If you read through the liner notes on "Kamakiriad,"
Christopher Parker, one of the most-in-demand studio drummers on the
music scene, gets the credit for his excellent work on "Trans-Island
Skyway," "Countermoon," "Florida Room" and
"On The Dunes." Chris was involved in the project from the
very beginning and has now joined the ranks of the other illustrious
drummers who made it to a Fagen and Becker recording. Tracing his ancestry
to a drummer in the American Revolution, Chris has played with many
other fine artists including James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis
and Bob Dylan and is currently working on his own hip-hop jazz album.
In this interview conducted by "Metal Leg's" own Pete Fogel,
Chris talks about the "Kamakiriad" sessions as well as many
of the other projects he's been involved with over the years. (Transcription
by Brian Sweet).
Metal Leg: So, we heard that you were a co-founder of the band,
Christopher Parker: Originally it was called the Encyclopedia of
Soul and it was myself, Gordon Edwards, Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee
and a tenor player named Charlie Brown. We had a singer named Esther
Marrow, who later became Queen Esther. I was in the Brecker Brothers
at the same time and I didn't want to leave the Encyclopedia of Soul
in the lurch. At the same time I had run into Steve Gadd with Joe Farrell
-- he had just gotten into town and I went to hear him at the Village
Vanguard. He was amazing, ridiculous. I fell over myself to meet him,
talk to him about drumming and we had a long conversation and one thing
led to another. He had played a lot of Latin, lot of jazz, lot of bebop
and he said "I'd love to play some R&B." I said "I've
got just the band for you," so I sent him up there to sub and they
loved him, too.
ML: And they threw you out?
CP: No, I came back off the road with the Brecker Brothers and
the band was still going on and we would alternate at Mikells according
to our respective recording sched-ules.
ML: How did they get the name Stuff?
CP: That's what Richard and Gordon called everybody -- "Hey,
Stuffy, what's happening?" There's a Coleman Hawkins tune called
"Stuffy" and maybe it started right back then. But nobody
was known by their first name, it was "Hey, Stuffy, what's happening?"
ML: So you were the original drummer with Stuff? What year was
CP: '74. That's when I came in from Woodstock and Paul Butterfield.
It was a dream for me. Cornell Dupree, Gordon Edwards and Richard Tee
had been on all the albums I listened to -- "King Curtis Live at
the Fillmore West," Aretha records, and all the Atlantic, ATCO,
Stax, Volt and Muscle Shoals stuff had a lot of those guys on it. It
was a thrill.
ML: Did you live in Woodstock for the music?
CP: Yeah, I did a lot of stuff there. I was going to school here
in New York -- the School of Visual Arts. In '68, '69, '70 I was an
art student. I was very lonely all by myself painting in an apartment
and one day I couldn't take it any more. I said I've got to interact.
I'd been playing drums all the time I was growing up. I answered an
ad in "Rolling Stone" for a band that needed a drummer and
they were in Woodstock. So I called up and talked to the guys and the
next day I was up there in Woodstock.
ML: What was the band?
CP: Holy Moses.
ML: Did they make any records?
CP: Yeah, there's one album on RCA. In 1971 I guess the album came
out. But the band broke up and I stayed up there and played with a lot
of different bands.
ML: So your painting took second place and drumming took over?
CP: Yeah, I still did both, but I needed to interact and be around
ML: So when did you move back to New York?
CP: After four years I came back to New York from Woodstock --
Summer of '74. I just started going out to hear everybody I could hear
and I ran into Gordon on a jingle date. He said, "Hey, Stuff, why
don't you come up to my club tonight and check us out?" So I went
up there and they were on a break. I was sitting there waiting to hear
the band and Gordon spotted me and said "Why don't you come up?"
I said, "I didn't hear anything yet." So we started playing
and I found out later the drummer was Herschel Dwellingham, the guy
who played with Weather Report. Once I started playing, I played the
rest of the night. That was it, then I came the next night, and the
next night and brought my own drums and that was the beginning of a
long, happy relationship.
ML: What were your favorite projects after that?
CP: The Brecker Brothers, there was stuff with James Brown, an
Aretha record, a track with Miles Davis, some great R&B stuff --
Ashford and Simpson, Van McCoy, a great record by R.B. Greaves -- some
of my favorite playing.
ML: How was it playing with Miles?
