I’ve always had a soft spot for Canada. In fact, my office looks like the Canadian Embassy with pictures of the Rue de la Montagne in Montreal, aerial views of Vancouver, and the Canadian Rockies plastered all over the walls. Some of my favorite musicians are Canadian: The McGarrigle Sisters, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Cockburn. Cockburn’s music was introduced to me by Rob Witter, proprietor of Kropotkin Records. Often I’d walk in the shop and hear music coming from the record player. “Hey, that music sounds great. Who is that?” Or, “Man, that’s a nice song. Who is that?” Or, “Boy, that guy’s a good guitarist. Who is that?” Rob would always say, “Bruce Cockburn.” Many U.S. residents first knew him by his hit single, “Wonder Where The Lions Are,” back around 1980.
So, it was an exciting day when a letter came from the southern part of the U.S. from a reader who asked, ” Why don’t you interview Bruce Cockburn’s drummer, Bob DiSalle?” I picked up the newest album, In The Falling Darkness, and Bob DiSalle was playing fantastic drums.
I found out that Bob has an exciting career up in Canada. He’s a busy studio drummer, he’s gigging with several bands and/or artists in addition to Bruce Cockburn, and he’s consistently exploring new ways to do old things. So, several months ago we taped this interview. I did the next best thing to being in Canada. I leaned back in the office chair and looked at the Rue de la Montagne, Vancouver, and the Canadian Rockies, while we let the tape roll and captured the Bob DiSalle story.
BD: There was a fair amount of non-professional music in my family. My dad played, and still plays, sax and clarinet on weekends. My brothers play as well—one professionally and two not. We always were in bands. I guess if there would be any one thing that made me decide to become professional, it would be that The Beatles came along. That made it a little more glamorous and a little more realistic. All of a sudden these four people brought it to the world’s attention that young people could do well just playing music; that music was a possibility. It wasn’t just something that you did for a while and then you went to school and got “serious” about things. I just followed through.
SF: Had you ever considered a career other than music?
BD: Nothing seriously. I never even considered music seriously! I came to Toronto when I decided to seriously play professionally. Shortly after I moved here, the band I came here to join broke up. Another band was formed and then it broke up and everybody went their separate ways. This was 1970-’71. When that last band broke up that was one of the toughest times. At that point, after doing some touring and playing the bars, I was really trying to decide if it was really worth it. My decision was to go ahead with it and to get back into some studying. I found a teacher and began to lead a band. We got a bunch of musicians together and started to work enough from week to week to make enough money to stay alive.
SF: Had you studied with any teachers before that?
BD: No. In Sudbury—my hometown— my Dad was a member of the Caruso Club. They had a concert band that I played snare drum for marches and Christmas carols for a few years. It was a fairly big band; about thirty pieces. I did that to try to learn to read.
After I left that I decided I wasn’t interested in music technically anymore. I played with groups and worked on my own. I bought the Ludwig book Modern Jazz Drumming and did some work with that. I got my Dad to help me in reading to where I could understand musical notation, enough that I could work things out. If I had a problem, I could subdivide the notes and figure out where I was going.
When I moved to Toronto I just played in rock bands, goofed off and had a good time. It took me about two and a half years before I realized that I was going to put a band together and decided, “You’re going to do it. You’ve got to do it.” That’s when I started to find some teachers. The first teacher was RUSS Fearon, a local musician I studied with for four or five months to get my reading back together and to build confidence more than anything else.
Then I studied with Pete Magadini for about eight months. When Peter decided to go back down to San Francisco, he did me a really nice favor. He knew this fellow that was coming to Toronto and said that he was a good teacher and if I wanted he would speak to him and see if he could get me in. It turned out to be Marty Morrell who was with Bill Evans at the time. I had just seen Marty at a club in Toronto, Bourbon Street. I was just totally destroyed by the band. They were so good. It was Eddie Gomez, Marty and Bill Evans.
I studied with Marty about five months. Marty said, “Throw all the books away. Get into a lot of playing and hanging out.” I would go over to his place and play the drums for an hour and he’d play, on piano, Latin music, some jazz and different feels. He was very constructive in his criticism. He would hardly ever say anything while we were playing. At the end of the hour, Marty would say, “Do you recall when we went into this type of feel? You might consider trying to do this sort of thing.” He dealt basically with the feel for the music. He also got me into some conga things. He was telling me to go out and do as much playing as I could, and as little practicing at home as I could, although you’ve got to do both.
