Tuesday, January 25, 2011

great interview on steve hoffman music forum with kevin ellman

Kevin Ellman, Drummer and Businessman talks about the upcoming Utopia shows and his musical career

What inspired you to start playing drums?
Ringo Starr! I was thirteen years old when the Beatles came out when I saw them on Ed Sullivan I was completely enthralled. I went out and got a Beatle haircut, Beatle boots, a Beatle suit and I bought a set of drums and I began playing the drums.I wanted to be like Ringo Starr.

What was your first kit like?

I had a Ludwig Silver Sparkle set, a rack tom and a floor tom,bass drum,snare drum. I guess three cymbals and a high hat.And I started playing The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Ventures, a lot of English rock. My first band was a big Yardbirds band, John Mayall and The Bluesbeakers ...all that blues stuff.

Who were some of your other drum heroes as a youth?

Early on who really influenced me were Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell. I listened to Cream and listened to Hendrix over and over and those were the guys who were my biggest influences.Then I started getting into jazz I started listening to Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa and I would say that my favorite was Joe Morello.

How did you get into jazz?
My father was also a musician he played cello,my mother played the piano.There was always music playing and I started listening to his records actually. He had all the Brubeck stuff,Cal Tjader. He also owned a jazz club, he actually owned two different clubs. A place called The Downbeat and The Riverboat and also later on a place called The Scene which was one of the first discotheques in the city. I was able to see all these guys live,close up.I remember when I was a teenager Jimi Hendrix came and played at The Scene and I was sitting three feet from the him, I was right there.

That was some musical education.

It was terrific it was really great.

You went to Berklee after that so you were very serious about being a drummer.

From thirteen on I was probably practicing 6 to 8 hours a day. I took lessons from Jim Chapin , I was very,very serious. I mean I was practicing all the time I went to Berklee and I studied there for a year or two , then I came back to the city and studied with Sonny Igoe. I would go to big band rehearsals and training. I would play every gig I could possibly play. I was very serious about learning my craft .

Where did you get your first big break into the music business?

My roommate when I was at Berklee was the musical director for Boston University and he introduced me to Manhattan Transfer.I did a tour with them so when the tour was over, they said," well we know this woman named Bette Midler she does a similar thing to us call her up." And she asked me to come for an audition. It was Bette and Barry Manilow, who was her musical director and a set of drums. That was part of my first break even though she was very new. I played bigger places and I got a chance to record . And I got a a chance to play on that first album.

The Divine Ms M.
Yep ,The Divine Ms M. and I played on Friends which was her theme song forever . That was really what got me going.

Was that the beginning of the collaboration between you Moogy,John? How was it you first got together?
It was a combination of then I met Moogy, and Buzzy Linhart. It was funny because the connection was the song Friends... Moogy wrote the song Friends and I played with Bette, I played with Barry ,I played with Moogy and I played with Buzzy. We had a band called Vortex which was John Siegler, Ralph Shuckett Moogy played with us every once in a while and a saxophone player named Peter Panzol. We would rehearse at my house and then I would play more and more with Moogy then he put me on a couple of sessions. Moogy was the one who ultimately introduced me to Todd Rundgren.

How was playing with Bette, Barry and Todd different?
Bette was rather unpredictable.Playing with Barry he was the consummate professional, he had been a sideman before, he worked on Broadway before, he was very professional and sympathetic to the sideman.He always had charts he always had everything together. Playing with Rundgren was completely different. He was very professional in a very different kind of way. He was super creative and super innovative. He allowed us to step out and play.We could experiment and he didn't tell us what to play, he allowed us to could figure out our own parts.Things evolved over time. We played on the road , we played the same songs over and over again, we would experiment and try different things and then we would perfect them and come up with better parts over time.

When you first met Todd did his reputation precede him in some sense?

He didn't have a bad reputation cause at the time I was playing with Ralph,John and Moogy and John Siomos was in the band at the time and got another gig.I showed up in rehearsal with Moogy and Todd. And we played some songs...it's funny no one said anything it was just OK you are part of the band. They were very happy with what I did I fit right in and everything came naturally.

