Carl Palmer is rightly regarded as one of the finest drummers in the world. Just a few years ago he would have been described as "one of the best rock drummers in the world" — today he deserves the higher compliment. Surprisingly, he was unsatisfied as the most successful rock drummer around. Despite a big house, big car and all the trappings, he continued his training in percussion until his ability on tuned percussion instruments matched his amazing technical prowess on drums. Each week his finely controlled timetable takes him to study at the Royal Academy under his tutor James Blades and his time is spent studying and recording a percussion concerto. Do you still play every day of your life?
Every day? I think it would be a lie if I said I played absolutely every day of my life. When I say play, I mean play two to three hours — that's playing. Sure, I go and tap around every day — that's like breathing, you know, it's like having your dinner, you do it naturally. I should think that throughout the period of a week I practise two to three hours, six days a week. The reason why I say six days is that I tend to treat my music like a business and take Sunday off. I feel I have to because I get stale, I maybe play more records on a Sunday.
At the moment you're not gigging, but have you been doing much recording recently?
I've been recording an awful lot myself for my own album. I have been writing and rehearsing with a chap called Joseph Horovitz for this percussion concerto which features about 60 players. There's never been a concerto written for percussion before and we have this one coming along. We're going to feature all tuned percussion such as marimba, vibraphone, tympani and tubular bells.
Which of the instruments will you be playing?
I'll be playing vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, tympani, tubular bells and possibly an enlarged version of a standard drum kit. I've been busy with that, I've also recorded about 19 minutes of music for my own album, worked with Harry South, and I've done a new big band jazz thing.
Did you enjoy that?
Yeah, very much. I was also able to record with the late Tubby Hayes. I managed to record twice with him and one of the tracks I'm going to release on this album — that's a bit of nostalgia.
Are you pleased with your performance on that track?
Well, it could be better, but you know how it is, it was a good session. The charts were good and there were a few very good people playing, Don Lusher for instance. The other thing that I've done is play a small piece on vibraphone and piano and I've inserted a small piece by Bach. The piece is an exercise of his really, he has a thing called 15 inventions and this is one of the inventions I play.
So your tuned percussion has taken over a large amount of your time now?
The thing is, you see, I'm studying with James Blades, a professor at the Royal Academy, and I study with him once every ten days or so. I've found that as just a drum kit drummer I've taken it as far as I can by the nature of the layout of my equipment. I've realised that no longer can a drummer just have one tom-tom in front of him and another on the floor, that dates back to the days of Gene Krupa. That was O.K. for them, but it's not O.K. for me. I need more tonal sounds. I've taken the drum set as far as it can be taken and I'm now very interested in the symphonic orchestral approach. So once one is interested in that, you have to consider playing melodic instruments.
Just how far have your studies taken you?
I'm now reading reasonably well; most simple parts for vibraphone, marimba and so forth, I can read with confidence. I'm trying to bridge the gap between being just a good rock or swing drummer. I'm trying to be the kind of drummer who's completely all round, in as many ways as possible. A lot of people, Buddy Rich for instance, will just say "I'm a jazz drummer" and whilst I think he's a god, one of the greatest, I think that the time has come in 1975 for musicians to try and span out completely to playing jazz. Life's too short. You should try to play everything. Tuned percussion has taken a lot of work and you have to have the right tuition.
Fortunately enough, James Blades is astonishingly good and he's one of the few people I can go to for lessons. I say 'few' because if you can imagine being in my position and going to somebody for lessons they'll say 'you don't need lessons, you've got a big house, a big car, you've got the money, what do you want lessons for?' If I hadn't had success I'd still be going to lessons now because I enjoy playing. I've never done anything else, I've never had a day time job, it's in my nature to do it.
During the time that you've been studying tuned percussion have you come up against any blocks or problems that you've had to overcome?
The only problem I've found is trying to introduce it into the group because obviously it has to be introduced in a certain way so that it doesn't inhibit anybody, so that it will add and not subtract from the overall thing. One of the biggest problems is trying to amplify tuned percussion. Trying to amplify tubular bells, marimba, glockenspiel and tymps adequately is incredibly difficult. There's only one particular company in the whole of the world who makes a vibraphone pick-up. It's a bar that you place under the notes of the vibraphone and it acts as a pick-up on a guitar. That company has now stopped making that device so you can imagine the difficulty one goes through. The biggest problem is not being able to play them in the group.
