Inside one of New York’s most elegant hotels, the new rock conglomerate, The Firm, has taken up residence, calling the place “home” for the last leg of its first U.S. tour. In the hotel’s bar, I’m waiting for Chris Slade’s arrival for our long anticipated interview. After several minutes slip by, three guys file in: Two wear silver outfits resembling space suits, and the third, wearing a jacket and trousers, dangles a cigarette between his lips. The trio is, respectively, Chris, Tony Franklin, and Jimmy Page. Chris greets me with a hearty hello, explaining that he and Tony had been at a photo session on a nearby rooftop that day for a Nike endorsement, hence the “astronaut “costumes. He apologizes for being late, and then dashes upstairs for a quick change of clothes before we get things under way.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Page is playfully darting back and forth between the piano bar, lounge, and lobby, while a few of The Firm’s road crew start to converge in the lounge, unwinding from the rigors of the tour before finally heading back to England for the last dates. Tony Franklin has retired to a table in the bar with some friends, still dressed in that outrageous getup and dark sunglasses. None of the guests seem to notice this carnival-like scenario around them; in fact, the businessmen in the bar barely divert their attention from their wheelings and dealings.
At one point, Page drops by my table. He talks about the new band and I elicit his sentiments on his new drummer: “I was in the rehearsal studio in England for about six weeks in search of a drummer,” Page replies. “There were people coming in for jams that I had known about in the past, and there were others that I had never met or heard of before. The spectrum ranged from Rat Scabies to Bill Bruford, with everything in between.
“Chris—I just warmed to him immediately because he played with so much heart, and technically was able to handle everything and anything that was presented to him, riff-wise as well as any abstract things. I was so impressed with him that I waited for him to come off a three-month tour, and after working with him on the album and on this tour, I’m even more impressed with him.”
It’s only recently that Chris Slade has been generating the recognition and exposure from audiences that he’s long received from accomplished musicians familiar with his tremendous scope of talents. A native of Ponty-Pridd, Wales (born October 30, 1946), Slade’s initial professional experience grew into a seven-year tenure in fellow Welshman Tom Jones’s highly visible band (originally named Tommy Scott & The Senators in the early ’60s). Eventually, he moved on to co-form Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in 1971, then played with Uriah Heep, Gary Numan, and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, finally becoming The Firm’s visual and propulsive spearhead in the autumn of ’84.
Slade’s onstage persona carries a double-edged sword: He emerges as a highly kinetic force—ravaging the drums and cymbals that surround him, breathing flames into every fill—while he equally reveals a penchant for playing sublime, jazz-oriented grooves and complex textural patterns with expressive sensitivity.
In the ensuing conversation, Chris talks about his relationship with the drums over the last 20-odd years, and some of the “basics”—the vital proponents sustaining a very vital career. Midway through the interview, Chris made a comment that was similar to what other drummers have stated on these pages: “I’m only doing this because it’s for Modern Drummer. I really believe that it’s important for drummers, especially young ones, to read about the experiences of accomplished drummers. There’s a lot to be gained by that.”
Besides his enthusiasm for sharing his ideas about drumming and his modest feelings about his accomplishments, I was struck by Chris’s general feeling of well-being and contentment that he radiates openly, similar to the passion he visibly projects on stage towards his drumming.
TS: Starting with The Firm, how did you initially hook up with Page?
CS: December 15, 1983, was a red-letter day for me. Dave Gilmour called me that morning and said, “I’m putting a tour together. Do you fancy playing drums?” I told Dave that I was very interested, but I was involved in a project with Mick Ralphs [Bad Company] at that moment. Dave said, “Oh, that’s alright. Mick’s doing it too!” So I said, “Great.” That very afternoon I received a call from Phil Carlo, Jimmy’s tour manager, who said, “Jim would like you to come down for a blow at Nomis Studios in Shepherd’s Bush.” I literally could not believe getting calls from both Gilmour and Page on the same day. I said to myself, “I just wish I could do both projects.”
TS: Your wish was granted. Page even ended up waiting for you to finish the Gilmour tour because he wanted you in The Firm.
CS: I’m definitely a positive thinker. I kept believing it would all work out. I had my first meeting with Jimmy, which really was just a jam, and he was coming up with ideas right on the spot. Jimmy did play an instrumental version of “Midnight Moonlight,” which he had done with Paul Rodgers on the A.R.M.S. tour, but the rest of the pieces were hard-to-define, complicated instrumentals. You can’t think in terms of time signatures for that kind of music; you just have to feel where the beat goes. We’d play some really simple things and maybe a blues number. Then Jimmy would say, “How about this, fellas?” and he’d come off with something really difficult. I immediately thought, “What the hell was that?” In that kind of situation, you have to react quickly. You have to listen to the music and try to understand what’s happening. Then you have to come up with the goods.
