“Led Zeppelin II seems like it’s miles beyond the first record,” the Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd recently told Modern Drummer. “After the popularity of their first album, it’s like they thought, We can take any chances we want! John Bonham’s subtleties on ‘Thank You,’ his shuffly thing on ‘Heartbreaker,’ not hitting the snare on every 2 and 4 on ‘Whole Lotta Love’…it’s amazing he even thought of that stuff . I think he quickly evolved into doing those things in the year since Led Zeppelin I was recorded.”
Drozd, who was born in 1969, spent the next hour or two talking about the music that he grew up being profoundly influenced by from this most revolutionary of times—you can read our full interview below—and the theme that seemed to permeate our chat was that of change.
Rock music and drumming had certainly grown up a lot in the previous few years, as our special 1967 theme issue from a couple years back made clear. But ’69 was unique. Besides being the year of Woodstock, the ultimate symbol of America’s youth-gone-wild in the best sense, it was an era when musicians were pushing boundaries in ever broadening ways.
This month we shine a light on some of the players who were in the middle of that whirlwind of activity: the above-mentioned John Bonham; former Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams, who in ’69 returned to play with the jazz legend for the unexpectedly serene In a Silent Way, and three months later recorded his scorching Lifetime debut, Emergency!; Santana’s Woodstock hero, Michael Shrieve; the criminally under-appreciated Bruce Rowland, who accompanied Joe Cocker on his own historic Woodstock performance; Creedence Clearwater Revival’s groove machine, Doug Clifford; Ringo Starr, who in the Beatles’ troubled Let It Be sessions could be seen for the first time on a five-piece Ludwig Hollywood set; and Mountain’s Corky Laing, whose year was weird and wonderful even by 1960s standards.
It’s instructive to note that these drummers, whose playing in 1969 was as fresh-sounding as the music itself, were all still in their twenties at the time. In fact, most were still in their early twenties—and Shrieve was just twenty at the time of Woodstock. But sometimes, the shockingly new musical age was being ushered in by players who’d established themselves in pop music years earlier, including the subject of this month’s other cover story, Hal Blaine, who passed away earlier this year at the age of ninety. As you’ll learn from our interview with Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken, Blaine easily held his own among the precocious crowd of newcomers in ’69, drumming on important releases from the 5th Dimension, Glen Campbell, and others, and proving that even in the most unstable of times, sure-handedness, style, and a sense of history will always be welcome at the highest levels of studio recording.
As earth-shaking as the late ’60s were, however, we mustn’t forget that music and drumming’s evolution is far from over, a point clearly made by this month’s feature on the sixteen-year-old JD Beck, whose command and creativity with modern drum approaches are undeniable, and fascinating to behold. It’s a welcome reminder that, inevitably, our best friend as creative individuals is often the unknown—you can practically feel the headlong rush into the future in the work of Tony, Bonzo, Shrieve, and the rest from the class of ’69, just as you can hear it in the playing of 2019’s most adventurous rhythmatists. And aren’t we the lucky ones to be a part of it all.
Now, back to Steven Drozd. Just like it is with a typical Flaming Lips album, you can pretty much drop the needle anywhere in the songwriter/multi-instrumentalist’s career and discover interesting goings-on. These days you can catch Steven performing with the band in support of their latest studio album, King’s Mouth: Music and Songs. (“It seems like the next phase of the Flaming Lips,” Drozd says about the record, “like the last several years have been building up to it.”) You can also listen to multiple episodes of his new podcast, Sorcerer’s Orphan: A Song by Song History of the Flaming Lips. Here’s more with Steven about the historic music year of 1969. We pick up where we left off with John Bonham and his classic performances on Led Zeppelin II.
Drozd: By the time of Led Zeppelin II, I feel like you can hear Bonham thinking, I don’t always have to beat the crap out of the drums, I can do other stuff. It took me a long time to realize that Bonham’s not always beating the hell out of his drums. Like on Houses of the Holy, the way he tuned his snare drum is so important, and I don’t think he’s beating them as mercilessly as he’d done on some other things. And that’s why the drums sound so incredible—Houses of the Holy is my favorite-sounding of all his stuff. But back to II, there’s already more subtle stuff happening, like on “Thank You.” The isolated tracks that are available on YouTube now, you can really hear his shuffle on “Heartbreaker.” It works so well.
MD: Do you remember playing along to Led Zeppelin when you were younger?
Drozd: Oh, yeah, from my earliest drumming. I guess my very first drumming was to Peter Criss. But I quickly moved on. And the reason Houses of the Holy is my favorite is because that’s the first one that I remember my brothers playing. They were playing all sorts of stuff, but Houses of the Holy was the first time I realized the music was doing something to me that was really exciting. I remember trying to play the drum beat to “D’yer Mak’er” and the drum fills at the end of “Stairway to Heaven” and not being able to do them. At nine I was able to play the beat to “Good Times Bad Times,” though. People were pretty impressed by that. I was trying to emulate him for sure.
MD: When I listen to your drumming, I feel like I can be fairly confident you went through a Bonham phase, not so much because of the licks you play, but the feel.
