Batteur ~ June, 2012

The Genius of Vinnie

By Roger Biwandu and Laurent Bataille
Cover photo by Robert Downs
Black and white photo by Marc Rouvé
French to English translation by Stéphane Bélanger

Those who know me well know that I call Vinnie "God". You can say the same about Jeff Watts, as I got into the black American Jazz style. But as far as electric music goes, Vinnie has always been my number one influence. I am convinced that our playing reflects our personality. Vinnie's is both simple and very complex at the same time. He's one intense animal. A very generous person; Extremely sensitive, with a mysterious edge and a great sense of humor. He's a lot of fun. He's great to hang with. He treats you as an equal with a simple inter-relational approach, devoid of a superiority complex. He's very humbling to be around and he's one of the truly rare geniuses I've had the chance to rub shoulders with. We laughed a lot during this two hour interview and I thank him for granting me the opportunity. I am forever grateful for the way his drumming has inspired me through the decades.

Roger Biwandu

I know that you usually prefer to play not too far from home but you’ve recently toured with Herbie Hancock, Jeff Beck and now Sting... Was it by choice or rather because things are slow in L.A.?

It was by choice. At the time I took these gigs, I was offered a lot of session work. I remember that period as being one of the busiest I've ever had. I did it by choice, because it was to play with Herbie Hancock or Jeff Beck, because they mean a lot to me and I am sensitive to what they're expressing to the world and to their audiences in particular. I can't remember which contract I signed first, but it was great. Both tours transitioned nicely from one to the next. I kept the pace going with Chick Corea's and John McLaughlin's “Five Peace Band” (also with Kenny Garrett and Christian McBride); the whole thing lasted more than five years!

If we're talking about 2012 and this Tour with Sting, that's another story. For me, I continue to get calls to do sessions, but things have gotten a lot worse and the work volume has dropped considerably, not to mention the drop in hourly rates! I know a few rare musicians who will do guitar overdubs from their own home, but we can definitely say that the studio scene has changed, including the movie industry. The volume of demand has decreased. Many bands have replaced the "session player" per se. The scene has moved into one or two new cliques. Take Hip-Hop for example, just so you understand exactly what I mean, but in no way with the intent to condemn the trend.

Today, when an artist records and it's released on the market, the sales and on-line streaming statistics are immediately made available. In the studios, instead of seeing framed-up "Gold Records" on the walls, you now have plaques displaying all those stats... It looks funny and it's almost ridiculous.

Then there seems to be both positive and negative aspects of these trends, mostly due to the current Internet surge?

Yes, there are good things. Like its amazing promotional engine which Record companies can't do without, but there are negative facets too. You now have millions of people watching or downloading videos on YouTube on just about any topic, many have guitars and computers who want to compose... On one hand it's great, but on the other hand I'm not so sure. Because how can everyone ever expect to make a living out of it and what does it mean to be a "professional" these days? Not to mention that nobody wants to buy records anymore, protesting that record labels aren't sharing profits back with the artists. And those same people advocating this message are also the ones expecting to make a profit with their own music!

If Intellectual Property is no longer monetizable, you're only left with live performances. And if at 55 years of age, you no longer feel like touring the world, knowing that everything, EVERYTHING you do on stage will be on YouTube the next day, the public will soon reason that they can't afford to attend live concerts anymore and even so, they'll be able to watch it on YouTube anyways. Tomorrow’s artists have a lot to be concerned about because where is their revenue going to come from?

So you think we're heading towards an "amateur" society?

Totally, that’s exactly it. The discipline that comes with practicing the instrument, real-time creativity, innovation, evolution and maturity, everything that has to do with humanity's soul has taken a back-seat for many of us. Actually, only the Internet giants like Google are getting rich via expensive advertising they sell to promoters. By inserting publicity-banners everywhere, they're operating a brain-washing system over the population. Without mentioning how we're being policed, tracked on our cell phones and iPads. That's another topic that everyone should do something about. We really have to spread the word that all these practices are full of crap.

You're touring with Sting these days. What's the difference between the current Tour and the band from the 90s?

