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You Can’t Do That on Drums Anymore.
An interview with Chad Wackerman

Interview by Chris Golinski
Photos by Rob Shanahan

Chad Wackerman


Chad Wackerman is truly in a league of his own. In a world of monster drummers where chops, licks, and competitive virtuosity have taken center stage, Chad has always stood out amongst the world’s most renowned drummers throughout his three-decades-plus career. Not everyone can legitimately hang in such diverse areas as straight ahead jazz, progressive and theatrical rock with Frank Zappa (which he is most noted for), and fusion with artists like Alan Holdsworth.

Wackerman isn’t just a jazz fusion guy with chops, however. He has also covered pop and rock roles with artists including James Taylor, Barbara Streisand, Men at Work, Andy Summers, and Steve Vai (and the list goes on). On top of all this, he has also done drum performance work with another ex-Zappa drum phenom, Terry Bozzio. Is there anything he can’t do? 

If this were not enough, Chad is also an avid educator/clinician and composer, not only for his own solo records, but he also wrote and performed on television shows including HBO’s “The Dennis Miller Show.”

Our main topic of discussion here is Wackerman’s outstanding new solo record, Dreams, Nightmares and Improvisations, which features Jim Cox on keyboards, Jimmy Johnson on bass and Alan Holdsworth on guitar. We had the privilege of talking with this drums and percussion master during a quiet period before the busy summer touring schedule kicks into high gear. As you’ll discover from this conversation, one thing is for sure… Chad Wackerman is far more of an artist and musician than he is just a drummer.

“Drummers make very good producers, because we are always making musical decisions that affect the way the other musicians play.”

MPc: On your new CD, Dreams, Nightmares, and Improvisations, “Glass Lullaby” is a beautiful track that combines a simple melody with dense atmosphere. Are there drum overdubs on this track? What compelled you to take this approach?

CW: I wrote Glass Lullaby while touring with James Taylor last year. My idea was to write a percussion piece that had melody, chords, and a bass line. To compose it on the road I used samples that I had on my laptop. I used gamelan samples for the arpeggiated chords, large gong samples for the bass notes and crotale samples for the melody. On a break from the tour I came home and replaced the crotale melody with Paiste Sound Discs, overdubbed my drum kit with brushes and added the real gongs to the track. The percussion ensemble piece is sonically different than the rest of the CD. My initial idea was to compose a short piece to go in between some heavier tunes or improvs, but after playing with the order of the songs on the record I found that it made a nice introduction to the CD.

MPc: Why did you call the new record, Dreams, Nightmares, and Improvisations?

CW: The title was inspired by my wife. She brought up the fact that although the CD gets very intense, it also has a dreamy quality to it. Dreams and nightmares are also improvisational in nature, which ties into the CD on another level.

MPc: What were you listening to for influence when writing this?

CW: The CD was recorded over a nine year period, so too many things to list here. Often I won’t listen to music when I’m composing. During this time I was playing in the Allan Holdsworth Trio, The Holdsworth/Pasqua/Haslip/Wackerman band, plus touring with Terry Bozzio, so all those groups were influences.

MPc: There are a lot of drifting in an out moments to the music. Was that an intentional approach here? Why?

CW: The drifting in and out moments you refer to happened organically during the improvisations. These were not intentional, but were the natural result of listening and responding to the other players. I recorded more music than I needed for the CD, so when it came time to select tracks it became obvious that the pieces that shared this quality went well together.

MPc: On the Drum Channel’s Zappa Drummers DVD, you mention a story about Zappa’s peculiar stage signals and him once requesting an entire show in a reggae feel. With Frank having such a distinct personality, what is the single most memorable gig you can recall?

CW: There are so many memorable shows, but one that stands out was in Palermo, Sicily in 1982. The government had not allowed a rock concert there for years, so to have Zappa play was a big deal. We performed in an ancient outdoor sports arena. On the field area there were no seats at all—just the army and military police. Both were armed with guns and tear gas. There was a chain link fence which kept any audience members from coming onto the grass.

Chad WackermanWe played about an hour or so, then someone jumped the chain link fence and ran towards the stage. The military police started shooting tear gas at the entire audience. People began to throw rocks at the police, then more people jumped the fence, and a riot was underway. We played as long as we could, but Frank had to annnounce that it wasn’t safe to continue. He was sorry, but we had to leave the stage. That show was a little too exciting! Frank used some of the recordings from this show on You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 3. You can hear the tear gas canisters being shot into the audience as we play. This was the last gig of the 1982 European tour.

MPc: Can you specifically recount your time studying with Murray Spivack, as well as his principals on teaching and music?

