Modern Drummer, October 1993

Photos by Michael Bloom

Ten years ago, at the time of out first interview, Vinnie Colaiuta was not exactly what you would call "focused." "Exuberant," yes, but with an unbridled energy that seemed somehow unsettled.

These days, having a conversation with Vinnie can be as intense an experience as watching him play. He analyzes, ponders, and makes analogies with almost every utterance, making sure he's expressed himself clearly and fully. Reflected by his short, dark hair, now peppered with gray and looking quite distinguished, his maturation is evident. He no longer searches for words; Immediately articulate, he knows what he wants to communicate and pulls no punches.

Ten years' time has seriously focused the articulation of Vinnie's playing as well. When we first met, he had just come from having worked with Frank Zappa. His session career was unsteady; it couldn't really be established until producers believed his energy to be a little more bridled. He certainly gained a reputation for having mega stuff -- for being beyond creative. Some producers even fell into the trap of hiring Vinnie for his stuff even if the track didn't require that kind of performance. At times even Vinnie felt his own inappropriateness. After a time, though, the powers that be began to realize an artful balance, and Colaiuta's place in the studio became secure. In fact, over the past ten years Vinnie has racked up over six hundred record and soundtrack credits.

With such a successful studio career, it would seem highly unlikely that Vinnie would get involved in any long term project with any one artist. But a couple of years ago, guitarist Robben Ford recommended Colaiuta for the Sting gig. "Robben called me and asked if I'd be up for doing it, and I said, 'Are you kidding? I wouldn't go out of town with anybody except Sting or Peter Gabriel.' It just had to be musically on that level of real in-touch music.

"Months went by, and it didn't happen, so I wrote it off. But then all of a sudden I got a phone call from one of his managers. He said, "We represent Sting and he would like you to come to England to play with him. Are you into it?' I said sure and he said, 'Would you be willing to pay your own way over here?' I said, 'I'll tell you what, if you're auditioning me, I'll pay my way if I'm not the chosen person.' They bought me a round-trip ticket, and I don't want to jump to the end of the story, but I didn't have to pay them back for the ticket."

"When I got there, the first thing we did was go eat some lasagna. Then the manager gave me a DAT of the mixes of Soul Cages to listen to for about forty-five minutes. I listened to the record once, and we sat down and played. The first things we played were 'Every Breath You Take' and some other Police material. Then we started playing material from Soul Cages. We played about an hour and a half--just Sting, guitarist Dominic Miller, and myself--and we had a great time. It was the same sort of thing that happened with Frank Zappa when I got that gig. Sting said, 'You've got the gig, but I have to honor some other appointments that I have.'"

"I didn't tell anybody because the word wasn't definite, but a day and a half later, the management called to make it official. So I went to England, we rehearsed for five days, and about two days into rehearsal, Peter Gabriel showed up. We were scheduled to do some gigs in South America for Amnesty International, and Peter rehearsed with us and then played the gig in Chile with us. It was great. So I got to work with both of them--the only two guys I would have gone on tour for."

You'll have to suspend your modesty for a minute, but what do you think Sting needed from a drummer that you were able to fulfill?

Just somebody who felt good to play with, who conceptually played for the music and at the same time had an identity of his own. I know he didn't want somebody to be Stewart Copeland particularly or Manu Katche, Omar Hakim, or anyone else he's used. He just wanted somebody who felt like the right guy, for what ever those instincts are that you can't intellectualize. He obviously had a set of criteria, though at that time I didn't know what that consisted of. Later, as I began working with him, the criteria became more evident. I think because I was a new guy and this was a new band, he may have said certain things to me in order to mold the band the way he wanted to have it initially, and then have it take on its own life from there. Instead of me just playing anything and then letting it develop from there, he would say to me, `On this song, I don't' like fills going into the chorus,' little things that I would start to notice. I finally realized that was how he was going to define his group sound; that's how he wanted his music to be approached--with those basic building blocks, those basic parameters. Once you understand how he thinked for each song-- and then his concept as a whole--you can start to develop in a manner that works. If you don't know, you may do some things that you may think are great but that he doesn't. Another thing is if you're playing an arena, you can't play things that are not going to read, because it sounds too sloppy. There's a built-in challenge to try to say more with less. Then when you're in theaters or places you like, you can stretch out. You can hear everything, and you know that the audience can hear everything. Plus, you're already equipped with knowing what those parameters are. For us, it's gotten to the point where we don't really think about what we are or aren't allowed to play; we just play.

Let's talk about how some of the songs on Ten Summoner's Tales came about--how they were presented to you, how you came up with the ideas for them. First, "if I Ever Lose My Faith In You."

