On The Road With Billy Joel

 

Liberty DeVitto’s personality reflects a man who is seemingly unaffected by his tremendous success. Working his way from playing weddings on Long Island up to touring all over the world as Billy Joel’s drummer, De Vitto keeps a low-keyed attitude about his ability as one of rock’s most prestigious drummers. In addition to recording and touring with contemporary music’s “hottest act,” Liberty has recorded with Phoebe Snow, Karen Carpenter, and Melanie, just to list a few.

DeVitto is also proving his talents as a composer. While recording Melanie’s album at Long View Farms Recording Studio, Peter Schekeryk, Melanie’s producer/husband told Liberty he wanted her to record a country tune for the next album. Liberty played a song he had written, and Peter and Melanie decided to include DeVitto’s song “Foolin” Yourself. “

Liberty lives in Massapequa, New York, with his wife Susan and their daughter Devon. When he finds time from his busy schedule, Liberty enjoys riding his Marley Davidson, which was a present from Billy Joel.

 

Cl: How did you hook up with Billy Joel?

LD: Me, Russell Jarvis and Doug Steigmeyer were playing on Long Island. Billy, at the time, was in California. He’d just finished his Street Life Serenade album. When Billy did the Street Life tour, Doug played bass for him. When Doug used to come home we would play local gigs together out on Long Island. So Billy decided to move back to New York and he wanted to do a new album with a New York band. He fired his whole band and just kept Doug. Doug came back to New York with him and Doug told him about me. Me, Doug and Billy did all of Turnstiles by ourselves. We needed guitar players to overdub so we got Russell. That’s how the whole thing started rolling. We’ve been through a million guitar players, but now we have Russell and David Brown permanently. We have used Steve Kahn, Hiriam Bullock, and Hugh McCracken on the road.

Cl: What drummers do you enjoy listening to?

LD: I’m not a jazz drummer at all. I see a lot of guys in Modern Drummer who are jazz guys and they always talk about the sixteenth rudiment on the ride cymbal in five zip time. I don’t know any of that stuff. I just like rock and roll drums. When I was growing up it was Beatle time, so Ringo Starr was one of my biggest influences. He never did a drum solo; he just played a song. I like playing a song the best. Jim Capaldi from Traffic was a drummer I enjoyed listening to. Now I love Gadd. Joe Morello was always one of my favorite jazz drummers though. I don’t like drum solos. There aren’t too many creative drum solos that start from down here and then build themselves up. But Joe Morello did a solo on a Dave Brubeck album called Time Further Out. The cut was “Far More Drums.” It’s in 5/4 time, and it builds into this great thing where he gets to a point that makes you wonder what more could he possibly do, and he keeps going and going.

Cl: And he only used a four-piece set. Quite small in comparison to some of the extensive drum kits I see being used today.

LD: Right, he had this little set! He is really a melodic drummer. I just saw him endorsing some gadget in an ad in a musician’s magazine. There was a cup or something inside the drum shell, so that when you played in that area it changed the tonality. There are so many gadgets, nobody’s playing just the drums anymore. It’s like recording techniques. Nobody’s playing rock and roll like they used to, with one microphone to mike the drums. Now there’s a million mic’s and stuff.

Cl: In the studio there is such a wide variety of special effects and outboard equipment that is being used to alter the sound of the drums. Most of it sounds great, but it’s very rare that you get the true sound of the drum on tape. The player is no longer in control of his instrument’s sound.

LD: What did they do? Did they forget it, or forget how to do it? Or is it offensive to the ear of someone listening on the radio? On those old Elvis Presley records, the snare drum was tight and snapping. Now they put tons of tape on it and it sounds like a box.

Cl: When you go into the studio, are the tunes already rehearsed, or is it more casual than that?

