Drummers Review is delighted to confirm that legendary drummer Tony TC Coleman will be joining us for The UK Drum Show in Liverpool next April. In advance of his clinic at the Show, Tony talked to DR’s Andy Hughes about his career, and how important it is that people see him as more than just a ‘blues drummer’.
Tony, we are delighted that you are joining us at The UK Drum Show in Liverpool in April. What will you be bringing to show everyone?
What I always try and do with my clinics, is to show young players how it is to play drums in a band. That to me is what it’s always been about. Yes, there are people out there who can play a million beats a minute and juggle with ten drumsticks, and they are very skilful. But what I always wonder is, do young players look at them and think, I’ll never be that good. I’ll never be able to do all that.
To be honest, I’m a professional drummer, I make my living playing drums, and I look at those people and think I’ll never be able to do that either! So to me, it’s important that people learn that being the best that you can be doing what you love, is what’s important, and we can all enjoy doing that.
Can we talk about the notion that you are known as a ‘blues drummer’, I understand that you prefer to be known in a wider context than that.
That’s right. Although a lot of my professional career has been involved with some of the greatest blues and r ‘n’ b musicians the world has known, I really do see myself as the drummer in the band. My job is like a good driver, if you can sit with me and read a book or look out of the window, and arrive nice and relaxed, I have done my job, not someone who has gone around corners on two wheels and made you scared for your life! I do the job I am contracted to do as a musician, and that means I can play just about any style that’s needed, metal, reggae, you name it, I can bring it.
Do you think that people seeing you as a ‘blues drummer’ has been a restriction in your career?
It may have. I was with Lukas Nelson last night, Willie Nelson’s son. I have been friends with Willie for more than forty-five years, and I have watched Lukas grow up. I was having the conversation with the band’s bass player about being ‘seen’ as a certain type of musician. It’s the same for actors – if you are known as a ‘comedy’ actor, it’s difficult to get straight parts because film makers don’t see you as a straight actor, and imagine that the audiences won’t either, so you get type cast, and that can happen to musicians in just the same way. I am from a school of musicians where, if a musician is in town and in the club or the venue where you are playing, it’s great to invite them to sit in and see what they can bring to the gig. That’s me, let me in there coach, put me in the game!
What’s your current project?
Well, when BB King passed, I was concerned that a lot of people were only ever going to associate me with him, and his musical style, and as we have been discussing, I am not so much a ‘blues drummer’ as a drummer who plays blues.
I played for a while with a country singer called Jamey Johnson, and he kept calling out country classics on stage for me to play, and I didn’t know them because I am, not really deeply immersed in that world.
I will always get myself up to speed for any project, and my current project is a solo album, which is being produced by Narada Michael Walden, who is of course a drummer himself as well as being an award-winning producer. I’m not too bothered if I get Grammys like Nada though, it’s not as though I will depend on it for my living, but it’s good to do these things, and stretch out as a musician on my own material.
Do you play any other instruments on your solo album?
No, I am just playing the drums, but I do have ideas for how I want things to sound. I can sound out the tempo and tone I want from the bass player for example, and then he has something to work from, and we can discuss ideas and work out the final sound from there.
I read in an interview that you are something of a rebel, you like to do things your own way, would you agree with that?
I would, yes. I have reached a stage in my life where I am no longer willing to turn up for a studio session, or to a band rehearsal, to be told to play something this way or that way. I have learned that you can never please all the people all of the time, and you are most likely not going to please any of the people any of the time if that’s the way you are trying to work.
I have no problem at all with direction if someone wants to say to me, I’d like it to sound like this, as along as they are happy for me to offer my own ideas, and say what about this, or that. Then, if they say no, I would like it this way, then that’s fine, but what I won’t go with, is someone saying from the get-go, right I want it to sound like this and only this. There’s no point hiring a specific player unless you want him or her to bring what they play, that’s the whole idea. I don’t hire a guy to cut the grass and then stand there and say, could you make this line straighter, or do this curve like this? He might turn around and say, if you’re so sure you want it done your way, why don’t you cut the grass yourself? And he’d be right!
Who’s your current kit provider?
