Drums & Drumming ~ January, 1991

by Greg Rule

With the audience clamoring for an encore, Vinnie Colaiuta takes a final bow and vanishes into the backstage bustle. As the curtain falls and the houselights rise, a unified chorus of cheers ring out from the crowd. If there had been any doubt about Vinnie's greatness, clearly it was put to rest today.

Backstage, it's a small mob scene with Vinnie at the center of attention. Making every effort to mask his dissatisfaction, he signs a few autographs before greeting the dignitaries on hand.

"Man, I just couldn’t make It happen tonight," he says to Steve Smith with a hint of disgust "My sticks were slipping all over the place, my hi-hat stand kept sliding around, and I just kept forcing everything." Smith looks at Vinnie, cracks a half grin and shakes his head. It's evident that even in a self-proclaimed "bad night", Vinnie is capable of delivering a mind-boggling performance.

His modesty Is a testament to his greatness; perhaps a key to the inner drive that makes a player of his caliber continue to push onward and upward. As with most overachievers, self-satisfaction doesn't come easily, and for Vinnie Colaiuta, the aforementioned clinic at Zildjian Day In San Francisco dispels any myth at complacency.

It seems Inconceivable that he’s covered so much ground in just 34 short years. His innovative work with Frank Zappa during the late 70s and early 80s helped establish Colaiuta as a household name among drummers worldwide, as did his follow-up work with Joni Mitchell and Gino Vannelli - not to mention the thousands of other artists with whom he's performed. The year 1991 signals yet another phase In his musical journey as he embarks upon a South American tour with Sting. But little known to the public are Vinnie's inauspicious beginnings in L.A. - before the Zappa glory days.

"When I decided to move to the West Coast In 1978," he recalls, "I got on a bus with my drum set, my clothes, and 80 bucks - and that was It." Vinnie had made arrangements to stay at a friend's apartment but, shortly after, managed to get himself - and his friend - evicted for disturbing the peace (due to his drumming, of course). Unable to find permanent living arrangements, he roamed from place to place, even sleeping in a small bedroom at The Record Plant for a period of time. "I remember buying an old, beat-up Ford for $100 out of the Recycler, and I actually had to sleep in it for a while. I drove that thing around until it blew up one day and I just left it there. I mean, I had no money."

In the spring, Vinnie's luck improved when he landed the drum chair for The Fowler Brothers band. The experience enriched him musically, but not financially - playing "dives" like The ComeBack Inn for $5.00 and beer. One day Vinnie learned that Frank Zappa was looking for some new players. "I got the number of Frank's management," he remembers, "and I started calling every day. I said, 'Let me send you a tape.' And they would say, 'No, we don't take tapes. No tapes.'" After repeated attempts, the big call finally came in: "Mr. Zappa will hear you tonight."

Photo by Peter FigenWith sticks in hand, Vinnie beat a path down to the Culver City Studio where a "cattle call" audition was in progress. "I got in there," Vinnie says, "and no joke, these guys would last an average of 15 seconds before Frank would yell, 'Next!' I mean it was deep, man - brutal. And I stood there watching all of this, just waiting for my turn." Finally, when his name was called, he took a seat behind Terry Bozzio's double-bass kit and dug in. And that's when the sweat started to fly. "He made me sight read; then he'd throw tunes at me to see how much I could retain, see how my time felt. He said, 'Solo in 21.' And then he made me solo over these bizarre vamps. Then he'd solo and I'd accompany him. Then he gave me this piece called Pedro's Dowry which I played in unison with Ed Mann. Finally, he pulled me aside and said something thing like, 'Look man, I'll be amazed if anyone comes in after that.'" And that, as they say, was that.

Even at an early age, Vinnie made strong musical impressions. His drumming history began in the rural Pennsylvania town of Brownsville. He recalls, "I always reacted to music and I always had some sort of attraction or disposition toward music. I did the typical thing a kid does, setting up pots and pans on the sofa like a drum set." He tore through several toy drum sets before finally getting a semi-pro kit at age seven. "When I first got that kit, without having any lessons or anything, I could just sit down behind it and play. I never had a problem knowing what to do with my feet or hands. I guess that's just part of the gift that the Lord gave me." Upon his mother's encouragement, Vinnie took his first drumming lesson at age 14. "I went to the junior high band director," he recalls, "and he gave me a book that taught me the basics of how to hold the sticks and how to read. I took to it like a fish to water. There was no turning back, ever. I just kept pushing ahead at my own pace. I think my teachers picked up on the fact that I was a fast learner and that I seemed to have an accelerated growth potential. I always showed an aptitude and interest in what I was doing."

The same year, Vinnie was selected to perform in a tri-state honors ensemble after playing a spirited rendition of the rudimental snare piece "Tornado." It was during that same period that Vinnie first discovered one of his greatest musical influences, Tony Williams.

