Talking Shop with Sabo

May 19, 2000
by Todd Bernhardt
A Chalkhills Exclusive

In March, I was lucky enough to get a dub of an advance copy of Wasp Star. It knocked me out. I had listened to the demos for years, but I loved the band's full-blown production of the songs, and was especially impressed by the drumming on the album.

I knew Prairie Prince had recorded some of the tracks during the previous Apple Venus Vol. 1 sessions, but there had also been talk on Chalkhills about Chuck Sabo (pronounced "say-bo"), a session drummer whom the band had brought in to re-record many of the songs. Searching the Internet brought up no information about him (I later learned that this was because his last name had been misspelled on Chalkhills as "Szabo"), so I thought he would be a great candidate for Modern Drummer's "Up and Coming" column.

I contacted Andy, whom I had interviewed before for the magazine's "A Different View" column, to see if I could talk with him about Wasp Star, and get Chuck's contact information. Andy didn't have it, but Colin did. During an almost two-hour conversation with him, I found out how to get in touch with Chuck -- not an easy task, when you're talking about a busy session player! -- and on April 15th I spent an hour and a half on the phone with him.

Chuck is an extremely nice, funny and down-to-earth guy. If you've heard Wasp Star, you know that he's also very talented. As I talked with him and found out more about his career, I felt bad that I had been led astray in my research by a tiny typo; had I typed "Sabo" rather than "Szabo" into the various search engines I tried, I would have found out how deep his CV is. At the same time, it was refreshing -- for both of us, I think -- to approach the interview from scratch. The questions I asked him prompted him to look back at his career from a fresh perspective and see just how far he'd come.

For me, Sabo's story is an object lesson in the value of hard work and perseverance, a lesson that any aspiring musician could benefit from. Even an aspired (expired?) musician like myself finds it inspiring. As I write this, I'm less than a week away from my 41st birthday. I've got a family, responsibilities, a million things that keep me from playing music as much as I'd like. But here's a contemporary -- he's 42 -- who has never stopped chasing his dream and, through hard work and no small amount of talent, has gotten to the point where he's comfortably making a living as a player, songwriter and producer. He's the first to admit that things could have been easier, but also readily confirms that he's happy with how things turned out. I'm happy for his success. Even in that cesspool known as the music industry, good things sometimes happen to good people.

What you'll read below is my first cut at the interview for Modern Drummer, along with a couple of things that I wouldn't have included in the article but that I think dedicated fans will enjoy. It's more than 3,000 words longer than what I sent to the magazine, and begins with the original intro that I submitted. The editorially inclined among you might want to check out the magazine when it comes out (I'll keep you posted about the date) to see how they sullied my perfect prose (something I, as an editor, have never done to a writer). My thanks goes out to that most light-handed of editors, John Relph, for letting me post it here.

Chuck Sabo
Chuck Sabo

The sting behind XTC's Wasp Star
Chuck Sabo

American-in-London Chuck Sabo is already a well-known session player in the English pop scene. Get ready to hear more about him.

by Todd Bernhardt

If you're looking for someone who personifies the old adage that "it takes years of hard work to become an overnight success," look no farther than Chuck Sabo. Though his recording credits include an impressive list of heavyweights -- including Natalie Imbruglia, Elton John, Chaka Khan, Cher, Tina Turner, Pet Shop Boys, Billy Preston, Roy Orbison, Terence Trent D'Arby, Seal, Right Said Fred, Shakespear's Sister, Take That, O.M.D., 808 State, Tashan, Belinda Carlisle, Kiki Dee, Etienne Daho and Michel Polnareff -- and his playing has driven more than a dozen Top 10 singles in the U.K., he's kept largely out of the limelight, focusing instead on making connections, building his résumé and, always, playing for the song.

