The State Of The Beat
From providing the backbone of Santana's Latin beat, Michael Shrieve has moved into electronic percussion and out again. John Diliberto listens to the drummer's tale.
It would take a unique talent to play with musicians as diverse as Klaus Schulze, Stomu Yamashta, Carlos Santana, The Rolling Stones, Steve Winwood, and Steve Roach. Michael Shrieve has a unique talent.
SWALLOW YOUR PRIDE and listen to Michael Shrieve's solo with Santana on 'Soul Sacrifice' from Woodstock and you'll hear that Shrieve has always been a drummer who played around the edges, whose rhythmic pulse is suffused with melodic and harmonic invention.
"Every now and then I look at that Woodstock solo, when it comes out on cable TV and I see myself playing with a guitar player who was so melodic that it created a desire in me to think melodically."
Shrieve had to wait several years before electronic drums, sampling and MIDI put the same tonal palette at his sticks that keyboardists had had at their fingertips for years. Now, in 1988, Shrieve is ready to establish the state-of-the-beat for the 1990s.
Shrieve is sitting in The Site recording studio in North America's Marin County, just up the road from George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch. On the other side of the control room glass, his partner, percussionist David Beal, is doing the final mix of their electronic percussion ensemble album, The Big Picture. Another record, with synthesist Steve Roach, was released back in June. Right now Shrieve is finalising plans for a jazz album with keyboard player Patrick O'Hearn, Andy Summers, guitarist David Torn and horn player Mark Isham, and preparing for a Santana 20-year anniversary reunion tour.
Shrieve's career is littered with missteps, spins, sprints and stutters. In 1969 his name was spoken in the same breath as Cream's Ginger Baker, The Experience's Mitch Mitchell and the Who's Keith Moon - musicians who expanded the concept of rock drums way beyond simple timekeeping. He joined Santana while they were recording their debut album, after the original drummer walked out. He was 17 and still living at home.
After seven years Shrieve struck out on his own, working on projects that ranged from adventurously obscure to forgettable. At the end there was Automatic Man, a hi-tech funk group that recorded two albums for Island in the late '70s.
"The idea was like the Power Station", explains Shrieve. "It had R&B underneath and rock 'n' roll on top - it didn't work."
Neither did his other rock ventures: Novo Combo or HSAS with Sammy Hagar and Neil Schon.
But while he was with Automatic Man he worked with Island label-mate Stomu Yamashta, an iconoclastic avant-garde Japanese classical percussionist, lately turned synthesist. In the late '70s Yamashta put together GO!, a multi-media project with vocalist Steve Winwood, guitarist Al DiMeola and synthesist Klaus Schulze. They recorded three albums. Go!, Go Live! and Go Too!, that careened from stage jams to Winwood's soulful singing and DiMeola's manic speed guitar.
Out of Automatic Man and Go! came two events that shaped much of Shrieve's music for the next 12 years. On the debut Automatic Man album, he recorded for the first time with electronic drums.
"In '76, I was looking into electronic percussion and invested money in the first electronic drum company called Impact", recalls the drummer. "In fact, an Automatic Man album in '76 was one of the first recordings of electronic drums."
From Go!, he began a long-term relationship with German synthesiser legend, Klaus Schulze. Schulze already had a formidable, albeit underground reputation as a synth pioneer. Opuses like Timewind, Moondawn and Picture Music are now considered precursors of new age.
"I said, 'Listen, I really like your music, but I can't listen to it because of the drums. I'm a drummer, and every time I put it on and the drums come in, I have to take it off. Let me come over and do some things so I can listen to the records'."
Schulze, himself a former drummer, admits that it was Shrieve who got him back into percussion. "I had stopped the drums because I couldn't hear them anymore", says Schulze. "But then I met Michael Shrieve and he taught me how to use the rhythm in pieces like my own music without destroying the mood or the feeling."
Shrieve and Schulze recorded many sessions that wound up as albums, including Trancefer and Audentity. Shrieve discovered that he could play freely within Schulze's modal maze of interlocking sequencer rhythms.
"Sequencers are tight and precise and I can play that way", proclaims Shrieve. "I had played a lot of latin music where there were a lot of rhythms going on which is the same thing as sequences. It was in and out of the groove, like skipping rope. You come in and you're either messing up or you're not."
"When we did the film we were able to do seven minutes of music that didn't fit into any category. It's probably one of the most expressive things I've done."
Shrieve's own Transfer Station Blue, has become one of the most popular new age albums in the US. The music was derived from sessions he'd recorded with Schulze. Shrieve had taken the 16-track tapes, remixed them and in the case of the title track, interpolated R&B rhythm breaks that were as misplaced as stick figure drawings on a Rothko canvas.