"I was in a stage band competition and this other drummer came up to me and asked, 'Who's your favorite drummer?' And I said, 'Buddy Rich.' So, I asked him who his favorite drummer was and he said, 'Tony Williams.' And I was like, 'Who?' So, he told me to go buy the record Ego. When I first listened to it, it was so alien to anything I'd ever heard before. About two years later, I put it back on the turntable and it was like I'd just opened the lid to the Ark Of The Covenant or something. It was as if the sky had opened in my head. I went out and bought every Tony Williams record that I could get my hands on. From that point I realized that Tony was the genius of the drums. I realized what a force he was and how powerful and truthful his musical statement was. It changed my life; it made a profound impact."

Photo by Peter FigenWith Tony as his role model, Vinnie's next move was to Boston where he enrolled at the Berklee School Of Music in 1974. "On my first day at Berklee, I was walking down the street and there was Steve Smith, sitting on the steps. We took lessons together and became great friends. I used to go over to his house until 4:00 in the morning with a jar of peanut butter, a Tony Williams record, and a ride cymbal, and we'd sit there playing ride patterns as fast as we could until the first guy fell asleep."

Another important step in his training was the personalized attention he received from teacher Gary Chaffee. "Gary's a fantastic teacher, the greatest. At the time I was there, Gary's teaching method was all loose-leaf: He was still writing it as he went along. But aside from the information I was getting from him, and his approach to that information, I was also getting conceptual feedback which was so important."

"Berklee was a turning point for me conceptually, because I started listening to different kinds of music. Fusion was at its heyday and I was really getting into Miles, McCoy Tyner, and Alphonze Mouzon. At that time, Alphonze was way left; conceptually he was so far advanced. It really shifted my head and made me realize that because of my rudimental background, I almost had to empty my mind in order to grasp the concept. I really loved what I was hearing and I wanted to absorb and be able to assimilate that style. The exciting part of all of this for me was that it was all so new. Mahavishnu, Cobham, Gadd, Tony, all of those guys were breaking ground. I was just very happy to be fed with so much of the muse - from so many different directions and personalities."

Photo by Peter FigenHowever, Vinnie found that there were two sides to the coin: "I went through periods where I tried to imitate Tony and Billy, but I eventually realized how dangerous it was. I began to ask myself, 'What am I saying?' I wasn't saying anything. It had been said before and had a reason for being said, but I didn't have a reason. I wasn't making a statement. I was just repeating it - like a parrot. By imitating and copying someone else, a person becomes a parrot. I saw the trap and I knew, as great as those guys were and still are, that I had to find my own voice."

Find it he did; much to the enjoyment and amazement of drummers all over the world. Drums & Drumming spent a day with Vinnie just prior to his rehearsals for the upcoming Sting tour.

D&D: How did the gig with Sting come about?

Vinnie: I received a phone call from Sting's management and I flew over to the studio in London where he was mixing.

D&D: Was it an audition or did he already have you in mind to play?

Vinnie: He already had me in mind. What it comes down to, even now, is that even though you might like the way a guy plays on a record or something, you have to see what it feels like to play with him. We had to see how we would get along. There are a lot of factors involved when you start playing with somebody.

D&D: Do you foresee this becoming a long-term gig?

Vinnie: I hope it works out, absolutely. At this point, though, we're just planning a three-week tour of South America. We'll see what happens.

D&D: Who else have you worked with lately?

Photo by Peter FigenVinnie: Well, there have been so many that I tend to lose track. A couple of things I've recently done were Joni Mitchell's latest project, David Foster's record, Toni Childs, Tony Banks from Genesis, Barry Manilow's Christmas album. I also worked on a Steven King movie, Graveyard Shift.

D&D: What did that involve?

Vinnie: It wasn't your average gig. I played all kinds of weird things like bones, I pounded on rocks with logs, Engelhart metal percussion stuff, an Indian drum. I played an Arrowhead water bottle like a hand percussion instrument and it sounded pretty good, surprisingly enough. Everything was written out.

D&D: Since we're on the topic of sessions, what are your criteria for accepting or rejecting an offer?

Some people say that I'm a prostitute. But no, I'm a hired guy I'm a freelance session player, and this is how I earn my living. So, my whole thing regarding who I work with is based on whether I feel the artist is on the level, and if the money thing is straight. Most of my calls are record dates, jingles, television or motion pictures, or people I already know.

D&D: How often are you required to play to a click in the studio?

Vinnie: Ninety-eight percent of the time.

D&D: How did you become comfortable playing to a click?