On XTC's new album, Wasp Star, he's still playing for the song, but there's no chance you'll miss him. The album is a stripped-down, guitar-oriented return to power pop for the band, and from the first bars of album-opener "Playground" to the "hip-pop" of "We're All Light" to the Middle Eastern influences on "You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful," it's obvious that guitarist Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding relied heavily on Sabo's steady and soulful style.

"I wanted a drummer who was fiercely rhythmic but who also had a very loose backbone to his playing," says Partridge. "Somebody who was precise but, at the same time, had a lot of flair to that rhythm . . . it's difficult to describe without shaking your ass! Nick Davis, our producer, recommended Chuck, and we were wowed immediately. His playing was just really lovely -- Colin and I were grinning at each other in the control room, thinking, ‘Yes, we've really found a great player here.’ I'd love to work with him again, I really would."

"I think he's probably one of the best drummers we've worked with," Moulding adds. "We've never worked with anybody with quite so much precision and a different way of looking at the songs. He chooses his moments well, and he's obviously got thoughts in the back of his mind about the song. It's not just ‘start him up and switch him off.’ He was exactly right for what we wanted."

Sabo's own background as a songwriter and producer is the driving force behind his approach to drum parts. Though he's got the chops to share a Zildjian Day stage with the likes of Peter Erskine, J.R. Robinson and Dave Weckl, he also knows that less can be more, and never forgets the rhythm section's role in supporting the melody of a song. He recently took a break from working in his home studio, where he writes with his wife, Jeanette, to talk with Modern Drummer about playing, recording and the value of furniture removal as a motivational tool.

TB: Can you tell me a bit about how you started?

CS: I grew up in Allentown, Pa. Embarrassingly, I started with the stereotype of hitting enough pots and pans that my mom decided to get me a snare drum [laughs]. I began public lessons in grade school, kept up with that, and then showed enough interest that my parents invested in private lessons. The way my mom worked it was, as long as I kept up interest, every Christmas there was a new addition. First private lessons, and then the first drumkit, and the like. From there, I got straight into cover bands, which is a really great thing that happens in the States -- a great learning tool. That doesn't happen so much over here, unfortunately.

By 1980, I had gone as far as I could go in Allentown, so I moved to Manhattan. There was just this strong pull -- I decided it was going to happen, no matter what. I had to work to subsidize my drumming career, and it was usually furniture removals -- [laughs] which is great because you're just so desperate to not do it!

I think that at one point I was working with six different bands, while I was doing furniture removals. It was just absolutely crazy, but I had to get as many chances as possible. The first major-label record I did was 1981 or 1982 -- it was a band called Tom Dickie and the Desires, which was managed by [now Sony Music CEO] Tommy Mottola. I just got this magazine called Gear, and there's an article about Mickey Curry in it. I was reading through the article, because Mickey Curry played on Tom Dickie and the Desires' first album. Tommy Mottola also managed Hall & Oates, so during that album he asked Mickey to do Hall & Oates' album, which was coming up two weeks later. So, Mickey went on with Hall & Oates and Bryan [Adams], and I got Tom Dickie and the Desires [laughs]. I don't really know what all that means [laughs]. . .

TB: [laughing] I was going to say, we probably don't want to make an editorial judgment there.

CS: [laughing] No. There were a few albums between that and when I recorded an album in 1984 with the Comateens. That was my last New York record.

TB: It sounds like you were trying make it with bands in New York, rather than trying to go the session player/studio route.

CS: Yeah.

TB: Do you read music, or did you read when you got to New York?

CS: Yeah, I read, but I was never a big reader, and it was never required. I had a few lessons in New York with [noted teacher and jazz/big-band drummer] Sonny Igoe, just to brush up on my reading and go back to rudiments for a bit. But reading never really came into the things I was involved in, and consequently, it got worse and worse -- it would have been a perfect way to get me to play really quietly! [laughs]

The reason the Comateens were important is that I did a tour with them that took me to Europe for the first time. It included one date in London, and then a few weeks in France, which was their biggest market. When I hit London, I just thought, "Wow." If you remember that time, probably half the bands on the American charts were British, and there were an amazing about of things happening. The big selling point was that London, compared to New York, was like a country town. It felt safe -- the Tube was like a private train compared with the New York subway!

