Jimmy Miller, producer of Traffic’s second album, in 1968, quipped in the liner notes that Jim Capaldi’s time is so perfect that even the drops of sweat falling from his brow keep the beat. A flawless time-keeper he is, but Capaldi is more: Though blessed with an ineluctable sense of swing (“but lacking in the technical department, ” he interjects), Capaldi’s talents as composer, vocalist, producer and creative catalyst are equally formidable. His innate sense of rhythm, demonstrated with the seminal but defunct British band Traffic and on six solo albums, springs from an active imagination and fierce determination.
Born in 1944 in Evesham, England, to musical parents (his vocalist mother and accordionist father barnstormed Europe as the Macari Serenaders, performing Latin and Gypsy music), Capaldi fell under the spell of music at an early age. His earliest influences, ranging from Louis Bellson to Elvis Presley, would foreshadow his later passion for jazz and blues, not to mention his roles, independent of each other, as both drummer and lead vocalist.
Smitten by wanderlust, Capaldi left home at an early age and by 1958 had formed his first group, the Sapphires. The years 1962 to ’65 witnessed the birth of such bands as the Hellions and the Revolution (both with later Traffic member Dave Mason) and then Deep Feeling, which Capaldi describes as “a prototype of Traffic.” With Deep Feeling, a sextet based in the industrial city of Birmingham, he served as the lead vocalist and frontman, but when the group’s drummer would double on vibraphone or flute, Capaldi would retreat to the back of the stage and take the drum chair. It was at the Elbow Room, a club at which Deep Feeling served a residency, that Capaldi met and jammed with the musicians who from 1967 to ’74 would form the core of Traffic: reedman Chris Wood and multi-instrumentalist-vocalist Steve Winwood.
Leaving the asphalt and grime of Birmingham for a cottage in the secluded countryside, Traffic was a musical experiment in organic chemistry—a group of musicians with no assigned roles and without allegiance to any one style of music. Performing acoustically or electronically, Traffic blended the past with the present— blues, jazz and country with rock, pop and later some reggae. So precocious and distinctive were the vocal and instrumental (guitars, keyboards and occasionally drums) talents of the then-teenaged Steve Winwood, who Capaldi calls “the phenomenal force of England,” that the latter’s contributions to the band were—and are—often overlooked. Yet in the United States, where the group enjoyed a large and devoted following, such hits as “Dear Mr. Fantasy, ” “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” and “Empty Pages,” all Capaldi co-compositions, remain staples of FM radio.
Capaldi cut his first solo LP, Oh! How We Danced, in 1972, and following the demise of Traffic in 1974, moved to Rio de Janeiro, where he has composed three hit songs for the vocalist Marcello. His most recent solo effort, Fierce Heart, was coproduced with Winwood, marking their first full-scale collaboration in a decade.
GK: Did you take drum lessons as a teenager?
JC: No, I didn’t take any lessons. In a way, I wish I had. I think it’s good to know all the aspects, especially reading. But my schooling was mainly in listening.
GK: What are some of the records you listened to as a youngster that inspired you to play the drums?
JC: Very, very early, the only drummer who made drums stand out was Gene Krupa. But then the guys I have to talk about after that are two Americans and one Englishman: Al Jackson, from Booker T and the MG’s, who is my all-time favorite drummer, Bernard Purdie, and Ginger Baker.
GK: Were you familiar with Baker’s early work with the Graham Bond Organisation?
JC: Yes, I was there at a lot of those gigs. That was very impressive. I’m very glad I had the chance to see that. I think Ginger was the most original, innovative drummer of that period. I’d never seen a drum- mer use that kind of style—the heavy flamming, you know, and the arms and legs kind of playing triplets together.
GK: Was Ginger Baker using the double-bass setup in those days?
JC: No, he developed that in Cream.
GK: Did you ever experiment with two bass drums?
JC: Yes, I did try, but I didn’t keep it up. It’s very interesting, but you have to use it right. Two bass drums tend to dominate the whole thing. When you have two bass drums really together in good synchronization, you almost don’t need anything else; you can just play your top kit in between your two bass drums. It makes a thunderous kind of noise, [laughs] It’s very impressive if it’s used correctly.
GK: What impressed you most about Al Jackson and Pretty Purdie?