While I was rehearsing with Gilmour for his tour, every chance I had I would organize a jam with Jimmy. In between Dave’s European and U.S. tours, we had our first jam with Paul Rodgers.
TS: Wasn’t The Firm going by the pseudonym The MacGregor Brothers at that time?
CS: That’s right. When I got that initial call, I started to think about who the lead singer would be. I had known vaguely about Paul and Jimmy’s association on the A.R.M.S. tour, and I thought, “I bet Paul Rodgers is going to be the lead singer in this band.” Sure enough, we eventually had a blow with Paul. It all just fell together so well.
People keep asking us if this is going to be a long-term project, and if there’s going to be another album and another tour. Initially, nobody in the band looked that far ahead, but now we’re planning our second album, which will probably be recorded by the time this article is published.
TS: With Page’s long and strong association with John Bonham, did you initially expect comparisons? Did you ever feel you were playing in his shadow?
CS: I honestly was concerned only with playing the gig. I wasn’t, and still am not, aware that I’m in any way connected with Bonham. I was never trying to emulate him in any way at all, nor did I feel that that was expected of me. The comparison is made because he died, and he’s always been legendary. He was one of the greatest characters in rock music, just like Keith Moon; both were bigger than life, on stage as well as off. I wish 1 could offer more on Bonzo. I’ve heard some amazing stories about him.
[Jimmy Page overheard what was said, and commented, “As far as John Bonham is concerned, any comparisons are unfair. It’s got nothing to do with Chris, and it’s unfortunate that people would even suggest it. The similarity between them is that they’re both extremely powerful and technical.”]
TS: So there were no preconceived notions on your part as far as what was expected of you?
CS: No, not at all. I didn’t have any idea of what was in Jim’s mind at first. It could have very well been a jazz project, film score, or a number of different things.
TS: Is it easier to be heard in a three-piece band like The Firm in comparison to playing in bands where synthesizers, more than one guitar, and maybe horns are competing for a portion of the sound?
CS: I know this will sound very strange—here comes one of my contradictions—but, as far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a vast difference in playing with Count Basie or in Uriah Heep, and I’ve played with both. You’ve got to let people know where the beat is at a certain volume level. That’s your primary function. If the other musicians can’t hear you, they are not going to feel comfortable. So you have to play at the volume level that’s necessary. With the advancements and efficiency of monitors these days, it’s really not necessary to play all that loud, although I do tend to hammer the hell out of my equipment. But when it’s appropriate, I play some softer, quieter things, as you’ve probably noticed. For instance, in “Midnight Moonlight” I play only the edge of the cymbals, and that’s in an 18,000-seat stadium. I do those types of things when I know it’s relevant to the music.
TS: On The Firm LP, there’s a segue connecting “Make Or Break” and “Someone To Love” with you playing some involuted time. How did you come up with those intro bars?
CS: That’s one of those instances that I’m pleased to have recorded. I stole that from Narada Michael Walden. It’s not an exact copy, but I had heard him do something like that a while ago and it captured my attention. When the segue begins, it sounds as if I’m playing four on the beat, but I’m not. I’m playing on the &’s of the beat. When the bass drum kicks in, I’m doing a disjointed thing that I love.
The guys in the band said, “Chris, why don’t you come up with an intro for this one.” I said, “Okay. Try this,” and Jimmy went straight into it. It was great. I also break up the intro of “Closer” like that. I don’t come in straight until the vocals start. On stage, we change it: Paul comes straight in singing because Jim plays the intro, and that’s the start of the show. Since Paul has got to start singing straightaway, there’s no time for me to mess around.
TS: How did you record The Firm LP? Did you overdub or was it live?
CS: We played the backing tracks and vocals live, standing in the room together. Paul didn’t even sing inside a booth. We couldn’t take anything off because the music was put on with his master vocal. I figured that we would work just as most bands do: Paul would come in and do a bit of guide lead vocal for us chaps to play to. Instead, he came in and sang his heart out, which inspired us to play, of course. But later, we couldn’t subtract anything, only add. I prefer the feeling you get from recording live, plus there’s the eye contact everyone transmits. There are times that you look at each other like, “Okay, here comes the bridge fellows,” and we’d all just nod and smile.
