RM: Pretend for a moment that you're not you. If you were to listen to the
Apocalypse album by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, followed by the most recent
Aretha Franklin album, do you think that you'd be able to tell that it was
the same drummer on both records?
NMW: No and yes. No because the styles are very different. On Apocalypse, I
rein to express everything. Yet there are sections of straight grooving in
there, too, so that's why I would also say yes. But I can see how a lot of
people wouldn't think it was the same guy.
Until I went with Mahavishnu, I had always played pop and rock music.
Joining Mahavishnu was my break. I idolized John McLaughlin for what he
stood for and the music he played. I learned how to play in five, seven,
nine, and all of those odd signatures, because that's what he needed. It's
the same in the pop world. If you're going to play with Aretha Franklin,
then you have to give her what she needs, as opposed to going in there
saying, "Okay, I'm a bad cat. Dig this."
RM: When you are playing on a straight pop record, what kind of discipline
does it take not to use all of the technique you have? Are you ever tempted
to throw in a hot lick someplace?
NMW: Oh definitely. All drummers love to just whack it and jam. But after
you make a lot of records, you start to let the music dictate what it
needs. As I grow older, I find myself trying to use a little wisdom so that
it's not like my show all of the time, but when something is needed, I can
supply it. I was lucky enough to be exposed to good people. I was raised in
Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is not far from Detroit, and a big hero of mine
was Benny Benjamin. If you listen to all of the great Motown records, he
was always playing fills, but he was grooving so strong that it all meshed.
I think that's the magic. As long as it's grooving and the spirit is there,
it all comes together. But at the same time, I make a conscious effort not
to do things that aren't needed. That way, when I do play something, it
makes it that much grander.
RM: One of the reasons given for the Mahavishnu Orchestra's popularity was
that the musicians were always playing at the top of their abilities. Can
you talk a little about pushing it to the limit?
NMW: John McLaughlin always made a very conscious effort to play for the
Supreme, and that intensity showed in the music. He was on me to give 110%
every night. When you work with someone you admire, and you know that he
can tell when you're really playing and when you're not, you do things you
don't think you can do. The spirit-or the Supreme or the soul-becomes a
very consistent part of your nature. When you're pushed to the limit,
that's what touches people. People say Whitney Houston is a great singer.
That's because, when she gives, she gives. When Aretha's singing, she
gives. When Danny plays, he gives. That's what touches people. It doesn't
have to be a big power thing. It can be very subtle, but because you feel
it so deeply, it will pull people in. It doesn't matter what kind of music
you're talking about. It can be jazz, rock 'n' roll, country music, or
anything; if you feel it, you can pull it off.
RM: Can you speak specifically about what you learned about drumming from
On a more technical level, I learned how to utilize the toms more,
because that sounded good with what he was doing. Of course, Billy Cobham
inspired a lot of that. I wasn't necessarily trying to fill Billy's shoes,
but I did need to give John that kind of support. It was a new frontier for
me. I liked to lock into a groove that the other musicians could fly over.
But John wanted me to fly as well. So in that respect, he taught me to free
myself, and to be free, you have to surrender.
So I would say that, with Mahavishnu, I learned about the spirit. The
Mahavishnu Orchestra always played to the limit. When you do that
consistently, you know when the spirit is right, and you know when it's not
quite there. Hopefully, you can then play even the simplest thing on a
Whitney Houston date or an Aretha session, but when you listen back to it,
you'll know that this is the take you should use, as opposed to another one
that was not quite there. You know that the spirit has been captured
because you've been there.
So I'm not really giving you technique, but I really believe that the
spirit is the technique. Look at Elvin Jones. It's his love and emotion
that makes whatever he plays tremendous, even if it's sloppy. You dig him
for that. I think that drummers are really gifted to have the talent of
rhythm, because rhythm is the spirit. Drummers are some of the best people
walking the earth, because they are in touch with the higher power-the
rhythm power. I think that a lot of drummers could make great producers,
songwriters, or anything they want to be, because they know what it's like
to be the heartbeat of the music.
NMW: Drummers aren't always going to understand the way I talk, but this is
what I learned: I learned how to surrender-to be the drummer he needed me
to be. When you're playing with someone, you have to learn how to be with
that person. I had to learn to close my eyes, because if I looked at him, I
would get so turned on by the speed of his fingers or the expression on his
face that I would not be concentrating fully on the spirit of what I was
playing. I had to close my eyes to reach that deeper place so that my
playing would mesh with his.
RM: In fact, due largely to yourself and Phil Collins, people can now
accept the idea of a drummer being a producer. But what about ten years
ago? Did you encounter any resistance when you first tried to expand into
other areas besides drumming?