Quite a bit of time before we actually went into record, I went into a studio with my drums and some drum machines and computer. Jeremy Smith engineered, and Bino Espinosa was his assistant. Sting was there for maybe two of the five days. We played bass and drums together. He wanted to get some ideas for grooves. I'd have a click on one track, and then I would make loops that I would create on the machines. I'd either layer it with drums, layer just the machines, or just use the drums. I did different things like that. From what I understand, "Faith" was at least partially inspired by one of those grooves.

So when he wrote the songs, how were they presented back to you? What did he ask of you?

On "Faith," I can't remember if I heard a demo of if we just started playing it. Most of them were demos. He had gotten together with Dominic, and they had made some demos together. They were very sparse--little machine tracks, guitar and bass, scratch vocal, and drum machine. He had other stuff on the Synclavier, with all the parts there. He'd play demos and it was, "This is what it is now, but let's play it and see what happens."

He didn't present completed versions at all?

Some of them were pretty straight-ahead, like "Heavy Cloud, No Rain." The song "She's Too Good For Me" originally started as a shuffle where we ere really blowing all over the place. It ended up as a rockabilly kind of song. Admittedly we were saying, "Wow, this is great, this shuffle is really burning," but it almost sounded like a fusion-y shuffle. A lot of times when you infuse that character into a song too much, it can detract from what the song is about. It's like, here's the song, and here's the style. We ended up playing it more in character with the song. I layered some things separately. I played bass drum and snare drum and then overdubbed some cymbals, and I multi-tracked another snare drum just to give it a thickness that you fell more than hear. The record had an interesting quality because it was so sparse. Sometimes we would play the songs with very few alterations to out "live" versions. Other times we would play and it would change a lot. We were averaging about one and a half tracks a day. We cut fourteen tracks in ten days.

Let's talk about "Seven Days." It's in five, but the listener isn't really struck by that. Was it intentional to mask it a little?

Yes and no. It wasn't so much to disguise it for the sake of disguising it. I phrased it by playing over the bar line, so the hi-hat pattern resolves every two bars. That smoothes it out and gives it a regularity that 4/4 has. There's a brush overdub in the middle of one of the verses of the song, too. I overdubbed it to make it chug a little more and differently.

Where did the country chorus come from in "Love Is Stronger Than Justice"?

The idea was to make it very repetitive and simple. Again, it's that over-the-bar ride cymbal, where the ride cymbal is playing sort of quarter notes. The pattern is real static. That's what he wanted. What that does is solidify that seven so strong that it creates more of an contrast when that sort of hillbilly chorus comes in. That's part of the comedy of the song. His idea was to get imbedded in that seven and then suddenly go off.

What about "Saint Augustine In Hell"?

The same kind of thing. These patterns in seven are very similar. Again, he wanted it to be pretty static, instead of varying the bell patterns and all that. The cymbal bell is playing quarter notes over the bay. Actually, in "Love Is Stronger Than Justice," it's not quite the same, because in the intro it changes up into a kind of 4/4 for a bar. It's a little quirkier. His idea is to have the listeners locked into the seven as easily as they would be in four. For the most part, people aren't used to hearing songs in seven. I really relate to Sting's approach, because when I play odd times, I like to smooth then out, too. The way Zappa delivered the odd times was a little more angular.

Were the tracks on Summoner's played live for the most part?

We played these tracks live, but like I said, I ended up overdubbing some stuff, like cross-stick and bass drum on "It's Probably Me." We played the tunes like a band and then embellished later.

I was reading back over our previous interviews. In our first one, you were really against the electronics. In the second article you were kind of 50/50 on it. It seems like you've gotten much more involved in the last few years.

I am, and I think from the onset I had to make the decision whether it was going to be a friend of foe. It's not the technology that is inherently good or evil. It's the application of it and the perception of the people who use it. That's where the problem or solution lies. In reality, I've been exposed to it and involved in it from the beginning, from the very first Simmons drums, and before that I was using Synares with Frank Zappa. Because it was new and there was an imbalance, it was not being used discriminately.

During out last interview, you said you were critical of your left hand. You said you wanted more even strokes, more control.

I think it was inherent in the kind of technique that I had at that time with my left hand, which may have catered to more subtle strokes. There's nothing wrong with that, but physically, the left hand in a traditional grip operates with different muscle groups. So rather then look at that as a limitation--which would prevent me from ever achieving any kind of uniform strokes between my hands--I try to derive a solution out of other laws of physics, like using different kinds of leverage and strokes for different volumes.