TS: There’s also a lot of nonverbal communication on stage among the band members. You all certainly seem to be smiling a lot, using eye contact to play off one another.
CS: Yeah, all the time. Tony and I often crack each other up on stage with some of the sounds we’re getting. It’s great, because when something we do unexpectedly works out, it’s often a big laugh. By just looking across at each other—we don’t say a word—it’s like, “Oh, that was pretty good, wasn’t it?” After the gig, nobody even mentions it; it’s just something special that happens on stage.
TS: Is there a “Chris Slade sound” that’s easily definable?
CS: No, not really. I’m a bit of a chameleon, actually. I tend to play to whatever’s going on around me. You can tell it’s Phil Collins when you hear him, just as you can tell Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, and a lot of other people. I don’t think I do that. I tend to blend more. I’m very prominent within the music. Also, I can play heavy rock as well as jazz. I’m proud and pleased that I have that versatility. I realize that the other drummers that I mentioned certainly do that too, but they tend to play themselves—to play a certain recognizable way—whereas my “sound,” if you like, changes as the bands and musicians change. The situation where I’ve liked my drum sound on record the most would be with The Firm, and that was because of the engineer.
TS: How much of a role did you play in getting that sound down?
CS: I’m not very technical where equipment is concerned. I do know what a basically good-sounding drum is like, and I might suggest things like, “Take the EQ down” or “Can you bring this up,” but the whole sphere of technology is becoming very complicated. That’s how Phil Collins gets that incredibly distinctive sound. He really knows the technological side of it.
Gene Krupa brought the drums to the front of the stage, but Phil Collins brought them to the front of the mix. I always thought drums should have been more up front anyway. It’s the most basic element of the music. I know that being a drummer myself might make me a bit biased, but drums should be up front, and many bands have begun to realize that.
TS: Let’s go back to how it all started. How did your involvement with drums come about?
CS: When I was about 13, my brother started me off. He brought a drum home one day—he was in a street marching band with the Air Training Corps—and he showed me a few things. Soon after, I began to borrow his drum and started practicing. It was one of those side drums that you wear—the type with the rope on the side to tension it, with a calfskin head.
After I had a few things together through practicing, I became a drummer in the Boys Brigade—Britain’s version of the Boy Scouts—and I learned that marching-type drumming. It was sort of a bugle band. Every Sunday we’d march through the streets playing, and that teaches you time, too. It’s hell moving that drum with your leg and playing at the same time. [laughs] But that was good for me, and I enjoyed being part of it.
It sounds corny now, but I remember when I was 14 or 15 someone telling me, “You’ve got to get a ‘real’ job.” I said, “All I want to do is play drums.” That person said, “Look, you’re just being crazy. That’s no job.” I said, “Well look, if I can earn my living playing drums, I’11 be happy for the rest of my life.” I’m so pleased that I’m able to be a drummer. I’m doing something that I really love—something artistic and creative.
TS: What was the musical environment like in South Wales when you were growing up?
CS: I grew up listening to Buddy Holly, not Presley. I suddenly slipped into jazz, too. The first record I ever bought was jazz. It was the soundtrack from a movie called All Night Long—Patrick McGoohan played a drummer in the film, and if I remember correctly, the film was a jazzed-up version of MacBeth. The drummers on the soundtrack were amazing. They were mainly English guys, but I think Joe Morello made a guest appearance on that, too. I know it had all the best session players in London at the time: people like Alan Ganley and Barry Morgan, who are still on top.
In Britain and in Wales during the time I was growing up, Gene Krupa was often on the Sunday afternoon movies on TV, so everyone was into him. But I heard Buddy Rich on record and thought, “Who is this guy?” Of course, in America he was already a phenomenon. So Rich was always my favorite drummer—and still is. His sound was crisper, plus he had power and drive. Then Tony Williams came along, and I had two favorite drummers. I’d also have to include Ian Paice as being a major influence on me. To me, he is the definitive rock drummer. He’s got everything—technique and heart.
TS: Listening to your solo last night, it was apparent that you were drawing on Rich’s influences.
CS: Most definitely. It was hip to be into Gene Krupa, but I went for Rich because I could relate much more to what he was doing.
Although rock ‘n’ roll was the big music scene where I grew up, I also used to listen to Radio Luxembourg because that was mainly top-20 pop, which exposed me to a variety of music. Now I love all kinds of music—even classical. I went to see Carmina Burana by Carl Orff at Carnegie Hall the other day. I also listen to free jazz. I enjoy a diverse musical outlet—any type of music. I think it was Duke Ellington who said, “There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.” That’s a beautiful quote.
