THE SCORE: Hi Atma, first off, let me say what a pleasure it is to have a chance to get a glimpse into your groovy world. To start, let us know what your formative years were like at New York, San Francisco. When did you start playing, how did you start, and what were some of your first experiences drumming?
Atma Anur: That’s quite a complex question actually.
I began playing drums officially at age 11, while we were living in NYC, but my mother had told me that I would stand in front of the TV watching Ringo Starr with the Beatles, and point to him while dancing and laughing. That was at about age 2, while we were still living in London.
At age 10 we had a “Show and Tell” day at my Grammar School and one kid brought a marching snare drum in to show to us all. Well, I spent the day walking around the school and wildly tapping away at this instrument (one that I had never even seen before). Once I got home that evening I announced to my parents that “I can play the drums!”
My High School years in NYC were quite wonderful in hindsight, any teenager thinks life is not so great while living it, wherever they may be. I first went to a Science and Mathematics School and was in the school Jazz band… but quite briefly. I later transferred to a “School without Walls” High School with a focus on music and art, something that was quite popular in some parts of the States back in the 70s.
I had my first more serious band finally in that first High School at about age 14/15. We played music by Deep Purple, Hendrix, Scorpions, Al Di Meola and quite a few other popular, but musically difficult, bands in those days.
I attended the Manhattan School of Music at age 16 in a pre-enrollment program where I studied Orchestral and Tuned Percussion… That was a great experience and really got me started in reading. From then on I regularly visited the Lincoln Center for The Performing Arts Music Library to read book, scores and listen to music LP-s of all kinds.
I had my first private drum teacher at about age 12/13. That was the legendary William Kessler, a renowned Author and Jazz Musician. I think I was very lucky to have found such a master at such a young age.
TS: How did your formal education in music help your career? What was studying at Berklee like those days? Did it help you become a better educator as well?
AA: I believe that if one is serious about a topic, one will naturally want to study that topic. Study, of course, comes in many possible forms, but I think that formal study in music is an important part of any professional musician’s life. Most of us improvisation-based musicians begin by playing and enjoying that process, where the orchestrally-oriented player usually begins by sitting with a one-on-one teacher. My belief is that both of these modes of learning will serve the individual the most if they occur simultaneously.
That is how things happened for me, and many of the other excellent professionals that I know and have played with. There is no question that actually learning the language of music, both as it relates to my own instrument and as it relates to communicating with other musicians, has helped my professional career immensely.
As a professional side man, it has been my job to help writers and instrumentalists realize the vision that they have for their music. Most of the time this needs to be done in a short and productive time frame, while being able to have fun and stay creative. My personal understanding of the role and tools of my instrument, and my ability to speak in correct musical terms with the other players has been a huge “selling point” to my being hired so much over the past 30 years.
Berklee was one of the most amazing and influential experiences of my life. I carry the tools and concepts that I learned there in the 70s with me to this very day. One of the most intense aspects of being there was the opportunity to see and play with other talented international musicians, and share ideas and mistakes… invaluable! Being around Steve Vai, Stu Hamm, Tain Watts, Smitty Smith and so many others gave me a deep perspective on what being a “good” musician could mean.
I use the ideas, theories, concepts and values that I have internalized from my days of formal study at schools, private study at “home” (which is on-going) and my personal professional experiences to help younger musicians as much as I have the opportunity to do so… and I love seeing what the future of music holds.
TS: You have played and lived across different continents and recorded on over 145 albums. What were some of the defining moments of your journey and who were they with?
AA: More of my time has been spent in the rehearsal room than on stage or in the studio. The experimentation and learning while playing is what defines me to me. As for what defines who I am to others, I would have to guess it is what people see and hear at shows and on records… which is not the bulk of my playing. I think that this is true of any musician who remains in the learning and growing mode.
Playing Jazz on the streets of NYC in the 70s was a huge and pivotal experience for me. It took me from wanting to play consistently to simply playing consistently. Improvising in front of so many people for so many hours per day made me the type of musician that takes chances… simple.
Learning note-for-note music from bands like Return to Forever, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, John Coltrane and many others, gave me insight into what real chops are on my instrument… not to mention, Groove!
Meeting Mike Varney, President of Shrapnel Records, and having the opportunity to record so many great albums with such amazing musicians has had a deep effect on who I am as a musician. Being in world-class recording studios with great, creative producers like Steve Fontano and Richie Zito (to name just a couple) also helped to give me a better perspective on what and how to play well commercially while still being creative and true to myself.
Getting to play huge stages for audiences of up to 500,000 people has also changed who I am as a player and as a performer. Seeing the effect of what I am playing on such a large scale brings a lot of consistency and power to one’s professional creative process… truly learning what not to play, and why.
Watching how other very well-known, talented musicians interact and create together is also invaluable for any professional musician. The relationship between the people playing can make or break the music. That relationship also makes things move faster or slower… or not at all. Communication feeds creativity in most cases… and feeds the personal joy for what one is doing.
I can mention just a few names that come to mind who really stand out for me as people that inspired me as a player and as a person and were a joy to work with. Richie Kotzen, Jason Becker, Marty Friedman, Tony MacAlpine, Neal Schon, T.M. Stevens, Guthrie Govan, Michael Lee Firkins, Arthur Rhames… and so many more amazing creative and talented people that have helped shape who I am as a musician and as a person to this day.
TS: What kind of music do you dig and play these days? Recent collaborations?
AA: I really love playing and listening to Fusion and Modern Jazz more than other styles, but I have played more Rock, Reggae, Funk and Blues live over the years. Honestly, I love playing anything that sounds good, music is the whole point for me.
Since relocating to Europe I have played and recorded more Hard Rock, Prog Rock, Neo Classical, Metal and straight Pop than other styles. I, of course, play many other things in my personal time.
There have been many, and a wide variety of, collaborations since leaving the States 8 years ago, but at this moment I am recording CDs with Jani J. Szentkiralyi (Hunagary), If Wen (U.K.), Timo Somers (the Netherlands), The Vivaldi Metal Project (International) and a “secret” Tribute Project for Japanese release. At any given time I usually have 2 or 3 CDs being tracked if I’m not touring… I’m at 145 CDs now… and counting!
TS: You have taught at SAM earlier during its very first semester. What memories of India do you carry and what are the things you are looking forward to doing this trip, musically and otherwise?
AA: Well that first trip to India was a true high point for me in so many ways. I made many new friends that I stay in contact with to this day, and was personally exposed to the Carnatic music system and Traditional South Indian Classical Music as a whole. Working with people like Ghatam Karthick, Ed DeGenaro, Ranjit Barot, Ashish Manchanda, Amit Trivedi and Nandini Srikar while there, and then meeting other great Indian musicians later on, like Shree Sundarkumar, Sunita Sarathy and others, was such a great experience and I really look forward to more creative expression with each of them… and all the new yet “un-met” musicians there.
I am extra, super excited about getting back to the food (which is one of my very favourite kinds) and the very warm people. The vibe is gloriously positive and inspiring.
TS: We know your energy is infectious! What can students at SAM expect from Atma Anur this Fall?
AA: For sure more of the same! It’s been five years since I was at SAM and I am really looking forward to meeting the new students, the older faculty and friends. I’m also really looking forward to doing some great shows and more recordings as well.
I have been working quite a bit on my book on Poly-Rhythms and sixteenth-note understanding, so I will draw from that in my drum instruction classes for sure as well.
I look forward to sharing this wonderful gift of music and the joy that it brings… my goal is to bless as I have been blessed… and beyond.