THERE are a few drummers in rock who always seem to know the right thing to play, and can play it without trying to throw in the kitchen sink too. Russ Kunkel fits into that category. In fact, he may have founded that category. Kunkel searches for just the right expression on the kit for whoever he’s working with. For Russ, playing often means “laying it down,” and sometimes means not playing at all. Kunkel sits it out as well as any drummer, maybe better. It’s hard to believe that it was 15 years ago when his finesse was heard on early James Taylor albums. His style was not flashy. He just socked out the backbeat, did a little brushwork, some rimshots, a solid kick, and followed his instincts. Judging by the artists who keep asking him back, album after tour after album, those instincts are well appreciated.
There’s one important ingredient in the vast stockpile of albums Kunkel has performed on: consistency. Taylor stuck with Kunkel from Sweet Baby James through countless writer’s blocks. Jackson Browne put Kunkel’s drums on the cover of his Runnin’ On Empty LP in 1977, and co-wrote “Tender Is The Night” with the drummer on his 1983 album, Lawyers In Love. Russ played on Carole King’s classic Tapestry album in 1971 and recorded her Speeding Time album in 1984. Linda Ronstadt has used the drummer on country-rock hits like “When Will I Be Loved, “as well as new wave forays like “How Do I Make You.” Kunkel played on Dan Fogelberg’s Longer LP in 1979 and is behind the skins for the singer’s Walls And Windows tour in 1984. Russ has also recorded with Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Stevie Nicks, The Bee Gees, plays on Ringo’s new album, and has a small part in the recently released heavy-metal spoof, Spinal Tap.
In the early and mid- ’70s, Kunkel was part of a jazz-rock fusion unit called The Section, which featured his session-mates Leland Sklar, Craig Doerge and Danny Kortchmar. It was a fling into jazz that went the way of most fusion units of the time, for most of the same reasons, but not before showing us a glimpse of Kunkel’s playing that we hadn’t seen before. His playing was as convincing and appropriate in that setting as in all the others.
While touring in Carole King’s band earlier this year, Kunkel slowed down long enough to discuss his early sessions with producer Peter Asher, his approaches to working with other musicians and with engineers, drum tuning, his latest influences and latest projects. Russ is currently producing a series of hour-long video music clinics. “The Music Clinic” series will feature such artists as Joe Walsh, Steve Lukather, Jeff Porcaro, Nathan East, Bob Glaub and Kunkel, and according to the producer, will focus on both the personality of the artist and some playing secrets.
RT: You are thought of as a “California drummer,” but you’re not from California originally, are you?
RK: No, I was born in Pennsylvania. But I didn’t do a lot of playing while I was in Pennsylvania. I moved to California when I was nine, and my only introduction to drumming before I moved was my brother. He had a couple of bands and that’s actually what got me started playing drums.
RT: He was a drummer?
RK: Yeah. He still is, as a matter of fact. He lives in San Jose and plays at a club every weekend. He’s still got his own band. They’re good. I kind of grew up with bands rehearsing in the house, and there was always music going on.
He would set me up with a snare drum, and I’d bang on it. Then I moved to California. Growing up in Southern California and listening to surf music like “Wipe Out” got me seriously involved in playing music. Somebody in school played guitar, somebody played bass, and we would all get together to play.
RT: I hear that your mom provided a lot of encouragement when you first started learning.
RK: She was very supportive of all the stuff in the early days. When I was in junior high school and high school, I lived in Long Beach, California and was probably in about six different bands. The bands all kind of had the same people, but the names kept changing. We’d change the name of the band and add members as trends would change. We went from playing surf music to doing Beatles imitations. During the time when the Beatles first came out, we used to do a thing in this one band called The Barons. The leader of the band got these wigs, and at one point during the show, we’d all put them on and do a couple of Beatles songs. People would go crazy. We played a lot of the sock hops and high school dances.
I remember in one of those incarnations of the band, we had to store all of our equipment one night. We couldn’t leave it in the van overnight because we were scared someone might rip it off. So my mom said, “Bring it in the house.” We had this two-bedroom apartment, and the whole living room was full of amplifiers, drums, and organs. There was a little path right through the hall and the living room, where you could walk. I don’t think too many people’s parents would go for that. But she was really supportive.
RT: I used to ruin my mom’s rug with my bass drum pedal. The oil would drip off and leave a big stain on the rug.
RK: Yeah. That didn’t go over too well. No, they didn’t like that.
RT: You were into surf music. Are you a surfer?
RK: Yeah. I started surfing when I was 25 and I still do, as much as I can. It’s a great sport.
RT: Is it a way of life?
RK: Sure. It’s a whole attitude, you know. And it has carried through into my music. All those things are kind of intertwined. One helps create different feelings in the other. Surfing is a lot like music. There’s the same kind of spirituality involved in both. In surfing it’s you, the energy of the wave, and how you work it. In music, it’s the same thing. It’s you and the energy of the music—your energy and how you interpret the music—how well you listen and turn it into playing.
RT: Were there any surf bands that really turned you on?
RK: I think all the ones everyone is aware of. There was a local band out of Long Beach called The Pyramids. They had a hit record called “Penetration,” and I knew all the guys in that band. They were kind of like our local heroes for a while. Then the cousin of a friend of mine was in The Astronauts. I liked all of them, like the Safaris. It was a wild time. But of course The Beach Boys were the cats who really got it started. I still love all of their songs.
RT: Were there any surf drummers that stood out?
RK: Well, the drummer of The Pyramids was really good. I remember looking up to him a lot. Anyway, after playing in all these bands, finally we had this one band that was pretty good. It was called Things To Come. We were all out of high school, and decided to move to Hollywood and “make it.” We got involved with this manager and he put us up in a motel on Sunset Boulevard, right up the street from The Whiskey. And he got us a gig at The Whiskey opening for The Byrds. We hit it off real well with the owners of the club, and ended up playing there for about 12 weeks straight. We opened up for Traffic, The Byrds, Cream . . . they all came through there at that time. The Whiskey had just gone from all black acts to being like a rock ‘n’ roll club. So we became like the house band. We were exposed to all that music. The band really never made it. We ran that course out, and then it went the way of all bands—bickering and stuff like that. It just didn’t work out.
