Drummers always get a bum rap. Why is that? Ever seen a good band with a shitty drummer? No. Know why? BECAUSE THEY DON’T EXIST.
Drummers rule! We hit stuff, get peoples’ butts shaking, and ultimately determine whether or not the band is going to perform well. You CANNOT have a solid band without a solid drummer, so this column is for the hitters.
On April 6, 2013, I made a trip to NYC to catch the 25th anniversary performance of Living Colour’s VIVID album, and sat down with Will Calhoun to discuss a bit of his drumming history, his gear, and what it’s like to perform VIVID’s timeless track list a quarter century after its release.
G- So Will, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with Live High Five today, and congratulations on Vivid’s lasting impact in the music world! You’ve been doing a tour… How’s everything going so far?
W- First of all, thank you for inviting me on your set… That’s great! The tour has been fantastic! It has been fun to play the music and interesting playing the record top to bottom. We’re doing one kind of Robert Johnson thing upfront, and then we’re just playing down the record, and we end with some of the 20th anniversary music that is on Stain, and a little bit of some Time’s Up stuff. We mix it up.
But it’s been tremendous! Great tweeting, great Facebook vibe, great radio buzz, great press buzz, and we’re really excited about #1 the fans are still with us and #2 this emotional response is actually becoming viral.
G- I can tell you right now, I was 9 years old and my first Rock tape was Vivid, given to me by my brother. It was the only tape I had for about 3 years, and I had a walkman that went side A to side B to side A to side B, and that’s how I listened to it.
So, to delve into your history a little bit, obviously you went to Berklee and you’ve sustained a very active career in the drumming world, but how long have you been playing drums and when did you get started? What inspired you to start playing drums in the first place?
W- My older brother played drums. My older brother was a prodigy… He played at age 6, and he’s 6 years older than me, so I watched him all my life. Steve Jordan, great drummer, lived around the corner from me, and another drummer named Errol “Pumpkin” Bedward was the first musician, in 1972, to sell beats to record labels. Although he was a Hip hop guy, he played classical piano and wicked bass. So, I had this kind of drum community around me that inspired me first.
However, I didn’t choose to start playing until I was 16. I was into other kinds of sports, motocrossing, and all those things growing up, but I was very inspired, very fortunate to be in The Bronx at that time… A lot of bands in the park, a lot of social events. I lived near City Island, wwich is the northeast corner of The Bronx, and on Sundays the beach was just full of a lot of the Haitian and Latin drummers, so I had a chance to watch and sit in with some Dominican guys, Haitian guys, guys from Puerto Rico… You had the Salsa thing, so it was a beautiful combination of ritual drum history, which I really enjoyed.
So, really, that’s what inspired me. And of course, the scene, the records… My parents’ records, my older brother’s records. Listening to Miles (Davis,) Earth Wind and Fire, (John) Coltrane, Kansas, Led Zeppelin. All of those things mixed together. Fortunately, I was in a house where music really had no borders, and literature had no borders. I was able to read and listen to whatever I felt was cool.
G- Excellent. Now, you started playing rather late, but when did you start playing professionally and what was your first project? Do you remember the moment that you really felt that drum performance was your calling?
W- The calling came before the first gig. I was 16 and I went to see Billy Cobham, and I was a huge fan of Billy’s, and my uncle bought me the tickets, and he disappeared a little bit before. He went to the bar and I sat in the car, because he thought I was too young. He said ‘You go and get the tickets,’ and I got the tickets and when I came back, making a long story short, I went in and he took me back. He’s a very big guy… You know, 6’6” football player guy, and he walked me backstage and there’s Billy Cobham standing there. I’m totally in awe, and then Miles Davis walks by, and nobody had seen Miles for like 6 or 7 years. This was when he went into his reclusive period.
So, I’m done. My uncle introduces me to Miles. He says ‘Meet my nephew!’ I couldn’t talk. No words came out. Billy was already too much, and then Miles? I went home that night and I was contemplating buying a drum kit. I picked out the kit I wanted, I cut it out, I taped it to my mirror in my room, I quit all my sports teams, and I got a job at the local service station, and saved my money to buy my first kit. I was determined to get it… That was the turning point there.
And my first recording was shortly after that. I was 17 and I played in a band called Heritage. All the guys were older than I was and we opened for Then, which became Blondie, which was amazing for me to do that. It was a 12”… Those were the days of 12”s, like a 12” remix track I played on. That was my first professional recording being in a studio. Why I was impressed with that session, more than the recording, I was a really avid reader of album covers, and the same engineer who worked on Stanley Clarke’s “School Days” was the engineer for that session! So, I was just fascinated and happy to meet that engineer, you know? That was my first professional recording.
