MD: Many drummers love the idea of playing in a big band, but few can pull it off. Take the Burning For Buddy record [Neil Peart's project where he had several name drummers perform with the Buddy Rich Big Band]. But you've achieved authenticity in the way you swing a band. Can you trace where you think that comes from?
PC: I honestly don't know where it comes from. There were people who played on the Burning For Buddy record that I was disappointed with. Yet the person who impressed me the most was Kenny Aronoff. He had the whole thing down, but you wouldn't have expected that from him had you put all those drummers together and said, "Who do you think will pull this off?" I think playing that kind of music is about instinct. It's about love and desire. But having only toured with my big band twice, even though having worked incredibly hard prior to each tour, I can't profess to having it anywhere near down yet.
I know that the first time I did it, which was in '96, I was so excited at being able to do it. I had Tony Bennett booked as the singer and Quincy Jones was conducting! But looking back on it, my performance was a little heavy-handed compared to what I wanted it to be. But I tried my best. Then on this last tour, which was where the performances were taken from for my new record, I had the chance to prepare and practice, knowing what I'd learned from the previous tour. I worked hard: I sat on the floor watching the Clayton Cameron video, practicing brushes like a student. I put the video on, stopping it, running it back, and drawing out little diagrams for myself to remember.
I had my drumkit set up downstairs, and I played along to the arrangements we'd be doing. I just worked at it, trying to understand what it is about Sonny Payne that I love, what it is about Harold Jones that used to really get me going. I took it by the scruff of the neck and wanted it to work.
MD: It's very inspiring to hear that someone of your stature doesn't stop doing his homework.
PC: That's probably one of the reasons-not the reason-but one of the reasons why it was so enjoyable. I went into rehearsal every day not knowing what was going to happen, not knowing whether I was going to be able to do it. The buzz going down on stage with nineteen other people was that this was their world and I was visiting. Would I live up to their expectations or would I cock it up? Those insecurities never go away. That's one of the reasons I put these types of tasks in front of me. I figure there are all these experiences out there to try. Having jus done the Tarzan film, the thought of writing a Broadway type-musical in the not-too-distant future is possible. Ten years ago, though, that was the last thing I would have thought of. Yet these things come to you at certain points in your life. And while you may not always end up on your feet, they have to be attempted.
MD: Can you describe how your approach to the drums had to change in doing the big band music?
PC: The project began in '96. I had been talking about it for thirty years, and my manager, who is also up for a challenge, helped me decide that, rather than talking about it, we'd do it. It was still simmering on the back burner when Claude Knobbs of the Montreux Jazz Festival asked me, "Why don't you have an evening at the festival to do whatever you want?" I said, "I don't really have a band, but I always wanted to try a big band." He said, "That's perfect. I'll get Quincy involved and he can help you organize the musicians." So Quincy recommended some players I could use to augment the band I had. I sat at a table with Claude, [Atlantic Records founder] Ahmet Ertegun, and my manager and decided how many trumpets and saxophones we'd need. I didn't know. I knew there were more than three of them, but exactly how many, I didn't know. Then Ahmet said, "We have to have some great featured soloists because that's the main thing. Ensemble playing isn't enough." And I hadn't even thought of that. There were lots of loosed ends I hadn't thought about. Then I had meetings with my musical director and trumpet player, Harry Kim, who knows some arrangers like Sammy Nestico and John Clayton. He sent them some of my songs that we had discussed would be suitable for big band treatment.
Meanwhile, I couldn't read, so how would I learn these arrangements? Harry said, "I'll put a band together in LA and we'll get a drummer to play your parts, we'll send you a tape, and you'll learn it," which is pretty much what Buddy Rich used to do.
When the tape arrived, I put it into the machine and the first sixteen bars of "Two Hearts" had brushes. I thought, "I don't play brushes!" It was another loose end I hadn't thought of. And as the song was playing, I was thinking, "I'll never remember all this." I have a very good memory-I've remembered all the arrangements of Genesis tunes for twenty-five years-but this?
When I initially started with the first band, I felt like a complete idiot. Nothing I did seemed to sound right. And this was like a train approaching very fast-we had the shows booked and I was supposed to be playing with Tony Bennett. I had to get it together. To make a very long story short, it eventually got there.
MD: But how? What did you do to get it there?
PC: This was all taking place while I was working on my Dance Into The Light record. While the producer and engineer were recording other instruments or mixing sections of the album, I went upstairs and played along with the big band tapes. I was practicing the brush work and trying to learn how to play again.
Another side issue to this story was I had broken a bone in my wrist. I somehow fractured it back on my Both Sides tour, and I didn't realize why it was hurting. I just thought it was tendonitis or something, so I kept bashing the tambourine a bit harder and it hurt more and more every night. Every backbeat was agony-this on my snare drum hand. Eventually-like nine or ten months after it started hurting-I addressed the problem and went to a doctor in Australia. He said, "When did you break it?" I said, "I haven't broken it." He said, "Well, it's broken and the bone is dead. I can't fix this." He told me to see a specialist when I got home to Geneva, and the specialist said not to operate unless it was agony.
So around the time of Dance Into The Light, which had all live drums, plus practicing for the big band, it was a bit of a mountain to climb for me from a physical point of view. I had to learn to play the drums again, in a different style, with totally different dynamics, on stage, pushing the band along for two and a half hours. I had to find out if I could play again or if every time I hit that snare drum it was going to be agony. Luckily, it doesn't hurt at all now, but in the back of my mind there were all of these mental challenges.