The record made an unusual crossover from new age to funk audiences, with DJs using it as a rap background. It also found an audience with film directors. "Every film I've ever gotten has been because of Transfer Station Blue", he says.
WHEN HE DRIFTED away from Schulze, Shrieve moved to New York and began experimenting with electronic percussion and doing session work - including a stint with The Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger. It proved to be a psychological epiphany for Shrieve. "I went to Nassau for ten days with Mick and Jeff Beck", he recalls. "We were staying at Chris Blackwell's house, and Mick was playing me songs on the acoustic guitar and they didn't sound that great. But I realised that they were going to end up sounding great. It hit me that I should start believing in myself, and not have doubts about what I don't know."
Shrieve began working again with electronic percussion. With digital samplers and Simmons drums, he now had the melodic capability he once envied in Santana. "Now it's gotten to the point where we can actually play melodies with the drums", he says with relief.
Shrieve embraced drum machines and, in 1984, recorded an album called In Suspect Terrain, an all-percussion solo record centred around the Linn drum machine with other acoustic and electronic percussion added in. "There's an art to programming drum machines", he explains. "You can make them sound like a human. On In Suspect Terrain I tried to do that. The problem was that it came out four years later in America. By that time there were new chips for the Linn, so it sounded, perhaps, old. But I still feel there was some very hip programming. It was an exercise that I wanted to put on record."
But it sounded like an exercise - brilliant rhythm tracks in search of a context. The melodies came as he began scoring films. In 1986, he and synthesist Patrick Gleeson scored Dino De Laurentis' movie, The Bedroom Window. For the sessions, Shrieve brought in a young drummer named David Beal. "Just before leaving New York for California to do the film, I did a session with David Beal, kind of a new guy on the scene", says Shrieve admiringly. "He came to the session with all these samples - he was one of the first guys in New York to have it so together with that scene. So I hired him to work with me on the percussion for this soundtrack. We had such a good time doing it, I said, 'Let's create a situation where we can do something percussion-wise'. It felt time for me to get back into something that was percussion music. I've always wanted to do something that was percussion music besides songs or play on a piece of percussion music."
If Michael Shrieve was still a hippy at this point, David Beal was to be his worst nightmare, a post-punk apostle, replete with spiked black hair and black attire. During the interview, his girlfriend sat on the studio floor sewing metal studs onto another pair of black trousers.
When Shrieve was flailing the drums at Woodstock, Beal was beating on pots and pans. He was five years old. Somehow they found common ground. Beal had performed extensively in jazz and symphonic music before making the leap to rock 'n' roll. He studied percussion at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and played in the Baltimore Symphony, Cleveland Philharmonic, North Texas State Jazz Band, in late incarnations of Blood Sweat and Tears and more recently with Joe Cocker and Peter Gabriel.
"David is the perfect modern man", claims Shrieve, as Beal puts the finishing touches to their album. "He has the drum stuff down, plus the computer and sampling stuff more than anybody I've ever met. And we're completely different. He's a rocker and I guess I'm not."
Beal is a musician who enjoys his role as a music mercenary, playing music to order. Yet he's able to open up to something different and experimental. "It was a new experience for me because coming from a rock 'n' roll standpoint, I'd always had to work with a song and the song had to fit radio programming formats", says Beal. "Everthing had to be a certain length and have a hook, verse and chorus. When we did the film we were able to do seven minutes of music that didn't fit into any category. It's probably one of the most expressive things I've done."
Together, Shrieve and Beal call themselves Big Picture, and their album. The Big Picture, is a percussion duet full of digital samples and acoustic drums. They are a percussion dance ensemble that shifts from African drum choirs with strings to avant-garde percussion ensemble with a groove.
"Everything is played with sticks", claims Shrieve, though the sticks are triggering strings, brass, basses and every percussion device from a bass drum to a wok. "Once you get sounds up that you like, you don't want to stop playing them. You can start off a piece of music and just keep going on and on. On something like the Octapads you have a limited amount of notes, so everything sounds good but you have to be careful about it getting boring."
Using a pair of Roland Octapads each with footpedals and an MSB Plus for MIDI patching, Shrieve and Beal triggered an Emulator III, Emulator II, Roland S50, Mirage, Ensoniq ESQ1 and Roland drum machines. Although almost everything was played, most of the basic tracks were sequenced on Macintosh computers with Performer software as well as Intelligent Music's M, UpBeat, and Donnie Blank's Drum File.
"When we use tablets or African drum samples, we try not to pretend that were Indian drummers; we play as we always play. And that has got to have its own uniqueness."