There's an awareness that wasn't there at the beginning, which contributes to the band's cohesion. General stuff, specifically in the way the pieces are put together seems a bit more precise with more nuances than before. The Sound crew contributes to achieving this excellent result. The mix is so good that I even wear in-ear monitors now, whereas before I couldn't stand them at all. The "in-ears" have the advantage of protecting the ears and I still use a subwoofer to stay in touch with my surroundings and really feel the low frequencies.

During a recording session where the click volume was very low in your headset, a Sound Engineer took the time to measure the precision of your backbeat using Pro Tools and the results showed your strokes to be precise at 0.5 milliseconds. He compared you to a nuclear clock! Did you practice your timing that much?

I'm sure I've worked on it perhaps as much as anyone but I don’t think of timing in terms of milliseconds. I've never heard that story before, but if it's true, he didn't make up the numbers. People always have a story to tell but I remember one session with Lee Ritenour where we were looking at waveforms on a screen with the Sound Engineer who was pointing to the consistency of my bass drum strokes. In short, I'd say that my goal is to forget the click and to dance around it. The great Jeff Porcaro once said that perfect time does not necessarily mean perfect feel and vice-versa. What you must go after is that it makes you want to dance.

I know that in your case, that kind of precision is always to serve the musical context as well as in support of the rhythm section!

Thanks, I appreciate the compliment; it's certainly what I seek to achieve in the first place. But be careful not to seek to be too perfect because if you aim at that too much, you run the risk of missing the mark.

You've done so many sessions since the end of the 70s... Of those sessions, which ones caused you to re-examine your own playing?

When we recorded Nefertiti with Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, and Lionel Loueke for the "River" recording! Was it a challenge that nourished me musically? Definitely. On the other hand, before software manipulation, a producer got me to record all the drum parts separately which was also a challenge since it represented sixty takes of the same rhythm broken down and I did not gain anything musically. Nothing at all. People who do that just want to control everything, dictating exactly what to play with no regard to who is actually playing. I don't even understand why they called me to do that type of stuff.

But today, that doesn't happen anymore! If the producer merely takes me for a rhythm machine then I leave the studio. Most of them trust me and respect me while others only want to manipulate, pat each other on the back and sell crappy music with no intention to cooperate with musicians. It's a bit sad but the phenomenon is spreading in the schools that often focus heavily on digital manipulation... Why? To learn how to fudge a lame track? To become a DJ? What are you going to do with that in 30 years? Before, there used to be clear rules and a system that gave room to the evolution on the instrument, but that seems outdated nowadays.

Being Vinnie Colaiuta, don't you have a say?

You know, if I have to play something that doesn't seem appropriate, I'll give it a go. It's part of the job to have to adapt to the demands and you have to remain open even if you know it's not necessarily the right choice. THEY are calling me because they know I will deliver what they're asking for. Don't get me wrong, I am not worried about this approach. On the other hand, if it's a twisted situation and the attitude of those involved isn't good and nobody cares about you, then it gets tricky. If you think about it, the music business is very psychological. Sometimes I feel like telling them: "Let’s stick to the song; nobody will notice the effects, the EQ you're adding, if the song is good the public will love it anyway!" Even then, it all depends on everyone's intention. It’s not always bad to want to produce something that's "perfect" but often, in the end, you can ask yourself if it really is. As far as I am concerned, if it's done with integrity and honesty, it's alright!

During the Herbie Tour, like many drummers, I asked myself why you chose to mostly play matched grip instead of traditional grip?

Let me say right away to those who react to these types of changes, as if the Queen of England just walked out of her palace naked! It really is not worth making it a big deal on the Forums (laugh)! There are two reasons. The first is that I don't even think about it for a second most of the time; it comes naturally. I like it and I do it at that specific point in time. The second honest and serious reason, is that the position of the tom triggered pain in my shoulder and elbow, so I had to stop playing that way for a while. But to dig deeper into this topic, I'd say that to obtain more steady strokes, I tend to use the same position for both hands, the Tony Williams way. But like you saw in Toulouse, switching back to traditional grip playing a strong back-beat all evening long can cause you blisters that will keep on bleeding until after the show! But there's callus now, so everything is good. One thing for sure, that gig is no joke and nobody can accuse me of doing things half-way.

