instincts are right, because you’ve done that before and it’s tried and true.
RF: Isn’t that why people hire you—for what you can bring to a session and for your instincts?
VC: Yes, if they want that identity, but so much of it is “identityless” now, what with the machines and all and with what the kids are dancing to today, [laughs] Lots of times, they’ll ask me to replace the machine. Obviously, they want the feel better, but they aren’t really looking for an identity. But I do find that a lot of times they’ll say, “Put some Vinnie in there.”
RF: What does that mean precisely?
VC: I don’t know what it means, because when they say that, I think to myself, “Oh, they want to see some flashy fills; they want me to go left.” A lot of times, I fluff it off with a joke, like, “Ah, you don’t want that,” and we all laugh. But they really do want me to do stuff that I don’t think is appropriate, just because they figure they’re hiring me and I’m this nut case who can play anything. Before, I couldn’t get arrested for doing that. Now, I get on dates, and they want to hear it.
RF: It seems that your life has changed so much. I remember a time when you never showed up on time. With something like the Rivers show, you have to.
VC: But look what I was into before. I got in with that circle and all the wrong stuff that went along with it. That goes hand in hand with irresponsibility. You come to a realization that you just cannot pull that kind of junk. If you’re consistently in an attitude where you don’t care, it doesn’t work. Let’s face it, there were a lot of things going on at that time that a lot of musicians fell into. A lot of people were doing things they thought were hip and cool, and they thought they had to do that stuff to get in with the crowd. I sort of went along with a lot of that for a while.
RF: How did you figure out that you had to get out of it?
VC: I realized it when I felt terrible one too many times. I’d had enough. I realized that it wasn’t doing anything for me. It finally sunk in. I don’t know if it became apparent all of a sudden, or if it was a gradual awareness that finally clicked in. I found out that it didn’t matter if I did that stuff. I’d be hanging out and thinking, “I’m going to get gigs from this, because I’m really in with this crowd,” and then I’d never hear from them.
RF: Let’s go back to that thing of “put some Vinnie in there.” I’d like to get to the bottom of this identity and who you are.
VC: So would I. Right now, I’m going through some changes. One of the things putting me through changes is the electronics. I love all the things you can do with it, but I still love playing acoustic drums. It’s such a crossroads now. You could spend your entire inheritance on stuff that isn’t going to work for you in six months.
RF: Why does that make you question your identity?
VC: I think it’s because I’m kind of 5%o on what to do with the stuff—what to make of all this. In one sitting, I’ll think to myself, “Yeah, acoustic drums.” Then I’ll think, “God, those electronics sound really good. Playing with a machine is really great; you can switch the percussion things on and off, have the pad trigger this, and wow . . . .” Then I feel that I’m overloading with so much equipment at once, which I’m trying to assimilate.
RF: What do you have?
VC: The Yamaha FM drums, two Simmons brains, a bunch of effects, sequencers, and drum machines. I’ve got two 816’s, but I don’t have sampling stuff. I ran into a guy recently, who, when I said, “I don’t have any sampling stuff,” said, “You’ve got to have them sounds,” which is true. People get samplers and put all these sounds in them, and you can do with samplers what you can’t do with that other stuff. But the new sampler comes out, and this one is noisy and that one sounds better. The Akai S900 is great for drummers because it has eight outputs, so I thought, “What am I going to.do, wait and wait and wait?” With my luck, I’ll wait and nothing will come out. But when I buy something, it’s the wrong thing. I was involved with all the Simmons stuff when it came out. I demoed the SDS9 and the SDS7. What I use more than anything is the old SDS5. As an analog synthesizer, as simple as it is, it’s a dedicated machine, and it does it the best. The filters and the way the 7 sounds on the analog side are not as good as the 5, and the digital chips in the 7 are 8-bit—not good quality. They’re noisy, dull-sounding samples. What’s a drag is that the 5 isn’t MIDIed and neither is the 7. The SDS9 is MIDIed, but the tom-tom parameters are not as good as the 5’s, and the digital samples aren’t that good either. So along comes the Roland, which is MIDIed, but it’s all software based, so if you can’t alter the sample close enough to make it sound like somebody’s favorite Simmons sound, you’re out of luck. Now the FM Yamaha stuff is different because you’re dealing with FM synthesis. It’s not analog, and it’s a whole different thing. For drums, you can get some different sounds, but it’s really hard to program.