So I moved to California, because the people out there weren't so
conditioned to me being just a fusion musician or a jazz cat. I really
think that moving to San Francisco helped me open some doors that I
wouldn't have opened otherwise, because I was able to get a fresh start.
But even so, I realized that I would have to make my own records to prove
my point. People are not going to call you to produce something unless
you've proven yourself somewhere along the way. That's just the way it is
NMW: Yeah. In fact, that's why I left New York. After playing with the
Mahavishnu Orchestra, I could only get gigs as a fusion drummer. I got a
call from Weather Report and played on the Black Market album, I did some
things with Tommy Bolin, and I did some rock things that had some fusion
feeling to them. I understood the pop sensibility, but I never got calls
for that music.
RM: Did being a producer teach you anything about being a drummer?
Sometimes you have to be in prison before you can appreciate being free.
After you get out of prison, a single tree can have so much significance.
You don't need a whole forest; just a single tree is beautiful. Music is
like that. John Coltrane understood how to play over changes; look at
"Giant Steps." After he did that, he could express freedom. His freedom was
so beautiful, because he understood the discipline of not being free. So
after all of the sessions I've done where I've just played strict time with
no fills, if I were to play some fusion music, I think I'd be much better
at it because I would appreciate what I was doing more.
You have to learn to put your ego in the backseat and let the music be
what it needs to be. It's like being a member of Duke Ellington's
orchestra. You can't just save your intensity for solos. You have to play
the ensemble figures with the same intensity. You can't lose interest just
because you're not in the spotlight, because then the music will suffer.
When you play live, you have to project more energy, but in the studio,
you don't have to overact. It's like the difference between doing a play on
Broadway and making a movie. On Broadway, you have to really project your
voice so that everyone can hear you. But in a movie, they can come in for a
closeup, and you can be a lot subtler and even whisper. So a record is like
NMW: Yeah, I think that's how I was able to learn the power of not
overplaying. If you can say things simply, they can come off a lot
stronger. If you listen to some of my early records, I'm playing everything
there is to play. But I had to learn how to say it in a few words, rather
than in paragraphs. A lot of drummers get in the habit of playing a lot of
fills. But after you get in a situation where you have to just play time
without any fills, you really start to realize how important a fill is.
Then, when it's time to play a fill, you know that you can only play one
thing and so it better be something good.
RM: Do you play on everything that you produce?
NMW: Yeah, I do.
RM: Have you ever produced other drummers?
NMW: Many years ago, on the first records I produced, Tony Williams, Lenny
White, and Steve Jordan each played tracks. But outside of that, I haven't.
It's not that I wouldn't want to; it just hasn't worked out. I know what I
have to have, so it's much easier to just go ahead and play it.
RM: What happens when you produce a group like theStarship, who has a
drummer? Why did you play instead of Donny Baldwin?
NMW: That was a situation where they needed the track cut fast, but they
were on the road. Had they made it back in time, I would have used Donny,
because he has great time. But they didn't get back in time, so I went
ahead and did it. I tried to enter Donny's consciousness and play what I
thought he would have played. But if he had been there, it wouldn't have
been a problem. If somebody I produce wants to play the drums, fine.
RM: What is your usual procedure when you record the drums? Do you put the
drums down first, or do you start with a drum machine and then replace it
at some point?
NMW: It depends. Sometimes I like to program a Linn and have the other
musicians rehearse with it while I listen. That way, I understand the song
better than if I were sitting behind the drums thinking about where to put
fills and so on. When you do that, you don't get the overall picture. So I
start with the machine. Then, once we're all cool about what we're going to
do, I'll go to the drums and we'll cut together. But it's really important
I get a handle on the song first, so I don't end up walking all over
someone else's part.
RM: But you do like to cut live with the rhythm section?
NMW: Oh yeah. Again, it's the spirit. But if I happen to like the sound of
the machine on a certain song, then I might just add some live hi-hat and
cymbals, or some live toms. Combinations of drum machine and live drums
always work well. There's no one set rule for me.
RM: Could you give some specific examples of different things you've done?
On Aretha's song "Freeway Of Love," I knew that it had to have enormous
spirit, so I played on that one. The song "Who's Zoomin' Who" needed the
cuteness of a cheap little drum machine, so I used a little 808. Big, fat
drums would have taken the charm out of that song.
NMW: Okay. There's a song on Aretha's Who's Zoomin' Who album called
"Until You Say You Love Me." l wanted something really eerie for that song,
so I recorded a pattern on the Linn at very high speed. Then, when I slowed
it down, it had a really different kind of sound.