CP: He wasn't there. I just heard seven different trumpet solos
simultaneously. I got a call at midnight to come in from Jimmy Simpson,
Valerie's brother. George Butler was there and Davis' nephew, Vince
Wilburn, had already played on the track but they didn't like it, so
I replaced the drums on the track. But even without him being there,
it was great. The tune was called "Shout." It's on "The
Man With The Horn" album. I did it after they'd already put the
credits on there, so I'm not credited.
ML: When did you play with Bob Dylan?
CP: Winter of '88. I was working on "Saturday Night Live"
and got a call that he was putting together a band, so I went and played
with him and I thought, "This is great." We played for ten
hours or something -- played all these tunes and I didn't hear anything
else. And then a couple months later I got a call saying, "Are
you ready to go out on the road?"
ML: Did you play on any of his records?
CP: No, I never did any of those records. I think probably a couple
of years from now what we did in those summers of '88, '89, '90 will
be a bootleg, like what they did on past stuff. I know they have tapes,
board tapes, video, DAT, every kind of tape.
ML: So you'll get on wax that way?
CP: I hope so, `cause that was a good band. The original bass player
was Kenny Aaronson and Tony Gamier came in when Kenny got sick. The
original band was really tight and it was a new thing for Bob, too,
and he was excited.
ML: How was it working in rehearsals and everything?
CP: He was great. You mentioned something about the similarities
or differences of working with Bob and working with Donald. I thought
about that question and there's a lot of similarities and there's a
lot of differences. To me, the similarities are what they're looking
for is something intangible from the drums. They're looking for a feeling,
for a vibe. They are looking for an inflection. The tempo can be right
and all the notes can be right, but it's still missing something. It
still needs an attitude or a slant on it. It's more than just laying
it back or pushing it ahead, or dealing with the lyrics, trying to illustrate
the lyrics, which is something that I sort of do automatically. Coloring
verses and coloring choruses and such. Not literally -- I mean I don't
make a wave sound when Donald tells us about "On The Dunes,"
but it's like an attitude. But I did that with Bob, too.
ML: It seemed like the drums were the most important thing for Donald.
Was it the same with Bob?
CP: Yeah. I don't know about in the studio, but certainly live,
Bob wanted to have a good foundation and he wanted to know what I was
gonna be doing. He would turn around to me until he heard what he liked
happening before he would launch into the tune, whether it was an old
tune or a new tune like the stuff that we did off "Under The Red
Sky" when that album came out. Certain feels that evolved on the
road became very important and with the older tunes, he was always looking
for a new take on some of the old stuff. If it ever got predictable
or if it ever got to the point where if the same thing happened two
nights in a row, he would immediately go left. He would put it in 3/4
or 12/8 or start the verses on the end of three instead of on one. It
was challenging. He would have to find a new way to sing it or a new
way to compact or stretch out the phrasing which was endlessly fascinating
to me. In the same way that Donald does a lot of stuff with phrasing
-- phrasing over the bar line, twisting the words around the melody
and stuff that's not straight ahead.
ML: On my first listen to "Kamakiriad," Donald's voice
seemed a bit back in the mix. Did you notice that at all?
CP: I noticed a difference on the record from what I remembered
during the sessions because at the sessions I didn't have much to listen
to except a scratch vocal, his live keyboard pass and maybe a keyboard
pad and there was no bass. There might have been sequenced percussion
or something to listen to, just a hi-hat. I was used to hearing the
vocals very up front.
ML: That was in your headphones?
CP: Yeah, and there wasn't much else. It made it hard to judge
what else was gonna be on the track. I think a couple times I asked
"Well, what else is goin' on here?" and they didn't really
know at that point. To what extent there were gonna be horns or guitar
or bass? There was no bass player. I had no idea Walter would end up
playing bass and lead guitars.
ML: When did you first get called for that?
ML: Where did you work?
CP: The Hit Factory. I think we did "Countermoon" maybe,
or the one that became "Trans-Island Skyway" and we did a
lot of other tunes, too, that were abandoned or maybe that will be for
a future project.
ML: Can you remember any titles?
CP: No. There was one where on the top of the sheets that just
ML: How did you end up in the Maui sessions?
CP: Walter called me and I was on the road with with Bob. He said,
"We want you to come to Hawaii" and I said, "Oh, great
and when can we do it?" and he said "We want you November
17th or 18th.
ML: What year was this?
CP: This is '90. I said, "I will have just finished with Bob
the 16th" and he said, "That's when we want you, with the
blood and the beer and the sweat. Oh man, he was very keen on my coming
directly from the Bob Dylan thing.
