Allan Schwartzberg In Interview

Allan Schwartzberg interviewed by Mike Thorne
Feel is important. Somebody once said, "Sit on a tack." That's feel.
Do you feel that?

Allan Schwartzberg on the concept of "feel"

Allan Schwartzberg
was interviewed by Mike Thorne at
the Stereo Society, New York City on
December 13, 1999 starting 7:30pm

Streaming audio of Allan's answers can be heard by clicking on the player after each question. For help in playing music, see our Playing Audio page in the Big Help Desk.


Some people think that all you do is bash things. How important is arrangement skill to a drummer? How much should a drummer be aware of everybody else in a room?

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Funny that you should use that word arrangement, because I think the drummer is a hidden arranger in a song especially when doing a recording session where the producer or the arrangement will hand out something which is nothing more than a vague road map of where the song is going to go and some dynamic indications. The drummer really determines the feel and what beat it's going to be. In a real session it will be the drummer saying, "Why don't I just wait to come in. Won't it mean more if I come in after eight bars? Let something happen. We can't just give it away in the beginning."

Or, on the other hand, its a dance song so maybe we should start pumping right from the beginning or we will lose them after eight bars. So, the drummer is a secret arranger-- an unsung arranger. All the best arrangers really know that. They will always differ and say, "Well, what do you think? Do you think we should do that there? They will always check with you. That's the gift that the better drummers have; this sense of how to arrange the song.

The sound of the drum in the studio is often central to the sound of a song. It takes us on to the color of the drum and the sort of sound you get which is considered very important to drummers also. How difficult is that to get into the studio. It seems quite difficult. Why should that be?

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A number of things. The engineer you are working with could be getting a sound what he thinks he is hearing. I always like to record something immediately and hear what the engineer is hearing. I can be hearing one thing--a color or a sound--and he can be micing it in a certain way that is not reproducing the particular sound. That affects my part and that the way the sound feels.

One of the key parts is that, if it's a dance thing, it's a backbeat. Let's say just basic drum and snare drum. You have to check, like I said before, whether it is going down on tape the way you are picturing it. It could be like a Yes record with that boinking snare drum, with a backbeat happening. Something like that is great for that song and works. You want to make sure the guy is not dialing it out. He could be, "Oh, I hear this ring in the snare drum and why don't you put some tape on the snare," and stuff like that. No, I don't want to do that. Now, with all the outboard gear that is available, he might be doing that without you knowing it.

In the old days they would say that snare's ringing; just put some tape on it. No, I want it to ring; leave it that way, let it be noisy. When hen all the guitarists come in and everything is piled on it, that solo snare drum doesn't sound that way anymore. It's already hooked up with the other overtones and it sounds like its own sound. And, it should sound, especially a backbeat, like a key to a lock of a song. The sound of the backbeat is very key to the song, to that particular record, the whole record, a lot of times, is a backbeat we know especially with the older records, and, with the new records.

Why do you think we rely so much on the backbeat? A lot of types of music don't.

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Latin music never hits a downbeat. Ever. The bass player goes, "One, two, three, four, one donk, gong, ging, gung, gung, gunk. Don't hit the ones ever, that keeps it floating. A lot of jazz players would avoid a downbeat just to keep it floating. People need backbeats, too. You cannot help but move to that. It gets to everybody. It's primal. The backbeat pulls everybody in. It's the heartbeat. It's kind of a mysterious thing, but everybody acknowledges that it's true. You slam a backbeat in there; you'll start moving to it. I love the way Latin music sounds; my all-time favorite music is Latin music and it has no backbeat ever and it has not two bars the same, and I personally enjoy that more than anything. But, for the masses they need to know where you are.

Staying on the backbeat and moving along to Disco. Rumor has it that you invented the Disco High Hat. How did that come about?

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I did it on a Gloria Gaynor record called Never Can Say Goodbye which is considered the first, what they referred to as a pea soup, kind of high-hat part. In fact, it's actually on a record that just preceded that record that I also did called Love I Lost by a Phil Duffy Group. But Never Can Say Goodbye was considered a treatment of a song and it was a Disco treatment. I know people like Meko who did Disco records and did them masterfully but were like banished from the kingdom forever because of the "D" word. They were associated with that dreaded "D" word and, yet, the shit never really changed. It's the same; it has not changed at all. The dance stuff today is very Disco. They just don't call it that

What other sessions stand out in your memory?