LD: In the studio, usually it’s me, Doug and the guitar player with Phil Ramone. Now if Billy’s going to have ten songs on the album, he might have written five. So we go through these five tunes, and we play them just to get them on tape. Then we go back in the studio and talk about the five things we just did. Then Phil Ramone and Billy will select one of the tunes to do tomorrow. We take a tape home and listen to the tune we’re going to do when we get in the studio. Then we sit down in the studio and the thing just starts to build from there. Like “Just The Way You Are,” Billy had written it and we started to do it live. It sounded like a Stevie Wonder type song, you know, with the hi-hat and bass drum. We couldn’t do that. That kind of thing had been done already. So to make that drum beat, I remember Phil telling me, “Just pick up a brush and a stick and see what happens.” I could see Phil through the glass in the control room making a motion as if to say, “Hit it now!” So between the two of us, we came up with that beat using the brush with the right hand. It’s actually the guitar that’s making the song flow.

Cl: Many people do that tune, from major recording artists to groups that play weddings. But every time I have heard that song played, the rhythm was never quite the same as the record you played on.

LD: I know what you mean. See, they try to make the drums create the groove. It’s not just the drums, it’s the guitars too. The guitars are playing the rhythm in the background and that is making the pulse of the song.

Cl: How long does it usually take you to get the drum sounds when you go into the studio to lay down the basic tracks?

LD: You hear about guys getting drum sounds by working eight hours. With Jim Boyer, the engineer, if I’m sitting behind the drums for fifteen minutes it’s a long time to get a drum sound. He knows me; he knows the room. Why should it take so long?

Cl: Do you have anything to say when it comes down to the final mix of the drums? Do you sit in on that part of the session?

LD: We sit in and we all listen to it. Phil likes help from everyone else, but he does such a great job, that’s it.

Cl: Do you ever get involved with the miking of your drums during live performances?

LD: No. The places we play are so big that if it wasn’t for Brian Ruggles who works the board, no one would hear what I was doing. He takes care of all that. I’ve heard some drummers, and their sound engineer is so bad. The drummers will play this really fast stuff and you can’t hear it. It gets lost. Brian will tell me if I play something that’s really fast. On “Fantasy,” for instance, Brian said, “You’re wasting your energy. It can’t be heard.” The sound just gets lost. So my style has reached a point where everything is precise. It has to be very definite so it will carry to the person in the back row. And Brian has it miked that way, and he gets the sound of the drum so the person in the back row can hear it. When a drummer is playing a strong straight beat on the cymbal, and the other hand is dragging little beats across the snare drum head, all those little things are nice on a record but you’ll never hear them in a big colliseum. I like to learn the lyrics of a song I’m playing. It helps me accent certain parts of the music. The hardest gig I ever did was playing with Bob James because it was instrumental. I don’t read music so I learn the words to a song and when the vocalist is singing it, I know what the next part is. With Bob there were no words, but it went well.

CI: Do you get the chance to practice much now?

LD: Not a whole lot. A long time ago, a friend of mine, who was Billy’s old drummer, started working in the office of Home Run when the band started to take off. And I found we were playing less and less. He said, “You’ll see that the bigger you get, the less you are going to play.” We used to go on the road for nine months out of the year. We used to play Manhattan College one day, then it was upstate Rochester, then it was down to Trenton, New Jersey, and Newark. Now you play the Garden, and then you go to Cleveland. So you don’t play as much. But I get a lot of studio gigs.

CI: When you were on the road nine months out of the year, how did you deal with that?

LD: Well, we were a lot younger than we are now and I was single. We used to drive around in Pinto station wagons from town to town. Unbelievable—five guys in a car stopping at McDonalds. The car stunk of McDonald’s French fries. Now it’s really easy flying everywhere.

CI: Did you ever think it would get this big?

LD: It’s nothing like I thought it would be when I was sitting in high school saying, “I want to be a big star drummer someday.”

CI: What is different from what you imagined?

LD: You feel like you have accomplished a lot. But I thought when I was in high school that once you made it, that was it. I never dreamed of what would come after it. It’s like you still want to do more. You always want to keep going. You’re always working on new things and trying to get new sounds. And it is hard to stay on top. Once you’re there, it’s harder to stay there than it is to get there. I mean, Billy could be gone tomorrow. The next album could bomb, after selling so many records.

CI: Would you agree that after an artist has reached the stature of a Billy Joel, you are guaranteed X amount of record sales?