G- That’s awesome! Now, you brought up your first drum kit, and obviously you’ve been a Mapex endorser for a while…
W- Um hmm.
G- Sabian, Vic Firth, and you can find all of his information at www.willcalhoun.com, but I’d like to talk to you about your gear for a second for some of those who haven’t seen the website yet. Tell us about your current rig, especially the wood combinations and configurations.
W- I’m using the new Saturn Mapex Series 4, which is amazing. It’s maple, it has the one inner ply, but my snare drum is out now. It’s called the NOMAD Custom Will Calhoun. It took 4 years to design. 2.3mm Brass, and it’s a 13×6 shell, so that’s up there.
My pedal are Schlishmen pedals, which is the 2 beaters in the middle and the pedals left and right… You can see all that on my site… because I like to be centered on my kit and when I’m playing samples, I’m sending Doug and Vernon MIDI information. Like drummers, do, I drive the bus from the backseat, so not only am I playing, but I have to send them information, so I sit center so I can get and trigger the things that have nothing to do with the drum kit (laughs.) So, that’s that.
And you know, Sabian… I have some of my own prototypes, Will Calhoun sticks. Electronic wise, Korg and Roland are the 2 things that I use most, TC Electronics for my effects, so that’s kinda the rig.
G- Let’s talk about those because those are fantastic, beautiful things, and people want to know. I want to know!
W- Thank you! The Hammerax cymbal… I love this guy! I met him at the NAMM show, and he was such an interesting, in my opinion… I like to call it a positive freak of nature. He’s a guy who believes everything is possible, and making cymbals that look like they’re liquid or these bells. And of course, when he premiered his cymbals at the NAMM show, I think he sold the booth 3 times, because it’s time for technology to go forward.
The Mandala pad is something that I was really intrigued by. He contacted me, but he has sounds and things in that unit that no one else has. Electronically, for me, the frustration has been electronic drums sound like drums, which is boring.
W- I wanted my electronic drums to sound like a guitar or distortion or feedback, and I wanted to be able to bend notes just like a guitar player or horn player could, and the Mandala and the Wave drum allow me to do that. So, very intelligent guy who designed the software for this unit. We’re in touch, and I love the pads. They’re very unique sounds, like nothing else I’ve ever heard… The sounds out of these pads.
And it’s a clever zoning process. Although he has 2 new versions and they run off the laptop, they’re clever. I still like the original one in the box that’s more analog, and you can change programs. So, great units that I think enhance my personality, and really deal with the individualism of drummers. This cymbal and the drum allow me to get closer to a Will Calhoun idea, creation, mesh of sounds. Those instruments that were developed help me to create a more fruitful narrative.
G- Excellent! Very good and I can’t wait to hear it tonight!
Now, I know we’re here for Living Colour and Vivid tonight, but you also have a new album called Life In This World, dropping May 14th, and I’d like to get a bit of pre on the album. Where did you record, who was behind the boards, and tell us about the players… You have some heavyweight players on here.
W- Monsters on there! I always wanted to make an acoustic record. There’s one electric song, but it’s basically acoustic. Ron Carter, being a bass king, jazz king, a musical genius, he’s on two songs, which is an honor. I have Wallace Roney playing trumpet on three songs. Donald Harrison is playing saxophone on four, and the core of the band is the trio. It’s myself, Marc Carey on keys and piano, and Charnett Moffett on bass… 2 collegues and monsters in arms.
So, we believe just in the narrative of keeping jazz pure in it’s original form, but also bringing to the table world music, basically African rhythms, classical rhythms, indigenous sounds. So, those are the things that we’re focusing on in creating the record.
I wanted to do something where I was able to play and swing and respect the music, but I also wanted to bring to the table some very musical ideas that influenced me from being in Mali and Senegal and Morocco. So, I’m bringing some of those rhythms to jazz, not that it hasn’t been done before with Dizzy Gillespie and other guys, but my version of it.
So, Life In This World deals with me and my sounds and my ideas, with my collegues, expressing myself within the realm of jazz. It’s in the world of jazz and the life of my experiences, and that’s the idea. So, great tunes, there’re some cover songs on there, “Evidence” and “Love for Sale,” which I did in a drum and bass kinda vibe with brushes, so I call it ‘Brush and Bass’ (laughs.)
