Steve Mitchell is one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s busiest studio drummers. He can be heard on, among others, the last 12 Charlie Brown TV specials, the theme for John Chancellor’s news program, Garfield the Cat and many commercials. He has played and recorded with Joe Henderson, Blue Mitchell, Herb Ellis, George Marsh, Van Morrison, The Coasters, Joy of Cooking, Esther Phillips, Lou Rawls, Sally Kellerman, the Smothers Brothers, and the Joffrey Ballet.
SM: Music was always a big part of the family. I played in the family band. I come from a Quaker family, living on a self sufficient farm where we didn’t have electricity until I was a teenager. We had a real basic, simple, homelife. All I’ve ever tried to do in my music is remember what it felt like to play that music, and recreate that feeling in the studio or concert hall. It’s a warm groove in a comfortable familymusic situation, and I’m really sorry people don’t do it anymore. Now everyone gathers around the “tube,” and they don’t get that kind of experience.
I tried a variety of instruments, including piano. I settled on drums at 11 years old, mainly because it fit into the house situation. I got directed into recording at a very early age. Pat Ballard, who wrote several popular songs including “Mr. Sandman,” lived in my hometown of Troy, Pennsylvania. He heard me play when I was 11, and I started doing his demo tapes when I was 12 years old. I used a snare drum, kick drum, and hi-hat.
CB: Were you self-taught?
SM: Basically, but I also had an exceptionally good teacher, Fred Blood. I started to study with him when I was 12, back in 1956, in Elmira, New York. He was a master, but so far ahead of his time, and so out of place in that area, that after about five years he left town. He was a tremendous influence. I studied with him until I was about 16. I used to go all over Pennsylvania looking for teachers. During this same period of time, I was also going to New York, catching what jazz groups I could, and studying with various people. I also studied in a drum corps and played in a drum and bugle corps. I went to Duquesne University from 1963-1967 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in music education. While at school, I studied with Bill Schneiderman in Pittsburgh.
CB: When did you come to San Francisco?
SM: In 1967. I came out here with a band from Pittsburgh called the Skyliners. We had a hit, “Since I Fell for You.” I worked with them and we did a record that was coproduced by Bernard Purdie and Luther Dixon. Bernard and I worked together on and off on this record for a month, and it was fantastic. He’d play drums and I’d play drum parts that he’d give me. Sometimes he’d play congas, and I’d play drums and vice versa. It was a real eye opener for me, because in Pittsburgh I had gotten into the circuit of making soul hits.
When I was in college, I found that in addition to doing club work I could make good money doing recording work. I did commercials and jingles, and got into a kind of hit factory making local soul hits. We made 25 or 50 dollars a date. Through that session work I got in touch with the Skyliners and did a bunch of touring. Part of one of our tours included a trip to San Francisco.
In ’67 I filed for, and got, a conscientious objector’s status because of my Quaker background and philosophy. I had to take two years off for public service. Garreth Loy, Hale Thatcher, a light projectionist, and myself had a travelling show called Hermes. We performed at colleges, the San Francisco Art Museum, the Opera House, and various other places. We had a giant percussion set up, liquid light projection, and electronic music. Hermes was a very mind expanding experience.
CB: How did you break into the recording industry in San Francisco?
SM: I joined a band that was composed of musicians from the Electric Flag. The band was called Sweet Apple and we got an advance from Columbia, and released an album in ’68. The band disbanded, and a wonderful bass player, Bill Rich, got me to play on Jessie Davis’ first album. I went to L.A. and did that album and several others.
Around 1970 the music business was really crumbling. I got burned out on the music business. I took a job teaching at the Wilmington’s Friends School, a Quaker school in Wilmington, Delaware. After a year I came back to San Francisco. Teaching music is the only thing I’ve ever done besides playing music.