ML: So this is a big gap between the Hit Factory?
CP: Yeah, I assumed I blew it. They're not gonna use it, they're
not gonna call me back. Out of the blue I get another one of these calls.
It was always a surprise. God, I can't believe they're calling me back
ML: Out of all the great drummers they've used, it must have been
a great compliment to you.
CP: That's how I felt. Purdie, Gadd. I felt very complimented and
flattered to be in there with that company. And the other guys on this
record, Leroy and Denny McDermott, are great.
ML: So you went to Hawaii in Thanksgiving of 1990?
CP: Right, that was my birthday.
ML: So they paid for your flight?
CP: Oh, yeah. They put me up in this great house.
ML: How far was this house from Walter's studio?
CP: About a mile and a half, two miles.
ML: Is Walter's house the same as his recording studio?
CP: No, a different location.
ML: Who was there?
CP: Just Walter and Donald and Roger Nichols. Donald and Walter
came and picked me up in this truck and we listened to Sonny Rollins
with Ben Riley on drums on the way to the studio. It was a whole different
vibe than the New York thing. It was like we're hangin'. It was beautiful,
it was gorgeous. They seemed much more relaxed, plus the eight months
solid of playing with Bob without a break was behind me and I was turning
forty and that was a high point. I couldn't think of any place I'd rather
be on my 40th birthday than recording with Donald and Walter. So I was
really happy. I'm so happy about the whole session, the stuff that I
did that ended up on the record.
ML: Were there any other musicians there besides Donald and Walter?
CP: Just me.
ML: How long did you stay?
CP: Ten days or something. We had Thanksgiving ... I said "Hey,
it's Thanksgiving" and Walter said, "I'll give you Thanksgiving"
and he gave me some Oscar Mayer smoked turkey cutlets and said, "That's
your Thanksgiving." We worked all day. We got some great stuff
and we had smoked turkey sandwiches.
ML: What tunes did you work on there? Did they make it to the record?
CP: I think we worked on "Tomorrow's Girls," but it wasn't
finished and Donald said "We'll do more with that one later"
and then Leroy Clouden played it on the album.
ML: Did all the drummers try all the songs?
CP: I don't think so. I don't think anybody else tried "On
The Dunes" except me. I don't think anybody did what became "Trans-Island
Skyway," either. It was one of those that didn't have a title yet.
Certain parts of the lyrics were done and certain parts weren't and
he would sing what he had done. If he did have all the lyrics, he wasn't
happy enough with them to sing them on a scratch vocal yet. But that
was real important to me to hear what the vocal was gonna be. The way
I hear it now with Walter playing bass I would have played it completely
ML: Why do you think they didn't let you play with a bass part?
CP: They clearly did it for a reason; I don't know what that reason
is. They did it to get the results that they got. But yeah, Walter came
out and played a little guitar one day and we jammed, which was real
fun. It would have been great to have jammed with him on bass, too.
ML: What sort of drum sound was Donald looking for?
CP: They had a real nice set provided by a guy Paul Marchetti.
I brought my own snares and my cymbals and bass drum pedal and hi-hat,
but they had a studio set there. It had been in Hawaii a couple of years,
I guess, and a lot of the hardware was corroded and I sort of like the
effect it had on the drums -- sort of dampening them without taking
away the sound. And then Walter came out with these mutes -- I don't
know what they're called -- it's like an arm that rests on the tom tom
and everytime you hit it the arm bounces right back to the head. So
it's a real dry sound on the top and bottom heads of the tom toms, so
the feel he had on "On The Dunes" and stuff is very dry. At
the Hit Factory I brought my own Pearl drums.
ML: Speaking of "On The Dunes," there's a break where
you really go off.
CP: I figured something went down in the studio and they're just
letting the tape run and I'll just play anyway and I was really into
the tune, so I just kept playing. I figured they'd stop me. Hyperbolic
Sound is two separate buildings. The only link is a video camera, so
they can see me, but I couldn't see them. So if I didn't hear anything,
I kept playing. If they wanted to start over again, they would let me
know. What they usually did was stripe the tape with smpte -- enough
so I could do three takes in a row. I'm not sure which take that is,
but I think it's one complete take. I was really into it just playing
the changes. There was nothing else on there -- no bass, no guitar,
no percussion just me and Donald's track and scratch vocal.
ML: Have you ever recorded that way before?