I also had to consider my grip. I realized that if I wanted to achieve a lot of volume without wearing my hand out, I would have to find out exactly how to use the grip to my advantage. I would tweak my hand and my arm position a little bit, practice it, and develop those muscles to get used to the leverage used. I started honing that a little more when I practiced so that I wouldn't have to think about it when I played. I noticed that it would work its way into my playing, without my having to think about it. And it helped.

Specifically, I started leaving a little more of a gap in my right hand where, if I just clasp my index finger and my thumb together and lift the fingers away from my hand, there is much more of a described circle that you can see through. And the fingers lay on the stick in relation to that. I started changing that around and questioning how much, if any, pressure I should apply between my thumb and index finger. What angle should I hold the stick at, how much arm movement should I use, and if that is good for that kind of stroke, why doesn't it work for other strokes? Is it too much of a change to make, and can I find a middle ground? That's the kind of thing that I did.

It's a constant thing because, first of all, it's something that you have to maintain, and secondly, your playing changes and your physical thing changes too. A lot of guys who are playing real complex funk patterns between their hi-hat and their snare drum get a real strong "pop" and a backbeat without lifting the stick up too high. When you're playing intricate patterns between the snare and the hi-hat, you can't lift your right hand off the hi-hat in order to bring your left hand up to come back down on the snare, so you find a way around it.

That also ties into the concept of not using an excess amount of motion. And a lot of guys teach that way, where the actual volume is derived from the velocity at which the stick strikes the drum, rather than the height from where it begins. I find that to be physically true in a lot of ways. Bruce Lee could knock a guy back six feet flat on his butt with the starting point of his punch being an inch away from the opponent's body. He had a technique called the "one-inch punch." He generated an internal force without winding up.

Now, I do describe exaggerated motions sometimes just because of the physical movement of my body. I try not to exaggerate things very much, though, and I place my drums close together so I don't have to reach too far for things. You have to work on it and maintain it, just like anything else. I had a lot of reasons for it. I didn't want my hands to become fatigued. I didn't want to beat myself up, and I wanted to find a way that felt right so I could feel more at one with my instrument.

I also wanted to be able to make quick dynamic changes without feeling like I was doing something awkward, and without consciously doing it rather than doing it because at that moment I was at one with the music.

Do you find the live gig uses different muscles in general?

It does in a way, because by the nature of it--I'm playing for a couple of hours nonstop--I have to develop a certain kind of stamina. In the studio you start and stop, which gives your muscles a chance to rest, allowing you to use different finesse things. I find that stretching before I play and loosening my muscles is important. I do various exercises that will stretch the muscles in my fingers and my hands and get the blood into my hands. I start very slowly, warming up to a peak and using strokes on a surface that doesn't have a rebound, utilizing my arms. In a set, I'll play real loud and then all of a sudden have to play finesse strokes. Practicing those things keeps that balance. I do notice that if I'm on the road for six weeks, I've got the volume thing down and my muscles are more developed.

How much time specifically would you dedicate to practicing this sort of thing?

I just practice with as much patience as I can and enjoy it while I'm doing it. I was practicing eight hours a day, and one day I asked Billy Cobham how much he thought I should be practicing. He said not to think in terms of time. He said, even though you have something difficult to work on, enjoy it while you're doing it, instead of thinking how long it's going to take you to get it together.

What gigs have you learned most from and what did you learn?

I think I probably learned something from almost every gig that I've done, not only because each occurred at a different phase of my development, but because each one had something different to offer. Ideally, you should be able to get something out of everything, positive or negative. And if it's negative, try to turn it into some kind of learning experience. I learned a lot with Frank. It was a way for me to develop rhythmic ideas that both he and I had, and I developed in terms of musical skill, knowledge, and concept. I was also able to infuse my identity in it.

With Sting, I learned what it's like to work with someone who is a combination of a muso and a songwriter. I learned how he defines his parts for the song and makes them work with us, how he builds things and disciplines the band. He is the songwriter, but he plays with us and has a direct kinetic relationship with the band. He wants things played in a certain way because it's his music, yet he does let us stretch. If it gets too out, then he pulls us back in. Also I learned when to determine who is going to drive the car, me or him, and when. It's a collective experience.

With the drum/bass relationship being so important, and Sting having so many other roles to deal with besides playing bass, does that ever get in the way of the music?

It can get in the way when the energies are divided, but not if I keep my role. If he's going to wear three hats, it's his choice to wear those hats, and I work around them. I define my role based on that.

