A producer once told Vinnie Colaiuta that if you threw Tony Williams
and Steve Gadd into a blender, Vinnie would be the tasteful concoction. He laughs
modestly while he shrugs off the compliment, but it is probably an accurate
description. Justifiably, he is the talk of the town and drummers pack into the
L.A. club where plays three nights a week. One drummer comments that Vinnie is
the best drummer he's ever seen and another puts it simply, repeatedly
Innovative, colorful and tasteful, Vince Colaiuta began, as
did many, playing pots and pans while growing up in Pennsylvania. After graduating
to toy sets with paper heads, his parents finally bought him a
semi-professional Japanese set which he’d play with the neighborhood kids.
There was never any doubt that his instrument was the drums,
even though he also had an electric guitar and took organ lessons. In fact,
when he expressed the desire to play drums in the junior-high school band, the
band director informed Vinnie that there were too many drummers and he should
take up another instrument. He played flute for a year until the drummer
vacated the seat into which Vinnie slipped. Once the lessons began, Vinnie
recalls, "I couldn't get enough of it. I was real interested in music notation
and rudiments and technique whereas a lot of guys didn't dig that stuff. I
learned real fast because I was always practicing. I would go into English
class and sit in the back of the room with a Remo practice pad and practice
double-stroke rolls and get kicked out of class."
When he finally got a good drumset at age fourteen, he was
extremely grateful. "I was overjoyed when my parents bought me the set, because
up to that point, I had only been studying on the snare drum. When I sat down
at the set though, for some reason I didn't have any problem. I just sat down
and played, probably because of all those toy sets. Coordination didn't pose
much of a problem until I started getting into the stage band and had to read
drum parts with the foot and everything. When I first saw that, it was a trip
reading drumset stuff - the hand, the hi-hat, the bass drum, independence and
all of that - but I just went and practiced." Drum corps, summer camps and a
succession of lessons followed, and after finishing high school, he worked in
local bands for a year before enrolling in Berklee,
a decision inspired by many of his classmates and a chance meeting with
Berklee student Steve Smith,
who came through town playing with a big band.
"I wanted to gather as much information as possible. I thought
it would give me the chance to polish everything before I went to step out. I
knew it would be tough and I wanted to be ready for it. When I got out there,
it was really good that I did that. I also wanted to learn more about music
theory in a practical sense and anything that would help me in the most remote
way, whether I was going to learn writing to use it to write or just to give me
a different perspective to music. It really did make me listen to things
differently and it gave me a different awareness."
"When I got there, all I knew was the reputation that Berklee
had and I didn't really know what to expect. My first day, orientation at 7:00
in the morning, there were 800 drummers and like 1500 guitar players; totally
different from what I expected. I was expecting big bands and seeing Buddy Rich
walking around picking like, 'I like this trombone player-wanna be in my band?'
I just took my tests and placed in a bunch of classes, like beginning
arranging, because I didn't know anything about that, and an ear training
class. The writing department there was really great, except they have their
own way of doing it which is unlike any other place. Like the way they teach
you to arrange. They teach it to you with terminology that you don't use once
you get out of that place. It's only a means to learn it, but it's an efficient
means to cram it into you fast. In the two semesters that I went there, I
learned how to arrange for six horns. I used it a couple of times until I said,
I'm not going to do this. There are cats who do this for a living. I'm a
"After I completed a year there, I wanted to go back only for
the writing, because I was really getting into it, but I didn't have the money.
I passed out of the percussion department in one semester. I studied with this
guy named Gary Chaffee for two semesters, but the first semester I pretty much
whizzed through everything that he had. He was a wonderful teacher and the
greatest guy and he had a really great method. The whole school adopted his
method. He was doing things like applying polyrhythms to the drumset. He had a
certain manner of teaching independence by getting into funk drumming, Tower of
Power stuff, and weird groupings that were really cool. He would show you how
it was broken down and rhythmically what it's based on. It was real interesting
and he had it planned out real intelligently. There were all these Chaffee
clones running around because he really had it together and everybody was using
his method. So I went through that the first semester. By the time the second
semester rolled around, the drum lessons turned into a scene where I would go
in there and Gary and I would put on a Tony Williams record and listen to it
and sit down and play things together and just rap. Then Smitty (Steve Smith)
and I took group lessons for the second half of the semester. We'd just go in
and play and have a good time and it was a gas. Then Chaffee said to me, 'Man,
why don't you just move to New York when the school year is over?' He felt I
was at the point where I should just get out there but I told him I wanted to
come back and do more writing and stuff. Finally I realized that I was going to
be a player. I couldn't get the money to go back to school anyway, so I just
hung around Boston for a couple of years. There were a lot of good players
there. I was playing these top-40 gigs to survive. I wanted to do the jazz
gigs, but there was no money in the jazz gigs."
During those two years he also worked with a band which hooked
up with Al Kooper.
After going on the road with Kooper, he offered to produce
the rhythm section. Recalling his first major recording experience, Vinnie
laughs, "I didn't know anything about getting a drum sound or anything. I was
just into playing. Getting a good track was something I had no concept of. I
wanted to play for the tune and just play. Kooper would say, 'Well, save that
for your first solo album, okay?' My drums sounded like shit, but I was having
a good time. I learned a lot from doing that, though. There were probably a lot
of people who had never been in a studio before and didn't know how to get a
drum sound, but when they went in, people hipped them to it real fast. What
happened with me was that I didn't know anything about it when I got in there.
