The Beat of A Different Drummer
interview by Ed Turner
By his 18th birthday, Robert Arthur Williams had been playing the drums for 13 years, and the momentum of his career was about to achieve velocity with a once-in-a-lifetime gig as drummer for Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. How he got the job, like much of Williamsís career trajectory, involves equal parts determination, self-belief, and blinding talent, as well as the occasional knack for being in the right place at the right time. Touring and recording with Captain Beefheart would prove an eye-opening education for the young musician, but no one, least of all Williams himself, could have predicted what lay ahead. Here, Robert Williams recalls a journey that began one Christmas Day when he was a small child.
PSF: Growing up, what was it that first drew you to playing drums?
RW: When I was around 5 years old I was swept up in the phenomenon known as Beatlemania. I thought George Harrison was the coolest guy in the world. I wanted to have guitar just like his and be in a band as the lead guitarist. I told my parents that I wanted a Silvertone electric guitar for Christmas and was counting the days leading up to Christmas morning.
At the break of dawn, I rushed downstairs to find a snare drum with a little cymbal set up in front of the Christmas tree. I thought my parents had bought that for my younger brother and asked them where the guitar was. They told me that the drum was for me and that the electric guitar would need an amplifier and they simply couldn't afford to buy me both the amp and the guitar with me having 5 other siblings to buy gifts for. I took the drum upstairs to my bedroom and proceeded to beat the crap out of it in frustration.
A few weeks later a friend of mine told me about the school Drill Team and that for fifty cents, I could join and take drum lessons each Saturday. I signed up for that and learned how to play rudiments in order to become one of the band members and get my uniform.
I was determined to be the best drummer out of the other 20 or so kids with their eye on the same prize. I played in various drum and bugle corps, up until the age of 14 but as a member of the corps, I wasn't allowed to have long hair so I quit.
I worked all summer in an automotive junk yard to save enough money to buy a drum set and had to train myself to use my feet as well as my hands to play drums. In drum and bugle corps we used our feet for marching but a drum set had a bass drum and hi hat pedal. I spent up to 8 hours a day practicing and learning the drum parts to Cream, The Who, Jethro Tull and Frank Zappa songs.
Eventually, I got the hang of using my feet in combination with my hands. Since the standard way to play a drum set was to play the ride cymbal and hi hat while playing the bass drum on the downbeat and the snare drum on the backbeat, I learned to incorporate the bass drum and snare drum and play rudiments between the two. In other words, I had the bass drum play what my right hand would play in order to play rudiments and rolls. For example, a paradiddle is played, right, left, right right, left, right, left left. A double stroke roll is played, right right, left left... Once I was able to play those rudiments at a decent speed, I was free to be more expressive with my drum parts.
PSF: You were witness - in your formative years - to a revolution in popular music; the advent of Elvis in the Ď50's, the following decade's British Invasion. That must've had a tremendous impact on a young musician.
RW: While the other teenagers were out having fun and going to parties and the beach, I was working out drum parts and trying to perfect my drumming skills. I missed out on a lot of fun but made up for it while going out on tour with the various bands I played for.
Bands like Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Jethro Tull, Yes, Jeff Beck and The Mahavishnu Orchestra were primary influences on my approach to the drums. I was never much of an Elvis fan and although the Beatles had great songs, their drum parts were simple but appropriate. Sometimes less is more, more or less.
PSF: When did you decide to become a professional musician? Was there a "Road to Damascus" moment involved in that decision ?
RW: I moved to Cleveland from Boston to live with my high school sweetheart and joined a band that was a very popular local band. They had 2 drummers that weren't getting along and the manager fired both of them and hired me. Since I had 2 bass drums, I learned to play both of their drum parts simultaneously. This made quite an impression on my new band members and with the girls at the the shows.
PSF: What was your first paying gig ?
RW: Before joining that popular local band in Cleveland, I had a band in Boston where we played cover songs by Cream, Deep Purple, Edgar Winter, Cactus, David Bowie and other famous bands at the time. Those gigs were great because we would set up the equipment and leave it set up during our week long stretches. It was great doing what I loved, getting the applause and getting paid for it.
PSF: How did the stint drumming for Captain Beefheart come about?
RW: I had heard the Captain Beefheart was playing a week long run at a club called The Garage in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts so I went down to the club early in the afternoon hoping to talk with him before sound check. The manager for Beefheart and the manager for The Garage were in an argument over the Magic Band having to tear down and set up each night for the support act. I offered to be there each night to take care of that. I became friends with the band members and Don during that week. It was a great experience for me at age 17.
On the night of the last show, the manager for Captain Beefheart told me that Doctor John was in search of a drummer and that he was on the guest list for the show. After the show was over, I went to Mac Rebbenack (Dr. John) and told him it was my job to pack up the equipment and asked him to stick around in order for me to audition for him there before packing up the drums. I played as fast and hard as I could to which Dr. John seemed unimpressed. I was not familiar with the New Orleans style of Second Line drumming at the time however, Beefheart was really impressed and said to me, "Man, if I ever need a drummer, you're the one!"
