with a drum solo: the chad wackerman interview
Št'mershi duween # 25: june 1992 (by ben watson)
This interview was conducted by Ben 'Out to Lunch' Watson backstage at the Leeds Irish Centre after the Allan Holdsworth Group show on March 26 1992. Suspicious editing by Fred.
CW: I was born March 23th 1960; I'm thirty-two. I was born in Long Beach, California. We had music in the house all the time. My father was a drummer and a music teacher. My mother ran a daycare centre. She was musical too. When she was young, she played in a drum and bugle corps. She can play a few rudiments on the snare drum. My father was into Jazz, mainly big band jazz. When I was twelve or thirteen years old, my dad took me to the Stan Kenton (drum) clinic which was like a residence thing; I spent a week there. I went back a few years later - from an early age, I was addicted to it. Even when I was twelve or so, the drummer kind of befriended me and let me sit behind his drurnkit while the Kenton band was playing, just to get that feeling of the power of the horn section, trying to follow the charts that they were playing. It was a really good experience.
Q: Did rock effect you, in the early Seventies?
CW: I came into that a little bit later. Cream, from my father. We were both taking lessons from the same teacher and he said 'There's this great drummer called Ginger Baker you should check out', and my dad went out and bought all the Cream records.Bands like Cream, they improvised. It wasn't as composed. It's always healthy when a style is being created because the rules haven't been defined yet, so you can take more chances and people seem to accept it, with any style when it's new. It's only later that people start doing stereo-typical things that it gets boring.
Q: Were you in a rock band at high school^
CW: Yes, I was in as many bands as I could be in. I was in a Tower of Power-type band, not so much heavy rock. In high school, I was getting into bebop and we had a small combo that would play for school functions, and a big band at school that was pretty good. I would play rock along the way, but I was never in a power trio for any length of time.
Q: Did you go to music college?
CW: (laughs) For a short time, for a year and a half. This was before there were any drum schools. There was Berkley, but that was the other side of the States. I went to this one school mainly because there were so many good musicians going there. There was one called Jim Cox. There were about ten of us who went on to become pretty successful musicians from that school. I was in the third Jazz ensemble. Gordon Peak was in the first; he went on to play with Stanley Clarke. John Ferraro was in the second - he later drummed with Larry Cariton.
Q: Was there a point where the rock and the jazz came together? CW: I was always open to whatever was good, something I learnt from my father. He was open enough to go down to the store and buy Cream albums. That rubbed off a bit. My friends were into rock as well. So, they'd buy the latest Weather Report album, but also get the new Ronnie Montrose record. When Van Halen started, they'd say 'We'll check this out.' Q: Did you always think you'd be a professional musician?
CW: Yes, I always thought that's what I'd do. I enrolled at music school for a while, but in those days, you couldn't play drumset. It's not in the symphony, it's not an instrument. It wasn't a music school, it was a California State University and they all had the same policy. You could play drumset on your own time or in a jazz band, but you couldn't major in it. I had to sign for marimba lessons.
Q: Was that your first experience of a harmonic instrument?
CW: No, I played violin through high school. It was torture, but I learned guile a bit of theory from it, which was nice for a drummer, because vou don't have access to it.
Q: I noticed your toms are almost in pitches.
CW: They're tuned high so they sound similar. I 'm trying to do that a bit. I was at school and John Ferraro had a run at Disneyland, of all places, working in a rock band. He's a good friend. Jim Cox led the band. John was playinq Five nights a week at Disney-Land and he quit to get a gig with Larry Carlton. Then I thought 'Well, I'm not happy practising marimba Four hours a day; this isn't what I want to do'. I thought I'd jump in and see what happens. Because of this band with Jim and myself and two other people, we started getting known as a real tight rhythm section, so a lot of people started hiring us. One was the singer Leslie Uggams; my first touring experiences were with her. She was a really great person to work with. Jim was the piano player on that, and the leader. Jim got me into a lot of different situations. About a year later, Bill Watrous was looking for a band, so he hired us. We made three bebop albums as a small group. We did other gigs, like backing Cheryl Lynne, RnB stuff. everybody was really versatile, could play authentically in a lot of different styles. That was a lot of fun. After that, 1981, I auditioned for Frank Zappa. I heard about that through a bass player friend who had auditioned. He said he didn't work out. but that Zappa was looking for a bass player and a drummer. He gave me his number and said I should give him a call. So I called up Frank and got an audition.
Q: He doesn't behave like a rock band. I can't imagine people auditioning for Led Zeppelin.
CW: No, it's not like Led Zeppelin. You know Frank's music really well, I understand. He's looking for. ...well, you'd have to ask Frank exactly what he's looking for, but I think he's looking for people who can do things that are unusual and be able to play his music, since a lot of it is very difficult.
Q: How did you deal with that difficulty? Do you read charts?
CW: Yeah. Throughout junior high school, I was studying drums with teachers who were very good and very hard on me. I learned to read quite well from doing that, although nothing prepares you for Frank's music.
Q: You stuck with him a long time, longer than most drummers - 1981 through to 1989, a decade.
