Home At Last – Keith Carlock Interview

By Mark Youll | 9th June, 2016 | articles |

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Its 9.40am, Central Time in New York City and Keith Carlock is running a little late. "Sorry man, can we do this in like five minutes, I'm driving back from dropping off my kids..." he says anxiously, the honk of passing cars audible down this crackly phone line.In a matter of days the sound of busy traffic will be replaced with the blare of heavy brass, breezy keys and tight-strummed guitars as the early school runs for Carlock cease and he goes into rehearsals for a 30 date U.S tour with Steely Dan.

“There are limitations in pop and in rock music and I don't wanna get fired”

Having been drumming with Dan since 2003 – not to mention lengthy stints with Sting, John Mayer, Wayne Krandz, Toto and James Taylor to name but a few – it’s a gig he says he’s now comfortable with. But when quizzed about his first experience working with the band (a recording session in ’97 for their Two Against Nature album) he remembers it being a little scary. “I was a huge fan and had heard all the stories…” he says, home at last and in the comfort of his living room.”I was both nervous and excited. I heard the way they worked in the studio could be tedious, that they could be hard on the musicians, so I didn’t know what to expect…”

Then in his mid-twenties, it was Carlock’s first time working under the direction of founder members Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the notorious perfectionists he now admits were a lot more subdued and easier to work with than expected. It was a session that would also prove invaluable in finding out what was required of him as a drummer, and how Steely Dan functioned as a band, long before he was asked to join them on the road. “It just became a great situation once we started touring, and it’s been the same personnel pretty much all these years, so it’s become a cool band. Donald and Walter really trust us and it feels like a family now…”

Those familiar with the music of the U.S super-group will appreciate just how demanding, but rewarding the gig is for any drummer. A water-tight, meticulous-to-detail drive through funk, rock, R&B and jazz influences, it’s a gig that also comes with the added pressure of measuring up to the crazy standards set by all the drummers hired by Fagen and Becker during their 40-plus years in the business: Jeff Porcaro, Steve Gadd, Rick Marotta, Bernard Purdie, Jim Lodder, the list goes on. “Oh man, they’ve worked with everybody! Even the touring drummers they used before me (Peter Erskine, Dennis Chambers)… to be part of all that whole lineage of great players is pretty amazing! It’s an honour, and I still pinch myself that I’m a part of this thing…”

Graduating from college in North-Texas in the early ’90s (where he studied music under the direction of drum legend Ed Soph), Mississippi-born Carlock craved to be a part of the New York session scene. However, upon settling in the big apple, his big break came not from playing jazz or jingles, but playing hard-hitting soul standards with the Blues Brothers band. As is clear from clips on YouTube of him cruising through classics such as “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Going Back to Miami”, it was music he was more than at home with. “I’m from the South originally and was really brought up on stuff like that; a lot of groove music, a lot of R&B and soul, things that made me feel a certain way that had some danceable quality to it”.

A virtuosic player devoted to all styles, Carlock says he’s always committed a lot of time listening to music to figure out what makes it sound good. He also admits to pursuing certain trends and throwing himself into as many genres as possible growing up. A fetish for fusion and progressive rockers like Rush led him to heavy Brit bands like the Who and Led Zeppelin, groups he thinks were maybe responsible for a period of him digging heavy metal so much he once added a second kick to his kit. Then of course were all the funk players like (Meters drummer) Zigaboo Modeliste and Stax man Al Jackson Jr, then swingers such as Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Bill Stewart, players identifiable in Carlock’s work with guitarists Wayne Krandz and Oz Noy, jazzy, bluesy trios that allow him plenty of room to really stretch and improvise.

“There are limitations in pop and in rock music and I don’t wanna get fired!” he laughs.”In a trio or jazz situation I can open up a bit. I obviously try to make mature choices, but it’s down to what I feel works for the music. The Krandz gig is basically all improvised. Something like twenty percent of the music is written the rest is about finding stuff. With something like Steely Dan or Sting there’s certainly not as much interaction, and you’re also dealing with singers and other things that are important in the music.”

As far as adding his stamp to the hits he now plays with the Dan, Sting, or Toto, his approach is simple. “I wanna be me, I want to sound like me and it’s about finding ways to do that. But I also honour what was already there depending on the song. A lot of these tunes are really special because of the drum part, or what the rhythm sections created on those sessions, so I try to capture that, and not stray away too much.” Carlock explains that a part he brings to a particular song , be it “Roxanne”, “Rosanna” or “Peg”, is a thing that just evolves the more he sits down to play it. “Especially with Steely Dan, I’ve played these tunes so much over the years that it has become a little more like I would play it than the original…”

Similarly to how he was signed up for the Steely gig (Donald Fagen guest on stage at a Wayne Krandz gig); Carlock took over the Toto chair from Simon Phillips in 2014, off the back of a previous engagement, this time a week-long residency with the band’s guitarist Steve Lukather at the Blue Note club. “It was a double bill with Steve and (saxophonist) Bill Evans and it was a lot of fun” he remembers. “We just hit it off, so it was a phone call from him asking me if I’d be interested. Of course I was, and I was very excited about it. I was a pretty big change from Simon did for some many years.” You only have to check out Carlock’s power-house performance on the band’s XIV album to hear how heavy and more masculine a sound Toto have adopted.

