The Rhythm Section
The Crusaders. Stix stix and Pops pops while Bacon sizzles gently into the tape recorder.
Stix Hooper and Pops Popwell, the rhythmic heart of the original fusion band, talk about their role in The Crusaders.
Actually getting to talk to these guys together was difficult. The first attempt ended when we discovered that Pops was out sightseeing - eventually we grabbed a half hour holed up in an improvised dressing room above a pub across the road from Brighton's salubrious Mecca dance hall.
Stix is very much the spokesman of the band, very articulate and to the point; Pops, however, is ultra laidback — almost shy - and is quite the opposite of his dynamic onstage persona.
Stix Hooper (real name Nesbert) is a founder member of the Crusaders, taking us back to 1954, when the band began life as the Jazz Crusaders. The great upsurge in activity came when the name changed to plain Crusaders in 1972. 'We were playing jazz in the sense that we were following the pattern of the leading jazz musicians of the time,' says Stix, 'but our natural roots were from Texas, from R&B.'
So after 18 years they dropped the 'Jazz' handle as it became too specific. 'We decided it would be better not to carry that monicker,' says Stix. And since then the Crusaders have been extremely successful, underlining Stix's claim that 'we proved that there was something universal in instrumental music, and that opened the door for others.'
The first thing that strikes the interested onlooker about Hooper's drum set-up today is its sheer size. Stix uses an extremely large Pearl kit.
'I have actually 16 drums,' he tells me. 'I have the octave toms and three rack toms that are non-tunable - the octave toms are of course tunable. I have two floor toms, a 14 and a 16, a 24 bass drum, and a 14 snare made especially thin in diameter.'
Taking his obvious passion for size to the limit, Hooper uses two hi-hats, a 14in and a 12in. 'One,' he explains, 'is primarily for the rhythmic ride pulsation. Doing solo work I might, from time to time depending on the mood of creativity, want to alternate sounds.'
Hence the hi-hats. But isn't that a little luxurious, I ask? 'When you have access to numerous things then you tend to utilise them, especially if you want to be innovative. If you want to elevate your role as a musician a bit more, then when that spontaneity happens you'll be able to utilise things and express yourself.'
Fair enough. Stix goes on to itemise the rest of the metallic department. 'I use one ride cymbal 22 — an A Zildjian, and a 20 crash with rivets which is also an A Zildjian. I have a Chinese Paiste, you know — a turn-up Chinese cymbal, that's a 20, and I have a Paiste flat-top. I have also an 18in crash, no rivets, and I have a 12in splash crash and an 8in splash.'
Plenty of stuff to utilise there. Reverting to the Pearl octave toms, Stix explains that he doesn't tune them in a perfect octave but prefers to tune them to his own personal liking. I presume that is something that has evolved?
'Well it's nothing that's evolved,' he objects, 'because I just want to be innovative rather than getting into a pattern of what's tried and true. Which is part of the reason why I use the three racks, and why I've chosen to have a specially made snare drum using another kind of material.' The details of this substance Stix is not prepared to reveal, but apparently it is 'made by Pearl, but it's also customised by a friend of mine in San Francisco, Jeff Ockletree.'
There are also plenty of toys round his kit, a 24in gong and various other bits and pieces: ice bells, woodblocks and so on. He insists that his playing has become more percussion-oriented. 'My set-up's evolved over a long period of trying different things - I like it and it's good. When you relate to what I'm playing it's really more percussion-oriented. 'My set-up's evolved beyond the basic drum kit. I try to incorporate all those elements. To me that's the new and upcoming role of the drummer anyway — I mean he is the timekeeper, but I think that what he does with the colours and the timbres of the instrument is just as meaningful as the rhythmic pulsation that he puts down. In the group framework I think your role is twofold, to keep the pulsation and to keep the dynamic levels changing from time to time, but within those changes and within the pulsation there should be colours.
'Which is part of the reason why the drum kit has expanded,' he continues. 'Because if every cymbal crash on every eight bars was using the same cymbal, or if every time the piano player played you used the same cymbal... it should be something that's comparable to each solo instrument and comparable to each arrangement or each chart, each mood in each setting. Which is why I like to have varied things, even if I'm keeping time. Sometimes it's more meaningful to keep time on a Paiste than on a hi-hat.'
