Rhythm, November 2000

by Louise King

Changing Man

"Play because you want to play. Love it and have fun doing it." So says philosophical beat genius Vinnie Colaiuta, a man who, having sustained a career of unparalleled acclaim, continues to push the envelope. In this exclusive interview, Rhythm poses the question: Just how good can this man get?

Vinnie Colaiuta and I are relaxing in the garden of the picturesque White Swan hotel, near Koblenz in Germany. A converted thirteenth century building, the family-run hotel is currently playing host to the plethora of drumming stars who have descended upon this sleepy town for Europe's biggest percussion festival; Drums and Sounds 2000, At the next table Horacio 'EI Negro' Hernandez is enjoying a late breakfast, and Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish have just popped over to say hello, making this an almost surreal convergence of rhythmic talent.

With an outstanding session career that boasts the likes of Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Chick Corea and Allan Holdsworth to name but a few, Vinnie Colaiuta has firmly established himself as one of the all-time greats in the drumming hall of fame. His playing - phenomenal technique, coupled with an exquisite groove and impeccable musicianship and taste - has continued to inspire and influence a generation of players, and when the readers of Rhythm voted him into the number three spot in our Drummers Of The Millennium poll early this year, we knew that it was time to catch up with the great man himself...

Tell us a bit about the band you are performing with at Drums and Sounds 2000.

I met Mike (Landau), David (Garfield) and Neil (Stubenhaus) when I moved to Los Angeles. They were working together in this band called Karizma, and eventually I started playing with them. They are great musicians and, over the years, we have developed this camaraderie - we know each other's playing really well, and there is a great rapport between us. Mike and I actually went out on the road together with Joni Mitchell as well.

What prompted your decision to play with Karizma, as opposed to doing a solo performance?

I've played here a couple of times in the past - alone, accompanied by a bass player and with a DAT. This year it's with the band because, right now, that's the head space that I am in. It feels good playing with the guys.

You are constantly in demand as a session musician, and even made a fleeting visit to the UK on your way here to Germany to fulfill a recording commitment. How hard is it to pick and choose between all the jobs you are offered?

I am very busy with lots of different things, but I certainly don't fancy myself to be some guy who has the pick of the cream of the crop - choosing what sessions I do with some kind of arrogant non-chalance. I'm very grateful for where I am today, and things will happen or they won't depending on what the Lord blesses me with.

Going right back to the beginning, how did you first get involved in drumming?

Some of my earliest memories are of setting up pots and pans on the sofa in the shape of a drum kit. That was at a very early age and I'm not sure where that knowledge came from. Growing up, I was exposed to music on the radio and I'd respond to what I heard by getting familiar with certain artists and buying their records. One of my neighbours played drums and I was just fascinated by them. At the time, I only had those little toy drum sets with heads that broke all the time but I'd form bands with my friends in the street and we'd play songs.

In those early days, who were your biggest musical influences?

Oh, there were tons of them. People like The Beatles - who I saw for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show - The Dave Clarke Five, The Monkees, The Stones. I also listened to a lot of Motown music and R&B and soul, like Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, and I'd play along to The Temptations' records on the radio.

When did you decide that you were going to try and make a career out of drumming?

I got my first pro kit at the age of 14 and, at my mom's prompting, I started studying. As soon as they showed me how to hold the sticks at my first drum lesson I said, 'Right, that's it! I'm going to be a drummer'. Up until that point, I thought I'd become a scientist. As I got a bit older I was exposed to people like Led Zeppelin and Buddy Rich - almost simultaneously in actual fact. I didn't ever meet Bonham, unfortunately, but I saw Led Zeppelin live. I did get to meet Buddy though and he was amazing.

Describe your emotions when you first saw Buddy play live?

Incredible, great, wonderful, excited - you're just awestruck when you see someone like that aren't you? I was so inspired to go away and practise... It was just an amazing experience - you have a hero and a mentor who expresses what you love.

I'm sure many drummers would use those exact words to describe the effect your playing has on them. You are incredibly modest about your achievements, but how does it feel to be such a respected figure within the drumming community, and to know that your playing has had such a huge influence on so many people?

