Michael Shrieve: Transcendence
by Scott Kevin Fish
“It became a real challenge. As soon as a new James Brown record was out, I’d be in the club that night with the beat down. When I met Santana, I didn’t know too much about Latin music, but I knew a lot of jazz stuff and a lot of R&B.” Shrieve credits Chepito Areas (then timbale player with Santana) as helping him make the transitions.
“Chepito used to teach me a lot. He’s a true percussive genius. He’s so natural that he doesn’t really have to work at it. There were so many things that he had picked up from Central America and South America. Real authentic type of things on the drum set. He’d show me his approach to timbales. He’s still my favorite.”
Shrieve’s joining Santana is almost a classic story. He and his brother saw group playing in their hometown in California. Mike turned to his brother and said, “I’ve got to play with them.” And that was it. When he joined, Carlos Santana was listening to Gabor Szabo, Chico Hamilton with Victor Pantoja, Willie Bobo, old Cal Tjader and authentic Latin music. “That was all new to me,” Shrieve explained.
He played with Santana through their peak years. “I stayed longer than anybody else in the original band because I considered it a fortunate situation. Actually, it was two years before I left the band. I stayed because I thought there was more to learn, if not from the band, then there was more for me to discover within the band.
“People saw me as stopping when I left Santana,” Shrieve said with a touch of annoyance in his voice. “What they didn’t know is that I never saw Santana as the end all! That’s why I was able to stay as long as I did. I was able to give all of myself to it because of the way I felt. I used Santana as a learning experience and a challenge to create interesting things on the drums. When I did leave it was a heavy thing.
“It was on my birthday and Carlos had been over that night. I went to bed listening to an Elvin Jones record. I had this pain in my back and it got worse and worse. I tried to get up and I couldn’t. I to the hospital. They couldn’t give me the anything until they diagnosed the problem and I thought I was going to die! Literally. The pain was so intense. So, I said to myself, ‘If I wake up alive, then tomorrow I’m going to start to do the things that I know I should do.’ It turned out I had a kidney stone.”
It was three days before a national tour when Mike quit Santana. “They said, ‘Yeah sure. After the tour.’ But when you make up your mind, you have to make up your mind. I said, ‘No. Now.’ ”
Carlos Santana and Shrieve are still the best of friends. “Carlos and I must have known each other for millions and millions of years. We have always been like brothers. We used to make bonds in my driveway that we’d never leave each other. If there is any Santana album that I dare say feels like my album it was Caravanserai. There was a lot of room for me on it.”
One of the first projects Mike accomplished was his own album. “The day after I got out of the hospital I went to bass player Michael Henderson’s house in Detroit. I started writing music for a solo album that was never released. It included myself, Michael Henderson, Patrick Gleeson, Sam Morrison and Kevin Shrieve. I was kind of shattered because I thought the quality was very high. I was doing vocals and there was electronic music on it too. (The record company’s) response was that it was too ethnic and too electronic. It was beautiful music and I was very disappointed.”
The wheels kept turning. Mike Shrieve had gone from being the drummer in somebody else’s band to being a bandleader. He offered an insight into his own character. “I’ve always seen myself as a musician who entertained naturally. All I ever worked at was music. You have to live your life based on a level of creativity, values and ideas that feel true and honest with yourself. From there, you create the music. I’m trying to create a situation that puts out that kind of energy. I love all kinds of music.
“I’m always thinking of myself as a musician first. I suppose it was because I joined Santana at such a young age. I’ve never really thought about entertainment. It always seemed to come very naturally. I’m best on the stage. People used to laugh at me for the way I looked when I played. Like when I’d touch a cymbal. To do that right, you have to feel it. You don’t just touch the cymbal. I would express that physically and people would look at me as if I were entertaining.
“I was obligated to play a drum solo on “Soul Sacrifice” every night with Santana and it was a joy. I loved it. There are not many drummers that get the opportunity to work off of 30,000 people and try some extreme dynamic levels within a solo. Most of the drummers that play in front of that many people — bash! So, I wanted to see what I could do dynamically with a crowd that size, playing soft and using press rolls. I would try to stop and leave space, aside from all the rhythmic stuff to see what the response would be. Contrasts
To keep on top of things, Shrieve “practiced constantly.” Even on the road he’d bring a practice pad set. “I practiced a lot of rudiments. They’re not stiff to me at all. It means a technique that is very expressive, like dancing. Breaking them up between hands and feet. When I began to look for source material for drums and drum solos, I would go from Latin to African, Brazilian, Cuban and island music.”
