Rhythm, April 1996

by Ronan Macdonald
The world is full of drummers - good drummers, bad drummers, drummers of every conceivable type - but there is only one Vinnie Colaiuta. Here, speaking more candidly than ever before, he tells Ronan Macdonald of life at the top and how he doesn't have to work quite so hard these days.

"Vinnie, do it again without any of that f*#%ing fol-di-rol f*#%ing baroque drumming."

Vinnie's being told off. I don't know whether to be defensive or impressed. I mean, it's not as if the originator of this outburst doesn't realise who he's dealing with, but still he can tell 'the greatest drummer in the world' to cut the fucking baroque drumming. Vinnie, of course, doesn't complain; he's here to do a job, and ego just doesn't come into it. Plus, when your employer is Sting, salary and respect dictate that answering back wouldn't be a particul­arly good idea.

I am - although it's kind of hard to get my head 'round - at Sting's gaff. It's... well, it's a palace, basically - servants and everything. Actually, I'm not in Sting's house, I'm in the control room to his studio, which is in an outbuilding. The studio itself is in the house, and the whole thing is wired up audio-visually between the two locations, even to the extent of remote controlled cameras. The band are running through the set for a Radio One gig the next day, and I'm sitting there watching them do it on screen while the sound comes back through a full 48­ channels. It's all very strange, and made even stranger when Sting talks to the engineer (again, in full stereo) and the reality of it all enters the room I'm sitting in.

Unfortunately, I can't see Vinnie - he's behind a set of baffles but I can certainly hear him. He is, as ever, amazing. When Sting tells him to stop overplaying, he switches down into a groove of stunning solidity and taste, peppered with fills that defy belief but don't stretch the mind beyond a reasonable distance - this is pop music, after all. Much later, in a pub round the corner where Sting and his colleagues are well known, Vinnie and I get mildly drunk and talk about the art of drumming, more specifically, the art of Vinnie's drumming. For three hours. It's unarguably the most stimulating conversation on the subject I've ever had with anyone, and it starts with me asking him why he's still with Sting after six years. Vinnie's never held a job for this long.

It's amazing for me, huh? He's great; It's a great situation... It is a pretty long one for me, isn't it? I guess part of the reason is that he still wants me here, too. One never knows. That could change at any moment. This just feels more like a band; I think it's a good vibe for everybody. We all know each other and we've become really good mends, and that's good, it kind of adds to the whole feel of everything. He's one of a kind - a brilliant musician all the way across the board. This is it for quality. He's one of the few people that cares about musicianship. He wants it because it has quality. If you look at most acts today, I'm not saying they're devoid of quality, but the criteria are different. One of the criteria that is a little lacking, is a specific kind of musicianship. You could call it old school, I guess. We came up in an era where you had to learn to play an instrument. Sting came up in an era where he was not only exposed to bebop and swing and things like that, but also latin, reggae, fusion, all kinds of other genres. He merged all that.

Mercury Calling is the second album you've done with Sting; how did that go?

It was really good, we really took our time on it. There were a lot of changes and re-records. We spent a month in the Summer doing pre-production and kind of demos/masters - they could have been used, but we didn't really know whether they'd be used or not.

How much say did you have in what you were doing?

He was pretty focused on what he wanted. He would record stuff and then re-record it, change it based just on how he felt at that moment; songs were changing because he had different ideas for them. He would welcome our input, but songs would change a lot to what he wanted them to be. At one point the drum sound would be changing daily because of the cold weather, so we would get what we felt was a good performance and then have to record it again.

At home, do you ever to listen to records you've played on?

Once in a while. Sometimes I hear stuff and I can tell a little bit of difference between then and now - I might have pushed it a bit more now because I'm different. It's just a situation where you go, 'Okay, I can see that I've changed', and that's normal, I guess; it's not like, 'Gee, why did I play that?' When I listen back to stuff I'm currently working on, sometimes they change things in the mix or whatever, and I'm like, 'Why did they make it sound like that?' Then you have to think that you've been hired to do it. I'm not talking about Sting, just in general. I don't question it as much as I used to, I take it in my stride now.

Any particular drummers who have caught your ear lately?

I haven't been listening to that many drummers lately, but I go through periods when I do.

Do you just listen to them, or do you 'check them out', so to speak?