TS: How did you make the transition from amateur to pro?
CS: I was 16 when I heard that Tom’s regular drummer had gotten the sack. I had been working in a shoe store, and this guy came into the store to buy some shoes one day. I realized that he was the lead guitarist with Tommy Scott & The Senators [Tom Jones’s band]! After a lot of deliberation, I walked up to him and said, “I hear you need a drummer.” He said, “Yeah.” It took a lot of courage on my part, especially since the guy was 20, and I was 16. An age difference of four years is a lot when you’re a kid. I said, “Oh, I live close to Tom,” and he said, “Tell you what: I’ll bring the band down, and we’ll play right at your house.” I had my kit set up in my front room, you see. Soon after, I joined the band, and I remember taking my drums on the public buses. The whole Premier kit—a floor tom, a mounted tom—no covers on the drums, plus all the cymbals that were in a box. Mind you, I loaded the entire kit onto the bus. [laughs]
We started going up to London for the odd audition and recording job, and then we finally made a permanent move there in about ’63 or ’64. Our first date was supporting the Rolling Stones after their first record, “Come On,” had just been released.
TS: That experience must have been unforgettable.
CS: It was incredible. I’ve never seen so many sweaty people jammed into a cellar in all my life. It was so hot on stage that we couldn’t breathe. That was our first London gig.
TS: You mentioned that you played with Count Basie. How did that come about?
CS: Tom had switched from being a rock ‘n’ roller to being a cabaret performer, so we started using a band called the Ted Heath Orchestra, which was a really outstanding big band. Tom had held over the rhythm section from his rock days, so I stayed in the band when he changed. The change was initiated by the management agency. We had been a rock ‘n’ roll quartet, but most of our audiences were made up of people over 25, and most of those folks were not into rock music. Because of that, the move was made into the cabaret circuit as opposed to the rock circuit.
When we first moved into cabaret, Tom’s manager wasn’t sure if the rhythm section could cut this big band thing. They hadn’t known that I’d been listening to big band music ever since I was a kid. They had sort of an audition, and I remember being extremely nervous the night before. I went ’round to Tom’s house twice that night to talk to him, and he was just as nervous as I was. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but they had Kenny Clare sitting in the wings in case I couldn’t cut the gig. He took over for me when I left that band. He was a great player and a very nice man. He just died this past January. Anyway, Kenny was sitting in the next room just waiting for me to fall on my ass, but luckily, I didn’t. I stayed with Tom for another four years after that, and when we came to the States, he used the Count Basie Band, which was great.
TS: So Basie’s band was added onto Tom’s rhythm section for his set?
CS: Right. The Count would do his bit, and then his band—except for the rhythm section—would stay on after he finished. Every body says the same thing to me: “Wow! You played with Count Basie!” Then I have to explain how it actually occurred. I did have the chance to play a few numbers with him. That was fantastic. They were great players to work with—really incredible musicians.
By the way, Ronnie Verrell was the drummer for most of Tom’s records, but I did play on one Tom Jones album called Thirteen Smash Hits, which also had bass player John Paul Jones on it. This was around 1967—pre-Led Zeppelin days. He was probably one of the best bass players in all of Britain at that time, doing all kinds of sessions.
TS: What were the circumstances that led to the formation of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in 1971?
CS: In the ’60s, Manfred had a band called Chapter III with drummer Mike Hugg. It was a free-form jazz project—some very way out things. I was playing a jazz gig in London with Derek Wadsworth, and Derek recommended me to Manfred when Mike Hugg left and a new drummer was needed. I ended up doing the third Chapter III album, which was never released. A few months later, Manfred phoned me and asked if I’d like to help him form a new band, which eventually developed into Earth Band. I brought in Colin Pattenden [bass], who I had met when we had both auditioned for a West End show as the rhythm section. Manfred brought in vocalist/guitarist Mick Rodgers, and that lineup lasted for five years. When Mick left, he was replaced by Chris Thompson and guitarist Dave Flett.
Earth Band was a great situation, because it was quite free. There was plenty of room for improvisation, especially on stage. I was very involved in that band. Manfred was very much in charge of the business aspects of it, but the rest of us always had our say in everything. Of course, we had our arguments as well, but we all got on okay.
