Press: Modern Drummer Interview

Keith Carlock: Mississippi Man, Steely Dan Fan By Ken Micallef

Some successful drummers are born into a musical family, others are raised in an urban hub where the arts flourish and nourishing work is available to the skilled and talented. But if you are like the vast majority of aspiring drummers you are probably holed up somewhere in Middle America. Keith Carlock hails from Clinton, Mississippi, not a hotbed of musical activity. But just as the last two democrat presidents hailed from the “New South,” Keith Carlock’s achievements prove that talent, skill and determination are no respecter of locales.Since his arrival in New York from Clinton via North Texas State University, Keith Carlock has scurried up the drumming food chain with an inventive style that is equal parts Zigaboo Modeliste fire, Jon Christensen finesse, and Bernard Purdie funk. Tried in the fusion flame of the legendary Wayne Krantz trio, Carlock has for six years held court with the band at New York’s premier jazz dump, Christopher Street’s 55 Bar.

This gig, this band, is like no other. Every Thursday the 55 is packed with cheering fans who come for some of the most innovative improvisation to be found anywhere in the US. Playing tracks from the albums Long To Be Loose, Greenwich Mean and YourBasicLive, the Wayne Krantz trio performs musical magic with guitar, bass and drums. In this electric improvisation, the trio deconstructs jazz, funk, blues and rock themes, exploding expectations as they wail. A theme is presented, then vamped on and extended in bright, tightly-hewn chunks of sound. At Wayne’s cue, the trio moves into double-time or even triple-time funk, or drop back into half-time, or switches gears into a weird amalgam of waterfalling tempos and thunderstorming melodies. The musicians blow and fry over extremes of hot and cold, light and dark, but the music remains gorgeously funky, beautiful, and assessable. Each song is a triumph where everyone solos and no one solos.

Unpredictable, powerful, lightning fast and graceful, Carlock performs his own kind of magic. As the music flows, builds and blasts, his sticks, telegraphing their motions like a boxer, move in fast whipping motions. As the trio’s improvisations sizzle and mutate, Carlocks’ wide-open, ringing bass drum drops funk bombs ala John Bonham that groove below the guitar melodies like an unstoppable bullet train. Simultaneously, his unusual ride cymbal approach drives the music with a tactile physicality. Displaying unerring taste and massive talent, Carlock pushes crescendos past the breaking point, incorporating full set waves of rhythmic response. Just as unexpectedly, he drops in volume and dances with graceful snare and bass drum interplay that recalls a frenetic Jack DeJohnette.

With his talent for burning complicated figures you‘d think that a four-on-the-floor groove would be the last thing on his mind. But Keith Carlock is a groover first, a show biz rhythm kid second. His list of groove gigs is impressive: The Blues Brothers, David Johansen, Grover Washington, Paula Abdul, Bette Midler. To top it off, Carlock has been admitted into that illustrious mantle of drummers who’ve established the contemporary pop rock template. The drummers of Steely Dan include Jeff Porcaro, Bernard Purdie, Jim Gordon, Hal Blaine, Steve Gadd, Rick Marotta and Ricky Lawson. With his drumming on Steely Dan’s latest, EverythingMustGo and 2000s Grammy wining TwoAgainstNature, Carlock steps into one of the most pressurized gigs around. But his groove on the album is deep and popping, from straight eighth note tracks like “Pixeleen” and “Blues Beach” to the shuffling “The Last Mall” and funky greasers like “Godwhacker” and “Green Book.” How did Carlock handle criticism from two of the most challenging composers in rock? Did Becker and Fagen made the kind of demands that caused Bernard Purdie and Rick Marotta to pull out their hair? Did being the only drummer on an entire Steely Dan album (a feat matched only by Purdie on RoyalScam) give Carlock ultimate satisfaction or endless aggravation? Polite as only a good Southern boy can be, Keith Carlock answers questions of technique, musical politics and ongoing aspirations with the quick wittedness that makes his drumming such a revelation.

Modern Drummer: You play so many extremely different gigs. Steely Dan is nothing like David Johansen, and Wayne Krantz’s gig is even more disparate. The Blues Brothers is different again. You’re not a drummer who has made his mark playing one style. How do you do it?

Keith Carlock: I have really tried to study what makes each style unique. With the Blues Brothers, for instance, it is more of a groove gig, and I am trying to give it that Stax element as much as I can. Studying different styles at North Texas really helped me to learn about other kinds of music.

MD: If I saw you on both Wayne Krantz and Steely Dan’s gigs, would your technique look the same?

