Chester Thompson: 10 albums that define my career - "The funny part is, I actually taught Phil Collins the In The Air Tonight drum fill"

Chester Thompson
(Image credit: Giovanni Cionci)

“I'm not a fan of me. Okay?” Chester Thompson tells us over Zoom. “I mean, I'm not impressed! My job – I say this tongue-in-cheek, but I really mean it – as I've gotten older, I have more fun than ever, because over the years I've finally realised that my job is just to sit there and listen. Then I respond to what I hear around me. 

"Fortunately, I've played so many crazy styles of music and done so many different things, I always just try to trust my instincts… If I'm thinking about what I'm doing, then it's a disaster. I think any drummer will tell you, you can play a thing 100 times, and if you start thinking about it while you're doing it, you're gonna really mess it up.”

It’s a philosophy that, clearly, has served Chester well. Prior to filling Phil Collins’ shoes behind the kit for a decades-long stint as Genesis’ live drummer, his work with groundbreaking, boundary-pushing artists began with him serving as the drummer for the likes of Frank Zappa and Weather Report (among many others). 

In turn, his instincts – and seemingly intuitive understanding of, at times, extremely complex music – has seen his path converge with some of the all-time instrumental greats, taking in jazz, funk, gospel, prog, fusion and more along the way.

Having just released his third solo album, Wake Up Call - a musical labour of love that was intended to kill time and raise spirits during the COVID-19 pandemic, and sees him reunited with old bandmates Robert "Pewee" Hill and Michiko Hill - Chester is showing no signs of abandoning his instincts yet. Wake Up Call takes a journey through Chester's prog, jazz and fusion heartlands, and also features a special guest appearance from his son, Akil Thompson on guitar. 

Now, in a career-spanning interview, Chester talks us through the 10 albums he’s had a hand in, which he feels have shaped his career. Join us as we discover why Jaco Pastorius struggled to swing, how treating band practices like a full-time job is the key to tightness, and how Phil Collins had a helping hand in coming up with his most famous drum part of all.

Chester Thompson - Wake Up Call is out now

Chester Thompson: 10 albums that define my career

Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention - Roxy & Elsewhere

“I'd done some recordings prior to that. But that was the first time it was like, 'Okay, maybe I'm actually almost doing this right!' you know? That was a pretty crazy time, obviously. And musically, it was… man, it was intense. It was great. It was from a couple of nights’ concerts. 

“Frank had added horns and all that to the band, he always had the saxophone and trumpet, but then he brought in other horns. It was a pretty amazing time. I'd only been in the band… when we did the Roxy night, I think I'd started with him in September and that was December. So it was still pretty new for me. 

“There's a film of it, which is really hilarious. It was a pretty crazy night, as you can see. Frank wrote out almost everything [for the band to play live], the improvisation sections, of course, were not. But all the song structures were written in great detail. 

“There wasn't much room for variance, you know? I mean, he was a very thorough composer. He was self-taught in a weird kind of way. Basically, you've heard of Stravinsky, well he was Frank’s main influence. But Frank studied it himself, just got books and recordings and studied himself. He didn't do well in school, which is pretty brilliant. So the kind of detail that you find in orchestral music, that's what would happen with his charts. 

“The first year in that band I was doing double-drums with Ralph Humphrey. It was a bit of both, unison and different parts. There were some things where we would lock together, but as the band went on, Frank – as he got more and more ideas of what he wanted to happen – there would be two very different drum parts. 

“Sometimes we would actually be in two different time signatures. And Frank could hear it, he knew exactly how he wanted it. I can hear it, but not to the level he did. I mean, he conceived of it and knew exactly how it would sound.

“In-ears weren't invented yet. So basically, we had floor wedge monitors. Ralph and I just had plenty of each other in our monitors. I had his bass drum and snare up pretty hot, and he had mine as well so we could lock together, because we felt things very differently. So we watched each other a lot. We had to glance over, we had to be aware of what was going on at the front of the stage, but a lot of time, we would really need eye contact to make sure we were getting it locked in. 