But they didn't say, 'Well, change your head. We're not going to get a good
sound with these heads.' It wasn't anything like that. They just took the drums
that I had and I think they might have said something like, 'Could you tune
this a little different?' The producer came out and hipped me to some things
like taping the snare drum up. Eventually I ended up getting a livable drum
sound, but now when I listen back to it in perspective, it was horrible. On the
other hand, you can go into a studio even if you have had studio experience and
still get a lousy drum sound, so you never know. I've been in studios in New
York where they've had the worst set of drums in there. The engineer messes
around with it a little on the board, puts some tape on it and bingo, ten
minutes later you can't believe he got that sound out of those drums. Sometimes
you'll go into a studio out here with a great set of drums, and the guy starts
giving you a hard time about it, so you still never know."
After returning to Boston, Vinnie finally made the decision to
move to Los Angeles permanently in January, 1978. A few months of rough times followed
until April, 1978, while doing a gig with
Tom Fowler. Fowler mentioned that
Frank Zappa was looking for a rhythm section.
VC: I had always been a big fan of Zappa's and had every
record. In fact, I had just bought Live in New York and loved it. It was funny
and it was musically great. The irony is that I called the office and bugged
the hell out of them, asking if I could bring a tape by. They said, "No tapes",
but I dropped one by anyway. I'd go there every day until one day they called
and said "Alright, Mr. Zappa will listen to you Wednesday night." My heart
dropped and I literally sank to the floor. I was so happy, not just at the
prospect of a gig, but because it was him!
RF: What was the audition like?
VC: I just went in there with the attitude that I was
going to shoot my shot and not going to get real uptight because it Zappa. I
would just go for it. This was it and I was going to put it all forward. I went
there and was watching these people audition. The average time they lasted was
like fifteen seconds.
RF: Why do you think they weren't cutting it? What was lacking?
VC: It seemed as though they just couldn't go through
with what Frank wanted out of a musician. Frank would put this music in front
of you that was ridiculously difficult, like equally on par with 20th-century
compositional kind of stuff, and rhythmically it was incredible. These guys
would sit there and they could play grooves but they couldn't read or vice
versa. He looks for a special combination of elements in a person and I guess
they weren’t there. I auditioned on Bozzio's drums. I had never played on two
bass drums, but I said, "Screw it-I'm going for it!" He put this thing in front
of me, "Pedro's Dowry," and it was the melodic part that I had to sight read in
unison with the marimba. So I sight read a little bit of that. I just had to
concentrate on it completely, and to my surprise, I didn't make any mistakes.
He was about to give me "The Black Page." I had tried my hand at transcribing
it, so I had it memorized and before he gave me the music, I started playing
it. I got about two-thirds through it and I guess he had heard enough because
he said, "Okay, yes, you can read." Then he started playing this thing in 21/16
and he wanted me to play along. I grasped it; it was all subdivided in threes
and twos. Then he told me to take a solo, so I played on it. Then he came back
in and played and said, "Okay, that's enough of that." He started throwing tune
after tune and we went through about four tunes. The whole thing lasted about
fifteen minutes, which was like a record. Then he pulled me aside and asked me
when I could start. I turned white and said, "Anytime." And that was it. That
bailed me out of my whole living and financial si tuation.
RF: Terry Bozzio said he almost felt at times that
Zappa would write these ridiculously difficult things to taunt his players to
see if they could actually do what he'd written. Although I'm sure some of what
Bozzio said was tongue-in-cheek, how do you feel about that?
VC: I've seen situations like that where I've pondered the same thing. But I don't
doubt the sheer musicality of it for one second. I think it's brilliant and as
far as I'm concerned, Frank is one of the most gifted composers of all time. I
don't think he's been duly recognized as such.
RF: You played double bass with Zappa?
VC: Here's what happened. When I started with Frank, for
the first two tours, I had this little Gretsch set with one 20" bass drum and
he loved it. But after a while, I wanted to go out and get a bigger bass drum,
a 22" or something. He said, "No, I'll make it sound good." So he went out and
got a lot of outboard gear and made it sound good. He just loved the idea of
this little set I was playing. I sat like two inches off the ground and he kind
of liked the concept of where I was coming from. I guess he wanted to get into
a different approach, drumwise. Finally, on the last tour I told him I wanted
to play two bass drums. He said, "No, because we'd have to leave one mic open
all the time and there would be problems acoustically." But finally I convinced
him and just took them on the gig. I didn't really practice on them, but when
you rehearse a tour with Frank, you rehearse for like two months, eight hours a
day, before you go out. So I got a chance to get used to them in rehearsals.
But it took a while. We went on the road for three months or something, and by
the middle of the tour, they started feeling good.
RF: With two bass drums, the question invariably comes
up as to the utilization of the second bass at the expense of the hi-hat. Can
you describe your approach?