KC: I think so. The only thing that would change is the volume. Sometimes it is an allusion as well, I don’t know if I am actually hitting as hard as it looks. It is just the stroke, that whipping motion. My goal is to play at all different levels with the same intensity and keep the same sound.

MD: With Wayne Krantz it seems like you never repeat yourself and that you are constantly finding new ways to respond.

KC: There is something that we have together in that band. I am always trying to respond in the moment. I only repeat myself if we get into one of those zones where we find something and we stay there. We are always trying to push forward and find the next thing, whatever that is. It is all improvisation.

MD: How long did it take for the band to get to that level? It was at a similar level with Zach Danziger, but it didn’t go quite as many places.

KC: Wayne’s approach was different then, it was more structured and written. That was an amazing band. Now it is more open, and we have been together for six years. It really is a band. It has changed, it has been a gradual thing. Wayne and I used to get together once a week and work out conceptual ideas.

MD: What did you work on?

KC: We worked on staying connected. The form of Wayne’s tunes is not the AABA form that you normally see in jazz. We are always thinking in eight bar phrases whether we are stretching over the bar line or accenting in different places together. And it is always 4/4. We work on playing duo, and we always know where the phrase is. Once we got to where we were comfortable with different tempos, we began almost trying to lose each other intentionally. We have really built this great connection that way. Then Wayne started making these cues where we would change tempo or key or go into the next section of a song.

MD: What is the cue for doubletime?

KC: He might say “way up” or “way down.” We have an idea of where it will go. He might say “break it up more” or “less,” which means go into a two and four pocket groove. Otherwise, there are dynamic changes he will cue, which can happen naturally or he might want to go more extreme.

MD: From an outsider looking in, Wayne’s music is like magic. There is so much freedom. Does the gig push your technique to the max?

KC: It has done so much for me technique-wise but also just trying to come up with new ideas and different ways to approach the tunes. His conception is unique, it is another way of playing improvisational music. It really does feel like magic.

MD: How did you get up to speed originally? Did you replicate Zach’s grooves?KC: I definitely checked out those CDs with Zach. And Wayne brought in charts so I would have something to look at. The way he writes is all counterpart and rhythmically it is about how the bass fills in around the guitar. Wayne would let me do what comes to mind then let me know where he hears it opening up.

MD: When it came time for those long suspensions where he is soloing, were you prepared technically?

KC: I felt like I was struggling for a while. He was patient; we used to rehearse a lot. It is just from doing it over and over and working on it, that has been my practice. I have put a lot of energy into this band. I would always record the gigs and listen back and see what was working and what was not working.

MD: What wasn’t working?

KC: Sometimes it sounded like I was trying too hard to come up with something. And some of the tempos didn’t feel right. Maybe I realized where I was rushing or dragging. We really take it seriously and want it to be the best it can be. Now it is more a mental thing, being prepared. Somehow we always reach something in a night. We don’t talk about what we do, we just start playing and hope for the best.

MD: How does your relationship with bass player Tim Lefebvre differ from those in other bands?

KC: It is not about playing with the bass player like you would in a rock band where it all lines up. It is more like we all have a solo approach as we play together. We try to create something as one sound. Tim and I weave in and out of each other rhythmically. If he is playing a pattern I will find the spaces in between his pattern where I can play something interesting. The other gigs I do don’t have this kind of freedom and aren’t as creative. I have to come up with new ideas all the time. Wayne is such a unique player; his music is free of cliché.

MD: The interaction between your bass drum and snare is very intense with Wayne. Is that interplay a direct response to whatever he is playing?

KC: I try to respond to it. I will think of melodies between the left hand and right foot, like (sings a intricate bass drum-snare drum phrase). I might play it again with a little different nuance, then it will turn into something else as I listen to what the guys are doing. I guess that is why it seems like I am not repeating, because I am always pushing forward.

MD: You also play a lot more ride cymbal than most guys in the fusion vein.

KC: I love having that cushion and that sound for this music. Having something sustain all the time…it is like jazz. And you wouldn’t want to play a chorus on just the high hat anyway. It is more of that feeling of improvisation. That cushion also seems to work sonically with the band.

MD: When you are playing those long rolling fills between bass drum, snare and toms is it always a linear phrase?

KC: Often it is, but I don’t think of it like that. I try to think of it as this sound I am trying to create, this collage of noise going on as an effect.

MD: Did your responses to those long phrases begin with something as simple as the classic Steve Gadd ratamacue?

KC: I think so. You have to have the basis from where this stuff has come from and the drummers who play that way. Of course, I have heard all those guys. But I don’t think about it like that anymore.

MD: What was the breakthrough point where the technique didn’t matter?

