Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Metal Drummers - an interview with Mark Zonder plus Castronovo, Portnoy, Rock, Singer and Tempesta

Metal Drummers
by Matt Peiken
Modern Drummer, January 1995

Everybody had great news. Deen Castronovo was at Steve Vai's house writing songs for the next Ozzy Osbourne records. Mike Portnoy was putting the finishing touches on Dream Theater's second album. Mark Zonder, with the new Fates Warning disc in the can, was jazzed about the new home he'd found for his rehearsal studio business.

Bobby Rock, meanwhile, had just come off an eighty-city clinic tour and was releasing his first solo record. Eric Singer was working on material with Kiss. And John Tempesta had just shaved his head to commemorate his new gig with White Zombie.

But their July get-together at a Hollywood cafe - Modern Drummer's first "metal round table" - went much deeper than the latest diary entries. Talk flowed freely, as did the candor and laughter, with topics ranging from clinics, equipment, and soloing to endorsements, career choices, and the business of music.

Surprisingly, despite their varied styles and professional paths, they expressed a genuine bond through the thrill of drumming, the camaraderie that comes from it, and the good fortune to make livings from it.
Modern Drummer: Have any of you ever had to choose between either staying with a group of guys you like or moving to another band to further your career?
Tempesta: I've had to make a couple of those moves. At one time, while I was still with Exodus, Testament asked me to do a tour with them - but just to fill in, not to be in the band. And in the course of that, Exodus got dropped from the label, so there was no work for me. I just continued with Testament and they eventually asked me to be in the band.
Moving from Testament to White Zombie was a little tougher. I wasn't in the band that long, and we'd just finished the record. When the offer came, I just felt deep inside that this was something I should do. I've known the guys in Testament for a long time and I knew it would be hard to tell them, but they were really cool about it.
MD: Of the six of you here, only Mike hasn't change the bands. That seems to be a sign of the times; in the '80s you never heard of people jumping from band to band. Your band either made it or it didn't. When did that change?
Tempesta: Cozy Powell did it! [laughter]
Zonder: I think that started with a lot of bands that didn't have longevity. In the '70s and early '80s, bands could make three, four, five albums or more before they go dropped from the label. Now that sometimes happens if the first record doesn't do well. So the band breaks up and the drummer - he's probably not a songwriter - isn't in a position to necessarily form another band, so he looks for something already established.
That's what happened to guys like Cozy Powell and Tommy Aldridge, who went from Pat Travers to Ozzy to Whitesnake to whatever. Guys who are quality players are in big demand because that's a problem area for a lot of existing bands. And more than that, the drummer is often the foundation of really good bands.
MD: Is there a valuable sense of camaraderie that comes from growing with the band from the ground up as opposed to joining an artist or band that has already paid its dues?
Portnoy: That's definitely a plus for our band. There's a certain brotherhood between us that helps the chemistry. It's tough, though, because everybody's always excited at first. But as time goes on, people can grow in different directions, start listening to different things, and have different attitudes. Sometimes as a band you have to consciously outside of that and realize there's a common ground where you all come together. And I think it takes that kind of bond to survive the times of doubt that every band goes through.
Zonder: An economic side comes into it, too. You might be in a successful band, you have notoriety, you have your endorsements and all that going for you. But you might not get along with the guitar player and you really don't like the music you've been making. So you have to ask yourself if you can find anything better. If you're not sure, it may not be in your best interest to leave, because that's where the money coming from.
MD: Bobby, you kind of blazed your own path away from these dilemmas.
Rock: People first heard about me through the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, which was clearly Vinnie's solo project and not a band in the full sense. I did three years and two records with him, but I've never really aspired to find three or four guys who were into the same thing I was into musically, because I've just never been able to find those three or four guys.
I've always been attracted to the "drummer's drummer" kind of mindset, the Buddy Rich and Billy Cobhan kind of recordings and gigs and vibe. With my solo thing, I've actually been working with the same guys since about '89, so even though we've each done our different things, we've spent a lot of time together working on this project. I don't think you have to be locked into one thing to enjoy the camaraderie of making good music. I enjoy educational and artistic side of drumming with the clinic tours, but I also like playing arenas and getting the 120db vibe.