After Earth Band, I had a group called Terra Nova. That consisted of the bass player from Earth Band, Colin Pattenden, Chris West on guitar, Pete Cox—who’s the singer in Go West—myself, and several different keyboard players. It was a very good band, but it didn’t last because we had some difficulties in getting a deal. It was precisely at the time when punk hit Britain, and Terra Nova had a lot of musically complicated things going on. The songs themselves were straightforward rock, but the solos and time signatures were rather unusual.
TS: You also played with Gary Numan. It’s surprising that Numan, known primarily as a techno-pop artist, had a flesh-and-blood drummer.
CS: Yeah, that was me. In fact, Ced Sharkley was the original drummer, so I wasn’t the first. I only did it for a year, but it was a challenge because it was a fresh situation for me. It all came about because Gary and I had been partners in a recording studio near Shepperton at that time. He was planning to tour and was in the process of making an album on which he wanted a “real” drummer. I decided to do it. Gary asked me if I knew any fretless bass players, so I recommended the best I knew at the time—Pino Palladino. We both did the tour and the album called Music For Chameleons. It was interesting to be able to play with backing tapes, knowing you’re really playing in time.
On some cuts I played to a click track, while on others I played over the top of an already existing LinnDrum track. The only way that I can play with a machine of any kind is to sit right on top of it and almost push the time on the machine. I can’t lay back on it. I have to be ahead of it, telling it where to go. I’m very lucky in that I’ve got very good time. It seems so obvious, but the importance of keeping good time is the most essential and basic element in drumming. Everybody else in the band is falling back on you. I know drummers who sit in their cellars all day long and just solo. They think, “Great. I’m doing well here.” Then they sit in with musicians and they can’t keep time, which is the primary function of any drummer. Look at Neil Peart: He’s playing all those elaborate time signatures, but he plays them in time.
TS: It seems inconceivable that there are professional drummers who don’t keep accurate time.
CS: It is inconceivable, but it’s true. It’s not built into them; they haven’t got an inner “clock.” You can practice timekeeping, but I think that timekeepers are born and not built. Again, it’s not impossible to learn, but you have to feel it inside.
TS: You’ve been able to play with a variety of artists—from Tom Jones to David Gilmour. Was there an intentional pursuit on your part to play in all those diversified musical climates that you’ve been a part of?
CS: No. It’s just called working. [laughs] It was just a matter of going along with the offers that came in. I’ve never turned anything down. If I was already working and had a commitment to another artist, then I had to turn down some projects, but that was just due to logistical problems. I played with Gary Numan, which was a complete about-face from a gig like Tom Jones. I like to have a broad musical outlook. I’ll try anything at all. I think it’s very important for young drummers to realize that. They shouldn’t think, “Oh man, I’m into heavy rock. I’m not going to do this jazz gig.” Whether it’s an orchestra, a punk band, or whatever, you should play drums in a variety of different situations so that you’ll be well-rounded in your musical approach. Young drummers who turn down the opportunity to play outside of their own particular interests are limiting themselves, and I think that’s very wrong. You’ve got to keep a broad perspective.
TS: In retrospect, are there any gigs that you are sorry you had to turn down?
CS: My biggest regret was having to turn down Elvis Presley when he asked me to play with him. Presley hadn’t been performing for a while—he was making all those movies at the time—and he saw me playing with Tom in Hawaii in ’68. It was Presley seeing Tom perform that made him want to get back into it. Tom and Presley were friends, and we had met Presley several times on that tour—Vegas, Hawaii. Then Elvis’s tour manager, Joe Esposito, phoned me up one day and said, “Elvis is going to start doing gigs again, and he’d like you to play drums for him.” I had to decline because I was contracted to Tom. What an experience that would have been!
TS: Does playing still offer you challenges after all the years you’ve been doing it?
CS: Always. The challenge lies within yourself and having your body work the way you want it to. That’s very important, especially for drummers. It’s your body that’s playing just as much as your mind. It’s an extremely physical thing, and it takes a certain type of person to be a drummer. It wouldn’t be fair to stereotype, but I will say that a good amount of drummers are into martial arts. I read the interview in Modern Drummer with Ian Wallace, and he mentioned that he does Aikido. I practiced Aikido and Karate for seven years, and the benefits of both really helped me to be a better drummer. They taught me breathing, how to use my body, coordination, and how to work hard. That was an excellent learning experience for me. Aikido and Karate almost taught me more about playing a drumkit than actually playing the kit itself. It brings out the inherent energy—called Ki energy—in you. I know it sounds a bit hippy-ish, but it’s really great and it’s a big part of the whole practice of martial arts.