CP: I've done a lot of recording where they have a sequencer and
I'm adding to a drum machine. I did a George Benson record that way,
but usually there's bass and guitar and Donald's stuff was really sparse.
It was hard to tell how it was gonna end up.
ML: Roger Nichols said in an issue of "EQ": "We recorded
about a zillion passes of Chris playing along with the sequencer. After
Chris was safely on a plane back to New York, we took his drum part
apart piece by piece. Mind you the performance wasn't bad, he was just
half a millisecond late here, a millisecond early there, you know the
usual stuff. What he played on the intro, bridge and fade we actually
kept intact; all we really manufactured was the verses, some cymbal
crashes from somewhere else, a bunch of snare hits from all over the
place and put them all together in a sequence and made them match the
drum machine pattern."
CP: Which tune is he talking about?
ML: You tell me. I have no idea.
CP: A zillion is a little bit of an exaggeration. Being Roger,
I'll allow it. He's Immortal, he's a great guy, he's a very talented
ML: So was this actually you playing or was this a computer on
CP: I listen to it and I remember playing it. Whether they used
offsets and shifted things around, that's totally possible. What's there
is what I played. They may have taken what I played here and put it
over there and they certainly altered the sound of the drums sonically,
making it more dry and crisper than the way it was. But what they went
for in the studio -- tighten the bass drum up -- more tighter snare
drum head. I had the snare drum tightened up as far as it would go.
So what they did after my performance, I can't tell you.
ML: Would they work on one song per session? Did you spend a long
time getting the drum sounds just the way they wanted them to?
CP: It was usually one song per session. Except in Maui we did
something different every day. We spent a long time getting drum sounds
and getting the drums to sound just the way they wanted 'em to.
ML: Did Donald describe what he was looking for in a song?
CP: Yeah, but it was pretty abstract and pretty sparse. He never
said "Play this" or "Don't play this." For some
of the tunes he had a chart that had figures in it and had the bar structure
laid out, but he didn't have a pattern written.
ML: Did he ever mention any other artist or group as a stylistic
CP: No. But the way he spoke to me conveyed to me anyway what he
was looking for in terms of attitude and inflection is more accurate.
Because everybody can speak the language; it's the words you accent
and what part of the country you're from. Like you can tell the difference
between somebody who lives in Philadelphia and somebody who lives in
Boston or somebody who lives in western Pennsylvania and eastern Pennsylvania,
very subtle things that they're looking for. A lot of times it's just
a question of breathing differently on the take, breathe a little deeper;
you're in Maui, take it easy. I mean, the New York thing is, like, hit
ML: You were in the "Gaucho" sessions for "Time Out
Of Mind," but didn't make the final cut. What was the difference
between the "Gaucho" session and the "Kamakiriad"
CP: "Gaucho" was at A&R and it's a studio I spent
a lot of time in and it was special because they were there. But it
was not as special as Maui because there was nobody around for miles
-- it was just me in the studio -- since the studio is a separate building
from the control room building.
ML: Was working on "Kamakiriad" easier?
CP: "Kamakiriad" was just Donald, Walter and Roger. Donald
was giving me directions and Walter would elaborate on 'em and Roger
would make a joke about 'em. So it was easier to tell whether I was
doing the right thing or whether they liked what I was doing.
ML: What about "Gaucho"?
CP: For me, anyway, at the time there was too much input. Gary
Katz would be saying things and then you would see Gary and Elliot Scheiner
talking between takes and I wouldn't know what they were saying. Then
Donald would come around and say something and Walter would elaborate
on that. Between the three different opinions, there was too much input
for me to get a clear idea of what was good about that past take. What
should I change and what should I keep the same? And the attitude thing
was hard to pin down. Is that the right attitude? Is that the kind of
thing you're looking for? Some of it would be and some of it wouldn't
and as I remember, I couldn't get a clear direction, a single affirmative
or negative. We spent a lot of time going through different drums and
different snare drums and I got to the point where I sort of lost my
bearing in terms of what they were looking for in sounds and attitude
and everything. Ten years later I'm that much older and that much more
confident and have that much more experience. I guess all those things
contributed to how well the sessions went in Maui, the Hit Factory and
ML: Who is harder to please? Walter or Donald?
CP: I think Walter is harder to please. But they're both very demanding
and very microscopic about what goes on, just perfection and really
a whole different level of perception, especially about drums. There's
a lot of stuff I do -- inside stuff on the snare drum in between the
backbeats that is just instinctual and that's sort of my playing style.