MD: Deen, you've also delved into the instructional side. Is that something you'd always wanted to do, in addition to being part of a band?
Castronovo: I've always been into the band thing, and the clinics were something I was forced into doing for monetary reasons [Deen has also recently produced an instructional video]. When you're in a band like Bad English which only tours for four months, you get bored. Clinics were something I kind of did on a whim, but then it snowballed and now I love it! It was something I just had to get used to doing and I don't know that I would have done it if the guys at Sabian hadn't talked to me into it.
Tempesta: Did you play to songs in your clinics?
Castronovo: Yeah, because to me, it was almost like an escape. You know there only drummers out there listening, watching every move you make, and the music is like a diversion. It takes a bit of pressure off - but not much!
Zonder: I don't care how big the tape deck is or the speakers are, I can't get past the reality of just me, a drumset, and an audience. [laughter] It's scary.
Rock: I'm actually most comfortable in that environment, and I probably enjoy it as much as - if not more than - performing in an arena with a band. From a drummer's standpoint, what could be more perfect than having a roomful of people who understand and appreciate what you're doing and want to see you pull off the things you've worked on for hours in a practice room?
Castronovo: Sure, you've got the audience you want. But if you clam, boy, there ain't no way of covering up!
Rock: If you make a mistake, you just repeat it two or three times in a row and tell them you're developing a theme! [laughter]
MD: Don't many drum and cymbal companies encourage their artists to do clinics or videos?
Portnoy: That was actually part of my deal with Mapex, that they'd give me clinic support. But every time they bring it up, I sort of say I have to go to the bathroom or something like that [laughter]
Rock: Are you kidding me? You'd kill in clinic!
Portnoy: I hear what you're saying about playing in front of drummers who appreciate what you're doing. But I've always worked in a band situation, and it's kind of scary thinking about stepping outside of that. I'll do it if I keep getting my arms twisted enough, this just came up, though, because our guitar player is doing a video and the company wanted me to do a drum video as well. I was really nervous about it, but I may end up doing it.
The thing is, I really don't consider myself as teacher at all. I'm just a drummer who's used to bouncing music and ideas off other guys. I mean, I know what I'm doing - I analyze it, I can tear it apart, I can read, and I know all the odd times. But I've never had to explain it to somebody else. I'll probably end up doing something, but I don't know when, because Dream Theater will probably be on the road for the next year.
MD: Outside of clinics, you all get a chance to solo in concert, don't you? How do you approach solos?
Portnoy: The reason I love soloing is because it's the only moment of the show that's truly personal to me. It's a moment of improvisation and spontaneity that I don't have to share with the other guys. It's a different vibe every night, and that usually dictates where I go with it. I usually try to approach my solos from a compositional standpoint, based on dynamics and a certain structure I might follow. But the things I'll bring into and around that structure will vary from night to night.
Luckily, a good portion of our audience is musicians, or at least people who appreciate musicians. So I'm fortunate to play for people who usually appreciate what goes into a drum solo. But over in Britain, they hate that shit!
Rock: I try to change things around every night. But what I've found surprising about solos is that a lot of the real technical stuff and the Latin stuff actually translates well in the big arenas through a big P.A. system. I was apprehensive at first about soloing during these big rivet-head shows, like with Iron Maiden, thinking the more intricate stuff would just get lost. But it doesn't.
Castronovo: I get really bored with what I do sometimes. So when I was with Hardline, Neal [Schon, guitarist] would write some stuff out and I would just play along with him. It was more musical to me, like a clinic thing, and it worked well. That, to me, is more interesting from a player's standpoint because I felt myself thinking too much just playing by myself.
Singer: I feel you can alienate your audience in some ways by soloing. Drummers and other musicians may get into it. But Kiss fans, they don't think that way. They're into more of the showy aspects. In some ways, Tommy Lee created such a spectacle out of soloing that it didn't matter anymore what he played as much as how he looked doing it and how it came across visually. He took soloing to a whole other plane in that respect. I mean, how do you compete with going upside-down?