CW: I could easily do an entire article on Murray and his teaching system. Lately I’ve been doing some filming for a master class at about Murray’s techniques. I started taking lessons with Murray when I was twelve years old and went through his system. At the time, my father also took a lesson right after mine, so I really got two hours of material to think about each time. His technique makes everything effortless, and when you need it, powerful. It’s based on economy of motion and staying relaxed.

Students are not taught style or drumkit. The focus is entirely on hand technique. It incorporates a daily strict practice routine that has timed exercises to practice, as well as exercises reading music. Thanks to Murray I’ve never had any trouble with my hands. I also studied with Chuck Flores, another brilliant teacher. I learned drum set independence and chart reading from him.

MPc: One of the first times we heard your playing was on a live recording of Alan Holdsworth’s “Water on the Brain Pt. 2.” The drumming on there is stunning, especially your approach to setting up the rather complex hits in that tune. Would you say that your jazz experience with Bill Watrous has influenced more contemporary situations like your latest recording?

CW: I guess all musicians bring a bit of their history with them when they play. I’ve been so lucky to have worked with such amazing and inspiring artists. My first jazz gigs ever were with Bill. I was 19 when I played in his big band as well as his small group. The small group was very be-bop oriented and the big band was more modern, playing some swing, but also Chick Corea tunes and funk.

Playing in Bill’s band was fun and full of great players like Jim Cox, Gordon Goodwin, Dan Higgins, Bob Sheppard etc. I played rock and funk a bit later. I was listening to everything I could find: big bands, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Tony Williams, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Bill Evans.

“I don’t know anyone who is sorry that they can read music.”

MPc: You have been quoted a number of times stating that “You never know where you’re gonna’ end up.” Can you expand on this idea in greater detail?

CW: I went from playing with Bill Watrous and touring with singer Leslie Uggams to joining Frank Zappa’s group. I never expected to join Frank’s band, Allan Holdsworth’s band, or most of the people I’ve worked with. Often younger musicians gear themselves for one kind of style, or even focus on the music of one band, but the truth is that you may end up in a musical world you haven’t planned for. Be open and get prepared for anything to heppen.

MPc: Would you say that your time with such influential artists like Zappa and Holdsworth has influenced your approach to your solo records?

CW: Absolutely. They are such strong composers and amazing improvisers. I used to be fascinated at how many different methods Frank used to compose: the guitar, the Synclavier, lyrics, or writing directly to paper —I saw him do this without a piano. Allan’s harmonic and rhythm structures are like nothing else. He hears music in another way altogether. I’ve been so lucky to watch these great innovative composers create.

MPc: Drummers like Gregg Bissonette, Steve Smith and yourself played in jazz bands as young players where you had to be conscious of things like ensemble figures. Do you feel that this is a lost experience for modern players?

CW: Luckily a lot of kids in the US get that experience in their school jazz bands. It’s very fun and also gives you the feeling of driving and leading a band. It’s great for your reading too. I started by playing big band jazz as a kid. I went to a Stan Kenton summer clinic when I was 11. I met John Von Ohlen, who was Stan’s drummer, then a few years later Peter Erskine, who was only 18 and playing in the band. I played in school big bands from age 8 through college.

MPc: We have encountered musicians who feel that it is not necessary to read unless a musician is interested in doing things like pit work for theater. What are your views on a young drummer who does not feel that something like reading music is necessary?

CW: I don’t know anyone who is sorry that they can read music. It opens up so many doors for working, as well as giving you an insight into all sorts of styles and song structure. You can look at classical scores, lead sheets, plus it’s another way to communicate to musicians in detail. If you can read, then you can also transcribe. You can make your own charts. Once you get into it you realize that there is so much repetition in Western rhythms that reading becomes easy very quickly.

MPc: You have a very beautiful and full drum sound. Do you have a specific approach to tuning, gear selection, and micing that you apply to all sessions?

CW: Thanks for the compliment. I’ve always been curious about sound on great recordings, so it is a passion of mine. My advice is to start with great sounding drums. I love my DWs. I use thin shells (DW collector series), thin heads (Evans G1’s on toms, snare and Emad on Bass drum), and fairly thin cymbals (Paiste Dark Energy series). Everything vibrates a lot so it doesn’t take much muscle to make the kit sound exciting. I also tune carefully. As a general rule the bottom heads are a half step higher than the batter heads, bass drum has a very low pitch, the intervals of the toms and cymbals are wide. I go for clarity, then add in room mics for making it sound spacious and big.

When the drums sound great, the mics are the next part of the chain. Sometimes an engineer has his or her own favorites and you have to respect that. I’ve used AKG since working with Frank Zappa. In my studio I use C414 B’s for toms in the studio, overheads are 451B’s, a D112 in the kick and a D12 for the front head. Snare has a 451B and/or a D40. The hi-hat mic is also a 451. Room mics are either a pair of Solid Tubes or C12 VR’s.