Vinnie: Well, I learned it on the job. I mean, practicing with a metronome was great with a practice pad, but not that cool with the full kit; I couldn't hear it. So, these days, the drum machine is the way to go for that situation. I never use a straight click at home, I play to a pattern on my Linn machine and set up a cross stick and shaker groove or something.

Photo by Peter FigenD&D: Is that what you use in the studio?

Vinnie: No, I usually work with the Urei digital click in the studio. That thing cuts through every frequency, so I can always hear it. It also displays in three digits so you can see things in frames-per-beat or whatever. Sometimes there might already be some percussion on the track and I'll just play along with that. It varies from date to date.

D&D: Do you always carry your own kit?

Vinnie: Always. Studios in L.A. aren't like the ones in New York where they'll have their own drums. So I'll bring my own drum set and a variety of snares.

D&D: What do you do i f you're asked to play an embarrassing or inappropriate drum part, and you know your name is going to be on the credits?

Vinnie: Usually, I play the part that I think is right for the song-based on my developed musical instincts. But the producer might say, "No, play this," and I may know in my mind that it's not happening. But I can't lose sight of that fact that, as a session drummer, I'm hired to do what I'm supposed to do. So, I'll play what they want me to play and hope they can hear that it's not working. When I suggest a change to someone, I can't be wishy-washy about it. I have to say, "I don't think this part is working and here are the reasons why..." Another thing to realize is that it's not just my name on the credits, it's the producer's name, also. He or she has to assume their share of responsibility for the outcome. And you hope they have it together enough to realize what's good and what's not good.

D&D: These days, do many producers ask you to play a song like, say, Gadd or Porcaro? If so how do you. react to it?

Vinnie: Not much any more. Once in a very great while, when that happens, I'll just play what I think they want to hear. I mean, if it's a thing where they want me to sound exactly like that guy, then I'll say, "Call him." If they use it to try to give me a general idea like, "We want a groove kind of like [Paul Simon's] 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover," then that's cool. But see, most people call me because they want me to play like me.

Photo by Peter FigenD&D: What have you learned about the business aspect of music?

Well, that's a whole other issue. First of all, it's a cut-throat business. Some people are real political to try to get their way, and they step on other people in the process. It's important to not be blind to the business aspect. Most musicians and creative people get bored with that type of thing fairly easily-I know I do. But I try to be aware of what I'm getting into and know, up front, how I'll be handling a situation financially. I have to know whether I should accept payment by the song, or by the hour. I can get ripped off if I make the wrong decision. If I choose to get paid by the song and the session takes 10 hours, then I got ripped off. You have to know the business aspect of things and the psychology of how to read people.

D&D: Do you manage yourself?

Vinnie: Yes.

D&D: Would you suggest that other drummers do the same?

Vinnie: Sure, unless you have delusions of being some star and you want to pay a manager a certain percentage. I mean, you're going to get a call from a service, or producer, or contractor, and then you book yourself on a date. What do you want a manager to do? He's not going to go out and find you more work or anything-at least, not in a session situation. In this business, it's word-of-mouth and contractors. It's a lot of work for me to do it myself, but I feel that I have to deal with these people personally to find out what I'm in for.

D&D: Moving on to the topics of studying and technique, a couple of years ago you said that you were interested in taking lessons. Who did you go to?

Vinnie: I went to several people: Dick Wilson, Joe Morello, and I hung out with Jim Chapin a lot. I focused on complete body movement rather than zeroing in on snare drum technique or whatever. I spent a lot of practice time thinking about the way my arms and legs moved, trying to make sure I wasn't expending unnecessary energy or inhibiting my speed and comfort. I gained a lot of insight from that experience.

D&D: Have you made any adjustments to your stick technique?

Photo by Peter Figen I've experimented with matched grip a time or two, but I've pretty much remained a traditional grip player. I try to be conscious of several things when I play. One is trying to keep my arms in a perfectly straight line, from elbow to palm. My right hand is pretty much palm downward, or half turned over with a gap in between the thumb and the first finger. I try to keep the fulcrum between the thumb and the first joint of my index finger and I cup my fingers around the stick. Sometimes, for finger execution, I might twist my left wrist, or turn it over to create a leverage, but usually I try to keep my hand in the same position. When I play a fill around the toms, that's when I'll shift from finger technique to my wrists and arms.

D&D: Do you think it's good for a matched grip player to experiment with traditional grip in, say, a jazz setting?

Vinnie: Yeah. I think it's a great idea. Because, psychologically and physically, it affects the way you approach things. I think traditional grip has a lot to offer, not just because of tradition, but because of its physical and psychological uniqueness, and its musical contribution. Those three factors work together. You just do different things because it's a completely different motion. It's like your right hand and left hand suddenly become separate things. It just feels good.

D&D: Is stick slippage a common problem for you?