Portnoy: I gotta say this, though: there are some drummers who shouldn't do solos but still do. With certain bands, it's not appropriate because for the most part their fans don't want to hear it. I won't name names, but a guy out there who used two kits on stage for his last tour played one of the worst excuses for a solo I've ever heard. He took up so much time and did nothing with it. Really, I was embarrassed for him. And that just fuels the stereotype so many people have about a drum solo. For them, that's the time to go to the bathroom or buy a T-shirt.
Zonder: I think a way out of that is to work the solos into extended versions of songs. The guitarist can take an eightbar lead, then the drummer can solo for eight bars, and then you go back into the chorus or whatever. Those things can go over real well without rubbing your audience wrong way.
Singer: The thing you have to assess is whether a solo is tied into hot lighting tricks or something else to make it worth watching and listening to, that's all part of rock 'n' roll.
Zonder: You have also think that for every guy that's seen a hundred drum solos, there's a kid out there watching his first one. It's not so cliché to him.
Tempesta: That's a good point. I remember seeing Tommy Aldridge solo for the first time and I was just floored! He'd throw this sticks out and start playing with his hands. I'll always remember that. If I ever knew I could do that for some kid out there, it would be the greatest feeling.
MD: We started talking about drum companies, and that's something I want to get more info - how and why you guys get hooked up with a particular company and what the relationship is between artist and manufacturer.
Singer: The relationship starts one way and ends up another. When you're a kid, you might see a drummer you like and want to play that guy's drums. That's why they have endorsers to begin with, to attract people and influence them to buy those drums. That's what happened with me. I bought Sonor drums because I saw Tommy Aldridge with them. I bought a Tama kit one time because I saw Billy Cobham play Tama. You think your drums are going to sound like theirs and then you realize - wrong!
But them it comes to a point, when you're making your own career as a drummer, that you have to sometimes make decisions that are in your best business interests. Ideally, you want to be able to play gear you really like and can stand behind and, hopefully, get support from a company. But sometimes companies really aren't supportive of what you want to do.
MD: You mean that you might want to play one company's drum, but they won't give you the support another company will give?
Singer: Exactly. That happened to me quite a while ago when I was after a Sonor endorsement. I really wanted to play their drums, but Pearl seemed the most interested in me, so I went with them and I've been with them ever since.
Portnoy: I was like Eric. I played Tama for years and years because Neil Peart played them. Then when we put out our first record, I called and tried to get something going with them, but they were always cold. All of a sudden, Mapex came out of nowhere and started following me all over the place. I'd be in Germany someplace and a guy from Mapex would be in a taxi behind me, like "follow that drummer!" [laughter] Once the ball started rolling with the band, Tama started calling.
They're both great drums. But what meant the most to me was that Mapex cared about me as a drummer. They didn't care how much success the band was having. Mapex wasn't jumping on the bandwagon, and probably the biggest decision in my switch was their support. Their encouragement in having me help develop drums and working with stuff I like was important to me.
MD: Is it hard to put your loyalties aside and make business a priority when deciding to endorse a brand of drums or cymbals?
Rock: That's something I've struggled with my entire career. I've been with all the same companies for about eight years - Sonor, Sabian, LP, and Pro-Mark. It's no secret Sonor's not going to win any awards for promotional support; they're just not that kind of company. I do so many clinics, and Sabian has had to shoulder almost the entire burden. But they're very good and aggressive about that.
It would be nice to have a drum company supporting me like that. But you just can't mess with Sonor drums. At this stage of the game, they're my favorite. It would be very difficult for me to go with another company, sign this sweet deal and get this big advance, but then have to go back to the practice room and play something I wasn't happy with.
Castronovo: That happened to me with Premier. I played Rod Morgenstein's set and I loved it. Then I got mine and they just didn't sound that good.