It came about organically.

Yeah, I just showed up and everybody was happy and I just kept playing

What are some of your memories of making the first Utopia album? And how about the tour? How tough was it to get Utopia theme right?

I would say the main thing when we did the Utopia song we did it live. You know from live music sometimes the drummer, the guitar player plays great,sometimes the audience is terrific and the band isn't or the band is great but the sound system is off. The night we actually finally recorded Utopia,the band was on , everything was working .and it was the best we ever played it .We really captured the greatest version of Utopia. The first two nights it wasn't right but I remember the last night when we hit the last note,we turned around and said was everybody alright? Did you make a mistake? Everybody played great,so we were all very happy on how that went.

Do you remember the tour for that album?

It was all very complicated.Two things,one was that we were playing five or six cities a week but we were moving every single day. We were on the plane, we are at the hotel, back at the taxi,backstage. It was a pretty stressful road trip. Every day the crew had to move the equipment ,it was a complicated platform with a lot of lights and a lot of equipment. It was a big production. Everybody had a sound check and everybody did a show maybe two shows. It was hard work and obviously the music was very exciting. I remember a couple of hours into playing it was a lot of work.

Were there any chemical influences at play during that time?

We were never under the influence when we played. Everybody was straight and that was very important you can't play that type of music with all the time signatures, all the time changes...it was complicated music. If you were stoned you could not play that music. Everybody had their experience with sex,drugs and rock and roll but when it comes to the music you've got to be serious.

How much did you look to the prog and fusion bands of that time for inspiration?

Me personally I was more influenced by the fusion side. I was very very excited by Return To Forever and Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Mahavishnu those are the guys I was really excited about. I was very influenced by them. The other guys I was aware of like ELP and Yes I didn't listen to them as much I was more of a fusion kind of guy.Now that we are getting together for a reunion,I'm been playing in an R & B album for the last ten years, I'm not as quite fusion oriented as I practice,I'm trying to decide do I try and play it like I did in the Seventies or like I do now or play it progressive,fusion, funky? I'm trying to decide on how to play the entire gig.

I talked to John Siegler and you had to be cocky to play that kind of music at the time.

I don't think that anybody else in rock was playing that type of music.We had rehearsal this week, it's not easy music,it's very challenging ..there's constant time changes, constant part changes and not just repetitive music that you could groove on.I'm still trying to decide on how to play it and I still haven't come to a final decision yet.

Do you find that the parts came back to you as some kind of muscle memory?

I know the part as I listen to myself playing it, I'm 21 at the time. I'm listening to it now...some of the stuff now, I don't want to play that way today.There's going to be some kind of combination between ...I know there are certain key figures certain beats, certain queues that everybody is going to be depending on. Giving everybody some obvious signposts to know where they are or that they can jump to the next part . All those things that I'm going to do, I think I'm probably going to embellish less than I did.

The music was very complex and keeping time was very important.

Well I always kept the time but it was a very,very good group of musicians so they didn't need me to keep a simple beat. I played lots of fills but every single figure, I would use the hit hat or the bass drum to signal how the time would change to make sure that everyone knew where they were.

And I wanted to ask you about each individual member at the time,first one is Moogy in terms of his role in the band.

Well he was the catalyst so he was the guy that put the band together. That's always been his role, band leader or the band organizer.He had a studio, we rehearsed at Moogy's studio. He was the one that called me to play.I think that all the guys played with Moogy and the Rhythm Kings before he was the organizer,the catalyst of the group.

How about Ralph?

Ralph started as a very creative keyboard player who always had an incredible groove,great clavinet, great rhythm piano. Very groovy keyboard player with very fusion funky solos.So he was a terrific player in that sense,I always enjoyed playing with him.

John Siegler.