Donald would love that stuff and Walter would say there's a lot of extraneous
stuff going on. Well, the extraneous stuff is what makes the big beats
sound more important or mean something. That's why drum machines are
good at what they're good for. You can get 'em to play just the big
beats. There's a whole process that goes into playing any instrument,
especially drums, since it's all four limbs at once. That everything
contributes to your breathing. What I was seeing outside around me in
Maui, which I showed you in my paintings, contributed a lot to my attitude
and my frame of mind, my perception of what the song is about.
ML: How was the communication between Donald and Walter and Roger?
CP: They are, like, inseparable. Donald and Walter is an entity
unto itself. Donald and Walter and Roger is like one person. They have
worked together so long they have this communication that's so ... you
really have to be on your toes to keep up with it. There're so many
double entendres and word plays and you're lucky if you catch half of
it -- at least I was.
ML: Did Donald change any of the songs significantly during recording?
CP: I think "Tomorrow's Girls" got changed. It started
out one way and had a completely different feel than what ended up on
ML: What is it like for a drummer when Donald and Walter want every
last millisecond of a drum track to be perfect?
CP: Patience is important. Also, consistency of performance, you gotta
keep givin' it to 'em. So that you don't lose ground, you gotta make
every take count. It's hard work, very demanding.
ML: You must have some funny stories about the Maui sessions.
CP: With my corning from the Bob Dylan tour, Walter said he wanted
me "with the blood, and the beer and the sweat." I said, "I
don't drink." He said, "Well, the blood and sweat, then."
ML: You had said earlier that they made jokes about bass players.
CP: Yeah, they said they have to have weird names. Lincoln Schleifer,
Zev Katz, Lincoln Giones, Tinker Barfield. And I told 'em about Toph,
which is what everybody calls me 'cause I was in a band in Woodstock.
It's like the second half of Christopher 'cause we had two Christophers
and the other guy was older so he was Christopher and I was Toph.
ML: Did Donald and Walter ever ask you about coming on the Steely
CP: No. I asked Donald about it at one of the Lone Star gigs. Libby
Titus called me for one way back for the first one. She said they were
gonna do Jerry Ragavoy tunes, but I couldn't do it, I was on the road
with Bob so I said, "Let me do it the next time," but I never
got another call.
ML: Is it unusual that they use you on the record, but use someone
else on the tour?
CP: Not at all. It's like a Dylan thing. You don't need to use
the (album) guys on the road for a live performance, and you don't use
those (tour) guys on the album.
ML: How do you think Peter Erskine will do on this tour?
CP: Fabulous, he's a great drummer and good friend. He's a killer.
He'll kill this stuff. He'll kill this shit.
ML: How about Warren Bernhardt?
CP: Warren will kill it, too. Warren and I worked together a lot
and he's a great player. I'm sure it will be great and it'll be a great
live record. Tom Barney's a killer bass player between Warren playing
keyboards and Donald I imagine will be playing keyboards. I wish I was
doin' it. It'll be fun.
ML: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
CP: I grew up listening to Monk, Mingus and Miles on the radio.
Count Basic and Duke Ellington. My father is a jazz nut and he plays
drums. Also he had a vast record collection -- still does, all the Monk,
all the Miles, all the Charlie Parker, all Sonny Rollins, all Coltrane,
so that was at my disposal growing up, plus there were these great FM
radio stations -- WRVR. Ed Beech is the guy who really stands out and
I would just have my head pressed to the speaker all day long.
ML: How old were you then?
CP: About 10 years old. It wasn't by choice -- that was what my
dad listened to and that's what was on. The radio was locked on that
station and I didn't have a record player.
ML: Were you diggin' it?
CP: Oh, yeah. The drums were set up -- my father had a set there.
He played soprano sax and clarinet and at a certain point, he swapped
some paintings for a set of drums, I think.
ML: Your whole family are musicians? How many brothers and sisters do
CP: Yeah, four younger brothers. They all, except for one, play drums
and my father plays drums and mom played piano and I have cousins who
play drums, uncles, great uncles ... a lot of drummers. My grandmother
traced our family back to the Revolution to this guy, William Dawes,
who supposedly was the guy who played drums with Paul Revere.
ML: How many kids do you have?
CP: I have two boys, Jack and Russell.
ML: Are they gonna be drummers?
CP: If they want to. I'm not gonna force 'em into it. But I play
records all the time for them to hear and they're into it. They're both
into piano and both into drums. And we have amazing jams.