CW: we did four tours. As you probably know, the band doesn't really exist between tours. Even Allan's gig is not full time. People sometimes say 'Wait a minute, he's playing with Allan but he's also playing with Frank'. We do a three month tour each year. You're hired as a sideman and have this music to play and also bring whatever you can into this that will fit into the genre.
Q: What else did you do apart from the Zappa work?
CW: I tried to get into session work as well. Once again, Jim would help me out - he was really busy. He got me on a Barbara Streisand album and video (ohmygod-Ed). I just try and survive as a musician. Through the Eighties, I'd be maybe rehearsing and touring with Frank, it'd be great, then I'd get back home and maybe wouldn't work for about three months. That's hard to do.
Q: He seems to have a whole commercial machine working and yet he does very out music, both at once.
CW: That's part of the attraction with him. People go to see his shows because they don't know what to expect. Anything can happen. Archie Shepp sat in once. That's part of the attraction of the shows, the whole thing of not having a set show you play every night. Five shows you'd learn, a lot of material, a hundred or so songs. Playing with Zappa gave me exposure as well.
Q: The musicians disappear from the album covers. You were on countless albums, but I didn't see you until the 'Does Humor Belong in Music?' video. A gay friend of mine was offended by 'He's So Gay'
CW: I don't know how to comment on that. He definitely parodies everybody. He parodies stupid guys, stupid women....
Q: One of my favourites - and it has a lot of you on it - is 'Guitar'
CW: (unenthusiastic) Uh-huh. It's the same basis as the 'Shut Up N Play Yer Guitar' series...
Q: 'Guitar' is more powerful; that's how I listen to it. To me, it's like John Coltrane with Elvin Jones, it's on that level.
CW: I've been very lucky to work with Allan and Frank. They both like their drummers to interact a lot. Frank would be very strict with the other players on the solos, but I always got the feeling that he expected me to open up and phrase on top of the things he was doing.
Q: Let's talk about your solo album 'Forty Reasons'. It's unusual for fusion groups to do free improvisations.
CW: It's more typical to have compositions. I wanted to make an album that to me was listenable and in that sense I don't mean tame and commercial, but interesting. I thought one way to do that would be to have improvisations, mainly short ones that were really powerful, in whatever mood they happened to create and put them inbetween composed songs, so the ear doesn't get tired too quickly.. I think it seemed to work.
Q: Are you always in control? Did you find yourself playing things you didn't expect?
CW: No, that's the beauty of improvisation. It can fall apart and be a train wreck at any minute (laughs). But if you get players that are good - not to include myself, but Jim and Allan and Jimmy - it's one of those things; it's just a chemistry thing. I've played for so many years with all of those guys that I knew this has to work. We Just did it really quickly. We didn't listen to them back, Just did the next one. After nine, then we thought we'd have a listen -and we were howling with laughter. We couldn't believe what was coming off tape". There was this thing Frank used to call 'radar'. It's not something that can he talked about - you'd hit a certain rhythm and... It would happen on that last tour a lot with myself and Ed Mann. I'd go for a fill and he'd go for a fill and we'd always try to play a more bizarre fill than you'd expect, and we'd often end up playing the same thing - and like, how can that happen? The same kind of feeling is there; these moods get created.
Q: 'Make a Jazz Noise Here' is my favourite, it's so out...
CW: I quite like that record. It's my favourite of the ones I played on with Frank. It's funny because I don't even realise what's on them as it's all stuff from different tours. He chops them up and it's from all different cities, all those edits. It's only recently that I sat down and listened to the whole record.
Q: What did the musicians think of doing free improvisations?
CW: They were into it - it was nice. I know I hadn't done it or tried it in years. It was just roll tape; with the exception of one, there were no count-offs, no-one talked about what key we were going to play in, who was going to start... It was truly improvised. The engineer said 'We're rolling'. One piece called 'Go', we thought it would be nice to have a duo. So it was one take and that was the duo. Then it was 'Let's try a trio', keyboards, bass and drums -go' That turned out to be 'Waltzing on Jupiter'. We just picked the ones we thought were the strongest, that would make a nice trade off with the composed things we had.
Q: How did you find the musicians? I've heard of Jimmy Johnson.
CW: He's on most of Allan's records. We had a trio for a long time. That was a band I was obviously very comfortable with, that I always felt was very adventurous. Jimmy was the bass-player for all of his records, starting with 'Metal Fatigue'. I met Allan through John Ferraro, again (laughs). It's always based on clicker friends. Allan had moved to California - they'd done I think one tour in the States. Gary had to go back to London and Allan needed a drummer. He'd been auditioning for a couple of weeks. John Ferraro knew Dave Ball who used to bicycle with Allan and found out that Allan needed a drummer. So Dave called John and said to give Allan a call, and he did. But at the last moment he got another tour, so John called me and said 'Holdsworth needs a drummer'. It usually works like that.
Q: That's probably enough of putting you on the torture wrack.
CW: I don't mind. It was interesting. I always wanted to make a solo album and I always had these guys in mind. I'd love to be a leader, it's tricky to do that and make a living at it, so I don't know if that will ever happen. We'll see what happens with this.
Q: The review in the Wire said that Allan dominated your album.
CW: The music is completely different from Allan's music. I think Allan has as strong a personality as Michael Brecker and you hear Michael on a lot of records. For me, I want the best people I can get and these are my favourites right there.