Interview with Keith Carlock
Interview with Keith Carlock
MIkeDolbear.com last spoke to Mississippi born Keith Carlock in July 2005 when he had been busy playing for Steely Dan and Sting. Keith has firmly established himself as one of the USA’s leading session drummers and has been even busier over the last seven years.
Armed with a cup of coffee and a Skype connection, he took time out of his schedule to fill us in on playing for John Mayer, his new Vic Firth signature stick, his recent US clinic tour and how he is finding life as a father.
What have been the highlights of your career since we last interviewed you?
A lot has happened in that time. We probably discussed Steely Dan back then; I''ve still been working with Steely Dan on their tours, there hasn''t been any studio recording with them since 2003’s “Everything Must Go”, but I did record Donald Fagen’s solo record entitled “Morph The Cat” and Walter Becker’s “Circus Money”. I''ve done two or three tours with James Taylor, which was amazing, and more recently in 2010, I did a tour with John Mayer. Steely Dan toured last year in 2011 once again and that has been the more consistent gig. I also released an instructional DVD with Hudson Music back in 2009 entitled “The Big Picture”.
I live in NYC, but have a second home in Nashville; I spend time there as I have a family and we wanted to get away and have a little country place. I''ve worked there a little bit, but it wasn''t the reason for going; I did some sessions there for Faith Hill, who''s a really popular country artist over here and I did something with the Rascal Flatts, Joe Robinson, and various demos, etc. I now have a one year old daughter so life is quite different! It''s been an amazing experience and I''ve been really busy being a Dad too!
Tell us about the Zildjian clinic tour that you did recently
We did 13 cities in three weeks and we started in LA and worked our way East in the US. It was put together by Zildjian and I travelled with John DeChristopher from the Zildjian head office in Boston for most of it. Vic Firth, Gretsch, LP, DW and Remo all co-sponsored with Zildjian so everyone made it happen. It was so much fun but it was also exhausting. We were travelling in a plane every day to a different city and then having to set up and sound check, meet and greet session, then the clinic, then early morning leave to do it all over again.
There’s a lot of different responsibilities and less down time in this situation, so I have to be “on” all the time....it’s challenging, I’m more used to just showing up to the gig and playing the music! It was a great thing for me to do, and I’m glad I could do it with the help of all my sponsors, and the stores around the country. I got to meet some great people and there were some great turn outs. The reason to do these things is to connect with that side of the world - the retailers - and to show off the gear. I''m really excited about what I''m playing now so I''m spreading the word with that. People get to see you play in an intimate setting and you get in to the trenches and meet all the people at the stores, which was so much fun.
Drummers are so good at supporting each other
They are; it''s such a community and it''s everywhere I go, whether small town or big town, there''s always a drum community that''s cool. You don''t see guitar players doing that.
Tell us about your new signature stick
It came out at that clinic tour so it''s been out for almost a month now. It''s a Vic Firth signature Keith Carlock stick and I worked with them last year for a while trying to come up with something. I play with a lot of natural rebound and I want to feel the sticks come back after I play so I felt like I was needing more weight in the stick. Vic Firth sticks have that naturally because it''s denser wood and better quality.
We worked on the taper to get a really good bounce. I do a lot of rudimental style doubles around the kit so it made it more effortless and it''s a really bouncy stick without feeling flimsy. I like a certain sound on the cymbals and I use a lot of washier, big cymbals so this bead gives it the point that I need without it washing away; I can control it better. Then we put a lacquer on it, which is really personal cos I play so open handed and I''m not grabbing the stick very tight. I''m all over the place and I use a lot of finger strokes so it helps me to have something to latch onto and when I sweat a little bit it gets sticky. It''s got all those elements and I''m really excited about it.
How long did it take you to come up with it?
We went back and forth for six months trying out prototypes with the guys at Vic Firth with probably four or five different versions and I would just make minor adjustments. I was actually on the road with Steely Dan when we did it last year so I was able to play with them every day and figure out what was missing until I got it right.
You got to test it properly by touring with it then!
Yeah, in a really practical setting like that. When you''re playing the bigger stages it''s a different energy and I felt like I was fighting with that I was playing before so this truly fixed it. It''s similar to what I was playing before but heavier and bouncier, which makes playing easier, which is what we want!