RF: In our interview four years ago, you were not very amiable towards machines at all. You say you feel 50/50 now. What does that mean?
VC: That means there is just too much stuff on the market. There are too many manuals to read, but I’ve got to stay on top of this stuff. It’s driving me nuts, though, in a way. I love it—don’t get me wrong—but there’s just not enough time in the day. I have too much stuff to learn about, and then I don’t know if I have enough of the right stuff that people will call me for on sessions.
RF: But people are calling you.
VC: They call me for the way I play, which, hey—I’d rather they do that than call me to hit a pad with a sampled sound on it. If I’m going to go in to replace a drum machine, I want to play my drums. But I love playing with machines. It’s good for your time and all that, too, as long as you don’t use it as a crutch. I like it, too, because I can write here at home, and I can do things now that I could never do before, like sequence stuff. Instead of going up to someone and saying, “I’ve got this idea in my head; here’s how it goes,” and drawing chords on paper, now I can edit it note by note and put it into the sequencer. I’ve got a bunch of DXTs with great sounds in them, and I can put my idea on tape, put effects on it with a machine, and sequence it all to make it perfect. I may not be able to play it, but I can realize my idea so another musician can hear it and understand it. If I tried to explain it or just jot it down, and some guitar player stumbled over it, it would be crazy. But I put it in the sequencer, and it plays it right, like “Alice The Goon,” this one tune I did for a clinic. If I had tried to explain it, the other musicians probably would have thought I was a nut case with no scruples whatsoever. But when I went to Japan with Dan Huff, Neil Stubenhaus, and Randy Waldman, I said, “I have a couple of tunes.” I brought a tape in that I’d had transcribed by a copyist. It’s not the type of thing with a regular old melody and chord changes; it’s a little off center.
RF: A little bit of Vinnie.
VC: Yeah, a couple of cards missing from the deck. So it worked out, and I think it gave me a little more credibility to be able to have the machine do that.
RF: Why do people say someone has cards missing from the deck when they’re talking about creativity? Why is that necessarily crazy? Why, when you say,’ ‘A little bit of Vinnie,” isn’t it just special creativity? Why does it translate to crazy? I know you said it tongue-in-cheek, but it’s come up a few times now.
VC: We were referring to that stigma I had attached to me. I’ve done some things that weren’t exactly the norm. Speaking of which, I was recently doing stuff and being myself, and I didn’t think I was as nuts as I usually am. But people were telling me that it was creative and they liked it. I was wondering if I had matured and my maturity is that I’m not being as crazy; or if I’m making it fit better; or if the stuff that was once really so crazy is not so crazy anymore. Maybe the other musicians are able to assimilate it better, so to them, I sound more mature now, and what I’m doing is not so off-the-wall. That stuff comes out when I’m not thinking about anything, and I just sit down and let it go. That’s how my personality is, too. I don’t want to stifle that part of my personality so that it doesn’t happen on the drums anymore. I hope there’s a way to improve my personality without letting it affect my drumming, so suddenly I don’t become some inside player who is always predictable and careful. I am semi-worried that, if I alter my personality, it will change my playing.
RF: Why do you want to alter your personality?
VC: Self-improvement. Recently, I was thinking about how I was when I was a kid, learning to play. What came out was me, before I tried to copy how a bunch of people played. Then I tried to do what Tony [Williams] did and understand Elvin [Jones], and out of all that came a new me. But before all that, what came out was purely me, with no input from anyone.