TS: While we’re on the subject of physical performance, how do you approach your drum solos? Aside from pushing yourself physically, you seem to stretch yourself artistically. You step out of the stereotypical limitations of the rock drum solo.
CS: Well, for one thing, I don’t like long drum solos. There’s only one man who can play a long drum solo and get away with it, and that’s Buddy Rich. That’s my view. When I’m soloing, I’ve got to be turned on by what I’m doing; if I’m bored, then the audience is likely to be bored, too. The key is keeping yourself interested while retaining the element of excitement, which is integral. During last night’s solo, I was playing in an 18,000-seat, filled-to-capacity arena, but I played my solo as though I were in a jazz club.
TS: So you’re not compromising your own tastes or style just because you happen to be playing in front of 18,000 hard-rock fans who may not have had previous exposure to jazz?
CS: Right. I might do some dramatic things, like kick the gong, but that’s just show biz. We met Les Paul the other night. The man’s a genius—an absolutely beautiful player. He must be 70 years old, one of the greatest guitar players in the world, and he’s still a showman after all these years! It’s no use sitting in your room and playing all these incredible licks. You’ve got to get out and take it to the people. Then you’ve got to keep them entertained. Otherwise, they’ll walk out! I don’t throw sticks or anything, mainly because I can’t throw them. [laughs] People like Carmine and Dino Danelli have got all that down to a “T.”
TS: Did you like those drummers in their heyday?
CS: Yeah, very much. In fact, I learned how to do the syncopation bit on the bass drum through Dino Danelli. He didn’t teach me; he taught Tom Jones, who later taught me. This was in the ’60s, when Tom came over without his group to do the Dick Clark Caravan Tour. It was around 1965, because I remember that the song “What’s New Pussycat” had just been released. The Young Rascals were on that same bill. In those days, we used to do a lot of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis numbers—all that ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. Everything was straight fours on the bass drum. Then, Tom came over here and did that tour. Dino Danelli was doing all this syncopation on the bass drum, and Tom asked him to show him how to do it. Danelli himself had picked that up from all the jazz players. Rock drummers in New York and other parts of the States were working on that at the time, but we’d never heard it in Britain. So, Tom came back and said, “Instead of going boom, boo boom, you can go boom boo boom, boo boo boo boom.” It was quite a revelation at the time.
TS: So you just expanded on that?
CS: I just developed it through practice. I also developed independence with each hand. And that’s interesting too, because I can now play left-handed or right-handed, yet I’m not naturally ambidextrous. I just worked at gaining equal facility by picking up cups of tea, opening doors, or drinking mugs of beer with either hand.
TS: Cozy Powell once commented that, although many drummers have two bass drums in their kits, few actually utilize their left drum, except to double up at the very end of a song. You have two bass drums in your live setup. How often do you actually incorporate both in your playing?
CS: I didn’t use double bass drums on The Firm LP at all, although I did have them. That was due to a problem with sound; we couldn’t get the second one to sound right. In the live concert, I only use them three times. I’m starting to use them a bit more—just a flam on the bass drum, or towards the end of some numbers where I’m playing two bass drums together instead of one. I have to develop that, and I’m working on it.
Now Cozy is a great double bass drum player, and I must say that he’s a helluva pool player. [laughs] Besides being a great drummer, he’s a very nice guy. Other great double bass drum players are Simon Phillips—who’s brilliant—Louis Bellson, of course, and a real rock player like Alex Van Halen.
I find that the easiest thing to play on double bass drums is the fast shuffle, which you can play at any tempo you want. Some drummers can do that really well, but I find it difficult to play straight 8th notes on double bass drums properly.
TS: Since we’re on the subject, would you give a rundown of your equipment?
CS: I’m using Pearl at the moment: I’ve got six rack toms—6″, 8″, 10″, 13″, 14″, and a 15″, plus 16″ and 18″ floors. They’re all power toms. My bass drum is 22″, and the kit itself is from the Pearl DLX Series. All my drums are double-headed. I’m really pleased with this new DLX Series; they’re really very good. My cymbals are all Paiste—mainly Rudes: 16″ and 18″ crashes, a 21″ ride, a 22″ Chinese, and also on my left-hand side there’s a 22″ medium ride with an upside-down splash on top of it. My hi-hats are 14″—heavies.
