Percussioni Magazine, September 2003
Photos by Paola Fabbrocino
Translated into English from Italian by Tina Marangoni
Every Little Thing He Does Is Magic
Colaiuta is the drummer who, more than any other, embodies the spirit of the
musician devoted to the music, not to his instrument. This is his major focus
nowadays, and it is this quality more than any other that has assured him a
splendid career, still on his way up. He posseses an incredible technical
lexicon, of which he is largely unconcerned. He has the extraordinary capacity
to immerse himself in the most varied and extreme musical styles, playing
each of them with the experience of a specialist.
Vinnie is a splendid person with great internal riches, incredible human
qualities, great humility and intelligence which have all combined to get him
where he is today. We had a chance to get together for two days during "Music
from Heaven" (see below).
What follows is an account of a long conversation that took
place over a particular dinner away from the noise and the lights of the stage.
Vinnie spoke honestly about his life and of the many sides of his career as a
drummer, expressing himself very clearly, thinking over and weighing each word
in an incredible way.
Regarding your career, you stopped doing long tours
and went back to work in recording studios. What made you decide this?
I was tired of being on tour all the time, and on top of
that my life had taken a bad turn, so I tried to take this route whole
heartedly, even though I didn't know what to expect. Thank God it worked out
okay, and it's still going well.
I preferred to go back to the studio scene because I
like to play for the music, not in front of the masses just to show off. The
motivation to play in the studio is to be heard - but not seen.
Your work in the studio was a dominant characteristic
of your career, especially in the beginning. Is this really your true passion?
Yes, definitely! My true passion is to create music.
Everything is centered on the songs and not on the opportunity to impress
someone in the public. What I want is for people to listen, knowing that I am
completely subservient to that song and to the music.
Serving the music is the main thing...
Absolutely! I'm not concerned with anything else. I try
to play my way, and only think of the music.
Is it easy for you to develop a good rapport with
producers and artists and to understand what it is exactly that they're looking
Yes, it is. If it's only about the music. You have to
understand what the song requires, and not what people want to hear or see me
do on a particular piece. I just let myself go completely, and play the music.
What is the first thing that you consider when you're
in a new situation, whether in the studio or playing live?
Actually, there are many things to take into
consideration. If I'm in the studio, I immediately try to understand what type
of music I have to play, the emotional state of the people present, and what
they are saying. I try to develop a good rapport with the sound engineer,
oversee how the mics are positioned and work on the headphone mix, which is
extremely important, the pre-production, and only after I've seen to all of
this do I get to play.
In a live situation, I quickly gauge the attitude of the
other musicians, whether they are receptive or competitive, and I try to
communicate with them immediately, opening up completely, listening to their
opinions, and trying to understand whether they play for themselves, or if
they're able to play with me. I also try to obscure all my
surroundings, which is not always under my control.
It's very important for me to have a drum set that I
feel comfortable with, and monitors that I can hear everything with, otherwise
the situation can get confusing and I end up playing too loud. I don't like to
play in very large places, unless the sound on stage is very good, and I
don't like playing on a drum riser, because the drums can move too much. I like
everything set solidly in place, with a monitor mix that lets me hear
everything I need to hear. I don't like having to dampen the drums with
anything, but if it's required, try to dampen as little as possible so as not
to affect the feel of the sticks on the heads too much.
What does a drummer need to become a real professional
and have a significant career in this business?
You have to be able to really get into the music, any
kind, and be a good listener. Communicate with the people, listen to what the
bassist and the other musicians are playing, and do it with assurance.
Sometimes drummers like to be in charge of a situation, but in doing so they
intimidate the rest of the musicians and there's no give and take. You can be
successful without being too aggressive, but you need to be sure of yourself.
You must show respect and compassion towards the other musicians, and at the
same time try to guide things along. I think this is most important. Obviously,
you need the capacity and the skills, but technical skill alone is
times drummers try to play everything, hoping to be great in jazz, rock, funk,
punk, latin & pop, but I don't think that being a great drummer depends on
the number of styles you can play. I could consider playing in a punk band, but
I probably wouldn't be passionate about it. At this point in my life, I know I
could do it, but I don't want to do it just to prove that I can. We've got to
be true to ourselves.
The time comes when you think about what you're going to
be doing when you turn 75, and if you're still playing drums, it won't be in a
punk band. You've got to believe in what you're doing, because if it isn't
real, it will show, and everyone will know whether you're playing with true
passion or just to show that you can do it. You can't compete with a kid
who really believes in it, who is hungry, and a real punk. I'm not angry
anymore; I'm not 16 anymore; I'm not arguing with my parents. I'm a
man in his forties who is trying to be an artist. The style remains only a
The importance of being versatile still remains, and
it is required to be a true professional.