Hooper's session commitments are not quite so time-consuming now as they have been in the past, in fact he says he's hardly doing any. 'I never did an excessive amount, because I've always been more in an administrative position with the band, so I tried to cut a lot of that down. But I did do quite a bit. I did a lot of special projects you know, I tended to want to develop my own particular sound.' This development should reach an interesting culmination on his solo album, recording of which starts in January. Other projects include co-production of another BB King album (hopefully as good as the Crusaders' produced Midnight Believer) and the setting up of a direct to disc operation in conjunction with ABC Records.
Robert 'Pops' Popwell joined the Crusaders in early 1976, in time to play on the Those Southern Knights album. An engineer in LA knew the band was looking for a permanent bass player who would fit in with their style, and told Wayne Henderson (trombonist who has since left the band) that he knew someone who was ideal. So Pops came up from Atlanta, Georgia for the audition, and got the gig. He's an amazing powerhouse of funk-bass pyrotechnics, and readers who saw the band in Britain on the recent tour will remember for a long time his explosive solo spot. He's the kind of bass player who appears to use every part of both hands all the time, with the percussive right-hand latter day hammering and pulling technique well to the fore. All in all, a very animated style.
'Well I don't know,' says Pops. 'Animated? I don't like that word. I call it er... aggressive. Just some people have many interpretations of animated. I just say I like to play aggressively, because as you know to me a bass has a definite role and you cannot be playing it with a pair of gloves. You have to definitely play it with some feeling. A lot of power.'
Right now Robert is using an Acoustic 360 bass amp, which he figures is the best sound on the market. 'In fact there are a number of guys in the business who are still using those. And I'm using a small Yamaha amp for top end response.'
His main tool is a trusty Fender Precision with an extra Telecaster pickup near the bridge, 'just to give you the expansion which you might want to hear from time to time, for high-end response.' His aggressive style (did I say animated?) often leads to an unusually high number of broken strings, and he mentions that this has been an area of much experimentation for him. 'I used to use four different strings, I was trying to find something different. Say I'd use a Guild E-string, Rotosound A, Black Diamond D, you know... this thing, this kinda experimentation to see. Except it gets to be a hassle cos you break up so many sets doin' it, so it really don't give you that much of a difference. I use Rotosound roundwounds now, those are about the best strings I found, for me, that I can get on the market.'
At a Hammersmith gig I saw in September Pops broke a D, and switched to a Music Man Stingray for the next piece while the string was being changed. Was that bass a new acquisition, I ask? 'Yeah, I just got that. I'm experimenting with that one. It's kinda hot right now, I don't really know that full depth of where that one can go. I have a Jazz that I used to bring on the road and maybe it'll do for that, but I'm beginning to like it, it has a little more slight mid-range sort of sound, you know. It's really hot, it's super hot, man.'
Pops doesn't care for the fashion of the mid-range sounding bass, however. 'I don't particularly care for it, I figure the bass should stay out of the snare drum, it should stay where the bass drum is. But, you know, a lot of cats wanna play in that area for whatever reasons. I just figure my own concept — the bass is part of the heart of the body of the band. The drums is one half of the heart and the bass is the other half, and together they pump the blood to the body.'
TB: How do you arrange it between you, because you inter-react very well. As Robert says you're the heart of the band.
SH: Well I think what happens with Pops and I is you'd first try to lock the bass drum, I think the bass drum is the foundation of everything. The bass and the bass drum kind of get that bass there, like the foundation of a house. Then from there we structure against it. And a lot of times it's complementary patterns and, depending on the composition, if you're playing a direct rhythmic pattern throughout a song, it could be a complementary pattern where we're very seldom playing the exact same thing.
TB: Do you mean differently from night to night, or differently in approach?