Doesn't it work with careful miking up?
You really don't get the true percussive sound from the notes because to mike it properly you'd really need an individual mike for each note so that some aren't any louder than others. If you hang a mike over the centre of a keyboard the middle notes have to be a little louder than the notes at the extreme ends of the board.
But isn't that how you hear the instrument naturally?
No. As I hear it, I play all of the notes with equal intensity.
But if you place a stereo mike where your ears are, isn't that going to hear the same image you do?
No. It's got to pick up more of the middle than the top or bottom ends and the bottom is a lot harder to pick up than the top. The top will always cut through. The only way you could do it is to mike every note and then mix it down into its right proportions. And then you're talking about all the mallet instruments. There is a pick-up made which I have on my own vibes at home. It's O.K., but it could be a lot better.
Do you find any limitations in yourself as a player?
Yes, every day.
Where are they — in your wrists, in your head and reading, or what?
Well, I've never had a big problem with sight reading, the only problem I've ever had is not doing enough of it. In other words, one can sit at home and practise and practise like I do, but when you go into an orchestra or into a big band to play, like this thing I did with Harry South where there were 17 players... well, it's experience that's needed, right? Sometimes I can be as good as I want to instantly.
For many years I played in a Mecca band where there were about 16 players and a chick singer. I used to wear a red jacket with a badge and a cigarette burn in the cuff where the drummer before me had had an accident, and my reading is up to that standard, which isn't very high. But when you get into more interesting things, you have to be playing them every day: in other words, like a session drummer, to be able to play them really well. When I say a session drummer, I mean people like Kenny Clare, one of the best.
What facilities do you have for playing at home?
I've got a very small studio at home, not for recording, but a soundproof studio for playing. At home now I've got a vibraphone, tympani, tubular bells, drums, congas — all the usual things a percussionist would have.
Do you keep them all in one area?
Yeah, they're all in one room, all placed so that I can work round and bang them when I feel like it. They're set up in such a way that I can study for any amount of time on one instrument. This particular set-up I've got at home enables me to play throughout the day if I want to and get great enjoyment from it. I've also got a Steinway piano and that's really good for my ear. Of course I've got my guitars which not a lot of people know about, but I do play very bad guitar. I really enjoy playing guitar, not because of the sound so much, but there's a certain amount of volume you can obtain from an electric guitar which you can't get from any percussion instrument. And all you've got to do is turn a knob and this thing gets really loud. I've got a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Showman and at home that's O.K. I like it because I can just crank it up and play a couple of tunes. I treat that as a hobby.
Just how good are you on guitar?
No good at all, I know about six chords and a couple of lead licks but I play it purely for my own interest. If I'm bored hitting my drums at the end of the day I have a strum on the guitar. I also have an acoustic guitar, a Gibson that was made in 1936. I bought that in Salt Lake City, I think it cost me about 100 dollars and it's a tiny body, on the machine head it says, "Gibson is the best for you". I play that occasionally. I've also got an Arbiter copy of the Gibson J200 and I find them all very interesting.
Do you collect instruments for their own sake?
I do to a certain extent but I don't go out of my way to do it. If I walk past a chap in a street who happens to be selling something, yes I do. I have a Hitler Youth drum at home which Hitler used to give to German Youth drummers. I bought that in a music shop in Hamburg. It has all the red flames up the side of the drum, with rope tensioning. I've got a very, very old Slingerland snare drum, made about 1925, with a genuine hickory shell which they don't make today. Apart from that I don't collect that much.
Tell me about the new drums you're playing now?
The most interesting thing that happened to me, or should I say percussion, is this auto-tune drum that Arbiter has brought out. The drum itself doesn't really sound any different from any other drum, it sounds as good as any other drum. What the drum offers people — it's hard to explain, you really have to see it — is this: for the first time, if you want to tune a drum to a musical note, this drum can do it.
This particular ratchet system head tuning is so easy, it's possible to tune to any note very quickly. You can change a head on these new drums in about five seconds, take the hoop off, put another head on, turn the hoop, put it back on, and tune it reasonably in about five seconds. To tune it exactly to a note obviously takes a little time.
