Modern Drummer interview from my youth, this time with session drummer Andy Newmark, drummer on Sly Stone's Fresh, John Lennon's Double Fantasy, David Bowie's Young Americans, and much more. Here he discusses studio greats Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon- who he has worked with closely, his time with George Harrison and John Lennon, and the craft of drumming on records:
THE GOODNESS of KELTNER and GORDON:
It's a feeling that makes other musicians, and producers, feel musically comfortable. They're able to play that real simple stuff with a conviction that makes it work. If you don't see the beauty in playing simple and get off on it, then when you do it, it won't come off like the person who loves to do it. When Russ Kunkel, Gordon or Keltner would just play those real simple beats, they got off on it. They liked that; they were into it, so it gave the notes validity.
Also, I noticed on the playback that all of the takes- not just the final one- sounded like real records. Whereas often, when I'd hear a playback of something I was doing, a lot of little things would make it feel, to me, like a demo. When I heard them play on something, it always seemed to be so smooth. They had a way of making everything settle and be relaxed. The hardest thing to get a studio drummer to do is make the record feel it's in the right place. Tempo has a lot to do with good records. Being slightly too fast or too slow might cause the whole song to miss the point. And I think producers rely on drummers to find that magical place, within a very small range of tempo. It's something that most people might not hear. There isn't a large difference in those tempos, but it's that one magical place that makes it feel like everything's breathing properly. I started picking up on an inner instinct from these guys that they knew where to put the tempo, and believed in it themselves. They weren't looking for direction- they were the direction; they were the core.
Extended excerpts plus a couple more of Newmark's tracks after the break:
...I couldn't have played the part they played with the conviction they played it with. I was still playing too busy. I thought, "I wouldn't have the nerve to just lay back for three-and-a-half minutes, like what I've just seen." I knew there would have been eight places in the record where I would have been playing a fill, or been too busy. I knew I didn't somehow have the maturity or the instincts to do what I was seeing being done in front of me. I guess it was good that I could recognize that. It was like regrooming my mind from what most drummers grow up learning- chops and technique. Not that it isn't valid, but it has to be rechanneled when you start working in the studio. So, in fact, it wasn't as frustrating as you might have guessed. I knew my instincts were different than theirs, so I was regrooming my instincts.
KELTNER and GEORGE HARRISON:
I had been living in his shadow for a year while I was working with George Harrison, because Jim was George Harrison's favorite drummer and close friend. Keltner was like the fifth Beatle. Ringo used him on all his records, George swore by him, and John Lennon always used him. So when George asked me to work on his record, that was my first experience of stepping into something where Keltner had always been the man, which was a challenge to me. I was flattered, but I was always thinking, "What would Keltner do?" or "Would they prefer it if Jim were here?" I didn't want to blow the job, in a basic survival sense.
When I worked for George, I always thought about Keltner, and when I was with John Lennon, I always thought about Ringo. I would be thinking, "These are the people who this guy has always liked, so how can I get inside of their brain for a minute?" George was always talking about Jim Keltner. Even when we had great tracks, I was never allowed to forget that he loved Jim's playing. I just accepted it as a fact of life. I thought, "Yeah, Jim is a monster." Even I idolized Keltner's playing, so I could understand this reaction. But, of course, it makes one a little insecure.
I make believe in my mind that the machine is Ralph MacDonald, and he has a cowbell, and everyone accepts that "Ralph" has perfect time, so we will follow him. I can sort of play behind the click a hair so that the record can still have the tension of a backbeat that's slightly behind the beat. I've learned where I can sometimes get a little on top of the click. Sometimes doing a fill, I get on top. But I've learned to listen as I'm playing the fill, so that as I start the time again, it's an even transition. I've discovered a way to play around these machines so they don't inhibit me.
That was the challenge for me with these machines- to record and not have the track feel sterile. How do you play with something that's perfect? What makes the difference between some records that feel stiff and others that don't? It's a good question and I'm not sure what the answer is. I just know that I've managed to find a way. Part of it may be psychological. I often overpower the click- not with volume; with attitude. I almost make it sound as if the click is playing with me as opposed to me trying to keep up with it. I get an internal rhythm going in my head and the click is just part of that. I'll start singing to myself and get a train motion going. The head is first and the body is second. Once I get that motion going, I just let the hands follow that train-like rhythm. There's a looseness in my body that's listening to this little message in my head which is in tune with the click, so my hands don't have to dominate the situation. There's a flexibility in there that allows me to play along with this thing but it doesn't interfere with the feeling.
This is hard to put into words. Each drummer has to find a way not to be put off by this electric drum, but instead to incorporate it into the beat. Needless to say, when drummers practice, they should practice with a metronome, because if you fall into a situation with an electronic click, you've got to at least be able to execute simple stuff in perfect time.