SH: No, I mean in terms of approach. Every night it kind of differs, but I'm talking about an approach, or a concept. For example, say if you have a four bar pattern, normally the snare is always playing on two and four, which in today's music is kind of rock bottom, you know. Let's just use that as a premise, for conversation's sake. Now Pops would not play the same pattern. Where the rests are, he would probably play something in between which'd give it that flow. Another half of the heart, like you said. He might play in between the thing, and then you've got the pulsation and the flow of what's happening. So that's the premise that we take a lot of times in a song. Very rarely do we play the exact same thing together — unless it's a phrase to enhance the melodic line that's required. But in terms of a flow, if we try to stay clear - and again if there's a particular song where I'm playing a straight four bass drum like on certain compositions we do - that allows him that freedom to play a much busier pattern. That's basically what we do, you know.
RP: What I think about it is, man, we don't really have to talk about it. Unless there's a definite connection, points where he and I have to do something at the same time; I mean I've been with him enough to know where to get in his way and where not to get in his way. It's just like being married to a lady, man! You know when she comes in the house and the door slams, you're not going in the room, cos you know undoubtably she gonna be raisin' hell (laughs), but if she come in smilin' and whistlin', well... I mean this is that kinda thing. But just to put it on another level for a second, sometimes he feels like he wants to expand and play colours and float, well quite naturally if he's gonna float, we can't both float, cos there won't be a basis. So I'll lay down and he'll float, or I might wanna float and he'll weigh down.
SH: It's kind of a compatibility between two. See if I'm playing something definite, say the bass drum — if you play a four bar figure you have to turn it around in some way on that fourth bar to bring it round to the cycle, to cycle rhythmically. If I'm doing that, he'll probably do it musically, melodically, in terms of resolving the progression. And I'll do it in terms of making the flow, because there's no way you can play that pattern without playing a varied feel to turn it back around and play. But most music of today is based around some kind of consistency. The disco music is definitely consistent.
TB: It takes the riff to its ultimate...
SH: Yeah (laughs). It always depends on the song, on the composition, what the mood of it is. I mean Pops might play whole notes and I might be playing sixteenths against it on the bass drum if the composition requires that kind of energy.
RP: I think a bass player and a drummer, man, have to be totally in tune with one another. If they don't you've got a hell of a raggedy sound in your group. I can remember at some points where I've heard groups like that, man. The bass player was over there and the drummer was here, and boy the group could not find nowhere to anchor. But if that heart is pumping, man, the body is very vigourous you know, very aggressive, whatever it's doin'. And I just try to always keep that concept in mind.
TB: Are most of the compositions within the Crusaders written, in that you'll get presented with parts? How much freedom is there?
SH: Well there's freedom, but there's parts in the sense of enhancing the composition. But the essence of the group is that spontaneity anyway, that's the whole thing, that kind of freedom. But I mean you have to have discipline even within boundaries, I mean you have to have some kind of discipline otherwise we'd be playing free form jazz. And instead of working the Hammersmith Odeon we'd be working the local pub when we came to town. The point is that there is a certain amount of freedom and creativity within boundaries. There's a certain amount of structure, a certain amount of discipline, you know. For example if someone brings in a song and they might hear a particular bass line, it might not be the right bass line, but at least it's a basis, somewhere to start.
TB: Like a jumping off point?
SH: Yeah. And then from there a man has to have a certain amount of creativity to develop within the framework.
The band's most recent album, Images, is supposed to be a direct contrast to the previous Free As The Wind, with the raw quintet coming to the fore, getting back to a more melodic approach. In that way it allowed more freedom for the five band members to stand up as players, without the string and brass embellishments of Wind. Pops' tune Cosmic Reign is a good example of this, with his bass sound much toppier and to the front of the mix than on the rest of the record.
'I think when you're writing a song in a group you write the song with the players in mind,' he points out. 'I mean it's different with a song-writer who wants to use studio players, if he can't get this player in he's kind of lost. When you're in a group and you're within a family you know what this individual is gonna give, so you write that song with those individuals in mind, and of course with Cosmic Reign it was more bass orientated cos I'm bass orientated. With the same token when Stix writes a ballad there's certain kinds of tonalities that he plays, melodically I guess, with drums. It's really a unique situation, cos there's not many groups around that do that. Guys'll write and "it's my tune, you do it this way", I've seen that go down.'
A closer from Stix: 'It's hard, you know. Your music, it's so weird... to put it in writing, words, you know it's so difficult.' Ain't it the truth.
Interview by Tony Bacon
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