"The Road Back2
It’s not often in a career as a journalist that you feel as though you’ve reached the core of someone’s being, as though you’ve been given an honest look into someone’s soul. It’s rare that an artist will be so open and selfanalytical that he’ll give you a true picture of what he’s been through. Well, in the following interview, Danny Seraphine bares his soul. Danny Seraphine was my first cover story for Modern Drummer, in the December ’78/January
MD: So, where have you been?
MD: What actually prompted the move back to LA?
Danny: Initially I realized that I had to be in LA if I wanted to do any justice for the artists I was trying to develop. But also, in the back of my mind, I knew I was going to find a way back to playing. I also have grown children in LA and three grandchildren. I like being a grandfather. There’s a certain amount of respect that comes with it, like my grey beard and grey hair. I love it. It’s my badge of courage, so to speak. And my baldness is something I no longer try to hide, which God knows I did for so many years. I’m more comfortable this way than the years I had that hairpiece, which people said looked so good. It’s still a foreign object on your head, which the wind could blow off at any time. [laughs]
MD: What are you playing these days?
Danny: DW made a beautiful new set of drums for me—with two 18" bass drums. I wanted it to be totally different, and I love the feeling of playing an 18" bass drum because it still sounds big, but I feel very limber and light on it. I have a drum setup similar to Tony Williams—three floor toms, 14", 16", and 18". And I’m using one of those DW Sidekick pedals, which strikes the bottom head of a floor tom. It’s very cool, because it gives you another bass drum color. I like a big kit because it’s like being a painter with many colors to choose from. I have a lot of cymbals, too—Zildjians. I love them. I’m not the kind of player who says, “I’m going to play every one of these drums and cymbals to justify them.” For me, each of those instruments is up there to give me options. For heads, I’m using Remo FiberSkyns. I met Remo Belli early in my career, when Chicago was doing our second album. I was actually using calf heads on the first two records! I met Remo, who said, “I can’t have you playing calf heads.” I said, “Well, you’re going to need to make a plastic head that sounds as good as calf.” He took that as a challenge. Now, years later, Remo has been able to duplicate the sound of calf. I called him to say, “Thank you for giving me my sound back.”
MD: When you woodshed these days, what are you working on?
Danny: Steve showed me his workout routine, and it’s very good. It’s on a practice pad, along with a double pedal pad and a hi-hat. I set a tempo on the metronome and do 8th notes with my hands and feet, together. Then I go to triplets at that tempo, alternating from one hand to the other—8th-note triplets going hand-to-hand with the feet, and then going to 16th-note triplets with the hands, keeping the 8th-note triplets with the feet. Then I’ll do paradiddles with hands and feet. I’m really working on my feet for soloing purposes, to take it to the next level. And I’m still working on hand technique, including the constant release that Freddie Gruber showed Steve. I’m probably six months away from incorporating it into my playing, but when I do, watch out. I think I’m the kind of drummer who can really incorporate technique into my playing, just as Steve and Gregg have. I’m also working on reading, because I want to do some big band drumming. Reading is really important. But then I’ll break into stuff I love to play. That’s a problem, because I really do have to fight to stay focused. I can really get scattered. And Steve warned me not to try to do too much at one time, because then you don’t really grasp anything.
MD: When you look back on the body of music you’ve recorded with Chicago, if you had to take three songs with you to the pearly gates, which would they be and why?
Danny: I would have to say “Make Me Smile,” because it really defined me, that whole thirteen-minute ballet. I was really studying Buddy Rich at the time and I was really inspired by him. I was always thinking, “How would Buddy play this?” I think you can really hear his influence in the first two records—the musicality. Buddy was the best at setting up and leading into a horn line, and I did a lot of that. “Make Me Smile” was the first time anything like that went out to the masses, a hit song with a big lead-off drum fill, which was kind of a Buddy Rich lick. And I used a piccolo snare then that got a really cracking, unique sound. And those fills at the end—all of them were inspired by Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. We rehearsed “Make Me Smile” in Atlanta for a week, and we recorded it in sections. But I had time to really think about what I wanted to say. There’s another 6/8 drum fill in the tune that is very Buddy Rich. It’s funny, but I heard the tune on XM radio the other day. They played the entire thirteenminute piece. It was great to hear it again. I’m really proud of that performance. So I guess it would be number one. “Beginnings” had a really good drum part. People don’t talk about it much, but it’s a very melodic, emotional, fiery drum part. There were also some ballads that were cool to me. But I really love “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” I was able to walk the line between rock ’n’ roll and swing. It was difficult because I had to be subtle. I knew if I played the swing beat on top, it wouldn’t work. So I played quarter notes on the hi-hat, kind of a Ringo “With A Little Help From My Friends” vibe, but I swung the bass a little more. I actually saw the band perform one time during my days in Colorado, and they had cut the 5/4 section out. I wondered why; that was the most unique part of the song. They went into something else. I told [keboardist/vocalist] Robert Lamm, “Put that back.”