For live I change the tom mics to the C518M micro mics. For my past few CDs, I’ve run the mics through my Trident console, overheads through a Millennia Media mic pre amp or Demeter Tube mic pre amp, to the Otari analog 2” tape machine. I mix to digital at 96k, 24-bit. Everything has to be right in the chain or the sound can suffer. Of course the thing that changes the sound the most is your touch on the drum kit.

I can control the mood and attitude of the song
as well as intensity level

MPc: Though so much has been said about your famous work with Zappa and Holdsworth, you’ve done plenty of work with well-known contemporary and pop artists. Please tell us about your experience working with Men At Work, Barbra Streisand and James Taylor. What are the differences in your drumming approach when working with these artists compared to your jazz and progressive rock work?

CW: With Men at Work, my whole concern was grooving and making the songs sound as strong as possible. With Barbara Streisand, it was being sensitive to where she was taking the song and supporting her as best I could. With James, it’s making the tunes feel as good as possible and digging deep into the groove. He has many different feels and a huge catalog of great tunes.

When there is a singer in a band, the whole focus changes. I always try to play in a way that makes the band sound as good as possible, by listening and considering everything from the bass patterns to the lyrics. I also play with a lot more space when the music or the lyrics require it. I like to find out what the artist needs most from drums. It’s my job to keep the artist comfortable in the music. This is often to do with tempo and feel. As a drummer I’m aware that I can control the mood and attitude of the song as well as intensity level. I can frame what is important in the music to make the whole thing work. I’ve always felt that drummers make very good producers, because we are always making musical decisions that affect the way the other musicians play.

In the instrumental fusion music that I play, I believe in being adventurous. The music can be full of surprises, but also use space and density as musical devices. To me the challenge is to be musical, creative, and unique. I think that music can tell a story, even without words.

MPc: What was it like writing music for The Dennis Miller Show?

CW: It was a blast. The director of the show came in to us early in the gig and said, “I don’t care what you guys write, just make it sound up and rockin!” I was one of three writers in the band and we were writing play-ons and play-offs for the celebrity guests, as well as writing tunes for the commercial breaks. We got very creative: played in odd times, used unusual chords, wrote in all sorts of styles, and played most of it with fire and lots of attitude.

Chad WackermanMPc: Though each drummer’s set up is unique, we have always noticed your use of certain bell-type cymbals above your toms which create a really beautiful, orchestral sort of ambiance in your sound. Where did the idea to use these come from, and how long have you had them in your set up?

CW: My bell cymbals are made by Paiste and are called Cup Chimes. I first heard them years ago played by Alex Acuña, who used them on a Weather Report tour. I want to make music from the kit, and that is one way to give the impression of playing melodic pitches. I’ve used them on and off since 1982.

MPc: What has your experience been like working with Terry Bozzio on the Solo Duets and D2 projects? What is your approach to playing in this setting versus that of a full band?

CW: Terry had the idea of touring with another drummer, each playing a 45 minute set of drum compositions. He called me and we used this format for our first tour, but we found we had the most fun improvising together at the end of the show. The next tour, we changed the format to two sets of duet improvisations. This became more and more creative and fun, and soon we were able to improvise in a way that sounded compositional.

There is so much musical commonality that we share. I find it very easy to play with Terry, because he thinks musically and often it feels like I’m playing with a band. We both play large kits when we perform together. All the drums are tuned to notes and lots of cymbals, cymbal stacks, bells and gongs are utilized. It’s all about creating music as diverse as an orchestra, but with drums, cymbals and percussion. I can hear what he’s doing and often tell which direction he’s going in, and I know he hears the same when I’m playing. We both listen like crazy when we play. It’s truly inspiring to perform with Terry.


MPc: What are your views between the perceptions of the “schooled” versus the “unschooled” musician?

CW: I think it depends on the person, how far they can develop, schooled or not. A few guys have come up with some very interesting ways to do things on their own. It’s a rare thing to hear someone who is really happening and hasn’t been schooled in some way, though. I’ve found that even guys who are self taught are shown things by various people along the way. Go out and get lessons, get as much info as you can and check out music schools, their teachers, and private teachers. Check out – that is an amazing resource, too.

The more you understand music, the better your chances of working are, and the better chance you have of developing a methodical way of improving on your instrument. You need to have technique to express your ideas. Eventually you can come up with a musical personality, but you need to put a lot of work into your craft first. The point of learning all the technique and methods is to create music that connects in some way to people. When that happens it’s like nothing else.

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    Christopher Golinski is a New Jersey-based freelance professional drummer, instructor, and member of the alternative rock band, Summer Believers Arctic Dreamers. Reach him via email here.        
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