I feel very blessed and I don't take it for granted, You have to try not to let the pressure get to you, because you want to enjoy it and let it flow rather than worry about it. You can get to the point where you think you have to compete, or come up with a new hot thing, and once you do that, it can be counter productive because you are forcing things to happen. Whatever it is that made you you in the first place is probably the result of your own hard work to be better, not some kind of pressure you might have been under because you were already well known.

I heard a story about Richard Prior, which sums it up very well. He said he once got up on stage and wondered whether he was actually funny any more, or if people were laughing simply because of who he was.

Do you still feel that kind of pressure now though?

We all feed off each other and when new things creep into the drumming vocabulary, you suddenly start hearing everyone doing them. I hear that stuff now and I think, do I really want or desire that? Usually I'll just let them do it, whereas before I maybe would have tried to hop on it, thinking that I had to keep up. But I have my own thing to say, and there is no sense worrying about it, because it isn't going to do any good.

I just want to play drums with honesty and glorify the Lord. If I can touch just one person's life I feel very blessed, and it means a great deal if someone comes up and tells me that I have inspired them, or touched them musically.

From what I've seen during my time on Rhythm, there can sometimes be a very fine line between a technical clinician managing to inspire an audience and motivate them to reach new levels, and leaving them demotivated and feeling like there is no point carrying on because they'll never reach the level of skill that they have lust witnessed.

Yes, but what is it that trips the switch when they can go either way in their mind? I think it's the way that a performance is presented. In the past, after I've played, I've had people say to me that they want to saw their arm off, but I have also had people say that they have been very inspired because I was not intimidating.

In this day and age, there are so many people with a lot of technique on the drum set, but you can only up the bar so much when it comes to human potential - short of being a freak that is, and I don't see any genetic mutations happening in the near future whereby suddenly the mean nervous impulse of the average human being is going to be twice as fast as it is now. But people tend to focus on pyrotechnics all the time. Eeverybody wants to be impressed - and it's just part of human nature. If you focus on it too much though, other things are brought down in the mix, like why you are doing it, what you're trying to say and ultimately who you are. Sometimes people are almost running away from themselves.

When people come to see you play, what is it that you ultimately hope they will walk away with?

I hope I can inspire drummers the right way instead of the wrong way - and somehow get them thinking about the things that really matter in life. If I can somehow impart how I see things now - having been through a lot and having got to a certain level in my career - that would make me very happy.

As a hero to so many players, what advice do you give people who have dreams of making a career in this profession?

To focus on a higher ideal and to really, really stay focused, because we are continually prompted to compare ourselves to others. For the benefit of learning. that can be great. but it's not good when it discourages you. You have to respect who you are because, at the end of the day, you are you - no matter where you go, how many different clothes you wear or how many new. drums you buy; all of those things are just cosmetic - you're still there. So face it and deal with it, because if you build your whole thing on being someone else, the floor could fall right out from under you at any moment. Play because you want to play. Love it and have fun doing it.

What are your feelings on the state of the music industry today and the musicality that is being lost with the arrival of these 'production line' groups and artists?

It's tragic. I think, in the same way that a lot of doors have been opened for people to have their music heard, it has run neck-and-neck with the likelihood of people getting lost in the sauce. The market is saturated and the music industry is in a state of flux - which is alarming because it doesn't look too bright. It used to be that a band or an artist would be developed, but now they only have one chance because they are disposable and it's all about money.

And with the advances in studio technology - where everything can be altered - the demands and scope for a musician have lessened as well haven't they?

You don't have to be that good any more, because the focus is on the technology. What has happened to the idea of just playing it well to start with? Or if there is a little glitch in something, how about leaving it there and seeing if it sounds okay? Or, if you want things perfect, how about using people that can play to that level of perfection as much as is humanly possible? The ironic thing with all of it is that before this technology started to dominate, people would frequently complain about certain drummers being too sterile.

With so much cutting and fixing these days, no decisions are made before running to tape as to what the form is going to be, because things can be changed until the cows come home. It's a bottomless pit...

Have you had any bad experiences yourself?

Of course. I go with the flow, but I do speak up with a tact that comes from developed intuition, trust, experience and objectivity.