Yeah, but that's inevitable because you know your craft. If you were a pro tennis player and you went to a tournament, you're going to see it from a completely different perspective. It doesn't mean you're going to criticise them, you're just going to see them through a professional's eye. I'm going to hear through a professional's ear, without necessarily being judgemental - I try to avoid being judgemental as a rule. I can appreciate anybody who's making an honest effort, just being there and playing and loving it. That's enough for me.

Do you ever 'steal' things from other drummers?

I wouldn't call it stealing, but I've had people who influence me, and I'll like some thing and maybe use them. That's all part of the learning process. But if you start incorporating other people's things into your thing, you can lean on that too much, and that's almost like forging somebody's signature. I know a lot of other drummers who went through phases where they learned everything that Steve played, and everything that Billy played, but that's not your vocabulary. You could take a ratamacue around the drum set: I saw Buddy Rich do that, but Gadd did it and made it his thing. I learned a lot from Jeff's feel, and I would try and make my pocket feel that good. But it's not like licks - it's just what I learned from him how to make the time feel good. That was part of his gift to all of us to help us learn what it feels like to be in that gap, that zone where you're making music feel so good. Sometimes you get in that zone and you know where it came from, and then it's not about emulating Jeff's pocket. No two drummers will sit down and play the same groove the same way anyway. People say that good composers borrow and great composers steal; Papa Joe Jones said there ain't nothing new under the sun, and it's true - it's just dressed up in a different suit. Think about it.

I like a lot of Latin grooves and stuff, and I want to learn more about them, the vernacular of it. I can feel it, but I don't know what I'm doing exactly, I feel kind of uneducated on that level. The whole Indian vibe, too. It's like when I changed my grip to matched for a couple of weeks - I just thought, 'Why not?', it's something to do, you know?

You make it sound like you're bored.

No, I should retract that statement. It's not like it's just something to do; I hadn't been playing that much, so my traditional grip felt a bit funky, and I was playing real hard, so I just went with it because it felt right at that moment - it's not like I'd never played matched or anything. At least I'm using my muscles.

You're in the very enviable position of being renowned as a phenomenal technician but with an impeccable groove. Do you think technique and feel are always compatible, or can one ever hinder the other?

Yes and no. Because if you are used to playing a certain way where you absolutely require a certain technique to play whatever you want, you think you're tree, but you're really dependent on that specific technique. Whereas if suddenly your technique changes but your spirit hasn't, then you do whatever you can to get it out, and you may achieve results that you wouldn't have been able to achieve if your technique had been different. If Elvin Jones had the same kind of technique as Steve Gadd, he wouldn't sound like Elvin Jones. He sounds like Elvin Jones because his spirit dictates that he is Elvin Jones, but his technique specifically serves his spirit. If he had a different way of playing and touching the drums, he wouldn't be Elvin Jones; but then at that point, maybe his technique wouldn't necessarily be better, it might be hindering him.

Maybe that's the difference between a good musician and a bad musician; A bad musician lets their technique lead their spirit, while a good musician would let their spirit lead their technique.

And just because you get used to playing a certain way because you want to have a certain technique, you can develop your identity around that. Then if that technique starts going because it's a high maintenance technique, it doesn't mean you're a bad musician because you relied on that technique - you use your technique, but you can't be a slave to it. That's why I said yes and no - if you are totally dependent on that technique in order to have any kind of identity, then obviously it's going to affect your spirit if your technique doesn't remain on that level. That's the yes part of the question. No is if you look at it from a perspective where it doesn't matter, because of what I said about Elvin. And that's a very good point; if the development of a musician is about having the chops what are those? What are you going to do with them, and what are they? The ability to play real clean and fast? Good for some things, yeah, but other than it it's just about impressing people or getting a clean sound out of the drums because you want to hear that. You talk to someone like Joe Morello; he wouldn't be talking to you about playing a roll with one hand, he'd be talking to you about touch, getting a sound out of the drums, finesse. It's not about playing 32 right hand strokes in a row at 130 bpm, and then 32 with the left hand twenty times in a row, just so you can go, "I'm Iron Man". It's about freeing up the hands so you can have a certain kind of touch, and elicit that kind of touch out of the instrument so you don't have to think about whether or not you can do it any more, and that you can become one with the instrument. It's about producing sounds. If you talked to someone in a metal band, that wouldn't really apply to them, but if they played incorrectly for eight or nine years, they might blow their hands out.

There's no end to the "fastest gun" game; There's no point in even being pre-occupied by that. Why bother?

Okay, but you can say all this because you could do it if you wanted to; When it really comes down to it, you could do all the pyrotechnic stuff better than just about anybody else on the planet. Do you think you have to get to a certain level to realise all this, or is it something that you could always be aware of and not have to go through the learning stages to get to?