KC: I was always so into the rudimental style of playing, and having the drum corps background, I worked a lot on hand-to-hand exercises, mostly doubles and singles. We would do exercises all day, warming up we would play a double stroke for like fifteen minutes. That was more wrist-oriented technique. We even did all the “cheeses,” the inverted flams with diddles. But in college I loosened up and that changed everything, I used a lot more fingers. A lot of what I do now is all finger technique. So I had to work on playing those rolls and rudiments with that looser technique. It changed everything, I began pulling the sound out of the drums instead of bashing and striking the drum and keeping it there. The rebound is happening naturally. It was gradual. Out of college, I would practice for like three hours a day if I could, I was gigging as well. I got a lot out of North Texas, but I didn’t want to sound like I had been to school. “Here I am, I can play all styles.” I really wanted to find my own thing. I am still trying to find it. I let all those rules go and realized that everything is okay as long as it feels good. As soon as I moved here I was lucky enough to hook up with Wayne, so I began trying to find new things to play with different ways to play them.

MD: Weckl has said that when trying to find his own style that he would literally delete derivative licks from his playing.

KC: I did stop listening to all the stuff I liked, such as fusion music. I love [Dennis] Chambers and Vinnie [Coliauta] and Weckl, but so many people sounded like them. I could never play that as well as they can. I had to find something different. That is when I started tuning differently, messing with the open kick drum sound. Going back to more of the old school sound. More of an Elvin Jones, open-tone.

MD: Your bass drum is tuned so wide open it must effect how you play everything else.

KC: The bass drum being open really fills out the room. In a room that is not miked a dead bass drum sounds horrible. That was the concept, to get the bass drum to ring out in a non-miked environment with a loud band. It is not just a thud, and you get a lot more dynamics out of it. It is bouncier, I have to come right off it. I can get different sounds by striking it in different ways. You can hit it, let it ring, then muffle it. Or I can dig right in for a different sound. I am heel up most of the time. It feels good to have that bouncy thing; I don’t get tight. The foot doesn’t have to work so hard it seems. It is like that John Bonham thing on the grooves. You are really laying into a simple groove; hearing the bass drum ring out gives it that extra space. When I am playing a really tight kit that doesn’t have any sustain, I can’t be as greasy. You have to be more strict with the time. With this other tuning I am able to be more open, just letting things happen and not trying to be so perfect.

MD: Was Wayne Krantz your first New York gig?

KC: Shortly after I came to New York, my roommate took some lessons with Wayne. I really wanted to play with him. So I just called him up. I took a lesson with Zach at Drummer’s Collective before I moved up here in ‘97. So Wayne knew about me and maybe he put a word in for me. Wayne was looking for someone, Zach was moving on. We got together and improvised for an hour. It took me a while to get used to way he plays rhythm; it is very un-clichéd. The way he will place the notes, you might think you know where one is, but you don’t. He seems to have a way of hearing things backwards. It took a while to hear that, it used to lose me. We did a 55 Bar gig, he called me back, we began learning tunes, and we kept playing. He eventually got every Thursday night at 55 Bar. Now I feel like I can take chances, but I wasn’t always as comfortable, and I didn’t want to blow the gig. It is like we can do anything we think will work. The melodies stay the same, but the blowing changes every time.

MD: How did you come to play on Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature?

KC: Through Wayne, who played their tour in 1996. Donald [Fagen] and Walter [Becker] came to the 55 Bar to see us play a few times. They sat in, it was amazing. So they gave me a shot at “Two Against Nature.” I also played on “West of Hollywood” and “Negative Girl,” but those didn’t make the cut. The demo was basically a drum machine, almost like a Casio, and a bass line. It is pretty bare bones. I played along with the drum machines on “Two Against Nature” by myself. I didn’t know the machines were going to be on the track, or at least that loud.

MD: When did you get the call to work on Everything Must Go?

KC: Getting the call after Two Against Nature I was surprised, I figured I had blown it. Since they didn’t use much else I didn’t feel I had done my best. But in 2001 they called me to do a track for a Joni Mitchell tribute record that never came out. It was all the same guys on this album. We got the whole track down in one day. Then they called me for more sessions. I was surprised every time they called; I figured I would only be on one or two tunes. But they kept calling me back.

MD: How did they track “Green Book”?

KC: I got a demo for that, and a chart, so I had a good outline for the tune. But we did “Green Book” a lot slower than the demo. I got the form in my head, I didn’t know the vocal or the horns. I went from that, we ran it a few times, they didn’t tell us too much. It would be the band with Donald on piano, Walter on bass. We only rehearsed for a couple tunes. Sometimes we would just show up at the studio and play it for the first time. It was so challenging, they just go for it.