JC: Al Jackson, I think, was the master of time. His time was so unique; I don’t think there can be anybody like him. Also, it was the way he laid on the backbeat; it was very typical of Memphis. It was his beautiful time, his feel, and also the fact that he would just play time and then he would hang you on the edge for a fill. When it came, it was quite beautiful because he made you wait so long for it. Rather than continually filling and continually bothering the rhythm, he just played time. He put the most incredible things into the piece, whatever he was playing without putting them in by way of fills. He made the whole feel of the track he was playing into a whole thing itself. He played some wonderful things, especially on records like the Otis Blue album. And it was more or less what he didn’t play that impressed me.
I remember a fill I did for the track “Colored Rain” [from Mr. Fantasy]. In fact, I remember reading in a magazine that I actually got a small amount of praise from Al Jackson, who reviewed the album. That was about the high point for me. I was copying him, slightly. He complimented me on the opening fill. I thought, “Wow! There you go. Coming back home.”
Burnard Purdie, on the other hand, had that same attitude as Jackson, but he was the funk, rock-steady man. He had those incredible hi-hat compressed shots off the bass drum. This was featured beautifully on an early recording of Tim Rose, “Walk Me Out In The Morning Dew.” That’s Bernard Purdie at his devastating best.
GK: Do you practice often, and do you practice some of the same things you did as a youngster?
JC: I don’t practice as much now as when I’m rehearsing. Then I get down, we rehearse the tunes, and I like to mess around and just jam. I feel fresher if I don’t practice so much. But when we rehearse and when we play, I start to get loose.
GK: Does the fact that you also play the guitar and keyboards help you to play the drums?
JC: I guess keyboards, yes. Basically, what helps me play the drums is vocals. If you have a good, strong melody sense and a good ear for the melody line, the drums sit naturally around the voice to give the right accompaniment.
GK: In general, Jim, what are some of the attributes you look for in a drumset?
JC: First of all, the quality of the tone. I like a fat sound—an explosive sound when I hit. And as I hit harder, the tone should grow. It should be deep and yet with attack—all the drums. Then, I guess, I consider the looks, mixed with durability and strength, easy handling of the heads and mechanism. I don’t like anything too fancy. I don’t like fancy tom-tom holders where you can never get the right angle, no matter how you twist and turn it. [laughs] It’s usually better to set your tom-toms on separate stands, so you can place them where you want.
GK: Let’s move along to your technique and some of the equipment you use.
JC: I don’t usually need more than one tom-tom in front of me, and a floor tom. However, I may use two small toms in front of me. Then I use a cymbal off to my left, on the end of the left tom-tom and between the hi-hat, and one cymbal on the right side, between the floor tom and towards the right of the bass drum.
GK: What specifically are the brand names?
JC: I’ve got a mixture, actually. I’ve got some Paistes and some Zildjians. I just basically try to find a good individual cymbal. No matter how much they are made equally, for some reason a cymbal will have its own character. It’s the same with the kits; some tom-toms just seem to have a character. If I find a good one, I keep it. The thin Paiste crash is quite nice. And some of the Zildjians, for the medium ride, are quite nice.
GK: What tom-toms are you using now?
JC: My kit at the moment is a Zickos. I’ve had that for a number of years; I bought it at Manny’s in New York. It’s called a cannon bass drum; it’s very long, and made of Plexiglas. I’m actually thinking now of getting a set of North drums.
GK: What attracts you to North drums?
JC: I quite like the shape of those toms— the way the bottom is projected outwards. There’s no skin on the bottom. I think a one-skin drum is a very effective thing. My brother Phil, who is also a drummer, has a very simple thing. It looks like a looking glass—a mirror. You hold it in your hand, and it’s just got a hoop and one thin skin. It’s a hand tom. Yet when you hit it, it makes an incredible sound. A North drum gets that quality because it has one skin and you have the tubes shooting outwards. I think it’s quite an innovative idea for the drums. That’s for live playing. In the studio, I use practically anything; I just doc- tor it up until I get the sound I want.
GK: How do you tune the heads?