I am a Mapex endorsee, and very happy with them. I was with another company and I was very happy with their drums. Then someone in Artists Relations advised me that I was being re-graded as ‘B’ Artist in their perception, and my treatment by them was going to be adjusted accordingly. I felt really insulted, and advised them that I thought they were a ‘B’ Company for treating me that way, and that rather than being a ‘B’ Artist, I was happy to be a ‘Be Gone Artist’ and I left them, and I took all their labels off my drums, and anything that had their logo on in my house, I took down. You may be signing some hot-shot rock band guy who is doing an autumn arena tour, or a summer tour, but I was out on the road with BB King around three-hundred-and-twenty nights a year, showing off their drums all around the world.
Joe Hibbs from Mapex got in touch, he heard I had left my previous endorsement deal. I have known Joe for a long time, right since he worked for The Drum Shop down in Texas, and he was the Artist Relations guy at Mapex. I played the kit he offered me, I liked it, and I signed with Mapex and I am delighted to be with them. They treat me with respect and that’s what it’s about. It’s not about getting free stuff, it’s about the support and the attitude of the company, and with Mapex I absolutely have that.
I agree, appreciation and respect are the important aspects of an endorsement relationship.
It means that to me, I would not treat someone with less respect because he was using my instruments in a theatre rather than an arena. If you are representing my company, then I treat you with respect, because that’s how I am, I treat everyone the same way, no matter what they do, or who they are, because that is what makes the world a better place.
On stage or in the studio, do you change your kit or use the same one?
I do like to use the same kit for all my situations, it makes me feel comfortable dealing with what I know. I do change out cymbals though, I have been a Sabian artist since 1985, I do love their cymbals, and I use Vater sticks and Remo drumheads, and even if Remo said they hated me, I would still use their heads!
Are you keen on practising?
I have to confess that I’m not really, no. I would always advise anyone learning to play drums to practise regularly, and of course, if I am required to play a particular style I am not familiar with, then I would practise until I felt I had myself up to the required level for the project. I love the drums, and I love playing drums, but that doesn’t mean that I want to spend my whole life with a pair of drumsticks in my hands. There are other things I like to do and I want to do more of.
A lot of bands change their drummers, do you have a theory as to why?
I think they are looking for an elusive ‘something’, even if they don’t actually know what that is. I had a conversation about this with a famous musician, I won’t name him, but his band list showed maybe five guitarists, seven bassist, same percussionist, and around twenty drummers, and I asked him why. He said he was a drummer himself, and he was always searching for that particular sound and style that he could hear in his head. I told him that by the time he found it, he’d be dead and gone! Stop looking for something that isn’t really there, and start enjoying the music you are making here and now, you’ll be much happier doing that.
How do you like to tune your snare?
Some drummers have their snare head really slack, and they get that duh … duh sound out of it, and they boast that they have that ‘fat’ sound, like a tom sound. I hate that! I like my snare to snap crack and pop, I want my snare you sound lie a handclap, Bap bap-bap! Like that. When I used to go to Baptist church as a child, you would hear the people stamp their feet, like a bass drum, and clap their hands like a snare drum. Usually, the building would be raised up on bricks, so the noise would really resonate, and I do remember that. That memory of that sound meant that I wanted my snare drum to sound like that, with the cut-through and that power. I would never want two lots of the same sound, two bass drum sounds and two snare sounds, it’s the balance together that makes the drums sound so effective.
Who were your influences growing up?
Same as they are now – anyone who is playing drums anywhere, any time. Of course, when I grew up, I understood the differences between Bernard Purdie and Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts and Buddy Rich, but I have always listened to anyone playing and seen if I can learn something from what they are doing.
Who would be your dream band or artist to sit in with and play drums?
Well, most of the people I would have wanted to work with growing up, are gone now. But these days, there are not the identifiable bands and drummers that there were years ago. I could listen to a song like Hard Day’s Night, or Close To You, and I could pick put the styles of Ringo Starr and Karen Carpenter, and hear the differences. These days, it’s far more of a generic sound in the drums, that’s just how things have changed. Today, you have a producer’s sound, rather than a band sound, and producers are getting recognised for creating a sound, rather than the musicians who play the music. I still love going back to the older music, I can hear Led Zeppelin and The Wailers, and The Beatles and Waylon Jennings, and hear the depth of different cultures that created those songs and those sounded.
We always like a piece of advice from professional drummers – what would yours be?
Always take your playing seriously, and don’t complain when the practising is hard, that’s the idea of it. If you are going to be successful in your career as a musician, there is going to be a big price to pay, so be sure that you are willing to do the deal before you embark on your journey. Your goal will come, but don’t let your ambition eat you up. Keep your feet on the floor and respect everyone around you.