One From The Archives - Interview With Abe Laboriel Jnr 2007
I have been chasing the man behind Sir Paul McCartney for an interview for the past couple of years, but being so busy he is not easy to track down, so imagine my delight when the opportunity arose at this years NAMM show in L.A. Abe was only too happy to spend some time talking about the passion in his life- music-, the influence his Dad had on him and giving a drum lesson.
Abe has been playing for Sir Paul for the past few years and before that he was behind Sting, but not only can he play those tubs, he has a mean voice - just check out the YouTube clip titled ĎMylene Farmer and Abe Laboriel Jr - Les Motsí. He has recently been getting into producing.
MD: What was your background like as a kid and how much of an influence did you father play?
AL: My father is a huge influence. When I was born my dad was going to Berklee College of Music in Boston, so I was surrounded by all of his pals from college. Then we moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when I was about 3 and I can remember going to rehearsals with him and guys like Joe Lovano and Jamie Haddad. They would rehearse songs and I would sit there singing the melodies back before they learned them and theyíd look at me like I was kind of crazy. When I was 4, Jamie Haddad, a great percussionist with Paul Simon, gave me my first drum kit. He converted a floor tom into a kick drum and added a little snare and hi-hats. My dad would show me stuff to play and heíd jam with me. My motherís a classically trained singer, and she sang folk music and played guitar. So, in our house we would listen to all varieties of music
Did you have any formal tuition as you got older?
When I was 10, I told my dad I wanted to be a professional musician. He sat me down and told me the positives and negatives. He explained that it was not an easy road and that I would need to commit to being well rounded. When I answered that I was ready to take it seriously he asked his good friend Alex AcuŮa if I could take lessons with him, so I started studying with him when I was 10.
Not bad for your first teacher!
He was an amazing teacher! Alex didnít just throw books at me or take the traditional teaching road. He sat down and we played grooves together. Heíd start to show me variations just by talking about displacement and he encouraged me to feel my own rhythms. I learned so much about jazz, funk, and Latin music from him. Then in High School, around the age of 16, I went to a school in L.A., the Dick Grove College of Music. I would go there at night; 3 nights a week and Iíd study with Peter Donald. I also studied ear training and harmony. For my last 2 years of High School, I went to a great music High School that opened up in L.A. called Hamilton Academy of Music. I was exposed to electronic music and programming as well as playing in the marching band and jazz band. I also had a jazz trio with a pianist named Vernell Brown and a bassist named Mike Elizondo. Mike has gone on to become an incredibly talented bass player and producer. As a result of playing in that trio I received a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston.
A lot of the stuff you said there is very jazz or Latin, that isnít what youíre known for now.
My dad asks me the same question. "How did you get form there to here?" My favourite bands growing up were the Beatles, the Police, Big Country and Journey. I also listened to Chick Corea with the electric band and a lot of straight ahead like Miles, Coltrane and Monk. I was a big fan of Elvin and Dejohnette. However, I discovered that I was passionate about listening to and playing music with singers. I prefer it to instrumental, self-gratification stuff. I enjoy melody and lyrics. Thatís what I identify with musically.
Is it true youíd be playing and your dad would come in, play with you, say Ďyou havenít got it yet soní and leave you?
Well the story is Iíd be practising and heíd say "play for me", heíd just want to listen, he wasnít playing with me. Iíd play; 10 minutes would go by and heíd tap me on the shoulder and say "that was a good bar" and Iíd be surprised, so Iíd go back to playing and trying to figure it out and then heíd tap me again and say "yeah, that was good, that was one good bar". So after a while itíd become 2 good bars and then I started to realise that there was a difference. As an example heíd play me records with one of our favourite drummers, Jeff Porcaro. Where heíd play the back beat and the consistency from beat 1 all the way through to the end of beat 4 was undeniable. That heartbeat, that feel, thereís nobody like that, so I started to realise what he was talking about. Steve Gadd has a similar approach. A lot of drummers get one, two, three, four and then they get back to one a bit too soon. They forget they have to carry through until the next one and that was something my dad really impressed upon me.
How do you think you learnt that, just by listening?