A few years later after moving to Los Angeles, I was visiting George Duke's recording session at Paramount Studios in Hollywood and during a break, I went to the reception desk and flipped through the Rolodex and found Don Van Vliet's phone number there. I used to call him from time to time and often was on the phone with him for hours and hours. He made it hard to get off the phone but it was really fun most of the time.
One day, Ed Mann, the percussionist for Zappa told me that Don was looking for a drummer so I called him up and he answered, "Man! I was wondering when you were going to call me about this!" I said, "This is Robert." and he replied, "I know that man!" He told me to contact the band members to get the records and the keys to the rehearsal studio to work on the songs, so I just decided to stay there.
I was just practicing for as many hours as possible in between an hour or two of sleep. On Sunday morning, the day of my audition, he opened the garage door to the studio and found me sleeping on a thin piece of foam on the floor. With the sun behind him, he appeared in silhouette and shouted, "Man! You're sleeping here?"
I told him how much I wanted the job. When the band members showed up we went through one song, "Nowadays A Woman Has To Hit A Man" and halfway through the song, Don started waving his hands in the air and said, "Stop! You've got the job. let's go have some iced tea."
The band members freaked out and reminded him that there were 4 or 5 more drummers scheduled to audition and that maybe, he should hold off on deciding until they had their chance to play but he insisted, "I know my man when I see him!"
PSF: You were the drummer on two Beefheart albums, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) and Doc at The Radar Station, which today, are widely acknowledged as the beginning of a late-period career comeback for Captain Beefheart. At the time these recordings were made, did you or anyone else in the band, have any idea that these albums would become landmark recordings?
RW: Of course, I had faith that nearly anything Don would put on a record would be amazing. He was very unique in his approach to songwriting. He was one of a kind. There will never be another Captain Beefheart.
Before recording the first album, we had toured with most of those songs so they were very familiar and recorded them live in the studio with very few overdubs other than his vocals and they were all done with no click track. I'm very proud to say that Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) was the first record I had ever played on.
PSF: Why did your time with Beefheart come to an end?
RW: I left Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band because I was signed to A&M Records as a solo artist and was under contract to begin my second release, Late One Night and Beefheart was starting rehearsals at the same time for his final record, Ice Cream for Crow. There was a scheduling conflict and I left the band to pursue my solo career. I had already toured several times with him, appeared on Saturday Night Live, and played on Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) as well as Doc at the Radar Station. Starting in 1977, I worked for him tirelessly for little to no money so in 1981, I felt it was time to move on.
PSF: You collaborated with Strangler's frontman Hugh Cornwell for the 1979 album Nosferatu. How did that musical partnership come about?
RW: I was playing in San Francisco with Captain Beefheart and Hugh Cornwell introduced himself to me after the show. He was a big fan of the band and we hung out a little after the show. About a year later, back in San Francisco, while recording Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), he contacted me and said he was producing a band in S. F. We met at a club for drinks and afterwards in the wee hours of the night, I took him to the studio where Shiny Beast (BCP) was being recorded. I was on friendly terms with the staff at the studio so they let us in, with no questions asked.
All of the instruments were set up and so we decided to have some fun and switched off, playing all of them. A few months later, while I was back home in Los Angeles, I got a call from Hugh asking me if I'd be interested in doing a record. I asked him who was in the band and he said, "You play bass, keyboards and guitar as well as drums, it will just be the two of us."
When I asked him about the songs he told me we could make them up in the studio. I was a bit skeptical he'd come over, leave with the tapes and have me footing the bill but as it turned out, United Artists Records was funding it. I booked the best studios available in the Los Angeles area and we were off to the races. I got Joe Chiccarrelli to be the engineer and Hugh and I were co producing and performing all of the instruments with the exception of Mark Mothersbaugh, Ian Dury, and Ian Underwood in for a few sessions.
Hugh and I flew to England to mix it at Air Studios and re-recorded one of the tracks we weren't happy with and had Allen Winstanley record that. Once the record was released, the press was announcing the record as Hugh Cornwell's solo record which infuriated me. I had more to do with that record than Hugh in terms of performing and producing the guest artists while Hugh was off with the Stranglers.
After all, the front of the record cover read, "Hugh Cornwell and Robert Williams in Nosferatu." Hugh and his publicist claimed the press ran with it that way because Hugh's name was more recognizable than mine but I came to find out that Hugh had instructed his publicist to list me as one of the guest artists. Hugh had what he wanted from me on the record and proceeded to throw me under the bus. All of the royalty checks were arranged to go to Hugh and to this day, have never received any portion of it. Story of my life.
PSF: Let's talk about your solo recordings. The website, Music for Maniacs, characterizes your 1981 EP, Buy My Record, as a move into "commercial New Wave territory." Is that a fair assessment ?
RW: My first solo record, Buy My Record was far from being commercial or new wave. It's a very quirky and unusual record. The follow up LP, Late One Night, was a bit more commercial due to the pressure from A&M Records wanting a radio friendly release from me. It was more commercial in the sense that all of the songs were in the standard 4/4 time signature but it was distinctively different than most records at the time. Both of those records were also engineered and co produced by Joe Chiccarrelli.