The difficulty I found in the early ’70s was that I was working towards making records, and the constant conflict I had was that whenever I played music that I considered good, the record companies would say it wasn’t commercial enough. I found myself constantly trying to water down my art to make it commercial enough for the pop market. As a challenge, I said if they want something commercial, I’m just going to make commercial music for money, and make art music for myself. So I’ve made sort of a dual life for myself.
CB: Would you describe your philosophy or approach to the art of drumming?
SM: I see all art as being a representation of nature. I think musicians bring nature to the city. In the country a lot of people don’t need music quite as desperately as they do in the city. It’s our duty to bring nature to people, and percussionists are unusually fitted for creating environments. I think of a lot of my percussion music as being environmental music.
CB: How do you define the term “environmental music”?
SM: Like setting up a mood. If you walked into a jungle and sat down quietly for half an hour, pretty soon the birds and animals would start to come out and surround you. That is an environment. Art is a reflection of nature, including the human heartbeat, all the cycles and rhythms of the planets, and the ocean. The world is a very rhythmic place. The rhythm of nature is not a circle, it’s a spiral, constantly changing, always slightly different, and that’s what I see in drumming—the permutations. You can take a theme and every time you play it, you can vary and move it. That’s motion that involves emotion, and it can move people to a more relaxed state, or a more excited state. You can affect them psychologically.
One of the biggest roles of musicians is to transform people. It’s very similar to having a religious experience in church. I’d like to think that even in the funkiest night club, people get that magic, which to me, is a religious experience of the music.
CB: Who are your main influences and why?
SM: I put Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey high on the list because of the sense of groove they inspired in me. When I heard them live, and on recordings, I began to see a way that they can make a nightclub or a concert become electric. Their performance creates an undeniable transformation of the audience and it just seemed like the walls are vibrating. They lock everyone in and have the effect of taking people from very diverse backgrounds and creating a unity. In a club you can have an army general sitting next to a street junkie, and the two of them will be tapping their feet and experiencing such a unity that it brings an audience together. It’s a real tool for world peace and understanding. If people could experience music together and play music together the world would be a better place.
Another drummer who always really impressed me is Jimmie Smith. He played with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and he did a lot of organ trio playing on the East Coast. In a sense he was like Philly Joe. He has a very intense fire, a command of the instrument, and the ability to make quarter notes come alive. He’d just play straight quarter notes on his cymbal, and within eight bars the entire club was perspiring and tapping their feet.
I’d also like to mention Al Jackson for simplicity, and Bernard Purdie for his groove and his approach to the business of music. He has a way of promoting himself. There is a duality in commercial music. You need chops for playing the drums, but you also need “jaws” for handling your business. You need to be aggressive, and I don’t see that as negative. I know a lot of musicians, particularly jazz musicians, who have a very negative business sense. They think that if you do anything that’s taking care of business, it takes away from your art. I just don’t see it like that. Great artists have always raised their own price because nobody else will.
CB: Was there anyone else you wanted to mention that was an influence?
SM: Salvador Dali. I like to take people from their established frame of reference and throw them a curve. Dali did that with visual art. Sometimes in a very avant-garde fusion piece I may use a Dixieland lick. In other words, the styles of music that don’t generally fit in that idiom. I’m also a firm believer that we have to take sound at its most basic. That is, pure sound, so that when you hear a splash cymbal you don’t necessarily think Dixieland.
Dali said that if you want to be the most advanced avant-garde artist, you go backwards; you study the traditions and find out what has been done before. So for me, this means that if you want to study funk and be the most avant-garde funk player, you should go right back to the Agbaja, Ghana and Nigerian drumming, because that’s where it all came from. You’ll find rhythms to draw from that you might otherwise not find.
CB: Would you describe the recording industry in the San Francisco Bay Area?
SM: We’re still riding the aftermath of the late ’60s where groups like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and the Quicksilver Messenger Service came out and turned the established New York, L.A., and Nashville scenes upside down. When I was recording in New York I was in awe of the extreme professionalism, but it became a little cold, calculated and a bit formulized. Out here it’s very relaxed and very unformulized. Musicians have a good time playing and stressing their uniqueness.
