"Before I saw him, I could figure things out. He was the first guy I saw
close-up and just didn't get what he was doing." The reverent words of one Josh
Those of us who have seen or heard Vinnie Colaiuta can
probably relate to the "sickest thing I've ever seen" part.
He made the concept of playing "out" a brow-squinting ordeal
with Frank Zappa and Allan Holdsworth. Then he turned heads by following Omar
Hakim and Manu Katché as the anchor of Sting's recording/touring group, proving
he doesn't have to consistently do the drumming equivalent of a quintuple lutz.
What makes it all so proverbially "sick" is that it's never really about the
math, it's about emoting. Whether he does it with many or few words (and sure,
he can do it in seven or eight languages), it doesn't matter. When he speaks,
you know it's him.
He's one of the most sought-after and revered musicians in the
business, and can currently be heard on albums with guitarist Robben Ford and
Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip ("Jing Chi" and "Jing Chi Live"), his
garlic-infused quartet Karizma, and with various usual suspects on both volumes
of "Live At The Baked Potato." At press time he was also linked to the
forthcoming Megadeth album.
Somehow, after literally months of phone and e-mail tag, he
had a few minutes to spare.
Let's talk about the "Jing Chi" album with Jimmy Haslip and Robben Ford.
You guys go back a ways.
Yeah, we do. We're great friends. I
played in Robben's band back in the '80s. Basically how this thing started is
that Jimmy called me and had spoken with Mike Varney over at Shrapnel, and I'm
not sure who brought up the idea of the three of us doing the record together.
But Jimmy spoke to Robben and myself and asked, "Are you guys interested in
doing a trio project?"; And we thought it sounded like great fun.
We got together at my house and sat around together,
threw a few individual ideas around on the table. And from there we just
started writing a lot of things collectively, we spent four or five days doing
that. Actually, between recording the stuff and pre-production, and actually
going in and cutting it, was a couple of weeks. We had a lot of fun. We went
into Base Seven and cut it. Rich Green, who mixed it on his computer rig, did
an amazing job of mixing it.
Are you proud of any particular track on the record?
We transferred one of the drum tracks from the ADAT,
"Crazy House," that is actually just us sitting down and basically writing it
[in the studio]--it was a run through. But I liked it, so I wanted to keep it.
It was one of those, we just rolled tape. I thought it had a lot of humor in
it, it was nice and loose. It had attitude and color, rather than just trying
to be, you know, just having every note be in some perfect place. That doesn't
really mean anything, it only means something in the mathematical domain. That
doesn't translate to emotiveness. Music is an emotive medium, and it can be
analyzed mathematically, but in terms of its usage as a medium, it's an emotive
communicative medium. If it's not emotive, then I think it falls short of its
That fits perfectly with your comment on the
"Modern Drummer Festival 2000" video where you were asked about the beat
displacement in "I'm Tweaked" for the four billionth time. You can go through
the math in different ways, displacing a 16th note or whatever, but to you,
personally, it was a gag. A joke. Doing a jarring beat displacement over a
James Brown beatbox sample is funny.
Exactly. It shows how overly-seriously we tend to
take ourselves, the whole thing was a big gag to me. It's a joke. It is what it
is, you know? [laughs] For me, it was funny.
And that actually leads to my next question,
the band that was in that video, Karizma (David Garfield, Neil Stubenhaus,
Michael Landau). You guys recently released "Document". You guys really go
Oh man! A long, long time. I have a lot of history
with those guys. I came to L.A. in the spring of '78. I go back, at least 20
years with those guys. It's a long time. I was just a young, little. . .punk. .
.when I got here. When I joined Frank's band, I was really young. We were all
just a bunch of punks when we met. [laughs]
And talk about history, you're on both volumes
of the "Live At The Baked Potato" series. When's the first time you played
Probably 1980, maybe even '79. I mean, that place
has been around for a while. It's really a mainstay, a special place.
Part of the hardest thing about getting an
interview with you is. . .getting an interview with you. What else have you
been up to, what albums should we be looking out for?
I worked on a Bob James record, and also a Bill
Evans record. I worked on Mike Stern's record "Voices" and also with Richard
Will there be a Vinnie solo disc #2? A sequel to "Tweaked?"
Hopefully. I'm beginning to get some ideas
germinating, so I hope I'll be able to get it out. But I don't know when. We'll
Must be crazy keeping everything straight.
Oh yeah. Time management is obviously a problem for
most people in the world, but on a simpler level, work is work. When you're in
a freelance industry, that's just the way the cookie crumbles. I just sort of
roll with it, and I'm glad. And if it can be a blessing to others, then praise
God for that.
When you make decisions about taking certain
jobs, is it always a reactive thing? How do you make certain decisions to do,
say, a "Jing Chi" project, or to take a high-profile gig with someone like
I just kind of roll with it, and try to maintain an
ethic where it's reactive. When we're presented with a situation, we have a
choice to say yes or no. For me to say no, would be that I have ascertained
that it would be unfair and/or exploitative, or it would conflict with
something that I've already been booked for. So the code of ethics that I try
to maintain is, hey, if I'm booked, I'm booked.
Once I had to turn down a "Round Midnight" soundtrack
call that I had gotten, because I was booked on a jingle. Now some people would
have said, "You're nuts, you should have gotten out of the jingle." But I was
booked. And that's the way I look at it. I really think it's largely about
ethics and just not trying to rip people off, you know what I mean? Now that
happened over 15 years ago, and I've worked a lot since then, so it certainly
didn't affect my volume of work.
