Hi Atma, welcome to Groove Portal. First of all, tell us how did you start playing drums?
I am told that as a baby, once I could walk, I stood in front of the TV and danced wildly to the Beatles, and pointed to Ringo as he played. I have two older siblings that played music in the house all the time, mostly Blue Beat (now called Reggae) and Soul. My dad bought me a red toy snare drum when I was about 2 and I walked around the house playing that quite a lot. We had a “Show and Tell” day at my grammar school in NYC when I was about 10 or so and one kid brought in a real marching snare drum. I played that thing for just about the whole day, and when I got home I announced to my mom that “I can play the drums”. I asked for a drum set for the next whole year… finally got one as a birthday gift (a paper drum kit!). Once I figured out that it was not a “real” kit I went back to the asking phase… lol, a few months later we went to a local music shop and got a Stewart 3-piece drum kit (20″ kick, 14″ snare, 12″ tom with 1 cymbal attached to the kick drum)… it was glorious. I started playing in a band with some school friends and also at my church in NYC. My first teacher was the well-known author William V. Kessler… I think that was good luck.
Who are the drummers that most inspire your style now, and who were the first?
I get inspiration from many musicians, not only drummers. I love Sax, Guitar and Violin especially. But Piano players and Percussionists also inspire my playing. Honestly, I am more interested in music than I am in drumming in particular. As I said, the first drummer that I noticed was Ringo Starr, after him there have been a great many drummers that I credit with helping to shape my playing over the years. Some of the first real influences were Ian Paice, Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Bill Ward. Also the drummers for James Brown, the drummers for Bob Marley… Carl Palmer from ELP as well. As I got older I started listening to an even wider variety of styles and got into The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Yes and Tony Williams’ Life Time. Soon after came my interest in Jazz, I got into players like Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Jack DeJonette and Buddy Rich. Narada Michael Walden, Billy Cobham, Terry Bozzio, Steve Smith and Vinnie Colaiuta are still big influences up to today.
What are your current projects?
Things are constantly changing for me as far as projects go. Personally I have gone back to my foundational roots and am playing the rudiments slowly with a metronome and working on placing them on the full kit. I periodically re-work my technique, that is an important thing to do I think. I began playing matched grip and quickly moved to traditional grip. I played traditional for about 7 years then moved back to matched while I was studying at Berklee. There are 5 new CDs that were recorded over the past few years that are scheduled to come out this year. Wojciech Hoffmann’s Behind the Windows (Poland), Roy Marchbank’s The Grand Design (U.K.), Timo Somers’ Tri-Head (Netherlands), and two other projects still being mixed. I am currently tracking three other CDs right now for some European artists including Neo-Classical guitarist Jani J. Szentkiralyi (Hungary) and Folk artist If Wen (U.K.). I am constantly recording with all kinds of musicians doing all kinds of music. I am touring and teaching as well.
Tell us something about your experience with Jason Becker and Cacophony.
I met Jason Becker through my relationship with Mike Varney and Shrapnel Records. Mike actually hooked me up with Marty Friedman first and we spoke about putting this new project together. Then we met with Jason and a bass player and began working through some music. I knew Peter Marrino from our time together in his band Le Mans, we have worked on quite a few projects together over the years. Playing with Marty and Jason was a great pleasure, they are both easy to work with and very creative, excellent musicians. Mike Varney has a talent for finding the best. I found Jason to be one of the most naturally gifted guitar players I’ve met through Mike, he just incorporated any new idea into his playing with ease and excitement. Both he and Marty share my love of odd meters and odd subdivisions… so it worked out well. Tracking those two CDs was the usual Varney experience of those days… everything had to be done very quickly and done perfectly… right now! So that was how that went. The version of Cacophony that I was in did a few live shows in California and also at the 1988/89? NAMM show… great fun.
What kind of warm-up do you do before a show?
That really depends on what kind of show I am playing. Physically speaking I like doing push-ups, stretching and playing doubles and paradiddles on a pillow. Depending on how familiar I am with the material, I will listen to the rehearsal tapes while warming up… possibly to the “original” recordings and look over my charts as well just before doing the show. Getting into the right frame of mind is important for me as well. I want to feel relaxed and in control of my mind and body as much as possible. Checking the vibe of the room/venue helps, and being by myself in silence just before I go on stage also helps with that.
How do you choose the placement of your drumkit?
You mean my set up? or where I am on the stage? As for my set up, I like things to be close to me. I don’t want to really reach for any part of my kit. I like my cymbals high and I like to sit low. These two things are for leverage. Although my cymbals may look “very high”, they are only high enough for me to extend my arm to where my elbow is just below my shoulder, my elbow is never straight. My thighs are parallel to the floor and I play a slight heel-up foot technique most of the time… not always though.
Please recommend 5 albums that you consider essential for a drummer.
Inner Mounting Flame – The Mahavishnu Orchestra
A Love Supreme – John Coltrane
Sex Machine – James Brown
Are You Experienced – Jimi Hendrix
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles
Honestly it’s kind of impossible to talk about only 5 albums. I guess these are a good sampling of good musical drumming in a few styles, but in 5 albums I am leaving out a lot of music… really! A drummer should listen to as wide a variety of music as possible… all the time. One should also try playing things that one does not like, is not to one’s taste, as much as possible. This shows our weaknesses very quickly and gives one things to work on without having a teacher. Of course you should play what you like… and also what you are able to play. But don’t do this as much in terms of practice. I would say figuring out what kind of drummer you want to be will also help, if you want a professional career. Spend time reading music, practice with a metronome and also just improvise and have fun.