MD: They are practically infamous for criticizing drummers.

KC: They would tell me groove ideas, maybe sing a groove they had in mind. I remember on “The Last Mall,” it is shuffle. Walter really liked the four on the floor for the whole tune and broken triplets with both hands on the high hat, alternating the two and four with both hands. They would tell me where they wanted fills, or where to open it up and go to the ride cymbal. Sometimes they didn’t want it to open it up so I would play high hat for the entire tune then overdub ride cymbal later.

MD: Any nightmares?KC: There were two tunes that we never really got. It was a nightmare for me, I was so determined to get it. One was really fast. And another one felt horrible. You always feel that it is your fault even if it isn’t. “The Last Mall” was a hard groove to get. All the tunes were with click. For that one Donald had this idea that everyone but me would take a pass at the track with the click. Then I did my part on top of that afterwards. That is how we did it, and they dug it. I had never done that before, but it worked.

MD: Rick Marotta said that Donald or Walter could pick out every part of the beat where he had sped up or slowed down, bar by bar.

KC: I didn’t experience any of that. We would do ten or fifteen takes of a song before they decided which one they liked. They know what they want to hear. They don’t even listen all the way through the playback, if it’s not happening from the first eight bars, they want to move on. I felt like my role was to really have a very consistent groove. Just outline the tune, I didn’t go crazy with fills.

MD: How ‘bout “Godwhacker”?

KC: That went a little quicker, but I felt uncomfortable with the groove. I stayed close to the demo. The high hat on the demo had this fast, jazz ride pattern on the right hand, I don’t do that much on the high hat. I do more eighth note grooves. It was a little awkward, but I didn’t want to do it two-handed.

MD: Then there is that big flourish on the title track where you get to blow for a minute.

KC: There was an intro for that tune, but Donald wanted to give it that approach on the spur of the moment. He was on my left side on the Rhodes and he was nodding where the chords would change. I was crashing and filling. It wasn’t tight so I suggested that Donald direct. I thought he would do it with his body language but he got up and started directing with his hands.

MD: Were you a fan of the old Steely Dan records?KC: I was always really, really into them in college. The Royal Scam is one of my favorites, and Gaucho, and of course, Aja. It is unbelievable that I am working with these guys.

MD: How did these sessions feel different from other artists you’ve worked with?

KC: It feels a lot more specific. Their engineer gets great sounds; the headphone mix was impeccable. Everything was so topnotch. I certainly felt the pressure of coming up with something different for each song. With their history if you don’t cut it they will call someone else. But as we went along, it seemed like they were happy as long as the groove was consistent. Walter and Donald have incredible time as well.

MD: Are your drums on the record?

KC: I used my cymbals and Yamaha snare drum. The set was a Gretch kit. I think it was a round badge kit, but I am not sure. Donald and Walter like the snare drum tight and high pitched with lots of tape on it. I played mostly rim shots. Sometimes they asked me not to hit too hard on specific tunes. That helped to make the feel more relaxed. On one tune I went for a fill and didn’t stay on the high hat for even eighth notes, it might have been a missed note. Immediately they were like “what happened?” It lost the consistency. I had to be as consistent as I could. On slower tunes I laid behind the click. I felt like I was a layer that they were going to add everything over. I didn’t want to overplay.

MD: The Blues Brothers and David Johansen gigs are more alike than not?

KC: It is from the same rootsy place, but the Blues Brothers are the loudest band I have ever played with. I bash my brains out and am sweating in the first ten minutes. The band includes Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Matt Guitar Murphy, Lou Marini, Alan Rubin, Ned Holder, and Leon Pendarvis. The singers are Eddie Floyd and Tommy McDonell

MD: What was your approach for the Blues Brothers?

KC: I love Steve Jordan on Briefcase Full of Blues. I cop a lot of those ideas. They work so well. That gig is very demanding physically. I am trying to play really good groove. I try to lock in with Steve Cropper, and I love setting up the horns. With David Johansen I am more like a percussionist. We play old blues, country, old work songs. We play stuff from the Harry Smith Archives, old folk music. I use a lot of brushes, Blastix, my fingers. Very minimal volume. Very rootsy and open.

MD: When did you start playing the drums?

KC: When I was five. Later, I played drums in the high school jazz band, show choir.

MD: What did you listen to during your formative years?

KC: I was into a lot of rock and R&B and soul music. Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, some of the San Francisco bay area bands like Tower of Power. I played along to records, played in some top 40 bands. Practiced all the time, my parents built me a soundproof room. Eventually I got into jazz and fusion.