I think you're the perfect example of what a drummer
should be. Extremely versatile and capable of playing any style well.
Thank-you! But this is important in what you would
consider the professional aspect. You could come across the leader of a band
who's looking for someone for his group that has the hunger and desire to
be a real punk. You might be versatile and have the requisite skills to play in
that band, but the leader might tell you that he doesn't really believe in you.
The whole concept of being versatile works if you decide to dedicate yourself
to working in the studio, but even in that context, what you play has to sound
believable, because you believe in it. The reason I sound credible in so many
different styles is because I believe in many different types of music. And if
I didn't, I wouldn't sound convincing, aside from my technical ability.
In the past, there were some musical situations I was
involved with where I had no idea what to play! Sometimes you might not
understand exactly what the producer expects from you, and other times you
could be listening to what they've programmed and realize that you never would
have thought of that. It's interesting to see people who really think like
musicians, and not only as drummers. My versatility is borne from the concept
of serving the music, and I do it because I like it. I don't care if they ask
me to play a country beat in the chorus of a song, even if I like the music of
Chick Corea, pop, jazz or fusion.
You are considered to be one of the greatest drummers,
if not the greatest living drummer, and also the most technically skilled...
This is a blessing...
But aside from that, I think that a song like "Seven
Days" says more than any drum solo could. You managed to leave your mark in a
style of music where it usually...
Where it usually isn't possible...
me, this aspect of your playing is even more laudable than knowing that you can
play all the strange and difficult things you've done in the past.
I think that this concept is really
beautiful... It's a great ideal, but also the most difficult thing to
achieve. I don't know exactly how I got there, but I know in the past I've
always imagined that there was a way to achieve it, and then I did it, but I
still don't know how I did it. When I played that piece, I really believed in
it. At that moment it meant everything to me. I did it because I really wanted
to do it that way, and I was totally sure of what I was doing.
If I think about a musician like Wayne Shorter - without
making any comparisons - I think about his ability to say everything in only
two notes. How does he do it? - But he does it. I see it more from a spiritual
point of view.
The right note at the right time...
With the right attitude...
What did your long collaboration with Sting really
mean to you?
First of all, I was a big fan of The Police and their
music. I liked Sting's musical direction a lot, and I think he's the only
person in the world of "pop" that hits me in a certain way, and he has a
certain level of quality in his music as well as an absolutely unique
personality. His music spoke to me in a very strong way and I wanted to play
his music because I love it and because I really believe in it.
Do you think that is was important for your career?
A bridge towards other directions?
It definitely did something, because it exposed me to
people who had never heard of me before, and a lot of things happened as a
result of it. When I joined his band, I immediately thought about what was
going to happen to my career in the recording studios. But I still wanted to
risk it. Suddenly my popularity became international. On the other hand, when I
left his band, I did it because it was the right time to leave.
Did you record anything for his new CD which is due
out in September?
Yes, I recorded six pieces, but I don't know exactly
which ones will be used. I recorded on some tracks that were prepared and there
were only three of us in the studio: me, Sting and Kipper (the producer). Right
after that I recorded the new CD for Eros Ramazzotti. Anyway, I think that Manu
Katché is also on Sting's CD and he'll most likely be doing the
How did you develop your vocabulary on the drums?
Only by listening to all the drummers that I found
fascinating and who inspired me. Tony Williams was very important to me, and so
were Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich, and everything in my vocabulary comes from
there. It's also a question of language; It took me years to learn the "words"
and the "sentences", and only then was I able to "interchange" them and
use them in the most disparate ways, with unending variations, and then pick
the ones that I liked best and sounded better to me. In this way you
discover one thing that you like more than another, and in the end
all these small things together contribute to form your identity.
I started taking note of how important it is to have a
certain "touch" to execute certain phrases, and I applied it to every style of
music I played, integrating it into my vocabulary. All this had a certain
effect, and I started to feel that I was beginning to say something.
Subsequently, this became a very physical question. For example, for many
people, it's not important what drumset they're playing - but for me this isn't
the case. I need to feel perfectly at ease behind my drums, because I play with
a certain touch and I find it difficult to change and play on a drumset that is
uncomfortable to me. I depend on how I've developed things and on my muscle
It also seems that your compositional skills are well
developed, as is evident from your solo CD. In your opinion, what is the main
difference between being the leader of a project and being a hired musician?
is a big difference. You know exactly how your compositions should sound, and
you need to know how to communicate this to the musicians, taking
responsibility to offer direction or to let them loose to play whatever they
feel. It all depends on how you've written your composition. It's a big
I wanted to record a CD in order to realize my ideas,
not so that I could be a leader; But above all to write things that were
representative of my personality, because beneath it all it's a revelation of
your musical mentality.