MD: So you’ve had contact with them?
Danny: Well, with Robert. He’s the only one I’ve talked to, and only on a couple of occasions. He’s the only one who has made any kind of effort, but he’s very uncomfortable about it. I know he feels bad about what happened. But it’s over and done with. I would love to understand it better some day. After it all went down, Robert called and said, “Do you really want to know what happened?” And I was so mad, I just swore and hung up the phone. I regret that I did that because, yes, I would like to know why. I guess if I had anything to say to them, it would be, “Don’t feel bad. I’m sorry that it happened the way it did, and yes, it hurt. But I don’t wish bad on anyone.” Chicago will always be my band, no matter what anybody says, and no matter what any legal documents say. I don’t mean that as an affront to Tris, because I really respect and admire him. He’s a wonderful guy and he’s handled himself with total class. But I honestly think that when people think about Chicago in the future, they’ll remember my contribution.
MD: What advice would you give to other musicians who might experience a loss of a gig or something that feels like betrayal?
Danny: Therapy helps, spirituality helps, but most of all, don’t stop playing. That was the big mistake I made. Don’t relate your selfworth to someone else’s lack of confidence or faith in you. There’s usually more to it than what they’re telling you anyway. It’s hard to do, but the goal would be to use the bad experience to make you better. Adversity can set up sweet success. Don’t let anything defeat you. Look at me now. I’m loving what I’m doing. I don’t know where it’s all headed, but I’m enjoying the ride.
DS: Danny Seraphine
DM: Do you still play regularly?
DS: I'm starting to play allot more these days, I've been playing gigs with the two artists on my production company: Lyric and Jason Perrin, it really feels good to play again, I've missed it more than I realized.
DM: Would you play in another band and tour if given the opportunity?
DS: I suppose if the right opportunity came along, a tour with Billy Joel, Elton, Sting or better yet a real Chicago reunion, meaning Peter and I with the band, then I would consider touring. If one of my artists takes off I would probably do their first few tours to show them the ropes.
DM: Are there any solo works in the making? do you still write?
DS: I'd like to do a real big band album some day but I'd have to do some real wood shedding before I do, right now I'm really focusing on my production company and getting my artists careers going.
DM: Who were your greatest influences earlier in your life and who has the greatest impact on you now?
DS: Gene Krupa was the single biggest influence when I first started playing, then I got into Buddy Rich who had a tremendous influence on me also, I then I got into guys like Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony William’s and Grady Tate and I had the honor and privilege of studying under the legendary Jo Jones. As far as rock drummers Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix), Ginger Baker (Cream), Ringo, Hal Blaine, Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcaro, Bernard Purdy and John Robinson. (Their really isn't anyone that I'm into right now).
DM: What exactly is Street Sense Records?
DS: Street Sense Records is my record company. I'm using it as an alternate way to get my artists to the market place, when the major record companies pass (don't sign) one of my artists then I release their music on my company, I still believe in their music even though the majors don't. As far as I'm concerned their too interested in chasing trends then manufacturing and promoting quality music. Proof of that is the lack of excitement in the market place today. They don't establish long term careers anymore their just interested in fastest hit record and their really missing the boat as far as I'm concerned.
DM: Name some of the acts that you work with.
DS: Jason Perrin, Lyric and Wakeup Call.
DM: Why did you go into producing as opposed to session or solo work?