Then I studied with Jim Blackley about a year later at a time when I really needed some direction. He was a great teacher.
SF: You never felt a conflict between playing rock and jazz?
BD: From time to time I did. At that time I was playing rock and roll and getting involved in jazz. Fortunately for me we had a keyboard player in the band named Jon Goldsmith. He was very influential in my playing.
Working with the whole band, but especially the keyboard player, really helps a drummer’s independence (following a pianist’s left hand), and being aware of the melody and following chord changes, especially if the keyboard player is rhythmical and percussive.
Jon and a friend of his, Kerry Crawford, started doing jingles in Montreal and Toronto and we put a band together called China. It was the ideal concept for a band. No matter what anybody else did during the day we would get together three or four nights a week and work with the fake books, pull tunes out and play them. If we made mistakes, we made mistakes. Nobody worried about it. The idea was that the band would eventually try to get work. We got into a lot of original material, some remarkable writing. The writing was way ahead of what the band could actually perform. We didn’t work very often, but we made some recordings for ourselves. The band was basically a study band. We would try to stay alive by playing the jingles, stay in town, and not do a lot of traveling.
SF: At that time, what drummers were most influential to you?
BD: That was about five or six years ago. One of my favorite players at that time was Eric Gravatt.
SF: Was this when he was with Weather Report?
BD: Yeah. His approach to the time. I liked Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Charlie Watts, Ringo and all the drummers that go way back, but Gravatt got to me with his style. Listening to drummers like that really helped. I also got involved with piano lessons for a year and a half. That was very helpful. I had to stop because I got pretty busy and our first son, David, was born. There was nowhere to practice piano in the house without waking the baby all the time! When the baby got to be about six or seven months old and could start sleeping through some noise, I decided to go back for another six months.
When I was studying piano, I’d spend five hours a day at it and still not go to my lesson prepared! It was a whole new trip trying to learn what to do with ten fingers. But, what was really a help for me was that I could memorize the tunes—mainly because I had to play them almost 4000 times before I’d understand what was going on. By learning them very slowly and trying to learn them right the first time, I would hear the melody and I’d be able to sing it. Then I’d be able to play the notes. I bought a bunch of composition books and I’d still really like to get more into that. I’ve played guitar for about fifteen years for fun. I learned a lot of chords from my brothers. I could never sit in with a band. I’d really like to be able to compose at the piano. I’d like to come up with a concept for a song and be able, for example, to call four or five players and write for horns in the right keys, and know where to write for certain instruments; what works for this and that. Like, “How many strings in a section?” Just a basic understanding of what everybody else is doing. I’d like to study music that has been done in other cultures as well as North American jazz.
SF: Do you do much studio drumming when you’re not with Bruce Cockburn?
BD: A fair amount. I’ve done some CBC documentaries, some things for CBC television shows and worked with local artists like Jackson Hawke, Lisa DelBello, Kathryn Moses and Bruce. But, I’ve done about twenty-two albums. I’ve played on a lot of jingles over the last four years and it’s been a great experience getting a really tight rhythm section together with piano, bass and drums, as well as being on a lot of sessions where there are big bands. I’ve been on a few things where there’s like a thirty-three piece orchestra which is really frightening. They scared the hell out of me, but I managed to get through. I look forward to doing that, although I feel more comfortable with smaller situations with people that I’ve worked with before.
There’s a certain understanding that comes with doing orchestra dates. I guess the first time you do anything, you’re terrified because it’s a group of new people, and if you’re a section player in the strings, horns or woodwinds, not that it’s an easy out, but if you miss a note or two, there are three or four other people there to possibly cover you up. But if you’re the keyboard player, bass player, or the drummer, if you blow it you’ve got forty people in the studio looking at you! I’m speaking for myself. Instead of attention being focused on the music—which it should always be and will be the more you do those kind of things—your attention is focused on not making a mistake. Only by doing a lot of that can you get to the point where you can feel comfortable and confident.
SF: I’d always heard the mark of studio players was that they could be handed a sheet of music, and no matter how difficult the writing was, they could just play it the first time like they’d been playing it for ten years. That’s a pretty intimidating concept.