Portnoy: The trick is, you have to set them up lefty! [laughter]
Castronovo: Man, I knew there was something I wasn't doing right. But, really, I felt weird playing theses drums and having to tell people I loved them when I really didn't. Meanwhile, I'd always wanted Sonor. When I was a kid, that was the kit nobody else could have!
Tempesta: I hear you totally. I remember those old Sonor ads with the Rolls Royce in them!
Singer: One thing kids may not know and that you can take for granted as an endorser is that companies will make drums with custom sizes and finishes and hardware especially for that particular artist. The average kid can't go in and buy the same set. It might have the pieces and be set up the same way, but it's definitely a different kit.
Zonder: It's the same for sticks. There's no way you can walk into a store and pull a pair out of the rack that are as evenly matched as the ones we get straight from the factory.
Portnoy: The irony of it is that the drummers who need all the help they can get to buy a kit can't get a break and the ones who finally have a little money to spend are getting free gear.
MD: Actually, some companies have started supporting drummers with what are called "regional endorsement deals". Let's say a guy is a really hot drummer, plays all the time throughout a city, and everybody in that town knows who he is. He can often work with a company to purchase equipment at costs or 50% off. Sometimes they'll even do posters for him to hand around town.
Portnoy: I haven't heard of that, but it sounds great. Every company should do that because it shows they really care about emerging artists.
Rock: Is there anybody here, at this point in their careers, who would endorse a company even if they still had to pay a little something for the gear?
Portnoy: I'm doing that right now with Remo. I get things from them at artist's cost.
Zonder: I don't know if it's a lie or not, but the stick companies say that unless you have a model named after you, you have to pay for the sticks, even if it's just cost. Their logic is that you can go through thousands of sticks and it would cost the company a fortune if they just give guys the sticks.
And when I started my relationship with GMS, it was just two guys and they literally couldn't afford to give a kit away. But I got to be really good friends with them and I found that they really knew their drums. They told me they weren't going after any half-ass endorsers, just top-notch players. So I was really into it. Two or three years later - I won't name names - but they're giving a kit to a guy who sells a couple million records and...
MD: Eric Kretz?
Zonder: Oh, man. Shut up! [laughter]
Singer: I'm sure you guys have worked with companies that tell you, "your deal is your deal. Don't talk about it with anybody else." [laughter] Some companies have told me they don't give anything free to anybody, while I know for a fact that another drummer friend of mine is getting it free.
MD: John, I imagine drum companies are treating you differently now that you're with Zombie.
Tempesta: It seems like the more popular and exposed the band is, the more companies come knocking on your door. I never had that before with Exodus or Testament. I always played Sonor drums because I thought they were the best, and it's funny that companies have just started coming to me now. It's nice, but I wonder where they all were before. Is it that I'm better drummer now? No, it's because Zombie sells more records. And it's funny, because I just joined and I haven't recorded anything with them yet. The ironic thing is that I'm not playing Sonor anymore.
Singer: But you have to admit that business is business and that if you own a company, you want the most visibility for your product.
MD: Have any of your equipment needs changed over the years in terms of the number, size, and style of drums you want to play?
Tempesta: I'm cutting down my kit now, which is kind of a nice transition, because the music I'm playing now is more groove-oriented and I can just play for the song without blasting away across the toms or doing these blazing double-bass rolls. I'm thinking of playing a single kick now with a double pedal.
MD: Have the rest of you guys changed at all to fit a musical situation?
Rock: Actually, it's just because my tech is getting old. [laughter]
Castronovo: When I was in Hardline, they wanted the big set, and I loved it, but it was hard fitting it into the clubs! I had everything on one of those Voelker racks. After that experience, I didn't want a big kit anymore, so I cut it down a little. But now that I've got this gig with Ozzy, I figure I might as well build it back up.
Portnoy: Actually, I must be in the minority because I just doubled the size of my kit - 360o - all the way around me. I figure if I can get the stuff for free... [laughter] Really, though, I just want to have as many options as I can. I have three hi-hats now and a whole percussion wall behind me.