In this particular system the drums don't have any lugs. They have a counter hoop. The main rim of the drums, moves around the shell on the outside of the drum. There's a ratchet on the side to screw the hoop down which produces an even tension on the head all the way round. So from one point only, you can tension the whole drum head instead of having to tighten up 12 different screws. This is obviously a big asset to many players who want to change their drum heads when they break and it's also a big asset to people who play in a heavy group. Drums usually have tension rods and if you play hard on one edge of the drum, the tension rods work loose due to the amount of stress. With this drum system there are no rods. The shell and the hoop are just a screw which turn against each other, so there are no rods involved. The only thing that can stretch or give is the head itself. If it does you can change it very quickly anyway.
How long have you been playing these things?
Well, I haven't really had a chance to experiment with them in front of an audience yet. I've used them in the studio, I've used them in rehearsals and I've used them for my own personal practice. I think it's definitely an innovation.
Do you anticipate changing over your complete drum set-up to Arbiter drums?
Yeah, I think if the company make all the equipment I would need to use — to do that, I think they will have to become a fully fledged percussion company — yes, definitely. As it is, now I'm really knocked out with what they have. I use an array of sizes, like 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 18 inch drums, and the thing is that lots of drum companies don't make those sizes because they don't think drummers use them. I think that the minute all these sizes are made for me in Arbiters, I'll be playing them in front of people. I'm playing the snare drum all the time at home now, but it's in its infancy now as far as I'm concerned.
Would the ability to instantly change a head give you more confidence on stage?
It wouldn't give me any more confidence because I always keep spare drums, all tuned, back stage anyway. The beauty of these drums is not really that they give you more confidence. It's just that it's about time all those tension rods went. It should always have been like this. When you think about it, guitars have changed, organs have changed, but the drum has stayed relatively the same for 300 years. They've had different snare releases. But they've never really changed the actual idea of tuning. Years ago they had ropes which pulled the heads down, now they've got rods which tighten down. This Arbiter drum screws the head down which is the way it should be. Perhaps the most important thing is that if you want a concert A 440 out of your bass drum you can get it easily. To the majority of drummers, I don't think this ability will mean that much. If they want to take it from me, they could do it easily with this drum.
On a musical point, it's far easier to tune a single head drum to a note than a double headed drum. You can tune both heads evenly but there is a volume of air trapped between the two heads and harmonics are created which make the thing difficult. So if you want to tune your drums — like Stravinsky, who used tuned tom-toms in the Rites Of Spring — they are usually single headed drums because they're a lot easier to tune.
A lot of people don't know what an in tune drum sounds like. If I were to experiment with two kits here, I guarantee that when we walked out of the room you'd be able to tell whether a drum was in tune or not. But most people can never tell, only a drummer can tell and only a drummer can tell somebody. These new drums will be great for me because it means that I can sit behind my drum set and it will be the same as I left it the night before. The only thing I'd have to look at is the amount of tension that is given to the head itself. The most valid point I've found with the drum is that when you put a drum head on the drum, put the counter hoop on and turn it in a clockwise direction, the hoop goes round the drum. What happens to the head is that as the tension is equal all the way round, the amount of stress is greatest in the middle. That means that there is far more wear in the middle. With tension rods you never tension them all equally, you do a little more here and there so you have a less even head, but it also lasts a little longer. With this system the stress has to come to the middle — which is really a point for the head manufacturers. They might have to strengthen the heads or improve them generally. If you put a certain drum head on the Arbiter drum and you crank it up there will still be a ripple on one side of the drum head which means that the skin itself hasn't been manufactured properly. You would never notice this on an ordinary drum because you'd naturally give it a bit more tension there, but this drum finds the faults.
This drum is demanding more of head manufacturers. You have to have accurate heads for tuning, you have to have accurate heads for sound, you have to have it for head longevity. The Arbiter drum is almost as much a head testing machine as an instrument.
To come back to your music, when you first go into your music room is there something you always play to start you off?
It depends on what instrument I'm sitting at. If it's a snare drum, funnily enough there is one thing I always play, I've got into a habit I suppose. People have always branded me with a label of being a very fast drummer. It happened purely by accident, I haven't really worked at it, it's just come. I suppose I've worked for two hours every day, but not intentionally to get that title. One thing I always do first — it's probably the thing I'm best known for — is the single stroke roll. I always tend to lay this first of all. Maybe because it's the easiest to play and the hardest to get fast. I just play it naturally.