BD: I learned a lot about reading from the string players. They play the classics all the time in the Toronto Symphony and what they come across for reading is so difficult on a day to day basis, that when they get in to do the jingles it’s very rare that any jingle writing gets complicated enough that it would bother them. The Armin String Quartet is a group that works here in the city. One of them was playing in the studio, not reading the chart or anything. There wasn’t one there. The guy in the control room was saying, “Well, could you play us a little bit of the chart so that we could get a sound on you.” And he said, “Well, I don’t have one. Just a minute…here it is.” The arranger went by and gave him a copy and he just put it down on the music stand and played it! Just like that. He didn’t even take time to glance at it to see what the meters were or anything. He just sat down and played it. I don’t know if it was perfect, but it certainly sounded good to me. Had I been in the control room, I would’ve said, “That’s a take.”
SF: What exactly did you learn from the string players?
BD: Their discipline. When they’re in the studio they have an understanding of what’s required of them and they sit down and they do it. They know their axes. That’s the trick. I’d like to get into learning much more about drums and much more about music. They know their instruments inside out and backwards. I aspire to that, to try and learn to treat my instrument, perhaps, the way that they do.
SF: I have a theory that drummers who concentrate to a very large degree on developing great reading chops almost inevitably sound stiff when they have to improvise a part.
BD: True, yeah. But it’s a marriage of everything that you have to achieve, right? To be able to see a page full of black notes in somebody’s script or handwritten music and to not be terrified by the music. That’s what I’m saying. To approach it where you study it and try to learn as much as you can from it, without being caught up in the technical aspect of it. I read somewhere where they were talking about drummers being able to go from total freedom to total discipline and then back to total freedom. Both of those steps are incredibly difficult because if you just play to have fun it’s really hard to sit down and spend the time to try and learn something about your instrument. When you do get into that it seems like you wind up being totally preoccupied with the academic view of it, which is really a trap. When you’ve really disciplined yourself, enough to where you feel comfortable reading for and playing your instrument, then you’ve got to try to get that total freedom again, so you don’t make the listener feel like you’re playing it note for note.
SF: What were the circumstances that led to your landing the gig with Bruce Cockburn?
BD: At that time I was working with China. We had a gig down at George’s, one of the jazz clubs in the city. I believe Bruce had hired another drummer for the recording. At the last minute something didn’t work out and I knew Gene Martynec, the producer of the album. He brought Bruce down to the club. Bruce was looking for somebody that was split right down the middle, between playing rock and jazz. He liked the band and he liked my playing, I guess, and the next day Gene called and asked if I was free to record with them. I said, “Yeah.” That was in ’76. I did that album with Bruce and I was terrified. Kathryn Moses was on that session and a really fine bass player, Michel Denato, who’s now in Montreal. Just to be in that company was a jump from the regular thing I’d been doing.
I started doing some tours with Bruce and we got along really well. That’s one of the nicest things about working in Bruce’s band—the chemistry of the people has always been right. If you’ve been on the road, you know what it can get like if people can’t get along, or if they can’t work things out.
Everything started to work for Bruce when the reggae single came out, “Wonder Where The Lions Are.” I didn’t play on that single, but I played on the album and that single really opened a lot of doors for Bruce. Although we’d done Canadian tours, the touring really intensified after that and we went to England and Italy. We did one U.S. tour that touched most of the North and Midwest and the East Coast. Then we came back and did another Canadian tour coast to coast, and then back to the States. That was a six-week tour. The response was really good. People knew Bruce. Although he was opening new territory, he had enough of a following that would come out and be very receptive.
SF: Do you think a band could subsist in Canada if they never wanted to leave that country?
BD: Yeah, they could exist but it’s the age old story of how long do bands stay together? There are exceptions to that. Groups do hang out long enough to make it. But, it’s just not the same here. If you’re going to do it you should go to where it’s really happening, if you want to make it as a band. And I mean if you want to make it; you don’t just want to play, make some records and make a little bit of money. If you want to make it, then you go to where the Mecca is. And in Canada I guess the Mecca would be Toronto. If you lived in Canada and you didn’t want to go to the United States you could come to Toronto first and try to get some experience playing in clubs, and doing some recording. I’d say the next thing would be to move to the States or to try to influence people that were down there, whether you moved there or not. I think Bruce is a good example. He had a following in the States, but it didn’t really break big until he’d recorded, I think, eight albums. Eight or nine albums that he’d already done in Canada. What opened doors for him was the fact that “Lions” did well in the States. Not so much that it did well here.