DS: I always felt that making records was the ultimate in creativity and I really enjoy the role of producer, I feel I'm good at it and have allot to offer my artists. I’ve had the honor of working with some of the great masters of making records and I've learned from everyone of them. (Phil Ramone, David Foster, Jim Guercio, Tom Dowd) to name a few. As far as being a solo artist, it just doesn't interest me right now and I've never been a session player, I love playing in the studio but you have to be in the loop and I have never been in it.
DM: How did you feel about drumming as Chicago moved more and more towards using drum machines?
DS: In the beginning drum machines really intimidated most drummers at first (rightfully so). Here was this machine that played in perfect time and didn't talk back, at least that's what we were told by producers, song writers etc., So there was a resistance by us to embrace them so we simple wrote them off as a fad. We'll they put allot of drummers out of work, at the time as far as I was concerned they were a scourge. When I realized they were here to stay I went out and bought a E-MU R-8 and learned it inside and out, (I was sick of hearing these records with drum parts programmed by a keyboard player or worse yet a non musician) and believe me they sounded like it. I programmed all of Chicago 18 (Foster) was really hung up on drum machines, so it worked out well. The programming sounded like a drummer and David was happy because he had perfect time. To me the bad side of the drum machine is that its deprived allot young drummers of all kinds of work, experience i.e. demos, cocktail bars etc. For that reason alone sometimes I curse Roger Linn (just kidding) but they've also become a staple and a great song writing tool, but at what cost, I'm still not sure its worth the gain (excuse my soapbox.) Fortunately drum machines have found their place and live music is back, both seem to be coexisting today.
DM: In the early part of your career, you were an excellent drummer, but in the eighties your drumming seemed to get less intense. Was this due to the type of material Chicago was playing at that point or was it just a reflection of your feelings about touring and where Chicago was going in general?
DS: That's a good point and believe me I had allot of problems with that and it was a source of constant irritation between myself and the songwriters. Around the fifth album there was a conscious change in the direction by the band (song writers) and Jimmy Guercio. They came to the conclusion that they had to start writing more commercial songs meaning less time changes, shorter solo's more basic grooves, etc. Consequently we became a hit machine instead of a band that took its music to the limits. Now I'm not saying that they were wrong but it was the end of the Chicago that so many people loved and respected, consequently from then on we lived and died by our next hit record. It was a double edged sword in my opinion and we lost many loyal fans at that point, but we gained legions of (not as loyal fans) also. I was constantly trying to put my jazz licks into these commercial compositions (Just You And Me, Old Days, etc.) I guess what I’m trying to say is my role greatly changed in the band and it took me a long time to adjust, but eventually I gave in to what the song writers wanted me to play as opposed to what I thought should be played. It was a tough transition for me, and a sacrifice of my musical integrity in a sense, but I think it was worth it in the long run, I really believe that you have to compliment whatever is going on around you no matter how simple or complicated the music is, that is the essence of a true musician.
DM: How did you get started in drumming?
DS: My uncle is a drummer, he used to play at family functions, weddings, anniversaries, etc. and I would stand on the side of the stage and watch him play, I was fascinated by it and started banging on pots and pans. I expressed a deep interest in learning to play the drums and the rest is history so to speak, I was nine years old at the time. (I was always an intense individual, so playing drums was a natural for me.)
DM: I've always respected your desire to constantly improve. I remember reading an interview from around the time Chicago VII came out where you mentioned studying brush technique with Jo Jones. What was that like for you?
DS: Studying under Jo Jones was a incredible experience. He was very intense and at times pretty tough to work with but he taught me many things about playing, attitudes and discipline as well as his incredible brush technique which I used on Chicago 7 "Devil Sweet." To this day I feel I’m a good brush player and a better drummer because of Jo, he was an great man with intense pride. He always stressed that I sit up straight when I play and look at the audience in the eye when I’m playing, I’m grateful I had the opportunity to study under him, when he came to see me play at Carnegie Hall and liked what he saw and heard, we’ll it made me very proud.
DM: How do you feel about Chicago not getting nominated to get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
DS: Of course Chicago deserves a place in Rock N Roll history and I’ll tell you why. Never before or since has their been a band with such exceptional talent (musicianship, vocal ability, song writing) to attain such a high level of commercial success. It was almost a fluke. Can you name me one band that has or had as much talent in so many areas as Chicago (Police, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Yes) and none of those bands lasted nearly as long as Chicago or sold as many records. Chicago has lost some of its luster as of late but the band still very much deserves to be inducted. That would make me very happy.
