DRUM! ~ 2003

by Don Zulaica, Managing Editor, DRUM! Magazine

"Before I saw him, I could figure things out. He was the first guy I saw close-up and just didn't get what he was doing."

Josh Freese
Steve Vai on Vinnie Colaiuta

"I was just enamored with Vinnie. Back in the Frank days, his whole approach, when I heard Vinnie play, his phrasing - it satisfied something in my heart. It was easy to get certain rhythmic gratification from straight up-and-down-type players. Playing grooves, alternate grooves here and there. But Vinnie just came in and threw a wrench into the works. The guy is an alien. He was able to touch buttons with his sense of polyrhythms that no one has ever done. Frank's band was the perfect soundboard for that. I started transcribing his playing for The Frank Zappa Book. I mean, there's five to six different notations for the hi-hat!" [laughs]

"I'll tell you a really great Vinnie story. He's one of the most amazing sight-readers that ever existed on the instrument. One day we were in a Frank rehearsal, this was early '80s, and Frank brought in this piece of music called "Mo 'N Herb's Vacation." Just unbelievably complex. All the drums were written out, just like "The Black Page" except even more complex. There were these runs of like 17 over 3 and every drumhead is notated differently. And there were a whole bunch of people there, I think Bozzio was there."

"Vinnie had this piece of music on the stand to his right. To his left he had another music stand with a plate of sushi on it, okay? Now the tempo of the piece was very slow, like "The Black Page." And then the first riff came in, [mimics bizarre Zappa-esque drum rhythm patterns] with all these choking of cymbals, and hi-hat, ruffs, spinning of rototoms and all this crazy stuff. And I saw Vinnie reading this thing. Now, Vinnie has this habit of pushing his glasses up with the middle finger of his right hand. Well I saw him look at this one bar of music, it was the last bar of music on the page. He started to play it as he was turning the page with one hand, and then once the page was turned he continued playing the riff with his right hand, as he reached over with his left hand, grabbed a piece of sushi and put it in his mouth, continued the riff with his left hand and feet, pushed his glasses up, and then played the remaining part of the bar."

"It was the sickest thing I have ever seen. Frank threw his music up in the air. Bozzio turned around and walked away. I just started laughing."

Those of us who have seen or heard Vinnie Colaiuta can probably relate to the "sickest thing I've ever seen" part.

He made the concept of playing "out" a brow-squinting ordeal with Frank Zappa and Allan Holdsworth. Then he turned heads by following Omar Hakim and Manu Katché as the anchor of Sting's recording/touring group, proving he doesn't have to consistently do the drumming equivalent of a quintuple lutz. What makes it all so proverbially "sick" is that it's never really about the math, it's about emoting. Whether he does it with many or few words (and sure, he can do it in seven or eight languages), it doesn't matter. When he speaks, you know it's him.

He's one of the most sought-after and revered musicians in the business, and can currently be heard on albums with guitarist Robben Ford and Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip ("Jing Chi" and "Jing Chi Live"), his garlic-infused quartet Karizma, and with various usual suspects on both volumes of "Live At The Baked Potato." At press time he was also linked to the forthcoming Megadeth album.

Somehow, after literally months of phone and e-mail tag, he had a few minutes to spare.

Let's talk about the "Jing Chi" album with Jimmy Haslip and Robben Ford. You guys go back a ways.

Yeah, we do. We're great friends. I played in Robben's band back in the '80s. Basically how this thing started is that Jimmy called me and had spoken with Mike Varney over at Shrapnel, and I'm not sure who brought up the idea of the three of us doing the record together. But Jimmy spoke to Robben and myself and asked, "Are you guys interested in doing a trio project?"; And we thought it sounded like great fun.

We got together at my house and sat around together, threw a few individual ideas around on the table. And from there we just started writing a lot of things collectively, we spent four or five days doing that. Actually, between recording the stuff and pre-production, and actually going in and cutting it, was a couple of weeks. We had a lot of fun. We went into Base Seven and cut it. Rich Green, who mixed it on his computer rig, did an amazing job of mixing it.

Are you proud of any particular track on the record?

