BB: Where and when did you first hear drums?
AS: I was ten years old and on my way home from school in the Bronx. I passed a house and heard a drummer playing a Gene Krupa/Cozy Cole-like solo. I froze in my tracks. It was one of two mystical things that have happened to me in my life. It was as though someone reached in and lit the pilot light inside of me. The other, by the way, was meeting my wife, Susan.
BB: When did you first hit a drum?
AS: I finally conned my folks into drum lessons, and when I was 13 years old, they got me a set of Gretsch Blue Pearl. It was a somber day for the neighbors in my building.
BB: What music and drummers did you listen to?
AS: Somehow I went from Gene Krupa directly to Max Roach, especially the rich musical sound of his drums. I copied every solo, note for note. At my peak, I was practicing eight hours a day, and falling asleep at night listening to Symphony Sid’s jazz show.
BB: This was while you were taking lessons?
AS: Yes, from Sam Ulano, a strong personality who would embarrass me into practicing. Later on, I attended Manhattan School of Music and studied percussion with Morris Goldenberg. I taught myself piano, which was the finish of my formal training.
BB: Who were some of your other influences?
AS: Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Pete LaRoca.
BB: It seems like you only listened to black drummers. Did you hear anything from them that you didn’t hear from other drummers?
AS: It’s not racial. It just seems that the ones I liked happened to have that color skin. Later, as my musical scope expanded, I appreciated different style drummers, like Roger Hawkins, Paul Motian with Bill Evans, Jim Keltner, and, of course, as we all have to admit, Bernard Purdie.
BB: What makes a good teacher?
AS: I believe you have to learn kind of by yourself. Watching and listening to great drummers can show you what’s possible.
BB: What were your first jobs9
AS: My first gigs were in the Catskill Mountain resorts, playing in the show bands, and sight reading charts for singers, dancers, etc. They were great experiences which taught me how to look at drum parts and find out what they really meant. These charts are not very different from charts I see in the studios today. They’re just a guideline. They tell you how long the music is, where it goes, where it stops, and where the important accents and cuts are. The rest is all up to you. It’s your interpretation of it that makes you different from another drummer.
BB: After the Catskills, then what?
AS: I started working in small jazz clubs around town. I worked a lot at the Half Note Cafe with guys like Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Jimmy Rushing, and Al Cohn & Zoot Sims. My bebop career peaked when I got the gig with Stan Getz. Jack DeJohnette was the drummer with Stan at the time, and he couldn’t make this gig at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. I auditioned with a couple of other drummers at Stan’s mansion in Rye, New York, scared to death. The other drummers were playing great, but very hip and outside. I played straight because Stan was playing swing style. Today, I try to play for the artist and or what the situation calls for, not for drummers checking you out.
BB: Was it around this time that you made a sharp left away from jazz?
AS: I started listening to and loving the music of James Brown, Aretha, and The Beatles. I was working a gig with a bass player named Don Payne, who introduced me to jingle and record people. The studio life seemed ideal to me. I wouldn’t get bored; I could play all different types of music and earn a great living.
BB: How were you able to break into the studio scene?
AS: I noticed back then that drummers would sit down at studio drums and just play. I’d tune them and retune them to each musical situation. The engineers appreciated it. I’d focus my energy on every little demo I did, even the dumbest ones. I’d concentrate to make the drums right and listen to playbacks to perfect it. The producers appreciated that. Eventually, you get a reputation and recommendations to work for new people. The only other way I know to crack the studio scene is to have a brother who’s a producer or to have your father own a recording studio.
BB: Tell me the story about Mountain with Felix Pappalardi and Leslie West.
AS: It was an important moment in my career. Studio musicians were accused of not being “authentic.” It can be true. I knew I had to play some real rock ‘n’ roll. I met Felix on a session for Maggie Bell. We got along great. He asked me to do a Japanese tour with Mountain, then the loudest band in North America. Felix and Leslie had 12 amps apiece. We toured Hawaii and Japan, did an album called Twin Peaks, and every note I played was as loud and as hard as I could play. It was a learning experience that taught me about playing simple.
BB: What other road things did you do?
AS: I did a B.J. Thomas tour, good country playing experience; a Herbie Mann tour; a band called Dreams; Pat Travers; and best of all, a three-month tour with Peter Gabriel. It was a great band with Robert Fripp, Tony Levin, Larry Fast, and Jimmy Maelin. I miss that. There’s really nothing like walking on a stage, hearing that sound, and doing only one take.
BB: Back to the studio work. What’s your drumset like?
AS: Basically, I like three rack toms: 10″, 12″, 13″ with double heads, of course, and a 16″ floor tom; watery cymbals, 18″ and 20″. My bass drum pedal is most important to me. It’s an old Camco bicycle-chain type.
BB: Is it true you don’t use your own drums on sessions?
AS: True. I enjoy playing on different equipment set up differently. When the drums aren’t always in the same spot and don’t look the same, I think it helps spontaneity.
BB: Don’t you ever run into bad drumkits?
AS: Unless it’s missing vital parts or the skins are beat to death, you can tune any drum and get a good sound. One time, while waiting for a drum rental to arrive on a Tony Orlando session, we ran the song down with a bass drum, hi-hat, and some cardboard boxes. It felt and sounded great. Then the drums came, and soon we went back to playing on the boxes. The microphones just hear; they can’t see.
BB: Give me some more examples of your experimentation.