Moving on to Sting now - how did that gig come up for you?
It was a combination of several people putting my name in the hat. His management or someone really close to him, I never knew for sure but somebody in the New York office, came to a Steely Dan show that we played here. That was back in 2003 and it was timing. He was looking for someone and I guess Vinnie wasn''t able to do the tour. It was the Sacred Love tour, which I came in on the end of ''03 and went through to ''05 so it was a pretty long tour. One of the Steely Dan sound engineers also worked with Sting and a lot of people put my name forward and it just happened, which was amazing.
How did you feel stepping in to that situation? As a drummer that must be a big seat to fill.
I had a lot of experience coming in after these legendary players on Steely Dan, James Taylor or John Mayer - this was before all that but one of my first gigs moving to New York was playing with the original Blues Brothers band; Steve Jordan and a lot of great Memphis drummers were doing that back in the day. When I playing with Wayne Krantz that was also a big shoe to fill for me and every situation has felt like I was coming in as the new guy. I had to bring something to the table and had to be confident and not let it mess with my head. I got used to it and hopefully what I do is valid too.
What is Sting like to work for?
He was really a gentleman, easy to work with most of the time. He was challenging at times; it was a long tour so there were different phases of it that were easier than others. He would always have these really long sound checks where we would rehearse and he''d want things to grow and the music to move in another direction. He was always trying to come up with new arrangements; it was never stuck in one way, which was cool cos you''re playing the same stuff for a very long time. He was always composing something that was already composed; I learned a lot from it. It was a great experience.
What do you think are the most important characteristics that drummers can bring to their work?
Being able to adapt to any situation that you''re given. Making mature choices; knowing what the music needs but bringing something new that''s unique to yourself is what gets peoples'' attention. If you have something unique or different that makes people talk about you or recommend you, cos that really is how it works. I''ve never had it happen any other way on my whole journey.
Having something to say that is you and of course a specific time feel and groove that only you have. All the great players have that where you can hear just a few bars and know exactly who it is. That''s very cool when that happens. The playing should speak for itself but then also you''ve got to have a good head on your shoulders and be able to deal with a lot of different personalities.
Playing live is a lot more comfortable than the studio, for me. You''re under such a microscope in the studio and it''s like you''re always searching to get that live take that feels like you''re on a stage making something happen in front of people. There''s nothing like that. I love the studio cos it''s a good challenge but they''re so different, unless it''s a live recording and you don''t know about it!
When you were starting out, how did you find moving to New York and breaking in to the music scene there?
It was frightening but it was at a time in my life when I wanted that. I wanted that risk; I felt like New York was where I wanted to be. I knew I had to be in New York, LA or Nashville to be where the industry is and they''re all so different.
To me, New York was always it and that''s where all the musicians who I wanted to play with were. The music coming out of there was what I connected with mostly or listened to. I had a jazz phase, which was what I studied in college and I knew that''s where the centre of the jazz world is too so I connected with that in some ways. It felt like when it happened it was good timing. I moved here in 1996 but I had stopped going to school in 1992 and I stayed in Dallas. I was working a lot, doing a lot of practising and trying to get away from that school mentality and focusing on what Keith is going to be when he grows up. It''s information overload in school and I''m glad I went but I wanted to sort it all out so I took those four years before moving here to figure out what it was that I wanted to say. I went through a lot of experimenting and I was working a lot too so I was getting a lot of professional experience.
I really had a plan; I really was preparing for moving to New York because I knew it wouldn''t be easy. I worked out what I would do when I got there instead of just plopping down and hoping the phone rings; that''s not going to happen. I figured out ways to let people know I existed every day and things just worked out after a while. I loved being here so much that it wasn''t intimidating any more and I loved the lifestyle of the city and it was a good choice for me. Musically I feel like I fit in here better than anywhere else.
Next, John Mayer - how did that gig happen for you?
Again it was a recommendation. Steve Jordan was doing the tour in 2010 and they had already been out for a while; I came along half way through. Steve was gracious enough to recommend me to John and the production manager was someone I''d worked with for Steely Dan and he also put in a good word.