There are a lot of situations I've learned from, even from doing a movie date and having to sit in a room with a full orchestra. It was tough trying to make something sound like its really smoking, having to just barely touch the drums because the sound was leaking into all the string mic's. I just tried to do that by playing with a certain amount of mental intensity. Probably the most amazing drummer I've ever seen doing that was Billy Hart. I saw him playing with Stan Getz once in Boston, and I couldn't believe how somebody could burn so hard at such a low volume level.

I've learned about how less is more and how sometimes the more simple something is, the harder it is. I did Madonna's "This Used To Be My Playground," and I had to come in and overdub. There was just a basic drum machine, an orchestra playing all long tones, and a Mini-Moog bass that intentionally wasn't quantized in order to get a feel. I had to find my middle ground, and every note counted. It was like an eternity. It was strange--just a call I got. I didn't even know what it was, and I was done in an hour and a half, but it was a valuable experience.

Speaking of sessions, with all of this work with Sting, is the studio still a large portion of your life?

I'll know that when I get back in town. I'm not worried about it, but I would like it to be. It's a part of me because I've done it for ten years.

Can we talk bluntly about some of the studio beefs you might have?

Bad headphone mixes. Let's say you're supposed to play a really mondo track, but the headphone mix is just bad. You go into the control room and it sounds great, but in your cans it's so bad that it actually inhibits your ability to organize a concept for the tune. A lot of times this could be remedied if the engineer would simply put on a pair of phones to see what the guys are hearing. You'd be surprised at how many engineers don't do that.

Then they're plugging and unplugging instruments in and out of a patch bay, and all of a sudden, you get this excruciating sound in the headphones. They don't warn you to take your headphones off - and those things can really be career-enders. Then you get an "I'm sorry", or "What was that?". It was about 120db of a 9k tone with distortion, that's what it was!

Then there's the subject of too many producers. Let's say you've got a producer, an arranger, the artist, maybe the songwriter...and then somebody who isn't even in any particular capacity but has this urge to constantly speak up. You have all these conflicting opinions floating around the room. The direction should come from the producer. If an artist has a beef about what the producer is doing, they have to iron that out to where the artist trusts the producer's objectivity. The producer has to be an objective liaison and a psychologist between what is being delivered and what the artist wants. Compromising to satisfy two people seldom works.

Have there been any studio situations that haven't worked or things that you didn't succeed at?

The classic example that many may know about was when I was working in the group Pages. We had been playing together for quite some time, the music was great, and we had a great rapport as a band. By the time we went in to cut this record, we had rehearsed these songs and pretty much figured we had them nailed. Jay Graydon was the producer at that time. That was when Jeff [Porcaro] lent me his drums to use on the session.

We were cutting these tracks and we were so ecstatic at how it was coming off that we were throwing socks around the studio and dancing. We didn't elicit much of an emotional response from Jay, though. We were doing take after take, and I couldn't figure out what it was that he was looking for. I don't think any of us really knew. The next thing I knew, I got fired from the project: "Don't come in tonight." The record ended up with three other drummers on it. What constituted my getting fired? Don't ask me. First of all, the irony of it was that there were that many other drummers on it as opposed to just one other drummer.

It sounds like he didn't know what he wanted.

I don't know if it was that he didn't know what he specifically wanted as much as he just didn't communicate it to me. Even if he thought what he wanted was something I couldn't give him, the only time I found out about it was when I was told not to come in. Or else he did know what he wanted and felt he could get it out of one drummer for this song and another drummer for that song. The truth of the matter is that he could have gotten Jeff Porcaro to play on every one of those songs and they would all have been brilliant. It's not that the other guys didn't do a great job--Mike Baird and Ralph Humphrey played great.

Have you worked with Jay since?

No, and I have no regrets about it. It's not a personal reflection on Jay, but I haven't and I just don't care one way or the other. My career is just fine and I've proven myself, so to speak, in the studio.

How did you feel early on in your career when you'd be replaced?

You have to learn how to roll with the punches. After a while, I think the main thing is not to take it personally. You can't be everything; nobody is everything. You just do what you do, and you try to do that as well as you can. And if somebody doesn't like it, too bad.

As far as the Pages thing, I was crushed. I was in a band, everything was burning, and the producer didn't say anything. All of a sudden, I'm thinking I'm shit. Thank God for Jeff. He peed in Jay's bag to defend me! [laughs] But I had to look at it and figure out what I did wrong. And this was right after being with Gino Vanelli for six hours. I was recording his record during the time I was doing the Pages sessions with Jay Graydon. It was Gino for Nightwalker, noon to six, and then Graydon from six to midnight for a month.

And Gino works his musicians hard.

Big time. And this was my initiation into the studio realm. It was like doing two Steely Dans a day for a month. If was the most anal-retentive that you could possible get.

Are there any other times you can think of that you got fired?