VC: My approach differed as time went on. I wanted to
play two bass drums, but I just wanted to play them as a supplement, to add
some bottom heavy color, and it did do that. Sometimes I'd play them in unison
and it was an effective thing to use in solos, just independence-wise. It
developed that kind of strength and technique in my left foot and that was good
and it makes it sound real big. It's funny, because my whole equipment scene
evolved to a point with Frank where at the end of the time I was with him, I
had two bass drums, I had a Synare electronic bass drum in the middle of those
two drums, a real snare, a Synare snare, timbales, four Syndrums, five Synare
tympani, tom-toms, Roto-toms, the two cymbals on top of one another, and one of
those splash cymbals that is cut out of a hi-hat so it sounded real thick. I
was starting to think of it more like all these sound varieties to the point
where I'd come up with grooves that you wouldn't normally do on a hi-hat and
one bass drum. Nowadays, I'm playing one bass drum, two tom-toms, two floor
toms, a ride cymbal, two crash cymbals and a hi-hat. You just have to think
about it if you want to play things that are different because there are sounds
that aren't there maybe. On a big set-up like the one with Zappa, if you have
radically different sound sources available, I think that's the most musical
way to approach it.
RF: Your version of "Peaches en Regalia" is very
different from Aynsley Dunbar's version. I wonder whether that was your doing
or how much Zappa dictated what you did.
VC: He totally rearranged it. We had done "Peaches" and
he said he wanted to do a completely different arrangement: We just took the
whole thing apart and rebuilt it like an erector set.
RF: Was it a "we" or a "him"?
VC: In terms of arranging, it was pretty much him, like,
"You play this and you play that." I pretty much played the groove that was on
the record except when it went into another section that wasn't there before.
He said, "Okay, we're going to go into reggae now," and for four bars I'd play
reggae. Then it went into some kind of Devoesque kind of thing at the end and I
played a weird Devo kind of drum part. He just told me what to do in that
sense. The tune opens with this drum fill and sometimes I'd play it like the
record and sometimes I wouldn't and he'd say, "No, play what's on the record."
Other times he wouldn't say anything. Other than that, he would say, "Play it
like this or play it like that," and on that particular tune, that's what
happened. Other times we'd be playing a tune and I would just come up with my
own part. Then there would be another tune where he would hand me a written
drum part or he would say, "Play this against that, or play five against four."
I don't know if it was to challenge me or not, but if it was, man, you gotta
meet the challenge.
RF: So you found it challenging?
VC: Oh yeah, it was great. I learned so much from that.
It was a great challenge for me. I had a pretty fair knowledge of polyrhythms
and stuff like that before I got in the band, but nowhere near what it became.
I mean, I knew what they were theoretically, but in terms of approaching them
the same way he did and using them on the drumset, no way. I got all that from
him. In the two and a half years I was with him, it was incredible what I
learned. If he sees you have it to begin with, you have to keep up with him.
There's so much information and knowledge coming out of him so fast that you
have to be on your toes every second. It's incredible. I didn't want to think
of it like, "Oh God, I have to keep up." I just kind of went along with it and
knew that I had to meet the challenge. I enjoyed it, got off on it and learned
from it. I noticed that it changed my way of thinking to the point where it
started coming out of me. I would play behind his guitar solos. He said, "I
want you to listen to what I'm playing because I'm playing all those rhythms.
When you accompany me, I don't want you to just try to guess what they are and
play some standard rhythmic fill. I want you to understand exactly where I'm at
and communicate with me on that level." That forced me to try to improvise
these polyrhythms and think in that way, which is not the norm by any stretch
of the imagination. People just don't do that. I don't care how stretched out
you get when you jam, people just don't do it that way. It forced me to do that
and I think he saw that I had a talent for doing that.
RF: I'm tempted to say that you seem just as at home
playing odd time as you are playing regular time.
VC: Pretty much I am, yeah. I spent a lot of time
practicing it when I lived at home. I'd go up in the attic and play in seven
for half an hour.
RF: You mean as a kid?
Yeah, because once I left home, or actually, once I left Berklee, I couldn't
really practice. I still can't out here. I've been living in an apartment for
three years and I can't play drums in my apartment. I practice when I work,
which is a drag in a lot of ways, but it's like a language. If you don't do it
for a couple of months and suddenly , you're at a gig and somebody throws a
tune at you that has shifting time signatures, run through it a couple of times
and then bingo. That's what it's like for me. If I'm doing it a lot, it's
easier. It's like reading; if I don't read stuff that's that hard, sometimes
I'll go home and just whip through some literature that I haven't seen in a
long time to brush up on it. The thing about sight reading is that you have to
read things you haven't seen before.
RF: With Zappa you really went out there at times.
VC: Yeah, in the beginning, when I first started doing
it, I was pulling it off, but there were a lot of loose spots. But I had to
make it come out in order to develop it, otherwise, how was I going to do it?
The I got more accustomed to it. I'd sit there and think about it and listen to
the road tapes and it started oozing out of my pores, which I think Frank
really enjoyed. I had a good time doing it because it was the only time and
place I could do that. Frank loved it because he said, "This cat has the
capability to do it and I’m going to get it out of him one way or another." He
would make me do it, so I started developing it. If it wasn’t for that, I
probably wouldn’t have gone for it. It did get loose every once in a while.
We'd be out there, and when you've got four or five guys playing along and the
drummer is going out on Mars, what are they going to think? They've got to get
used to it too, if it's something they haven't encountered. It was kind of hard
for me for a couple of tours, until the last tour. I had taken time off from
the band. I came back, not having done that stuff for a while, but having done
other things, like playing in a studio a lot, which matured my concept in other
ways, which fed that. One hand feeds the other and it all helps and your time
concept gets stronger. I had gotten a lot stronger doing that in being able to
read Frank and gauge the other guys in the band. It wasn't like when we were
doing that stuff, it was just me and Frank and the other guys were sitting back
wondering what to do, because those guys were all real strong musicians. I had
a rapport with the whole rhythm section and those guys were right with me. I
got to the point where I was able to follow Frank and do that stuff much more
confidently and accurately, plus monitor, with another part of my ear, exactly
what was going on in the rest of the band too.