When you start out drumming, you play with anybody and everybody, doing all kinds of music. Without your realizing it, your career starts moving in a slightly different direction. You become a singer in a band because the original singer [Peter Gabriel] leaves, and suddenly you can't play quite as much. You play on the records when there are instrumental sections, but you get stuck being out front. Then suddenly you start writing songs because you see things from a singer's perspective. And then people are surprised to hear that you play the drums at all!
MD: You've had points where you focused on your playing, like in the '80s with Eric Clapton's band.
PC: My happiest moments are behind the drums. When people ask me what moments I've been most proud of, I put that four-piece Clapton group at the top of my list-along with the big band.
MD: Aside from your approach to needing to change on this big band project, your equipment had to alter as well.
PC: Gretsch offered to make me a double-headed kit because I am apparently one of the few drummers who usually play a single-headed kit. For this last tour, I put rough coats [coated heads] on the drums because they have that kind of leathery quality, which creates a round sound, rather than a hard, abrasive sound. I didn't want the band to sound abrasive. I wanted the band to sound like the Sinatra At The Sands record. I even used double-heads on the bass drum. When Sonny Payne hit that bass drum of his, the air moved.
I went over everything with the sound engineer, playing him records I liked so he could see how I wanted it to sound. I used an old Paul Jaimeson restored Radio King snare, which I've had for along time, and it had the depth I wanted as well as the response. We went for the white-pearl finish on the drumkit too. Had to have that look.
And we tried to approach the band like a group of people, rather than a bunch of individual musicians on stage, just trying to regain some of the elegance of that period. It's not meant to be a retrospective look at big bands, though.
MD: Why did you choose to rework your own material rather than play standards?
PC: Originally I wanted to do the standards, but Harry Kim pointed out to me in no uncertain terms that if I wanted to do that, I should just hire a band and do it in my basement because I couldn't play them any better than the original guys. I had been thinking of it in terms of personal fun and hadn't thought of it from that point of view. He said, "Why don't you do something no one else has done? No one has done your stuff, which could be treated legitimately if arranged by the right people." I think he was right.
Some of my tunes definitely lend themselves to big band arrangements, although a couple ended up sounding like elevator music. We didn't use those. I think next time out, we'll go a little further and gradually I will develop my own thing. I've read lots of biographies of people like Miles Davis, Count Baise, and Buddy Rich, and from that reading I realized that it takes years to develop a sound, a style, and an arrangement technique. Suddenly, of course, I'm in the deep end of it. while I don't want to rush things, this isn't the only thing I do, although I'd quite like it to be.
PC: Oh yes. I worship this. If someone said, "Okay, you can only do one thing now-time's up. What do you want to do?" I would choose to do the big band.
MD: While you were working on the big band, you were simultaneously doing Tarzan.
PC: I was doing Tarzan for four years. Animation is a very long process and I was in on it from the beginning, since October 1995. They wanted the songs to give them the rhythm of the film.
MD: It is amazing how the film and the music work symbiotically.
PC: I'm really proud of it. The way it worked was, I sat down with the directors even before the producer was there. They gave me the story outline and said, "We want a song here and a song there." Again, like with the big band, I was scared that I might not be able to do it because it was something I had never done before, and these Disney boots are very big boots to fill-it's classic music.
In the first two or three weeks, I gave them an outline of some of the songs and they refined it over the first year or two. Then lyrics came as the story got solidified and they wove the film around the songs, as opposed to a movie score, which is written when the film is completed. But there was nothing but drawings for me to look at when I started writing, and it was a real collaborative effort-a bit like being back in a band again. I was a bit of a chicken and egg situation too. For example, on "Trashin' The Camp" I said, "Give me some idea of what you're going to draw and then I can give you some idea of what the music will be." And they said, "No, you give us the song and then we'll draw to that." The standing joke in the movie was that ever time I went back to America there was another overdub to do for "Trashin The Camp". Normally someone such as me would just do the bed and then they would do the sound effects, but because it was the first time a Disney movie was going to have groove and funk in the music, I was very scared that whoever was going to do the sound effects wouldn't understand it. So I insisted from the word go that I be involved in any sound effects.
In one of the bits in "Son Of Man" there are crocodile snaps, and I did those on the drums and they animated to that. Otherwise, we probably would have gotten random crocodile snapping that was out of rhythm, which would destroy the rhythm of the song.
After spending four years on a project, it can suddenly all be changed in the mixing room where they put the final dub of that film together with the sound effects-the monkeys screeching, the baby crying, the thunder claps, the lightning. With all that goes into a tune like "Two Worlds," I had to be there. I went to the mix room for four days and said, "Show me what we're doing here," and some things were fine. But at the beginning of the film-the very first sound effect-the thunder clap at the first image of the baby Tarzan was out of time. I said, "You've got to move this, guys. This is a song with rhythm; the thunderclap has to happen on the downbeat."
It's that kind of attention to detail that is so important. If you think it's that important and you're that bothered about it-which I am-you have to follow things through. I'm not a megalomaniac, but I believe in following things through and making sure I can be held responsible.
It was a huge learning experience, along with doing the big band. I'm glad that at this point in my life I'm still finding projects that are challenging and that push me a bit.
© Modern Drummer, by Robyn Flans