I set my sights on being a studio drummer at that point. I was tired of having to depend on other people in the band to make something happen. I realized that I had to depend on myself. I started doing publishing demos for a man named Joel Sill. He was running a publishing company called Trousdale Music for ABC/Dunhill. It was $15 a tune, and you’d do as many of them as you could in a day. Now I’m sure they do them in recording studios with a LinnDrum, a piano and a DX-7. But then you actually had to have a little session. It was great earning money playing music like that, just on my own. It was different from the band and it was nice to be on my own.
One thing led to another, and I guess one of the big turnarounds was when I finally got to do a real session. I thought that was really wild. It was a session for one of Joel’s writers. I was nervous but it went real well. From there, the news got around by word of mouth that I was okay to hire. I started doing more and more sessions.
RT: How much reading training did you have when you started doing sessions?
RK: I had some training in grammar school and in the fifth grade when I played in the orchestra. I went through the basics but then really didn’t follow through on that. Once I started playing in bands, none of that was really necessary. It was just all feel, and I guess that’s pretty much how I developed. I’m not a schooled drummer as far as reading is concerned, but I can read. I’ve picked it up over the years. I can’t read really fast like the best cats can, but I can get through a chart pretty sufficiently. It’s something that I might work on more as time goes on.
RT: Did you ever study with another drummer?
RK: No, just listened a lot.
RT: What were you listening to other than the surf music?
RK: I listened to the Butterfield Blues Band, The Yardbirds, The Who, and The Animals. All the bands that were coming out of England were an influence on me at that time. I listened to a lot of blues—Muddy Waters, Albert King, B.B. King. And when The Beatles came out, that influenced everybody. That gave everybody the thought that we could be incredibly great and there was nothing that we couldn’t do. It was like they opened a big door, musically. I didn’t have anything that I listened to all the time. And I don’t think it was until I was in the 11th or 12th grade that I actually got into jazz, but when I got into that, I really got into it. I’d come home from school and turn on the local jazz station, just lay down on my bed and seriously listen to jazz. It sort of comes in phases with people. But I was really influenced by all the music of the time. I just loved playing.
RT: Did you first meet Leland Sklar on a Peter Asher session? You are so tight with him.
RK: I was working for John Stewart, who used to be in the Kingston Trio. He had his own band and had just finished an album in Nashville. I got the gig playing drums with him. When I was rehearsing for the tour to support the album, Chris Darrow was in the band, and he’s a friend of Peter Asher. Peter was over here trying to put together the musicians to do an album with James Taylor, who was a new artist he was bringing back from England. They had just parted ways with Apple Records and they were going to do an album for Warner Brothers. So Chris said he should come down and see me. Peter came down to a rehearsal, I met him, and he liked the way I played. So he hired me to do the album. That’s how I met Peter, James, and Lee.
Lee was in a band called Wolfgang at the time, I think. Through some other friend of Peter he got an audition, and Peter decided to use him. I’m not sure if Leland played on Sweet Baby James. I think he came into the picture after that album. He played on the rest of the albums after that.
I met Danny Kortchmar, because he was with James and Peter in The Flying Machine. Danny, Lee, a keyboard player named Craig Doerge, and I formed a band called The Section. It was right at the time when the Mahavishnu Orchestra developed. Fusion music just swept us away. That was really what we wanted to do, and it was the coolest thing to come along. So we put a band together and tried to do that. We did about three albums, one for Warner Brothers and two for Capitol. That went the way of all bands eventually. It was great, but that kind of music really couldn’t make any money for anybody. And different people in the band had different ideas of what to do. Should we have vocals? Should we do this? Should we do that? So instead of getting crazy, we decided to put it on the shelf for a while, and then let it go. Craig went on to be in his own band, and Leland works more in the studio than anyone I know doing all kinds of stuff.
RT: I enjoy the Fork It Over album The Section did.
RK: Yeah, actually the first one we put out, called The Section, might have been the best one, but there’s some good stuff on Fork It Over.
RT: The song “White Water,” which you wrote for Fork It Over, is real nice.
RK: Thanks. That’s David Sanborn on sax.
RT: When you began doing sessions, did you do TV shows, jingles and that stuff?
RK: No, I didn’t do any of that. I somehow just started working with people on album projects or singles. And that’s pretty much all I’ve ever done. Leland does all the soundtrack stuff, and works on all the stuff that Mike Post does. I never went that way. It really didn’t fit my character. I’ve done some things here and there that Mike Melvoin arranged. I worked on the soundtrack that Dylan was on, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. Through my affiliation with Peter, I was introduced to Bob. I was in New York for the first time, working with Peter on a project. I put my drums into a cab, went to CBS Studios, unloaded them into this elevator, got them up to the studio, and set them up. There I was, and before I knew it, I had the headphones on listening to George Harrison playing and Bob Dylan singing. It was like being in heaven. I couldn’t believe it. I closed my eyes while I was playing, and it was like the biggest high. After that, Bob called me back to do an album that he was working on called New Morning. Billy Mundi played drums on it too.
RT: It seems that it would be a lot more fun to break into studio work the way you did—playing with bands more than doing jingles.
RK: Yeah, I think I’ve been really lucky.
RT: Do you think a drummer could break in that way today?
RK: I’d like to think so, but in a way it’s going to be harder and harder. We were just driving in the car today listening to the radio, and maybe two out of ten tunes were a real drummer. So many tunes are all techno, which I love. I use drum machines myself. They are great tools, especially in writing. It’s just so much easier to get a drum sound on a LinnDrum. It takes one-eighth of the time. You can do anything you want to it and it plays good time. It sounds good, and that’s what’s selling. But I think it may be real hard to break into the studios now because of that. The amount of jobs are limited. A lot of people have really felt it.
RT: The Linn is fine to play around with, but don’t you think they should impose some sort of moratorium on recording with it? [laughs]
RK: I don’t see how it could happen, because it’s an instrument and because you can’t stop technology. Technology taking away people’s jobs has been a problem all along, but you can’t stop it because it’s good. In reality, what’s the difference between a LinnDrum machine and a DX7? I mean it’s all technology isn’t it? One happens to be a keyboard that can sound like anything. They’re instruments, and they perform a function.
I’m fascinated by the drum machines. I love playing with them and using them, because I play other instruments. I’m fascinated by them the same way everybody else is, because, all of a sudden, instead of my having to play the drums, they can play the drums and I can write.