I regard him as maybe the best bass player there is. An amazing bass player and I learned a lot playing with him With the drum and the bass we felt we always had to be together. We were always working bass and drum parts. The bass drums and the bass were always locked in. Every now and then we would do a special little thing. That either John came up with or I came up with, we were very much a team always working together, I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. I like him, very, very excited to be playing with him again.

How about Frog Labat?

Well I think about the music, what's interesting when we are rehearsing the synthesizer part we realized how important they were. The music was very,very dense and the synthesizer parts gave a real color and a real flavor to the music.So it was the key to the music and it really gave the music real flavor.

Some of the other guys weren't too happy with his contribution.

I don't think he was an accomplished musician so I didn't think he could replace Ralph. Moogy is an extremely talented piano player,an extremely talented songwriter.Frog wasn't on that level but he definitely made a contribution.

I don't think his musicianship was at the same level.

Todd Rundgren.

Todd is a super talent , extremely innovative, a great songwriter an excellent guitar player. he has other talents he's a producer he plays all the instruments, the guy is a tremendous,tremendous talent. I don't know what other people say about him but I didn't have a problem with him.Always was willing to let me experiment and be creative. And sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't work.When I first played Utopia I played it as a straight bolero. One night I decided to play it differently with a rolling tom tom thing, which I call my funky bolero ,nobody ever stopped me they said it was pretty good. Not all guys would do so some would say, "this is the way you are supposed to play it." I appreciate the fact that he gave me the room to stretch out and experiment and develop my playing.

He was hands off even though it was his band?

I wouldn't call him hands off , it was very much Todd's band.There were some songs that Todd wrote and he would come in and show us the music and we would create our own parts. There were songs that were written collectively either in the forms of jams other songs we did with Vortex or Moogy and The Rhythm Kings and we kind of incorporated it into Todd's music.I would say that Moogy had the greatest contribution, he wrote a lot of music that was intuitive but Ralph and John also played parts and sang. It was a very inclusive even though it was Todd's band. It was Todd Rundgren and Utopia.

Was Todd better at communicating through words or through music?

Well most musicians are better communicating musically.All of us would say play like this rather than explaining it in words. So most musicians communicate non-verbally more effectively.Even today at the rehearsal, if it's not sounding right,we might listen to the record or listen to somebody play it but it's not so many words going on it's musical communication.

Was there a live highlight of a Utopia show where everybody was spot on ?

Well there were a couple of shows that were perfect, I can't remember what there were, which place they were.Quite frankly,there were some very high moments. You listen to that music today and this is 1974 and this sounds great. Obviously there are a couple things here and there I would play differently now.But by and large the music sounds terrific.

The music was very impressive particularly with The Ikon talking up a side.

That was definitely a collective effort, that was definitely fusion. I kind of grew up as a rock drummer even if I was playing jazzy things like samba it doesn't sound like Airto it sounds like a rock and roll samba. I listened to it, it sounds like progressive rock or rock fusion more so than fusion, it's definitely got a hard edge to it.

What was the craziest story that happened to you on the road?

We were were playing one of the colleges in the northwest, someplace like that and we get to the college to the auditorium. It's in the middle of a blizzard , so all we have is our instruments and we have a sound system the college provided, I have a practice pad and a drum pedal.So we go out and say would you like us to go out and play with what we have or do you want us to wait for the equipment? Everybody starts screaming and yelling,"play,play,play." So I put my drum pedal on a garbage can, I put a microphone on my practice pad an everybody played direct into the sound system and we played! An hour later the truck arrives and we asked the audience if you want us to set up properly to do a real show? We put up as much as we could put up quickly with full instruments. Of course,the audience went berserk.That was the most unusual road experience I had playing on a garbage can.

Do you have any memories of making the Felix Cavaliere album?

I do , I just kind of felt that I was stuck in the fusion style not sure it was the best feel for the album. If I had to do it over again I would have done it differently.

You guys were brought in to redo the parts on the album.

My memory is fuzzy on that.

What were your memories about the Initiation sessions?

Believe it or not I can't remember anything about that. I see my name ,I see the stuff I can't see it happening!

