Denny Carmassi

It was a move that surprised some observers. Native San Franciscan Denny Carmassi was selected in May of 1982 to replace seven-year veteran Michael Derosier as drummer for the Seattle-based rock group, Heart. But Carmassi’s swarthy, creative style of drumming proved almost tailor-made for Heart’s Wilson-Ennis-Wilson songwriting team and band member Howard Leese’s meticulous arrangements.

This came as no surprise to other observers, given Denny Carmassi’s lifetime commitment to his art. “He was brought into the band simply because he’s a good musician, ” emphasized Heart lead vocalist Ann Wilson. In the studio this year, Carmassi’s drumming melded perfectly, almost effortlessly, with the new, harder-edged material tracked for Heart’s current album, Passionworks. Songs like “(Beat by) Jealousy” and “Sleep Alone,” both penned by Ann Wilson and Sue Ennis, and Nancy Wilson’s “If I Have to Ask” called for a clean, rhythm-centered approach, and Carmassi delivered just the right kind of rock sensibility Heart had been looking for since its last two recorded efforts. Indeed, Carmassi’s reputation as a slugger can only be overshadowed by the acute tastefullness of his playing—he listens, and he listens well. Heart’s music has always been earmarked by impeccable craftwork and a heightened sense of interplay, and the unusual combination of drums Carmassi uses (resonant, non-resonant and electronic) coupled with his exceptional technical work allows him to establish a hot groove and yet blend perfectly with the other players to create the tight feel commanded by each tune. “We never have to drag what we want out of him because he’s sensitive to the subtle style changes in the different songs that we play, “says Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson. “It’s a whole new sound for us, and we’re just letting it flow.”

Dennis Carmassi was born 35 years ago into a household where drumming is still revered. His boyhood memories are filled with scenes of his father, Joe (a well-known drummer on the San Francisco circuit during his lifetime), rehearsing with a series of local bands in the Carmassi family home. Because of his father’s love for big band sounds, Denny developed a quick appreciation for jazz music of the 1950s—he still numbers Ted Heath and early Ray Charles records among the favorites in his collection. But by age 10, Denny and his younger brother Billy (who now drums for the group AIdo Nova) had clearly converted to rock ‘n’ roll.

 

ESG: When did you first start playing drums?

DC: It seemed like I could always play. My dad allowed me to play on his set whenever I wanted. But there was no pressure to play so I never really took it seriously. I never thought about being in a band until I was 17 or 18. I was more into sports. I played baseball since I was about eight. That’s what I wanted to do until I realized I was too small for major league play.

ESG: Describe the first kit you owned.

DC: An old Ludwig with gold sparkles. I wish I still had it today! It was real basic: snare drum, one tom, bass drum, cymbal and a hihat. And I added a floor tom. I had that kit for a long time. I played it in club bands and stuff.

ESG: How did you first finance your drum habit—money from an outside job, your parents…?

DC: My mom and dad bought me my first kit. But after that I did it myself by playing. I was playing in night clubs—I played in all the topless joints in San Francisco when I was 18 and 19. In fact, I even got busted for being under age—you had to be 21 at the time. But I saved my money and bought what I wanted.

ESG: What was your first combo gig like?

DC: This girl that I knew—vaguely knew—knew that I played drums. She knew some guys in a band, and their drummer was being drafted or something. They were auditioning drummers, so I played a nightclub with them and got the gig. It was the first time ever that I played with a band. And it was the first time that I realized, “Wow, this is really fun,” and that I could make a living at it.

ESG: When you started to get serious about playing, did you take any formal lessons?

DC: No. The only real formal lessons I had, I guess, were when I was in junior high school. I played in the orchestra, and I played the timpani. I sort of learned how to read then, although I’m not a great reader. But I never took lessons from a teacher.

ESG: Did you work with any method books?

DC: I went through Stick Control and Accents and Rebounds. For me, that pretty much covered it.

ESG: You use matched grip instead of the traditional method. What made you adopt that style?

DC: The main reason was for power. There’s more power in playing matched grip. But I learned how to play in the traditional way, and there are certain styles I can play better traditionally—like jazz, for instance—than I can matched.

ESG: Did you ever get much into drumming styles other than rock?

DC: I like to listen to them. I listen to all that music. I was really a big fusion fan for a long time. I still listen to a lot of Tony Williams’ stuff, and Bill Bruford and Jan Hammer. I listen to that for enjoyment, when I’m at home. But I like to think of myself as a versatile player.