“But the thing is, it was really well rehearsed. Frank had no tolerance for people not being [on point]. I found him great, I didn't have a hard time with him at all, because I didn't mind doing the work. But, you just knew that it was expected to be right, and you did it.”

"We rehearsed eight hours a day, we had an hour for lunch, and there was no time wasted, we really worked that whole time"

Is it true that Roxy… is the album that brought you to the attention of Phil Collins?

“That one had a lot to do with it. But he was a big Weather Report fan, and he came to see Weather Report in London. A mate of his was saying to me that Phil had said to him, ‘Man, if I have to play with another drummer, I'd really like it to be that guy’. Then there we have it, a few years later it happened.”

“I haven't listened to Roxy in a long time actually, I need to pull it out and take a look, I don't know that I would say there was a standout track for me. Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen’s Church) was pretty fun. Ralph and I played mostly together on that. It was my first experience playing with another drummer and hearing it all back, I was pretty impressed with it. But it wasn't so much about me is the fact that we were part of this this unit.”

Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention - One Size Fits All

“Inca Roads would be the favourite tune for me. Here's the crazy part about it - so Frank wrote all this stuff, but he allowed no music on stage. So you had to memorise everything. We learned the written parts, but then we would rehearse them and get it to the point where eventually you didn't need to read it anymore, because it was really pounded into your brain. 

“We're talking days, not hours. That was my first introduction to 40-hour-a-week rehearsals. We rehearsed eight hours-a-day, we had an hour for lunch, and there was no time wasted, we really worked that whole time. The thing about Frank, he was a brilliant teacher, but when it came to the really difficult parts, we would go through them slowly and then gradually speed them up.

“I remember sitting there going through one of the sections, probably Inca Roads, and I think we'd been at it for maybe an hour, different parts of the song. I remember thinking, 'Man, this is really tight. Why are we still doing this? What does he want?', you know? 

“Then maybe another hour later, the result was that I was amazed, because I've never been a part of anything that tight before. It was incredible by the time he got done with it, but he just took it step-by-step, and really took it to the level where he wanted it, which gave me a whole other level of respect for him. 

That's why all of his bands were that tight - he knew how to get it to that point. He recorded everything, too. So if there was a disaster, he could always play-back the recording and you'd know immediately what needed to be fixed.”  

It sounds like while Frank had very exacting standards, he could also put that across in a reasonable way, rather than being a Whiplash-style tyrant?

“It's funny, I refused to see that movie. I've never seen it. I taught for 20 years at Belmont University. And for me, it was such a travesty, and such a mockery of that process. It's like, I just didn't want to see it. I led one of the jazz groups, a small group, I didn't do the big band. But we were really concerned about our players. The best way to get something done well, is you do the work. But at some point, people have got to laugh, right? If there's no laughter going on, it just becomes work. We're supposed to play music, not work.”

Your line-up of The Mothers also included George Duke and the Fowler Brothers, too…

“Well, there were two of the Fowlers that were the mainstay: Tom the bass player and Bruce on trombone. Then parts of Roxy…, where Frank brought in Walt Fowler, the trumpet player and another horn guy named Albert Wing. Albert and Walt were really close. They were a bit like the Brecker brothers, they could play so tightly and they could just go forever, it was amazing. 

“I ended up playing in [the Fowlers’] band as well, which was called Air Pocket. It was all five of the Fowler brothers, they were all amazing players. It was hilarious because they were typical brothers, always bickering. They got on great, but you know, the older ones would sort of tell the younger ones what to do and stuff. It was pretty funny. And I can't forget [percussionist] Ruth Underwood. Oh my goodness, she was unbelievable.”

Weather Report - Black Market

“It's the only studio thing I did with Weather Report. There was a crazy thing that had happened before we finished recording that album. We were doing it in November/December, so we took a break for Christmas. I went back to Baltimore, my hometown, and when I came back, I didn’t know that Alphonso [Johnson, bassist] had left the band. 

“He had been there for three years, they had been saying to him, 'Yeah, you're going to become an equal member'. But then they got new managers and the new managers said 'Absolutely not, only Joe and Wayne'. 