It depends on the person; Some people can do that naturally. If you were able to ask the Buddha if he was enlightened, what do you think he would say?

Everybody has their own frustrations and growing pains; I went through a stage where I was neurotic about it.

This is what I mean: now you're not neurotic about it. Why?

Because I didn't want to be neurotic about it any more.

Did you stop being neurotic because you just didn't want to be neurotic any more, or because you were a large part of the way towards achieving what you were neurotic about not achieving?

I think that it's never ending, but that neurosis is not the key to progress.

So it's a maturing thing?

Yeah, and neurosis doesn't help. It's not a process in itself, it's a neurosis. Now I can understand - Buddy said that he never practised and I can believe it. Back then I would say, 'No way, you must be out of your mind'. I would say things like, 'God, if I can't play for a couple of days because I'm feeling stiff, I must not be a natural drummer'. But then it's learning to accept that, okay, I might feel stiff for a couple of days, but then I won't. And then I'm not preoccupied with being faster than everyone else and practising for twenty hours a day. You can do that and burn yourself out; you can just go about it the wrong way and get more frustrated and neurotic, instead of doing it naturally, because of the wrong reasons. I over-warmed up before a clinic once and went on stage and all my chops were burnt out. I did too much too fast, and I should have known better, but I let my neurosis guide me.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, is that desire to be 'the shit' technically - whether you're successful at it or not - necessary to realise that that's not what it's all about?

For some it may be. Again, yes and no. People say that everything is connected - there's a reason for that. There are different shades of colours, for example. The colours shift in shades, they don't just go from red to purple; people aren't computers, it's not just ones and zeros. For some it may be necessary, if they are so driven - by even a neurosis - to find out the futility of it by their own efforts. It takes a certain amount of time, it happens over time - you achieve, you go over different hurdles, and you'll realise the futility of it. But you'll achieve what you want to achieve because you're driven; and if you're driven by your neurosis, then perhaps that'll metamorphasise into, 'Okay, I've arrived at something and I realise what it's all about now - more or less, that will help me to solve my neurosis'.

At the same time, I think that it is necessary to be driven, and it's a good thing to have an ambition to be good at something. It's a good thing to do, playing the drums and developing, or just developing as a musician. The goal is that it's a constant, never-ending thing. It's a journey, the whole thing is a journey. So, if you're so driven and that's part of the thing that drives you, then so be it, you'll learn for yourself.

But then you take another kid, let's say a kid from the street, who is maybe not so driven by speed, he just has a certain kind of natural reflexes and he just happens to play that way and he doesn't even think about it; he has a drive to play the drums, but being the fastest is not part of his priority. So because of that, he doesn't get hung up on speed, he just has it. Another person may not have it, and they'll get hung up on it unnecessarily, to the point where it's unhealthy and it could inhibit them. But at a certain point, they learn to relax with it and just let it go over a period of time. They may develop the discipline to find out that it's going to take time to do that for them, and that maybe their neurosis about it will change. It's also concurrently coupled with the drive just to want to play the instrument, and at some point the neurosis melts away and the drive takes over and matures.

So, for everybody it's a different thing, but innately you have to want it. Ultimately these things have to weigh up, naturally revealing themselves, and that's what they're supposed to do.

But like I said, it's okay for you to say this because you've made it.

Come on, can you imagine if you felt like you knew everything there was and there was never the joy of discovering anything? Anything? The best you could do is quietly appreciate everything that is. If somebody says, 'This guy, he's there, he's arrived' - you don't know how he feels from day to day. Sometimes I have crap days - I just try to get over it and make the best of it. What can you do? I'm glad that I'm there, and that I can play.

But the fact that you're there and that you can play is down, in large part, to your technique.

Technique has been my tool to help me make my statement, but my statement comes from my spirit. If suddenly my technique was different, I would have to change my whole way of playing, and my whole way of thinking. So it could be said that I myself am a slave to my technique. But I don't want to think I am because I would rather just play and go, 'Okay, whatever comes out comes out'.

Sometimes, when I play certain kinds of music... if I was going to play New Orleans kind of music, I don't want to do it with everything real clean. Sometimes you want to purposefully slop it up, and sometimes, when I'm trying to 'Elvin out', I find my physiology changing because your physiology matches the state that you're in. I find myself consciously not thinking about how I hold the sticks, and to me it's necessary for that to come out, otherwise I can't kind play with that kind of concept because the technique is not right for it.