Singer: But you're in a band that really stretches out, and you have the freedom to do whatever your mind can imagine. I have to play within the limitations of what Kiss does. I've used the same double-bass, two-rack, two-floor setup since I was eighteen. I tried adding a couple of drums to the left once, but I never hit the damn things. If you're going to have something you should use it.
But then there's the other side of the story. A guy like Vikki Foxx has a kit that's more showy than practical, but he's one of the most entertaining live drummers around. The stick tricks and showmanship are his bag and he's being true to who he is.
Rock: My kit keeps getting bigger as well, but there's a reason why it's all there. I was apprehensive at first to have four bass drums because I thought other drummers would look at them and figure that the two on the outside were just for looks and had no pedals. But I wanted more variety on the lower end, so I got a couple of 26"kicks on the outside. Of course, I've got three hi-hats and a couple of remotes and cowbell pedals. I have to do the Chinese splits to reach everything, but I get the sounds I want. And since I'm doing three solos a night, I'm using everything on there.
Portnoy: The problem with a big kit is setting everything up! With the set I just got, I don't have a clue about where anything goes. My tech knows, but I don't.
Rock: If my tech split, I'd be wandering through road cases going, "Holy shit!"
Zonder: Instead of going to a bigger kit, I went into electronics. All the stuff Mike and Bobby have around them, I sample it all onto a disc and get the same sounds without carrying all the big schmutz around. It makes everything more compact and easier to control.
MD: Speaking about electronics, did any of you guys ever experiment with them when the Linn machine and Simmons drums got big in the '80s?
Castronovo: I was forced to use electronics when I was in Bad English, and I didn't like it one bit! The band wanted everything triggered in the studio. And then they weren't thrilled with the way the drums sounded in arenas, so they had me trigger the bass drum and the snare. But the triggers misfired constantly - Guck-guck Guck-guck - and it just drove me crazy. I finally told the sound man to take it out. But I'm kind of a purist that way, anyway. I just like the sound of natural drums.
Zonder: I think that if you're going to do electronics at all, you almost have to turn into a bit of a gear-head so that you can understand why the pads and triggers do what they do. That's what I did when I played with Animotion, and I brought that knowledge with me when I joined Fates Warning.
That's not to say I haven't had my horror stories. But I like having the pads, adding sounds, changing your snare drums just like that. You're never going to be able to do a press roll on them, and I don't care what they advertise, you're not going to get true dynamics out of them. That comes from your hands, your head, and your heart. But electronics are great for certain applications.
MD: When you play big arenas, though, don't you have to sometimes sample the sounds, especially the kick drum, so it doesn't get lost?
Singer: It's really up to the sound guy. Each one has a different philosophy of how to go about it. Some guys are into triggering and other guys want everything completely acoustic. You can use sub-bass through gating or reverbs, and they'll make your drums sound amazingly huge.
Tempesta: And it really depends on the style of music you're playing. With thrash metal, you have to have the kicks cutting through, or else those fast double-bass rolls will sound like mush.
MD: From a musical standpoint, have any of you felt pressured to change your style of drumming simply to adapt to the times?
Castronovo: I didn't grow up with Bonham, like a lot of the other guys here did, and I'm starting to hear this groove type of playing for the first time. Some guys are doing real interesting things in basic beats, and I'm really diggin' it. It's cool and it's really inspired me to play a little more that now. I find myself copping some of those beats playing with Ozzy, and he's like, "Yeah, man... Bonham!" And I'm thinking, "Cool, but it was really something Dave Abbruzzese played on the last record." What's great about that style of playing is that you can incorporate it into a lot of different kinds of music.
MD: I know some of you, like Mark and Bobby, go out of your way to practice and work on new things. But do you all still find the need to practice, in the true sense of the word, or even feel the need to play on your own?
Castronovo: For me, it's all inspiration. Sometimes I'll play for weeks, day in and day out. But when I come off a tour, I don't even want to see a drumkit.
Singer: I got to the point where I realized there was more to life than just beating the drums. For a while there, I pretty much became a "drum head". All I did was think and talk about drums, and I only related to other drummers. Drums are an important part of my life and I always treated it in a spiritual way. But at the same time, there are other things I like doing, like messing around with cars or going to the park with my dogs.