RF: What was it?
VC: It was whiter. I had listened to a bunch of Motown records, so I understood time, meter, feel, and all that, but I was also into Buddy [Rich] and chops. It was before I discovered what hipness meant.
RF: What is hipness, Vinnie?
VC: That’s a good question. I don’t think I’ve got the answer to what hip is. To me, [Jack] Dejohnette is still hip. He was hip ten years ago, and he’s hip to me now. I think hip can change. I went into a film date and it said, “Hip funk feel” on the chart. I played what I thought was hip, but it didn’t coincide with the notes that were written for the keyboard player and the bass player. When I played so that my part would mesh with what they played, it was not hip. It was something that would have been hip five years ago. Hipness is transient. You’ve got to change in order to continually be hip. On the other hand, there are things that were hip five years ago that are still hip. Maybe it’s because they were ahead of their time, or maybe they’re just hip. It all depends on your definition of hip, too.
RF: So back to when you were unhip—BH: Before Hip. You’ve said you were blown away by Tony Williams, so how do you take such a strong influence, or several influences, and still remain Vinnie?
VC: I understood where he was coming from, and I was so blown out by it because it opened up a whole new world of rhythmic conceptual understanding. It was textural, musical, rhythmic understanding. Before I tapped into it, I’d been content with being what I was, but now I was no longer content with that. Somehow, over the time of copying it and trying to play that way, it stopped being, “He’s playing like Tony.” Suddenly, I was playing like Vinnie. The grey area was when I stopped playing like Tony and started playing like me. I guess I always played like me, but I was striving to imitate Tony. Once I stopped striving to imitate him, the influence was irreversible. It was imbedded in me. It was going to come out whenever I would hear something musically and react to it in a way where my mind would just know, “Those wide-open triplet flams would be perfect right now; it just so happens that I got those from Tony.” Finally, I stopped thinking, “This is a Tony lick.”
RF: What influence of Tony do you hear in your playing?
VC: Coming out with little surprises. He’s fearless. He’s also moody. He was always such a creative genius to me.
RF: So how did that influence you? I’m sure you didn’t say, “He’s a creative genius, so I think I’ll be one.”
VC: I knew Tony was a creative genius, and I loved the way he played. Somehow I knew I could absorb it, because I could understand it. It’s not like you’re telling yourself that you’re a creative genius who can create that, but you can understand it enough that maybe you can creatively interpret it and have it come out your own way. I could understand Tony intuitively, which is part of the reason I was so knocked out by mm. He hit me on a gut level so hard that I would just crack up listening to the guy. If I couldn’t have understood it like that or have been moved by it, then I might have doubted my own creativity. On one of his earlier records, Spring, he played a solo drum piece called “Echo,” which exhibited so much maturity. He was light years ahead.
RF: Speaking of soloing, I’d like to discuss what you think about when you solo.
VC: I think, overall, I’m just trying to say something based on what has already happened and how it’s affected me emotionally. If it hasn’t affected me, or if it’s affected me in a way that I’m not exactly sure of, or I feel so much has been said by the time it comes to my solo, then it’s no comment.
RF: What do you do when it’s no comment?
VC: If I can’t make a statement off of any thing, I’ll just start from scratch. We’re talking last resort, but overall, I’ll try to work off of what has just affected me. If I have to just play, like at a clinic, usually it’s good to have a few ideas and a sketchy form. It’s going to start, have an “A” section, a “B” section, and a “C.” Sometimes I might have a sketchy form, but I’ll never hit “C.” Once it gets to “B,” it may go somewhere else, which is good. That means that at least I have enough momentum to let my creative flow take over. Or else I may try to draw from the muse—anything. I’ll just try to be blank and let whatever comes out, come out. That, to me, is sometimes scary.
