Interview with Gregg Bissonette
Interview with Gregg Bissonette
I caught up with Gregg Bisonette at the London Drum Show 2011 but I’d met him a few times in a previous life. We used to turn up at the same drum shows around the world when I was demonstrating Arbiter AT and he was doing the same thing for Mapex. Gregg’s a sixties nut which makes it easy for me because not only was I there - I can more or less remember it!
I know you grew up in Detroit but when did you leave the Motor City?
I left Detroit in 1977 when I graduated High School and I went to this great College of Texas, North Texas State, which is now called the University of North Texas. I went there because I’d heard so much about the programme with 125 drummers, 13 big bands, 40 small group combos, a lot of club work in Dallas and I could get a music education degree and I really wanted to get a degree in music. There weren’t really trade schools, like Musicians Institute and Drum Tech and that sort of stuff, that didn’t really exist.
I read the ''One O’ Clock lab'' was that a big thing for you to do as well. I’m guessing you really wanted to do that?
The North Texas State One O''Clock band does an album every year and they have since 1968, they just record it at the end of the year. The album that I love the most is ''Lab 75'' and they were nominated for a Grammy with it but they lost to Count Basie. Buddy Rich, Woody Herman were both nominated. Anyway Steve Houghton was the drummer on that and he became my teacher and mentor and just a great friend and it was Lyle Mays, who made it and Mark Johnson a great bass player. And I loved that album so much. My first year I didn’t get in the One O Clock, I got in the Five O Clock and then I got in the Two O Clock and then the One O Clock.
Do they move down, is there a Four O’ Clock and a Three O’ clock band?
There’s nine, nine bands and three reading bands they call them. But One O’ Clock’s the toppest - Toppermost and the Poppermost!
Moving ahead you joined Maynard Fergusson.
I did yeah.
And were you around when Bill Chase was there?
I loved Bill Chase, but I never met him, he died before I got to meet him.
We were on the tour shortly before he died. With Argent this was…
Rod Argent was one of Ringo’s All Starrs.
Yes he told me he did one of the tours.
He was so great.
Were you playing with Ringo''s All Starrs then?
No Sheila E did it. I’ve been with them since 2003. Ringo has two different bands, he has a band that he plays with on all of the albums, but when he does TV shows and press stuff like “Good Morning America”, “Oprah”, “David Letterman”, he puts a band together to play the promo stuff. I started that in 2003, then in 2005, then in 2007 and then in 2008 I became drummer with his All Starr Band. I’ve done 2008, 2010, this past summer all through Europe and Russia, now we’re going to South America. He’s my hero, man.
So do you call him Richie?
No, he’s always been Ringo to me. His drum tech was with him way longer than I have been, since 1989 the first All Starr Band, he’s done 22 tours with him and he always calls him Richie, his partner always calls him Richie. To me he’s just Ringo. He even phones up and says “Hey it’s Ringo calling”.
I’ve always felt you to be a completely rounded drummer who can play anything.
Go on then, what can’t you play?
Superfast prog rock metal, I keep Thomas Lang who’s a neighbour of mine on speed dial. For one of these like Swedish hard rock sessions, Japanese prog rock, it’s gotta be right with the click, but I can’t do it yet, so I go: “Thomas I’m doing this thing and there’s a song coming up in an hour, I looked at the chart and it’s really fast” and he says “Don’t worry I can be in Hollywood in 20 minutes, we’ll hold a substitution for you”.
My speed with my feet is getting better, Thomas has got me into practising heel down. He plays heel down, he says: “Why are you doing this, you’re just working too much, using all your legs.” So now all these muscles are working and I’m getting some better speed. That’s one of my weaknesses.
Where do you use this?
Man it’s amazing how many albums, how many kids in that audience, Al Murray introduced me and he was busting on it , hey The Beatles…but it’s amazing the generations of kids in that audience are into Avenged Sevenfold, Slipknot, Lamb of God, bands like Dream Theater, bands they were the Yes of our day, but now it’s superfast double bass. If you make a living as a recording session drummer, if you don’t have a double pedal and you can’t play (demonstrates fast drums rhythms), you got to be able to do it all, you’re not gonna get that call. I advertise I can do it all, but I can’t play to a certain threshold, so I use Thomas.