It's like a mirror...
Exactly. I like playing as much as writing, and
sometimes it's like having a tooth pulled in order to give birth to something,
freeing ourselves of a part of our own body - and it's very difficult.
Do you feel like trying it again?
Yes, I'd love to, but right now I'm very busy and I
haven't had time to write more music, as well as my mind not being free to do
it. Right now there are a lot of things going on in my life, but I will
definitely do it again as soon as possible.
In the last few years you've gone through many changes
in your life, yet you've managed to strike a balance between your personal life
and your career. Do you think this is unique?
It depends on how I intend to have a career, which is
totally separate for me. My style of playing and writing music is part of who I
am, but playing is really the development of certain skills. If you're writing
music, or you have a passion for painting or writing poetry, then it's
something that comes to you. It doesn't have much to do with having a career,
it's more like a "calling"; There's something that's pushing you strongly in
So this is a part of who I am and it's my life. It's
something I need to begin with. I don't see playing or writing music as a valid
or proper career. My mother understand it, my girlfriend understands it,
because when I get home I probably start playing, and if I want to write I
sit at the piano, but this doesn't mean I'm a workaholic. And I don't do
it with the idea of making a ton of money; Only to express myself.
It's as if I started to paint something, hoping that it
will eventually be displayed at some art gallery, calculating the eventual
profits; This isn't the way it works. The simple fact of making a living
playing music is something totally separate, it's another part of my mentality;
It's business, and it's something that is separate from my private life. This
doesn't mean that when get home I have to play; I could simply drum my fingers
on the phone book or simply sit with the cats and my girlfriend and whistle a
It's simply being yourself.
Sure. It's the music that comes to me, and I don't think
about the economic aspect. You can only do it if you feel it.
Is this the real meaning of drumming for you, or is
there something else?
Yes, absolutely. I believe that God blessed me by giving
me this ability, and I need to be a faithful student as long as He gives me the
strength and the passion. My responsiblity is to glorify God through this gift
that He gave me, and it's also a way to pray and honor Him. If I think about
all of this I understand the true meaning and I try to understand what He wants
me to do, and I do it to the best of my ability. If my stage monitor distorts,
then that's how it is. And it I can't play a paradiddle alternating between my
hands and feet, that's okay, I'll probably be able to play it tomorrow. You've
got to have the right attitude and do the best that you possibly can.
Do you think that there is any particular reason that
your career has been so successful?
It's because God is blessing me and using me for and
using me for His purpose. That's what I believe. Plus, people like what I do,
so I think I've done and will continue to do good things. It's all guided by
Probably because you're the type of person who can
emote and communicate so well; Even when you're playing you have an incredible
effect on everyone listening.
This probably sounds like I'm underlining, but the
reason for all of this is the fact that I really care about the music, and
everything I play is a result of that. People like it and that's why the call
me to play, because I do it well and with a certain honesty, and as long as I
continue they'll continue to call me. And you know why? Because I think about
the music, not the drums. That's why I've had and continue to have this kind of
career. Sure, I can play, but on top of that, it's because I think
musically. The people I play with know it, and above all else, they
can feel it. I listen to what the music is saying to me, and I try to
express it. This is the reason. I never sit behind the drums and
think about the latest trend. What's the point? If the music changes, as an
analogy, sometimes it's only the color or the cut of the t-shirt, but basically
it stays the same.
People have been playing the boogaloo for thirty years!
It's always the same groove, and there's no difference from what was in style
in the sixties; You can hear it in any recording. Hip-hop is a modern form of
jazz, and it could also seem to be another form of rap, but there isn't that
much difference; I know, because twenty-five years ago I was there, and I saw
the whole evolution. You can give it a different name, but it's all there.
"Papa" Jo (Jones) used to say that there wasn't anything new under the sun.
People are always trying to find a way to leave their
mark on something. I don't worry about it at all; I just let the music speak to
me, and my body totally responds to it. People like it, and this is why
they call me. It's really very simple, but it's the key to it all.
Let's change the subject for a moment. A while ago, I
had an interesting conversation with Steve Smith on the importance of
having a teacher who could also be a guide, not only when just starting out,
but even as a professional.