I thought, "I could really go for this." So that's basically what I did. At the end of the tour, I stayed in London and auditioned for two bands that were advertising in Melody Maker. One of them was called Talking Drums. They were managed by Miles Copeland, and based in Glasgow, but they were holding the auditions down in London. And the other was called Decadence. They were managed by Mick Rossey, who was managing Flock of Seagulls at the time. I must have been doing something right, because they both offered to move me and my drums from New York, and put me up. I chose the Glaswegians, for musical preferences.

TB: Not because you thought Miles had better connections?

CS: Well, it was probably the whole picture, but musically, from a drummer's point of view, it was quite exciting stuff.

TB: What kind of stuff was it?

CS: Well, it did have this sort of Highland vibe about it, but again, its was just pop music, with good strong lyrics and good grooves. But what a shock it was moving from New York to Glasgow!

TB: Yeah, I can imagine.

CS: [laughing] Things have moved on here quite a bit, fortunately -- but at the time, all four TV channels shut off at midnight. And the pubs close at 11:00. So there I was, still on New York time -- where you get ready to go out at about 1:00 a.m. [laughs] -- and I found myself in this place where you get kicked out of a pub, and by the time you get home, the television is off! So I was going a bit stir crazy.

The band got a deal with MCA -- just a singles deal -- but about three months into it, it was pretty evident that it wasn't going to happen. Basically, I switched my priorities. I came down to the London band that I'd originally met, and I did the Glaswegians' band as a session. After that, it was just a matter of doing furniture removals and playing with as many bands as possible. After a while, my name got around.

One of my bigger financial rewards initially was due to the Comateens and their following in France. It was a tour in '89 with singer named Etienne Daho, who was pretty big -- he sold out an 8,000-seat venue in Paris for seven nights. It was good money, and a good touring experience -- we traveled all around Europe.

TB: Okay, so you'd been in London for five years by that point.

CS: Yeah. When I started feeling like things were happening along the lines of a break was when a producer called Martin Ware, who was one of the members of Heaven 17, picked me for an album he was doing [Music of Quality and Distinction, Vol. 2, 1991] for a group he'd created called the British Electric Foundation. Very much a soul record -- he gathered up a bunch of artists and did cover songs with them. So, just within that one album, I played with Tina Turner, Chaka Khan. . .

TB: Wow.

CS: Chaka Khan was actually live in the studio, singing while we were playing.

TB: That must have been fun.

CS: That was brilliant. Terence Trent D'Arby -- he was also in the studio live -- Billy Preston, and more. So, you see, all of a sudden, my CV was becoming something about 10 times what it was before the album [laughs]. An artist named Tashan also sang on that album, and I later went on to do an album by him [For the Sake of Love, 1992], which Martin Ware also produced. Very much a soul album, and one of my favorites.

Things started falling into place from there. It was after I did an album with Shakespear's Sister [Hormonally Yours, 1992] that drum companies became interested in me as an endorser. They were quite successful over here, and a Number 4 in the States at the height of it all. I was definitely, by this point, becoming a session drummer.

Then there was Right Said Fred [laughs] -- you must have heard the song "I'm Too Sexy"?

TB: Sure, who hasn't?

CS: Well, that's Right Said Fred. I played on that album [Up, 1992] -- not that track, because that was programmed -- but they had a Number 1 over here with a song called "Deeply Dippy," which I played on.

Then Elton John came into the picture. I did an album [Jewel, 1994] with a woman named Marcella Detroit, who was one of the Shakespear's Sisters, produced by Chris Thomas. During that album, he got me the session to do one of the tracks on Elton John's Duets album. It was the last track, called "Duets for One." It's the only track that Elton's doing on his own, and it was a fantastic and very nerve-wracking experience [laughs]. I'd heard from Chris about the way that Elton occasionally goes into the studio with a lyric and writes the song while everyone's there. That happened on this session. He had the lyrics for the song, and though there was a Linn drum sitting there, I'm not too familiar with the programming of Linn drums. So he wanted this sort of [imitates beat] as the beat of the song.