In terms of Utopia why did you leave?
I was getting very tired of traveling I really didn't enjoy being on the road that much , I had gotten married,I had a kid and I wanted to be home.I thought I would stay at home play around town and do sessions and things like that. In the midst of all that,my father got me to join the family business.At the time he had 70 restaurants and he was giving away free beer,wine and sangria at the restaurants and nobody came into the bar. He said why don't you come into the bar and try to generate some business. I went around and held auditions and bought seventy bands into seventy bars and I kind of like the business, the kind of marketing , the advertising,the promotion,liked being home and discovered that I had a whole other side to myself I didn't know it turned out that I was a very good businessman. one of the things I found unsatisfying as a musician was I really wanted to be in charge. I was a singer, I wasn't a songwriter I was a drummer.,I thought that I would probably never have my own band.I didn't want to work for somebody else I wanted to have my own thing. I owned a business, a very success wealth management business working with business owners and in that sense its very satisfying to me to run my own show.If I was a songwriter I would have been in charge of my own life. I think I wouldn't have wanted to been on the road being a sideman.

Neil Peart was influenced by you,have you two ever met?

I'd love to meet him some day and I did read that article where he did say he was influenced by the way I played ,it's kind of amazing to realize that you do influence people. I guess the only regret I had is that had I kept on playing ,kept developing I would have played with Todd played with other people in other big rock bands. I would have left a larger body of work. I would have influenced more people. Maybe I wouldn't have had as good a home life or as good of a relationship with my kids,so it's hard it's a trade off it's a tough life as a drummer.Some day I'd like to meet Neil if possible.

I talked to John Siegler about the New York session scene and jingle scene and Moogy was involved with that as well.
I started to do that and I played on a lot of jingles, you could make a living but that went away you can't do that anymore. So today if you wanted to make a living you would have to be on the road most of the year.Unless you get a Broadway show.

Was it hard to get your juices flowing for the jingle work?

I really didn't like that. I quit playing with Todd then I started doing sessions and I didn't like it. As long as I'm playing music and I'm not liking it I might as well do something else or I could make a really good living , a good life. I always wanted to stretch out play and be creative but if I was going to play music to make a living I'm not going to do that.

You played with Chuck Berry,Cab Calloway,Laura Branigan,Richie Havens Mary Travers....
I played with all those people before Todd.

What was Chuck Berry like, how long did you play with him for?

I played only a couple of shows and with as my roommate at Berklee ,he said ,"we have Chuck Berry coming to play could you put a band together?" I said ,"sure, I could put a band together." So I went over to Berklee, we learned Chuck Berry songs and we'd go over to BU , we set up for the night of the show we did sound check was six o' clock,no Chuck. We were waiting in the dressing room at seven o' clock ,no Chuck. The show was supposed to start at eight o' clock. He shows up five to eight goes on stage and turns around to me and says," you play a funky back beat and I syncopate,ready 1,2 and a one two three and he just counts it off."

He just needed a drummer for the time being then.

Everybody knows Chuck Berry songs, he went on the road with no band he would bring in a band for each show. He got a bunch in local musicians for each show and he would get a local band that would learn Chuck Berry songs and the works.

Cab Calloway must have been something else?

That was completely wacko, I was playing with Bette Midler at the Continental Baths and Cab Calloway was the opening act. He used her band so we just backed up Cab Calloway as an opening act.You know that was very cool I could play the swing and do the move and work out all that stuff so it was very fun.

His repertoire was in the back of your head?
Yep, I listened to all that jazz music so I knew that swing thing so I always enjoyed it so it was fun to play.

Laura Branigan how did that come to be, she must have been like twelve?
I played with her on some kind of off Broadway show.And she was in the crew and there was some kinda band and she was one of three singers and I got a couple of gigs. She was my girlfriend for a awhile. This was way back when when she went off on her own.