RF: What are you thinking of when you're out there?
Are you keeping count or what? What do you think is the secret to playing odd
VC: I definitely think that the key to it is counting
first. Then you become comfortable to the point where the count becomes
ingrained in your subconscious. You learn how to do it from counting it and
then it's feeling it. A guy who can't read, or who can read but isn't an ace
reader, can feel it. There was one guy in the band, Ike, who hadn't really had
any formal training in terms of polyrhythms and stuff. But this guy could feel
that stuff. I used to go out there, to Uranus and back, and this cat was right
there, always. We've had discussions about it and he told me he just feels it.
It's like a pulse to him.
RF: Then you were really allowed total freedom when it
came to stuff like that?
VC: Pretty much, but only to the point where I'd better
know what I was doing. And I had to prove that I knew what I was doing, and I
RF: There was one song, "Keep it Greasy", where I
wonder how you were thinking of the time signature.
VC: There's this one part where the actual time
signature is 19/16. The feel is like it is 4/4 with three 16th notes tacked
onto the end of it. Then there's another part in 21. It was all one live take;
no splices or adds or anything. We just rehearsed it. We used to play it on the
road and Frank said, "Okay, we're going to elongate that in the studio and
that's going to be a solo. You're just going to vamp out until I give you a cue
and then we'll go into something else." And bingo, he gave us a cue and zipp,
we were in 19/16. We just cut that track with guitar, bass and drums. I don't
recall if there was electric piano in that particular solo section or not. We
went to Village Recorders one day and just churned out tune after tune, all
live, no edits or anything.
RF: Zappa's studio tracks are a lot cleaner than his
live recordings. How different was that process from a playing standpoint for
you? Was it a lot more dictated?
VC: For example, on certain tunes on the Joe's Garage
record, there were tunes that were pretty much groove tunes and I played them
like that. I was really enjoying going in there and trying to play great
tracks. On, I think it was, "Token of my Extreme," we just grooved out and
tried to make it feel as good as possible and not get in the way of anything
that was going to go on top of it. On the other tunes, like "Keep it Greasy,"
it was as if we were going to play it live, except the time really had to be
cool. Frank told me once that he found it difficult to get people to peak in
the studio, so you can never get too energetic for him. It really wasn't much
RF: Why did you leave Frank?
VC: I was going through stuff like, "Wow, I'm on the
road all the time and when I get off the road I can't work." I wanted to get
into the studio.
VC: Because I like recording a lot. I love playing in
the studio; I love the way it sounds and feels in the studio. When I was back
east, there were three studios in town and it was something that always
fascinated me and something I wanted to do as a musician. Even though I enjoy
going out on the road, after a while I said, "I want to be at home and I'll
never work in the studios if I'm not around long enough for people to call me."
Just because I can go out live and play my ass off, doesn't mean I'm going to
be able to go into the studio and play well, unless I go in there and do it and
work for different people and be able to please all kinds of different people.
RF: Define what a good drummer is.
VC: A good time keeper, first of all, and a person who
has a good musical sense.
RF: How does a good live drummer differ from a good
studio drummer? You just said that sometimes you can't apply one to the other.
Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I've seen people play live where the entire
band sounds like a record and then I've seen other situations where it was
totally creative. Take a live situation like the Doobies or Boz Scaggs or
something. I'm not saying that those guys don't stretch, but it's very
orchestrated, which is great for the music and everybody's playing parts that
fit and make that music happen. But, now take the Art Ensemble of Chicago. How
avant-garde can you get? Those are two live situations. Those guys aren't
thinking like studio musicians so it just differs with the idiom of the music.
Idiomatically it differs, the way you approach it. Live playing vs. studio
playing depends on what your concept of music is; the big picture of how you
conceive music and what kind of player you are. It also depends on if you have
any concept at all of live playing vs. studio playing, if you're a sideman, and
how whoever you're working for wants you to play. If you're in a big rock band,
you might have to play with energy and be a showman. If you're part of an
orchestra, you have to read and they don't care about you twirling your sticks.
And if you're just playing in an avant-garde situation, it's how much liberty
you can take and the idiom of the music. There's a million different factors in
that, from what I've noticed.
RF: Now that you're immersed in the studio scene, what
do you see that makes a good studio drummer? What are the producers in the
VC: Somebody who has real good time, is an excellent
reader, whose drums sound good, someone other musicians are comfortable playing
with, and who can assimilate a variety of styles. It's a real personal thing,
trying to read their minds, depending on how tangible the producer or the
artist is. It's great when somebody comes up with a tune and it's just a bunch
of chords on paper. You're sitting there and nobody has any idea of what it's
like except it's in 4/4 and has this amount of bars and you're able to make it
work. Again, there's so many different factors. It's almost like you have to
have a good knowledge of all the elements of music and be ready to draw on that
mental rolodex at any time and really be able to efficiently pull it off,
despite the amount of communication you have with who you're working with.
Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. It depends on how difficult the
people are to work with, it depends on the other musicians and how competent
you are. At least, that's what I've found.
RF: How did you break into the studio scene?
VC: Probably the one person most responsible was
Stubenhaus. The first date I can remember being hired on was a date that Neil
said, "You have to get Vinnie." He's helping me so much in my career. I think
the people mostly responsible for getting me work were Neil,
Tom Scott, Pat
Williams and Hank Cicalo. It does have a lot to do with people you know.