TB: Sort of a go-go thing.

CS: Yeah. It's the sort of thing -- lucky for me! -- that I do almost at every sound check. But I couldn't get the feel right on a Linn drum, so I just sat there and played this beat while he was at the piano writing the song. It was fantastic. Twenty minutes of that, and he basically stood up and said, "Okay, we're ready to go" [laughs].

The next Elton John thing was The Lion King. I did "Circle of Life" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" and "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" -- basically, the three tracks he's singing on the soundtrack. Then, through his management office, I got sessions with Kiki Dee and OMD.

TB: That sounds like a pretty good example of the importance of being known and knowing other people.

CS: Yes, absolutely. It's the only way it can happen, really. Most recently, before the XTC session there was Natalie Imbruglia -- I played on her album Left of the Middle as well as the tour supporting it, which spanned a total of 14 or 15 months, but it was really nicely done -- a couple weeks on, a couple weeks off.

Of course, though all of these pursuits as a drummer, I've always been a writer, and I've always had a band that I was trying to get a record deal with.

TB: Could you tell me a little about that?

CS: [enthusiastically] Yes! [laughs] I had a band in New York that tried to get a record deal, as well as a band here in London, with my wife, Jeanette. The band was called Sonny Lucas, and we spent about six years in that pursuit. We got as far as negotiating a record deal with RCA's New York office, even though we're based here, but despite two months' negotiations, between the lawyers, we didn't have a deal.

TB: That's got to be frustrating.

CS: It was, to the point where we basically stopped doing it. Jeanette went on to other interests, and I worked with a couple of young guys who asked me to produce two tracks -- production is another interest of mine. I began managing them as well, and I ended up getting them a publishing deal with Fiction for the UK and BMG for the rest of the world. Then the Natalie gig came up and I basically signed everything back over to the guys and decided to make some money [laughs].

TB: [laughing] Funny how that becomes a necessity after a while!

CS: Yeah, it keeps cropping up! [laughs] What the Natalie gig allowed me to do was set up a studio here in our house, which sparked both Jeanette and I to start writing again. We met with a singer and actress named Sally Ann Marsh, and decided to put enough time in with her and our songs to try and get her to the deal stage. And, amazingly, we did it! In December, she signed with Jive Records [label of, among others, Britney Spears, N'Sync, and Backstreet Boys].

TB: Congratulations.

CS: [with pride and relief] Thank you. Thank you. It was pretty fantastic. Her deal got interest from publishing companies in my and Jeanette's songs, so in January we got a publishing deal with Dalmation Songs in the U.K. and with BMG in the rest of the world. One of the two characters who runs Dalmation is the A&R man who signed Natalie Imbruglia. So, it's all staying in this ever-increasing circle.

So I spend most of my time in my studio, but am still able to do session work that I really enjoy. I'm getting called in now to play the way I play, which is nice. When you're up and coming, you get called in to play because someone heard your name and not your style. But when you get called in because people know how you play, it just gets easier and easier.

TB: Even though it must be frustrating to have to adapt your style to other people's, it's also probably very good for you as a player to have that discipline.

CS: Yeah, I think it's essential. I also think it's a real benefit to be a songwriter, because you play for the song. And one of the great things that you learn from becoming a young, to a not-so-young, to an old drummer [laughs], is that you first learn to play as much and as fast as possible -- and then you learn what not to play.

TB: What else have you been doing?

CS: Well, I'm with Yamaha now as an endorser of their drums, and I've done some clinics, which has been a very new experience for me.

TB: Do you like it?