You'll get other chances.
Yeah, and I've had more than other chances, I've had
a wonderful career. I tend to look at it like a flow, rather than a cutthroat,
competitive thing. You do what you do because you love to do it, you want to be
a blessing to others. They're going to call you or they're not. They like you
or they don't. And that's really it. You can't beat yourself over it, because a
lot of that is just fear of food on your table and this whole thing of other
people thinking, "Someone else is going to get the gig, I'll lose the account,
or they might like so-and-so better." And we're all afraid that someone's going
to say, "Oh, he's better than you." You know what? There's room for everybody.
I interviewed Ani DiFranco, and she said
something that resonated with me--that music and competition don't even belong
in the same sentence.
I agree, and I applaud her for that statement. Wow.
And that reminds me, in a recent obituary notice for Waylon Jennings, it was
stated that he didn't show up for his own awards ceremony, either the Country
Music Hall of Fame or some sort of event. He didn't believe that musicians
should compete with one another. And I really applaud and agree with that.
Some cleverly rhetorical person might make a quasi-evil
remark like, "Are you afraid to compete?" to which I would answer, no. There is
no fear involved, there is no need. And compete against what? People like you
or they don't. If they like somebody else, what are you going to do? There are
things that we just can't control, and the sooner we come to terms with that,
the better off we are.
So true. Hey, one thing I have to ask you about
is the departure from Sting's band. What happened there?
Well in 1997, that was the end of the last tour I
had done with him. And then the following year we went in to do the "Brand New
Day" record. There was talk of a tour after that, and over a little
deliberation and prayer, it occurred to me that I couldn't do it. The reason
was, my personal life, on an inward personal level, I felt that I was on a
downward spiral. I was just traveling a lot, the tours were really, really
long, and I was beginning to feel disoriented. So I chose not to do it, and
How many years were you with Sting?
The first gigs were back in December of '90, and
then I stopped in the summer of '97, so seven-plus years. The tours would go on
for 18 months, a year. The last one that I wasn't on, which I was under the
impression was going to be shorter, turned out to be two years. That's a long
time to be on the road. So I knew I didn't want to do that.
And when you're in a situation like that, and you
suddenly leap out of it, you think to yourself that the future is uncertain,
right? But I thought to myself, "It's uncertain anyway. It just is. " I just
figured I was off the road, and whatever happens, happens. And by the grace of
God, I've been blessed to be able to stay home and maintain my studio career
and make a living. I think it's healthy to do the [touring] thing in segments,
but I think most people get into it and just stay on that train and ride it,
and ride it. . .
. . .and burn out.
It's like, if you go for seven months before you
actually hit home for five days, and then you go out for another eight months,
it's just nuts. You're just constantly gone.
What was Sting like to work with?
He was a really liberal guy, he'd hang with you.
Really smart, great bandleader, great musician. He's in a league of his own,
really in a very narrow category in terms of being a singer-songwriter, bass
player, all of that. And it was really like one big group, from him, to us, to
the crew, we were all in it together, all on equal footing that way. We were
friends, as opposed to, "Hi, I'll see you guys at soundcheck, maybe." You know,
where the guy is in his own little world. He wasn't like that at all.
Have to ask about Frank Zappa. What are your
special memories, and what do you think his legacy will be? I asked Terry
Bozzio this same question, and he ran off a list of like ten different things,
saying Frank could have done any one of them and he would have been totally
I would agree with Terry on that. He was that kind
of a guy. In reflecting, I would say he was amazingly brilliant, just
incredibly intelligent. And the kind of humor that you would expect him to
have, which was reflected in the way he wrote, was kind of the way I saw him.
He sort of took me under his wing, he was like a mentor to me. The band, it was
like Juliard meets boot camp meets, I don't know, comedy, you know?
The legacy, I think it's a compound legacy where he
really created a self-made empire. And he was probably the first that had done
it on that kind of scale, that I know of. He created his own fan base, and did
what he wanted to do, and he showed that there were people that liked it. A lot
of them. A lot of them. It wasn't just about, "What is it that they're going to
like that I think I'll try to second-guess?" No. It wasn't about that. He
injected things into music that are vitally important, and made it funny, and
appealed to a lot of people, and as a legitimate composer revealed his
importance, as well. Hopefully part of that legacy will bear fruit in the
future, and he'll be recognized more legitimately as a composer.
Do you think that certain things he did, say
satirically, might rub some "legit" composer-musician-types the wrong way?
Right, but what does that say about them, anyway? If
you listen to something like "The Yellow Shark, " that's not satirical. That's
serious, and should be judged as such. I think he was so prolific and had such
a body of work, that perhaps he just may break through. . .and that [respect]
could happen. I hope so.
Any specific memories, something you're really proud of?
Well, for sure the "Joe's Garage" sessions. We were
originally going to go in there for a week to do a single, and we ended up in
there for a month. And he made it up on the spot, and that was just staggering
to me. That it turned out that way, and that he was able to just concoct this
whole thing in the studio. He would give us hand signals through the control
room, and it was [sighs]. . .oh, man. That whole experience was just amazing.
This is an unpublished interview, which appeared for the first time on DRUM! Magazine's web site