JC: Basically, I don’t like to have the skins too slack. A slack-skin drum sounds dead to me. It has to have a certain amount of ring. Engineers usually say, “She’s ringing too much.” You don’t want too much ring, but if you don’t have any, there’s no life to it. The drum should be live, it should have a note and it should have a character. So I try to get it as weighty as possible. I like it low sounding but with weight. Unless I have a fill that needs to be up very high, beginning on a high tom-tom, I usually go for a very fat sound on the toms.
GK: What about onstage tuning?
JC: Live, I try to match the studio sound. I try to get it as solid and as powerful as possible. The danger with drums is having them a little too high—a little too tinny. And the minute you don’t get the right drum sound, I think it affects the whole sound of a band. I think the band can only be as good as the quality of its drum sound.
GK: When and how much do you muffle your drums?
JC: I think if you have to muffle too much, you have a problem with the drums: They don’t breathe. I don’t like to put much more than maybe a strip or two of tape. I’ve found that the drums that really have something are the ones you don’t need to put too much damping on.
GK: What pedals and hardware are you using these days?
JC: I quite like the Rogers pedal and also the Ludwig Speed-King. I have pretty heavy-duty stands, so that’s no problem. I’m also going to start using some electronic drums.
GK: What type?
GK: For what purposes?
JC: The Simmons through the PA has an incredible bass drum sound, and it can be used to accentuate moments where you want an explosive sound. It’s such a tight sound through the PA because of the electronics of it. It has a very low, thudding kind of sound.
GK: On tour in the early days, Traffic performed without a bass player per se. Chris Wood often played the bass parts on the tenor sax or on the keyboard. As a drummer, do you find it difficult to work without a bass?
JC: It’s difficult when you’re playing certain pieces that could use a good bass line. If you can hear a good bass player who’s really sitting on it, it does help you. But then again, a lot of material from that period of Traffic was very free and open. So, in a way, I started to get to the point where I knew how to fit in with Steve and Chris; it was a very loose thing. The grooves, the expressions and the dynamics were quite open. I worked within the dynamics of the actual sound we were making. Whereas the more people you have—the minute you have four or five—it takes on a different thing altogether.
GK: When percussionist Rebop Kwaaku Baah was added to Traffic during the Low Spark period, did you find that his presence enhanced or hindered the overall dynamic?
JC: It was a help because he, being a master drummer, knew exactly where to strengthen and enhance. Sometimes he would lay down a whole groove of his own that really supported the music. He died recently. We just did a benefit concert for him at the Marquee. It was a great night. There were three drummers and three bass players.
GK: Starting with Traffic’s Low Spark album, when you became the frontman, drummer Jim Gordon joined the group, followed by Roger Hawkins from Muscle Shoals. Having been Traffic’s original drummer, did you offer any input to your successors when you became the lead singer?
JC: I think that’s the personal area of the drummer. I felt that both Jim and Roger were alike sounding. They were excellent drummers, but I thought they were alike—more wristy than I was.
GK: You came out from behind the drumset and became the lead singer. Had you wanted to be more of a frontman all the time?
JC: I was a singer before I played drums. I used to be the lead singer in a group called Deep Feeling, and I would take over the drums when our drummer would play vibraphone or flute.
In that period, which was 1970 to ’71, I went through a very heavy spell. I think I was ready to pack it in. I couldn’t seem to handle everything I was doing at the time. Traffic was going through one of those patches: “Is it going to fall apart again?” We were always breaking up. I was in Morocco with Michael J. Pollard, the actor who was in Bonnie And Clyde. He was a big, big name at that time.
Pollard and I would sit around writing lyrics all day, and talking about Bob Dylan and the Band. Before I left Morocco, Pollard wrote in my notebook, “The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys.” I wrote the rest of the lyrics around the title. The “Low Spark,” for me, was that strong undercurrent at the street level.
At that period, I was just falling apart. I was going to step out of the band. But Steve said, “No. Be There! Let’s augment the band.” Then I came up with “Low Spark,” and it was probably the most successful album we’ve ever done. So in my weakest moment—I was going through a lot of problems then—I was at my strongest.
GK: So your becoming the frontman was Winwood’s way of keeping you in the band—of keeping Traffic alive?
JC: Yes, to keep me going. When I got into it, I was reborn as an up-front singer. I’ll tell you the truth, it kind of worked well because, in a way, the audience wanted a little something visual.
