Roland Users Group
Does Vinnie Colaiuta need any introduction? Probably not. But for those non-drummers reading this, his career spans everyone from Frank Zappa to Faith Hill, via Sting. His way with odd time is legendary, and he’s one of the most influential drummers of the last two decades. In short, Vinnie’s one of the big boys. Aside from being one of the finest drummers ever to walk the planet, Vinnie is also a remarkably thoughtful musician and human being.
Holding forth on topics from the essence of design to the impact of high technology on the distribution of music, Vinnie makes for a fascinating interview. And although he’s best known as a player still very much in love with the sound of acoustic drums, Mr. C has strong opinions on the new wave of electronic percussion products. So read on and find out what gets him exercised and excited…
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Before we get to the probing philosophical stuff, bring us up to speed with what you’ve been doing recently, Vinnie.
Most recently I’ve been dividing my time between recording, which has been mainly in LA, and some live appearances with Faith Hill. We’ve just filmed some TV shows — including Oprah — and specials with Faith.
As far as recording sessions go, I’ve been working with [bassist] Brian Bromberg on a couple of albums, and I’m involved in the production of those too. And I’ve also been in the studio with Jeff Babko [keyboards – Dr Dre, Toto, Julio Iglesias] and Sam Moore, who of course was one half of the legendary Sam and Dave.
You’re in the enviable position of enjoying an exceptionally high profile as a session dude. Does this mean you’re very choosy about the kind of work you take on now?
I’m kind of choosy in some ways, but not entirely. I tend to treat everything with equanimity, and have an attitude of gratitude about everything that comes my way.
The only thing I really can’t stand is being exploited, but as far as musical decisions are concerned, I’m pretty open to anything. I’m very blessed to be able to do what I do in terms of making music for a living. The industry is in flux and is trying to reinvent itself, which has made it harder for musicians in some senses. I’m generally busy — I have the occasional lull, of course — but you can never take your career for granted.
People want something for nothing nowadays, and that just isn’t fair on artists and musicians. That disables people from making a living from music. When you start treating intellectual property as a bartering tool it can create a perilous situation for all those concerned.
You’ve been involved in all sorts of music during your career, and have occasionally played with artists who we wouldn’t have expected you to. Do you sometimes take gigs that follow a new musical path simply for the experience?
I don’t take gigs that lead me down a different musical path just for the sake of it. But doing those gigs means I can look at things through different eyes. I go into things and see the spirit of music.
For example, people can say anything they like about music coming out of Nashville and how it’s all “cookie cutter” stuff, but I see it differently. The emotiveness of the stories these artists tell and the way they construct songs to tell that story can be fantastic. And in terms of actually making the songs, the tunes are mostly tracked live with all the musicians in the same room, which adds to the feel of the performance. Suddenly, instead of trying to second guess what other players might do in a “Pro Tools recording environment” when you’ve got the rest of the band laying down their tracks after you, you can react immediately to what the other guys are playing.
Talking of recording technology, you’ve seen all manner of innovations come and go over the last several decades. What are your thoughts on the current state of hi-tech?
It’s easy to view technology as an inert tool. But these tools are a manifestation of an idea that the maker of that tool has had — it’s for a specific purposes and so it’s not devoid of its own character. A pistol is not a food blender, for example. The pistol has the potential of something bad happening — it only “knows” how to do one thing.
A computer loaded with a sequencer also has a specific purpose. These are basically tools for people to reveal their musical minds and, used properly, allow the rest of us to hear what’s going on in their heads. The new generation of affordable recording and production equipment is great, because now everyone can express themselves. Things like non-destructive editing make it possible to try out ideas without risking losing performances. And the learning potential of these systems is incredible — because they’re so accurate they can be very useful in training yourself as a player, laying down tracks that are really on the money.
Tell us about the Roland electronic percussion products you use in your setup.
I use the HandSonic and PD-8 pads and find them both extremely useful. As far as the HandSonic is concerned, the immediate access to such a huge range of sounds is fantastic. And as a drummer, I love the way that it makes me play things in a different way. I play it with fingers very often, and it becomes like a piano to me.
When I was out with Jeff Beck on tour, I played the song Nadia using a tabla patch on the HandSonic and used my fingers. Jeff absolutely loved it. Actually playing notes on the HandSonic, rather than using electronics to trigger loops and so on, makes it a really creative instrument. It’s very immediate and responsive.
The PD-8 is great when I need to incorporate some triggering into a setup without using up too much real estate. It’s small, neat, and rugged, and it’s proved a great addition to my setup, which tends to be largely acoustic, of course.
Acoustic drums are what we know you best for, but are you interested in full electronic drum kits?
Although I am primarily an acoustic drummer, I am very excited by the new electronic gear coming out. It provides some great solutions for specific situations and electronic kits like the V-Drum range allow drummers to play in environments that would normally have been very challenging to say the least. In situations like churches or orchestra pits where you have to balance the needs of the sound engineer, the audience and the rest of the band against your own desire to play as much like a “real drummer” as possible, they’re great.
There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to play an aggressive groove quietly, without hitting the drums too hard. But the volume controls and choice of sounds in the V-Drum kits make these things so much easier. And the future looks bright for development too — things are only going to get better.