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The Peter Gabriel sessions. Peter would gather the musicians around the piano and play the song, and it became a running gag. I would say-after every song he played, "I don't hear drums on this." It was so off the wall and different. I knew I would have to dig down into every bit of DNA I had and try to come up with something that was not ordinary. With Peter's songs wouldn't let you play an ordinary beat to it. Those were wonderful sessions. He's great, and I still love him. I did a tour with him after the album, the first tour after he left the band, Genesis. I see him every once in a while but I don't know what he is doing lately. That was great moment.

Playing on an Alice Cooper record with Bob Ezrin (who was also Gabriel's producer) was a lot of fun. I also loved the James Brown sessions! Although, I didn't think they would turn out as well as they did because it was kind of an all-white band and with James' guys around. They weren't asked to play, and we were a bunch of studio guys playing. They would sit in on light percussion or overdub something after we left. But, when I heard the record, what a great feel James Brown has--it's unbelievable. The drum part was pretty cool, I thought. That was my memorable James Brown: hearing James Brown sing on these mediocre tracks and hear him sound that great and funky on those swinging records.

I did an album with Desmond Child and Rogue that I enjoyed very much years ago. Desmond Child has written many hit songs. Lot of fun with Mike Thorne on the Roger Daltrey album. That was great fun. In fact, one track we did, I loved so much, I took home a copy. I was playing it for my friend, Jimmy Mailing, the percussionist. I said listen to the feel on this thing. Do you remember that first tune that we did? Right. Walking in My Sleep. That was a lot of fun.

In many ways you are referring to the Good Old Days when really New York session playing was at its height and the scene was so hot and it was tremendous, but it has dried up since then. Why do you think that is?

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Mike, I don't know. I think it's economics. I understand to hire guys to come around and work at a song with you, pay them all this money--you can get a pretty reasonable facsimile at home with your machines. You can get it to sound the way you want it and, let's face it, everybody that drums their fingers on a table thinks he's a drummer and now he has a chance to act it out. I mean the technology is superb, and I use it. I enjoy it myself especially that I am getting on in years. I had to do a thing today for a commercial. It was a bitch to play. But, all I had to do was play two good bars. You know, in the old days you would have to play until your arm was swelling up like Popeye's arm. Now, if
you can get just get two bars in, you can loop it and overdub little things on top of it.

With all the current electronics providing drum loops and instant energy at the press of a button, where does a real drummer, an acoustic drummer, I believe was the expression, where does an acoustic drummer fit in now? What does a playing drummer bring to a track?

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Well, first of all, the best part of it is that he's not you. If you are the man who has made all the music on the track so far, you should get another opinion of what it should feel like and you'll never come up with the things a drummer comes up with because this is where he lives and he'll just naturally go to places you won't go to and, if you are open to it. What’s happened with electronics is the accuracy is on such a high level that it has weeded out a lot of players. I mean I have my moments where it is just, thank god for quantizing. You can't nail every single beat of every bar; you just can't do it. But there are certain ideas that a drummer will bring, and it is just the way he feels about the music and that can be very valuable to you.

You're really talking about a record making perspective. In other words, having a team rather than just sitting in a well.

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I think you're crazy not to use a team. I don't know anybody that makes a record all by himself. Maybe you can get away with one record. Maybe Thomas Dolby made one good record or something like that. Did he? I'm not sure if he used any other players. You really need players. I would never do a record of mine that I was producing without other players and getting their stuff. I mean I'll play bass part on the keyboard, and it'll be okay, but it's not going to be, "Oh, man, I never would have thought of that!" That's what you want. You want that kind of stuff in your record. Things you never would have thought of. That's what a drummer brings.

You've turned it around the other way. I remember you mentioning that you were presented with an electronic drum part and that sent you off into other arrangement places, that you had an electronic part and that sent you somewhere else possibly because electronics will do something which is completely impractical.

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Well, every programmer will have to admit, if you can corner him, the best things that they have on their little home-made drum parts, I don't mean disrespectfully, I do a little disrespectfully, the best things they come up with are accidental things. "Yeah, I meant that, sure I meant to play that," and it turns out to be cool, and I can hear a thing. You can get it from a guitar player saying, "Hey, what have you played like..." Usually, when I start to hear that first opening line, "Hey, what have you played," I always feel like leave me alone. Come on just play your instrument and let me figure out what I am trying to do, but I listen to everybody. Maybe I will get something, kind of something, out of what they say and use it. And, like electronic stuff I can hear, well, that's a kind of cute idea to put the bass drum on two and four instead of the snare drum on two and four, you know.

How often do you combine electronics and acoustic drums?