I was always trying to give that angle to the group. Steve would walk on stage, and, being the great player that he is, he wanted to play. Nothing more! I don’t mind that. When you’re as good as he is, you don’t need visuals. But I just couldn’t give enough of a visual element from the drums.
GK: When you were singing live with Traffic from behind the drums, did miking the vocals pose any problems?
JC: Yes, sometimes. The technology of miking for drummers has improved. For instance, you can now use a mic’ that comes over and doesn’t interfere with your arms at all. There’s also a harness made by Shure that you can put over your head. Wherever you turn your head, the mic’ stays at the same distance from your mouth, which is quite good.
GK: Since Winwood wrote most of the music for Traffic, and most always sang your lyrics, many people believe he was the lone composer in the band. As such, your role in the band has been underrated. Did this situation, in all candor, ever bother you?
JC: I was the words; the sound was Steve’s. I used to feel terribly embarrassed that he was singing my experiences, which are very personal. It always made me feel strange, except where I’d written a lyric that was just a pure piece of writing. On personal things, like “40,000 Headmen,” he made them work so well that people thought he wrote them.
GK: The landscapes, moodscapes and dreams in your lyrics for Traffic are very evocative and poetic. Do you ever write down strings of words or poems, and later mold them into lyrics?
JC: Yeah. I used to do that more than I do now. I used to have an old book with a load of paper. There was scribbling all over— just things that came out of my mind. I’d write about anything.
One time, I drew this character on the paper. Next to the drawing, I wrote a letter to the character, and it started off like any letter: “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Then I went to bed. I heard Chris and Steve playing down in the music room. I came down and they’d written “Mr. Fantasy.” They said, “We found that thing you’d written. We put this tune to it.” I was knocked out. I said, “You’ve written a classic!”
GK: Your song “Gifts Of Unknown Things,” from your most recent album, wouldn’t seem out of place on the second Traffic album.
JC: It’s like “40,000 Headmen.”
GK: Exactly. In both “40,000 Headmen” and “Gifts,” the character searches for vast treasures, yet must endure hardship and peril along the way. These story-songs sound allegorical. Are they examples, in some way, of your philosophy of life?
JC: I like that mood. I found that, with some of those songs, I didn’t write them so much as they came right through me. That was one of my favorites.
GK: Over how long a period of time did you write the tunes on Fierce Heart? Were they composed before you entered the studio?
JC: I wrote a lot of them in Brazil. I wrote them very simply on acoustic guitar. I’ve never been very technical, and I still don’t know very much about programming synths and drum machines. I never work onto a tape; I never do overdubbing or multi- tracking. That all comes when I get with the musicians in the studio. I simply work on an old, battered cassette, an acoustic guitar, and maybe an acoustic piano. I completed some of the songs in England. I found that a good way to work is to have a good, basic idea—a good hook—and develop it when I work on it—not to have it finished.
GK: Fierce Heart boasts some interesting time signatures, especially the change of groove on “Back At My Place.”
JC: Yes, I dig the half feel into the double up. I’ve always loved that swing, Latiny feel. I’ve always loved the Richie Havens groove.
GK: What prompted your move to Brazil and how long have you been there?
JC: Two years after Traffic split  I went off to Rio, and I’ve been there, off and on, ever since. It was a great thing to do because I figured there wasn’t a lot going on in England anyway, so I just took a break.
GK: Have you found that the geography of Brazil inspires you as much as the British countryside did?
JC: Rio is an interesting place to be. You must remember that when you reach your 30’s, you’ve already formed and shaped a lot of information and attitudes. Then you go to a nice place and write a song about the place. “Favella Music” is the definitive song, for me, about Brazil.
I use places as moments in time, as references in my life, and how I feel at the time. But the place doesn’t always change the way I feel. I think I’ve basically felt how I’ve always felt since I was young. It’s just that different landscapes pass before my eyes, like a movie. But I am the cameraman.
I think you’re born with a certain vibe, and that vibe stays with you all you’re life. Bob Dylan wrote, “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” I think we’re very old and wise when we’re young. In the end, you wind up very fragile. When you’re young, you have a tremendous, singular ego and protectiveness within your own youth and emerging strength. You’re very wise when you’re that age. When you look back at your life—when the light is fading and it’s all over—I think it’s only those moments you shared with people that really mean anything. If you didn’t have many of those moments, then I don’t think you really lived.