I think there must be others who can relate to the fact that a lot of times it’s hard to just go there blank because it’s scary. Not only is it scary, but it can go against the grain of, “I’ve learned so much; I have to think about something. How can I go out there and think about nothing after I’ve learned my instrument?” That’s what Charlie Parker said, too. You learn all the stuff, and then you just break the rules. It’s scary, but if you can overcome it, who knows? I’m not saying it’s good to do it, necessarily, but I can understand why it is scary. I’ll get all uptight and pressure myself: “What am I going to play?” If I just think, “Who cares? I don’t know what I’m going to play,” I’ll go out there and things will come out. I realize it’s okay. It was there anyway, but I was afraid of the unknown.
RF: That’s where having the arsenal of facility comes in handy, so you can draw from those resources.
VC: Absolutely, if you’ve got the technique. But have you ever noticed that, sometimes, people who don’t have technique just sit down and play? And they may play stuff you would never think of.
RF: That’s back to the BH.
VC: Right, Before Hip, and the illusion of the first time. That whole attitude can keep things fresh.
RF: So how do you go back to BH when you have all this AH—After Hip—stuff in your capabilities?
VC: I can’t speak for everybody, but part of the process may be, “Hey, I need some New Hip: NH.” You can forfeit some of your technique and try something new. It depends on what you need. If you need something so fresh that it means holding the drumsticks like clubs and just bashing, then that’s what you need. If you need something else that all that After Hip stuff is not giving you, it may mean going back. For me, it’s meant going back to a technical approach of how I approached it before I found out what hip was, and being able to execute hip things with the Before Hip technique. Once I found out how to play hip, I thought that the technical approach I had learned was unhip. Now I’m finding out that it’s not necessarily unhip to be technically correct if you can think hip. That’s what I’m going through right now. I had learned this one way, and then I thought the reason I was playing corny was because of the way I approached the drums technically. Now I’m finding out that that’s baloney. That’s part of what has given me a new freshness. Another thing is trying to convince myself, “Don’t be afraid; just let it happen,” and having a new attitude. It’s a combination of things for me. For someone else, it may be different. All of us have our own different revelation points. Sometimes it’s seeing someone who just blows you away. Herbie [Hancock] and I once had a conversation about how, when people get in wrecks or go through certain things, their lives change. That’s how it is in music. That makes me question whether or not the musical person and the person person are different.
RF: I feel that who you are as a person has to come through the music.
VC: So does Billy Cobham. But then again, you could have had the worst disaster of your life but not take it on the bandstand. I saw Steve Gadd play at the Country Club with Chuck Mangione once, while Steve’s wife was in the hospital after something horrible had happened that day. He played unbelievably.
RF: I saw the same show, and he played really emotionally—passionate and full of fire.
VC: It was some of the best drumming I’ve heard in my entire life.
RF: I don’t say it has to affect your technique or your facility, but there might be an emotional fire, which might be the effect of something that happened.
VC: On the other hand, it’s almost horrible to say that he played so well despite that.
RF: No, it’s not.
VC: Why—because he channeled it well?
VC: Okay, I’ll buy that.
RF: I don’t think you can divorce yourself from the music. Who you are, Vinnie, makes you go to Neptune.
VC: I can understand that. I am kind of out there, anyway. Now it makes sense.
RF: You go for stuff that people haven’t heard.
VC: Maybe so, or in a way. I don’t know if I consciously try.
RF: That’s what happened at the PASIC in Los Angeles two years ago.
VC: But all that comes from my influences, too, like Jack [Dejohnette].
RF: What do you hear of Jack’s in your playing?
VC: I’m not going to say I hear a lot of Jack Dejohnette in my playing in general. But when I heard a short segment of the PASIC performance, I thought of Jack, because I heard this velocity of notes being executed on certain sound sources that reminded me of some of Jack’s things. I knew it came from hearing Jack on Live Evil and those records when he was with Miles. I admire that about Jack.
RF: Can you recap what happened at the PASIC in ’85?