So how did he prepare himself for such the hard-hitting record and tour? “I just went in with what I do. I drew from my rock days when I needed to, and played the music with the attitude it deserves. When it came to the tour I was more conscious of the parts Jeff (Porcaro) or Simon (Phillips) played, purely because I only had a few days rehearsal and didn’t have a lot of time to develop it into my thing. I just did like a week in Japan with Toto, so in situations like that I try to just zone in on the parts that make the groove special, play the best I can, and bring a different energy to it.”

Carlock is confident his drum set style and approach comes from all the great music and players he has admired over the years “But there’s also always an improvisational element in there too…” he is quick to add. “…mainly because I studied jazz in school and have a lot of experience doing that. Even if I’m playing a really structured gig, I tend to change it up a lot and have this real improvisational spirit. When I can get away from changing my approach night after night, I will. I don’t like to get locked into to playing parts and patterns; I look at my part in the music as something that will evolve as I go”. Something else which continues to evolve is Carlock’s feel, an airy, infectious, laid back pocket style that for many is one of the most attractive attributes of his playing. It’s also an area he is constantly considering and fine tuning, whether on the road, in the studio or on pads in the practice room.

“I want (my feel) to always improve. I also improvise around certain things to keep that part of my creative brain working. For instance, I don’t play as much straight ahead jazz as I would like to on gigs, so I listen to a lot of it when I practice to keep the touch and feel within reach.”

A self-confessed aficionado of groove music and the big session years of the ’70s, space, time and feel is something Carlock feels is often overlooked, especially in a lot of young players coming through. “It seems to be mostly coming from the kids growing up playing in the gospel churches. Also, there’s so much of that “chops first” mentality on YouTube accessible for kids to learn from. I kinda think most young players play like their age. Hopefully they will mature into playing more musically as they get older and gain more experience. Too much time playing by yourself in a practice room can be less productive than playing with human beings in a rhythm section. I always try to stress to younger players, that they need to be playing in a band from day one.”

Like his contemporaries Gadd and Weckl before him, it’s clear from his distinctive grip, snappy rudimental chops and buzz-rolled beats that Carlock spent his formative years playing in drum line. He also throws up New Orleans funk, second-line and street styles as key influences, not just on his technique, but on e the open-tuned sound of his set and the trad-tilted positioning of his snare and toms. “Yeah, it’s something that’s kind of become my sound, that open thing. Depending on what gig I’m doing, I prefer to have the open tone if I can get away with it. It makes sense and I play differently. It inspires me to play in a different way as opposed to everything being muffled and sounding like your hitting a table you know? It changes everything. The way the air moves, the length of the note. How that changes my approach to playing is drastic”.

While such a traditional kit sound wouldn’t be welcome on stage with, say ,Sting or Steely Dan, one gig that’s sure to welcome the high-tuned resonate ring of his Brooklyn series Gretsch set is the World’s Greatest Drummer concert in the U.K, which Carlock will headline next month. A majorly anticipated event on the British drum calendar (Gadd headlined in 2015), the show will also feature the talents of U.K greats Ian Palmer, Steve White and Pete Cater raiding the repertoire of Buddy Rich with a 15-piece orchestra. “That’s gonna be a lot of fun…” Carlock says excitedly.”…I’m still debating what to play but we’ve tossed some ideas around. I’ve actually been listening to some of the Woody Herman arrangements that I remember from college. In fact Ed Soph played on some of those and he was my teacher there. There’s also this great Chick Corea tune that Woody recorded called “La Fiesta” which Ed played on. I might also do something from Herman’s book of Steely Dan tunes, though I won’t touch ‘Aja’ since Gadd already nailed that one last year!

While Carlock maintains he has had plenty of playing experience with orchestras in the studio or on TV, he admits it was day after day at college that he spent more time studying big band, breaking down Basie charts or dissecting tunes from the Woody Herman book. “I loved Buddy Rich but I never slayed his charts that much. It was more of a traditional school with Stan Kenton stuff. I really think big band is something you have to do a lot, and I don’t know who has the opportunity to play in a big band all the time! It’s a totally different animal. Even playing jazz, straight ahead, I wish I could play it more” . As big band gigs like this seldom come along, it’s a show he says he will prepare for as part of his practice time.

“The licks, the touch of the instrument, the feel and the balance of the kit in that music. There’s so much to think about, and if you don’t do it all the time there’s no way you can sound natural” Concluding this call with a statement like this further emphesises his commitment to his art and instrument. Later today he’ll be busy re-acquainting himself with some Steely songs for the pending tour. A couple of hours behind the drums before he’s back behind the wheel of his car to collect the kids.

© Mark Youll

May 2016

This article is previously unpublished.