They needed someone who could just come in and take over without having to rehearse a lot. Of course I wanted to do it and I was very surprised to get the call. I knew some of the music but they sent me the tapes, I learned the show and we did one rehearsal in Chicago. Then we started the shows and I did the international stuff so it started in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and then the summer in the States again.
It was a good six to eight months that I did and I loved it. It was very refreshing; he was great to work with and very inspiring. It was very jam orientated where every night he just wanted you to find something in the music and don''t play it like the record; get away from that and search for something as a band on the stage. Everyone got a chance to blow a little bit and he was on fire; every night was so different so I had a great time.
What is your current set up?
I''m playing the Gretsch Brooklyn series that just came out. They''re great sounding drums and I''ve always been a Gretsch fan so I''m happy to be there now. They''re similar to the USA Customs; they''re made in the USA as well but there are a few little differences. It''s back to the round badge and the shells are combined maple/poplar woods so it has a very distinctive low end open tone. The rims aren''t like the usual die cast; they''re thinner and lighter so to me the heads breathe a little more and I get a lot of sustain and open tone. I''m playing either a 20” or a 22”, depending on the music, and I''m playing 10”,12”, 14” and 16”.
I''m using the chrome over brass snare drum that Gretsch just reissued and several different snare drums depending, but that''s been the main snare so far. I also use a Latin Percussion micro snare and variation cowbells, toys and shakers. I use Remo coated Ambassadors on top and Diplomats on the bottom. I''ve found that that gives the most sustain and I want the drums to just ring as much as possible. I like that really open bass drum sound without the muffling so there’s no hole in the front head and I like the clear Ambassador on the batter side.
I use all Zildjian K''s; the K Constantinople, I love those rides and they''re great crashes too. I crash on everything and I ride everything, so I find cymbals that have all those characteristics. I have the 20” and a 22” K Constantinople Medium Low and 18” and 19” K Dark crashes. Those sound great as rides too, they''re not just crashes. I use the 15” K Light hats, sometimes the 14” K''s too. The bigger cymbals are the washier sounds that go well with how I tune drums in an old school way with open tone on the bottom.
What work do you have in the pipeline?
I am going to Japan this summer with the guitarist Larry Carlton; a legendary studio guy and amazing guitarist. I''m touring in Japan with him in July and August. I''ve never worked with him but he''s on a lot of the Steely Dan recordings from the ‘70s so he''s sat in quite a few times over the years and I''ve played with him in that way but I haven''t done his gig.
Wayne Krantz just put out a new record; we haven''t been able to do anything in years but we''re trying to schedule something for the fall in the US, possibly Europe. That''s something I''m looking forward to as that was something that was such a big part of my development as a player; it was so important to me.
My band Rudder has some European dates coming up. We''re playing at the North Sea jazz festival in July so we''ve put a few things around that but no UK dates unfortunately. Maybe next time! We have these little windows where we''re all available so we have a week or two and we see what we can throw together for that. I''m trying to take more things that don''t keep me out for months at a time. We just had a baby and I want to be here as much as I can for that.
I was going to ask how you cope with that. Your wife is a singer as well?
It''s hard right now as she''s pretty much a 24/7 mum so it''s hard for her to do her thing as much as she''d like but we''re enjoying being parents. Our daughter just turned one so we''re still new at this! It''s such a great time because so much is happening so fast; it''s a good time to be home more although I have to work, of course. I''m trying not to be gone for six months at a time any more; that would be hard, but we take it month by month and it depends on what comes along.
Last year I was out for most of the summer with Steely Dan and we brought my daughter on a lot of it, whenever I could make it work logistically. She''s been on many planes already and she won''t even remember! She’s been on the tour bus and slept in the bunk. I let my wife and her sleep on the bunk and I would sleep in the lounge or something. It was cool and she did really well. She was an easy baby.
Does she look like she''ll take up drums?
She is so natural it''s unbelievable! We have drums all over the place and she knows what to do right away; she loves it. She gets a really good sound right away on the hand stuff; she gets that slap. So we''ll see!
Interview by Gemma Hill
Photos courtesy of Tom Schwarz
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