CS: They pulled me in to the deep end about two years ago. They had a Zildjian Day at the Townhouse, a studio here in London, with about 2,000 people in the audience. The drummers involved were J.R. Robinson, Dave Weckl, Peter Erskine, and a couple of guys from over here. I was first on. So that was my first experience at doing a drum clinic [laughs] -- on stage with these guys and 2,000 people watching.

TB: No pressure!

CS: [laughs] Oh, my God. It was one of the best things that ever happened, when it was over.

TB: I can imagine! The sense of relief must have been overpowering.

CS: It was. But what I really enjoyed about it was the work that I made myself do in preparation. I don't think I've ever played as well before or since [laughs]. I've gotten lazy again now.

TB: Do you spend time practicing? Or do you play only as a matter of course for the songs that you're writing and playing on?

CS: Only as a matter of course. There's a drum kit in my studio, so I'm playing on it probably every day. But it's usually just playing to record drum parts for the songs, not so much practicing anymore.

TB: Right. You're not sitting down and doing flamadiddles for 15 minutes.

CS: Nope -- and I apologize to anyone who is! [laughs]

TB: Well, that's one of the prerogatives of age and success, right?

CS: Yes. I enjoy that sort of precision and finesse, but it's not really a great interest of mine when I look at the whole picture. I'd rather hold down a groove and to play for the song. And I'm never out of practice for that.

TB: When you were coming up, did you mostly learn through playing, or would you woodshed and work on rudiments?

CS: Both. I always played to the radio, but I also always had to keep up with my lessons, or they would have been chopped. I don't remember disliking or liking the lessons -- to me it was just all a part of it, all a part of what I wanted to do. It's like when you're in school, and you're taught that you better learn math because it's going to be important to you at some point. It's the same when you're learning rudiments and that side of drumming. You're just doing it because someone's telling you it's going to be good for you. And, I suppose, they were right.

TB: How early on did you know that drumming was something you wanted to pursue as a career?

CS: I don't know a time when I didn't know that. And there's never been any lapse in it whatsoever. I feel very fortunate that way. I'm sure that, during any one of the several hard times or lulls I've been through, if I had been good at anything else, I would have done it [laughs]. That's what a lot of my friends who had been to college and learned something other than playing did, when there was no money around.

TB: Right, when things look bleak, it's easy to take the other course. That's what I did [laughs], so I know just what you mean.

CS: [laughs] I guarantee I would have -- had the only alternative for me not been furniture removal. . .

TB: [laughing] Right. Your great motivator. In the liner notes to your next album, you should thank the furniture movers of the world.

CS: [laughing] Yeah, you're not wrong there.

TB: You were talking about you and Jeanette and your writing. Do you play other instruments? What instruments does she play? Do you both sing?

CS: Jeanette's mainly the singer/lyricist. I've owned a guitar for maybe 20 years, so I've always had an acoustic guitar around. It's my main writing tool. But as far as building tracks, I can put the bass and the keyboards on. You know, as long as nobody's watching [laughs]. So they've all become tools of my trade as well.

TB: Who would you say have been your biggest drumming influences throughout the years?

CS: I have some names that I could mention, but I also have styles -- like, Motown was one of the major contributors to my playing and writing. But I really couldn't pinpoint names. Same with Earth, Wind and Fire -- one of my favorite bands. Of course, John Bonham was really influential for me. Steve Gadd, definitely. And probably most all the drummers that Steely Dan used. The Pink Floyd drumming. . .

TB: Nick Mason?

CS: Nick, yeah. I'm definitely not a trainspotter [laughs].

TB: [laughing] Well, there's something to be said for that. You keep your mind focused on other things, right?

CS: Yeah, I don't know . . . yeah, thank you [laughs]. I'll take that. So those are the different areas. But it has always been soul and funk, I think, at the forefront.

TB: It's funny to hear you say that -- that whole soul and funk thing, and then you've got John Bonham there. But he seems to be a drummer that almost everybody mentions at one time or another as an influence.

CS: Oh yeah, but I feel that a lot of his playing is so much for the song, and it's so groove-y. And I think it is quite soul-y as well.