Musicians who follow the course of only playing scales, practicing just to be a super reader and professional, often times lose out on the basic spirit of creativity. San Francisco is one of the most creative environments in the world.
In the Bay Area there are probably a half-dozen studio drummers who make enough to qualify as full-time studio players. It’s a limited scene, and it requires a creative approach to business. It’s impossible in San Francisco to make a living doing freelance album dates, but, if you include jingles, television shows, kid’s records, and fill-in with demos, you can make a good living. But it does require pursuing every possible area within recording. I’ve always attributed the success I’ve had here to the fact that I go at a New York pace in San Francisco. When I came here I was amazed at how laid back everybody was.
CB: What advice do you have for drummers who want to break into studio work?
SM: My first advice is to take everything you can get. If you are already a competent drummer, offer yourself to everybody’s demo. What you need to do is put as many hours as possible into the studio, where you are hearing your sound and getting the experience of playing, not with the stimulation of an audience, but with the thought of stimulating a future audience. You’re going to be in people’s living rooms and car radios.
Most drumming that I do is very simple. Very rarely do I use polyrhythms. Very often I’m stuck playing quarter-note patterns. Hitting a closed hi-hat on “1” and “3”, the snare drum on “2” and “4”, the bass drum on “1” and “3”, and that will be my entire part.
A lot of drummers approach the instrument by exploding; constantly reaching for new polyrhythms, speed, complexity and expansion. I approach studio drumming as contraction or imploding. In other words, you’re drawing in and giving presence to the few notes that you’re given to play. If you have three quarter notes on your snare drum every five bars, you’ve got to give them as much depth, body, emotion, and feeling as you possibly can.
To develop this technique I studied with Chuck Brown, who is a very popular teacher in the Bay Area. He’s taught Dave Garibaldi, Michael Shrieve and Terry Bozzio. He gave me some tremendous practice material of slowing the metronome down to its slowest mark, 42, and playing a note every two ticks, going through the first page of Stick Control and spending five minutes on each exercise. The goal was to give presence and uniformity to the right and left hands so that you couldn’t hear the difference.
Doing the studio work that I do, I very seldom get to play a fancy fill or a big, hot lick. In my jazz recording I do, but most of the time I’m faced with trying to make music within a minimal framework. If you’re going to be playing backbeats on the snare drum, take half-an-hour a day and turn your metronome on at a very slow marking. Then study just the backbeat. No hi-hats, bass drum, fast rolls or fills around the toms. Analyze and develop that backbeat so that it’s so fat, and has so much presence, that when you go in to record it just knocks people out. You can impress people with presence and simplicity as much as you can with speed.
Drummers are the ultimate accompanists. On the whole, the success of getting work is to make other people sound good. The main role of a studio drummer is to give presence and a good feeling. If you’ve got a lot of presence, provide a real good groove, and make people sound good, you’ll always work.
It is really important for drummers to understand the variety of language that producers use. Someone from 1930 is going to have a different definition of what “boogie” means than someone from 1980. The same word will mean different things to different producers. Look at them as individuals and know where they are coming from. Part of your success in studio work is understanding people, being tolerant of them, understanding their language and knowing what they are looking for. I advise young drummers to play with people of all ages, and all types of gigs. Even if you’re successful and making a lot of money playing with a famous rock group, you’ve got to take some weddings, ethnic gigs, anything, because you are going to broaden your understanding of the musical experience and language, and then you can bring it into all forms of music.
CB: What size drums do you prefer in a studio situation?
SM: I start with a basic set up which consists of an old Slingerland 5 1/2 x 14 snare drum with a calfskin head, a Yamaha 9000R recording set with a 14 x 22 bass drum, and 8 x 8,8 X 10, 8 x 12 and 10 x 14 toms. In addition, I take along three extra tom-toms, four extra snare drums, an other bass drum, and a large variety of cymbals.