So this is beginning to happen? In Hollywood?
It’s happening all over the world.
The interesting thing is it’s OK not to like every sort of music.
I like the drumming aspect, but I can’t listen to the lyrics. I’m a Christian guy, I don’t like satanic guitar, really dark, blood and guts, overt really lame angry lyrics. I’m a happy guy. So I can’t listen to the lyrics of a lot of bands, but I can sure listen to the drumming and it’s phenomenal. It’s something to work for.
I guess it is. It’s a completely different sort of feel.
Oh it is feel – when you played rock, those jazzers didn’t think you had it.
They certainly didn’t. We just had something different and they’ve got something different. Different isn’t bad or wrong.
You played with Ray Charles?
I did one song, it was a recording that came out on an album. Ray is not one for multiple takes. We were all set up and it was (sings and drums) “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy” and that was it and he said, “Ok, I’m outta here”. “Could we just do a couple of pickups?” “No pickups. Give me my money.” They gave him his money, it had to be in a brown paper bag, in cash and he left. We’re all going, “What just happened?”
So you didn’t have to follow his head?
Luckily no, there was a click on this.
How can anybody do that? I went to see him in the early 60s and everybody was following his head. How?
My buddy who played with him the longest, John Bryant, is now working with Don Henley. He was Ray’s favourite drummer, if you read his book he talks about him and he just stared at him the way I stare at Ringo’s snare. My number one consideration - he’s over there and I don’t want to flam with his snare drum. I ain’t gonna look at his kick, because it always feels good. So Ray would do this [head movement thing], like you’re saying and John would just have to watch him and he’d throw stuff at you if you wouldn’t play right. One time he came in the dressing room and yelled at John, just screamed at him.
Not exactly Chuck Berry then?
What do you do when you’re not rocking ‘n’ rolling, when you’re not playing? Not fair to say you’re a rock ‘n’ roller ‘cause you are the all-rounder.
I love music, I have You Tube parties at my house with drummers. We set up lots of kits and we go around and do karaoke like you’ve got to play what’s on the record. If you don’t you get fined. We have these games, real fun. I’m really into my kids. I have two wonderful kids and I spend every minute I’m not playing with them. Noah is 13 he’s a drummer, Mary is 10 and she’s a drummer. They play drums, guitar, piano sing and dance. We have a ball. We have major Hallowe’en parties. So that’s what I do mostly.
You into any sport?
I love baseball, I play soft ball now. I swim an hour a day, I’m a real big swimmer, I love to swim. We have a neighbour in Detroit who has a huge outdoor pool, he never uses and it’s always about 80 degrees and the sun shines about 360 days – I like Detroit. So I’m very blessed to live there.
Did you find it difficult leaving? But you had been in Texas, so you had an interim. For us Brits, maybe we’re not all the same, but we like the fact that the sun doesn’t shine every day. So moving to LA, which I certainly could have done in the 60s, I didn’t want that. I wanted the fact that it might rain one day.
My kids are like that, “Dad you don’t like the rain because you grew up in the rain”. Yes that’s exactly right. You know in Detroit we had 2 months of summer and it rained like crazy but it snowed like crazy from November to May and I said I’m done with cold weather. I get bunged up when the clouds are out. I like the sunshine and where I live it’s about 8 miles from the beach and the sun is out almost every day and I thank God when I walk out of my house. I’ll never forget those freezing days!
I’ve always wondered how you got two ''g''s in your Christian name?
In America anyway, if you’re Gregory it’s Greg, but if your parents don’t want you to be Gregory… I got my name with two ''g''s since I’m not a Gregory.
Thanks Gregg I’m glad we got that cleared up. Take it easy man! Give Ringo’s elbow a bump for me please!
Words: Bob Henrit
Photos: Dave 'The Drummer' Hughes
It's great to see Gregg getting some time here. He's a sensational player and a wonderful chap who really - despite his monstrous playing ability - wants to play like Ringo. He's a wonderful testament to drummer as musician. Also great to see Rob Henrit - someone who influenced me so much and a fine lad himself - doing the interview. It's always nice to have interviewers who know the subject matter. Nice one!
Wayne Blanchard, 15 December 2011
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