TB: True enough. Can I get you to talk a little it about your kit and your setup?

CS: I have the Yamaha Maple Custom kit and the Beech Custom kit and, depending on the band, I go between a live setup of 22-inch kick drum, 10- and 12-inch mounted toms, 14- and 16-inch floor toms, an assortment of snares and, always, another snare to the left, a 10-inch or an 8-inch. There are more and more requirements for that, because of all the tight-loop sounds that are so popular on albums today. I do trigger with the drumKAT and samplers and all that, but I still try and do it as much as possible by getting the sounds off the skins.

But in the studio, I almost always cut it down to the 22-inch bass, the 12-inch tom on top and the 16-inch tom on the floor.

TB: Why is that? Is it because it's easier to get the sound, or do you think it keeps you from overplaying?

CS: No, it's definitely the sound. You can just get a much bigger and wider sound when you don't have so many microphones open. And it seems to be favored by most producers that I work with.

TB: How about your cymbal setup?

CS: I use a lot of the Zildjian A Custom -- a 22-inch ride; 13-inch hi-hats. . .

TB: Do you use a K/Z combination?

CS: Yeah. And I'm constantly changing the setup of all my cymbals, just because I can try out the new cymbals when they come in, so I take advantage of that. My favorites keep changing all the time [laughs]. You can imagine, it's like a kid in a candy shop.

TB: [laughing] Sure, you can afford to be fickle, right?

CS: Yeah. But my basic setup for the past two years has been a 16-inch crash on the left, 17-inch on the right. 17-inch china type on the right, and a 12-inch splash over the kick drum.

TB: Is that essentially what you played on the new XTC album?

CS: Yeah.

TB: Are there any songs or albums from the list you and I have been talking about that you'd point to and say, "Yeah, I think this really shows off my playing and approach"? I'm assuming Wasp Star would be one of those. . .

CS: Which one, sorry?

TB: Wasp -- the new XTC album.

CS: Oh, definitely. It's one of the few albums of all I've mentioned that, when I heard it, I really enjoyed it. I play it in the car. I definitely enjoy my playing on it, as well. I feel quite comfortable being represented by that.

The other drumming -- I quite like the Tashan album, for the soul side of my playing. Unfortunately, it's not a massive-selling record. Going back to this Mickey Curry article -- I've got to admit that there have been many times that I've felt a bit envious of this one paragraph that I read, about when he came to do the Tom Dickey album. He had just moved to New York, and while doing the album, he was asked to do Hall & Oates' album, and while doing their album, was asked to do the Bryan Adams record. Now, I know he absolutely deserves that -- and I just think it should happen to everybody [laughs] -- but the reason I'm saying that, is that some of my favorite records are ones that I wished had been successes, thinking, you know, that they could have helped my career. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to happen that way. But, then again, there's a reason for everything.

TB: Yeah. And here you are -- I mean, we were talking earlier about people who take another course, and you've persevered, and have made it. You're doing well and making your living as a musician, which is all that a lot of people ask for.

CS: This is true, yeah. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining -- I could be doing furniture removals! [laughs] No, I probably wouldn't change a thing, except for maybe some of the time [laughs]. Otherwise, I'm very happy and content.

TB: When you go to do a session, do you have a fairly standard approach that you like to take when you're discovering the music, or does it really depend on whom you're working with?

CS: I definitely have a standard approach. I first get a feel for what they're expecting from the drum side. Light touch, heavy touch -- they'll always have an idea of what they want from you. Sometimes it's something already programmed that they love except it's just a bit rigid. Then I write the arrangement out, and start with what just comes naturally when I approach the song, having heard their suggestions.

What was great about working with Andy and Colin was that they made me look at the way I approach a song slightly differently, which I really enjoyed, because if you're not careful, you can get jaded by how straightforward most sessions are. There weren't any major twists, but Andy would do things like explain what the song is about -- which doesn't happen all that often -- and how he felt when he wrote it, and at first I thought, "What?" [laughs] But it didn't take long before I got into the vibe of it. It did help the way I approached the song.