MD: What records did you play along with?

KC: Michel Camilo, and I was into the Scofield albums with Chambers. But the Meters changed my life too. That is funky music, but with the second line feeling. That in-between, groovy, swampy, greasy thing. It’s not about perfection, it’s about the vibe. I love that and anything that comes out of New Orleans.

MD: So was your emphasis on groove first or blowing?

KC: Definitely on the groove. But in college I studied with Ed Soph. He completely changed my approach to the drums, thinking of the drums in a musical way instead of just always being just the timekeeper groove player. He is able to find your weaknesses. He teaches you how to play jazz standards on the drums, soloing concepts, ways to get different sounds out of the drums. My whole technique changed. I came from a drum corps background. I was in a really good high school band, but I wasn’t loose. Soph helped me to loosen up. When you are playing other styles you don’t want to always sound as tight.

MD: So you went into college with really good chops from drum corps.

KC: Yes, rudimental work is something I put a lot of emphasis on. I did the rudimental solos from the Wilcoxin books. But I got more and more away from that. Did some of Ted Reed’s Syncopation for independence, but it was so boring. I would rather play to records. I got scholarships to Miami and North Texas and Berklee, I chose North Texas (in 1989) because it was closer to home and I wanted to study with Ed Soph. He taught me the Moeller technique, which is about using a whipping motion. Now I hardly even hold on to the stick sometimes it is so loose in my hand. With a military style it is so strict and everything has to be uniform and in line. The Moeller technique changed everything, the sound, and the way I approached playing, there was a lot more air behind each note.

MD: What else did you learn from Soph?

KC: Coming up with new ways to play the drums. Just thinking more musically in drum solos, I had had no idea what I was doing. Ed got me more ride cymbal oriented, more independence oriented, learning the touch of jazz, learning tunes and forms, reading big band charts, setting up figures, drawing sound out of the drums. Setting up motifs and thinking musically instead of playing licks or stuff from books. He helped me find my own voice, which eventually led to Wayne.

MD: How did Soph work on your touch?KC: You want to be more expressive and not so tense. Let the stick do the work instead of digging in. I don’t work hard unless it is a fast tempo. Stay relaxed at all times.

MD: How did you rate at North Texas?KC: I didn’t have much jazz experience so I felt lost at that. But I had my strong points with funk and rock. Then I got into Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. They blew my mind, I had no concept of what they were doing. I like guys who play with that kind of passion and heart, really meaning every note and putting their whole self into it. They are not thinking, they are just letting things happen.

MD: Steely Dan for groove, Wayne Krantz for improvisation – where will you go next?

KC: Well, I just hope it never goes away. I am happy with continuing and seeing where this goes. I dunno. Hopefully, it is good, whatever it is! I just want to play good music. Whatever is supposed to happen will happen. Hopefully, I will find it.

MD: What advice can you give to the drummers who would like to steal all your gigs?

KC: Check out records beyond the drummers and be open to other styles of music. Let the music teach you something, appreciate it. And don’t just listen to your favorite drummer; listen to the other musicians. Just believe that anything is possible. I am a kid from Mississippi who basically knew nothing and here I am. Things can happen if you want them to. Just believe and go for it. Take risks.

Favorite Recordings:
Steely Dan Everything Must Go (Reprise)
Wayne Krantz: Your Basic Live, Greenwich Mean
Leni Stern: Finally the Rain Has Come (LSR records)
David Johansen: Shaker (Chesky)
Wolf: Shallow Breath
Rhett Tyler and Early Warning: Live at Manny's Car Wash (Livingston Records)
Jane Getter: See Jane Run

Recordings for inspiration:
The Beatles / Ringo Starr
Led Zepplin / John Bonham
The Meters / Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste
Miles Davis / Nefertiti / Tony Williams
Doyle Bramhall / Abe Laboriel, Jr.
Stevie Wonder
John Scofield / Meant To Be / Bill Stewart
Harry Connick, Jr / She / Russell Batiste, Jr. / Raymond Weber / Zigaboo
The Police / Stewart Copeland
Critters Buggin / Matt Chamberlain
Tower of Power / David Garibaldi
Sly and the Family Stone / Fresh / Andy Newmark
Wayne Krantz Trio / Long To Be Loose / Zach Danziger  
Also, anything with Tony Williams, Steve Jordan, Charley Drayton, Elvin Jones, Al Jackson Jr., Jack DeJohnette, Brian Blade, Ari Hoenig, Kenny Wolleson, and Shawn Pelton

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