So Alphonso was a bit frustrated, and it's not like we were going to be able to retire from playing with Weather Report, you know what I mean? It was fantastic music, the money wasn't the best, but you just did it for the love of music. So by then Alphonso had his own recording contract and unknown to me, I get back and suddenly there's Jaco [Pastorius]. 

“They assumed that I was leaving with Alphonso because Joe and Wayne left the bands they were in to start Weather Report, and Alphonso and I had known each other for a long time before Weather Report. I think I was 20, and he was 18 when we met and started playing together. 

"I find it amazing that, as well as Jaco played, he had a lot of trouble with that sort of 16th-note triplet funk kind of thing. It just wasn't in his repertoire.”

“So they assumed that I was leaving with him, and they had asked Jaco 'What drummer would you want to play with?' He suggested Narada Michael Walden. The opening track - Black Market, they gave him credit for the track. But the whole first half of the song is actually me. 

“Then there's a split right in the middle where it changes sections. If you listen to it, you'll notice everything changes. The whole ambience, the drum sound, everything changes. because I did the straight-eight feel up-front, and when they tried it with him, they tried it with a swing feel, but they didn't like the front part of it [played with a swing]. 

“So they actually kept both. It switches from one to the other, but they didn't put both our names down for that track.

There's a few standouts on that record, the whole album knocks me out. I really loved Elegant People, Gibraltar. That whole album was a favourite, if I had to choose one, I'd probably go with Elegant People. But all of it for me was just kind of a magical time, really.”

How much overlap was there with you and Jaco in the line-up?

“There wasn't much crossover between me and Jaco. As the time came for the tour, management told me that Joe and Wayne were really very complimentary about what I played on the album. So, it's time to start rehearsing for the tour, we sat down to play and I started to play what I played on the recordings. But then Jaco, as brilliant as he was, didn't swing well. He was very straight, accurate sixteenths and that sort of thing. 

“But the feel that Alphonso and I had together was more swung. We both grew up playing a lot of funk and jazz and stuff, so there was a lot of that in what we did. Well, that’s just not natural to Jaco at all. But instead of saying to me, 'We need to change the feel on this stuff', they just start saying to me, 'Well, that's not the right feel.’ 

“So by then, I'm really confused because I was like 'Well, I was just told that you really liked what I did'. So it was… it got very tense and weird and it was like, 'Okay, this trip is over'. Which, you know, was fine. I mean, I totally respected Jaco's playing, but that aspect of it - I find it amazing that, as well as he played, he had a lot of trouble with that sort of 16th-note triplet funk kind of thing. It just wasn't in his repertoire.”

Conversely, you’ve worked with Alphonso Johnson throughout your career. Would you say you’re a natural pairing when it comes to groove?

“Yeah, we work together every chance we get, and we don't have to discuss it, really. We just listen to each other, we’ve both got a slightly different way of approaching things, but it works together. We actually started a band together at one point but unfortunately, not everybody was fully on board and it just kind of fell apart. 

“But, we've done a lot together, even from when we started out, we were in two different bands, but we shared a rehearsal space and we just jammed all the time.”

Genesis - Seconds Out

“I never did any of the studio stuff with them, Phil did all the studio work. The several things that I'm on were all live concerts, and that album was my first tour. That was the '77 tour. It was interesting, obviously, it was all prog rock at that point. I Know What I Like had probably been a single I think, and maybe Carpet Crawlers, but other than that, it was just all prog rock. It was not a 'hit song' band by any means. 

“But that was fine for me, because the stuff Zappa was doing was complex, maybe more complex, actually. So, I was quite comfortable with the odd timings and all of that. But I'd never done prog where each song went through so many movements. I'd never played a 19-minute song before! Which was Supper's Ready, that was on the first tour. 

"I really do feel like with Zappa I got to play all the notes in all the combinations, and then Weather Report had to go back and figure out which ones to leave out! "

“Listening back, I'm still pretty partial to that album. Phil and I, we did a lot of double-drumming, of course. It was pretty intense. It's interesting, by the time I got to Zappa… I mean, I started playing clubs at 13. So I'd been at it for a while and  started recording with a local band in Baltimore. 