LD: There are always the die-hard fans that will buy the record just because it’s out. Elton John has all those fans. Now he’s not as big as he used to be. And there will always be those fans with Billy. But to go to Madison Square Garden and sell it out five nights with no strain, how long can that last? The Beach Boys could do it now. Look how long they’ve been around. You know, Billy keeps changing his style. He gets bored. We all get bored playing the same thing over and over; we like a change. He gets bored with himself, which is a positive for him.

CI: What would you do if Billy Joel suddenly decided to pack it in and not play any more?

LD: I’d get a gig with someone else. I turned down a couple of things. I was supposed to go on the road with Meatloaf, but I couldn’t do his tour because Billy went in the studio to do a new album. I got a call to go on a tour with Stevie Nicks, but I couldn’t do that either because Billy’s in the studio. Billy will always be number one for me, but now I want to break out and do other things. He likes that. He’s proud when he hears us on someone else’s records, or when someone else wants one of his band members. But he knows we’ll always go to him first. Like Russell, the guitar player, is going to make his own album. He’s with CBS. He just got the deal. We’ll all be doing that with Russ.

Cl: Have you ever given any thought to doing your own solo album?

LD: Yeah, I think about it, but that’s about it. Someday it might be nice.

CI: Have you ever had any drum students?

LD: I wouldn’t have the patience. I took lessons for about a month. I had two different teachers. One guy I went to for about a week. I couldn’t stand him. I used to go there and he would show me how he played. He would play all the time. “Watch this!” He’d say, “One day you’ll be able to do that.”Then I went to another guy who was really good, but he didn’t know how to read. He played just like Buddy Rich. Maybe he really didn’t, but I thought he did then. He was great. But that only lasted for about a month.

Cl: So you really didn’t have that much formal training.

LD: No. In sixth grade, I joined the band in school, but it was really an uphill battle.

Cl: Did you always want to be a drummer?

LD: Yes, but I don’t know what made me decide that. There’s a little gap in my life that I don’t know why I picked the drums.

CI: What was your first set like?

LD: It was a set of silver-sparkle Tempo drums—really cheap. Now I endorse Tama drums. Tama drums were around back then, but they were a very cheap outfit then. Tama is the grandmother’s name. Tama Hoshino is the grandmother. Then the other Japanese companies got the Koreans to make them so cheap that they under-priced the Japanese. So Tama had to decide to either go out of business or make a great drum. And I think they make a great drum. Tama was the first one to make the very heavy hardware. Now everyone similar to their specifications. They are a very good company because they listen to everything you say. If you make a suggestion, even casually, the next day they’ve got it there for you.

CI: What kind of set up are you using at the present?

LD: I have two sets. One is like a Royal Pewter color and the lugs are black. They made the lugs black for me. It looks sharp. It’s their Imperialstar set. There’s a 22″ bass drum, 8″, 10″, 13″, 14″ tom-toms, and a 14 x 16 and a 16 x 16 floor tom. Double-headed drums. They are wooden shells, but they have a thin plastic finish. The other set has 8″, 10″, 12″, and 13″ toms with the same size floor toms and a wooden 8 1/2″-deep snare drum. And live, you don’t have to put anything on it. I use an Emperor head. It isn’t like the one filled with oil. This is just two heads pressed together. I use that on the snare drum and the bass drum. You can tune it up really high and still get a good tone, because it’s extra thick, and it doesn’t break. As a matter of fact, if it does split in the middle, you can peel one layer right off.

Cl: What heads do you use on your toms?

LD: The regular Ambassador white heads. They’re thin and they ring more. But they have to be changed every night. Halfway through the show one head goes dead.

Cl: What foot position do you use when playing your bass drum?

LD: I use my toe. Sometimes I get a cramp in my leg from hitting so hard. I went to the hospital once; I was really scared. I had a weird feeling in my shin. The doctor said I developed shin splints from hitting so hard. I was wearing those Japanese shoes—those black slippers. It happens sometimes if I wear cheap shoes. So I play in sneakers now and that creates a cushion between the pedal and my foot.

CI: What kind of monitor system do you use when you are performing on stage?