SF: Has the band ever considered moving to the States?
BD: As a band we don’t think that way. Basically it’s Bruce’s band. I’ve never assumed from one album to the next that I would be the one to play on it. Bruce is faithful to the people he works with. A lot of people will use musicians to tour with, but when it comes time to go into the studio they’ll hire other people. Bruce has allowed the musicians in the band to mature by doing the touring. Then when we go into the studio it’s not the technical thing that seems to be the main priority—it’s the feel that comes behind the music. We’re not just playing the music. We enjoy it.
SF: So you have no contract with Bruce?
BD: No, it’s never been that and it’s been an ideal situation for me; a really good working situation. We’ve been a good touring band and we’ve always come back to Toronto and we’ve been a part of the albums as well. That’s the icing on the cake. I’ve gained a lot of experience from doing that. I’ve played on other albums but I’ve never had the opportunity to have that really relaxed feeling in the studio. We usually take one week. We do maybe four days of sessions and then we go in and record the bed tracks. Bruce usually knows pretty well everything he wants on it, but he’ll take maybe a month putting all the overdubs on and mixing it. But, usually a month after the first day we go into the studio, the album is complete.
Bruce is not only a fine singer/songwriter—he’s an excellent guitar player. So, it’s never been, “Here’s my song. You guys take it and I’ll play chords behind it.” Bruce knows what’s going on with everybody’s instrument all the time. He doesn’t crowd people. He lets you feel free.
SF: So, you’ve got a free reign as to what you’re going to play in the tunes.
BD: Yeah. Then if there’s something that he doesn’t like, he doesn’t hesitate to speak up. Everybody has the freedom to basically do what they want. I’m really into the lyric, so I try to judge—partially anyway—what I’m going to play on drums just by the mood a lyric would set for the tune.
SF: I noticed on the last album that a lot of the drum parts were played in unison with the vocal line.
BD: I try to do that without getting in the way. That’s hard to do sometimes because of the way Bruce writes. There have been times in the past where I’ll often get in the way of where the lyrics are falling. I’m just starting to feel comfortable with that now.
SF: Did you have to change your style when you started playing with Bruce?
BD: I don’t think I changed the style so much as I developed one.
SF: It seems that many people would look at being the drummer in Bruce Cockburn’s band as a final goal. You don’t seem to have that attitude because you’re not even planning on being on the next tour or record. How do you manage your life around that insecurity?
BD: Well, I don’t plan too much. In the music business you can’t assume anything. By using that attitude I’ve saved myself a lot of grief or heartache over things that would go wrong.
If you don’t count on things you don’t get let down. One of the things I always go back to—when I started playing with Bruce I was thinking that what was most important of all wasn’t making money at the time. It was trying to play with the best people that I could. I mean that two ways: people with good attitudes, and good musicians. That’s what I look for. I’ve been fortunate to play in Bruce’s band and with the musicians that have been in that group. I don’t think the thing with Bruce will, or can, last forever. It’s got to end sometime and I’m prepared for that. I’ve got other things that I do. That’s why the situation with Bruce has worked out. Some artists say, “You can’t do anything else because you’re working with me.” Bruce would call when he needed me and in the meantime, whatever I’m doing in Toronto, I do! So, I have my jingle thing happening and that’s working out for me. I work with a group called Edward, Harding & McLean. They play the clubs around Toronto, and just released a new album that’s the second one I play on with them. I record with other people as well and that seems to get me by. Then when work with Bruce happens, that’s extra for me. That’s been the nicest thing that’s happened in my career so far.
SF: So, you stay diversified to protect yourself.
BD: Yeah. I try to do that. Two friends, Memo Acevedo and Gary Morgan and I put together a sixteen-piece Latin band here called Band Brava. For about two years I got totally immersed in Latin music from guaguanco to merengue—all the rhythms that you play on jobbing gigs but never get a chance to really learn what they’re about. The percussionists were from Kali, Bogota, and Uruguay. I learned a lot from them. My attitude all along has been: If you’re going to play your instrument you should always try to learn as much as you can about it. If you’ve got that together and consider that the most important thing, then usually other things start to work.