RF: What, to you, is a positive session?
VC: A positive session is when you go in and the
producer and the engineer are so together that you don't spend the entire
session trying to get a drum sound. Some dates go on for six, seven or eight
hours, and constantly through the date, they're still getting your drum sounds
together. It's like, "Wow, didn't you get it together yet?" Or a positive
session is when the producer is not a jerk and when the guys on the date are
the right guys. When the producer picked the right guys and you're not
saying,"I've never worked with this bass player before, and wow, he's great,
but for some reason it's not clicking." He might be sitting there thinking the
drummer is a jerk.
It's the same thing with a band. When you play with a
band who plays together all the time, it gets tight, like ESP. I work with
Stube (Stubenhaus) in the studio a lot and I know when Stube is there it's
going to happen because he knows every minute thing that I'm going to play and
I know every minute thing he's going to play: That helps a lot right there. And
if it's a new musician that I haven't played with, but he's happening, it's
still going to click.
The challenge of the studio initially is that you have
to go in and make music out of what is placed in front of you right away. You
have to interpret what's in your mind and what's on the paper. But they can
make it easier for you if you don't take it too out, like if they don't make
you do it 99 times for no reason. For example, you're running a chart down and
you immediately play the right stuff. But for some stupid unexplainable reason,
they have to go by way of China only to arrive three hours later at what you
initially played. What's the point? When you're playing the right stuff, they
acknowledge it, it's happening, they're real easy going and they don't exert
unnecessary pressure on the guys, it's positive.
Some musicians tell me that there are certain people who
have philosophies that it's good to make guys do it over and over again, to the
point where the emotion becomes totally detached and they're just playing it
like a machine. To me, that's not happening. To me, you reach a point where you
know the song and you burn out on it, you've peaked on it, you're bored and
want to go home. If they want you to play it emotionless, why don't they just
tell you to play it that way? So, I guess a positive session is where there is
no ego bullshit or a producer who thinks he knows what he's talking about, but
he doesn't know anything. He tells you to play something and you literally play
it and it's totally stupid, where you play exactly what he sings to you. You
can't do that. They have to know what you sound like and that they're going to
hire a bunch of musicians who know what they're doing.
If they hire a bunch of guys who know what they're
doing, they're going to go in there and do it right. After that, it's just a
matter of the producer being a guidepost, kind of guiding you along in a real
sensible manner without all that other crap.
RF: What are some of the sessions you've been doing recently?
VC: I did Gino Vannelli's Nightwalker album a while
back. I did a few tracks on an album called Swing with Richard Perry that he's
really behind, which is '40s music. I just did the title track and a couple of
tunes for Joni Mitchell's new album and all of the Judy Collins' album, which
was an interesting project. It was really a potpourri of musical tunes and
musical styles and the musicians were great. I've done a few major jingles with
Charlie Calello with such artists, as Janis Ian and Nancy Wilson. I also did a
scene in a film with Bette Midler a couple of months ago where we spent eight
days filming a five-minute scene; and a new film with Richard Pryor that Pat
Williams composed the music for. I've also done some TV themes that Pat also
composed the music for such as Lou Grant, The Two of Us and a new TV show
called Making the Grade, which Tom Scott composed the music for. Actually, I've
been doing a lot of varied things.
RF: What about working with a click track? Did you find that difficult to adjust to?
VC: Not really. Maybe at first it kind of took me aback,
but it was a kind of thing where you'd better get used to it real quick or
else. So I did. You approach it cautiously until you're comfortable with it. If
you have a good intrinsic sense of time, then you can probably adjust to a
click track well. I suppose if you play with a click track, it could help your
time. But if you have a good intrinsic sense of time and you're not playing
with a click track, it's not like you're going to conceptualize your time or
try to play like a click track as much as you are just making the time be real
good and feel good. From my experience, sometimes I've worked with a click
track where it helped and it was definitely advantageous to use it. Other times
it was like, "Why are you putting this thing on?" There are situations where
the producer thinks it's just the right tempo, although it's too slow. The
musicians are just sitting there suffering through it, but the guy insists on
it and can't hear that it's killing the tune. You have to do it anyway and just
go through it. Meanwhile, the tune sounds like it's lumbering along to its own
RF: You mentioned time as being the main ingredient to
being a good drummer. How do you work on that?
VC: I'm still learning. When I first got to L.A., I
thought if I was able to do as many little demos as possible, it would help me.
I don't think that way anymore. I think now, that trying to play with the best
players possible will develop your time, if you can get them to put up with you
if you're that bad. If you are talented and have pretty good time and you play
with guys who are willing to play with you who are better players than you are,
you can gain more from that than playing with players who are terrible. You
either have the talent to have good time or you don't.
RF: Did you ever work with a metronome?
Yeah, at certain points. When I would enter into these little local contests
playing snare drum solo when I was in junior-high I'd work with a metronome to
make sure I didn't fall behind. I never really did that with the drumset,
though. I didn't have a really terrific metronome and I didn't have any
headphones. The only time I did that was when I got into the studio and had to
play with a click track and I had to learn fast. I just didn't have that
available to me at that time. I don't think I really thought of it at that
point either. It all happened when I was in the studio. I don't think of myself
as a session player as much as I like to think of myself as a musician who
happens to play drums.
RF: How are you differentiating?