So when you have the ability to play real clean, it's okay for your physiology to change with it, because your physiology supports the state - they're interconnected.

But which leads which?

If you find that it's difficult to get into that state mentally, the physiology will help you. If you can get into the state, your physiology will follow. Ultimately the state you're in will produce that physiology, but they are interconnected.

Has this realisation come about because everything's good for you now, as an artist and a professional person?

No. Because I could be operating out of a perspective of complacency then, which I tend to strongly resist. Although I do have an inherent lazy streak.

You've got to be joking.

No. I'd like to be moving ahead, but sometimes I'll become completely complacent. It doesn't make me feel that way because it's not everything that there is. I've done so much before that I know the difference, and it's a great situation, the ultimate in many ways, but there's always other things. I have enough of a perspective to know the difference, and I don't feel like I've arrived and this is going to be my job until I retire so it's completely changing my perspective on things and I have this enlightenment like some kind of Zen master; I have a situation that shields me from some other things... No, no, not at all.

So what sort of spiritual or emotional hardships do you come up against in your work?

Well, plenty. On one hand though, people appreciate what I'm doing - they may see it from a different perspective that I don't know about. They may appreciate me because of the success factor. They may appreciate it in a way that I don't hear it. I see people in Manhattan, for example, which is a huge rat race, constantly struggling to be better than the next guy, and they have to do the newest shit... You could say I've avoided all that because of my situation, but I have to deliver too when I do these records.

But you're in a more flexible area, whereas those people are working towards, possibly, a finite goal such as money, which you don't have to worry about.

Yeah, they have to make money, but they're competing so much that it's almost like a joke. It almost becomes a lost cause. There are several stories about people sitting next to Buddy and being like, 'I'll get him'. Can you imagine that? Sitting there, biting you're lip? What is your focus about? I don't think so. It's one thing to get inspiration from somebody... Can you imagine if I sat there watching Buddy play and thought, 'Forget it'. At that point, when I was young, it just made me want to play the drums more; I got inspired by him. That's what you want.

Nowadays, you get that; You get people sitting there wanting to be where you are. When you play a gig, half the drummers in the audience may well be feeling jealous of you.

Well, I didn't feel jealous of Buddy; I was inspired by him. It's important to have a mentor - I still look at Tony as my hero, and it's healthy to have that because it gives you perspective.

And context.

Yeah, I dig the fact that I'm going, 'Wow!' Can you imagine if you were the only thing that mattered? Come on, man!

What did you say to Tony when you met him?

I met him several times. He's been hot and cold with me, for whatever reasons. But one time I told him, 'Thank you for everything... If it wasn't for you...' I just wanted to heartfeltly tell him how I felt about him and what he did for me. And I did, very honestly and openly. Since then, we've become friends. I just wanted to openly tell him how I felt and confront him in my unguarded way. He was real cool about it because I really meant it, man. I really meant it. I really revere him; He's my hero.

Still?

Yeah, he's my hero.

Okay, forgive the apparent dumbness of this question. You are now, as you seem to have been for years, very frequently cited as 'the greatest drummer in the world'. Who do you think is the greatest drummer in the world? Like I said, a dumb question, but answer it in whatever way you see fit.

To me that's kind of an absurdity in this day and age, and it's a relative thing. I don't think there's any such thing as the greatest. What's the greatest for you? I said Tony's my hero, but somebody else might say, 'But he doesn't do this', or, 'He doesn't do that'. That's okay, maybe he doesn't want to enough.

But a lot of people, relative to them, think it is you.

Well, I can only be grateful to them that I achieve such a high esteem in their mind, really, and be very grateful that I touched that many people. I can only... I mean...

It would make me feel pretty weird.

I can just say thank you - that's all I can do. You look at Dennis - what a freak that guy is, he's ridiculous, unbelievable! Then you talk to Dennis, and he'll go, 'Man, you gotta see Larry Bright'. You see what I mean? Dennis knows, he's not stupid. He must know what a high level he's at, but I wonder if he really knows. He talks about Larry. You see what I'm saying?

I came up in an era when there was Harvey, Steve and Jeff. And then there was Gadson and some other cats. And Billy Cobham, but he got into Mahavishnu, and I mean guys who became the session staples. I got to know Jeff, and I got to know Steve, and I got to know Harv - I got to know them all. Joe Porcaro, Emil Richards, Larry Bunker - they all helped me out.

In what way?