RT: I recently got to play around with a Sequential Circuits Drumtraks machine. It’s pretty amazing.
RK: It’s really fun, isn’t it? But I’ve noticed that I’ve been doing a few less things and it might be because of that. Even on the dates that I’ve been on, we would cut two tracks with a real rhythm section, and then there would be one tune that they would definitely want to do with a drum machine. You know, I’ll help them program it and put it together, but they definitely want to use it. We’ll do some cymbal crashes or some tom fills, but they definitely want the drum machine. And if I’m feeling that, I’m sure there are some people farther on down the line who really feel it. You know, with things like publishing demos, I’m sure they don’t need people to do them anymore. They can just pay $3,000 for the Linn machine and have it forever.
I’ve worked for a lot of people. I’ve really been lucky. Sometimes I get embarrassed about the amount of people that I’ve worked for in the same year. In the same summer, I’ve jumped back and forth between Ronstadt’s tour, James Taylor’s tour, and Jackson Browne’s tour. Other drummers I’m friends with kid around and ask, “Russ, why don’t you just pick one of those, and let somebody else do the other ones?” But it’s not up to me.
RT: It’s probably almost the entire rhythm section swapping tours sometimes.
RK: Yeah, with changes here and there in the keyboard or something. It’s happened a lot like that. It’s an incestuous little group.
RT: But you enjoy the feeling of playing in a band.
RK: Or just working with an artist on an album project. I just enjoy playing good songs.
RT: On a lot of the records you play on, you have to be out of the spotlight. Yet a lot of drummers try to emulate your playing. What has your approach been that has enabled you to stay out of the way, yet stay so strong?
RK: I guess the first thing I do is learn how much the singer or artist is going to let me do. I find that out by running the song down. I try to remember what those boundaries are and work within them. My approach consists of trying to be real tasteful, weaving in and out with what the artist is doing, and really just listening to everything that’s going on. I think the key is just to try to make everybody else sound good. That’s what I really try to do. And in the course of doing that, I’ll sound good too.
RT: Did James Taylor have many instructions for you on his early records?
RK: Only one or two things. He really trusted me. If he had any real specific ideas he’d tell me, but he never said much in reference to the drums. Kootch always had more ideas about what the drums should do, but Danny has ideas about everything. James just let me do what I wanted to do. He doesn’t play drums and I don’t think he had a real grasp of what rhythm is, although he’s very rhythmic with his guitar playing.
RT: You played brushes on James’s song “Fire And Rain.” Was that your idea?
RK: Yeah. The song was real dynamic and I kind of wanted to play it with sticks, but it was piano, acoustic guitar and upright bass. I didn’t want to change what I was playing, but I just didn’t want it to be so loud. So I decided to do the same thing, but to play it with brushes. And it worked really well.
RT: Were you still playing brushes on the tom-tom licks at the end?
RK: Oh yeah.
RT: Did they add a lot of reverb to get that huge sound?
RK: It was recorded well, and there’s some chamber on there. Sunset Sound Studios has a really good chamber. I was just laying into them. You can get a pretty live sound out of a brush. It’s such a different thing. Instead of this little stick—this little area hitting the head—the brush hits it kind of like a flyswatter. It hits a lot of the head, but softly, and it’s giving. It’s more of a slap, so it sets off a pretty big tone.
RT: You tend to have pauses in your beats. You won’t play a beat straight through a song, but will stop and sort of take a breath before picking it back up for the finish.
RK: I guess it just seems like a natural breath when I let there be a dynamic there instead of acting like a metronome and playing all through it. I think I look at the drums as being more of a melodic instrument than a rhythmic instrument. They’re both.
RT: Your drum sounds are so good. Do you help in the engineering?
RK: Yeah. I think it’s really important to work with the engineer very closely. I work very closely with the engineer on every project I’m involved with, because we both want to do something special that we haven’t done before. And it’s exciting. I’ll hear some record or something that turns me on and I’ll bring a copy over to the engineer and say, “Look, I don’t want to duplicate this but let’s get close to that. Let’s use this idea and take it somewhere else.” I’ve been working with Greg Ladanyi on Jackson Browne’s albums. He’s a very fine engineer, and there’s nothing that he won’t try. And I work with Shelly Yakus and Jimmy lovine when I work with Stevie Nicks. Shelly’s a brilliant engineer. He truly cares about the sounds, especially the drum sounds. He monitors them and listens to them constantly. He’ll be the first one to tell me when the pitch of the snare drum has gone lower just from hitting it. He’s very tuned to that. A lot of engineers I work with really care, especially about the drum sound. Even today with all the drum machines, it’s still always kind of the heart of all the tracks. The sound has to be great and be unique.
RT: Is it hard for you to tell when the snare has changed its tuning a little? It seems like it might be.
RK: I can feel it in the play of the head, especially if the lugs around where I’m hit- ting it have changed.
RT: I don’t imagine you could help so much in the engineering when you first started.
RK: I always helped in what I thought about—not the miking techniques or any of their engineering tricks. I always helped from the drum standpoint. I did what I could to make the drums sound better, because basically to get a good drum sound, you have to have drums that sound good. Then all you have to do is record that sound. That’s still basically the way you do it. You can’t record something that sounds bad and make it sound good. That doesn’t work. So just by my cooperating and making the drums sound good them- selves, the drum sound always started out about 85 percent there. The less EQ that you use and the less you use of everything, the better and fuller it’s going to be. That’s the way I was taught in the beginning and it really hasn’t changed.
RT: Are you playing with both top and bottom heads on your toms on those early records?
RK: Always. Nobody ever really wanted me to take them off. Nobody ever said anything, for the reason that they already sounded good. Most people don’t know how to tune drums with two heads on them. Somewhere along the line I learned how to do that long ago.
RT: What is your trick?
RK: Well, it’s just that the two heads have to be in tune with themselves, and not necessarily at a high pitch. It’s best to put the bottom head on, and tune it to where it’s the loosest it can possibly be without being wrinkled. Make sure that it’s in tune with itself and that no lug is tighter than any other lug. Then, tune the top head to the bottom head in the same way. You will get a true, deep, pure tone out of that cylinder. If you want it to be higher you can tweek it up and change the pitch, but you’ve got to bring them up together because, other- wise, you will hear those rings that are in there. That will happen if one of the little lugs is just a little tighter than one of the other ones. Shelly Yakus will mention that there’s something wrong with one of the lugs on a tom-tom. He’s the only one who does that. Then I’ve got to stop and tune it, but he’s always right. There’s always one of them that’s wrong.