ESG: Did you ever like to experiment much with time signatures?

DC: Not until recently. I have been for my own curiosity, at home in my drum room. I’ve got a drum machine and headphones, and things I can practice with by myself so I can work stuff out. I also have a set of Calato practice pads. And they’re quiet!

When I first moved into my new house, I had a Remo practice set. I like to practice at night—that’s when I get the urge—but the Remo pads always made that “clickety-clickety” sound. So one day I was outside and my neighbor came by and said, “What do you do? Are you a tap dancer?”

ESG: Do you play other percussion instruments?

DC: Just the timpani. And I have a set of conga drums at home that I goof around on.

ESG: Do you keep up with the timpani playing at all?

DC: No. I haven’t done it since I was playing with Ronnie Montrose. We made a tape for the opening of the show, with this whole big synthesizer production, and I played the timpani on that. That was a gas!

ESG: Do you play any other instruments?

DC: Just a little guitar.

ESG: Do you think that keyboard knowledge and a good melodic sensibility is important to drumming?

DC: Yes. If I had students, I’d make them take keyboard first, before they started on drums. I would also make a child take dance lessons, especially tap dancing, just for the coordination.

ESG: What drummers did you emulate when you were a kid?

DC: Well, the way that I really taught myself how to play drums was by listening to records and playing along with them. I listened a lot to the Green Onions album by Booker T. and the MGs. And Al Jackson was my favorite drummer. I used to go in the back room and put the stereo on real loud and play to these records. I ‘d figure out what they were doing and how they were doing it. That’s how I taught myself.

ESG: What drummers do you admire now?

DC: Tony Williams has been a long-time favorite . . . Bill Bruford—I think he’s incredible! Alex Acuna is great. And Phil Collins is a really fine drummer.

ESG: What groups did you play with before Heart?

DC: I started playing in ’73 with the band Montrose—Ronnie and Sammy Hagar. It was my first major band, and it broke up in about ’77. Ronnie did his solo album, and I went to play with Sam for about a year. I did a couple of albums with him—a live album and a studio album in England.

I left Sam and started a band with Derek St. Holmes from the Ted Nugent group. It was a short-lived band; we did one album for Warner Brothers. Then I went to England and played with Michael Schenker. I was going to do an album with Michael, but he got really sick and went in the hospital. I came back to the States, and Ronnie called me up to do the group Gamma. So rather than wait around for Michael—I didn’t know if he was going to do the album or what—I went with Gamma for a couple of years, until Heart.

ESG: How did you connect with Heart?

DC: I was doing the Randy Meisner album Playing in the Deep End, and Howard [Leese, Heart’s lead guitarist and keyboardist] was the guitar player. We got to know each other—we did the whole album together—but it really came out of the blue.

ESG: Did Howard mention to you at any point that Derosier was going to leave?

DC: Well, yeah…I sort of knew. Howard had asked me in January of 1982 that, if such and such happened, would I be interested in playing with Heart.

ESG: Were you very familiar with Heart before the offer?

DC: Not really, other than what I had heard on the radio. Just the hits.

ESG: What is the power structure in Heart?

DC: Basically, Nancy [Wilson, guitarist] and Ann [Wilson, lead vocalist] are the songwriters, and Howard more or less leads the band.

Denny Carmassi
Photo by E. Shaw Green

ESG: He seems to be the real technical pulse of the band, given his background in arranging and music theory.

DC: Yeah, Howard’s a real good musician. He, Ann and Nancy have been together for a long time. He’s good at translating their ideas into music.

ESG: I presume then that you’re comfortable with the arrangement?

DC: Oh yeah, totally. They give me free rein. They’ve never said, “You have to play this way.” I can interpret the songs whichever way I want, which is really great. I just have to cop the groove of the song.

ESG: What do you like most about playing with Heart? I find that there’s a lot of stylistic variety in the songwriting, and that’s something that would attract me.

DC: Yeah, I like the different types of music that they do. There’s the hard rock stuff, and there’s the ballad stuff. Their audiences are very appreciative, and that continues to blow my mind every night. It’s a different crowd of people than what I’ve been used to in other bands. I’ve been used to more of like a heavy-metal type of head-banger crowd in the other bands I’ve played in. The Heart audience is real appreciative—they listen. And that is great.

ESG: What do you feel you contribute to Heart’s sound that’s different from what Derosier put out?

DC: I’d hate to compare. I think our styles are different, but that’s for other people to analyze.