AS: Occasionally, I’ll tune the high tom all the way up like a timbale and play an unexpected high-pitched Latin fill. I’ve hit ashtrays. On a Nils Lofgren album, I put an empty Heineken bottle on the hi-hat rod and used it as a kind of wood block. I’ve stuck a music stand between the hi-hat cymbals to make a distortion sound.
BB: What about sticks?
AS: I love Vic Firth Generals. They’re big classical sticks that aren’t heavy, but are made of sturdy wood and somehow seem to get a bigger sound.
BB: What about your grip?
AS: I changed to matched grip, which I use for everything except bebop and snare rolls.
BB: What makes a good studio?
AS: The overall feeling of the room. Even where it’s located in town has something to do with the mysterious reason one studio sounds better than another. Obviously, the engineer is the most important factor. An efficient cue system helps a lot. Studios like Blue Rock, my personal favorite, Power Station, Hit Factory, and Media all have these elements.
BB: Obviously, you have to have a rapport with engineers.
AS: I try to. I’m not shy in the studios. Engineers, producers, and musicians know that drums are key to the sound and feel of most records. If something doesn’t sound right in the cue system, or a seemingly insignificant thing like the lights being a bit too bright, I’m not afraid to ask for a change.
BB: Today, they’re using a lot of electronics. How do you feel about it?
AS: A couple of years ago, I bought Syndrums when they first came out. They were fun. Now they make nice end-tables! I’m only kidding about them being passe; they’ll probably be back next year in the ’80s wave of nostalgia.
BB: The Linn Machine is another story, isn’t it?
AS: The Linn Machine is absolutely ingenious, but I think, without a human being overdubbing something, a Linn track has the stiffness of canned laughter. It’s the greatest tool for composers.
BB: Doesn’t this machine eliminate some of your work?
AS: Absolutely. It’s cheaper, doesn’t drink, and always comes on time. I must say after speaking to Steve Schaeffer—the West Coast studio cat—it’s my understanding that they’ve made advances and improvements on the Linn so it can actually sound like the time feel is human. I wonder if it’s too late to go to medical school?
BB: What about Simmons drums?
AS: They absolutely knocked me out. You can get almost any natural or electronically enhanced sound.
BB: Isn’t the current trend electronics?
AS: Yes. It’s difficult sometimes, but you have to remain open. There were musicians who didn’t want to recognize the electric bass. They’re called “old guys.”
BB: What’s your opinion of your contemporaries, like Steve Gadd?
AS: Steve’s great. When he first came into town, I recommended him to do some dates. I stopped doing that when they didn’t call me back.
BB: How is he different?
AS: His technique is fantastic. He’s a drummer’s drummer; a true star. I’m more like a character actor—believable in different roles.
BB: What about Ringo?
AS: He was part of a band that is still sacred. He’s not the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll drummer, as he has stated. He has a nice childlike quality in his playing.
BB: What do you think of “good musician” bands like Toto?
AS: Fantastic. Being in a band like Toto is the closest thing to becoming a member of a championship baseball team. I’m also embarrassed for New York City that we never came up with a band like that. I once did some two-drummer stuff with Jeff Porcaro on an Elliot Randall album. He killed me. He might be the best one out there.
BB: I know you don’t teach. If you did, what would you teach?
AS: I might work on the psychological part of drumming—conceptualizing drum parts; The “Fear of Filling.”
BB: I know you do many jingles. What is that scene like?
AS: It’s a highly developed craft. Musicians are the best on every instrument, including virtuoso string players, not to mention great players like John Tropea, Dave Spinozza, Neil Jason, Will Lee, Jimmy Maelin, Paul Schaeffer, and The Blues Brothers Band. I feel proud to be there. The rapport is wonderful. It’s kind of like an exclusive club—and the bread’s not bad!
BB: How does the residual and payment situation work?
AS: One 60-second piece of music can be broken up into 12 separate spots. They’re allowed three per session. That means, you could get paid four times. If they put it on radio and TV, double that. The highly developed craft business I mentioned before refers to the very short amount of time we have to make this music sound good.
BB: I’ve seen a lot of gold records on your wall. What have been some of your more memorable moments in record cutting?
AS: I might as well start with James Brown. Having him accept me and answer the question, “Is it possible to play funky even though you were Bar Mitzvahed?” Working three weeks on basic tracks for Peter Gabriel’s solo album with genius producer, Bob Ezrin. Working with Harry Chapin on “Cats in the Cradle,” which we tried every way but a merengue. Coming up with the beat for Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” considered the first disco record (may God forgive me), Brian Ferry’s Roxy Music album, Kiss solo albums, Alice Cooper albums, Barbra Streisand, Neil Sedaka with George Martin producing, Meco Star Wars, and of course, the thrill of my first hits with Tony Orlando.
BB: What about your work with Jimi Hendrix?
AS: I met him four years before he died. I was working with Mose Allison opposite Jimi. He sounded me about getting together to play. I thought he was slightly spaced. He was playing ridiculously loud, but there was something there. I realized who he was years later. I did the albums Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning, which were done postmortem. This probably wasn’t the kind of “getting together” that Jimi had in mind. The multi-tracks were stripped down to just guitar and voice. The time was so elastic that no two bars were the same length. It was a great challenge.
BB: What do you see in the future for yourself?
AS: To keep playing, and maybe someday sound like that guy I hear playing in my dreams.