RT: The photo on the back of James Taylor’s One Man Dog album shows you guys set up in an attic. Is that where you actually recorded?
RK: Yeah, we recorded in James’s house in Martha’s Vineyard. Most of that album was done there, but not all of it. We did a few tracks in L.A.
RT: There wasn’t a whole lot of separation between the instruments.
RK: There wasn’t any.
RT: It’s a good sound.
RK: Yeah, it came out okay. We did some wild things.
RT: Was the Sweet Baby James album your first big project? You seem to have gotten real busy right after that.
RK: It was the biggest thing that I’d ever been involved with. I worked with James for a long time, and toured with him after almost all the albums. Things got real busy.
RT: You worked with Joni Mitchell on a couple records.
RK: I worked on Blue and For The Roses.
RT: How did you meet Joni?
RK: I met Joan because I knew Crosby, Stills & Nash. I was good friends with those guys, especially David and Graham. I worked with all those guys in many different configurations. When James Taylor wasn’t working, I’d be working with them. I met Joni when David produced her first album. She was always around those guys anyway. As a matter of fact, when I was working with her on Blue, she and James were seeing each other. And I could see in her music that she was moving further and further towards jazz. The Section was together at that time and we were playing jazz, so my head was into that. I remember saying to her, “Joni, you ought to pick some of your music and surround yourself with some real legitimate jazz players just to see how they interpret your music, instead of trying to apply your jazz, free-expression ideas to folk music all the time. You ought to try that.” She went out and did it. And to this day, she’ll tell you that I told her to do that. Not that she probably wouldn’t have gone that way anyway, but I think it rang some bell.
RT: The Tapestry album you did with Carole King is a classic. Did Carole have ideas about what she wanted you to do?
RK: Carole always has ideas. She’s the consummate arranger. She knows exactly what she wants, and says it in the most beautiful, loving way. She’s a fine lady, and she didn’t get to where she is today by not being professional. If you look at a list of all the tunes she wrote, it’s staggering. It’s like all your favorite tunes of all time. Even before her own solo career, she and Gerry Goffin wrote a lot of stuff. Playing with her on those benefits we’ve been doing for Gary Hart has been so much fun. It’s weird because people are kind of rediscovering her. When we do the tunes from Tapestry, people go totally nuts. The band sounds really good and she’s singing really well. It’s like listening to the album but kind of updated just a little bit. It’s real exciting, and it’s neat to see people discovering it for the first time.
RT: Whose idea was it to have you and Jim Keltner play on James Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You”?
RK: That album, Gorilla, was produced by Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman. Russ or Danny probably came up with the idea. It was really fun.
RT: Did you guys talk it over or just go in and do it?
RK: Well, Jim Keltner is one of the greatest people there is, and we talked about it briefly. Whatever you want to do is fine with Jim. He has the same kind of attitude as I do; he just wants to make people sound good. So I kind of just played straight ahead. He just listened to what I played, and he played in those spots where I wasn’t playing. He had a couple of bass drum beats that made the whole bottom bass drum pattern much hipper. He just kind of did a flam on the hi-hat and the cross-stick on the backbeats. He played some simple things that made it groove, and I was just playing the full backbeats. He was putting those extra little sounds in there. I had a tambourine and was hitting that too.
RT: Do you ever see trends in drumming? For instance, did the new wave thing make us all more tom-tom oriented, by making us play more time on the toms?
RK: Yeah, it got more frantic. I think that was kind of the first shaking out, like “Oh hey, listen to us. This is different. This is just in the groove.” I think there definitely have been trends. But drumming’s just like songwriting. The good songs will still be the ones that make the hit list, and the great, sensitive playing will always shine out from the rest. Steve Gadd gave a great performance on the Paul Simon song, “Late In The Evening.” To watch him play that part is incredible. He’s got two sticks in one hand and plays all these parts. It’s fantastic. That’s the innovative, inside, in-the-groove stuff.
RT: Steve Gadd says you are a big influence of his.
RK: I think drummers are the biggest mutual admiration society that there is. Anybody who is outside that and puts other drummers down is just stupid. Drummers are not afraid to be influenced by, and are not afraid of, each other. I know I’m not. And the drummers I know are some of my dearest friends. I don’t see them all the time, but I know I can count on them and they can count on me. I think there’s plenty to be learned from each other. If I’m an influence on Steve Gadd, God bless him. I don’t know what it is, but if there’s something there for him, terrific. I really feel that I’ve accomplished something.
RT: Has your drumming changed any as a result of the trends in music? Is the part you play on Jackson Browne’s Lawyers In Love any more of a disco beat than you might have played years ago?
RT: Were you playing along with a click on that?
RK: On most of it, yeah. Sometimes it was even more than a click. Sometimes I would program the drum part very close to what I was going to play. The album took a long time to do, and in some cases, it was a real labor of love, but we might have over-played some of the songs a little bit. One song that I wrote with Jackson and Danny, “Tender Is The Night,” is something I’m really proud of but we did play a little too much. We were all concerned. We really wanted that song to be good, but we got into a situation where it was really late in the project and we had to get it done. We had played it just a little too much. If you have a trained ear and listen very closely, you can hear what I’m talking about, but I don’t think that the general public notices stuff like that. That style of drumming seemed to work for the tunes he’d written, and tunes that we were putting together. I don’t think I could have done anything else. I tried to be as inventive as I could be. I was very happy with the drum sound on that record. I think Greg really outdid himself. But that’s an old drum sound now for me. I constantly feel that my drum sound is emerging. It’s always changing just like everything else in the universe is constantly changing. Nothing remains the same. It’s got to evolve.