VC: I think a lot of it might lie in attitude. There are
a lot of musicians who are great in the studio but who are just great musicians
to begin with. You can get better from getting more studio experience. You can
mature and become a better musician. But when I was learning to play, it wasn't
like, "Well, I've got to have this, that and the other thing together so I can
get into the studios." It was that I felt a need to have that because I heard
it and I wanted to be able to do things that I heard. It just so happens that
it increases your capacity. When you translate that into the studio; and you
cross the recording threshold, it isn't like you have more capacity than you
need. You just have more information to draw on, which can only help you, not
RF: How do you achieve your own style?
VC: I don't know. That's something I've been pondering
for years. I don't know if it's something you attain consciously or
subconsciously. I'm not sure. I can't provide the answer to that, but just
drawing on influences, to the point of where you're not going to become a clone
of one person or one idol. That's how I learn, from listening to records,
transcribing, listening trying to absorb it all and hash it out. I felt that I
started establishing an identity when I was with Frank in terms of trying to
improvise those polyrhythms and stuff and doing something that I had never done
before. Trying to apply stuff like that in commercial situations is a different
story though, and still have something that people can identify all the time.
People have told me that I have my own style and they can identify me on a
track. I don't know if I agree with them, even though I can usually tell when
it's me and sometimes I don’t dig it. It's like, "I'm on this record? Take it
off! Too bad, it would have been a great record, but it's only an okay record
since I'm on it." But if you have something to capitalize on, then you're
really identifiable as opposed to being able to do so thing in only one
situation. If you have your own sound that you can use in every situation,
people cash in on you. I was in a store one time where they had one little
speaker. I couldn't even tell who the artist was or what the tune was. I heard
about one bar and said, "That's Steve Gadd." I waited until the announcer came
on, and it was. Or I can say, "That's Jeff or that's Harvey or so and so."
RF: Can you tell from the way they play or the way
their drums sound?
VC: Well, it varies. The first giveaway in that instance
was that in the first second I took an educated guess because I thought that
was Steve Gadd's cymbal sound. Then I heard something-maybe it was just the way
the time felt-and in the next two and a half seconds, I knew.
RF: What would you say your forte is?
VC: I don't know. I guess I consider myself a pretty
good reader. Some people say I have good technique. I don't know.
RF: What about musically? What do you think your forte is?
VC: There's only two kinds of music to me. It's probably
been said a million times, but I'm going to say it: There's good music and bad
music. In terms of what my forte is, I don't even know because the things I
might feel at a particular moment that are not as strong, I'll immediately try
to make them stronger and it varies with the situation. For example, let's say
I were to play one kind of music good, say in the style of Jackson Browne or
something. What if I went into one of that cat's dates and I was cutting the
whole album and then he pulled out one tune that he might have written from a
certain experience that I have no idea how to interpret? To me, it goes even
beyond the idiom and the artist, down to the tune. Then what are you? If
there's something that throws me like that, I just have to try to remember that
specific situation, analyze it, think about it and then figure out how to deal
with it from there.
RF: Is there a particular kind of music you enjoy playing the most?
VC: Good, and that's it. Good music. Everything that's
good. There are so many kinds of music that I dig and there are certain things
that hit me emotionally, like the Beatles' song "Martha My Dear," which is
probably my favorite tune. I dig the time that's on there. It's not a drum
concerto or anything, but who gives a shit? It's a great piece of music and I
could never play that, or anyone else, better than Ringo did. He played it and
that was it and that's the only way it's going to be. But if I were playing
that particular piece of music, I'd enjoy the hell out of it! Or like, "Adagio
for Strings" by Samuel Barber. It's one of my favorite pieces of music and
there are no drums on that. I did a record in Europe last year with a Viennese
cat and he was trying to explain to me what the lyrics meant in English,
figuring it would help me interpret the song. Finally I said, "You know, I
don't hear any drums at all on this." The guy ended up cutting it just with
strings and it made it.
RF: Why did you decide to stop using double bass?
VC: No one ever uses it in the studio situation where
you get called as a sideman. And just conceptually, I was in a different frame
of mind where I was just geared to one bass drum and getting things out of just
what I had. I remember at Berklee I used to go into the practice room with just
a ride cymbal and a snare drum and maybe a hi-hat. I was surprised at what
would come out and what you can get out of what you have and how you have to
change your head. Most people think, "I can't do this. I only have a hi-hat and
a snare drum." But you can if you just apply yourself to it. Less is more if
you can really play. It's all in how you approach what you have as opposed to
what you have.
RF: Could you talk a little about tuning?
VC: Tuning is something I've really learned a lot about
from being out here in L.A., just talking to different people about it and a
trial and error process. I just tried to learn as much as I could about my
drums. Say I have an 8 x 12 tom tom I'll get an Ambassador, top and bottom, and
tune both heads the same until I get them to a perfectly pure fundamental tone.
If I want a dip or something, I can usually get it on a drum that doesn't have
that many lugs, like a smaller diameter drum with only five lugs. I just detune
one of the lugs on the top head and then I'll tape it up. Past that, it's just
feel for me. It's something that I don't even know how to analyze. I just
learned through trial and error and feeling it out. Recently I've discovered
some different tuning methods. Every drum has a comfortable pitch area to the
point where it sounds out of its range, high, or low, and if you tune the top
head looser than the bottom, it'll get flappy and messed up. I tried something
recently; where I tuned them almost too low an taped them and the guy messed
with the EQ in the control room. They came out sounding with lots of slap and
echo, and he put some echo on them. I've gotten that two or three times already
and I felt like hit on something. I don't really know how to explain it,
though. I just mess around with it until it happens. As far as the little
drums, I'll just put the heads on and tune them up, top and bottom, to get good
fundamental tones out of them and the sound real pure. There's an actual pitch.