“Those early [Baltimore] recordings I'm not particularly proud of, I had no idea what I was doing. I mean, it's really hard. You can't quite approach recording completely like doing a live gig. There's some things that don't translate quite the same, and it takes lots and lots of times doing it to really fine tune it. So that's why I'm more partial to the later stuff in my career, from Zappa-on.”

Do you think your time with Zappa prepared you for the type of playing you’d need going into Genesis? 

“I always say, my time with Zappa was the best school that I ever went to. Ok, I did college and all that, but Zappa was the best learning experience of all.The joke for me is that – somebody wrote it down somewhere, but it's true – I really do feel like with Zappa I got to play all the notes in all the combinations, and then Weather Report had to go back and figure out which ones to leave out! 

“My first tour with Genesis was all around the UK, we literally circled the island. Some of the places we played were never meant to have music in them, wherever they could find a building big enough to put people in, that's where we played. Sometimes it was a metal shed - low ceilings and music echoing all over the place. I played some pretty crazy places, but I got to see places that I would have never seen. I don't know many guys who have played Paignton, you know? I got to do all of that.” 

Chester Thompson performs on stage with Genesis at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena, Binghamton, New York. March 1978

(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

How did playing the more progressive-era Genesis material compare to playing the poppier stuff? 

“That's a really good question. I've never thought about it before because it sort of evolves as you go. It's like, if you've got a nephew or a niece in the family and you see them all the time, they grow. But then if you've been away, and they live in a different city, and you see them years later, it's like, 'Wow, what happened?'. 

So it was such a gradual thing. For me, the songs got shorter. I don't think they sat down and said, 'Let's try to write hits', I don't believe that was it at all. Because a lot of the songs were very different to everything everybody else was doing. 

“I think that was because of the prog background. They just learned how to say as much in less time, is what I believe. The first time we toured and there was a hit, it might have been Follow You Follow Me, I remember coming backstage after the show, we came offstage, waiting to see if we would do an encore and the first thing one of the guy said was, 'Man, there's women out there!'. In the prog world, you know, you might have 10 guys with girlfriends in the crowd. I met my wife just before joining the band, she came to one of the concerts and she was shocked, like, 'There's no women, what is this?!' 

“There was so much variety in the music, some songs, you really had to go at it and then some were very laid back and spacious. There was a massive variety of things that I would play, as far as types of feels. Especially a lot of the instrumental bits, which were Phil and I together, and those were usually pretty aggressive.” 

What was it like playing double-drums with Phil?

“Well, Phil and I, on my very first day of rehearsal before everybody else finished setting up, we were jamming. We were just going at it and it locked in immediately. I was amazed. Ralph Humphrey and I had to really work at it. We'd come from such different backgrounds. 

“With Phil, even though our backgrounds were also different, we listened to a lot of the same people coming up. He was a big fan of the whole soul music thing, and we listened to a lot of the same jazz drummers. So when we sat down to play together, it just fell right in. 

“I was very surprised how easy it was to play together. Some things we had to work at, just to make sure they were accurate and really tight. But we felt things very in a very similar way, even though our basic feels are very different if you separate what we do, but when we would sit down together, man, it would just lock-in real quick.”

Younger drummers will know Phil as much as a frontman/vocalist as they do a drummer. Do you think his playing gets overlooked at all?

“Well… but then you’ve got In the Air Tonight. I don't dwell on the fact, but the funny part is I actually taught him that drum fill. I heard him doing something similar and I asked him in rehearsal one day, 'Are you trying to do this?' And he said, 'Yeah, that's it! What are you doing?' 

“I mean, I didn't invent it. I'm not sure who I got it from, maybe Billy Cobham or somebody, but it was just part of what we did over here. It was, you know…  not that unusual. Several of the things Phil played that were unique and very fresh were him trying to do what American drummers did. But he would end up doing it his way would be something totally new and fresh.”

Like a happy accident from mishearing? How was he playing it originally?