I think it's really important, because we all need a
mentor whom we can relate to and who can guide us. We need someone to believe
in, someone we can respect; This would be a great thing, something precious,
and the type of relationship that is missing in today's society. But then
again, if you're insecure, and before you get on stage you're wishing that your
"personal trainer" was there with you, then this is wrong. We all need a guide,
and Tony (Williams) is still my guide, "My dream and my drum mentor!", as is
Buddy Rich. In this sense, they're in my heart. It's always been this way, ever
since meeting and associating with them. Jim Chapin and Joe Morello are people
I love and who I have great respect for; Respect being the most important
I'm curious to know if there was any artist whom
you would have liked to play with, but for some reason you were unable to.
I never played with Jaco (Pastorius), and I would have
liked to... (long reflective pause) but I have to say that I have been very
lucky, because I've played with many great people. Right now I'm in a strange
period; I'm letting myself be pulled by the current, following the flux, and on
the one hand it's a good thing because it keeps me open to all sorts of
opportunities that arise, but it also means that I'm not seizing the moment to
concentrate on any one particular ambition. I have a lot of things to do, and
many others to think about, so maybe the time has come to rest a bit, so that I
can put things in order, simply because as I said before, right now I don't
have that many ambitions.
Were there ever any difficult times in your career?
Yes, absolutely. I've been in situations where you
couldn't communicate with others, or even when I was "forced" to play in a
way that I absolutely hate to play. These were the most difficult times. There
are people who just don't believe that something is perfect the first time, and
this happens a lot.
If you look back on your career analytically, are you
satisfied or is there something else you'd like to do?
I would have liked to reach many more people in the same
way that I do today. I'd really like to communicate with younger people, so
that they would have faith in me, and they could believe in what I say and not
be poisoned by today's society. That they could receive the message of the
Gospel; This is very important to me. I'd like to help them accept God in their
minds and in their hearts, and understand the difference with all the lies that
exist in the world. I'm a lot more interested in this aspect, and if there is a
way to do it through music, that that's great!
But then tell me, how do you tune your drums for that? I'd like to know; I'm very curious...
No, no Vinnie, forget it...
I'm asking you seriously!
Do you want to talk about this in your interview?
Well, not me, absolutely not, but now that you've touched on the subject of
tuning, give me your opinion on sound and its importance for a drummer.
I think that there are many people who are looking for
"their" sound, so that they can have their own precise identity. If you have a
sound, and you think it's good, it helps you pull out your ideas and improve
the music you're playing. For instance, I like it when my hi-hat isn't too
thick or heavy, the roll needs to be sharp and precise, the toms need to be
open and resonant and should have a very clean note, and I like cymbals that
have a very open sound. You need to have your thing sounding exactly the way
you want them, and consequently shaping your style. In this way everything
becomes very personal, and that's exactly what I like. Take Jack DeJohnette and
listen to his ride that's so dry; It's beautiful, but it's not what I like,
because it's not part of my personality. I like to play into the cymbal and
hear it open up.
As far as I'm concerned, you can't consider technique
separately from sound; They amount to the same thing. You've got to use them
think exactly like you. I've had this argument with several people who've told
me "But your sound is in your hands. You can play anything the way you want!"
But I don't see it that way. If you play on a lousy instrument you're
going to end up fighting with it. Could you ever get a nice tone from a cheap
violin? You can't. Maybe you should get a Stradivarius! Why should you fight
with your instrument? I don't want to fight with my drumset! My drums need to
respond the way I want them to. I need to feel at ease behind my drums and
everything has to be where I expect it to be. The smallest details are
My opinion is that we ought to be able to play
everything the way we want to; not the opposite. You should never passively
suffer from a bad sounding instrument, otherwise you're not behaving as a true
musician in the literal sense. Our instrument is an important part of what
becomes defined as our "Unique Voice", and it should convey the sound that we
hear in our head.
Exactly! That's why I play Gretsch! [laughing] I think
the same way. If I go into the studio to record and I show up with my drumset,
people are happy because they know they like them and they know exactly what
Let's stop so that we can get something to eat.... If
you had the ability, what do you see in your future?
I don't have the foggiest idea. I'd like to write more
music, and I'd like to spend some time thinking about how to do things in a
slightly different way, but I haven't found the time yet. I'm in a period where
it's difficult to think about the future because, as I said before, I have a
lot going on and I'm in a state of flux. I'm not sure of anything.
That's the answer I expected, but I wanted to hear it anyway.
I'm happy. But tonight, you need to tell me about your tuning.
Because I want to know!
Okay, let's turn off this recorder...