I got to meet Alan White, the drummer with Yes, about two or three weeks ago and I was just flabbergasted. I told him that I had been listening to the album 90125 day and night and that I thought it was really great. He said it took a long time to make it. When he introduced himself to me, he said, “I’ve been listening to you play for so long.” His album is so incredible. They took some great chances with the drum sounds. That’s what I like doing. That’s what I want to do with the things I’m involved in, but sometimes people won’t let me. But I always try to because I think that’s what people find interesting now, especially from the rhythm section. In the opening intro to “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” the drum sound is like John Bonham starting a tune, and it immediately cuts to this really tight kind of Police-like snare drum. I love that. That’s great. Then there’s Stewart Copeland. I mean, this guy’s a genius. Have you seen the Police video from their show at the Omni in Atlanta? If it comes on TV or you get a chance to see it, watch it. It’s true that in a three-piece band it’s pretty easy to get a great sound, especially for the drummer, because nobody is stepping all over anybody else. I mean, it’s his show. If he stops, it’s dead. Nothing happens; it’s over. He’s weaving in and out with Sting, who is so fluid anyway and so locked into the rhythm of all that stuff. Since he’s the bass player, it’s a natural combination for success and great music. They kind of came up from reggae, just like we came up from fusion music. They obviously decided, “Wow, reggae is what we want to play. Let’s learn how to play it.” I think it’s terrific. I think that the music that they will go on to make and the music that Phil Collins will go on to make are the trend setters as far as drumming goes right now. I just want to develop right along with them, and stop being afraid to try new things.
RT: Do you get a chance to try more things when you’re recording with Stevie Nicks?
RK: Yeah, it’s pretty open for me. Jimmy Iovine has specific ideas about what he wants, so I follow his lead a lot. But it’s definitely a pretty open situation. I enjoy it.
RT: In your video project, you chose to talk mainly about drum tuning, is that right?
RK: The aspect that I chose to talk about in my particular video was tuning, but the project is a lot bigger than that. This is something that I’m really excited about and very involved in right now on a grand scale. I’m putting a lot of time into it. I’m now contacting musicians, getting a copy of my tape to them, telling them what we want to do, and the response has been phenomenal.
RT: So there are going to be videos focusing on all the instruments?
RK: All instruments. What we want to have is a six-hour library of one-hour tapes. On each tape there will be four musicians—guitar player, bass player, keyboard player and drummer. Each one will have 12-minute segments in which to give a lesson of some sort. Each segment will also give some insight into that person. What makes Terry Bozzio think the way he does to make those cymbals sound that way? What is it in his personality? You can match those things up and see a little bit about the person that you can’t get from an interview or from seeing that musician play in concert. Hopefully, at the end of each particular tape, the four people will be shown in the studio working on a song. This will show how the interchange works and how music is made. How musicians interact together is something that people don’t usually get a chance to see. I just saw a clip of Let It Be where the Beatles are up on the rooftop working out a song. Just hearing one of their earlier takes that didn’t make it is almost more exciting than listening to the record. You know, watching “The Making of Thriller” to me is better than watching “Thriller.” So, all the musicians I’m contacting are real excited. We’re in the process now of trying to hook up with a major distribution network. We hope to have the first tape out before Christmas. I’m not totally sure who’s going to be on that tape other than me and Joe Walsh. I don’t know who the keyboard player and bassist will be. But the idea is that it’s educational and entertaining, instead of being just entertaining, like the music videos.
RT: Or for advanced students only.
RK: Yeah. There’s definitely going to be education there for advanced students. There will be some information that will be covered in depth, but it won’t be so much that you can’t just sit down with a bag of Fritos and a notebook to watch it and be entertained. After that’s done, we plan to go on and do the same thing with engineers and producers. What can be done in this format is almost infinite. I’m really excited about producing it. It’s a different twist for me. It’s a good time in my career for me to branch out a little bit and do some different things. All the musicians that I’m talking to feel great about sharing that information. No one wants to horde that information. If they do, they’re stupid. You have to share that information. All the kids coming up are playing great stuff, and I think that they should have every benefit available to them—all the stuff that we’ve found out already. I think this is the perfect tool to do that with.
RT: It will take a lot of the mystery out of making music.
RK: It’s going to bring a lot of the musicians that people have heard on records and really like into their home in a real true sense. They will be able to listen to Steve Lukather, or to Joe Walsh talking about how he gets the sound out of his Echoplex and how he uses the talk box.
RT: How many drumsets do you have, and how many do you actively play right now?
RK: Most of the time, right now, I just use the two Yamaha sets. I have two 9000 Recording Series sets. One is British racing green and one is white mother-of-pearl like the old Louis Bellson sets. I asked them if they could make it for me before the tour with Jackson, so they scrounged up some of that stuff and made it for me exclusively. I really like their drums a lot. They’ve been very true in pitch. The Yamaha people really care about the people who play their equipment. I can’t find anything wrong with it, and I’ve really tried. It’s pretty flawless. I imagine they make a bad drum every once in a while or a bad hoop, but it doesn’t get on any of the stuff they sell. So I have those two sets. I also have a set of Gretsch drums that I love dearly. I have a set of Pearl drums; the bass drum and the floor tom are wood and fiberglass, and the rest of the tom-toms are all fiberglass. I had all the hardware anodized black, and the shells are all painted florescent white. I have that in the basement of my house. And I have those new Paiste Rude cymbals. It’s a really loud cymbal; they really are rude. I have a couple of sets of Sonor drums. One is in Dallas in a studio that I use down there, and the other one I gave to my son. I use the Yamaha drums pretty much exclusively because I prefer them.
RT: On the cover of Jackson Browne’s Runnin’ On Empty album, your drumset has several North drums flaring out.
RK: That’s the Pearl set that’s in my basement, with three North drums on the right side above the floor toms. They weren’t even mine; I was renting them. I thought they looked wild. More people have asked me about that drum setup, because it was on an album that sold about five million copies. “What happened to those funny-looking drums?” I hated those drums, as a matter of fact, because all the sound went out the hole. Unless you were standing right out there by that megaphone, especially on the smaller drums, it was just like, “wump.” Out there it might have sounded fantastic, but I couldn’t hear it from where I was playing. Also they were real heavy with all that weight hanging out there, but they looked wild. More people relate to the look of those drums than anything else.
RT: What kind of sticks are you using?
RK: I play an Art Blakey model that I get from the Professional Drum Shop in L.A. and I’ve been fooling around with some Dean Markley sticks that they made for me, too. I haven’t totally endorsed them but they’re okay. They’re a duplicate of the AB model, but made out of their hickory stuff. They’re well balanced and straight, so I’m playing some of those too.
RT: How about heads?
RK: Remo clear Ambassadors on the top, Remo clear Diplomats on the bottom, and a coated Ambassador on the snare. I like the clear heads. It’s a gummier sound. There’s something nice about the mid-range and the low end that I like.