ESG: Do you like the musical direction Heart is heading in now?

DC: Well…I wasn’t involved in their last album, so I don’t really know what direction they’re trying to pursue. But I like what they’re doing now. They’re very talented.

What’s going to come out is going to come from the songwriters. You can’t really push a direction. When you get five people together, it sounds a certain way; when you replace two of the people, it will sound different. It’s going to go whichever way it goes by itself.

ESG: Rock ‘n’ roll traditionally is pretty much of a male stomping ground. Does it bother you that in this band two women are the main attractions?

DC: Oh, no! They’re good musicians. A good musician is a good musician, whether it’s male, female, or whatever. Music is music.

ESG: But don’t you think men have it easier than women in the music business overall?

DC: Yeah, it must be true that they do have it easier. I guess it’s always been a male-dominated industry.

ESG: So do you think that as a man who plays the drums you generally had it easier than women who play drums, in terms of getting gigs and having people take you seriously as a player?

DC: I’m sure that’s true. I’m sure there’s a real prejudice; an underlying prejudice.

ESG: Describe the gear you use onstage with Heart.

DC: I’m using a 24 x 16 Tama bass drum and a 6 1/2 x 14 Tama Bell Brass snare. I use five Remo Roto-Toms—8″, 10″, 12″ and two 14″ sizes—and I have two 6″ Dragon Drums, which I really like. I also have a set of Simmons SDS-5 electronic drums, which are just fantastic! A lot of guys in Europe use them. Before I joined Heart, I went to Europe for six weeks with Gamma—we did a Foreigner tour—and I really got turned on to them over there. When I went back to Europe with Heart, I got ’em. They’re just . . . man, they’re amazing! And I haven’t even really had a chance to get into them. Because of the way we tour, we hardly ever soundcheck anymore. We just go up and play. But the Simmons are really cool.

ESG: Pitchwise, how are you tuning your drums?

DC: I usually tune the Rotos to B-A-G-E-D. I like that tuning. The Rotos really cut through the band. The Simmons I try to fit in around the Rotos, but I don’t really tune those to any note.

As for the Dragon Drums, I don’t tune those to a specific note either. I just go by tension. But I do like to tune them to a high pitch so they can cut hard, like the Rotos.

ESG: What cymbals do you use?

DC: I use Paiste cymbals. I have two 20″ Rude Chinas—those are great cymbals. I used to break cymbals like you wouldn’t believe! I have a stack in my basement of like 50 or 60 broken cymbals. I used to break 2002s at the rate of about one every week and a half.

So I got a Paiste endorsement, and used Rudes all through the Heart and Gamma tours. I haven’t broken one yet, and they’re great for rock.

I also have a 20″ Rude crash cymbal, a set of 15″ Rude hi-hats, and a set of 14″Rude hi-hats. I’ve been playing two hi-hats—one foot-operated and the other closed all the time.

ESG: Do you have any hardware that you really love?

DC: Yeah. I’ve got a great Sonor hi-hat stand—it’s from their Signature set—that’s fantastic.

ESG: Fast?

DC: Yeah, and real sturdy. It’s just a real solid piece of equipment.

ESG: What about your bass drum pedal?

DC: I’ve been using chain-drive pedals for years. I got turned on to Ippolito pedals in 1973 or ’74. Now I use Tama chain-drive pedals.

For drum heads I use Remo rough coat Emperors on my snare. In the studio I usually use rough coat Emperors all the way around if I’m using regular drums, as opposed to the Roto-Toms. I really like the sound of Emperors on them. When I do use the Roto-Toms, I put clear Emperor heads on them.

ESG: Tell me about Heart’s new album.

DC: Well, we started recording it in late March of this year. We planned it for a summer release so we could have a nice big tour and go back to Europe and maybe Japan. Summer’s a nice time to have an album out.

Keith Olsen produced it for us at Good Night L. A., his studio in Los Angeles. The material is rock—no doubt about it. It’s a lot different than the last album. It’s real straight ahead, and not as experimental.

ESG: How did rehearsals go for you?

DC: Real well. We rehearsed at both Nancy’s and Howard’s houses in Seattle. Howard has a four-track studio, and everything we did went onto tape, which is a real luxury. So we made demos at his house. It was really, really nice.

Within a period of one week, we were able to learn and put down seven tunes. It really didn’t take us very long, because we treat it so professionally.

ESG: I noticed that at one point you guys managed to record two cuts a day in the studio with Olsen. That’s pretty impressive.