You really have a strong back-beat, when you play the toms, you have to hit even harder... That's nothing for you, right?

Don't believe that, it's demanding for me too! You have to use the right muscles during a drum fill but you can't keep it going for a whole five minute song. It's all about having balance between the arms and other muscles.

Other drummers like Greg Bissonette, John Robinson Jr., John Frasier Moore and many others consider you their favorite drummer...

First of all, that's a big compliment coming from my peers and esteemed colleagues. I'd say that there's more than one factor, maybe rather a combination of different ones linked to my personality, to my playing, to what I express on the instrument, but it's hard for me to be objective in that regard. You'd have to ask them what they actually like in my playing and why they like it. The only thing I can add is that I do my very best to play with the highest integrity and sincerity possible.

Isn't it because we drummers owe you so much for having innovated that style of playing, a style that Producers overwhelmingly favored and which had huge impacts in many contexts?

I see what you mean. The key for me is that the playing style fits the musical context as it's always what I've aimed for, whether it's improvised polyrhythms or specific patterns. But I know that even if you are not objective in my regard, at least you know what you're talking about. If my style opens doors for drummers then that's great, some even say that imitation is a sincere form of flattery. Yet, I also want to mention that you Roger, you are not a clone! So it seems to me that it's essential for each drummer to develop their own identity and find their own voice.

I know that you don't like to talk about yourself but what do you say to your fans around the world who are not necessarily drummers?

That I respect them, that I am glad that while I am doing my best to serve the music, making a living and enjoying it, I also get a bit of their attention in the process. I want to thank them as much as they thank me. You know it's a bit difficult for me to grasp that type of relationship with fans, I accept it but without wasting too much energy over it.

In my opinion, it began on October 14, 1989 which is the date the Buddy Rich Memorial was filmed, that hundreds of drummers recognized that you, Dennis Chambers and a few others were in the process of revolutionizing modern drumming...

I don't remember the actual date (surprised laugh) and especially, I had no idea that the show was going to have that much of an impact on so many drummers. For me, I did not experience the video-tape and even less so the DVD teaching wave. I had to listen to records, going out to hear Tony Williams, play live, and most importantly, I had to use my imagination, think for myself to figure out the solution by myself which in my opinion remains a very rewarding experience. In a way, when everything is given to you on a platter, you'll tend to imitate instead of figuring things out and developing your own creativity. Not mentioning the teens that spend their day sending tweets and Social Media messages. How can they expect to develop real skills on the instrument and develop their creativity? The Social Media phenomena are to me really disconnected and perverted. Imagine a time before all that, you see a guy standing on the street corner tapping on people's shoulders blurting out everything and anything. Yet nowadays, this practice is tolerated and adopted by many while in fact it really is harassment. Today everyone wants to be a star and it doesn't make any sense. Television definitely doesn't help either. Same with records; before you had side A and side B onto which only one tune could fit on an entire side. We did our best to decipher in depth as much information as we could glean while impatiently waiting for the next release. This created some type of chain, each record considered as being worth real value which is the opposite of everything that has been downgraded and deemed disposable these days.

In your view, what aspect of your playing has changed since the mid 80s to now?

I'd say there's more maturity and that it's more seasoned which enables me to be less forceful and let things flow spontaneously. It's not easy to explain but maybe there's more conviction in what I am doing, including in the studios. I've got this sense that I have to accept who I am, telling myself that it's OK. But if I had to redo portions of certain tracks, like with Joni Mitchell for example, I wouldn't change much of anything, knowing that it would be a feel that I'd experience differently today but you wouldn't necessarily notice it. How I've evolved as a player would maybe cause me to change minor things but I seek to keep an open mind with self-confidence without thinking about it much. Once again, I know myself and I try to be a whole with myself and to let out almost automatically what I have to play at that very moment. It has a lot to do with self-confidence that matured throughout the years by getting to learn about yourself and by listening and feeling how you play.

Is it hard to play a tune like "New Blues, Old Bruise" (John Mclaughlin, Five Peace Band) which has a complex form?