DM: Have you kept in touch with Laudir de Oliviera at all?
DS: No unfortunately I haven’t, he is a really nice person. I hear that he is back in Brazil teaching percussion and doing very well. I’d like to see him someday he is a fun person with a happy spirit.
DM: I've noticed that magazines such as Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly (they give everyone bad reviews though) have consistently given Chicago bad reviews, do you think Chicago will ever get a good review from Rolling Stone?
DS: Rap and Alternative has forced many of the really talented artists to look else where for exposure. Anyway I imagine its been really tough for those quality artists to sustain their careers, but necessity is the mother of invention. So there‘s been some good for these artists careers, that they otherwise wouldn’t have accomplished, they’ve established strong followings in those marketplaces that they probably wouldn’t have gone after. My feeling is that quality music is going to make a comeback, the major record companies have been chasing trends and ignoring quality artist for too long and its taken its toll on the industry. (sales and excitement level are at an all time low)
DM: In years of late some of the most talented music groups and musicians (such as Toto, Richard Page, and Bobby Caldwell) have been overlooked in the United States yet in Europe and/or Japan they play to sold out crowds. Do you think Chicago was received better by Japanese and European audiences than it was by American audiences? Do you think their musical tastes are more mature than that of the Americans?
DS: Chicago was a major success first in Europe and Japan but that changed when we released Chicago II. Its funny when we became commercially successful over here then our popularity began to fall off over there. Let me say that Europeans have always embraced/appreciated American Jazz artists long before we started to realize what a wonderful art we have in this country. Its only recently that their has been an awareness in this country (thank god).
DM: Where do you think Chicago would be today if David Foster hadn't come around?
DS: Who knows where Chicago would be today if I hadn’t brought David Foster onto the scene. (Please don’t take that the wrong way I’m not blowing my horn here, its just the facts) my friend Bobby Colomby urged me to consider having David produce the band so he deserves allot of the credit. I tried to get the band to have David produce Chicago 15 (thumb print album) but I was out voted by the band and record company, consequently when that record stiffed people were ready to listen. I knew we needed a strong presence in the studio, someone that we couldn’t intimidate with our numbers and musicianship, someone that would co-write and bring new life/blood to our material, it had become stale we were too incestuous, the band was at an all time low and David injected new life. Chicago was also David’s first major success, so it was a two way street.
DM: In hindsight do you believe Peter's departure was good for both he and Chicago?
DS: No Peter’s leaving served no one. Chicago was at a all time high and Peter was at the center of it, its unfortunate because Peter could/should have done what Phil Collins did but at the time he was getting some bad advice and we were being stubborn. Peter went on to have a successful debut but that was it and we struggled on Chicago 18 but we eventually prevailed on Chicago 19 with three top five songs, but neither of us ever attained the kind of success that we had on Chicago 17. I’d like to see Peter go back with Chicago and do a reunion record and tour, I’d love to be a part of it but none the less Peter is a great artist and he deserves finish his career on top, it hurts me to see him struggling, he’s too good for that. I also think it would help put Chicago back in the history books, where we very much deserve to be.
DM: Donnie Dacus seemed to have dropped off the face of the Earth when Chicago fired him. Do you know what ever happened to him?
DS: Your right Donnie Dacus did disappear from the face of the earth. He was let go because he really didn’t fit into the band, never did, it was a mistake in the first place. It wasn’t his fault either he was a good guy, he just didn’t fit in with the mix, I know it really hurt him to be let go like that, believe me now I know how that feels.
DM: Although hindsight is 20/20, is there anything you would have done different in your career?
DS: I have so much to be thankful for so having regrets is a little like saying I’d wish I had been with the Beatles. I guess my only regret is the way my tenure with the band ended, it kinda left me in limbo, it should of ended differently, a farewell tour, long good-bye’s you know what I mean. But like I said having regrets after accomplishing so much and experiencing such incredible highs is like tempting the gods to bring the sky down on you, so I think I’ll just be glad for what I accomplished and did with the band and get on with my life, I have allot of music and living left in me.