What are the aspects of your drumming that you consider the most powerful?
This seems like an impossible question for me to answer… maybe ask the people that I work with what they think. I hope that I show dedication, enthusiasm, discipline and creativity. All of these, along with ability and humility. That would be my goal. I study all kinds of music and practice “styles” as much as possible. I come up with parts to the music that is in front of me and then play things based on what came to me first… It’s important to be consistent in your parts but also be able to spontaneously improvise within the context of the foundational ideas for the song you are playing. At my core I am an improviser, but I understand the need for recurrence in popular music.
Which are the qualities that a good drummer must have, in your opinion?
A good drummer cares about what he is playing. The basic job of any drummer in any style is time keeping… but creativity and ability (as they pertain to the song) are also quite important. If one cares about being “good”, one will take the things one does seriously. More than that would be me saying too much about what someone else should or should not do. For example, I like to practice a lot, I like to improvise a lot, I transcribe other musicians and learn other drummer’s “stuff” as well. I think the 26 rudiments are very cool and useful and I play poly-rhythms, in many forms, as much as I can. These are my personal things… other musicians have their “things”… that’s good, and keeps the world as interesting as it is.
Do you teach?
Yes. I actually started teaching friends by around 15 years old and have continued in many forms since then. I teach privately, in schools around the world and on line through Skype. My focus as a music teacher is to point people in a direction that seems to fit what they want to do with their drumming and try to give them the tools to improve what they play… and want to play.
Do you give drum clinics?
Yes. My first clinic was in San Francisco in the early 80’s and I have continued ever since. I like sharing what I am working on. That’s why I post videos of me working on stuff. I figure that the final product will be on a CD or in a live show. I have been a clinician for DW, PDP, Pearl, P.I.T, Razor-Back and Sabian… also for schools and music shops.
What format do you follow in your drum clinics?
I am really into explaining how I come up with my drum parts. I also talk about odd-meter grooves and how to understand them. I speak about how to write charts, read them and understand music notation using examples from my book. The book is a theoretical look at an approach to rhythm and poly-rhythm based on Mathematical probabilities. I have a lot to say about music on a conceptual level and may actually do more talking than other clinicians. Clinics are an opportunity for the listeners to learn something that they may not get from only listening to someone play music. This is the spotlight on the “how” and “why” of the clinician’s creative process. I play along with tracks from various CDs that I played on and may be working on at the time, and use those as a way to introduce my thoughts on drumming and music in general. I also talk about the gear that I use and my reasons for choosing them.
What are the questions that you receive most often from the crowd?
I get all kinds of questions really. Questions about speed (playing fast) could be one of the most frequent. I talk about practice, the metronome and relaxation. As I mentioned, I do refine my hand technique regularly, so I talk about that as well. I will show how my technique applies to playing music. I am also asked about groove and feeling quite a bit. I have quite a lot to say about those two topics.
What are your future plans?
I am thinking about a teaching residency some place right now. I plan to continue recording and improving my skills as a musician and an engineer. I am looking forward to playing some live shows this year in support of a few of these new CDs coming this Spring and Summer. I am continuing my endeavour to master my instrument… that means spending time listening, reading, practicing and playing. I change how and what I do physically in order to keep me sharp and creative. I am always open to new situations as a drummer or teacher. I invite the readers to stay tuned to my web site www.atmaanur.com, and also contact me about studying on Skype.
Can you give some advice to anyone studying music, and those who might want to become professional drummers?
I always say that one will know inside if they should do music professionally or just enjoy it as a hobby. I would not advise anyone to choose a life as a professional musician. If you feel that you MUST play music at all costs… then there you have it. Once one would choose this professional level of playing, my advice would be to learn and practice as a way of life. To establish a relationship with your spiritual side, and develop a humble and focused personality. The main thing is to follow your dreams and do not give up. But that’s just me.
Over the past few years YouTube has become a great way for drummers to promote themselves; with cover videos, drum cam videos and tutorials. What you think about this?
Information is good in general. YouTube can be a way of getting information about topics of interest. In my day, let’s say… we drummers just listened to records with great musicians playing, and tried to copy what we heard. Music is sound… not so much sight. These days people seem to want to “see” music, and have less time for listening… quite strange. The visual aspect of advanced playing is a smaller part than the auditory aspect, but maybe the way we learn is changing. The traditional way to learn is to play what you hear… not what you see. The wonderful thing about not seeing what you hear is that it gives one the opportunity to discover one’s own way to get the sounds… The one aspect about YouTube that is not helpful is that anyone can post anything… so in terms of music, there is a lot of nonsense on there… with quite a lot of views I might add. Numbers of views confuse the issue of quality and relevance. In the past, more or less only the talented and meaningful players got the chance to record music and share it with the public in general. These days, due to the web and home recording/video production… everyone can (and does) make music/videos etc… I believe that art in general is for everyone, but that does not mean that all art is “good” or “meaningful”. Our culture seems to have a huge desire for fame so something like YouTube is perfect for these times. Too much information is just about the same as none at all, however.
Do you think YouTube could be a good way to receive information or not?
Yes. Real improvement comes from playing music with people that are better and more experienced than you are. Having a good personal private teacher is also very important. Videos can help, but you need to watch the right ones and know how to implement what you see and hear…. that can be difficult to figure out.
Thanks for this amazing interview Atma, we hope to see you soon in Italy!