G- Nice! Very nice!
W- So, mixing the things together with a little bit of street, a little bit of DJ influence, straight ahead Jazz influence, but played acoustically on the drum set with sticks and brushes and mallets, what have you.
On “Naima,” John Coltrane’s track, I’m playing cajon and water drum… No drum set on that song. So, I’m trying to bring some other things to the table. It’s a nice mix of sounds, very tangible acoustic sounds, and also lends itself to playing the music, and that’s the idea of it.
I’m very happy with the new record. Ron St. Germaine mixed it, who’s a super genius that mixed Stain, Bad Brains, Hendrix, etc. etc. One of my heroes! And half the record was done at SST Studios in Hoboken, where we rehearsed for Time’s Up and rehearsed for The (Rolling) Stones tour, so I called up and they said come on in… Dave Hewitt did that recording session, and I found these cool younger engineers out of NJ at a place called 440 Sound, and these younger guys were totally cool, focused, knew their microphones and stuff, so I did half and half. Hurricane Sandy unfortunately caused the separation of the 2 studios, but we were able to pull it off and get everything else done, and I’m really happy with the way it came out.
G- Awesome! And it looks like you’re going to be doing a residency at Blue Note in NYC from May 17-19th, so folks… Be ready for that! That’s going to be a heavyweight show.
W- It’s the CD release party weekend… Yes!
G- I’ll be down here for that one, for sure.
G- Now, as a drummer, you’re also a songwriter. “Pride” is probably my favorite Living Colour song…
W- Wow thanks!
G- “Nothingness,” track 8 off of Stain? Wonderful! How has your approach to writing music impacted the way that you actually perform on your drums?
W- Very good question. It’s a huge impact, due to arrangements. Arrangements in songs, I deal with the same way… I arrange it on the drum set. Introduction, something that’s romantic, something that’s hard, something that’s vengeful… All of those things lend themselves to open hi hats… It’s almost like looking at a soundtrack without the film, going back, and saying ‘This scene is a car chase scene, so maybe I want to play something faster.’ I deal with the same concept for arranging. When I arrange a song, on piano normally or on bass, I write the song melody first, then I put the lyrics to it, then I do the arrangement. The drum part are built around that arrangement.
So, to answer your question, the performance of the drum set is built around how the song is arranged. Dynamics, volume, where emotionally things change in the song, those things means not hitting a tom, not hitting a cowbell, or crashing a cymbal real hard, playing a cymbal at the edge… What you’re doing is you’re translating, sonically, the lyrics and emotion of the song on the drum kit, and using the drum set as a translator, in my opinion. And that’s how I look at playing the drum set. Whether it’s “Go Away” or “Cult of Personality,” all of those parts I’m playing on all of those Living Colour songs are arranged. Yes, I stray from them sometimes, but I have, kind of, a blueprint approach to how I’m going to play the song, and I can go from there or not.
Put it down as a blueprint, and if you want to add an extra part, a backyard, a pool, a veranda, you can put that on. The foundation is there. Everything works. That’s the idea playing the drums, as well.
G- Excellent. Now, as drums are a very physical instrument, we’ve all cried, sweat, and bled behind our kits…
G- What is the worst drum-related injury you’ve sustained from playing? What happened and what was the nature of the injury?
W- Probably, early on in my career when I was green about touring and didn’t know, I was using a stick that was ok for me to play on the pad or a couple of songs in my mothers basement, but not to go on the road and play. You have to learn that the hard way.
W- And, I didn’t have Tendonitis, but it was something where my tendons would lock up and I literally couldn’t take the sticks out of my hand. Like a vice grip. And I went to talk to some older jazz cats, and they said you have to get a stick that is almost loose in your hand. The ones I had were obviously too small, and too thick. And unfortunately when you’re playing, you’re spending 30-40% of your energy on just holding and balancing the sticks, so you’ve got just 60% of the gas left to improvise and play. And after 8 or 9 songs, it’s gonna destroy you.
I’ve bled, I’ve busted my fingers open, hit the snare drum and blood shot all over the snare drum… I can still do a gig like that. The tendons thing was rough, but it was an educational jump for me to realize how important the balance and the comfortability of your sticks are with your playing. It’s not the basement. It’s not your mom’s house. It’s not your local pub. When you’re on the road and you’re doing 2.5 hour shows nonstop, with smoke, no proper sound checks, with setting up and dragging your own gear around, you don’t realize that you’re using a lot of muscles and time on taking the stuff out of the van. Those were the early days… Dragging them into a club, dragging them upstairs, taking it out of the cases. That’s 2 songs right there, if you’re not careful.