They also asked me to do things that weren't quite normal [laughs]. . .

TB: [laughing] Are you allowed to talk about them?

CS: [laughing] You know, as that was coming out, I thought, "Boy, this could be misconstrued" -- you know, suggesting to not use the hi-hat, or not to use any crashes. Something as simple as that can really make you take a different approach to the way you play a track. But, as I said, I really enjoyed it -- even more so, after hearing the result and hearing what they had heard in their heads. Because what I was playing to was very raw. It was all replaced and built up, pretty much, around the drum track after I had laid it down.

But, overall, a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I definitely hope it does happen again.

TB: How familiar were you with XTC before you became involved in this project? Were you a fan of theirs, or were you just acquainted with their music?

CS: I was just acquainted with their music. Except for the big hits -- "Making Plans for Nigel," that sort of thing -- I wasn't all that familiar with them. When I mentioned it to a few of my friends that the session was coming up, I started to hear stories [laughs].

TB: [laughing] And did those stories concern you, or. . .?

CS: Not really. You know, I'd just heard they were quite pedantic and knew what they wanted. But that didn't worry me too much. Nick, the producer, had worked with them before, so he was just basically telling me that it would be enjoyable, but there would probably be some work ahead of me. But as it turned out, it was nothing but enjoyable!

TB: Well, yeah, it sounds like it. This album has the sound of a band to it. Andy was even telling me that this is probably the one with the least amount of birth pains that he could remember, at least for a long time.

CS: Yeah, it was great fun.

TB: Was there any difference in the way Andy and Colin worked with you, or did they basically have the same approach?

CS: It was pretty similar. And the approach for both of them was different for the first track that I did. We did all of my tracks [Sabo plays on seven album tracks; Tubes drummer and XTC-session veteran Prairie Prince plays on four, recorded during the earlier Apple Venus Vol. 1 sessions] within a matter of four or five days -- but from the first track that I did until the third, it was already quite a different approach, in that they were trusting me. They knew they could say certain things, like colors [laughs], to describe the feels they wanted from songs, and I was picking up on it.

TB: Did you feel that initial distrust?

CS: No, it was nothing I could sense. The only reason I know about it is because Nick Davis, the producer, mentioned it to me after the session -- he was really happy to see how trusting Andy and Colin were about the whole thing. But think about it -- you've just met someone who's coming in to play on your album, and you're going on the word of the producer. For someone like Andy and Colin, who know what they want, I think they're going to be sitting there with fingers crossed and little beads of sweat on the forehead. That's just a natural part of it. It was nothing that I felt.

TB: I'd like to mention some of the tracks, and get your impressions on recording them. "Playground" is the first song on the album -- the song that the band picked to announce their return to more-aggressive, guitar-oriented music after the "orchoustic" Apple Venus Volume 1. It's got a great, sequential drum build as the intro. Was that intentional on your part?

CS: No, that came from Andy [laughs]. See, that's one of the things I was talking about. That's not the sort of thing I would have done, had I just sat down without any instruction. But that came through his instruction and bouncing ideas off me.

TB: When you're playing a straight-ahead song like this, what's going through your mind?

CS: The melody. Definitely the melody.

TB: And you think that comes from your background, being a songwriter yourself?

CS: I think it must be, yeah. I want to make sure I support the song and the singer.

TB: The next one is "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love."

CS: Yeah, brilliant song. I think that was just one of those tracks where, as soon as I started playing it, they were smiling. Basically, it was just the right feel for the right track. I don't think any of the songs took more than three takes; we got most of them in the first or second one. I think if you're going into many more than that, then something isn't quite right.

TB: "We're All Light" is next -- that's one of the highlights of the album for me. It has a very "hip-pop" beat -- very funky, but also very bright and poppy.