LD: I use two studio monitors. I’ve got my drums, Billy’s piano, vocal, and guitar. It sounds like my stereo. My bass drum sounds better than any record I’ve ever heard. It makes you want to play, it sounds so good. We have our own monitor mixer, who also does Bruce Springsteen. His name is C.J. Patterson. Out front helping Brian is Dave Cobb. We always use the same guys.

CI: When you get a chance to play the drums by yourself, do you practice, do you just jam on the set, or what?

LD: I just play grooves. I don’t practice rudiments.

CI: What’s your definition of “being in the pocket”?

LD: “Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones. He’s building the drums up in that song and it makes you automatically tap your foot. That groove is just right. You can feel him more than you can actually hear him. When Charlie Watts plays “Street Fighting Man,” it makes you want to break windows and everything. It’s not playing anything spectacular. That’s something that can’t be taught. You can learn how to play a fast buzz roll or a fast double-stroke paradiddle or whatever. You can’t be taught how to play like Charlie Watts or Ringo. It doesn’t matter how many notes you play—if it don’t feel right, it ain’t gonna rain.

CI: Are you using any electronic percussion instruments in your playing?

LD: In Australia once, Derek Pellecci from the Little River Band bought his Syndrums down to a gig we were playing. If Billy hadn’t been so far away from me at the time, he would have come over and thrown them off the stage. It was unbelievable. But it was the first time I ever sat down behind them, so I was experimenting with all the sounds. Tama makes something that hooks right on to your regular drum. I want to try it in the studio to see if I can get that thing and the tone of the drum at the same time. With the Syndrum, you only get that electronic sound.

CI: Have you ever worked with a percussionist?

LD: Well, Ralph MacDonald did a lot of stuff on “Just The Way You Are.” He’s a brilliant percussionist. But he does all that after we lay down the basic tracks. I don’t think I ever played at the same time with a percussionist.

CI: Do you find it difficult to keep yourself amused on the road?

LD: When you’re on the road, you’re only playing for two hours. You sleep all day. You go back to the bar after the show. What else are you going to do? “Bartender, give me a drink.” The next thing you know, you’ve got the fire extinguishers off the wall. It’s hard to keep yourself amused on the road.

CI: So you do find it boring at times going from city to city, even though you are traveling first class now.

LD: Well, we fly coach on the airplanes and take commercial flights.

CI: Every little bit saves, but it’s a far cry from riding in the Pinto.

LD: It’s boring, because every coliseum looks the same, every hotel room is the same. The big thing on the road is, like okay, we’re going to Milwaukee and in the Vista Hotel there’s a great restaurant. We can’t wait to go down and eat. Or in Florida we couldn’t wait to go eat at Bobby Rubino’s Rib Place.

CI: What’s your favorite city to play?

LD: New York. They go wild. Philadelphia is a big draw for us too. I like going to Australia.

CI: Tell me about your experience there.

LD: The first time Turnstiles was out it was a hit in Australia before anyone ever heard of it here. So at the time, Billy’s management company was called Home Run and it was in his house. His wife was running the whole thing from in his home. I walked in the house and on his dining room table she had this big map of Australia, and was mapping out where we were going to play. So Brian Ruggles, the second engineer, was sitting there biting his nails, because we were going to use sound over there, and he was thinking, “They’re going to have kangaroos setting up the P.A. system.” When we got there, the sound company was as good as any sound company here in America. They really worked hard, and the halls we played in were beautiful. It was just like the U.S. except it seemed as though they were a couple of years behind. But they were so interested in American music it was great. We played five nights at the Sidney Opera House the first time we were there.

CI: What album did you tour Europe with?

LD: We went with The Stranger the first time we toured Europe. We played Drury Lane; it only has about 1,500 seats. And the last time we went we played two nights at Wimbley Hall which was 6,000 seats. We had a promoter, Alec Leslie, who really believed in us. He made it grow into this huge thing in England. We played in Germany and had a good time. It’s not as wild in Europe. I hate France. The French got highly insulted when Billy did that song “Get De Tois” on the Glass Houses album. “You’re not speaking the language correctly.” It was ridiculous.

CI: How many times have you toured Japan?

LD: Three times. We played three nights at the Buddacan. You get off the plane…here’s a present. “Good to see you in Japan.” They can’t do enough for you. You have to learn how to read them though. They’ll say yes to everything. But certain tones of yes means no. But they’ll always say yes.