“He's was spacing it between the snare and rack tom all the time. And it's, you play the snare, the only the first couple of hits everything else at all times after that. You get the general idea, but you know, that next is why I realised what he was going for. 

“I'd have to be sitting at a kit to show you. Iit's very melodic, high toms, down to the low toms. But at first he was doing it more back and forth between the snare and toms, you know, 'ba-doom-do-bat, ba-doom-do-bat', as opposed to 'da-doom-da-doom'. More between the snare and the smaller toms, as opposed to taking it all the way down the kit. He had the rhythm, it's just the placement of the voicings, the toms and stuff. 

“But also, he ended up doing it with all flams, which made it sound twice as big. And then with the effects they put on it, it just turned into something that just changed the world, almost. It's like, the most famous drum lick there is now. There are so many comedy skits based around that drum fill, people stumbling down the stairs and stuff!”

Do you have a favourite memory playing in Genesis?

“It's very hard to single out any one specific thing. We played Paris a couple of times, and for me, Paris is always just an amazing place to play. Because they listen differently there. Way back when, we played in Paris. We were doing the instrumental bit from Cinema Show, which is in 7/8. Well, the audience starts clapping along in seven! I've never heard an audience do that before - ‘1-2,1-2,1-2-3’. The whole audience was doing that, and I was just stunned. 

“The couple of times we played there, they would be so into it, so energetic. Those times tend to stick out. I think it's maybe more the places and the settings that stick out. The band was very consistent. I don't think we ever had a bad night. You try to rehearse it and prepare it to the point where your bad should still be pretty good from an audience’s perspective. After a couple of years, Genesis started doing the whole 40-hour rehearsal routine as well, which really prepares it. Really gets it tight.” 

Back to Seconds Out, did you have a favourite part to interpret from that era?

“Last time I listened to it, it was some of the songs I didn't even remember like Robbery, Assault and Battery, which was amazing. I really loved playing that. I actually ran across some recordings from the very first gig I did with Genesis in January 1 77. It was at the Rainbow Theater in London. We played three nights, and all three nights were broadcast on the radio, which I didn't know at the time. 

“I stumbled across these recordings online. The first night was not so great. But by the third night it was really, really tight so I've actually kept the recordings of those couple of days that weekend. Robbery, Assault And Battery, All In A Mouse's Night - unless you really go back and research the earlier stuff, you'd never hear those. 

“But they were very interesting to play - very melodic, crazy time signatures, true prog stuff. And that being my introduction to that world, I think those are the songs that stick out more to me, the ones that eventually weren't even part of the book as things went on.

“My favourite one in the pop sort of world – it's crazy because it's not a drum-heavy song – but I love melodies so Throwing It All Away was always one of my favourite songs. The melody and the structure of it all just really gets me. I grew up with Soul Music, it's probably closer to that.”

Ron Kenoly - Lift Him Up

“I had been a Christian for several years at that point. And this was an all-Christian thing. But it was an amazing time. The band included Abraham Laboriel Senior on bass, Alex Acuña playing percussion, and some of the top horn players and session singers from LA, plus there was a local choir of at least a couple hundred people. 

“It was just an amazing recording, I'm not sure how to put it in ordinary terms. But like I say, it was a Christian event, primarily a worship event. All I can say, honestly, is that most good musicians, especially jazz musicians, are always very aware of getting out of the way. They always say 'Let the playing come through. Get out of your head and let it through. Don't try to block it and control it.' You just let it happen. 

“So this was a situation where that was happening in a much bigger way than I have experienced. People were weeping all over the place. Musically, the arrangements were phenomenal. Nowadays, you've got lots of big-budget events that are similar, guys like Kurt Franklin. This might have been one of the first, I'm not sure. But it was just a magical time. The playing and the writing, I was just amazed. Every now and then I'll still listen back to that, it definitely raised the bar for recorded things like that, for sure.

“Abraham Laboriel is my other favourite bass player. Abe and I met, and we started playing together in 1971. He was a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston. And I was living in Boston playing with a band there. Some gig came up and Abraham was brought in. Him and I were the first ones at rehearsal, by the time the others showed up and started setting up we'd broken out a sweat! We'd been playing for at least a half hour straight, just really going for it, and that's been our relationship ever since. 