There are a lot of things involved with playing drums; far more than just being technically proficient. Sometimes it’s hard to sit back and just play 2 and 4 and just stay out of things. Stay out of everybody’s way and play in the pocket so that as soon as the time is counted in, the song just sits there.
SF: Did you have to add on to your original drumset because of sounds you needed for Bruce’s music?
BD: When I first started working with Bruce, although I didn’t add to the drumkit, I bought African drums and things like that to use on the recordings. Recently, I bought a new set of Pearls. I’ve gotten used to those: A 22″ bass, and 10″, 12″, 13″, 14″ mounted toms and a 16″ on the floor. But, I can’t play all those toms up there because my cymbals are too far away. So, I moved them all over one space and got rid of the floor toms. So, I use the 22″ bass with the 10″ and the 12″ over the bass drum, and then the 13″ and the 14″ mounted on a stand on the floor.
When I got into jingles, a lot of times they would ask for more of a variety of sounds. So, a few years ago I added concert toms to the set. They’re 6″, 8″, 10″, 12″, 13″, and 14″. I mount the 6″ and 8″ just above the 10″ and 12″ and then the 13″ and 14″ are on the floor. Some people have four or five toms in front of them but I can’t get to my cymbals when I do that.
SF: What’s your cymbal set-up?
BD: I use different ones depending on the situation. With Bruce, onstage to my left I set up a Paiste China-type cymbal, but it’s set flat through the top post of the cymbal stand. All the rest are Zildjians. On the stand itself is a 16″ crash. Then I have an 18″ on my left which is a medium ride. I have a 20″ ride cymbal. My hi-hats are 15″. On my right I have a heavy sizzle cymbal that’s set up the same as the China cymbal. On top of that cymbal stand I have another 16″ crash. Between the toms I can set up a little splash cymbal. But, that’s not regular for me. I’m most comfortable with the hihat set up, a crash on the left, a ride, the sizzle and a crash on the right. I always like the flat sizzle cymbal because whether it’s jingles, jobbing gigs or whatever—to get any kind of sustain sound with brushes, I always like to have the sizzle there.
SF: Have you worked a lot on brush technique?
BD: Not formally. My Dad always used to tell me, “If you want to be a drummer you’ve got to be as good with the brushes as you are with the sticks.” I always played the brushes and I’ve always liked them. Marty Morrell and Pete Magadini showed me some very nice brush techniques.
I sometimes use brushes even on fairly loud tunes when the drums are miked. I like the sound they get. If they’re properly miked onstage or in the studio, they can give a really nice effect.
SF: Do you prefer different drumheads for different situations?
BD: I’ve always used Remo Ambassador heads more than anything. I used them on Bruce’s newest album and I always play double-headed drums. For the last tour I bought some Pinstripe heads for playing harder on stage and they last longer. The sound is a little more dead than the Ambassadors, so I put Diplomat heads on the bottom.
In the studio I use that combination of heads and my drums are all different sizes. I’ve a really old Gretsch kit with just 12″, 13″, and 16″ toms and a 22″ bass. I use them in the clubs a lot and I put the Remo heads on them. Then I’ve got a small little Gretsch kit with an 18″ bass; a maple kit that I use with the concert toms. I use the Pearl kit onstage with Bruce. I used that little Gretsch kit on every one of Bruce’s albums except the last one, where I used the Pearl drums. I tune all my drums really loose. Small drums cut well when you tune them down and use very little dampening—just on the top head, a little bit of tape or kleenex. Whether that works or not I don’t know, but it pleases me! The bigger the drum, the more you get that really heavy bottom end. Onstage you get so much overtone that they can’t EQ the drums properly.
SF: Do you still practice?
BD: I practice a little bit every few days. I can’t really bang with the new baby in the house. I find some of the columns in MD—like David Garibaldi’s material—very useful, or sometimes I’ll buy four or five albums and just do some listening. But, I don’t really have any consistent direction for practicing. On this last tour, after the sound checks, I’d hang around and practice rudiments really slow on my Gladstone pad. I found it helped me and really got me in touch with my hands. I just did a whole turnaround and really started concentrating on that more than anything. I tried to spend some more time looking at music and doing some playing.