DC: Well, it’s really not out of the ordinary. I mean, it’s not like it’s everybody’s first album! We were real organized going in, so we just went in there and banged ’em out. The arrangements weren’t rehearsed to death, and we never had to push hard. It all came naturally.

ESG: Did Ann and Nancy or Howard ever come in with charts for you?

DC: No. Ann and Nancy usually come in with a cassette with just an acoustic guitar, and sometimes a bass, and a basic groove. The band arranges everything after that, which is really nice. Everybody gets input that way.

ESG: What gear did you use in the studio?

DC: Essentially my old drum kit—the Rotos, my Simmons and a Ludwig bass and 6 1/2″ snare. I used a shallower Ludwig snare—5-1/2X 14—on one cut. For cymbals, I used both my regular Paiste China types, my Rude crash, a 19″ 2002 crash, and a 20″ Sound Creation China type with a 14″ 404 bottom hi-hat mounted on top of it for special effects. I also used an Icebell for special effects. And I used both my hi-hat set-ups.

I changed over to Tama in April of this year—my Ludwig contract expired last October. So now I endorse Tama drums.

Denny Carmassi
Photo by E. Shaw Green

ESG: Did you find yourself having to do anything in the studio that was radically different from what you did with Montrose and St. Holmes when you recorded with Heart?

DC: As far as the sound of the drums, no. I record pretty much the same way all the time. I sometimes tuned my Rotos to the track, so that they were in the same key as the song. I like to get different colors; different sounds on the drums.

But as far as the songs go, I like to think that I’m adaptable to any sort of situation. I just happened to have played in those bands that are, quote, “heavy metal.” That’s the kind of music that I like to play, but I also think I can do lighter, more delicate things too.

For instance, there’s a song that Nancy wrote—”Danny”—that has almost a samba feel. It was a different feel for me than anything I’ve played for a while, but I had no problems with it. And there’s a song that Ann wrote—”Sleep Alone”—that has more of like a heavy rhythmic groove. Most of the other songs on the album are like this—pretty straight ahead.

As far as the way the drums are set up, I never really change anything. I make myself comfortable. And then it’s up to the engineer and the producer to work around me. I make sure that my drums sound good, and that they’re tuned properly. I think the player needs to be comfortable. That’s really important.

It’s a real drag to go into a studio when you’re used to playing a double-headed bass drum and somebody wants to take the front head off and put a bunch of pillows in there. I’ve run into situations in the studio where I’ll set up and the engineer will go, “Oh my God! I can’t mike your drums! Your cymbals are too close to your toms. You’ll have to raise them up,” or something like that. Or they want to put wallets on all your drums. I don’t know where that whole padding down the drums thing came from—maybe from guys who weren’t too experienced in the studio years ago who didn’t know how to tune drums, and that was the only way they could get a good sound out of your kit. Anyway, it’s something that’s bothered me for a long time.

ESG: Who else have you recorded with?

DC: Al Stewart—I did his last album. And I did one album with a group called Saint Paradise. Of course, that’s all in addition to my work with Meisner, Sammy, Montrose and Gamma.

ESG: What companies do you endorse other than Paiste and Tama?

DC: Vic Firth sticks—I use their SD-1 generals. I used to use Regal Tip 2-S sticks. I would get them unfinished from the factory. When you play real hard and sweat a lot, you can have trouble holding onto a stick with the finish on it. We tried everything—tape, for instance, but that just ruins your hands. So Tommy Aldridge turned me on to getting the sticks from the factory unfinished. The only problem is they warp if they sit around for a long time.

Now my roadie, Gary Clark—believe me, I’d be lost without him!—sands the Vic Firths to get the finish off of them. That cures the problem.

ESG: Do you use any mallets at all for special effects?

DC: Yeah, I use cotton-head mallets on the cymbals for “Mistral Wind.”

ESG: What do you do to maintain your equipment on the road?

DC: Gary changes the drumheads about every three shows—they’re pretty much shot by then. The tonality has gone out of them, and they start sagging in the center.

As far as the hardware goes, I used to be real hard on it. But there’s a lot of good hardware out now, and we use a lot of preventative maintenance. Cymbal filters are changed quite frequently so they don’t wear out. So nothing breaks on the gig, usually.

Roadies are unsung-hero type guys. But Gary makes it really easy for me—we work hand in hand. He’s an amazing guy. He’s conscientious, and he always does a good job.

ESG: He’s marvelous! How did you find him?