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Very often. I love playing. You can get just a wonderfully expedient effect by playing live cymbals and triggered snare, a real snare, trigger-toms, trigger bass drum where you have control of those things. You can raise levels and change tunings and not have to worry about tom toms dying on you and snare drums dying on you. Yeah, even a midi-pad snare is cool sometimes. Now they have great equipment. Yamaha makes beautiful stuff and V-Drums drums. I enjoy playing to loops, adding to loops, adding the human element to a loop. One of the best things you can do is play a real live high-hat to a backbeat snare and that really makes it breathe. I think we did some of that recently.

What you're saying is that you bring inaccuracy to the table. But you call it feel. How did you define it? Is it possible to measure it?

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No. Feel. The word is thrown around a lot. Feel is totally subjective. I feel like Marvin Gay's What’s Going On, is thrilling or the old MOTOWN records are thrilling, "Philly Joe" Jones playing drums with Winton Kelly in the old days is thrilling and Roger Hawkins first backbeat on Chain, Chain, Chain when he comes in with that first snare backbeat. That's something like intersex in the universe once every million years or something. I feel things in certain ways. Hopefully, what I feel is valuable to other people. Feel is important. Somebody once said, "Sit on a tack." That's feel. Do you feel that? Feel is like an agreement. Do you agree-- let's say we are talking about a drummer. Is this drummer feeling the thing the way you want him to feel it because you are producing. You have to feel that I am feeling the way you were or maybe differently, but enjoyably.

I was once working with an unmentionable set of musicians who were asked to play with a Memphis-kind of a feel like Atlanta's STAX, and they said, "Oh, yeah, you mean out of tune." Now which is more important: being accurate or having an indefinable feel?

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I've heard of that. I have very good friends. One of my oldest best friends Allen Rubin is one of the Blues Brothers. Allan has this thing about horns playing out of tune. He's totally disdainful and yet its kind of part of the charm to me of the Latin horn sections, you don't want them dead-on on that thing. Its got some kind of an edge to it and he doesn't understand that, cause he's a wonderful trumpet player. He's a master trumpet player. He doesn't understand something like that.

I'll take it one step further. Do you think we are concentrating too much on accuracy when records are made nowadays?

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Well, accuracy is important. Speaking of accuracy. I don't understand Lauryn Hill's. I don't understand that kind of success. There is such inaccuracy in those records yet people-- I'd be shot for saying this-- people adore her. I love inaccuracy; I love accuracy, does it feel good? Like you asked before, how does it all feel? Sometimes accurate is boring. You know, dead accurate is like old machine beats and some Rap stuff that is just boring because it goes on and on. You like it to breathe a little bit. But then it passes a point, where it's inaccurate and that inaccuracy doesn't make you feel good. I don't feel good when it's too inaccurate.

Is that why people favor loops in many cases rather than drum machines. What happens when somebody takes a loop that you play, for example, in Funky President, the James Brown tune, how do you feel about that? They take your feel and make it the basis of a record and, therefore, grafts your personality onto their record, incorporating something which you have played. Now somebody else's. music is being copped and is being, in some way, stolen. How do you feel about that?

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Well, it's too late now. It's already out-of-hand. Now that the sampling procedure is: I call you up and get permission or you pay something if you are going to cop. I think you pointed out that, Puffy coped a whole Police record. So, I guess, there's a financial arrangement worked out so everyone's happy. But, as far as grabbing a drumbeat, it's been going on for really a long time; not only my beats but also a lot of other drummers’ beats.

So, I ask the question is it okay to swipe eight bars off someone's score and use that and I'm going to lay some sound effects on top of this orchestral thing where forty-eight musicians are playing and the guy slaved over this part? Maybe took him a day to write it. Tied up his life to write it. And, I'm going to use it for some little moment for my use. It's going to go on the air. Where's the morality there? Is that okay? You know, it's a tricky question. At this point, it seems as it's too far gone. Our union should have been looking out for us. There should have been guidelines and rules set up. I think it would be better if it wasn't that way, but it is that way. Everybody is fair game. Now people are ripping off Puffy, too. It's a vicious circle.

Your groove on Funky President is probably one of the most used samples ever. How proprietarily do you feel about that?

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Well, you know, I just recently got credit for the record. A musicologist, who's put together the compilation for James Brown and I am just thankful to get credit at this point. Does that answer the question? At least people know that it's me playing on there. When I do interviews like this, I mention it. By the way this is a very much-sampled beat that is used on a lot of records and samplers and programmers tell me, "Oh, man, I've used that a million times." I never actually wrote down which records they are, but I know there are loads of records. So, at this point, at least I got credit for it on the record. You know, the old Motown stuff, those wonderful drummers never got credit on any of those records. James Jamison was just nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I just read. He was the bass player on all those records. There's a new category that the Hall of Fame created called sidemen, as in sessions sidemen.