But, as far as rehearsals at home—this is the first time I’ve been home this long. I’m getting used to our new son and house and I’m relaxing. It’s really hard because my newest son, Steven, was born when the band was in Raleigh, North Carolina on tour. I still had almost two weeks of the tour to go before I could go home. Talk about feeling useless, totally useless. There’s nothing you can do. Fortunately the baby came really quick and my wife didn’t have any problem getting to and from the hospital. Family was here to help her out.
When I was studying with Jim Blackley, I remember telling him, “I’m really confused. I’m working really hard. I don’t think I’m a great player, but I think I’m good enough to work and do more than I am now. I’m barely getting by and I just wish that things would happen.” My wife and I were talking about starting a family and wanting to buy a house—just the things in your private life that you want to keep together. Jim said, “Just keep working and don’t worry about it. Take the weight off yourself. Just play. Put half your efforts into the music and with the other half, keep your private life together and keep yourself together.” I’d walk away from my lesson feeling like there wasn’t any weight there and that sooner or later things would work out. It just seemed that shortly after I adopted that attitude of relaxing and letting things go the way they would, things started to work out. That’s when I started working with Bruce. I started to get more work around town. The jingle thing started happening. My wife and I got our family started. We bought a house last year and we’ve got another little addition in the family. Things—privately and musically—seems to be working towards where I would like them to be.
SF: It sounds like your wife has been supportive of you all along.
BD: Yeah. That’s an important part of everything as well. When my wife was teaching, she was supporting me and there would always be money there to go to my lesson as long as I wanted to study. We would work that out as part of the budget. She worked for twelve years. We’ve been married for ten. With the birth of our second son she’s just now taken some time off. Now it’s my turn to try to keep things going. But if it wasn’t for her support and attitude—which has been very much a part of everything for my career—I can’t say I wouldn’t be here today but there’s a good chance I might not.
When I read Jim Keltner’s interview, it was really refreshing to hear somebody talk as a human being as opposed to being a “drummer.” You’re that before you’re anything else. You may be a really hot player but you’re a person first. It seemed to me that Jim has tried to be as realistic with himself as possible. Like when he’d see Buddy Rich or Elvin Jones play and think, “I’ll never play like that.” Not that he was saying it as a personal putdown—but just saying, “Maybe I’m not that aggressive to pursue that style of playing.” Because you play what you are. That’s really important. That’s what makes every musician unique. Basically, no two people should play the same because no two people are the same. Unless you make a study of picking up somebody’s licks to the nth degree.
SF: Which is the same as doing nothing.
BD: I don’t claim for a moment to be innocent of that because I must admit I’m a thief myself! If I like someone’s playing I try to sit down and understand what they’re doing and how to execute it. I mentioned earlier that I like Steve Gadd. I like Jeff Porcaro’s playing a lot, also Jack DeJohnette and Bernard Purdie. If I could play time the way Bernard Purdie plays time…! And I love Jim Keltner’s playing, especially on Ry Cooder’s albums. I don’t know if this is a good analogy but it’s the only thing I could think of. When you listen to Jim Keltner play on Ry Cooder’s albums it’s almost as if you pulled somebody off the street who had no idea of how to play the drums, but had excellent time and musical sense, and you just said to him, “Here are some sticks,” and just let him play. Jim doesn’t sit down and play a really rigid groove. The groove is there, it’s definitely there, but it’s not like he pinpoints a certain thing. He plays all around it while always staying within the context of the song. On one sixteenth note there’s the bell of a cymbal, and there’s a little ruff on the snare, and then a sloppy little tom-tom fill that just fits perfectly, and then space. It’s just his attitude towards playing. But try to play like that! That’s what I mean about the freedom thing. It’s like you want to get to the point where you don’t feel like you’re being pressured into a certain type of playing; that you can sit back and play anything, as long as it’s within the context of the song, hopefully. But, not that you’ll feel pressured that somebody will listen and say, “Oh wow, man. That guy’s got terrible chops. Look how sloppy he is.” To be able to overlook what your peers or anybody will say about what you do. Just to be able to say, “Hey! This is the way I play! This is the way I feel this tune and this is the kind of goove I want to put to it.”