RM: What kind of tips could you give drummers about getting good sounds in
NMW: Well, it's so subjective. I could sit here and say, "You've got to
have a big, fat snare." But there's Steve Jordan with his high-pitched
snare drum, and it's great. So I'd have to say that you should just go for
what you love. That's the beauty of life and the beauty of drums. You've
got all of these different kinds of drums and all these different sounds.
RM: What's your personal preference in sound?
NMW: Everything. On this tune, give me a big, fat, nasty old drum. On that
tune, I want a ticky little Motown thing. There is no rule for me. I hate
rules. I have a bunch of snare drums and a collection of different sounds.
So rather than say what kind of drum someone should have, I'd say that the
important thing is to have an engineer who can get whatever kind of sound
you can envision. I work with a very talented man named Dave Frazer. He's
wide open and has a lot of imagination. I can say, "Fraze, this song is
called 'Explosion,' so the snare has got to be a killer. It has to have
crack, but it also needs depth." He'll get it. So you need a good engineer
who knows how to mike. Tom Lord Alge did a great job on the Steve Winwood
song "Higher Love." Proper miking is important.
RM: You play other instruments, and you've got a great career going as a
producer. But you still identify yourself first as a drummer. Why is that
so important to you?
It's a real God gift, and one that I'm happy to have. Again, rhythm
inspires the world to be happy, and I feel a real connection with that. In
all cultures, the striking of a drum signifies the divine qualities of
freedom and liberation. I love melody, and that's why I got into piano, but
my soul is free on drums because I've taken the time to understand how to
I think also that I've always been impressed by the dynamic spirit of
drummers. Drumming is a lot like sports in that way. When I was a young
child, I liked to watch boxers. It wasn't the blood and gore that attracted
me, but the emotion on the boxers' faces. It's that immediacy, like before
you can even think about it, it's done. Muhammad Ali used to say that he
would have to watch the film to tell you what he did, because it happened
so fast. Music is like that. When you're playing with a John McLaughlin,
there's that same depth of emotion. You can see it in the musicians' faces.
First, it takes that God gift of being able to hear. But then it takes
concentration to be able to focus on it and hold it. And like a boxer, if
you lose your concentration, you won't see that punch coming, and you'll be
NMW: I could just say that I like to beat on things, but actually it's
deeper than that. I think that rhythm is joy, and my soul's deepest
response is to rhythm. When I play, I become a child again. You can see it
in my face. Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted drumsets for Christmas.
I would destroy them in a matter of hours, because the toy drumsets weren't
much heavier than paper. But I was so excited to have a drumset. So I guess
it was predestined for me to be a drummer. I learned to play piano, because
there was a piano in the house and my family loved music. But whenever I
heard music, I always gravitated towards the sound of the drums.
RM: When you brought up that image of a boxer, I couldn't help thinking of
the way Elvin Jones looks when he plays.
Look at Phil Collins. He always says that drumming is his first love,
because he took the time to learn the instrument, and it inspires
everything he does. In fact, rhythm is the key to so much of the popular
music today. All of those who are making hit records have a strong
connection with rhythm. If they don't, they don't make it. Melody often
takes a secondary position, Don't get me wrong. Melody is beautiful. A
great melody and a great lyric will touch the heart. But competition is
very real in this world. You need the edge, and the edge is rhythm. The way
to take a great melody and a great lyric and have it be a number-one record
is through the phrasing-how you say it rhythmically. Rhythm will make or
break that record.
NMW: Yeah, it's the same thing. He's not fighting, but it's the same
passion. He's dealing with something, and it's beautiful. When you play
with that much feeling, a higher spirit comes down and moves you, and moves
the audience. "Grateful" is the only word I can use to express how I feel
about having the chance to he a musician who can move and touch others. I
think that God wants me to play drums to inspire people. Drums can proclaim
victory, and that's something I feel very akin to-the positiveness of
RM: A moment ago, you said that your soul is free on drums because you took
the time to understand how to play them. A few years ago in an MD
interview, you spoke of wanting to start a drum school. Is that something
you still plan to do?
NMW: Yes, I do. I haven't done it yet because I got trapped into the thing
of being so busy. Everybody in the world is calling, and I love it. After
you work all of your life to build up a reputation, you can't tell people,
"Sorry, I haven't got time." But I think that a drum school would be a
great service to humanity, and it's something I'd really like to be a part
of. It would be great if Steve Smith or Danny-or whoever-wanted to be
involved. The thing that inspired me was that I used to teach at Drummers
Collective in New York when they first opened. It was great, and I hope to
have time to teach again in the future.
RM: Would you say that you have a different approach to teaching?
I also like to teach with two drumsets, so that we can do a
call-and-response type of thing. That's how they teach in India. The
teacher throws something out and you answer. Actually, that's how a lot of
kids in this country learn to play guitar. They'll put on an Eric Clapton
record and play it over and over until they learn to play all of his licks.