So, what I had to do to learn was tour. Relax, drink the water, get the rest. Don’t spend too much time chatting. You’ve got the hotel time to crash, so chill. The energy you need to play a show is not difficult. The energy to you to do a ‘gig,’ which means the whole day… Interview, sound check, photos, it wears on you. You don’t realize it, but if you wrote down everything that happened to you on a show day, times your tour, you’ll realize how difficult it is.
So, I control my surroundings and my environment. I’m very careful about what I do before the gig, during the gig, and after the gig, because I’m still on the road.
So, that was the worst and most frightening. I remember waving to the audience one night and Corey said ‘Take the stick out of your hand,’ and I said ‘I can’t.’ It was a tough one, but immediately, I fixed that problem.
G- Good. Now, a couple of last questions. You’ve been everywhere and you’ve done everything and you’re a big inspiration to me and many, many people, and you probably have your really key moments as a career percussionist.
What I’d like to know is what is your proudest moment as a drummer. It can be a most memorable show or recording, or…
W- The proudest moment for me was inviting my mom to the Grammy’s and performing on the Grammy’s, and winning. Just sending a car to the house to pick her up. Of all of the stuff… She doubted me. She didn’t want me to be a musician, you know? I just thought that that was a spiritual victory for me.
And it was at Radio City… A place she took me all through my childhood, to see Herbie The Lovebug and Lucille Ball movies and The Three Stooges, and I saw all of these movies at Radio City as a kid, and now I’m inviting her to The Grammy’s!
I didn’t care about winning but, when we won, it was just the icing on the cake. That ‘You brought me to this place so many times for entertainment, and to laugh, and to grow, and learn, and now you’re coming as a guest!’ That was my proudest moment by far. My family was there, but her… It was a major victory for me in my life.
G- Beautiful! Now, I have one final question to finish up today… Again, you’ve been a huge inspiration to myself, my brother Damian, my brother Christopher, thousands of kids. You’ve done a lot of things in the music world, and you’re basically a legend in my eyes.
What I’d like to know is there are a lot of kids out there that want to play drums, and really want to do what you do. They want to have a social impact, they want to make good music, and they want to be good performers. In your opinion and with all of your experience, what advice can you give some of the kids that are looking to start playing drums?
W- Great question.
#1 – Ear protection. Make sure you’re protecting your ears practicing. Earplugs, headphones, whatever it is… Please make sure that you’re doing that.
#2 – If you’re going to study, my advice is private instruction. Classroom instruction is great, but you can’t get to the things that are your weaknesses quicker. If you’re in a classroom with 3 great drummers and 2 good drummers, a 1 that’s a great reader and 1 that’s not, the teacher has to spread his/her energy around to balance out the classroom. I highly recommend personal teachers, one on one, to get to your weak points and strong points and balances as quick as possible.
#3- You get into it what you get out of it. There’s no magic wand or shortcuts. You’re going to practice for hours and you’re going to sound great. If you’re not, you’re not. That’s gonna be the deal.
Yeah, sometimes people have natural ability, you know? Absolutely, but I look at people who have natural ability who absolutely put the time in to make themselves super geniuses. You know, John Coltrane, Michael Jordan, Mohammed Ali… Take your pick. People who obviously have talent, but they took that talent and put the work in to refine it.
Talent is like a raw diamond. You pull it out of the ground, and yeah it’s worth a lot of money, it’s raw. But when you polish and shave it and get it where it is, it becomes something different than coming out of the ground. I think to polish your talent, you’ve got to put the time in.
Have fun! Jam with your friends. Jam with two drummers. Whatever you’re practicing, whatever your sticking exersizes are, use a metronome and record everything! Practicing, lessons, jam sessions… You’re always going to be able to learn from what you play. You’re gonna learn things like ‘Ohh why was I so relaxed playing in church, but I wasn’t relaxed playing the gig? How come in lessons, I tighten up, but at my mom’s place I’m totally cool?’ Figure those things out, get them sorted, do the research, record, and check yourself. Those are my strong points.
G- That’s excellent! Well look, this is Greg Allis and we just finished doing a Drummer Spotlight with Will Calhoun at Irving Plaza. I want to say thank you very, very much for everything you’ve done for drumming! Play a great gig, travel safe to the next ones, and this has been excellent and unbelievable, and I appreciate it very much!
W- Thank you, man. Thank you very much for the interview.