I only have problems when I play an extended drum solo under bright stage lights-like last night at Zildjian Day. If I start sweating, I start choking up on the sticks which inhibits my speed and cleanliness. When that happens, my sticks start sliding up into the second joint, which I usually don't allow them to do. If you play in air conditioned studios all the time, it's never a problem. But, I'm one of these guys that starts sweating easily. I mean, I bend over to tie my shoes and I break a sweat! I've tried wearing gloves, but now, if I do anything, I'll just sand the ends of the sticks.

D&D: Can you describe your foot technique?

Vinnie: I've had a lot of schooling but I also, in some ways, have a "streety" approach; A natural, organic approach. I studied a lot of hand technique, but I never went to a guy and studied foot technique. So, I've always played-and I think it's considered incorrect by a lot of people-with the heel up off the pedal and I bury the beater, so to speak. The only way I've modified it over the years is by keeping my heel up when I play loud, and putting my heel down when I play soft-concentrating on lifting the beater off the head in that situation. Another important aspect of bass drum technique has to do with how you sit. I think that if you sit at a certain height, where your back is real comfortable and your thighs are parallel to the ground, then you won't use the upper part of your leg to throw weight, because that wastes energy. What I tend to do is bounce off my calf muscle-the lower leg-just like I bounce on a hi-hat pedal. If I have to throw weight, it comes more from the hip and upper body via the calf-not from the upper leg. Lifting the leg wastes energy.

D&D: When did you start using the double pedal?

Vinnie: I looked into the old Zalmer Twin when it first came out, but I didn't find it to be a viable item back then. When DW introduced their double pedal, that's when I really got into it. When I first got one, I didn't really sit down and try to suddenly develop chops with it, I just used it for little, tasteful things. After I'd been with Frank [Zappa] for about a year, I used a black Sonor kit that had two bass drums. So, just from doing it out on the road every night, I got really good technique happening. I could play rolls with my feet and all that. I primarily use the double pedal when it's sheer speed that I'm after. It takes a lot of the work off the other foot.

D&D: Let's talk about individuality for a moment. You mentioned getting caught up in emulating Tony Williams and others. But was there ever a time when you consciously started to notice your own musical identity coming through?

Vinnie: I don't think there was a particular day when I woke up and said, "I am now me." Over the past few years, I've started to see it, but it's so hard to pinpoint something like that. Evolution never stops. Some people define identity based on comparison, but that whole "better" or "worse" thing isn't what it's all about. It's a matter of the acquired skills that you think are necessary to express the truth within yourself-bottom line. Whether or not a guy can play by someone else's measured standards is a thing created in the minds of people who do it to make themselves feel comfortable or justified. That's why the whole idea of drum competitions and drum battles is complete bullshit to me. People will say, "You're wrong Vinnie, because it drives kids to excel." And, yeah, if it's healthy competition. There's a fine line where healthy competition becomes unhealthy. Where someone who's so enamored with himself discards the validity of others and, in turn, influences other people to discard the validity of other things. I'm sorry, I can't hang with that. There are plenty of other ways to make someone excel, by encouraging them to be the best at what they can be. Not to try to be better or faster than some other guy. You can scar people with that. You're dealing with psyche, the human spirit, and you can't impose these stupid kinds of guidelines. It's so typical of the American way of thinking - bigger is better - and I, for one, don't buy into it.

Getting back to the identity issue, I don't know if your identity is something you arrive at consciously. I keep referring to emptying your cup. I believe that emptying your cup is what gives you your identity. Some people do it in a conscious way; They look for a trademark or a gimmick or something that will set them apart, and sometimes it does that. But you know, the only thing that is constant is change. Your personality-if you don't filter it with anything-will come through you via what you are. Maybe there will come a day where you'll want to stop changing and that's what your entity will be. Or you'll continue to change and that's what your identity will be. And so, that's how I see my identity.

D&D: Are you pleased with the way your career has gone?

Vinnie: Yeah, sure. But I need a good balance. I've got to go out and play live when I can, plus do good sessions. People might look at that and say, "You want everything, Vinnie." But no, it's not that. I think that when you reach a certain echelon, it's just a matter of wanting to be happy at what you're doing. Lately I've been able to do some really great projects, so yeah, I'm pretty happy at this point.

D&D: Anything you would you do differently if given the chance?

Vinnie: I probably would have tried to be more in control of things earlier on. I did gigs where I had to play so hard that I bled on my drums. Sometimes people think that they have to do something that they really don't have to do, and I should have exercised more control over that type of thing. But other than that, I'm very satisfied.

D&D: What about the future?

Vinnie: I want to play the drums as long as I have a willingness to play the drums, and as long as I'm physically able to play the drums to a standard that I think is acceptable. As long as I'm able to meet those objectives, then that's how long I'll be behind a drum set.