Drozd: I don’t know how many Flaming Lips songs there are where you could say that Bonham was a jumping-off point. “Waiting for a Superman” certainly has a Bonham-esque feel. That’s the case with a lot of our songs, not to “do” John Bonham, but to use him as an inspiration to come up with a part. And also the sound. My first couple of albums with the Lips it was sort of, beat the crap out of the drums and then from there distort them. To me now it sounds like a caricature of Bonham, whereas on The Soft Bulletin a lot of the drums actually do sound like Bonham, because I didn’t beat the total crap out of them, they weren’t tuned as tight…there are just things you discover as you go along. But yeah, I’m usually thinking of him when I play the drums.
MD: One of the fun things about following the Lips is noting the evolution of the band.
Drozd: We always look at the Beatles as the ultimate of that—1964 to 1969, could any more have happened in terms of evolving musically, by anyone in any style? I don’t think anyone’s even come close. Whenever somebody disses the Beatles…if the Beatles didn’t happen, then I don’t know if any of us would be here doing this stuff. We might be living in a world where everything mutated from Frankie Valli. [laughs] And what kind of world would that be?
MD: Another classic from 1969 is In the Court of the Crimson King, which the Lips did a full cover version of.
Drozd: The things that blow my mind more than anything about that album are the Mellotron and Greg Lake’s vocals. If you listen to “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” off of The Soft Bulletin, I did this group choir that comes in on the second verse, and that was me trying to do the Greg Lake vocals on “The Court of the Crimson King.” [Steven sings the high “ahs” from “Court.”] And then the Mellotron, it’s just an amazing use of that instrument. And I love Michael Giles’ drumming. In a way he’s the opposite of Bonham. It’s the softest, most precise, coolest drumming.
Getting back to ’69, I went through a hardcore Rolling Stones kick in the late ’90s. I was born on June 11, 1969, and there are logs of bands’ studio times that you can look up, and I wondered, What was going on with the Rolling Stones on the day I was born? And I’d look it up and they had the day off. [laughs] So I looked up the Beatles, and they had the day off too…. But Pink Floyd…Ummagumma came out in ’69.
MD: And the soundtrack to More as well. They were kind of finding themselves in those pre-Meddle days.
Drozd. Yeah, “The Nile Song” and “Cirrus Minor,” it’s not set in stone what’s going to happen musically from there. I love all Floyd. I went through a phase where I didn’t want to listen to The Wall ever again, but man, Animals, Wish You Were Here…. I remember coming home from school in the first grade, when I was six years old. Walking toward the house, I heard this menacing sound that scared the crap out of me. And it’s the synthesizers on “Welcome to the Machine.” My brothers had gone out and bought Wish You Were Here the day that it came out, and they skipped school and were at home smoking pot in their bedroom, and they were playing that record and it really freaked me out. That’s a fond memory. [laughs]
MD: I vividly remember when The Wall came out. They were still so mysterious back then, with their pictures hardly ever being on album covers. It seemed momentous at the time.
Drozd: Totally. My daughter’s eleven now and she’s into vinyl. She actually listens to Dark Side of the Moon quite a bit, which makes me happy. She’s going to be a performer. She’s a singer, and she’s really creative, writing poems, playing piano a little bit. I’m trying to get her to play more so she can write her own songs. I wasn’t going to push it but she started getting into it a couple years ago, so I thought, I don’t want to fight it.
MD: Good for you.
Drozd: Yeah, well, the uncertain future of music making…. And just because you experienced something growing up, and your thinking went one way, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to your kids. It’s like, just because I experienced this thing at twelve, doesn’t mean my son is going to. That’s something I’m still getting used to.
MD: Let’s talk about the King’s Mouth album. It’s a concept album, and all of the songs segue into the next. Was that always the idea?
Drozd: The idea was always for songs to run into each other and for it to be one long story. From the get-go in [Lips founder] Wayne [Coyne’s] mind, the music was born out of this art installation that he’d done. For me, even if we brought in new songs, they were going to be part of the bigger picture.
MD: And that’s actually Mick Jones from the Clash doing the between-song narration?
Drozd: It is. It’s kind of a long story. We’re friends with this artist from London named Georgia, she’s super cool and has toured with us. She’s a drummer and singer and rapper and songwriter, and her mother is friends with Don Letts, who was in Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones. He [recorded his narration] and sent it to us. It was a really easy process and came out great.
MD: The balance of the electronics and acoustics has become more and more seamless with each new Lips record. It just seems so right at this point. What’s the process?
Drozd: It’s not just me. There’s Wayne, there’s me, there’s Wayne’s nephew Dennis Coyne, who’s really good with Ableton Live. So whenever we’re trying to mutate an idea that seems like it’s kind of stale or something, I’ll play something on an acoustic drumset and he’ll throw it into Ableton and do some crazy stuff to it, throw it back in Pro Tools, and we’ll go from there. That’s why I said that this record seems like the next step; I don’t think I could do all this stuff on my own. The chordal, harmonic stuff, I’m still doing most of that, but a lot of the production stuff, that’s Wayne and Dennis as much as or more than me. It’s definitely a collaborative effort. But I appreciate that you hear that—is that acoustic drums or electronics, or synth based…? It’s hard to tell what some of the textures are, which is the fun part.
For much more with Steven Drozd, follow him on Instagram (@Brōzd), and listen to his Sorcerer’s Orphan podcast on YouTube or at Apple Podcasts. And for a deeper dive, check out this Modern Drummer podcast we did with him in 2014.