“We've played a lot together and done different things together and with him it's just always just amazing. He's actually from Mexico originally, so he's got the whole South American funk, he's got the whole thing down and, he actually started playing flamenco guitar first as a child. So he plays his bass in that style with the fingers and all of that. So that feel comes through, and Alex on percussion, of course. He's a phenomenal drummer as well, by the way, but that combination of the two of them is enough right there. And the singers? Oh, my goodness, you know, just amazing singers all the way as well.”

Fire Merchants - Fire Merchants

“It's John Goodsall from Brand X and the bass player, Doug Lunn. It's crazy, they've both passed away, I can't believe it… Doug was more of an LA session guy, he played with lots and lots of people [Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mark Keneally]. Just a brilliant player. 

“The writing, that style - it's back to the odd-time stuff. I felt like the compositions were pretty unique on there. We played several gigs, actually, with that band and it was just the three of us. So it wasn't your typical power trio! It was pretty aggressive stuff, live it would really dig in. But I just love those tunes. It was my first time trying to write something in that style - one of the songs on there was mine: Conflagration, which I've actually recorded on one of my solo albums.” 

“I just really loved that situation, and the recording was pretty laid back, as difficult as that music was. We eventually memorised it, but all those tunes were written out, originally, which makes sense when you hear the structure of it. I can't really pull any one song out and say, 'Oh, that was the one.' I just really enjoyed that whole recording, all of those tunes are pretty special for me.”

While it’s a heavier, technical sound, it still has that bounce to a lot of the grooves…

“I can turn that bounce off. I had to learn to turn it off with Genesis, I had to learn to play really straight with them. But then, my theory is still that early on, bands from different cultures and different countries had very distinct sounds. Well, then the drum machine got invented. Everybody started using drum machines to write with, and practise with and all that. So everything started sounding alike. 

“You don't hear as much of the differences now that you used to hear, whether it's a German band, a British band, or whatever. Those rules don't apply anymore, because between that, and the Internet, we've all become so international that it's more homogenised now.”

Talking of drum machines - your career has taken you through the introduction and evolution of electronics. What was it like getting to grips with that in the early days?

“The Roland 808 drum machine with all those silly sounds! Phil was a big fan of that thing, and it's a great writing tool. He would use it like percussion, running through the songs in some cases. But, it wasn't that big of a jump, one of the things you start with, if you're serious, you play to a metronome. That's how you get your sense of timing and learning how to play without rushing and slowing down. 

“So it wasn't like a complete shock. I remember prior to that, when I moved to LA I started getting more and more recording sessions, especially after playing with Zappa and Weather Report. Around that time, people started using click tracks in the studio. 

"The bottom head is like the equaliser, like your EQ."

"Well, click tracks originally, were only used for movies, in order to sync the scenes to the soundtrack and all of that. The composer had to know exactly how many minutes and seconds they had for a specific piece of music and tailor it to that. So then, when disco came along, all of a sudden people were using click tracks because you had to keep that 120 bpm really consistent.” 

“It's funny, I did a short stint with The Bee Gees and Barry Gibb was telling me about when they did Saturday Night Fever. They had submitted songs for the movie, and they were in the middle of a tour when the manager told them the songs were approved. So they had to go into a studio and record them, because they’d sent demos. 

“They were in Paris, and they used the road band. The drummer wasn't really that used to recording, apparently - they said he was a great live player, but it took him a while to get settled into recording. 

After the first day, there was a death in his family and he had to leave immediately. In order to finish the album, for the disco songs they actually found his best two bars of the recording and looped them. And that's how that disco beat was created. Everybody ended up following suit with that, but that's how it started!

“But the challenge was playing to a click or drum machine live, because before in-ears were invented, it had to be in my monitor along with everything else. So I've blown-out my right ear basically, it's in pretty bad shape. Just years of having to have things so loud to hear everything over how loud I was playing. We played hard, oh my goodness, man, I was breaking cymbals and stuff.