RT: Have you used those kinds of heads all along?
RK: When I was in The Section, I played all coated heads, because I wanted the impact—that top-end kind of thing—but after we put that aside, I went to the other head, and I’ve stuck with it. I like it.
RT: Are there any things you do for warm- up before you play?
RK: Not before I play. I try to lead a very active life in general. I work out every day and have a routine that I do no matter where I am. I do aerobics, play tennis, golf, swim and try to do active, sporty things. Doing that kind of keeps you in shape. Once you get past 25, you must have that kind of thing in your life or you will get too far behind. Before I play I just try to loosen up. Sometimes a good exercise is to play the congas or bongos before you play the drums. It’s really good for your wrists, and it also gets the blood in the hands, just from slapping the drums. Then when you pick up the sticks and hold them, your hands aren’t cold and clammy. They’re hot and ready to go.
RT: I noticed that you play matched grip, and sometimes bring your left hand up pretty high before slapping the backbeat.
RK: I guess it comes up pretty high. It depends on how much time I’ve got, I guess.
RT: Is that part showmanship?
RK: I got to play a lot of big, Forum-size concerts—20,000 people and more. The backbeat just becomes so much more important in the bigger places. You are really laying it down for the rest of the people in the band. I just got into really relying on that and hitting it hard. I noticed that the harder I hit the backbeat and the louder the drum was, the more everyone grooved and the more everyone reacted. When I would just settle down and try to simmer on something, people were going, “What happened? Turn your drums up.” So I guess I’ve made it pretty important to hit it hard. Depending on the tempo of the song, if there’s more time, I might do something that’s part showmanship too, just by drawing that motion out, so people can see that it is the backbeat and there’s some kind of motion going on. I think people like to see that.
RT: Steve Smith was talking recently about how he was trying to play more bottom heavy by putting more emphasis on the kick drum, and making sure that the snare is there, but not playing so loud with his right hand. Can you relate to what he’s talking about?
RK: Yeah, I can. The emphasis is always changing with me. I guess it depends on who I’m playing with and what the songs are. But I try not to rely on being one way. Some days I’ll just sit down at my drums and will feel like there’s nothing I can’t do with my kick drum. That’ll lead me right to it and I’ll just stay with it. I’ll let it lead all the way. Some days it’ll be my left hand, and I’ll carry over the strength from the left hand into the left-handed fills. You can do fills that sound really good with your left hand going at about 40%, and then your right hand will be carrying the weight of all of it. The left hand will just be picking up the beats that the-right hand misses. You can do the same kind of fill and concentrate on really charging with your left hand, and the fill will sound totally different. It will be vibrant and really accelerated. My right hand is a little faster and it does more of the work all the time. The left hand is just chopping that wood. All the finesse seems to be in the right hand. Some days I’ll lead with my left hand and concentrate on putting more of the left hand into the fills. Sometimes I’ll only do the fills with my left hand and just stay on the ride with my right. Jim Gordon used to do that really well. And then some days I’ll let my right hand do it. I don’t know what my left foot is doing. It’s just bouncing up and down as high and as much as it can. My left foot is pretty erratic in a way, but I like it because the places that it ends up playing are unique. It kind of has its own rhythm, like a stubborn child, but I just let it be. It does what I want it to do when I want it to do something specific, but most of the time it’s just kind of out there moving.
RT: Do you play double bass drums?
RK: I have, but what I’ve come to like a little bit more now is this pedal that goes out on the other side of the hi-hat that plays on the one bass drum. I think that’s pretty cool. It’s a more efficient way of doing it.
RT: Are you happy with the action on the far-left pedal?
RK: Not really. It takes a certain amount of adjusting depending on how you have to have it. I’ve changed beaters and actually put a Yamaha pedal on the plate although I like the chain drive pedals. But I got used to playing the Yamaha pedal. It’s a very good pedal too. The action on the left pedal isn’t totally perfected, but it’s fun to play. You should hear Keltner play on one of those things.
RT: What kind of cymbals are you playing?
RK: Paiste, although I have some great Zildjian cymbals which I use from time to time in the studio. I have a really great set of Paiste cymbals. The cymbals go from 6″, 8″, 10″, and 12″, to a 13″, two sets of 15″ hi-hats with the zigzag on the bottom, a 16″ crash, 17″ crash, 18″ crash, 20″ crash-ride, 21″ crash-ride, and 22″ ride.
RT: Do you set them all up at once?
RK: I have. One time I set them up from little to big. And it was great because it was like a whole other instrument. It looked pretty wild too. But I have them all just to have them. The little cymbals are great. Sometimes I just put them up in odd places. That’s another thing. I never set my drums up the same way twice. They’re always different. It’s like I always wear different shoes. Some drummers either have to go barefoot or wear a certain kind of shoe. I decided that was too much trouble. You never know when you’re going to have to play, and what if you don’t have the right shoes on? Then what are you going to say, “I’m sorry. I can’t play”? So I decided I could play in any shoes. I’ve played in boots, tennis shoes, and bare- foot. I end up changing my setup all the time. I like it because it makes me play differently. If you set up the same way all the time, you’re going to rely on that, and if you sit down on somebody else’s drums, it’s going to feel like, “How do I work this deal?” So I’m constantly changing. Sometimes I’ll set up two bass drums. I’m into a thing now where I have two floor toms on the right and another one on the left, on the other side of the hi-hat. If you want to hit the tom and snare together, it just makes more sense not to double over. So I have it over there. Also in the setup, there’s this whole space over there. Nothing’s over there, except the hi-hat. You put your drink there or something, so why not put a drum there?
RT: I was putting a snare drum over there for a while.
RK: I did that for a while too. But I found a better place for the snare drum. If you only use one floor tom, put the extra snare drum on the other side of the floor tom. When you do a fill, you won’t have to come back to get it. Stevie “Grizzly” Nesbitt, the drummer in Steel Pulse, is probably the best reggae drummer there is, and he doesn’t even have a floor tom. He just has another snare drum sitting over there. He’s got two toms up here, and he does his fills, “whack du-du du-du whack!” It’s great.
RT: You said you have two sets of hi-hat cymbals. Do you set up both at the same time?