I would be on dates with Bunk and Joe and Emil, and they respected me because I was a young kid that didn't act like a hotshot; I was really trying to do something, and they liked what I did and told me how I should do it. I'd be on dates with them, and these guys are amazing musicians playing incredible stuff, and they'd give me parts to break me in, like on timpani or xylophone or something. Or if I was playing kit, they'd make sure I could hear... they were just right under me all the time. Jeff would say, 'Hey man, you need my drums for a date?' 'Can you do this gig for me?' Jeff was always trying to help me, they didn't care about losing gigs to me or trying to get rid of me, maybe because I had an okay attitude of something, I don't know. But it's also because Jeff was just like that. If somebody had a terrible attitude, those guys would be the first to say know it; they were so mature, they just transcended all that petty shit. They know that a guy like that is ultimately going to fuck himself.

I loved Jeff... I still do. I miss him so bad; he was my compadre, man, my buddy. I played double drums with him - it didn't matter that we played the same instrument, it was even better. When we lost Jeff, we lost an example. We lost an example, you know? I hope I can follow that example, regardless of what gig I have or don't have, and I hope other people can follow that example. It didn't take his death to make people realise how great he was as a musician and as a human being. He set an example for everybody; He set the example for all of us; If there was one guy who set the example, it was Jeff, and if you knew him, you could see why.

Ultimately, what we seem to be saying is that the difference between success and mediocrity as a musician is as much to do with one's humanity as it is their ability.

He was the most successful person I ever knew, period. On that same tone, I have to really state my admiration for Sting – he deserves what he's got because he has an amount of humility, and he's a gentleman, and he worked very hard for what he has, and continues to do so because he believes in it. He's also a great example in many ways. You have to understand that Jeff was my buddy; Sting's my boss, you know?

But would you class him as your buddy as well?

On some levels, yeah.

Presumably you have to maintain some kind of professional distance.

Yes and no. There's an amount of respect that has to be given, sure, and ultimately he's my employer. But I don't see how anybody could get much closer to an employer. He comes pretty close to bridging that gap. There is a distance, but he's very diplomatic about maintaining what that is. He's a great bandleader.

Hopefully, at some point in my life I'll take all these lessons from people that I've crossed paths with, and it'll sink in. I think it's beginning to already, and my soul is crying out for it to. Hopefully I'll be able to see in retrospect and from an objective view, what it means to me to have the relationships that I've had with people on different levels, like Jeff and Frank and Sting, and what it can teach me about life, not just on a professional level.

To what extent is playing the drums your life?

It's my livelihood, and it's my natural way of expressing who I am.

Do those two aspects ever get confused in terms of one perhaps detracting from the other?

Sometimes, but I've tried to get rid of that. You have to make the choice instead of doing stupid gigs and saying, 'Well, where's the art? Now I'm just making money'. At one time, in terms of volume, I was doing as much as any rhythm section player I can think of - three or four sessions a day. I didn't have enough drums all over town. I'd do three dates, drive home at 9.30, my mobile would ring and it'd be Bobby Womack - I'm turning the corner to my house and the phone rings! So I turn around and go straight to the studio till 4.30 in the morning. At that point, it had built up to its apex, and I didn't want to say no because I felt I couldn't turn anything down. Then the phone doesn't ring for five days and you get paranoid.

I was doing dates, and at one point I was doing records, TV, motion pictures and jingles, a little bit of everything. People on dates would be looking forward to getting on the golf course; string players would be knitting - they didn't even want to talk about music! I suddenly thought, 'These guys don't even give a shit any more!' One of the guys got offered a jazz gig with a famous trumpet player, and he said, 'I don't know, man...' And I thought, 'You are saying that? You must be joking'. I didn't want to become like that. So anyway, after all that I'd go home and practice for an hour.

For what?

For me. For me. You dig? Because I wasn't playing shit - I was a factory worker, I could have been selling car stereos. I just needed something better; I needed to be in a situation with some integrity. This was up to five years ago. Even up to then I was working too much. Sting called, and I got on the plane and went to London the next day. And I was ready for it, I was ready. I was mentally ready, plus I had put my energy into it by going home after all these tiddlywink dates and shedding. They say that luck is when preparedness meets opportunity.

Then I had to deal with that thing of losing calls by going on the road, which I didn't for a long time, but now I don't get that many session calls because I'm gone so much. But if somehow I finished with Sting, I would have to decide whether I could drift back into that. These days, the session player is an endangered species - who knows, maybe it would be time to drift into some other area.