VC: Tim [Landers] and I played along with some stuff that we put on tape to play with, and we just took it out. I played really intense.
RF: Why do you think everyone was really blown away?
VC: I really don’t know. Maybe because they just couldn’t figure out where I was coming from.
RF: Why not?
VC: Just because I was playing so much densely packed stuff, and rhythmically, it was pretty hard to decipher.
RF: People want to know how you do things, and you always say, “I just do it.”
VC: It’s really hard for me to explain. I think teaching helps, but that’s different than my explaining it right now, because then I’ve got to deal with the students’ specific problems, their mental blocks, and their talent. I might not be able to explain something to a student, but I can play it and the student might wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that,” because he or she understands it instinctively. Some people just hear things. I remember telling some kid how to subdivide and he understood it, but he didn’t know how he would be able to hear it. I said, “You’re just going to have to play it and think of it this way until you can hear it.” Hopefully, he’ll be able to make the transition from math to music. The whole time that it’s math, the music is in there. You just have to get it out. If you’ve got that ability to hear it, even while it’s math, it’s music. You’re just nurturing it. In our last interview, I remember talking about a guy in Frank’s band who didn’t know what the stuff was, but he could feel it. He just heard it. You didn’t have to tell him about no math. Theory makes it easier for you to communicate that stuff to somebody else or to put it on paper. Your interpretation— your ability to make music with it—is another thing.
RF: So why were you thinking about being a kid?
VC: Because then, I wasn’t going through the hang-ups of my sticks not being comfortable in my hands. I played, I felt comfortable, I executed things in that one way I knew how to do it, and everything was okay. It was easier. I had my one way of playing, and I did it. I remember that when I went to Berklee and heard all these other people, it was, “Gosh, I can’t play that way, but I like what they’re doing and I want to be able to do it. I can’t play that way if I’m technically executing things this way and my ride cymbal is down here . . . .” So I changed. I learned to execute things in order to be hip and conceptually do things. But my pure technique kind of suffered a little bit. And to this day, it’s suffering a little bit. That’s why I want to get back to, not Before Hip, but the comfort that came with BH. I want to be as comfortable with all this After Hip stuff as I was when I only knew that one way of doing it.
RF: Do you have any idea of how to get back to that?
VC: Just by trying to reconstruct my technique a little bit, and making myself believe that there’s a way to find some kind of middle ground and let it apply to everything I play. I’m not so sure that it’s going to physically happen as much as it is just a way of changing my thought a little bit. I don’t even think it’s all that major. I think everybody goes through it at different stages. In order to stay fresh, you have to change how you look at drums and music.
RF: Is there a reason why you do the live work? Is that something you need to do?
VC: I couldn’t just play in the studios all the time. No way. It’s such an artificial environment. When you play live, it’s a continuum. You’re playing. In the studio, you start, stop, start—it’s not even real. But it does give you a whole other mind set, like your time and how to adjust little things that you’re going to hear. Some people still think it’s sterile. The reality of it is, if you go in and play a rock track, you have to slam it just like you do live. The energy difference you’re going to hear on tape somehow comes across. You can hear it. You can’t just go in and say, “I’m going to play light, and it’s going to sound big.” To a certain extent, you can add ambience and reverb on the drums, but when you put that extra however-many percent out, the tape hears it and so does everybody else.
RF: You have to be concerned with pegging that needle at the same place, though,
VC: As far as pegging the needle goes, that’s just recording the stuff real hot and hitting real hard. You want to hit it at the same consistency every time, even when you’re slamming rimshots, or you can hear it. I noticed on tracks where, if I’d just move a little bit, I’d hear a bad snare hit in the playback. I don’t know if that’s because my ears are real discriminatory. The other night I did a track where I said to the engineer, “Do you hear it on beat 4?” He didn’t hear it. I think on playbacks my ears get super critical. Listening is such a weird thing.