It was during one of these “searches that Mike stumbled onto the music of Stomu Yamashta who was to become one of his major influences. “One day I saw this record with a cover that folded open and Stomu was there. The covers opened up to a semi-circle of percussion instruments. An array of percussion instruments that I found amazing! Cymbals, gongs and all kinds of drums; Stomu in front leaping across in midair, his long black hair flowing and a tympani stick in his mouth! I said to myself, ‘Who is this?’ I related to him and felt that kind of expression sitting behind a drum set. Like, if I wanted to jump up and down on stage. That extreme. Or something else other than just sitting there. Stomu was playing a lot of metallic music. It was very heavy music.
“I taped one piece called Prison Song, Mike continued. “One night after a concert I went to bed and put the tape on. I woke up about an hour later because the music had reached a peak and it was crashing. Chains. I jolted up from my sleep and just sat there, wondering, ‘What is going on? What is this guy doing? What is this guy conjuring up?’ From then on, I really related to it as an expression on percussion. I related to Stomu more closely than any percussionist I had listened to, and from there, I endeavored to find him. It took about four or five years.”
After his solo album was rejected, Mike Shrieve left the United States to find Yamashta in London. They had a “mutual admiration” for one another and vowed one day to play music together. On the flight home, Mike listened to a tape his brother had given him of a San Francisco based guitarist named Pat Thrall. This was the beginning of Automatic Man. After six months rehearsal in the States, Automatic Man flew to London to record. Mike began his project with Yamashta and Steve Winwood simultaneously. “That was when Stomu and I first started. We did the second album Go. Too, in New York, and we played two concerts. One in London and one in Paris. (Go. Live In Paris) It was really a nice night, one of the nights I felt best, so I’m glad they recorded it.”
After the end of the Go project, Mike and his brother Kevin holed up in their basement one winter to conceptualize their group, Patterns. I asked Mike about the pressures he might have felt being a star, and if he had any feelings about the pursuit of stardom itself.
“I remember myself being intuitively out of this frame of mind when I was in Santana. I was the youngest member of the group and there was a lot of money and acclaim involved. I’ve never approached music for money. I’ve always taken chances and done things I’ve felt. When Santana happened I tried to sustain that and for some reason, I didn’t jump into the star trip. I’m of the belief that success comes to you when you totally follow through with yourself inwardly, as to what it is you want to do. Check your motivations constantly. Why are you doing it?
“It’s fair enough if somebody wants to do it to be a star and they say ‘I want to be a star,’ and they go out and entertain. I’ve always approached it as being a musician and trying to become like a craftsman.
“I think the thing to do is to recall your initial reason for playing. Try to revert back to what you felt when you first wanted to play. Always keep an endeavoring process about you. Keep things in perspective so that you never forget where you came from, and you don’t stop striving for what it is you’re trying to express. The more you do that the more you find that you want to express. To me, the more successful you become, the harder you have to work if you’re being true to yourself. You always have to transcend yourself. You always have to go past where you are.”
Back at the S.I.R. Studio B, Mike Shrieve was playing what looked to be a white set of Camco’s. “It’s a Haymons set,” he corrected me. “A refinished English set that is no longer made. Currently, it’s a 26″ bass drum, an old chrome Ludwig snare drum, two 9X13 tom-toms, one 10X14 tom-tom, two 16X16 tom-toms and one 20” tom-tom. The hi-hat stand is built by Orange. I’m still on my endless search for the right foot pedal. I find myself constantly trying out new ones.
“I’ve been trying to get a very live sound in the studio. I don’t muffle my heads. I don’t take my bass drum head off either. I use thin heads on all my tom-toms to get the most response and tone. Ludwig WeatherMaster CM heads. You can’t get them anywhere in N.Y. Nobody wants them, so nobody has them. I find them to be best for recording. I used them on the Automatic Man and Go albums and I’ll probably continue to use them. I’d prefer to use them live but they just don’t last.
“In the studio I’m very aware that what goes on the record is going to be there forever. I feel it’s important to keep an air of spontaneity about the whole thing while being totally prepared to play the piece of music in front of you. That you’re familiar with it enough so that you can take care of what has to be taken care of and still leave room for personal expression. What usually happens with me is I just play the song the way I feel it should be played.
“In Santana for awhile there was some pop type songs that I played more than most drummers would because I was trying to do something. I was trying to play like Jack DeJohnette in a bop tune.” Mike gave a wry smile. “Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. In a song there is something that is right for it. A rhythm and feeling that are right. You work until you find the right thing and then you work with that until there’s expression.