When I practice, it's always with a metronome, because it makes you understand the time value of notes. There's a certain conviction when you're playing perfectly in time and each note has its full value. It's the difference that makes a drummer sound real good. When you listen and say, "It's so simple but it sounds so good," it's because the notes are being given their full value of time. It's putting the air in between the notes, and it's all that air which makes the note itself sound good, because the note after it didn't come too soon. It's almost as if it's not the notes we play, but it's how we break up the silence that creates the feeling. When you breathe that air between each note and things are even, it sounds great. That's the real fine line that makes the difference between the drummers who really sound good and the ones who have all the chops and technique, but who are missing that intangible thing.
I think that a big part of it is understanding that every note has to have its time and its space to live. When I practiced with the metronome, it pointed out to me just how fine the space is in there. When you feel those spaces in between the notes, it really brings meaning into what you're doing. And I stretch the time as far as I can. I put as much space as I can between every beat. If you can tune into those subtleties, that's the difference between the studio players and all the other drummers. You've got to have that sense of time and space. And it doesn't even necessarily mean that slight speeding up or slowing down can't happen. It can, but there's still that inside thing.
When I went to Berklee for summer session, I was a chops fanatic, playing everything as fast as I could, hours and hours a day. I was 19 and I met Fred Buda, who was the professor there with Alan Dawson. He said, "Here, play this for me very slowly." He put a metronome down to 60, and he said, "Play a paradiddle." I was fumbling. He said, "You thought you had chops. You could play fast, but it's bullshit. You don't have chops. Anyone can play fast- it's like a muscle spasm." He was right, and he opened up a whole new world for me. And so he gave me this book called Accents and Rebounds, and for three months, he had me playing the exercises down at 60. I thought, "Is this all I'm going to be doing?" But I slowly got into it to the point where the click itself was like this big around each beat. I could hear the difference if I was at the beginning, the middle or the end of each click. I was so tuned into it that I had pulled it apart. I had magnified it to where I really began to see what this thing about time was. For three months, I diligently did two or three hours a day of just Accents and Rebounds at a very slow tempo. He made me see what control and real chops are, and he taught me about being able to play evenly. That's when my playing started to change.
I think you have to transcend notes and technique. When I play under ideal conditions, it's no longer just notes. It just becomes one big feeling. The drum ceases to become a separate object. It's not notes, drums, a drummer, and a stool. It all becomes one. [...] I have to put that technical stuff out of my mind. It's for practice at home. [...] Just let your hands fall in with the rest of the music. Don't try to inflict your exercises onto the music. Just find the basic common denominator there among everyone. Find that root first, and then, when you have that foundation, you can start to elaborate a little. You just have to let yourself go with the flow of the music.
Drummers seem to be the worst offenders of trying to inflict lots of technique into music. It interferes with the music a lot. And most drummers go through a stage like that. I did. Thank God I saw the light and understood what had to be done to take care of business.
You can't explain that to a drummer who is obsessed with playing fast. You've got to want to play the other way, or see the beauty in it. See, oftentimes, drummers don't realize that it's enough to just make the music feel good. When you think about it, the drummer has almost more responsibility than any other member of the band. They're relying on the drummer to make the music feel good. I have to remind myself sometimes that if I'm just making everyone feel good, that's a lot. Even if I'm not using any chops or technique, or playing anything fancy, if everyone around is tapping their feet because it's got a good feeling, that's a lot. It's what we're supposed to do.
If you're a session player, every time you're around a bunch of new people, you've got to find out where they're at immediately, find the common link to communicate with them on, and make them feel relaxed. With most session players—myself included—you'll find that on the personality side there's this aspect that might be considered jive. But most of the good session players who work a lot have this "radar," so that the minute they're around strangers, they know how to make them feel at ease, find out what plane they're on, and be on that plane for the duration of the session. I've always thought of it like being a good whore [laughs] who knows how to make a customer feel extra special. They tune right in to what will turn someone on. It's coldblooded, but session musicians are like that. For the time you spend with people, charging them these exorbitant rates of money to play the drums, you find out just what it is that turns them on and give it to them.
The first thing I said to John when I met him was, "Why am I here and not Jim Keltner?" He said, "I'll tell you, I needed to start with new people. I love Jim and I always will; I'm very close with him and his family. But I needed a different kind of working environment. I spent too many hours, days, months, and years in the studios with those guys. When we would record, it would be an excuse to get out of our heads on everything. It would take us eight hours and we would get one track if we were lucky. And now I have to get away from all that. I need to find new people, fresh people, and be able to come in and work with people who I can tell what to do. I was too tight with Jim and all the others to ever get on their backs and say, 'No, I don't like it.' I don't know you, so I can come in and from day one be the boss— be the employer. That's what I need, and that's why all of you are here. I'm the employer and you're the employees."