As far as heads go, I use Remo Pinstripes on the top of the toms and clears on the bottom. Now here’s a really great tip that I use: Remo has just put out a power snare head that is mainly used in marching bands. There’s a rubber ring around the edge of the snare head, which, when you place it on a marching drum and put the rim down on the rubber washer so to speak, it holds the head in place and prevents it from ripping off, since marching drummers use a lot of tension. Now what I’ve done is taken that rubber ring off, put the head on normally—actually, it works well with any head; it doesn’t have to be a power head—place the rim on, and then afterwards, fit the rubber washer around the inside of the rim so it cuts out all the ring. It works great for recording as well as live. It gets a lot of the ring out of the drums, and it also retains the same feel as if it were a normal head without any damping on it.
TS: Do you use any type of muffling/damping in your kit?
CS: No, none at all. I try to avoid it like the plague. Engineers usually look on with horror when you say that you’re not going to use any gaffer’s tape or dampers, but if the drums are tuned correctly and as long as the sound isn’t bouncing around too much, you can get a great live sound.
TS: About your tuning procedure, do you usually tune all the lugs to an equal tension?
CS: Yes, basically, to start with. I usually alternate tension screws, always going to the one diagonally opposite, all the way around. As for fine tuning, you just have to adjust it half a turn by half a turn until you achieve the sound you want. It will always be different, but you should basically start off with an even tension all around.
Steve Croxford, my drum roadie, tunes them really well, and he’s not a drummer! He just tunes them the way I want them. Many drummers use drummers as their roadies, but I don’t think that always works out. Roadies who are drummers themselves tend to put their own tastes and influences upon the tuning of your drums, whereas a non-drummer like Steve will do it the way you want it. He can change all the heads, and they’ll sound almost identical to the ones he’s just removed, which is a great help on the road. It means I don’t have to go up and check what he’s done.
TS: How do you usually tune your snare?
CS: The same as the toms, really. Basically, I usually have the bottom heads as loose as possible without the lugs falling out—just tight enough to hold them—while the top heads can be tensioned as tight as I want them.
TS: You’ve credited Dave Gilmour as being responsible for your switch from single- to double-headed drums.
CS: That’s true. Dave made the initial suggestion. Actually, the first kit I used with Dave was an old Ludwig kit that once belonged to Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason. It was lent to Dave for that tour. That whole experience is what really got me into double-headed drums again, and I’m glad I made the change. They sound great in the studio.
TS: At one time, you were involved with a company that had its own idea about how drums should look. What were the circumstance that led you to form Staccato Drums, Inc.?
CS: Well, I met Pat Townshend [co-founder and engineer] at his home one day, and he showed me a 6″ drum with that Staccato horn shape. I was interested in buying one myself, so I figured that other drummers would be interested in them as well. I think, for a lot of people, the North drums just didn’t quite make it; I don’t think they were heavy-sounding enough. Anyway, we got into production for a while and did quite well for a few years, but now it’s on hold for the moment. That’s not to say that we won’t be going into production at some future date, but right now it’s on hold.
TS: What is the advantage of the horn-shaped shell?
CS: The horn shape projects the sound extremely well. It acts much like a bass bin would throwing the sound out. It’s far more powerful than most other drums—than any other drums, in fact. The reason I’ve switched to double-headed drums recently is the benefit of more tone. Of course, double-headed drums are not as powerful as single-headed drums, but no single-headed drum is as powerful as Staccato. It has to do with the way they’re constructed, which allows them to react the way wood does; the whole body of the drum resonates within itself, if you like. They’re made of fiberglass rather than wood. Overall, the Staccato drums are really the loudest drums ever made. I think they’re even louder than metal drums.
TS: Do you view drums as an instrument without constrictions? Do you see drummers taking drums far beyond their present capabilities?
CS: I’m not very much of a technical person regarding the actual technology behind equipment, but I do hope to become more involved with electronics very soon. Basically, I hit things, and if they go “boom” or “bash,” that’s all I really care about. Of course, it’s got to fit within the whole musicality of what’s going on. But as far as the electronic side of things go, drums will definitely go even further in the future. It’s still going to take a while for people to get into electronic drums properly, but the sky’s the limit as far as the potential of the drum as a percussive instrument is concerned.
TS: How has your approach to drumming evolved since you first got started?
CS: Well, in the beginning I had to practice like hell just to get the simplest things together. Now, all I do is play. I don’t have to think about what I’m playing; it just flows out. After playing for 25 years, I can say that it’s only been within the last ten years that it’s all just come naturally from inside. I no longer have to think, “I’m going to do this fill here,” or “I’m going to play that there.”