DC: He was with Heart. In fact, he was Derosier’s roadie, too. I had a guy from San Francisco who had been with me for a couple of years who was really good. I wanted to take him with me when I was first asked to join Heart. But they wanted to keep Clark and see how we got along together, and it’s really been nice. He’s real good. He’s one of the best drum roadies I’ve ever known.

There are a lot of times when the band can’t get to soundcheck. But Clark gets it together. If I don’t get a chance to tune my drums when I walk onstage, I have total confidence that everything’s going to be right. I think we had—outside of the Simmons drums fouling up there a few times—one bass drum pedal break in a concert. And that was it.

I’ve really gone out of my way to buy really good stuff. That’s why I bought the Sonor hi-hat stand. I saw it at the NAMM show, and I said, “Man, I’ve got to have it!”

Preventative maintenance is the key, though. You’ve got to stay on top of everything day in and day out.

ESG: How do you practice? Do you concentrate on beats or work out rudiments or what?

DC: It all depends. Sometimes I’ll practice to just a metronome. Sometimes I’ll practice to my drum machine. I’ll set up a rhythm, go down and just start playing. I’ll record most of it, listen back to it and see if there are any good ideas, and try to expand on them. I also go back to my stick control books and play some of my favorite stuff out of them.

ESG: How do you warm up for concerts? When you play with Heart, you really work up a sweat and put out a lot of energy. So do you do any physical conditioning to prepare yourself? You’re obviously on a fairly grueling circuit during concert season.

DC: Yeah, we play like two-hour concerts. I get a little break in between when they do their softer tunes, but two hours is a long time to play.

I don’t really do any conditioning. I’m pretty active when I’m at home. I play racquetball and golf, and I have a lot of other interests outside music. My wife Lori and I hike a lot. And we’ve just had a new addition to the Carmassi family—a wonderful little girl named Angela Cora. She was born last November 28, and it’s really neat having a little baby. She’s really a gas! So all in all, I guess we keep pretty busy.

Mark Andes, our bass player in Heart, runs every day—he’s religious about it, and he’s in great, great physical shape. I tried running about a year ago and really noticed a difference, but I’m just not that disciplined. It’s not real exciting for me.

ESG: Let’s talk some more about Mark. How important is the bass player/drummer relationship to setting the groove when you’re playing with Heart?

DC: Very essential. I really enjoy playing with Mark. He has a real good feel, and he’s real solid. That, to me, is more important than anything. The amount of notes you play is not important—it’s the basic feel.

ESG: Do you have any favorite bass players that you’ve worked with?

DC: Jimmy Haslip—I did a movie soundtrack with him. He plays in the Yellow Jackets with Robben Ford. Tom Erak from Seattle is a really good player—I played with him on the Randy Meisner sessions. Jay Davis with Rod Stewart’s group is real hot. And there’s this guy named Robin I played with on the Al Stewart album. And, of course, Mark. I really like playing with Mark.

ESG: What’s your philosophy regarding the function of a drummer?

DC: I think it changes with the type of music you play. For rock, the drummer has to be the foundation of the band. And yet you can’t be strictly a timekeeper. You have to be creative within that framework. For jazz and other types of music, you probably don’t need a timekeeper as much as somebody with feeling.

ESG: So what makes a good drummer a good musician?

DC: Being sensitive to the other musicians in the band. And listening. You can’t lay something down and say, “I’m not gonna budge …”

ESG: You’ve been with Heart now for over a year. How has your life changed?

DC: It’s been a fast year; just non-stop. I really haven’t had too much time to enjoy different things that I like to do. Mostly, I guess I’ve just been real busy. I haven’t been home much at all, so I like to bring Lori and the baby with me on the road whenever possible.

But the band’s attitude about performing is so confident, so professional and relaxed—something I haven’t been used to in the past. They just walk out on stage and do it, which really makes the performance fun. Performing with them is like a breath of fresh air; nobody gets all weirded out, before or after the show. The whole organization is geared towards making everything real easy for the players. The band has had a lot of success, and they’ve surrounded themselves with good, competent people. It’s amazing how everybody gets along so well. It’s a good atmosphere to be in.

Whenever new people come into a band, there’s always a rush of energy; new blood being pumped in. So far, the excitement is still going on.

ESG: Where does Denny Carmassi see himself ten years from now?

DC: Still playing the drums…in some capacity! I’ll always play. I don’t know if I’ll be in Heart ten years from now, but I’ll be doing something.