Musicians have borrowed from each another for centuries. What’s different now? What’s wrong with the present time when compared to people stealing from Mozart? Well, not so much stealing, as making great work.

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Well, what used to happen you would be influenced by. You would copy somebody. It would eventually be a jumping-off point. At some point you would develop your own character. Now, you are actually taking a recording of something they've done and using it. It's a slightly different thing, I think. As a player, you would be influenced by these guys. Your influences, and you, maybe, would even use a lick of theirs once in a while but you could never really be like them; you would be something like them, but this is exactly their stuff that you are reproducing.

In using jingles, stylistically so much is drawn into jingles from Rock and Roll songs and there's so much stylistic pillaging. But, this takes us onto writing a jingle and the attractions of that. Some people compare it to writing a thirty-second Pop song. How do you feel about that? Since you do so much of that.

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I really enjoy it. It's music. They're like musical puzzles and you have to kind of solve them. For instance, scoring a scene in a movie. A scene in a movie might be thirty seconds long. So, there's not much of a difference there. It's also a kind of skill you have to hone because you have to get it across in fifteen or thirty seconds. It's challenging and It's music. It's not like a day gig; it's music. I play the drums. I get a chance to play the drums. I invite myself to sessions instead of waiting for people to invite me. I play with great players, the best players in New York. Absolutely, the best. They all do it and they love doing it.

Every so often musicians will say that the jingle business drives them crazy. Do you get any of that or do you enjoy it at the moment?

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No. Nobody says that anymore, by the way. Nobody. There's not that much recording work going on. So, you know, everybody is very respectful. Everybody is on time, too, strangely enough. But, you have to be there, because, if you are not taking care of business-- they're paying you very well. To get paid very well to play music--I mean-come on-- it's like being a New York Yankee or something.

So the drying up of the session scene, the pure music session scene, do you think this is hindering the development of new talent? That it’s cutting off a root for people to come through.

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They are not going to have the recording experience. Today, everyone has their own little studios at home. The technology and equipment is so terrific and everything's getting cheaper making it easier for people to own. There are great young players--more than ever--and music is more popular than ever too. If you just want to focus on drummers, I tell you drummers are fantastic now days because they grew up listening to drum machines. The accuracy of drum machines, the great records, and all the recording equipment at home, teaches them how hear themselves. In the process they learn how to record. They also have to carve out a place for themselves.

Do you see more of an amateur scene in the sense of people just loving what they do?

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Yes. Loads and loads. It happens in every suburb in every city. Everybody's got their little home studio and everybody's coming over to record and make their own little home-made records. Much more than ever. Getting into the mainstream or hitting it big time is much slimmer and slimmer. The odds have gone up so greatly because there are so many people trying. But, there's no lack of trying.

How do you think it's different for a drummer, say, a generation behind you? What would you say just looking back from your position there and from your experience?

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He or she has got a lot more competition. It's much more than I had coming up, I would say. There are just tons of great players and that's what they are going to have to face. So, they are going to have to weed out. I don't know what it is going to come down to. If they are competing for the gig with Sheryl Crow or something and they want to go on the road with her and there are twenty drummers auditioning which they always have when an act goes out like that. It's going to come down to not only the best player, but who's the best in other aspects. For instance: the guy they are going to want to stay on the bus with. So, it's competition in every way. You can't be just a great player anymore because there are a lot of great players. You've got to be a person, too. When I grew up, you could be a mother-fucker of a player and just not have developed anywhere as a person and still somehow have gotten away with it. People would put up with you, tolerate you; that's not happening anymore. Nobody is going to deal with that.

Do you think musicians should have social skills or do you think they are better off when they are on a different planet?

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It's nice to be on a different planet while you are playing, but you have to get back immediately and relate to people. And, when you're playing, you have to feel each other, you know. Again, that word "feel," but you have to relate to one another especially when you are in a band. You don't relate to anything when--you are relating to the producer when you are playing with a pre-recorded track--but you are relating to somebody; you are always relating to somebody. You have to have social skills.

Allan Schwartzberg at the Stereo Society (selected links):
To Allan Schwartzberg's home page (all links)
Interview with Mike Thorne, December 1999 at the Stereo Society
Audio Clips from December 1999 interview with Mike Thorne
Interview with Jim Payne, Give The Drummers Some 1996
The Working Drummer by Robert Santelli, Modern Drummer 1988
Cab Chases and Smart Moves: A Day In The Life by Chris Doering, College Musician 1988
To Allan Schwartzberg's selected discography