It was very businesslike. It was great though. We were getting two tracks a day without blinking an eyelash. He was putting us through our paces and really taking care of business. His big buzz for the day was having a cup of Brazilian coffee with a lot of sugar in it, and he'd be fine. He wasn't getting high at all. You could tell. He was there bright and early every morning at 10:00 AM. We'd show up at 12:00. He'd already redone vocals, done overdubs, and planned out the work for the day. When we'd walk in, he'd be saying, "Alright, come on." It wasn't a loose 12:00; he wanted us there and was raring to record at 12:00 on the button.
The first day in the studio, everyone was very nervous. We got in, we all met each other, we chatted a little , and then John said, "Well, come on, come on. Get your stuff set up. Let's go. We're here to make records." He cut through a lot of the formalities very quickly. We started playing a song called "I'm Stepping Out," and it really wasn't coming together. We were nervous and no one knew quite what to do, how he wanted the song treated, if it was going to be high-energy rock 'n' roll, or if it was going to be controlled rock 'n' roll. No one knew where his taste was or how to interpret this song. He put his guitar down after about 20 minutes and said, "Okay, it's not happening. I'm going inside."
He proceeded to sit down behind the board and said, "Okay, drummer, what's your name? Andy. Okay. Let's hear your drums. Everybody else shut up. Give me your bass drum," and I played the bass drum. "Okay, give me your snare drum." I'd see him in there patching the cables. He basically had taken the helm, just like that. He said, "Okay, let's hear the hi-hat. Now give me the tom. Right, your drums sound like a drumset now. What are you playing in this song, Andy?" "Well, this is what I was doing." "Alright, look, I don't like it. Here's what you're going to play. I want this on the foot. I want this on the snare. When you do a fill, I don't want it to be any busier than 'dat, dat, dat, dat.' No 'diddle, diddle, dum.' Now in the chorus you can double up on the snare drum." And within five minutes, he had Andy Newmark completely sorted out. "Okay, who's the bass player? Tony Levin. Get in there. Let me hear your bass. What are you playing? Okay, I don't want you to... "
He whipped everybody into shape, and within an hour and a half, there was a record with great sound and a great groove. He got us all in sync together, let us know how he thought and how he liked instruments to be played, with the attitude he liked. Despite five years of changing diapers, within two hours, he was back into record-making, but, I'm sure, with more conviction, more control and more confidence than he ever had in the past. From what he described to me later on, his earlier solo-album sessions were like an accident looking for a place to happen. But now, he really took charge in no time and did it in a way that didn't alienate anyone. He didn't offend us, because right from the first hour, he started with that real honest approach. It was, "Andy, that drum part stinks. Here's what I want you to play." But he would never offend you by it. He had a way of dealing with you that didn't offend you because it was the truth. There wasn't all this circling around and being polite, or diplomatic, or "Andy, what do you think about maybe trying something a little... ?" It was none of that. It was just, "That's really awful. I don't want any of that on my record. Give me something else. No, I don't like that either. Give me something else. Okay, I like that. Let's live with that for a minute."
He didn't hurt your feelings. You knew he wasn't there to try to tear you apart or play games- he just wanted to make a record. He had everyone very impressed by the end of the first day. He really knew what he wanted. All the takes on Double Fantasy were fourth or fifth takes, because he was singing while we did it and he wanted takes fast. He wasn't into spending four hours on a song. His idea of making a record was, "Look, here's a song. It's real simple. You guys know how to play your instruments. Forget about all the frills. Just accompany me." You knew that he was going to start taking the thing within 20 minutes, and in an hour he wanted it done. It changed your whole approach to the recording because you knew you didn't have three hours to fuss around. It made you go for a gut performance in the recording because you knew you didn't have time to get fancy. He wanted the basic feeling, and if he had to sing it more than five or six times, he'd get fed up and say, "Right, forget it. That's enough. We'll do it another time. Let's try a new one." He wanted it fresh. So it made us all very much on our toes because we knew it was going to be history in an hour, and knowing it was a John Lennon record, you knew a lot of people were going to hear it.
It was probably the greatest month in my career. Getting up to go to work every morning for that record was really exciting. And of course, whenever there was leisure time, there would be the old Beatle stories, who he referred to as the "Bs." The "Bs" was his band. He could put them all in his back pocket. I'm not being nasty; it's just that I've met all of them and I know the general personalities. The minute you met John, you knew he was the boss. You got that sense of depth in him and a wisdom that wasn't just from having one life on this planet, but many past lives. The minute I met him at that session and I looked in his eyes, I got this really overpowering feeling from him that he was very clear, and there was a lot of calm strength there. He was the leader. The stories were all related to things that were happening at the moment. We'd be cutting a record and he'd say, "Yeah, I remember trying to do this part in 'Penny Lane.' I couldn't play it and I got so pissed because Paul could always learn things so fast." Or, "Yeah Andy, do that beat that Ringo did on such-and-such," or "Gee, the Bs could never make records this fast. When we were making such-and-such record... " There were constant referrals to the past and how different it was, and Beatlemaniac that I was, I was hanging on to every word.