CI: Would you ever consider taking on any private drum students?

LD: No. It’s too hard. I don’t know what to teach. How could I teach somebody? They would have to want to learn how to play like me. How does Buddy Rich do that fast roll? I don’t know, he just does it. Some guys who have the patience to teach don’t have the patience to go on the road. You have to have the head for it.

CI: Do you do any warm-up routine prior to performing?

LD: We have a sound cheek for an hour. We go there about five-thirty and sound check until about seven. We play everybody else’s songs. We play “Born To Run,” we play Rolling Stones tunes and Beatles songs. Maybe just the first tune we start the show off with so they can set up everything ready to go. That’s the most fun.

CI: What were some of your early playing experiences like?

Liberty DeVitto
Photo by Lissa Wales

LD: I played weddings for two years with the bass player Doug out on Long Island. I learned more about bullshitting your way through music by playing weddings—like you’re playing the bossa nova beat or a merenge or a thing where there should be a regular set of drums plus a conga player or something, but you’d have to fill in for everybody. So new beats came up from that. Like, if you’re playing in a top-forty band, you try to copy the record. You’re the only drummer but you know there’s a percussion player and everything on the record. You come up with new things. It’s a challenge. But you have to make it seem full. You can’t drop out of one thing and go into the other part. That’s what happens with the “Just The Way You Are” thing. They’re trying to duplicate what they hear on the record but there’s so many other things involved in that drum beat. The guitar player is really making that drum beat walk along.

CI: The last tour you did with Billy was during the summer. Do you prefer one season over another to be on the road?

LD: I like to go on the road during the fall. It’s nice and cool. That summer tour will be the last we ever do in the summer. It was so hot.

CI: Do you ever do outdoor concerts?

LD: We never play outside. Billy doesn’t believe in playing outside. If you are sitting listening to the speakers and a gust of wind comes by it blows half of the sound away. And the weather—if it rains, so many shows go on in the sloppy mud. It’s not for us that he doesn’t want to play outside; it’s for the audience.

CI: You never use an opening act. Why?

LD: In Australia, their union requires you to join to play there. Then you have to hire the same amount of Australian musicians as you have in your band. So instead of hiring a whole band, we hired a six-piece string section. They just set up on the cor ner of the stage and we had them play classical music as the people came in. No, we don’t like to use opening acts. When I go to see a band, I don’t want to see the opening act—I want to see the band.

CI: Some musicians enjoy having a strong opening act, claiming it gives them the incentive to play at their top level.

LD: How many groups actually see the opening act? You don’t get there until about five minutes before you’re ready to go on. The audience is into throwing frisbees, beach balls and those little green things that glow.

CI: Have you ever been hit by anything while you were playing?

LD: Yes, from behind sometimes they want your attention while you are playing. So they throw whatever they have. Sometimes they even throw money. I can’t move, being behind the drums, I’m a sitting duck.

CI: You did a Phoebe Snow tour not too long ago. How did you like working with her?

LD: Phoebe is great. We had bad luck though. We were in Denver—it’s a mile high and the oxygen is next to nothing. So she was breathing oxygen before the show and they say when you breathe oxygen, it dries you out. So she popped a blood vessel or something. She couldn’t sing for a few weeks, and we had to cancel half the tour. I also played on her last album, and I did one song on her Against The Grain album.

CI: You are doing more studio work with other artists than I realized.

LD: I did twenty songs with Karen Carpenter for a solo album she was going to do without her brother. Something happened and it did not come out.

CI: Phil Ramone is somewhat of a legend among record producers. Tell me about your experience with him.

LD: The first time I ever met Phil Ramone…you know, you’re nervous the first time you meet big people. We played three nights at Carnegie Hall; we were still working our way up to the Garden. Phil Ramone came to see us.

CI: Was he invited by Billy?