RF: I was wondering if that has anything to do with confidence. Although it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, you once said to me that sometimes you listen back to a record you played on and it sucks, and the intimation was that it sucks because you were on it. Is that a basic lack of confidence or general musician paranoia?
VC: I can’t say if it’s general when it’s my own psyche being my own worst enemy. If you’re a perfectionist, you might think it stinks, and someone else might like it. Objectivity can be colored by your psyche. A lot of people who say that kind of stuff, myself included, could be insecure. They could be confident, but there might be something in conflict with that confidence. It’s a psychological thing. My attitude is a little different now. Maybe I’m a little more relaxed about it.
RF: I see a confidence in you that didn’t exist four years ago. Maybe it’s because you’ve done so much more and you’ve begun to trust your instincts.
VC: Let’s face it, there have been some changes in my overall life-style. Since I got married to Darlene, that’s helped shape my mental facility as well.
RF: How so?
VC: In terms of confidence. She’s real confident, so that rubs off on me. It helps me strike a balance, and she keeps me together. Plus, when you feel more stable, you can feel more confident, too.
RF: We started to talk about live playing, and we got sidetracked. What was the Joni Mitchell experience like?
VC: It was great, because it was a small band—real intimate. The monitor mix sounded like the best studio. It was great. All my buddies were playing the gig: Michael Landau, Larry Kline, Russ Ferrante, and me. What a band! Those guys are great.
RF: How did you feel about her album where you mostly dealt with machines?
VC: On Wild Things Run Fast, it wasn’t like that. It was like live, which was great. Dog Eat Dog is the one you’re referring to. I sampled stuff and I played on a few things, and the rest was a Fairlight. She took a different approach. Cutting Wild Things was great, though. There are some things I played that I didn’t like in retrospect, which I wish I could change. I felt like I heard the tempo get funny on one of the tunes. After I did it, I thought, “I know the reason that happened. I was unsure of the tempo. It felt like it wanted to go somewhere else, and I let it happen.”
RF: But everyone else liked it, right?
VC: I know, but to my ears, it sounds horrible.
RF: How free was the Joni situation?
VC: It got pretty free for a while, and then we had to put the brakes on. It started getting too rambunctious. She and Larry mentioned it. By the time we hit Japan, which was the first leg of the gig, we were screaming. Mike and I started playing like it was Van Halen, taking it left. So we pulled back a lot and then came back up where we were still doing it, but we knew where to do it. There was actually a lot of freedom, in that it was real musical. I think it was good that she put the brakes on, we pulled back, and then came back up. It was great. As far as freedom is concerned, I didn’t have to play the same way every night, and it was a great challenge to play sensitive and really take it home—play colors and play grooves. Then there were a bunch of parts for horns and backup singers, and it was like jazz in that respect, but with rock ‘n’ roll money. It was a great musical experiment—one of the best. Then I did a bunch of live playing with Tom Scott for a few tours. I got to blow a lot on that gig, too. It was more like R&B grooves, though. We had some sensitive moments, but it was a different style. I had freedom, and it was a lot of fun. I did his record, too, so it was great.
RF: What about Chaka Khan?
VC: That was different. It was a groove-oriented gig. But it was hip grooves and Jimmy Haslip was on it, so it was great playing with him. We really got to cook. It wasn’t real improvisational or anything, but musically it was great. When I say something about being musical, I mean that you don’t know when something is going to happen spontaneously. Chaka’s thing was more structured, whereas with Joni’s thing, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I knew I was going to play a similar kind of groove, but I could shape and sculpt it more. Chaka’s thing was real funky, and it was great. I love funk.
RF: What about Lee Ritenour?
VC: That’s great, too. It’s structured, but I get to blow. But this is occurring at the time period now where I’m at this crossroads, so I’m not feeling real efficient on that gig a lot of times.
VC: I don’t know why. That’s the head set that I’m in. But Lee’s gig is real musical, and I really like working with him.
RF: Do you feel you’ve fallen short?