We transferred one of the drum tracks from the ADAT, "Crazy House," that is actually just us sitting down and basically writing it [in the studio]--it was a run through. But I liked it, so I wanted to keep it. It was one of those, we just rolled tape. I thought it had a lot of humor in it, it was nice and loose. It had attitude and color, rather than just trying to be, you know, just having every note be in some perfect place. That doesn't really mean anything, it only means something in the mathematical domain. That doesn't translate to emotiveness. Music is an emotive medium, and it can be analyzed mathematically, but in terms of its usage as a medium, it's an emotive communicative medium. If it's not emotive, then I think it falls short of its purpose.

That fits perfectly with your comment on the "Modern Drummer Festival 2000" video where you were asked about the beat displacement in "I'm Tweaked" for the four billionth time. You can go through the math in different ways, displacing a 16th note or whatever, but to you, personally, it was a gag. A joke. Doing a jarring beat displacement over a James Brown beatbox sample is funny.

Exactly. It shows how overly-seriously we tend to take ourselves, the whole thing was a big gag to me. It's a joke. It is what it is, you know? [laughs] For me, it was funny.

And that actually leads to my next question, the band that was in that video, Karizma (David Garfield, Neil Stubenhaus, Michael Landau). You guys recently released "Document". You guys really go back.

Oh man! A long, long time. I have a lot of history with those guys. I came to L.A. in the spring of '78. I go back, at least 20 years with those guys. It's a long time. I was just a young, little. . .punk. . .when I got here. When I joined Frank's band, I was really young. We were all just a bunch of punks when we met. [laughs]

And talk about history, you're on both volumes of the "Live At The Baked Potato" series. When's the first time you played there?

Probably 1980, maybe even '79. I mean, that place has been around for a while. It's really a mainstay, a special place.

Part of the hardest thing about getting an interview with you is. . .getting an interview with you. What else have you been up to, what albums should we be looking out for?

I worked on a Bob James record, and also a Bill Evans record. I worked on Mike Stern's record "Voices" and also with Richard Bona.

Will there be a Vinnie solo disc #2? A sequel to "Tweaked?"

Hopefully. I'm beginning to get some ideas germinating, so I hope I'll be able to get it out. But I don't know when. We'll see.

Must be crazy keeping everything straight.

Oh yeah. Time management is obviously a problem for most people in the world, but on a simpler level, work is work. When you're in a freelance industry, that's just the way the cookie crumbles. I just sort of roll with it, and I'm glad. And if it can be a blessing to others, then praise God for that.

When you make decisions about taking certain jobs, is it always a reactive thing? How do you make certain decisions to do, say, a "Jing Chi" project, or to take a high-profile gig with someone like Sting?

I just kind of roll with it, and try to maintain an ethic where it's reactive. When we're presented with a situation, we have a choice to say yes or no. For me to say no, would be that I have ascertained that it would be unfair and/or exploitative, or it would conflict with something that I've already been booked for. So the code of ethics that I try to maintain is, hey, if I'm booked, I'm booked.

Once I had to turn down a "Round Midnight" soundtrack call that I had gotten, because I was booked on a jingle. Now some people would have said, "You're nuts, you should have gotten out of the jingle." But I was booked. And that's the way I look at it. I really think it's largely about ethics and just not trying to rip people off, you know what I mean? Now that happened over 15 years ago, and I've worked a lot since then, so it certainly didn't affect my volume of work.

You'll get other chances.

Yeah, and I've had more than other chances, I've had a wonderful career. I tend to look at it like a flow, rather than a cutthroat, competitive thing. You do what you do because you love to do it, you want to be a blessing to others. They're going to call you or they're not. They like you or they don't. And that's really it. You can't beat yourself over it, because a lot of that is just fear of food on your table and this whole thing of other people thinking, "Someone else is going to get the gig, I'll lose the account, or they might like so-and-so better." And we're all afraid that someone's going to say, "Oh, he's better than you." You know what? There's room for everybody.

I interviewed Ani DiFranco, and she said something that resonated with me--that music and competition don't even belong in the same sentence.

I agree, and I applaud her for that statement. Wow. And that reminds me, in a recent obituary notice for Waylon Jennings, it was stated that he didn't show up for his own awards ceremony, either the Country Music Hall of Fame or some sort of event. He didn't believe that musicians should compete with one another. And I really applaud and agree with that.