Everyone has their own hobbies, like Bobby and working out. Ultimately, you have to relate to other things in the world. And it might not seem like it at the time, but doing other things can help make you a better drummer, because you bring other elements for the outside world into your playing.
Zonder: One of the best things is when you do go away and come back to your drums and rediscover things; you realize how much you really love playing drums. It's not that you have to make a record or get ready for a tour. It's about sitting in a corner and just doing it for yourself. The last thing you want is for drumming to become a routine.
Singer: How does everybody here feel about practicing on their own now, though? I know we've all been playing for lots of years, and I'm to the point where I find it really hard to be focused and want to play by myself. The minute somebody picks up a guitar and gives me something to fee off of, that's the inspiring thing for me. I can play and time there's another musician around.
Portnoy: I'm horrible, because I don't practice nearly as much as I should.
Castronovo: And we're glad for that, my friend! [laughter]
Portnoy: But, really, I still get as much inspiration from playing the drums now as I first did when I was a kid. But more importantly, I think, is that I'm still inspired by great music. When I listen to the music, I'm not only listening to the drummer, but also the bassist, guitarist, singer, sax player, or whoever, and I'm trying to think of what they were thinking about when they played whatever they played.
Zonder: I don't know if it's a Jewish-guilt thing, but I just love to play and learn. Whether it's taking Weckl's book or Garibaldi's book, I just want to get better. I mean, there's a lot of things you can't control in this business - the record company, the management, the band, maybe even the music - but I can control what I do. I think you have to be happy with what you do and be satisfied that you're doing the best you can.
Rock: I always had the kind of ethic that Mark's talking about. But I think the change for me over the past couple of years is that instead of coming from a real ambitious, methodical approach, like when I was at Berklee - I was like a Poindexter about it, logging the hours and charting everything - I'm going about it now from pure inspiration. The day is rare that I just don't feel like playing. But when those days come, I just don't play instead of torturing myself to be in there. But after tours, that's when I really like to get in practice room, because you can incubate certain ideas on the road and stumble across things that you want to work on and make solid.
MD: How important are connections to getting gigs like Eric got with Kiss and John got with White Zombie?
Singer: Very important. My career has been a chain of events. Every gig I've ever had came about from somebody I'd met from the gig before. They were all interconnected.
Tempesta: For me, being a tech for Anthrax started the whole ball rolling. Exodus and Testament both opened up for Anthrax, and Exodus eventually asked me to join.
MD: How does Joe Blow drummer get to be in the type of positions you guys were in? What's the first move someone should make?
Singer: Everybody always asks that, but you want to know something? Every one us was Joe Blow drummer at one time. We all started in the same place. Where we end up may be different, but we all had that first day of putting the sticks in our hands. It's not like an angel comes down and sprinkles magic dust on anybody. If somebody had the answer, there'd be more guys doing it.
Of course, some guys just have extraordinary talent. I mean, I could tell from the first records Mike and Deen had out on these little independent labels that they had a gift. Other guys might not be as talented, but they make up it with drive and determination and perseverance.
MD: Is location important?
Castronovo: It helps, but it's only a part of the equation. I came from Portland in a band called Wild Dogs, and we did a lot of stuff in San Francisco working with Mike Varney. Through Varney, I started working with Tony MacAlpine. Through Tony, I met Neal Schon. I played in Bad English and Hardline, got some exposure. Boom, Steve Vai sees me. He's working with Ozzy now, he remembered me, and that's how I got in there.
Singer: People have to know that every guy here took a different route to where they are now. Mike stuck it out for seven, eight years with the same band before things fell into place. I've been a hired gun everywhere I've gone. You have to find your niche and make it work for you.
Zonder: Much as everybody's gone their own way, I think there's a common bond: you have to respect for people and you can't treat anybody like shit. The guy you dump on today could be the guy you want something from tomorrow. It's just a basic principle of business, You have to be smart and not burn any bridges.

Text copyright by Modern Drummer© by kind permission of Suzanne Hurring



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