PSF: Throughout your solo career, youíve worked with a diverse group of musicians. Looking back, do any particular memories come to mind ?
RW: When I recorded Nosferatu with Hugh Cornwell, we brought in Ian Dury to do the part of a fairground barker. Mark Mothersbaugh for a vocal on a song, Mick Jones from The Clash to do some background vocal and Ian Underwood to play some synthesizer. On my first solo record, Buy My Record, I had members from Zappa, Captain Beefheart, The Doors and Devo. The follow up LP, Late One Night, I had members of The Go Go's, Hugh Cornwell from The Stranglers, Laurence Juber from Paul McCartney and Danny Elfman make guest appearances and with all those famous people on the recordings, it helped to make the music better but it made absolutely no differences in terms of sales.
PSF: In 1997 you released, Date with the Devil's Daughter. What inspired you to come up with Temporarily Immortal some 19 plus years later?
RW: I have never stopped writing and recording music since Buy My Record. I have over 400 unreleased songs and when it came to Temporarily Immortal, I just went through my list of songs and chose the ones that I thought would fit together the best.
Over the years, I have painted houses to make a living because music wasn't paying much, so when I had the bills paid, I used whatever was left over to buy musical instruments and computer software to record my songs.
Recording at home with professional gear made it possible for me to come up with high quality recordings. Having played drums since I was five years old, I also taught myself to play guitar, bass, keyboards, harmonica and vocals and that made it possible for me to record songs without having to hire musicians or pay for studios and engineers.
Temporarily Immortal has a few guest guitarists to play the flashy solos and a few female vocalists but the rest of the instruments were played by me.
PSF: With the wisdom of hindsight, is there anything you would change?
RW: I love music but I loathe the music business. I found that nice managers might be trustworthy but mostly ineffective while the managers that are well connected sharks can accomplish more but pocket any money that might be made. It seems that no matter how good the music is or how many famous guest stars you have on the record, it doesn't mean a thing unless you either pay off the DJís and radio promoters or have the opportunity to sign with a major record label who usually claim to never have recouped their investment. It's a dog eat dog business.
PSF: In 1997 you played drums during a brief stint with former Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten's aka John Lydon's band. By a strange turn of events, this led to a showdown in Judge Judy's courtroom.
RW: I was the music director and drummer for John Lydon during his stint as a solo artist with Virgin Records. I worked for him seven days a week from noon until one in the morning for six months, preparing the musicians and arranging the set. The day before the tour, the management informed me that my pay was cut by a third and that I'd be sharing one hotel room with the other band members and the crew so I filed a small claims suit against him. I foolishly agreed to appear on Judge Judy for her to hear the case and I lost. I can only speculate that the ruling was not in my favor to make her appear trendy and because Lydon's management arranged the media circus following the case. It's not one of my most pleasant memories so I'll leave it at that.
PSF: What's the story behind Devo's hit, "Whip It"? It's rumored that you had a hand in creating that song?
RW: Mark Mothersbaugh and I had become friends after I produced the session during his appearance on the duo record I was collaborating on with Hugh Cornwell. Mark told me he was uninspired by his cheap Roland drum machine as he was writing new material for the next Devo record.
He came over to my house with his four track reel to reel recorder and told me I could play whatever I wanted but to have constant quarter notes on the bass drum throughout. In other words, a steady boom boom boom boom on the bass drum. I recorded four drum tracks for him that day and he took the tapes home to write music over them.
Later that year when visiting The Record Plant where Devo was recording Freedom of Choice, the drummer Alan Myers invited me to a listening room to hear some tracks.
As "Whip It" played, he asked me if I recognized the drum beat. I told him I didn't and he said, "you should, you wrote it." Mark was messing around at his house playing "Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison when the phone rang. So when he went back to listen to his recording- there were the first five notes of "Pretty Woman" followed by the Boom-Crack Boom-Crack I recorded in combination with electronic Synare drums programmed to sound like a whip and my acoustic drums.
He wrote the song over that specific drum part I came up with. It was their biggest hit to date. That song brought in millions for Mark and Gerry but none of it went to me, nor did any writing credit. Typical music business move.
Recently, I was in contact with a guy in England who told me he was flying me over to put a band together there to play festivals. He went as far as asking me what I wanted on the catering rider and asked if I was allergic to any food. He had me waiting and waiting for something to materialize but nothing did. I had sent him a box of 160 with my latest CD. When it was obvious to me that he had misrepresented himself, I told him I needed the CDs back to cover my medical bills. I didn't have any medical bills but I knew that was the only way I would get him to send them back. He sent back 105 of the 160 I had sent him.
I've had to learn the hard way not to trust musicians, music managers, club owners, promoters, record company executives, and music lawyers.
It's always been a ruthless business and in the future, I plan to be much more guarded.
Also see Robert Williams' homepage
... and our Beefheart tribute series of articles
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