It's not like I tune them to fourths or something; just where it sounds like a
good pitch range where the drum really resonates, which sometimes doesn't help
snare buzz. But I don't usually have that many problems with it. I don't tune
it like a blanket. I used to think I had to do that get a deep sound out of a
snare drum, but I found that that's not true. You don't have to tune a drum
head until it's dented and put four wallets on it. When I did Joe’s Garage, it
was kind of difficult for me because the drum head had a dent in the middle of
it in order to get that fat snare sound. But like now, I've got a snare drum
that's a 5 1/2" and I've got it tuned to an actual tone and I can actually get
a rebound out of the head and it actually sounds deep enough. It's something I
can't exactly explain. I think tuning is real personal.
RF: You sit very low.
VC: I always use a Tama drum seat because they seem to
go real low, or at least when I discovered it, it seemed that it was the lowest
one. I had a roadie chop it off so it would go lower.
VC: Because I was really comfortable sitting like that. It
didn't even go quite low enough. I wanted to sit lower, but now I don't chop
the seat anymore. I just sit as low as it will go and it's still pretty low. I
get a lot of power out of my feet that way too. It never affected my leverage
or my speed that much, especially not now because I don't chop it. It's
comfortable for me. I mean, my knees aren't up to my chin or anything. I felt
uncomfortable sitting real high. It just never felt good.
RF: How do you feel about drum computers, etc.?
VC: I've been kind of toying around with the idea of a
digital drum set-up. I thought about it; not just interfacing a Linn Machine
with drums, but like when I heard about these Simmons Electronic Drums, I
thought if these things had a digital brain happening and the playing surfaces
themselves are touch sensitive, then that is it! It turns out that they
weren't. They are just a regular old beefed-up Syndrum type scene with a bunch
of tone generators and oscillators. When I found it out, I was kind of bummed
out. The guy said I could buy one of these things and hook it up to a Linn
Machine and have the digital sounds with the Linn Machine so when you hit the
Simmons pad, you hear the digitally-programmed sound in the Linn Machine. It
would be touch sensitive, but it would be what you physically played with the
time element the way you played it, as opposed to your programming a beat into
it and adjusting it to perfect time.
RF: You obviously don't like that.
VC: Well, I don't dislike it. It serves a purpose and as
a matter of fact, I think it serves a wonderful purpose. But I don't think it
serves a purpose of replacing drummers or the purpose of creating new jokes
about drummers, like, "What happens if your drummer doesn't show up or if he
shows up an hour late . . . " Come on! You gotta program the machine and if the
thing messes up and fries a chip or something, then you're out of luck. And it
only plays what you programmed into it; it doesn't have a mind and it can't
jam. But it's a wonderful addendum and something that's an addition. I've
played around with the Linn Machine and I've dug it, but what bugs me is, cats
will get it and get carried away. Frank got one. I was rehearsing with him to
go on tour and he brought the LM-1 to rehearsal. I was messing around with it
and finally he came up to me and said, "Why don't you just take that on tour?
Take the LM-1 on tour and a couple of incidental tom-toms to bang on. Play the
Linn Machine as your primary axe and just take a couple of tom-toms to play
fills on." Give me a break! Months later I called him and he was telling me he
had all these tracks with the Linn Machine. I went up there expecting miracles.
I figured he could just push the buttons to his heart's content and get
anything he wanted out of it. I walked out of there a little let down. I've
heard that thing on a number of albums. Some albums I've heard it on, it
sounded great and others it sounded like shit.
RF: What, to you, is a good solo?
VC: About the only thing I can say about that is, to me, a good solo is
something that makes sense musically in a way that is over-all one complete
musical statement. But within itself, it has to tell some kind of a story where
the whole thing starts at one point, goes to a climax and has an end and is a
statement, regardless of whether it has sections to it or it is a free-form
solo. I suppose, depending on the type of solo, if it's a live situation where
you have to capture the audience's attention, you have to really think, to a
certain extent, about being effective. You can't lose them with anything that's
too cerebral and you have to think of the stuff that's going to be effective.
You have to think about the form and make a valid statement for that particular
song. That's pretty much what interests me. As far as effectiveness goes,
again, I suppose it depends on the tune, the audience, and whether or not it's
a concert situation or say, a jazz situation. When I was playing solos with
Frank, it varied. I would play a solo in the same place every night and I would
try to do things that were effective and things the audiences would enjoy.,
After a while, I got to the point where I said, "Can I solo on a different tune
tonight?" That's just where my head is at about it. I'm not the type of person
who can say, "I've got this solo worked out and dig this!" To me, that's where
I'm going to improvise. So I improvise and if it gets to the point where I
don't feel I have anything to say on a particular tune; I don't want to do it.
Sometimes it's like, "Let me trade fours with the bass player on this funk tune
and maybe I'll have something to say." Maybe I just don't want to do a solo. I
have nothing to say and that's the only kind of soloing that interests me. If I
have to play a solo at a certain place and I'm getting paid for it, if I'm
capable of doing it, by all means, I'll do it though.
RF: To you, playing with a good bass player is really important.