One of the things I loved to do practise wise was to play along to records and to feel like I was a part of the band. Like I was the drummer playing with all these other guys. I was always more interested in listening to what the bass player was doing, or the guitar player and the singer rather than what the drummer was doing when I was listening. But I got to a point, without getting too over analytical about it, but there was definitely a tendency of a lot of live drummers to not carry through and I was starting to pick up their bad habits, so I searched for records that were a little more machine sounding but that had the right pocket. Scritti Pollitti; I wore that record out, because it felt so good for being mostly programmed. The back beats were always correct so I felt I could practise all the time with that record to get that consistency and make that part of my own heartbeat.
So if you were teaching today, what would you emphasise?
I think it would be to keep track of the simplicity. A lot of drummers get ahead of themselves. They want to try and learn some superfast fill before they learn how to just play time. One of the things I think is lost is, knowing how to play just kick, snare, and hi-hat first. To really make as much music out of that as you can. I learned that from a great teacher at Berklee. Phil Wilson, a great trombone player and the conductor of one of the best big bands at Berklee. He really took me under his wing. He asked me to jam with him during his lunch hour, in his office, once a week. So I excitedly showed up the first day and I had my entire drum kit with me, and he says "oh man what are you doing? Itís a little officeÖ" To which I replied "well you want to jam" and he said "yeah but just set up your snare." So weíd sit there and weíd jam and all I had was my snare after a while I started to realise how much tonality I could get out of it, brush in one hand, stick in the other, hitting on the side, hitting on the stand, hitting on the music stand, suddenly I was making more music with less and then little by little heíd make a little more room so I could bring a kick drum and a hi-hat but we would jam with the smallest kit possible. Itís very easy for drummers to get overwhelmed with having too much choice. I think sometimes when youíre making music you have to break it down to the basics and really get to the core of it and thatís when things start to feel good and then feel clear. So that would be my first thing, to try and get someone to almost ignore half the drum kit and then concentrate on feel and groove and listening to who your playing with and making sure your motor is right.
Do you think thatís why you got the Sting gig or Paul McCartney and what do you think you bring to that set up?
I think so. I think itís very easy to want to show off and to want to show guys like that everything you can do. When I first started playing with them it had nothing to do with what I could do but everything to do with listening to them and supporting them. Thatís what I consider my job is; to make sure I can hear everything I want to hear out of them and do my best to draw the best out of them whether thatís to really stay out of the way or to kick their arse a little bit and punch tempos up a little bit. Iím a fan first and for me to play drums with these guys is just an excuse of getting to listen to some of the greatest musicians in the world.
You have a great sound and you hit real hard. Does that have any impact on your body and, do you have to warm up?
I should do more warming up, thatís something Iím getting back into. I am also trying to get healthier by going to the gym and eating better. There is a serious impact when I play. When we play 3 hour shows I sometimes lose about 10 pounds in water weight, just from sweating like that every night. The intensity with which I play has caused some pain, like tennis elbow. I brought my kit in a little bit. I used to set up pretty wide out so I just brought things in a little bit and just learnt my own limitations.
Youíre an in demand drummer, but youíve never got into the clinics why?
No, itís hard for me to work that out timing wise because often when Iím asked I donít know what my schedule is going to be. For example, The Modern Drummer Festival, they book those things almost a year and a half ahead and I donít know exactly what Iíll be doing, so the only thing I can do is say maybe I can make it. Whatís happening more often than not is I canít because I end up being on the road.
What would you do?
I know I would want to talk, although a lot of people would rather just hear drumming which is great, I think itís valid; I always find that the one on one conversations are a little more powerful. Again, I know how to play all of the dazzle kind of stuff, but it doesnít really hold meaning for me, I feel I would love to show up with just a kick, snare and hi-hat but again, itís getting people to realise that you have to listen, take your time with where you place beats, fills, space.
Final question, whatís coming up, whatís happening?
A lot of fun things, I am dipping my toes into doing some production. Iím working with an artist now whoís on Geffen Records, a guy called Trevor Hall. My brother and I are producing it together. We have also produced a couple of songs on the Bratz Soundtrack, one by Matt White and another by ĎBrick and Laceí. Iím sure there will be some more shows with Paul and Sting. Iím trying to figure out how to juggle my heroes and get to play as much music as possible.
Thank you for your time
Well thank you man, it was a pleasure talking.
Words by: Mike Dolbear
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