“I will tune my drums in the studio to each song. Not to specific notes. To sounds and their relationship to each other. Sometimes I’ll even do it live, quickly. It’s more of a response feel, but there is tonality involved because I like to play melodically. I like the tom-toms to resound with the pitch. I’m pretty fickle about that,” he laughed.
Mike is just as “fickle” about his cymbals. “I usually choose the cymbals accordingly so I won’t have to tape them. I’m really into cymbals and the choice of cymbals. For each tune I’ll use separate cymbals. Live, I’ll choose cymbals that work best for all of them because I won’t change them live. Cymbals, snare drum and bass drum are very important.”
Mike prefers wood shells although on occasion he will use plastic for their projection.
“The important thing sitting behind a drum set is to have a true relationship between your feet so that they’re balanced. When you step down on the hi-hat, the distance between the bass drum beater and the drum head should be equal to the distance it takes for the hi-hat cymbals to close. You have to work out within yourself what feels really right so that you’re balanced. So, that you’re not trying to compensate at any point in time for something that’s not there. So that you can naturally get past your instrument.
“One of the things I’m most sensitive about in choosing what to play in songs is that thin edge between being a studio drummer and something else. I have nothing against studio drummers. They have a way of playing sometimes that doesn’t lose the feeling. Playing really simple. For instance, Steve Gadd would choose something really creative. I’ve chosen to approach my life differently from the grueling pace of studio cats. For this period in my life I’ve chosen to do projects, to involve myself with people.
“I’d like to talk about my approach to the drums,” Mike said. “I approach drums from a very respected viewpoint. I respect both music and the drums very highly. Even the physical instrument. I’ve found that by tuning, cleaning, and touching the drums, they respond like plants respond! The time that you spend with your drums is valuable so that the drums literally give back to you what you give to them. It almost becomes sacred; the strength and purity of your thoughts and motivations while sitting there using the drums.”
Then there’s the group, Patterns. “I find that the role of leader brings out the best in me. It is a culmination of all my experiences and I feel good about them. I’ve been learning that it takes a true understanding of drums and rhythm and rhythm in music. I prefer the rhythm to be very hypnotic, to create a kind of a trance situation. I’m playing a lot more Latin things now than I ever have since I left Santana. After Santana I just avoided all that to see what I could do myself. I didn’t want to be like all the American drummers necessarily and was even feeling somewhat confined behind the drum kit. It felt time to express myself more totally and not just sit behind the drums.
“My brother and I were in the basement with an 8 track trying to get everything to feel honest and sound good, so that when it was together finally we wouldn’t have to “perform” it. It would be in our blood. It’s interesting that a lot of Latin things have been coming out of it. So, I left behind all my inhibitions about Santana and realized that all that was really a big part of me.
“I’ve been realizing what the force of music and the musicians is in our culture. I’ve been finding that a lot of musicians don’t realize what is the strength and the power. My main concern is to get myself out of the way so that the force can come through. A collective force we can establish between people selectively chosen for their talent and heart. And it works! We do vocal rehearsals where we sing long tones and it becomes like meditation. Or, we’ll repeat something over and over, holding hands, and there’s this electricity running through and, when it’s there we acknowledge it, that that’s what people should feel.
“I have an intuitive feeling that if I can express what I feel, the public will acknowledge that they feel it. They’ll relate it to their own personal experience. What my brother and I have attempted to do is to put together a music that calls on the masses to rise, and to take a lot of the mystique out of the people who are doing things. We feel all people are here to be creative, whether it’s creative in any aspect. It’s our duty to be creative with our lives.
“I don’t feel any conflict between a public (or commercialism) and my music. To me it’s honest if you do what you really feel, if it happens to be a hit single or something else. Aside from synthesizer spaces and rhythmic spaces we want to do songs.”
The word “synthesizer” is very important. It plays a significant role in the sound of Patterns and Mike Shrieve is one of the few drummers in the world who has actually done and continues to do creative things with electronic percussion.
“I worked very closely with the LeMay family when I lived in Mill Valley with David Garibaldi. They were the original inventors of the electronic drum, the Impakt drums. I had their original set whichdeveloped into their other drums which I use on the Go. Live In Paris album. I’m using them now and I use the Syndrums and the Synare 125 step sequencer with a computer. Of the Synare’s, that’s the one I prefer because I can set up rhythms with the sequencer. I’ve always been interested in sequential music. As a drummer it gives me a really good opportunity to program a sequencer that sounds rhythmic and organic and not so electric. I combine them all in relation to the organic percussion instruments in the songs.