Mary Travers and Richie Havens?
Mary Travers was very cool to work for,she was very,very together. David Buskin put together the band . She wasn't a diva we played at the Avery Fisher Hall. It was a pleasure she was a great star,I heard all that music growing up and it was a pleasure and it was easy to play with. Richie Havens on the other and I did sessions with him, I recorded an album. he was not particularly easy to work with . I remember that he tried not to pay us. We went to the union to get him to pay us so I don't have fond memories about him.

In terms of getting involved in the finance business when did you get back in the music business?
The thing that happened is that I developed my financial planning business, I started going on CNBC as a guest.For about 10 years I was a regular on CNBC and one of the producers found out that I was a drummer,so on the fifth of April they decided to have a reunion with Todd Rundgren on the air.The week leading up to the show they had a contest and each day they would show pictures of a different guest asking which of our guests is a rock and roll drummer? So they had a contest so on the day of the show, I did a financial planning piece about career changes and Todd went to talk about his internet music service, he was one of the first guys to do music on the internet.He played a song and then they brought me out and I played The Ikon with him on CNBC.This happened in 2000 and the next day Moogy called me up and said let's get together and play. So I started playing with Moogy for a couple of years and then I played a lot of parties around town.I started playing again.

How did you keep your chops up from not playing until 2000?

I have my set set up in the basement or the garage and every now and then I would do a gig.I didn't play a lot but I had to get it together again,when I started playing again. Even now, when I'm playing Todd's music it's not like playing Aretha Franklin,it's not easy.So I'm really trying to get my chops together.

What type of drums are you playing now?

I have the same exact set that I had when I was playing with Todd. A custom set of Slingerland drums and Zildjian cymbals, I trying to decide whether I should change to a more modern set,maybe DW or Tama or something like that. I was talking to someone the other day and he said(The Slingerland drums) are valuable.It's an old set of drums but it's pretty valuable.

What was the impetus to bring Utopia back again?

Moogy called me up and he wasn't doing well health wise.He was having a benefit show on the 16th and then he was trying to get Todd, he went to one of Todd's gigs, he asked him about doing a benefit and he was very enthusiastic about it. The theater was too small and they decided to shift the date and get the Highline Ballroom. We've got John and we've got Kasim, Ralph and we've got Todd and we've got two backup singers. We are rehearsing with Moogy and John,Kasim came last week and the week before the show we are going to have rehearsals with Ralph and everybody.Todd will come in the tail end and come in and do the gig.

How is Kasim fitting into the mix since he wasn't part of your version of Utopia?

I played with Kasim once or even twice, he's a very musical guy so so far it's been easy. We're hoping that the chemistry will be good. I haven't seen him in ages, we're all optimistic that all will go well.

It's clicking like old times then.
The main thing is that we've gotta know the parts. The grooves have to be terrific.The vocals have to be on , Todd can kind of sit on top of that and that's the way it was in the beginning. We were all there to back up Todd so this is the same sort of thing.

Todd is coming in next week then?
He's coming in the week before the show, the show is on the 29th and the 30th, by the time he gets there we're gonna be completely rehearsed and super tight.

How is Moogy holding up in terms of his spirits?His spirits are great, the sound is amazing,his playing is great,his singing is great. The guy's a hero, he's just a f$%^&*g hero.We've had to postpone rehearsals, a couple of rehearsals if he was tired that day. The man wants to play.


Anonymous said...

It was a startling thing to see
TR's Utopia LIVE in March 74. One of the most outstanding performances in my experience.
Kevin Ellman floored me, & does to this day on disc. TODD Lp was just
out & much of band's long set was
new/unrecorded stellar experiments.
Chicago's Auditorium Theater was
packed thru the top balcony & the night concluded with a deluge of ping-pong balls showering the stage
Kevin,I hope that confirms for you
a "Perfect" show/location. IT is for me, & my 15 year old drummer son is among the inspired. RR, WI.

Anonymous said...

Kevin Ellman is an amazing drummer! Listen to the album "Utopia" by Todd Rundgrens' Utopia.