There was the time when I was fourteen on a polka band they thought I played too much. I learned how to play every kind of style there was, and I wanted to blow. Here I was, fourteen years old, like a wild horse.

With all you have recorded, which songs are most representative of you?

"City Nights" off of Allan Holdsworth's Secrets, because it was spontaneous. It was a first take and it was my introduction to recording with him. It indicated a lot of experience for me in terms of being able to become what the music needed me to become-- instantly --and just playing completely uninhibitedly. It was a nice, transcendent kind of feeling of arriving somewhere collectively. Most of that stuff was first and second takes, and we just had to choose between the two.

Song number two.

"Seven Days" from Sting's Ten Summoner's Tales, 5/4 time. It represents a commutative painting of me now. In that situation I just reacted and pretty much did what I thought was appropriate at the time. I like the attitude, the character, and the mood of the song. I feel what everybody contributed to the song is very valid for it, and that the balance between the amount of structure and improvisation in my playing is good. And dynamically, we were very synergistic as a group. Also, it was indicative of the amount of time we spent together as a unit. That added another ingredient to that recipe, which can only come with time. You can't rush the years. If somebody wanted me to play like I was ten years younger, I would say, "Go find somebody ten years younger." I didn't have ten years ago what I have now.

Can you pinpoint what that is?

Time ....that's my answer. There are many things that are inclusive in that. Ten years of experience is an accumulation of everything that I've learned, experienced, and become, which is evident when I play, good or bad.

Song number three.

I played on half of Jeff Beale's The Three Graces. Dave Weckl played on the other half. That was a good experience for me because it represented, to me, a time when we experienced a really beautiful kind of spontaneity in the studio together as a unit. His compositions were structured in such a way that a special kind of life was breathed into them with the right combination of musicians, attitude, and atmosphere. We felt that it really came to life in a satisfying, beautiful way. At that time I had been playing a lot of improvisational music, and that was sort of the apex of that time for me.

I can't particularly single out any one piece of music on that record. One was called "Jazz Habit." The irony of that whole session was that there was only one piece of music that was, for me, a little labored in terms of trying to find what it was. Wonderfully enough, it didn't turn into a huge problem where we were trying to find it so much that it never happened. I think that was part of the whole beauty, where that attitude of the whole day dominated the ability of that song to come together quickly. Instead of getting way inside of it to try to find it--and then getting negative over it--I just let that go. That was another case of the synergy of the musicians.

Tune number four.

There's a real slow tune on Zappa's Joe's Garage that is in 3/4. I can't remember the name of it. There's another called "Lucille," which was kind of pivotal for me because we had just sort of discovered reggae. We played our version of it without any regard to observing any kind of tradition. We just absorbed what we thought was the concept and the kind of rhythmic feel of it and integrated it into what we were playing so that it felt good to play. We weren't trying to sound like traditional Rastafarians. It was a great song to play.

Would you talk about your strengths and weaknesses?

I think one of my strengths is my adaptability. I enjoy different kinds of music and I enjoy changing a lot. Weaknesses, I'm easily bored. Now, that adaptability and being easily bored act off one another. Because I get easily bored, I try to change. Another strength--and thank God--is that I still have a passion for what I do. Drumming still feels like a part of me, and it gives me the drive to continually know that there's no end to it.

Another weakness is that I'm lazy. I let things happen. I might discover something like that, but if I see that I have to work on it, sometimes I'll put it off and never get to it.

What are your present goals?

I just want to continue developing as a musician. I love playing. I also want to be more involved in composing, doing my own thing, I hope to continue to be in different situations that I can nurture and that will nurture me.


Vinnie's Sting Setup

Drumset: Yamaha Maple Custom

  1. 4 x 14 Vinnie Colaiuta model snare drum
  2. 10 x 10 tom
  3. 10 x 12 tom
  4. 12 x 14 tom
  5. 14 x 16 tom
  6. 18 x 22 bass drum

Hardware: Yamaha with a Yamaha rack system, DW hi-hat stand and DW Turbo double pedal.

Sticks: Zildjian Vinnie Colaiuta model (with wood tip)

Cymbals: Zildjian

  1. 14" Platinum Quick Beat hi-hats
  2. 20" Oriental China Trash
  3. 17" A Custom crash
  4. 6" A splash
  5. 8" K splash
  6. 10" A splash
  7. 20" Platinum ping ride
  8. 13" A Custom hi-hats
  9. 15" A Custom crash
  10. 18" A Custom crash

Heads: Remo coated Ambassadors on top of snare and all toms, clear Ambassadors on the bottoms of toms, Pinstripe on bass drum