VC: Yeah, it is.
RF: What do you look for in a bass player?
VC: Someone who is just comfortable to play with. The
bass player and the drummer have to have a communication. It's one thing to
have a bass player who'll play to try to make the drummer sound good. But if
the bass player and the drummer share a similar concept of the way they play
time, if that's happening, if you both individually have good time to begin
with and you can fit together, it's great. It's funny; because there are a lot
of bass players and drummers who have great time, but for some reason, they
just don't mesh. Like Stube and I, when we play, it's second nature. I know the
way he plays and he knows the way I play and it fits perfectly: There's a
communication there and that's just magic. When you have players that are real
competent, or more than just competent, you never know what's going to happen
as far as spontaneity, the magic and the energy. Jeff Berlin and I play a lot
of gigs and we just go for it. Some of the things that happen are just great.
At any given moment, something magical could happen. A lot of times, I play
gigs like that and I wish I had a little tape recorder going. I used to get
together with this sax player and we'd just get together on sax and drums. But
in a regular rhythm-section context, the bass player is real important. It's
definitely the bottom line to making a track happen.
RF: What was the band Karizma that you were in?
VC: It was an original band with a bunch of real good
musicians in town here. I got in that band during the time that I was still
with Frank, but off the road, which was 1979 through the middle of 1981. We
used to play the Baked Potato for about a year every Tuesday and then we took
some time off and went back in for about four months and played on Sundays. It
was a bunch of local guys playing original tunes and they were great writers
too. We really had a good time doing that and we stretched a lot, to the point
where we'd just play what we wanted. Creatively, there was a lot of energy and
the tunes were great.
RF: What about the band you're playing with locally
now? Is that because you really feel the need to play live?
VC: It's good, because I need a good balance of live and
studio playing. All those guys are great musicians and the tunes are fun and
it's just a real fun situation. It's three nights a week and it's great to have
a place to do that. It's real organized and structured, but we can stretch also
and it's a real stimulating situation.
RF: Is there a goal either to continue the studio
scene or be a member of a band?
VC: Let me put it this way: I don't think the studio is
an end in itself, but on the other hand, I wouldn't feel insulted if I were a
full-time studio musician. I love doing it. Some guys have the attitude of,
"You want to be a session player for the rest of your life?" I say, "What the
hell is wrong with that?" On the other hand, it's not something that I'm saying
to myself, "Yes, this is it! I've found my holy grail and that's it." I'm just
enjoying it for the moment. If somebody came along and I was offered a position
in some band that was musically great, and/or offered me the chance to enjoy
some sort of unbelievable financial wealth and/or status, I certainly wouldn't
reject it. It's hard to find that kind of situation where the chemistry works
out and everybody gets along. Or if it's not a band that's established, and
you've got a bunch of guys who want to start a band, that's tough too. Every
once in a while I get a creative urge to write also, and I've often wondered if
I have any talent that lies in that direction. But I'm just going to take it as
it comes. I'm not pushing anything. I'd like to try to learn more about that
kind of stuff, get a piano in the house and sit down and mess around and write
tunes and see if I can come up with anything. Right now, though, I'm just
concentrating on my career as a player and trying to have that be my musical
medium. I have a lot of real misty visions of the future, but who knows what
the future holds for all of us? I don't really know what to prepare for. I've
done a lot of preparation for what I do now, so I feel like I'm still beginning
at what I'm doing. So I try to concentrate on that full time. It's hard. It's
like a big scene being in L.A. and working as an independent person. It takes
up a lot of my mental energy.
RF: We once started a conversation about channeling
hyper energy and I am sure that is a problem a lot of drummers have. Can you
shed any light on the subject?
VC: It takes a lot of mental discipline, I think. In a
recent issue of Modern Drummer, Roy Burns wrote an article about overcoming the
"horribles," which was an excellent article. I've had people come up to me and
say things like, "Are you going to go out and take it all out on the drums?" To
me, that is a total misconception. I know a lot of drummers who are really
energetic and are real relaxed human beings. I'm just not that way. But when
that green light goes on, you just have to turn on the switch. It's funny,
though, because in terms of getting nervous or anything like that, it takes a
lot of mental discipline, which I think is often a collective kind of thing.
Say for example, you're in the studio trying to cut a track and you've got
three people cutting a track and everybody is nervous. If you sit there and try
to make yourself calm and the other people are still nervous, it won't work.
Everybody has to be cool. If you're nervous and everybody else is cool, then
it's just on you and it's something you just have to develop. It's just a
matter of fully concentrating on what you're doing at that moment and that's
it; just pure concentration without any kind of nervousness. Channeling energy
for me has a lot to do with the stimuli I get from the other musicians, too. If
everybody is starting to crank and other people's creative juices start to flow
and I'm really concentrating on the music, I can really pick up on it. It's
really an admirable quality to see somebody who has a real shitty scene at home
and his dog just died and then he goes into the club and plays his ass off. You
have to shut a lot of that out. It's hard to do, but someone like that just has
his concentration completely on the music.
RF: Is there a way you strive to get a balance in your life?
VC: Yes there is, but I'm not sure I've found the
answer. It depends on my entire existence, where I live, what my domestic
situation is like, what's happening to me musically and just trying to be
strong in general, mentally. It's something I can't really provide the answer
to because it's a day to day experience and struggle. But as you saunter
through the giant Maytag of life's expectations, find out your own needs and
weaknesses and be true to yourself.