CB: What type of drum heads do you use in the studio?
SM: Currently, a blue Evans oil head on the bass drum. It seems to have a real nice roundness, plus a good punch. But you have to be careful with that head because if you use a wooden beater you’ll end up with a wet leg. I use a hard felt beater. I like the calfskin for the snare drum because it has a certain natural mellowness. With plastic heads on the snare I was always using a lot of muffling and unnatural tuning. With calfskin it sounds ready to go 90% of the time. Sometimes, because of the weather, I’ve got to tune it a little, but it’s got a natural muffling. Calfskin is very easy to record with because the overtones tend to be in the mid-range or lower.
CB: What do you use on the toms?
SM: Remo CS black dot heads. I like to use bottom heads, but for most of the jingle dates I use singleheaded toms. The CS heads seem to be fine for television work.
An important fact to remember about picking all these various heads and equipment is that studio speakers are deceptive. You go from the studio into the control booth and listen on those speakers and everything sounds fantastic. But the ultimate test is what it’s going to sound like coming out of a $100.00 black and white television or a car radio. In fact, I use 3″ speakers to check out my drum sound.
CB: In a live situation what kind of heads do you use?
SM: Very often, for any kind of rock gig, I use the same set up as I use in the studio. Sometimes I’ll pull a bit of the muffling off the drums. When I’m playing jazz I use the standard double-headed drums with Remo Ambassadors on the toms and bass and a Diplomat on the snare.
CB: Do you use any unique muffling techniques in recording situations?
SM: Kenny Hopkins, a former engineer at the old Wally Heider’s in San Francisco, turned me on to a muffling technique that we used with white-coated heads. Then we adapted the technique over to CS heads when they came out.
First, make sure your tom head is evenly-tensioned to the tone you want. Then take a drumstick and lightly hit the drum head about half an inch from the center of the head. Take the middle finger of your free hand and touch the head very lightly, much the same as a guitarist would touch his guitar strings to get a harmonic, and go around the edge of the black dot. As you’re tapping the head, and moving your finger around the circle, you’ll find a spot where the harmonic opens up a half step or goes down a half step. In other words, you can move your finger back and forth, and you’ll find that at a certain spot you’ll be getting, say, an A, and then an A flat, and then an A again. You then cut a 1″ x 1″ square of gaffer’s tape and you place it directly over the spot where you find this cross-over harmonic. Continue to cut off the gaffer’s tape squares and carefully press them on top of each other until the clashing harmonic disappears. I generally end up using about six to eight squares on each tom. It tends to eliminate the dissonance in the upper harmonics in the head and reinforce the fundamental. This means you’ll get a good clean tone. It’s something that makes engineers very happy.
CB: How do you muffle your snare drum?
SM: I use chamoise leather. I usually buy a 6″ x 6″ piece and roll it up into a cylindrical shape, then put the chamoise right along the inside rim of the snare drum so that it rests on the head. Then, using one tiny strip of tape, I put it over the center of the chamoise to keep it in place.
CB: Do you have any pet peeves concerning engineers and producers?
SM: One pet peeve I have, when dealing with some engineers, is the over-miking of drums. Occasionally the technology tends to rule engineers’ thinking, and they become so engrossed in it that they lose sight of the magic of artistic creation. At one jingle session I had 25 mic’s on my drums! I think it was the worst my drums ever sounded. It was an impossible situation. The engineer gave me the old standard line, “we’ll fix it in the mix.” I heard the tape later and it was as bad as it originally had sounded. The mic’s were cancelling and phasing each other out and my drums sounded like cardboard boxes.