“There’s more that I want to do with the electronic drums. Myself and Etienne Lemay came up with a lot of ideas like a bass drum beater where the component was inside the beater. Nothing that I’m using right now. I know all the things I want to do. I think I’m going to have to begin designing an electronic percussion unit that has storage capabilities and will have to be computerized with sequential stuff. I’ve talked with the companies and they’re not really willing to do it now. I want to do it right now.
“I view electronic percussion the way that I view a lot of music. It’s like the earth and the sky. The earth is very organic and basic percussion. The sky I relate to cymbals and their sounds. A very spacious synthesis.”
When soloing, Shrieve has the ability to weave in and around the rhythm with the grace of a saxophone player. When I told him this he seemed surprised. “I hadn’t thought of it like a horn player,” he said. “As I mature more I see it as a flow of energy. The rhythm that I play contains a flow of energy that is not locked to the rhythm. I’m talking now in a pop or rock context even though I believe in holding the beat.
“One of my drum teachers was Pete Magadini and he used to tell me one of the things about white drummers is that they always try to play too much. That they don’t feel confident enough to let it sit. Just let the magic of the groove happen. When he told me that I was already into it. Him telling me that confirmed it to a depth within myself that has lasted. “I see a sustaining of the rhythm as really important. It has to be in the right context, whether you feel like doing rolls to make it kind of a rolling rhythm or something that attacks you. Or is upbeat. You’re not limited. It’s like what jazz people have always done. The rhythm is there always implied while you’re doing other things. I’m not quite sure how to express that in words.
“Let’s just say you don’t want to lose the trance ever. I would say one of the closest things to that is Elvin. He never lost the trance of what he was doing. Elvin and I are good friends. I was fortunate at a young age to meet all my heroes. Which was good for me. It’s good to meet your heroes because then there’s nowhere else to go but with yourself.”
When I asked Mike if he studied any drummers in particular he answered, “All of them. Not so much copying but getting to the very heart of what it was they were trying to do, so that I could pick up the intention of their expression. After awhile you find that music is so transparent, it reveals the person. Whether the person comes off like that or not is another story.
“You can get disoriented by meeting your heroes and expecting them to be the way you always thought they were. So, it’s always good to meet them so that you can relate yourself to them and move on. It also brings a higher awareness of the music they make and in the way they project themselves as individuals. So, you know that there’s something else within them besides the way they project themselves.
“I think the problem with a lot of rock musicians is that they get hung up on projecting on a personal level what they think the music is. The attitude of the music itself. Just like bebop. Everybody was cool. And everybody had to use heroin and everybody had to do this and that. But, now we know that none of that’s true. We can transcend those barriers and go across those borders and play anything we want to play and be just as we want to be. A totally unified action throughout the day and throughout your life so that what you play is what you are.
“I feel you can make a stronger attempt in your life so that your projection to people will run true with the way you feel about the music that you play. So that it’s a direct reflection. I want to make music that kind of goes beyond the music, where it causes an effect that awakens things within people.”
Drummers Collective has asked Mike to do some clinics. Until now he was hesitant because, “I didn’t really respect some of the people that do them. I always hesitate to talk about technical things although people like to hear it. I prefer to talk about approaches to the instrument. Before you can approach the technical things with the right attitude you need to have the right motivation, so that while you’re practicing it’s with the right concentration.
“If I was to do clinics, I would try to approach it from the way I feel about rhythms and sitting at the drum set.” In order to get his points across to young people as well, Mike said he would, “play a simple beat constantly enough so that they could see what happens when it gets to a certain point. I know it’s a delicate situation and I’m still kind of toying with it myself. I don’t mind talking about technical things because it’s really necessary, but I’d like to add “why” you’re sitting behind the drums.”
I asked Shrieve if there was anyone or anything that influenced his music other than musicians.
“DaVinci,” Mike answered immediately. “Michaelangelo. We don’t have to limit ourselves in our creativity. It can branch out. It can become integral to all of the life aspects. Once you tap into the creative flow you can go anywhere. Buckminster Fuller for his design and concept of life and for his realization of unlimited potential. Edgar Cayce. Patricia Sun is one of my most recent influences. She’s a lady from Berkeley, California who has emerged as one of the first female spiritual masters. She’s very natural and has a fantastic way of communicating. That’s what I like most about her.
“I’d say to anyone who is really playing music or approaching the drums, that they make a serious attempt to get in touch with themselves as to what it is they’re trying to express through the drums. To have a real and living faith in the things that they believe, and not give up in the attempt to express those things on the instrument that they have chosen. That it is their duty to find the expression within that instrument and in doing that, you have to be yourself, in order to find what it is you’re trying to express. Then other things begin to unfold themselves.”