LD: Yes, he invited Phil, George Martin, Jimmy Guercio—all the producers Billy was interested in. Jimmy Guercio was in volved with Elton John. Elton had just had a fight with his band and they broke up. So Jimmy wanted to use Elton’s band with Billy. As a matter of fact, the whole Turnstiles album was re-recorded with Elton’s band backing Billy, but Billy didn’t like it. So he fired Jimmy Guercio, then me and Doug went in and did the whole thing. Then George Martin didn’t want to use Billy’s band. He loved Billy but didn’t like the band. Billy was into, “Love me—love my band,” because he liked playing with us. Phil was the first guy who said, “I see something in those guys. They’re good.” He can bring out the best in a musician. He just pulls it out of you. I was uptight when I first met him. He brought me, Richie, Doug, and Billy into the studio to play a little before he brought in the other musicians, just to make us relax. It was getting to know each other. Now, working with him, I have fights with him and everything. But he’s always right. When we were doing “My Life,” at the time, disco was really big. “My Life” was kind of a straight beat. I said, “I’m not going to play that. It’s a disco beat.” He got up and banged on the console and said, “You get out there and play that. I know a hit record when I hear one. Don’t tell me what you’re not going to play. Get out there. Trust me. That’s the whole thing, you’re supposed to trust your producer.” Okay, I went out there. Now, there’s a gold record of “My Life” hanging on my wall. Between Ruggles and him, the album that’s recorded in concert sounds so much like us. It’s not like other live albums you hear that are thin, where there’s no bottom or top, but all middle. Besides the vocals, the drums are the loudest thing when we play live. That’s the way it’s recorded. If I close my eyes, I’d swear I was in the colliseum listening to us play. Ramone could take a song from just the drums and work it up. If the other musicians make mistakes and the drums are good, no problem, you can punch in the other guys.

CI: Do you use a click track when you record?

LD: I tried to once but it was such a tight thing, there was no relaxed feel. So we said, “Forget it.”

CI: If you couldn’t play the drums, what would you like to do?

LD: I really wanted to play the drums seriously since the eighth grade when the Beatles first came out. I knocked around as a plumber’s helper, and I was playing weddings. I was in a car accident when I was twenty-one years old. I almost had to give up the drums. I got engaged to some girl then and to try to save some money, I was playing weddings on the weekends and working as a plumber’s helper during the week. Sometimes, working in a machine shop trying to use a honing machine, the blades were cutting my fingers. No way.

CI: When will you go back into the studio?

LD: There’s nothing for me to do right now. They’re doing overdubs. I won’t go in until Billy writes another song.

CI: There must be quite a great deal of pressure involved in having to write material for a deadline.

LD: He doesn’t feel pressured to write another song now, because we have so much time to work on these other things like overdubs, etc. Before we went into the studio with this album, me and Billy would go riding our motorcycles together and I would ask him, “Do you have anything new?” He’d say, “No I don’t have anything. I can’t think of anything!” Then he’d go, “I don’t know if I could write another album.” He just signed with CBS for eight more albums. If there are ten songs on each album, that means he’s got to write eighty more songs!

CI: I saw you perform on Saturday Night Live recently, but I noticed the group was minus a sax player.

LD: The new stuff Billy’s writing doesn’t call for it. But the new album is very orchestrated. There’s a lot of interesting material on it. On one cut, called “Scandanavian Skies,” I play five drum tracks on it. We did something the other day, it was the first time the engineer and I ever did anything like this. We punched in a whole section of drums. I did something with splashing cymbals and it didn’t sound good. It sounded too Broadway. But the rest of the track was great. Billy wanted me to play straight through that part. So we did it. The engineer punched it in exactly in the right spot.

CI: Last night you went to see the Police perform. What did you think of Stewart Copeland’s playing?

LD: It’s very interesting what he does between the reggae and the rock. It’s also interesting to observe how much influence Sting the bass player has on Stewart’s playing. Sting is singing and playing at the same time, the way McCartney sings and plays. Their vocal style comes off of the bass. Like Billy would much rather sing while he’s playing the piano. He sings differently. When you’re playing with someone else, your style is influenced by their playing and vice versa.

CI: Let’s say Stewart was playing with Billy for example. His playing would be different.

LD: Right. Let’s say we switched drummers. My playing would be more l i k e that, and he would be playing more simple, like I do, which is the way you have to play in that particular role. No matter what situation you are playing in or who you are working with, you have to play together!