RK: Sometimes I do, yeah. I set up a closed set over the floor toms underneath the ride cymbals, so I can play over there. They’re not real tight; they’re just set up slushy. But I’m changing my set all the time. For this tour with Fogelberg, I’ll probably use everything I have. It’s going to be outrageous. I think it’s exciting when you come to a concert to see all different kinds of drums on stage. If you just see a simple three-piece set like Charlie Watts has or something, that’s exciting too, because then you think, “Wow, this guy must be bad if he’s going up there without many drums.” Sometimes I’ll just go out on tour with one tom. On Jackson’s Holdout tour, I just played one tom and a floor tom, bass drum, snare drum, two cymbals and that was it. It was great. And that makes you play differently. That’s what Andy Newmark was talking about in his article. But see, I wouldn’t do that all the time. That’s what I have in my house and play at home all the time. You can’t rely on all those toms for the fills. You have to fill the space up with being creative and being exciting. Sometimes I just like to have Ringo’s two toms and a floor tom setup, and that’s really all I need. That one extra tom gives it an added dimension. Then, sometimes I just need to have everything.
RT: You must drive your roadies nuts.
RK: Well, not really, because I don’t change it from day to day. I might change it from session to session. I’ll get to a session and decide not to use this or that. Maybe if a different song comes up and I want a different kind of thing, I’ll change the setup just a little bit. But I’m not changing all the time, especially on tour. I know how nuts that can get. I decide what I’m going to do at the rehearsals and then I leave it. But it’ll be different from the last tour. No, I wouldn’t do that to the roadies. I rely on them too much to make their job harder than it is.
RT: What are your feelings on electronic drums? Are you impressed by the Simmons?
RK: Yeah. I don’t have a set of Simmons drums. I think eventually I will at least get the sequencer and the device that they’ve come up with that you can put on a set of regular drums. Somebody came up with something just using contacts or something. I think it’s fantastic. I love the sound of it, but like, where are the Syndrums, right? I mean they were fine. They weren’t as sophisticated as Simmons drums, but Simmons drums do have a finite amount of sound within them. So eventually, after everyone uses it for five or ten years, there’ll be something else. You’re not going to replace the acoustic guitar and you’re not going to replace the acoustic drums. But I like all the electronic drums. The only thing that bothers me is that everybody loves it and everybody really uses it, so it’s going to be overused. It’s probably reaching that point now. The drum machine duplicating real drum sounds and eliminating the hassles of dealing with a drummer and getting a drum sound is going to be around for a long time because it’s a time-saver. That allows you to be extra creative in a lot less time.
RT: I read that you had taught yourself to play a number of instruments over the years.
RK: I taught myself how to play the keyboard and how to play the guitar. I love to play the bass. I have a new Yamaha MKlOO—a little keyboard that’s totally programmable—and travel with that. You can be a musician in a matter of weeks by just not being afraid to sit down and play the piano for a while, pick up the guitar and learn a few things, and write a song. It makes you feel good.
RT: Has there ever been an album that you only played on half of, but that you really wished you could have done the whole thing?
RK: Not really, because there’s usually a reason for it. Either I wasn’t available or they just wanted me for a certain feel on certain tunes that they thought I was better for than anybody else, and they felt that there were other people who would be better for other songs. I think that’s a wise choice on the part of the producer. Some people think that it makes for not having a lot of continuity, but I think it’s okay to have a variety.
RT: Tell me about playing on Ringo’s new album. I got a kick out of seeing your name on that.
RK: I just played on one tune, “I Keep Forgettin’.” Joe Walsh produced the album and he called me to overdub some drums on this tune. It only had a Linn machine. I was just eliminating the Linn machine. It was really fun.
RT: Did you play along with Ringo at all?
RK: No, but he came in later to put some tom-tom fills on, because I think he wanted to be on the track too. When we went out to dinner, he said, “Well Russ, everybody knows how great you are, but I hope you understand that I’d like to be on that track too.” He was so funny, and he’s such a great guy. The problem was that it was probably going to be a single, and here’s Ringo Starr, who’s a drummer, and he should be on there. So we both played on it.
RT: Did you play with B.B. King?
RK: Yeah, on an album called Indianola Mississippi Seeds. Carole King played piano on that album. I met Joe Walsh at a B.B. King session where we recorded “Hummingbird,” Leon Russell’s tune. It was Walsh, B.B. King, me on drums, Leon Russell on piano, and a friend of mine named Brian on bass. That’s one session where I was totally terrified. The producer was Bill Szymczyk, and here were Leon Russell, B.B. King, and Joe Walsh. It was wild. This was 1969 or 1970.
RT: I have a picture of you in the studio behind your drums, and you had a conga drum set up off to your left.
RK: Well, that came about because when I played with James, there were a lot of tunes I played percussion on. Sometimes I just played percussion; other times I would play percussion for the first verse, and then go to drums. So I kind of had to have congas and whatever my percussion deal was, with bongos and stuff, set up so I could just swivel around and play them. We did a lot of stuff live like that, and Peter always liked it to be that way. That was one dynamic we always used to use with James. And they liked to do it live.
RT: Picking up and putting down sticks gets a little hairy.
RK: Well, what we’d do would be to have a piece of foam to put them on. You just have to be careful. It’s a challenge.
RT: Your son is playing drums now?
RK: Yeah, Nathaniel. He’s 13.
RT: How do you feel seeing him become a drummer?
RK: It’s very exciting. He does a lot of other things too, but he enjoys playing. Over New Years, a bunch of people got together to put on a show in Santa Barbara. It was me, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Lukather, David Paich, Bill Champlin, Joe Walsh, Kenny Loggins and Joe Cocker. While we were rehearsing for a couple days, Nathaniel got to hang around, and at one point, he got to sit down at the drums. They were playing kind of a low, half-time shuffle, and he was just pounding it out. Man, he was going for it. Jeff and I were standing over in the corner kind of encouraging him, “Yeah, alright!” Jay Winding and Paich were just playing. They didn’t know who was playing drums. They had been playing for four minutes when they both looked up and saw that it was Nathaniel. You could just see the amazement come over their faces. David is so encouraging. He just started screaming, “Alright Nathaniel, you’re groovin”, alright.” Everyone was just bolstering him. Just to be able to sit down and play with those cats—I mean, there are people a lot older than him who would pay good money to sit down and play with David Paich, and here’s Nathaniel not overplaying it and not being shy, but being real confident about what he was doing, and just truly enjoying it. He knows who these guys are. He’s listened to all of Toto’s records. He knows they’re the best cats that there are. But they’re just regular people to him that he got to play with. He’s had some pretty special experiences that have helped mold him into a good player”.
