Modern Drummer, November 1982
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 exclaiming, "Monster!"
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 player."
"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 situation.
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 time?
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 did.
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 different.
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 studios wanting?
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 Neil 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 natural death.
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 hurt you.
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.