I’d say my biggest pet peeve is with producers who don’t understand the fragileness of the musical experience. In trying to get perfection out of parts, certain producers will do as many as 90 takes. Part of the problem is that some producers don’t have a musical experience of their own to rely on. Their decision of whether or not a track is good is based on whether every single note of the kick drum is exactly with the click track, or every single guitar note is exactly in tune. They listen to each note rather than the overall effect. It’s like missing the forest for the trees. When a producer takes too much time on every little point, the musician’s attention span tends to give way, and if you have to play a commercial 90 times, the last 85 are going to be wasted. Anyone going into production should understand that timing is very important. If a producer wants a successful studio experience, it’s the work beforehand that counts.
My advice to drummers getting into recording is that you have to have stamina and endurance, and be able to hang through the weaknesses of all these people. It’s a matter of being very persistent, understanding and tolerant.
CB: Given the ideal situation, how do you like to have yourself recorded?
SM: I like to record in a nice large studio with one mic’ on the kick drum, a snare mic’, hi-hat mic’, one over the concert toms (8″ and 10″), one over the mid-range toms (12″ and 14″), one on the floor tom, and two overhead mic’s to pick up the entire set. Now that’s pretty heavy miking, but that set up will create a nice studio sound that’s real good.
Still, one of my favorite ways to record is just one mic’, overhead, near the middle of the set. This way I can totally control the entire balance of my sound.
CB: Are there any recording sessions that you’ve done that you are particularly proud of?
SM: I’m particularly happy with the music that Ed Bogus put together for a show called Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown. The show has very little dialogue, and I get to play some nice grooves with the animation. It came off real nice, and the drums sounded beautiful.
CB: Do you have any goals or innovations that you’d like to contribute to the art of drumming?
SM: I feel that we’re heading into a period where percussion is going to be what strings were for the symphony. Many primitive cultures have developed extremely advanced percussion ensembles and I think that Western culture, America in particular, is heading into a percussion phase. We’re going to have large percussion orchestras. There is a need for live, organic, acoustic music in everybody’s life. People need to have that connection with their heartbeats and nature, and the religious experience that the drums convey. The number-one role of drummers is bringing people a mystical, peaceful experience. People need us, and drummers are developing right now for this new phase of music. People need to know the next beat is going to be there.
One of my goals is to form a percussion production company that would bring together a large group of drummers from all of the various styles, using different combinations of these very talented people and making music that’s strictly percussion for film and television music. Later we could move into another area, where we could make video discs of our performances. Drumming is such a naturally beautiful visual art as well as an audio art. I’d like to contribute to this vision of having drummers get together and raising our own consciousness and consequently opening the doors for more composition from some of our better composers and from ourselves. Groups like Max Roach’s M’Boom and Mickey Hart’s Rhythm Devils are just beginning to open the door in this field. What I see for the future is drummers getting together with other drummers and forming a renaissance and a development of this ancient art and bringing it into our culture so it becomes a respected musical entity.
I had the opportunity to do a film score with Johnny Rae and the late Cal Tjader. The three of us just improvised; it was fantastic, we played for a large part of a wild life educational film. We just laid it down with no overdubs.
CB: Group playing is wonderful, because as soon as you interact with others, you, as an individual, can come up with ideas that you couldn’t possibly have thought of by yourself.
SM: Right, bringing drummers together will create this, and until we start getting together as units, we’re not going to inspire the faith in composers, and we’re not going to inspire the ideas in ourselves. In San Francisco, Barry Jekowsky had formed a percussion ensemble bringing symphony, jazz, rock and ethnic specialties together. After only three concerts, at least a halfdozen new repertoire pieces have been added to the percussion.
The primary reason I play would be the wonderfully warm, satisfied feeling that I have in my soul when I play. It’s become as important to me as food. I play almost every day, even if there aren’t any other people around. When I’m playing, I feel like I’m having a religious experience. Someone once asked Charlie Parker what religion he was; he said “musician.” When I play with other people I feel this amazing ESP and multiplying of energies where the sum of three musicians is 90. On a broader scale, I feel that I am passing this religious experience, and the unity of rhythm, on to everyone who hears it.