VC: Yeah, to me. I’m not satisfied, although it’s my own personal thing.
RF: What would make you satisfied?
VC: Just to feel that I’ve improved and covered some new ground, gone to my limits of creativity, and made a statement instead of playing the same old stuff. I can’t say I’ve been really doing that on Lee’s gig, but once in a while, I feel that. I love playing with him. And playing with Dave Grusin was great. I always wanted to play with him. He’s so musical. He just moved me so much. And so mature—he’s one of the big boys, if you know what I mean. Everything he played was right. Even when he took chances, it was never something that let the music suffer. I have so much respect for that guy. And Dave’s brother Don is fantastic, too. He’s fun to play with. He’s so unpredictable. He’s coming from a different place, too, and it’s real right. He’s a real unique, musical personality. Playing with Lee got me to do some live playing, which kind of put me out there again.
RF: Are there any other playing situations you’ve enjoyed of late?
VC: I’ll tell you one thing that was a big landmark in my life: getting to be on national TV playing with Herbie Hancock and Abe [Laboriel].
RF: Why was that a landmark?
VC: Because, to me, Herbie Hancock is one of the most brilliant genius musicians of all time. He’s always been my favorite. I have so much respect for him musically, That’s one reason. Secondly, to have the public be exposed to that music on such a huge level is amazing. He let all his stuff rip in three minutes. He was blowing some serious stuff, and to see that spontaneity happen and have the public be exposed to it is wonderful. And we were reading!
RF: How did the Joan Rivers show come about for you?
VC: Randy Waldman called me. I thought about it for a while, because I didn’t want to get cookie-stamped into a mold of a TV guy. I thought, “Well, I’ll try it, but if that happens, I’ll cut it loose.” It hasn’t happened.
RF: Usually the more people in a band, the less one person can play, but you do really get to play stuff.
VC: I just do my stuff. I go for it. A lot of people would consider that reckless abandon, but baloney. It’s not reckless, because I know exactly what I’m doing. My attitude may sound reckless, but that’s what gives it the spark it needs. As far as the content goes, I know every little strike of the drums that I’m doing, to the “T.” People say, “You really take your chances. You go out, but it sounds so right.”
RF: What would be the ultimate in a playing situation for you?
VC: Right now, I want to do my own thing.
RF: Which is what?
VC: Something I have control over. I don’t mean I want to be a tyrant, but I would like to see what it’s like to have that kind of creative control. I’m not sure how much music I have in me to go out and do that with, though.
RF: Would that be a lot of drum-oriented stuff?
VC: I don’t think so, necessarily—just music I really love. I love all kinds of music. I like free music, but I don’t like it if it’s so free that it has no structure. That gets boring after a while. It just meanders. It can sound self-indulgent. People play free and do weird things, which has got a nice effect, but after 15 or 20 minutes, it might not grab me anymore. It’s got to go somewhere else. After a while, I’ve got to hear some rhythm or something. I don’t want it to be boring, straight, monotonous stuff either. It’s hard for me to tell you about it, because lately, I haven’t had the time to work on it. The kind of stuff I’ve been playing at my clinics gives you an idea of what I want my music to say, though.
RF: What other goals do you have?
VC: There are a lot of things I’d like to try. I really would like to write some music I’ll be happy with and feel that I made a statement and that I fulfilled some kind of purpose on this planet, musically and as a human being. It might be nice to produce a record, but it would have to be for the right reasons. I think a lot of people just want their identities to shine through as producers, instead of helping nurture the artist and the music.
RF: That’s the difference between a good studio player and just a player.
VC: If I thought there were artists I could nurture, great.
RF: To help them make their statement.
