On Call

Russ Kunkel is a familiar name on the Los Angeles session scene. He has played drums for some of the most well-known artists in the music business. As pulse maker of the rock-jazz quartet, The Section, Kunkel’s breezy jazz-flavored playing is a pleasurable experience to watch. His graceful, animated movements, illustrate the rhythm of the music; one can almost see it flowing through his arms down to his sticks.The Section came together while backing James Taylor on his first national tour. As a backing unit, they have also worked with Carole King, Jackson Browne and Crosby. Stills & Nash. The Section recently issued their third album on Capitol called Fork It Over.Kunkel started playing drums when he was in high school, and began his professional career playing demo sessions for publishing companies in Los Angeles. Although he still plays on many recording projects, he is far from the average session player.MD: How do you handle the demand for your services’?RK: The session work that I do I’m pleased with, because I just do projects for people. I have to get into a person’s music and feel a part of it. I never got into letting a service call and say, “We have a date for you at such and such,” that’s so impersonal. I could do back to-back sessions every day, but I don’t think it would be good for my musical head to do that much playing. I’ve got to think that eventually it would get old — too much like a job. I’m into recording basically for the pleasure of putting something together and hearing it all start to mesh and work.

MD: Do you dampen your drums differently for a live show than for the studio?

RK: I try not to if I can get away with i t . I use clear plastic heads with no dot. The dots change sound. They are for people who want a muffled sound. For me, they kill the tonality of the head.

MD: Have you tried hydraulic heads?

RK: Joe Vitale uses them a lot in the studio and likes the sound. But I don’t want a set of hydraulic heads. Live, they would sound awful to me. They don’t sound loud enough to my ear right where I’m sitting. I’d rather have them sound great for me and even better out in the hall. It’s all in miking. That’s the secret between drums that sound flat and ones where you can hear the tone. People say it’s too much ring. Too much compared to what? They mean they’re not used to hearing the tone of the drum. I think internal muffling is phasing out. For one thing, it’s the wrong approach. If you really want to dampen a drum, it’s wrong to do it from the inside.

MD: Have you ever had lessons, or are you self taught?


RK: Self taught. The only thing worth studying from a percussionist’s point of view is how to read, which is easy for percussion anyway. That’s worth the cost of lessons because it’s something you can always use whether you’re reading or writing. But, I think that if you study with someone, what you’re going to learn is what they have to offer. One teacher can’t give you everything there is. They can teach you some technique and rudiments, but it’s never as useful as watching somebody play. Sit down and watch Jim Keltner play on a session. You’re going to learn a lot; something that you can actually apply.

MD: Which drummers do you admire and why?

RK: One of my favorites is Jim Keltner. He’s the magician. He’s able to put his spell on stuff. It’s so light and so heavy at the same time. He has a little leather toiletry case, and he has paper and things that look like junk, but he plays all of it. I like Jeff Porcaro, he’s probably one of the best drummers playing all kinds of music. Everything that I’ve heard him do on record has been impeccable. Steve Green is the same way. People like Rick Marotta and Steve Gadd; what can you say about these people, they’re great. How could you not like Jack DeJohnette. I’ve learned how much I don’t know by listening to those guys. They play from the heart.

About three or four years ago, The Section did a tour with the original Mahavishnu Orchestra, and I got real tight with Billy Cobham. There’s nothing anybody could say bad about Billy’s playing to me that I won’t argue to the end. To me, there’s no one more in touch with what a human body can do as a drummer. Billy uses every part of his body to the fullest while playing. There’s no right side or left side to his playing. It’s whatever is easiest, whatever feels best. That’s exactly it! Don’t limit yourself to playing one way. A drummer uses everything. I try to lead with my left hand. If you’re not used to doing it, it’s hard to do it a lot. As far as I’m concerned, Billy has it all wrapped up. He has the power and the stamina. I’ve never seen a drummer with the incredible amount of pacing that he has.

MD: With such stiff competition in the music business, most session players read music. Do you read?

RK: Not enough to hurt my playing.

MD: There seems to be a controversy raging over whether practicing with big sticks is truly beneficial. How do you feel about this?

RK: What I used to do and still do from time to time, is warm up on a pillow or some surface that doesn’t give any response. Sit down and do a single-stroke roll for five minutes and time it. You’ll warm up your wrists fast. Then, change to smaller sticks and do it on a pad. Whether you practice with big sticks or the sticks you always use, that’s generally up to you. Going from big sticks to smaller ones tends to throw me because I get used to a weight. I tend to feel there’s not enough there. Then, I’d rather play with the big sticks.

MD: You have a very impressive drum set up. What equipment do you use?

RK: I have two Pearl sets. I’m using an eleven-piece set with five cymbals and some of Joe Pollard’s Syndrums. I also use a lot of MXR equipment, and I have my own Yamaha mixer and sound system. Basically, I have the sound system that Yamaha built for their acoustic piano. It was designed to amplify the full range of the keyboard, and that’s the closest thing to amplifying the full range of a drum set. It works very well. I have two Paiste 602’s, both 18″ medium, and they both sound very different. I’d kill anybody if they stole them. I also have two Zildjians, one 20″ and another 18″.

MD: How do you approach playing drums?

RK Approaching it as a very musical and a very rhythmic instrument, puts it in the right light for me. I always approach it differently. In the studio, I approach playing in reference to what’s needed and wanted from me and my instrument. I’m not playing for myself, I’m playing a supporting position to other instruments. If it’s a tracking date, then I’m part of a unit. I will find out what’s required of me because I want to make them comfortable. The bottom line for me is, if the person I’m supporting is happy, then I’m happy.


Within that framework, I can make it interesting for myself.

MD: Do you practice a lot?

RK: Yes. I have a studio in my house, and I’m constantly working down there writing things. I have a set of drums down there, so I play every day whether I’m in the studio or out on the road.

MD: Many drummers who write use another instrument to help their writing. Does this apply to you?

RK: Yes, I play piano and bass guitar. I play a little bit of everything. I surrounded myself with all the instruments, and eventually started playing them. It’s also good for my children. All the instruments are around and they can play anything they want.


MD: How has your playing changed over the years?

RK: If my playing has changed at all, it’s gotten better. I feel that the best quality that any musician can ever acquire is not necessarily any kind of virtuosity, but being able to play great with other people. In doing so, you play great by yourself. That’s always been the approach I’ve taken. You can make music all day by yourself, but it doesn’t get you as high as when you play with other people.

MD: What are your future plans?

RK: I’d like the group to be successful so we wouldn’t have to back up people. Then we would have an outlet for our writing. It’s easy for me to write instrumental music, and it’s the same for the rest of the guys. It doesn’t make sense if there’s no outlet for it. We’ve been together for six years, and the bond is tight. I’d like to see that go on.

Right now, The Section has a dedicated underground; people who were our fans five years ago still are. We’re going to make another record for Capitol. We’ve realized it’s going to take a few records and being on the road continuously for about two or three years. Eventually we will be able to play the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium by ourselves.