“It got so crazy for me, that eventually I had a separate monitor mix engineer for me, as well as one for the band. Because I needed that balance, and every song, it was changing. So I needed somebody that could do it, I didn't have time to run around. 

"At one point, we tried to have a little personal mixer on stage and I'd go to change something and Phil would turn around and sort of give me a dirty look because I've missed a beat on the hi-hat or something. It ended up that very often there would be a guy just doing my monitor mix for that very reason.”

Freddie Hubbard - The Love Connection

“Freddie Hubbard was a really major jazz player, of course, and I actually got to play quite a lot with him around that period. I never joined his band because I was in between tours and stuff. But when I was at home I would play with him quite a bit. There was a really nice jazz club we'd play at. 

“I'm not even sure why I got invited to make that recording, I was very grateful to do it. Because it was Chick Corea – my only time working with Chick Corea – he was playing keys on the whole thing. I think it's the song Love Connection with Stanley Clarke playing bass. The groove on that thing is just unreal. 

“I'd never played with Stanley before. Where he puts the beat - when we first started, I wasn't sure how it was gonna go. But we did the first run through, just learning the song. Then by the time we were recording it, I was amazed at his feel.He plays right on the beat, as opposed to how some guys play a little more before or behind or whatever. Stanley, in this particular case just put it right there on the  money. Playing together with him, it really… I liked the rest of it as well, but that one song, Love Connection is kind of like this mega-funk thing with a full big band. 

“The big band was over-dubbed after, but the arranger was there so we kind of had an idea where it was gonna go. So that's my favourite from that album. I did play on the whole album, another favourite one from that is Little Sunflower. It's the only time I got to be on a record with Al Jarreau too, he also wasn't there that day, but Little Sunflower is a classic Freddie Hubbard jazz tune.

“I don't know how to describe the feel. It happens in other jazz tunes - I’m playing very lightly on the snare and quite busy actually, but it fell into like an almost Latin-y kind of thing in different parts of the tune. Then the bridge section is almost like a double-time feel, then back out. That was another one of my favourites.”

The kit sounds great on there too, what were you using at that point?

“That would have been Paiste cymbals, I guess, and Pearl drums at that point. Tuning is a big deal for me. I learned how to tune drums from tuning timpani in school. Because a timpani is a pitched instrument, if you don't have the exact same pitch at every point around that drum then it's going to be out of tune with the orchestra, which is a disaster. 

So I take that approach when I'm tuning my own drums, I try to get the exact same pitch all around. It's sometimes hard to get it totally exact. 

“Then I tune the bottom head a bit bit lower than the top head because it gives you a bigger sound for the drum. If you listen to the 50s Jazz recordings, everybody's playing Gretsch drums and all the toms had that really high pitched thing, well that's because they crank up the bottom head. 

“The bottom head is like the equaliser, like your EQ. So if you've got a tight bottom head, that drum is always going to be high-pitched and singing. But if you lower it a bit, then you get a much wider range of possibilities to tune. I like it to be kind of fat, so I tune the bottom head slightly lower than the top head. I want that stick to respond and pop right back up, but I want a deeper sound. So I get it from the bottom head.”

Unitopia - Seven Chambers

“Suddenly, I'm back in the prog world! I love their writing, they approached me and asked if I'd be interested, so they sent me a couple of things to listen to and I really liked what they were doing. I did a small tour with them, we toured Europe in September and I really enjoyed it a lot. They're really good players, really good writers, they've been around for a while and they're pretty much based in Australia. 

“Alphonso ended up not being able to do the tour, but he did the album. I ended up with an overuse injury in my leg leg injury, so I didn't get to finish the album, unfortunately. But again, the fascinating thing about the whole prog thing for me is that the songs have movements and they're related. It's like classical where you have first, second or third movement or whatever, so this was back to doing that. 

“Some groups jump into the time signature thing, even when it doesn't musically make sense. These guys aren't like that at all. They're very musical compositions, very well thought out and stuff and I just really enjoyed playing them. I had no idea they were, like, major Genesis fans when I agreed to do it! But that made for some pretty funny times. 