Yes, that can be quite hard because the form is long and difficult mostly because of the space created by the slow tempo which gives you enough time to think (laughs) which you shouldn't be doing. This is without a doubt one of the most difficult tunes I had to record. For the live track, I memorized everything so it's easier and we played it a lot which enabled me to really feel the accentuated subdivisions throughout the form, which called for a lot of concentration.

Do you still shred on the instrument?

No, not really. I warm up on the pad for twenty minutes before I play and if I still have time to play on the kit during the sound check, I go for it. But for summer festivals, that's rarely possible.

Personally, I appreciate how you keep the same set-up most of the time, without falling into today's trend which consists of one tom and bass drum.

It's true that I keep the same set-up most of the time but I may surprise you by saying that before it became trendy, I had already thought of using the one 12" tom. I don't care if it's hip or not but the concern with someone like me is that I will be accused of being a copycat if I were to use that set-up, which I really don't care about. So for a short while now, I sometimes use that set-up but not to follow the trend but rather because the context calls for it or simply because I just feel like it. I can also change the tom size because different diameters bring very different sound characteristics. With that said, I'll tell you that always playing the same set-up sometimes allows me to rely on my muscle memory, especially in sight-reading situations.

You stopped playing the L.A. club scene yet for many drummers studying there, it was an occasion to see you play as often as possible...

I stopped as I felt as if I was being "vampirized" by the crowd who always wanted to film me. People may find me mean but they should look at themselves in the mirror and have a little bit more respect with what's happening on stage by being content with just being there without expecting us to feed this present disease which makes me want to throw up sometimes.

What do you think about the gospel drummers who very often consider Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers and you mostly as their influences? From a musical perspective, don't they tend to overplay?

First of all, I am very flattered for them to mention me as their influence and I think that this style with its chops are part of their musical language; in that sense it does not bother me. On the other hand, as far as the Drum-Offs and the somewhat selfish aspect of these performances goes, I feel like telling them that it's useless to develop that style with the intent to compete because there will always be a drummer that will be faster than the previous one. So you have to be careful not to get caught in that mindset. Today's society favors that kind of sport-like mentality. In the same way, as if the double-pedal wasn't good enough, the manufacturers came up with pedals that sound more like the roaring of a truck engine (laughs). Seriously, it seems to have become a bit ridiculous to me.

Could you name drummers whose playing or musical approach you appreciate?

I am afraid I may forget some as there are so many that I find really good and who are making strong musical statements. I'd mention Jeff Tain Watts, Greg Hutchinson, Bill Stewart, Ari Hoenig, Chris Coleman and I could mention many others who continue to carry the flag.

You recently switched to Paiste. Can you talk about the reasons for such a change?

I have to tell you that I made the choice after I became aware of their instruments. A choice guided by quality, sound, consistency and versatility without forgetting the commitment by the manufacturers to stick to these values in today's context, which is not very favorable. During a warehouse visit with Jarrett, my Drum-tech pointed me to a random ride and a hi-hat; I had no idea what they were at the time. The ride sounded really great and when Jarrett told me it was a Paiste Traditional series, I then realized that I had no idea what this brand was capable of. To me, and many others I'm sure, Paiste was making a very specific type of cymbal. I was way off the mark. For about one and a half years, I dug deeper and I discovered the Twenty series, specifically one incredible ride that Fredy Studer made me try. Then the Dark Energy's, the Formula 602's which I already deemed great and which have been reintroduced; many different categories of cymbals that I find easy to group and which complete each other well. Most importantly, I discovered while in Switzerland that the cymbals I was trying were producing different results than expected and that even though they were not specifically selected for me, they all had this significant consistency in common and an undeniable quality. Of all the ones I tried, I noticed that none of them were over-powering and they always stayed under control. If I wanted a continuous crash, they gave it to me and when I went back to ride normally, it came back down immediately.

Since then, in concert or in the Studio, I've noticed that their sound allowed me to lower the overhead mics to capture more sound from the toms which is a plus for me. With the array of sound this brand generates, such as the Gongs and percussion, I realized that it was Paiste that builds the most diverse types of cymbals that I could use in all the different styles that I play, not having to worry about inconsistency. In fact, I use the Formula 602 which exemplifies the pure sound I look for, a classic in its category that I was already acquainted with for years. I finally have everything that I need in that instrument and I am happy.