"On most of the record we sequenced a foundation and we went back and replaced it track by track", says Beal. "You can spend hours and hours programming a sequencer to play like a human, but we're players - so why bother? The sequencer was mainly an arrangement writing tool. That makes the record sound more exciting to me. In the pop world they like everything sequenced, but this is the one world where you can get away with a good sloppy fun groove. So why not do it?"
Despite all the computer and electronic technology, the album has a primal, organic feel, as if it just danced out of an African jungle. "One thing sampling has done is turned us on to world acoustic instruments", says Shrieve. "When we use tablas or African drum samples, we try not to pretend we're Indian drummers; we play as we always play. And that has got to have its own uniqueness."
"That was the most exciting thing about electronics", agrees Beal enthusiastically. "As a percussionist you're only as good as your collection of percussion, so a guy from rock 'n' roll who could express himself in ethnic music could never cross over because he couldn't play instruments like talking drums and bata drums. They take years to learn how to play. But once you get into sampling, you can take that bata or talking drum, sample it and put it on your Octapads. All the different ethnic communities of drummers have now crossed over.
"In The Bedroom Window", he continues, "we had African tribes, with 20 or 30 African drums that were all sampled and we could just play track by track and create things that drummers like Michael and I could never express on our own."
It also changed the way they approached the drums, taking into consideration properties of sound with which drummers aren't usually concerned, like sustain and pitch-bend.
"With the authentic percussion there are so many subtleties on the drums, and subtleties in the way people play with sticks", explains Beal. "The sound you're playing, like a talking drum, may have a pitch sweep to it, so when you're playing those rhythms you're taking that pitch sweep into consideration. You want to leave space for it. Before, the rhythm you might play on a cymbal bell could never be played on an orchestral bass drum, because of the physical aspects. Now, that cymbal bell can be an orchestral bass drum so you're getting a whole different rhythm sense."
ONE OF THE most interesting figures in Shrieve's career is Steve Roach, one of the few American synthesists to create his own sound out of the German school of electronics. They initially played together at The First Annual Palo Alto Space Music Festival in May 1987, and immediately found an affinity for each other's music. Later that year. Roach flew Shrieve in from New York to lay tracks on his Dreamtime Return album. Those tracks were never used, but Shrieve stayed for six weeks, not only recording for Dreamtime Return, but laying down the basis of an album of Shrieve-Roach duets called The Leaving Time. They wrote most of the music in that six-week period, jamming on sequencers.
"We'd be programming at the same time on the drum machine and the sequencer and just building and changing and shaping in an intuitive way", says Roach. "Michael was also using the Ensoniq sequencer (with the ESQ1) so we had that common language between us. And the drum machine programming, of course."
But both decided it needed something more, so they enlisted guitarist David Torn.
"It felt like it needed more than just the synths", says Shrieve. "I had done that with Klaus and I was beginning to feel like we had to open it up."
Roach felt the same way, and Torn's distended guitar appears on every track, adding harmonies well outside the run of new age music. "His knowledge of harmonising melodies and chords took the album to another level of harmonic sophistication", says Roach. "It was amazing hearing these chords and melody lines. At times it took my ears a while to adjust to this new sound."
The Leaving Time resonates with synthesiser textures, ambiences and the sequencer patterns of Roach, pushed by the rhythmic drive of Shrieve, and shaped by Torn's liquid guitar.
But after all this electronic innovation, Shrieve is looking again at his acoustic drums. Even on The Big Picture, he and Beal, after laying the electronic tracks, went back in with double acoustic drum kits.
Now he's working on a solo project that he terms "a jazz record", using a traditional jazz drum kit and covering tunes by Gil Evans and others.
"It's not going to be like one of those new age records. I want it to be new music but I want to play drums and I want to play freely as well. I want it to be improvisational drum-wise, and not sequenced or programmed. I feel like I've come full circle. There was a period in New York where drums weren't enough. Maybe I was hanging around with the wrong people, but I was really bored with the drums, and now I'm really back into them. The direction I'm going in is more of a jazz direction, because it has more to do with the art of drumming than anything else."
Since Shrieve has been known to shift gears at a moment's notice, it remains to be seen how the project will turn out. And an unpredictable factor could be the Santana 20-year reunion. The only certain thing is that Shrieve will follow his own instincts and that it will, somehow, be related to everything else he's done.
"I learned from Stomu that if you do interesting things, interesting people find it", he comments. "You don't have to worry about doing something that everybody might like. Do what you feel and the people who like that will come towards it and they will be interesting people."
Interview by John Diliberto