RT: What does he think of his dad’s playing?
RK: I think he likes it. The groups that he listens to and really likes are Scorpions and Night Ranger.
RT: That genre is very popular.
RK: Yeah, because the sound is cool. I dig the sound of those records. I said to Nathaniel, “Do you ever listen to the words of these songs? Do you ever listen to ‘Give The Dog A Bone’?” He said, “You know what? I don’t even care about the lyrics. I’m just into the music.” But I might listen to the words. It’s cool, I don’t dislike the music at all. For him it’s exciting. It’s his own identity, and that’s what’s important. I think that’s what it is for everybody. A lot of people don’t understand all the techno music or the punk stuff. That’s okay, because for the people who like it, it’s their identities and their music. That’s important. You’ve got to have that. For our parents, it was Tony Bennett.
RT:Who are your favorite bass players?
RK: Leland Sklar, Bob Glaub and I have been working a lot together over the last five or six years. Bob is brilliant. He makes the drummer’s work very easy. He’s really a great groove player. I just worked with Emory Gordy in Nashville a little while ago, when I was there working on some stuff with Dan Fogelberg. He was a lot of fun to play with, in a whole different style. We were doing some bluegrass music and it was nice to play with somebody who could really move around on upright or on Fender bass or anything. I like working with Norbert Putnam, too. He’s another real good bass player. I don’t get to play enough with a lot of people that I like a lot. I’ve played with Abe Laboriel a couple times and it was always a magnificent experience. But I don’t get to play with him all the time.
RT: It’s funny but I’ve found with bass players that sometimes the ones who know the least about the instrument play the strongest grooves, and the knowledgeable ones play too much.
RK: I know what you mean. Less is more.
RT: On Jackson Browne’s song “Say It Isn’t True,” you play a very modernistic, sparse beat.
RK: Right. That was fun to come up with. A lot of the drum parts on the album Lawyers In Love I must say were influenced by UB40. During that period of time, they were one of my favorite groups. I really like their music. They are really saying something in their songs; their lyrics are great; their melodies are very haunting and very good. Rhythmically, they come up with some really great stuff. Between Steel Pulse and UB40,1 had a plethora of drum ideas for different things that I brought into Jackson’s project. Some of those things were made up just from different configurations of those ideas. However, I would have liked to have done a lot more.
RT: On Carly Simon’s tune “Waterfall” you do some real nice hand-to-foot combination fills. How do you know when to play those?
RK: Most of that stuff just occurs. It felt like the right thing to do. Or maybe I had something in my mind that I had heard somebody else do, just changed it up a little bit, and wanted to incorporate it into the song. It seemed to fit, and I would just work on it. Usually, between the time we run down the song and start to record it, I just stay on the drums and figure it out. But I play almost every day, working, so I don’t sit down that much and practice. Sometimes I go down and practice changing my lead or something. I work on exercises to make my left hand stronger and a more dominant force in the whole pattern, not just in the fills. The same kind of strength you help put in the backbeat, you can use any time the hand hits anything. That evens things out a bit. As far as the hand and foot stuff is concerned, I think that’s the same kind of thing—just changing up and just making yourself play differently. That’s something I try to do all the time, by using different setups and by trying to change those leads. I try to make myself play differently every time, and hopefully it gets better. But I’ve never been the kind of person who could sit down and practice. I envy people who have done that in a way, because they can do things that I can’t do. But I don’t feel bad about it. I love them for doing it. There might be things that I can do, just out of intuition and out of feel, that they enjoy hearing too. The key word here is discipline. You have to have the discipline to sit down long enough and learn it. In the end, it’s probably better to learn everything you can that has to do with being disciplined, because once you learn it, you know it. For me to do it is not a step backwards. It’s a step ahead, but it’s going back to something that I didn’t do a long time ago and recap- turing it. It’ll probably mean a lot more. I think it’s important to have discipline all through, not just in music but in your whole life. That’s the word that really makes the difference.
RT: I’ve heard a lot of drummers talk about how important it is to have a positive attitude going into a gig.
RK: Yeah, I think having the attitude that you want to make everybody else sound good is the right attitude to have, and that you want to listen. Listening is the most important thing in playing music. You have to hear what’s going on around you—everything that’s being played and said—and understand it. Interpret that however you’re going to interpret it, and do whatever it’s going to make you do. Then you’ll create whatever you’re going to create. But if you don’t listen, you’re lost. As a drummer, I have to listen to the bass player, because if I’m in a situation where the bass player is overplaying, I have to hear that and correct that situation somehow. I can either say something like, “Hey, why don’t we try this?” I can become a constant for the bass player. In other words, what I want to do is make the whole thing feel good for everybody. So if the bass player is not providing that pulse, I will provide the pulse and see if that musician picks up on the fact that I’m really holding it down. Usually, that’s the way that you want it to come around. You don’t want to say anything unless you absolutely have to. Is the bass player playing on top of the beat or behind the beat? I have to know, so that I can play with that person.
I don’t sit down at a session and immediately assume that everybody’s going to play with me because I am the drummer. There are people who have that attitude, but that’s the wrong attitude. The drummer is no more or less important than any other musician on any other instrument. The first connection you want to make is with the bass player. If the bass player is playing behind the beat and that seems to be cool, I’ll play right there behind the beat and see how that grooves. If that’s not happening, maybe we’ll talk about it and move it up. We’ll see what the guitar player’s doing. I like to pinpoint what the potential problem is going to be, if there’s going to be one, and try to make everyone meld. Once I see where the bass player is and what the guitar player’s doing, then I’ll say, “Okay, I’ll do this and stick it right in this spot,” and see if everybody is comfortable with that. Then everyone can rely on me after I’ve listened to where they feel comfortable. I’ll pick that spot, and then be that stable base for them to relax on. As they are playing, the other musicians think, “Oh, there’s the groove. I know that it’s not going anywhere. Now I can relax. I don’t have to try to make the drummer play in the pocket. He’s already playing in it.” So by listening and picking up on all that around you, you can interpret it and play what everybody really needs to have the drummer do. What you’re doing is making everybody else sound great. You can’t lose.