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February 14, 2014IM -
Drummer Dave Weckl of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) first joined the union “way back” in the ’70s in his hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, when he started working in clubs at a young age. “Back in the day you had to be in the union to work with other union musicians, so it wasn’t a question of whether or not to join,” he recalls. “You got to work with other great musicians and do ‘on the books’ gigs, which paid into the pension and helped with health insurance.”
Weckl transferred to Local 802 (New York City) when he moved there in ’79, and then finally to Local 47 Los Angeles in ’91, where he lives now. “I guess you could say the union helped my career because it got me into the circle of working with professional musicians,” he says.
And what a career it’s been. After majoring in jazz studies at the University of Bridgeport, Weckl moved to New York City, where he evolved into an in-demand jazz-fusion and session drummer. Though most revered, perhaps, for his work with the Chick Corea Electric Band, he’s also performed and recorded with such world-renowned pop stars as Paul Simon of Local 802, Madonna, Robert Plant, as well as Local 802 jazz guitarists Mike Stern and George Benson. In addition to his solo projects, Weckl is also a producer, composer, educator, and clinician. His latest “megaproject” currently tops his to-do list. Like his Singles Project, it will offer a learning component—mixes without drums, guitar, bass, or keys, to allow aspiring musicians to play along.
Can you tell us a bit about your “megaproject” and fundraising for the project through Pledge Music?
Jay Oliver, a longtime friend, keyboard player and collaborator on my early CDs, and I have wanted to do another project for a while now. We really haven’t worked together in 13 years and today’s climate is a bit different than it was then—there aren’t any record contracts to fund the project. In order for us to do this kind of CD, with play alongs and video documentation of the whole process, we need to be home for at least a couple months. So, we’re asking the fans to “invest” in the project ahead of time, with different tier levels of involvement. As of this interview we’re at 85% of the goal, and have just extended the pledge period another 30 days, until the end of December. So it looks like there’s a very good chance it will happen!
How did the Drum Fantasy Camp come to be?
The camp is my marketing manager Steve Orkin’s baby. He started it in 2007 and I have taught at each of the six camps. It happens each August in Cleveland, Ohio—there will also be one in Turkey this February. Steve also works with drummer Steve Smith (ex-Journey). He [Orkin] had noticed a lot of e-mails pouring into our websites with educational questions and requests for lessons. He was looking for ways to get us out into the world to do more teaching. Ironically, Steve (Smith) and I both suggested that he start a drum camp because we both attended Stan Kenton jazz camps when we were younger. Even more ironic was that we both went to those camps partly because we wanted to see Peter Erskine [of Local 47], who now joins us regularly as a teacher at Drum Fantasy Camp.
You’ve worked with Mike Stern since the early ’90s and Oz Noy of Local 802 for the last few years. Can you talk about adapting to different gigs and maybe some of the differences between these two particular situations? Do you tailor what you do to fit their needs?
The music and instrumentation will always dictate how I approach the gig—mentally, musically, and gear-wise. First, the general style of the music will suggest what I want to support it with. If it’s a bebop gig I’ll use small drums, including the kick, tune them wide open, and use assorted rides and not too many crashes. If it’s a Latin gig, I’ll substitute the floor tom for a timbale, move the floor tom to my left, and put up an assortment of bells and blocks—also with a small bass drum and thinner cymbals. Stern’s and Oz’s gigs suggest more of a rock tinge, so the bass drum needs to be bigger and the cymbals a bit heavier, with more crashes involved for different colors. Sometimes, especially with Oz’s music, which is more open in a rock trio setting, I will play a double headed, pretty wide open kick drum—more of a John Bonham approach. It depends on how I visualize my role in the music.
What’s your approach to putting a clinic together? What do you focus on or hope to convey?
My clinics are heavy on the teaching and less of a “show/performance” vibe. I want the people that show up to have an understanding of my approach and all I’ve learned from all of the great teachers I studied with along the way. Although there’s never just one way to do anything, I’m a heavy believer and advocate of Freddie Gruber’s teachings and philosophies about playing this instrument. They helped me become more of myself on the instrument, to be able to express myself freely within the musical guidelines of the situation I’m in. And I want people to understand that approach so they can possibly give it a shot for themselves. I talk a lot about “foundation” in all aspects of learning, including the technical and music history (listening) aspects of playing. Then of course I will play a bit to tracks, if the setup allows it, to show what I’m talking about within a musical context.
Speaking of Freddie Gruber, I read that in 1996 you “radically” changed your playing style and setup as a result of studying with him. What did he share that caused you to change things up?
He made me aware of how the laws of physics actually have much more to do with drumming than drumming does. He made me see and understand how allowing constant energy flow to the instrument works so much better than trying to force things. I realized that I couldn’t really do what I was learning with my set up as it was then. I had to commit to traditional grip, which was my decision, and set up the kit to correlate with that grip and the positioning with the hands, arms, and rest of the body. It got much easier when I started to approach things from more of a common sense place. Freddie also made me understand what rebound was all about, and taught me how to “get out of my own way,” as he put it, to allow it all to happen.
As a composer, were there any unique advantages of being a drummer that enabled you to wear that hat as well?
I would say from a production standpoint, mixing a recording has definitely benefited. I think mixing drums is one of the most difficult things for a nondrummer engineer to understand. It’s like someone that is not a cook being given all the ingredients, but not really knowing how to put them all together to make the final presentation of the meal. That’s why sometimes, if musically appropriate, and I’m not mixing it, I will use fewer mics on the kit to try and capture more of my intention. I sometimes compare miking a kit to putting a mic on every guitar string and expecting the engineer to mix it so it sounds like one instrument. It would be very hard to do. And it’s hard to do on the drums too.
As someone who has been in-demand and steadily working for quite some time now, what advice do you have for maintaining a career as a working musician?
There’s a lot involved. First, I have always tried to be sensitive to the music, support it with as much of myself in it as possible. So, that would be first—acquire a broad scope of musical depth and understanding of styles so you can play what’s supposed to be there first, and bring the appropriate drums/cymbals/gear that will sound right in the context you’re going to play in. Next, would be the responsibility part. You can’t be a screw-up and survive in this business for too long. Try to be a nice person, learn the music you’re going to play, and show up on time. Always give it 110%. Don’t abuse alcohol or drugs. Playing drums, and carrying them around is hard enough on the body, without screwing up your mind, body, and life with all that crap. And maybe most important: make the person who is writing the check at the end of the night really happy! Never take your eyes off of whoever is the “musical director” or leader. And finally, don’t play for the drummers in the audience. They will never hire you for a gig!