CS: Oh, yeah. That's another one -- great feel, great groove. That's a case where I thought, "Oh, this is right up my street." I could have played it again! That's the odd thing -- the songs that do usually feel so good that you get them the first or second take, you just wish you could play them again! [laughs]

TB: It sounds like you're doing a lot of grace notes on the snare.

CS: Yeah, yeah, I do incorporate a lot of grace notes. I think that's sort of puts in a bit of character. I'd have to say this is a "smiley" song. It's just one of those grooves [laughs].

TB: How about "Standing in for Joe"? This is one of Colin's songs, and he told me he was going for a Motown feel on this.

CS: I remember that Colin wanted a specific approach, which at first seemed quite awkward because it wasn't a natural approach, where you play your eighths on your hi-hat. He wanted this almost childish approach on the toms, like [imitates beat]. And once I started doing what he was trying to get out of me, and the song was playing through, it all started to fit in! But probably, left to my own devices, that's not the way I would have approached it. But I don't remember thinking of it as Motown. It was more quirky.

TB: "Wounded Horse" is a crunchy guitar blues with a difference.

CS: Yeah. That's just such a unique sort of groove to have on a pop song. I really enjoyed it when I started playing it to the song. The reason I say that is, before I would have heard the song, Andy might be excitingly tapping out the rhythm on his legs, and I might think, "That's quite odd" [laughs]. But once I was playing in the track, I just thought, "What a neat groove." It felt great to play -- I know I'm saying that about every track, but it's true! [laughs]

TB: How about "You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful"?

CS: Yeah, that's probably my favorite drum track on the record.

TB: I can almost see you grinning as you're playing it! Andy told me that he asked you to pretend you were a 14-year-old Arabic boy having a blast behind the kit.

CS: [laughs] That's exactly the sort of stuff he would say! He'd say, "Well, I could sense being a 14-year-old Arabic boy. . ." and I would usually stop him in mid-sentence and say, "Yeah, then I'll come in a play the drums!" [laughs] I think this was a track that Prairie had already recorded, and they were in two minds about it. I was there, the session was done, but it was ahead of schedule and the kit was still set up. They said, "Would you mind having a go at this?" I'm pretty sure this was another one-take song. And everyone just said, "Right, thank you. I'm glad we did that." [laughs]

TB: Yeah, Andy and Colin were talking about how different drummers have different approaches, and how they liked yours better on this. Plus, Haydn Bendall, the producer they had worked with before, had done a lot of editing to Prairie's takes, and Andy said he had edited the life out of some of them.

CS: Sometimes you get two like-talented drummers in a room and one's going to suit a track better than another. But that's great -- we're all different, or else we would just be drum machines, and there are enough of those around, I'll tell you! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Yeah, I'm glad they still need the human touch. The last song on the album you play is "Church of Women." Any thoughts on that?

CS: Simply that it's one of my favorite songs on the album. From a drumming standpoint, it's pretty easy one, but I love what the band did with it.

TB: Well, then, let me wrap up by asking about your future plans. Are there any musicians or groups that you'd particularly like to play with?

CS: There's an album that I played on that I think is probably going to do pretty well -- it's called "Made in London." It's a girl band, sort of En Vogue, but with heavier guitars. Sally is going to be releasing one of my and Jeanette's songs in June, so we'll have the excitement of having one of our first records released. Otherwise, there are a whole heap of people I'd love to play with -- you know, probably every drummer would have quite a few of the same: Steely Dan; Earth, Wind and Fire; I'd even quite like to do a tour with Phil Collins! [laughs] I like a lot of the grooves that he gets on his songs. But that's about it, really.

TB: Okay, well, I really appreciate your time today. This has been a lot of fun, and I'm glad you let me get inside your head for about an hour and a half here.

CS: Well, as I said, I appreciate your interest, and we both seem to enjoy this record, so it was painless. Cheers!

Go back to Chalkhills Articles.

Copyright 2000 by Todd Bernhardt