With such a wealth of knowledge to impart, how would you suggest a young drummer approaches work in the studio?

You have to have your own level of confidence, without being arrogant - but at the same time understand that you are not the producer. Listen to what they say because it's a give and take process, that requires you to relate to people well.

Sometimes you'll know right away that you've got a certain amount of creative rein, but other times they'll be very specific in what they want. You might think, 'Gee! I would never have thought of doing that', but you may also feel that your ego is getting in the way, because you don't want to play what they are telling you to. The whole process requires a kind of psychology, honesty, a certain degree of openness, coupled with a certain degree of confidence and the ability to get along with other people. It's a tough call, and I remember the question, 'How do I get into the studio?' being asked to a top studio guitarist once. His reply was, 'Well, first you've got to find a parking place'.

During your career you have worked with an incredibly impressive and varied line-up of artists. What particular highlights stand out for you personally?

Frank Zappa. I was really in the middle of it you know, but at the time I didn't even understand what was going on. I was just immersed in the moment - it was like being in a whirlwind. Joni Mitchell and Sting; two great, quality artists in the true sense of the word. They are real people who honour and understand the craft of songwriting and art generally. And I loved working with Allan Holdsworth and Chick Corea. I'm really blessed to have been able to contribute something to so many people's work.

Are there any particular live performances that stand out?

There are several actually. I remember my first gig with Frank Zappa, where we played to one hundred thousand or so people in Germany. I couldn't believe what I was seeing...

Also, the second gig that I played with Sting. It was in a stadium in Chile, and I believe it was an Amnesty concert. We (Sting and his band) also accompanied Peter Gabriel and Sinead O'Connor and it was overwhelming. The crux of it for me emotionally was playing a song called 'They Dance Alone', and a group of widowers coming on to the stage with poles, holding pictures of their missing loved ones. I almost couldn't finish playing. I wept.

Is there anyone In particular - living or dead - that you would especially have liked the opportunity to work with?

That's a hard one. Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius... there are so many. Hang on - I've got it! The one guy I would love to make music with is Fred Hammond - an incredible gospel artist. He's great, and has a band called Radical For Christ. Their last album, Pages Of Life, is my favourite record and very inspirational for me.

What would you say is the best gig that you yourself have ever been to?

Oh, there have been so many. Led Zeppelin, that was awesome for me, Miles Davis, Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham. And there are so many of my contemporaries whose playing I love - Peter Erskine, Jeff Watts, Dennis Chambers. And all the cats that are here this weekend of course; Horacio, Dave (Weckl), Simon (Phillips). Yeah man, they are all great.

Being in Germany with you all is like being part of a big family reunion! What is it about drumming that encourages such camaraderie between players?

Primal rhythm is essential to us. It's the core of who we are - everything vibrates in rhythm. Drums are very immediate and physical and there are a lot of things about them that just lend themselves to being shared and understood. There's so much to it, and I do wonder just how many other people get it, you know?


Vinnie's Gear

In recent years I've tried to simplify my set-up and, at the moment, I'm using four toms, one snare, hi-hats, a ride, two crashes, a china, one or two splashes and occasionally an additional larger crash on my extreme right. I have a double pedal- but I don't even use that as much as I used to - and I can scale my kit down even further if necessary.

I play Gretsch drums and have my own white signature kit that is 7"x10", 8"x12", 14"x14", 16"x16" with a 18"x22" bass drum. All my cymbals are Zildjian, and I particularly like the sound of the A Customs - I was actually very closely involved with their development - and the Ks, but I like their sound to be very specific.

I have a few vintage snares, but generally I use the Gretsch chrome models, which are cracking instruments. Along with the ride cymbal, the snare is very much the X factor on your kit and if you change those two elements, you change the sound of your kit.

I have one unusual snare that was given to me after a gig with Sting in Florida. It's a funny caramel colour with a solid wood shell, and has Longo Custom Drums written on it. I've never seen the guy who gave it to me again, but I've had a lot of mileage from the drum, which has a nice, solid, fat sound; almost like a Radio King but more contemporary.

Stick-wise, I'm using my own Zildjian signatures, which are based around a 5B grade of stick.