I learned to play a flam paradiddle about 12 years ago, but when I first tried it, it was impossible; I couldn’t get anything together on it. Then I just broke it down and played it very, very slowly until it worked. Speed comes with practicing time, and if you try to rush things, that’s when your timing is likely to go wrong. You have to relax your whole body. If you’re tense, you cannot play properly. So if you’re practicing and you find your forearms getting tense when you’re trying to do a fast roll, you’ve got to stop for a while, then start up again even more slowly, and just build it and build it. It takes a long time, but it’s worth it in the end because you’ll end up with a smooth technique.
I know that one of the basic faults of a lot of young drummers—I’m referring to real beginners now—is that, when they go around the toms, they start off on the snare drum and do a roll around the toms. By the time they get to the floor tom, they seem to run out of steam, and they don’t hit the floor tom as hard as they hit the snare. So I feel that you’ve really got to practice going around, hitting them progressively harder in order to make them sound uniform. Another thing that some people don’t realize when they’re first beginning is that, whenever you do a cymbal crash, it always sounds better when you hit the bass drum simultaneously with the crash. So instead of just going “splash” with the cymbal, you’ve got to go “bash” with the bass drum and the cymbal together. A lot of really young drummers don’t seem to realize that. They think you can just hit the cymbal, but it’s always best to accent it with the bass drum as well.
TS: You said that your playing all came together for you within the last ten years. Do you think you’ve hit your peak?
CS: I hope not. I think it’s always important to learn and to improve constantly. I like to keep an open mind about anything that’s going on, whether it be in electronics or a new lick that I might hear. I’m terrible in that I don’t practice—ever. I haven’t done it for years, but I used to sit down occasionally and practice.
TS: Yet you come across with a strong technical orientation, especially live. Page, for one, considers you to be technically proficient.
CS: What’s of paramount importance to me is playing with soul and feeling. I consider myself an emotional player, and I believe that you have to transcend technique. You just have to play. Technique is a tool that you use to express yourself. It’s the expression that counts—how you express your own personality or musicality.
I would like to be able to play in a highly technical manner, and in some respects, I do. Time signatures are not a problem for me. I probably even play better in odd time signatures than I do in 4/4. As long as I can work it out, then it’s okay. For instance, the ending of “Midnight Moonlight” is in 5/4. There was a tune we used to do in Earth Band that was in 13/8 called “Starbird” from The Roaring Silence album, which, incidentally, I wrote the lyrics for. It was just a line that came up, and after we had been playing for a couple of weeks, we decided to figure it out and discovered it was in 13/8.
Mainly, I would like to be thought of as a good drummer who can cut the gig, but I guess it’s true that some people would consider me to be somewhat of a technical player, because I can handle the intricate aspects of playing.
TS: When we were talking earlier, you mentioned that your son is a drummer and that you’re very proud of him.
CS: Yes, my 14-year-old son is a drummer himself, and he’s actually a pretty dynamite guy. His music teacher at school recently told me that he’s really brilliant for his age because he’s reading everything. I’m really pleased about it, but I don’t believe in pushing my kids into anything. He’s chosen it for himself, and being a drummer as well as a father, I couldn’t be more pleased.
TS: Have you given him any lessons?
CS: I haven’t given him all that many lessons, but I have shown him a few pointers like telling him to play open-handed, riding with his left hand as well as with his right. That’s something I would tell any young drummer. I know teachers might disagree with me because they may argue that it’s best to learn to play the hi-hat with your hands crossed. I play open-handed as well, which took me years to learn.
TS: Why the preference for open-handed playing?
CS: There was a Springsteen tune called “Spirits In The Night” that we covered in Earth Band, where I discovered that I played with a better feel by playing open-handed. It really worked better for that particular piece of music. Now I can play almost every thing that way. When I play jazz, sometimes I’ve got a 20″ ride on my left as well as my right, and if I play a little jazz lick, I’ll do it with my left hand. That goes for playing with The Firm, too. I’ll play “ting ting ti-ting” with my left hand and mess around on the snare with my right, and then maybe I’ll switch it around, too. But it’s taken me years to learn that, and I’ve shown that to my son, who I’m sure will be able to do it a lot better than me in a few years.
TS: What kind of a reaction do you get from him concerning your work?
CS: He comes to all the gigs that I do around London, and he loves it! Besides drumming, he’s very interested in lighting and stage design, which he’s learning about in school at the moment. He’s only 14, but when he gets a bit older, he’s going to be seeing and hearing different types of bands in a variety of places. He’s really quite knocked out by it all; he likes the fact that his dad is a drummer.