Some cleverly rhetorical person might make a quasi-evil remark like, "Are you afraid to compete?" to which I would answer, no. There is no fear involved, there is no need. And compete against what? People like you or they don't. If they like somebody else, what are you going to do? There are things that we just can't control, and the sooner we come to terms with that, the better off we are.

So true. Hey, one thing I have to ask you about is the departure from Sting's band. What happened there?

Well in 1997, that was the end of the last tour I had done with him. And then the following year we went in to do the "Brand New Day" record. There was talk of a tour after that, and over a little deliberation and prayer, it occurred to me that I couldn't do it. The reason was, my personal life, on an inward personal level, I felt that I was on a downward spiral. I was just traveling a lot, the tours were really, really long, and I was beginning to feel disoriented. So I chose not to do it, and bowed out.

How many years were you with Sting?

The first gigs were back in December of '90, and then I stopped in the summer of '97, so seven-plus years. The tours would go on for 18 months, a year. The last one that I wasn't on, which I was under the impression was going to be shorter, turned out to be two years. That's a long time to be on the road. So I knew I didn't want to do that.

And when you're in a situation like that, and you suddenly leap out of it, you think to yourself that the future is uncertain, right? But I thought to myself, "It's uncertain anyway. It just is. " I just figured I was off the road, and whatever happens, happens. And by the grace of God, I've been blessed to be able to stay home and maintain my studio career and make a living. I think it's healthy to do the [touring] thing in segments, but I think most people get into it and just stay on that train and ride it, and ride it. . .

. . .and burn out.

It's like, if you go for seven months before you actually hit home for five days, and then you go out for another eight months, it's just nuts. You're just constantly gone.

What was Sting like to work with?

He was a really liberal guy, he'd hang with you. Really smart, great bandleader, great musician. He's in a league of his own, really in a very narrow category in terms of being a singer-songwriter, bass player, all of that. And it was really like one big group, from him, to us, to the crew, we were all in it together, all on equal footing that way. We were friends, as opposed to, "Hi, I'll see you guys at soundcheck, maybe." You know, where the guy is in his own little world. He wasn't like that at all.

Have to ask about Frank Zappa. What are your special memories, and what do you think his legacy will be? I asked Terry Bozzio this same question, and he ran off a list of like ten different things, saying Frank could have done any one of them and he would have been totally successful.

I would agree with Terry on that. He was that kind of a guy. In reflecting, I would say he was amazingly brilliant, just incredibly intelligent. And the kind of humor that you would expect him to have, which was reflected in the way he wrote, was kind of the way I saw him. He sort of took me under his wing, he was like a mentor to me. The band, it was like Juliard meets boot camp meets, I don't know, comedy, you know?

The legacy, I think it's a compound legacy where he really created a self-made empire. And he was probably the first that had done it on that kind of scale, that I know of. He created his own fan base, and did what he wanted to do, and he showed that there were people that liked it. A lot of them. A lot of them. It wasn't just about, "What is it that they're going to like that I think I'll try to second-guess?" No. It wasn't about that. He injected things into music that are vitally important, and made it funny, and appealed to a lot of people, and as a legitimate composer revealed his importance, as well. Hopefully part of that legacy will bear fruit in the future, and he'll be recognized more legitimately as a composer.

Do you think that certain things he did, say satirically, might rub some "legit" composer-musician-types the wrong way?

Right, but what does that say about them, anyway? If you listen to something like "The Yellow Shark, " that's not satirical. That's serious, and should be judged as such. I think he was so prolific and had such a body of work, that perhaps he just may break through. . .and that [respect] could happen. I hope so.

Any specific memories, something you're really proud of?

Well, for sure the "Joe's Garage" sessions. We were originally going to go in there for a week to do a single, and we ended up in there for a month. And he made it up on the spot, and that was just staggering to me. That it turned out that way, and that he was able to just concoct this whole thing in the studio. He would give us hand signals through the control room, and it was [sighs]...oh, man. That whole experience was just amazing.

This is an unpublished interview, which appeared for the first time on DRUM! Magazine's web site