VC: Exactly. I want to see if I can do the writing and be an artist, too, and be able to have that creative expression and nurture it. I just want to always feel fresh and not get tired of things. I want to stay healthy enough to do it, too. Those are musical goals. As for personal goals, I hope Darlene and I can always stay happy and healthy, and that life treats us good.
by Vinnie Colaiuta
The Rivers show set is just a bunch of spare drums I had to dig up because I had to leave something at the show. Once I started to throw them together, I began to really like it. They speak well because they’re small, they’re pretty easy to tune, and the engineer gets a good sound on them. I use a 22 x 14 bass drum and a 5 1/2X 14 Yamaha brass-shell snare. I use 8×8 and 10×8 rack toms, and a 14 x 14 floor tom. I use clear Remo Ambassadors, top and bottom, on the tom-toms. I have one Ambassador on the bass drum. On the snare drum, I use a Diplomat clear on the bottom and a coated Ambassador on top with a real thin Richie Ring to muffle it. I put a blanket in the kick drum, but play everything else wide open.
For cymbals I’m using a 20″ ride, although I’m going to get a smaller one. I’m using an 8″ splash, 16″ and 14″ paper-thin crash cymbals, a 14″ swish, and old 14″ New Beats on the left and 13″ K’s on a remote hi-hat on the right.
For live work and recording, I have a whole kit of power toms that I usually use, because they’re real round sounding and they have a good resonance. They have a 22 x 16 kick, 10″ and 12″ rack toms, and on the floors I’ll either use a 13″ and a 15″ or a 14″ and a 15″ on a stand. That gives it a different sound. Personally, I’ve never seen anyone mount those sizes of drums on legs I started using the drums on a stand a few years back when I saw Gadd do it. I thought that, if I mounted them on RIMS, they would resonate more. Then I use a 5 1/2″ chrome snare. The cymbals I usually use are a 22″ K heavy ride, 17 and 15″ K Brilliant dark crashes, and 13″ Quick Beats.
I usually alternate between two kits for recording. It depends on the session and what drums I have available. If I have a television session in the morning and a record date in the afternoon, I’ll probably take the power tubs to the record date, because they’re able to deliver a real contemporary tom sound. The smaller set has a tighter, punchier sound, as opposed to a more resonant sound. Depending on how they’re miked, you can get a smaller set to sound pretty big. They have a purer, more fundamental tone. I’ll usually use the smaller set for live playing. I’ve been using the DW double pedal and the double hi-hat. The set is a 22 x 14 kick drum, 10×8 and 12×8 rack toms, and usually 13″ and 14″ or 14″ and 15″ floor toms.
I’ve got various snare drums, including 5 1/2″ and 6 1/2″ chromes, an 8″ wood, a 6 1/2″ wood and a 5″ wood, plus an old, old piccolo snare drum that I got on my birthday from Darlene. I use it on dates sometimes. It really barks. The 5 1/2″ chrome drum is pretty versatile, and I can use that on a wide variety of things. If they want a deeper sound, I’ll go for a deeper drum if I can’t get out of that drum. For a real bright sound, I’ll usually go for a chrome or bras drum. For a warmer sound, I’ll go for a thicker wood drum that doesn’t have sharp bearing edges and doesn’t have a lot of lacquer on the inside of the drum. It depends on what fits the tune and what fits the drumset. I might have the drums sounding great, but by the time I go through five snare drums, I have to tweak the rest of the drums to readjust them to the snare drum. It’s a matter of adjusting the snare drum to the drums and the drums to the tune.
With the smaller kit, I’ll use different cymbals. I’ll usually use a 20″ K ride, and the hi-hats are up for grabs. They could be 13″ K’s, 14″ Platinum Quick Beats, or 13″ Platinum Quick Beats. Maybe I’ll use a 20″ Platinum ride, 18″ and 16″ thin Platinum crashes, or an 18″ K crash-ride and a 16″ K crash. For live stuff, I’ll always try to have a China on hand. I’ll take whatever electronics they want in the studio, but I haven’t used much live. If I’m somewhere where I can get heads and tune my drums properly, I’d much rather use an acoustic drum. Acoustic drums are much more user-friendly anyway.