Keith Carlock: The Batteria Interview

Keith Carlock: The Big Picture

Originally appeared on the February 2010 issue of Batteria magazine

Interview by Roberto BOB Baruffaldi

Keith Carlock’s first instructional DVD, The Big Picture, is out now. The drummer from Mississippi is internationally renowned thanks to his particular style and thanks to his collaborations with such great artists like Sting, James Taylor, Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan, that, for the first time in the band’s history, used only one drummer (Keith) to record the whole album (Everything Must Go/2003/Reprise Records). Ok, it already happened in the past that a single drummer (with a full band) recorded an entire Steely Dan CD, but just because these guys are used to use different bands to record all the tracks of the same CD (almost impossible to do these days), and then to choose the best versions of every single tune for every band, and then compile the CD. But no one succeeded like Keith. Carlock made it thanks to his drumming style, so particular and filled with the New Orleans flavour, and also thanks to his strong personality and his extreme versatility. Now he tried (with great success) to put all these things in his first instructional work named The Big Picture… (Hudson Music). This DVD really give to all of us the chance to look into the details of the drumming of one the most original and talented drummer of our era. Keith remained the same guy he was a lot of years ago, and the big success that he’s having didn’t change him. I remember when I saw him play at the 55 Bar in New York City, back in 1998, with the same trio he use on the DVD, with Wayne Krantz on guitar and Tim Lefebvre on bass, just when he wasn’t so popular like he is today.

I thought he was a great drummer since from the start (this is the easy part), and, when I briefly spoke to him between the first and the second set, I discovered this guy so humble and extremely kind. The same as today. When I wrote him an email to ask if he wanted to speak briefly of his new DVD, he said yes without any hesitation, and, in a few days he sent me back his answers to my questions, despite his busy schedule. In this little chat we talked mainly about his new DVD, with some technical incursion into the analysis of his wonderful drumming style. Let’s tune on the right frequency and prepare to listen what he told us…

I would like to start asking you who came with the idea of doing your first instructional DVD The Big Picture

Paul Siegel and Rob Wallis from Hudson Music approached me and wanted to know if I would be interested in doing a project with them. It took me a while to warm up to the idea, but the more we spoke about it and got to know each other on a personal level, it felt like the right thing to do.

How long did it takes to design and to realize the whole project, from the writing process to the shooting stage?

We met several times for lunch in New York City to discuss the content and ideas. It must have been over a year of discussing the ideas between all of our schedules. It wasn’t always easy getting us together at the same place and time!

Being this one your first instructional video, what kind of expectations do you have from this piece of work, and what do you think the viewer should get from this DVD, considering the huge amount of instructional stuff out there?

I don’t have any real expectations, but I hope that drummers and other musicians that play other instruments will watch it and get inspired in some way. I’m certainly not trying to change the world here, but I think it is just as valid as anything else out there. It’s not a competition. I am only trying to reveal my way of doing what I do. And I think there is some good stuff in there if you give it a chance….

Do you have any particular memories of the shooting of the DVD?

We shot the entire DVD in two days, which of course includes a lot of downtime setting up and getting sounds, fixing problems, etc. So it felt like we were limited with time and there was a lot of things to cover in such a short amount of time, but I was up for the challenge as best as possible! The first day took a few hours to get a flow happening, but eventually we did and I got more comfortable and relaxed. I must say, it was one of the biggest challenges of my career so far, but I am glad to say that I am happy with how it turned out.

What do you think has been the most difficult part (if there is one) of the shooting, from your point of view?

For me, it was getting comfortable with the cameras, the in studio audience, and the sound in the room. It had to happen fast, so some of the usual detail I would prefer wasn’t there, but Rob and Paul are really great at this and I trusted them to make it all work, and it did! They both really made things more comfortable for me and made the vibe great for us to work. In the end, I had a great time doing this DVD!

What kind of preparation/practicing you did just before the shooting of the DVD?

I practiced the tracks that I played along with of Oz Noy and Rudder. Wayne Krantz, Tim Lefebvre and I rehearsed once to go over some of the topics I wanted to cover, and to decide which tunes we would play and use as demonstrations. But as far as the order and flow of things, I am more comfortable “going off the cuff” and staying in the moment without planning to much detail.