“We were all in the van one night, leaving a gig in Europe. They all start singing I Know What I Like and they knew every lyric, the whole van except me and I'm just sitting there cracking up laughing. They're all singing, even down to the sound effects. I played in the band and I still never knew all the lyrics!”

Prog has had a huge resurgence in recent years, what do you think of the modern prog sound? 

“Some of the more modern prog stuff is amazing. The whole prog thing - until I started playing with Unitopia, I had no idea prog has become what it's become. It's bigger than it ever was, and there's a million groups, some really, really good ones. There are some standouts, of course, we played a couple of festivals and I got to hear some of the modern bands and stuff. For the most part, I liked a lot of what they were doing, it still comes down to, I guess, the writing and performing. 

“I do a little research and dig in and pull up some of the music and hear it, and a lot of it is really well done. My favourite of some of that stuff is Animals as Leaders. Oh, my goodness! I got to see those guys live. I was playing at a trade fair in Germany called Musikmesse. I was playing with some guys and we played right after them, so I got to hear them up close a few times. It's pretty amazing stuff. I didn't get to meet [Matt Garstka] because the changeover was so quick and immediate. But I was very impressed with what they do. And groups like that, it's just a whole other way of doing it.”

Chester Thompson - Wake Up Call

“During COVID, I called some friends that were in my very first band that I had in LA. The bass player and keyboard player, they're a married couple. So basically, I called them up to see how they were doing, and they said 'Well, nobody's booking the studio and all the tours are cancelled, so we're just sitting around jamming with a drum machine'. 

“My response was, 'Okay, don't do that. Let me send you something to jam with.' So I laid down about five minutes of a track which eventually became track three on the album, (Hide and Seek). I just sat down and played. I heard stuff in my head, so I'm playing fills and changing up different parts of the song and all of that. 

I thought that I was just sending something for them to jam around with - they wrote a complete song around it and sent it back to me, and it totally blew me away. I was shocked at what I heard - how in the world did they come up with this out of what I sent? 

“So, then I sent them another one. I sat down and played something completely different, which was number two on the album. I sent that one out, and same thing, but even more so. What they sent back blew me away even more than the first one. I was like, 'This is crazy!' you know. 

“So this went on over about a year. As things were starting to open up a little – they work with their daughter, who's Judith Hill, a phenomenal singer – and she tours Europe a lot. So they tour with her as well as doing projects of their own. So it would be in between other stuff we were doing. 

“But they were all done the same way. I would sit down and play a drum thing and send it to them, a couple of times that send a melody that I heard with it and you know, they would develop that as well. But for the most part, I just laid the drum tracks first and then they wrote around them. Eventually, as we listened we realised okay, we need some horns here and some guitars there and that sort of thing. We were just having fun, you know.”

Weather Report - Live and Unreleased

“That's all the Weather Report bands from 1975 until 1983, with live recordings which had never been released before. When I first got a copy of it and heard it, I was amazed, because every band sounded totally different. I mean, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, of course, they're the band. But it was like hearing five different bands because every line-up had a distinctly different personality on that record. 

“I'm very proud of the fact that the line-up I was in is on the most tracks, we had five on there. We opened it and closed it, plus there's some things scattered around the middle. But, the line-up I was in, it was really high energy stuff, really aggressive playing for the most part. That album really brings back all kinds of great memories because the studio sessions happened after the tour. So, the stuff we were playing live, that's the stuff that you never really get to hear when you're on stage, until someone plays you a recording of it. 

“For Black Market, everything was written new for the album. Zappa was the only person who I ever worked with where he would always try the songs on tour before he recorded him. Everybody else recorded them, re-learned them and then go on tour. But No, Frank would never record until he got an audience’s reaction from it. But I’m very proud of this one.”

Stuart Williams

I'm a freelance member of the MusicRadar team, specialising in drum news, interviews and reviews. I formerly edited Rhythm and Total Guitar here in the UK and have been playing drums for more than 25 years (my arms are very tired). When I'm not working on the site, I can be found on my electronic kit at home, or gigging and depping in function bands and the odd original project.