Who had the idea to play with the trio on the DVD?

I think it’s really interesting to see those songs played and analyzed so well… Especially because I think that not all the things that happen in that trio can be explained… I did. I wanted that band to be more exposed and Wayne and Tim agreed to do it which I’m very thankful for. I think that segment went very well. That was on the second day of the shoot and everyone was much more relaxed and into a flow. I’m very proud of that segment.

A “funny” questions: who hold the 1 in that trio? You know what I mean…

WE all do, but if there’s ever a question, I DO! Ha…

Watching you playing on the whole DVD, I see that you always hold the stick really on its back; is this an habit that you have, or you do this intentionally, and why? Can you also talk about your stick technique in details?

I get a better backbeat that way because there is more weight and momentum behind the stroke. It’s personal as everything is, and it just works for me. My technique…? I am always feeling and thinking about the stick naturally rebounding as opposed to digging into the head and having to pick the stick back up for the next stroke. The bounce already does that for me, so I am using less energy and it also helps the sound of the drums and cymbals to not dig in so hard and choke the sound.

Another thing that I see, is that your arm are not completely crossed when you play on the hi-hat; you do this to let move your left arm more freely (and higher), and to gain more power on the backbeat?

Yes, exactly. It’s not something I do all the time, but depending on what I am playing, it can help to keep the backbeat strong and solid to free up the space between crossing the hands.

On the DVD there’s an interesting discussion that I would like to elaborate again on this interview; speaking of personality, what kind of approach do you have when it comes to play those famous grooves on the Steely Dan gig, that has been played by some of the greatest drummers in history?

First of all, I am a fan! So I dissect the parts very carefully and have studied over and over what makes these grooves and parts so special, and try to connect with that the best way that I can. I choose where I can change things a little or make them my own, but for the most part, I am sticking to the original parts and grooves from the records as much as I can. Naturally, I will feel things differently and will choose to play different fills and phrases where it’s appropriate. I find my places where I can make it more of my own.

On that portion of the DVD you play those grooves to a click in your hears? The bpms are relatives to the studio versions or to the live version you guys play live? Is there any difference?

Yes, I wanted to make sure I was “in the ballpark” tempo wise. I think it was pretty close to the original recordings and to how we play them live.

I had an incredible impression when I saw you playing that wonderful groove on the Jackass Surcharge track. I know that in our previous interview we already talked about the strong New Orleans influence in your drumming, but this time I would like to elaborate a little bit the subject of make it sounds so contemporary. What do you think is the reason that they sounds so up to date, maintaining their historical foundation?

Great question, but I’m not sure I have the answer. Maybe it’s just that we are using more “modern” sounds in the band sonically, but I think the drums would be more or less in the tradition. Of course that track is a second line groove in 7/8, so that’s enough right there to sound a bit abnormal within that vibe!

I also see that you change your foot technique depending of the amount of muffling used on the bass drum. This means that you have to change the technique for longer period of time, playing gigs like Sting or Steely Dan? How this change affect your playing and your overall feel/phrasing on the drumset?

It is only a feel thing. I don’t think about it that much. When the head is more muffled, it’s a completely different feel and volume than when it’s more open tuned. So I just adjust to what I’m hearing and feeling.

Could you tell me about a few records that really influenced you in the early days and some that really captured your attention these days?

Any Meters recordings, Miles with Tony Williams, late Beatles records, any Stevie Wonder, any Elvin Jones recordings, Bill Stewart with Scofield, Rush, any Led Zeppelin, The Police, any Bernard Purdie, and on an on… nothing has been capturing me these days, I tend to just go back to the old favs that never get old!

These years has been nothing but great for you: The gigs with Sting, Steely Dan and James Taylor, arriving at these days with the new CDs with Oz Noy, Rudder and the new Wayne Krantz trio CD, and your first instructional video out. What kind of considerations you can do, thinking about the past, and keeping an eye to the future?

I just want to keep growing as a player and find new and different situations to be a part of to inspire me. It’s been a great ride so far, so I only hope it continues!

Interview concept by Roberto BOB Baruffaldi

Roberto Baruffaldi

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