Then they'll take those licks and make them part of their own repertoire.
Drummers can do that same thing. A lot of times, students will ask, "How
can I feel freer in five or seven?" The first step is to listen to the
greats who have done it. Once you learn how to hear it, then you can do it.
Listen to Billy Cobham. Listen to Gadd. If there's a record you admire,
analyze it. I don't think that people take enough time to digest what has
already been given. Everybody's so concerned with the latest thing, but so
much truth has come down that we have yet to digest. You can take just one
lick that Gadd played and interpret that in ten different ways. All
drummers have their thing that they do. Cobham had his thing on the toms. I
learned what he did, and then I would break it up my own way. I found that
emulating other players was a great way for me to learn. Before I knew it,
I wasn't just emulating what I heard someone else do, but it had become
part of my thing. It's important to learn what the other cats are doing,
but then you have to use your imagination to bring something new to it.
So that's how I would teach. I'd play a lick, and if I'd see the
students' eyes flash, then I'd teach them that lick. "I'll play it, and
then you play it. No, that's not quite it. Listen to it again. Now you try
it again." We would just keep throwing things back and forth. When you hear
somebody play something, it can inspire you to greater heights, like the
way I was inspired by Danny when we played together.
So then I might hold a groove and have them solo over me. I'd listen to
how well they locked in with my time feel, so that they would not just be
soloing in a mindless fashion. Then I would have them hold a groove while
I'd solo, and I would let them hear how I'd be aware of the time they would
be establishing even though I'd be doing a solo.
After we'd done enough of that, I would go to the piano and play grooves
so that we could just work on time. Once we had the time established, I'd
tell them to play fills. What happens a lot of times is that the time
creeps up a little when you try to do a fill. So you have to learn how to
control it. John McLaughlin used to ask, "Which horse is the strongest: the
horse that can run down the hill the fastest, or the horse that can slow
down and stop halfway down the hill?" So you've got to learn to ride that
horse. That was something that I had to work on. Many times I'd get so
excited by this guy wailing on guitar that, before I knew it, the time
would be creeping. A little bit of that is okay, because it's a very human
emotion. But you have to make sure that you are controlling it, rather than
having it control you.
NMW: Yeah, very different. When I taught at Drummers Collective, I would
work with the students on rudiments just so they could build up some speed,
but then I'd go to the keyboards so that we could play some music together.
It was a more musical experience than if I had just been breathing down
their necks saying, "You're not holding the sticks correctly."
RM: Having the students imitate what you are playing is very similar to the
way we learn to speak.
NMW: Yes, it's much like that. I find that I get good results that way. I
also believe in tape recording lessons, because there's usually too much
information to digest all at once. If I were to take a lesson from Elvin,
Tony Williams, or anybody, I would want to tape it so that I could go back
to the things I didn't understand and work with them until I did
RM: You talk about being free and flying on the drums. When you do that,
you can't be worrying about making mistakes. You have to take some risks,
because you'll never get very far if you always play it safe. But how do
you learn to let go?
So the point I'm trying to make is that, in drumming or anything else you
do in life, confidence comes from doing something. After you play drums
long enough, when you hear something that you want to do, you go for it,
and you trust that your instincts will get you through it. You will stumble
a lot at first, but you realize that the only way to get good is by
stumbling. It's like in tennis. When you start out, you can't be worried
about winning. You've got to learn how to make all kinds of shots, and a
lot of times, you're going to knock the ball out of the court. But that's
how you learn to control the ball, and that's the only way you're going to
get good. Prince is like that in his music. Some songs are real duds, but
others are masterpieces, because he really takes broad strokes, as opposed
to just really calculating what's going to be a hit.
So with drumming, I'd say to people that they should acknowledge the
discipline of time and learn the craft, but as you're doing that, stretch,
stretch, stretch. That's the only way that you're going to have your own
style, and it's so important to have your own style. But if you're timid
and afraid to try things, it's never going to come out. John McLaughlin was
very instrumental in helping me to do that. He would come behind my drumkit
when I'd be soloing, and he'd grab my sleighbells, shake them, and say,
"Enjoy the Supreme, Narada. Enjoy the Supreme." He'd be pushing me to give
everything I could give, and I'd just be crying-playing things I never
thought I could play. There's so much to give, but it's not just a matter
of how many notes you're playing. It can be the simplest thing, but you're
really feeling it.
NMW: It's just a matter of gaining confidence. Let's say a new dance comes
out. When it first comes out, you don't want to do it because you don't
know how to do it. But then you see some people doing it, so you go home
and figure out how to do it. Then you go to some parties, and you do this
dance. Before you know it, people are saying, "Wow, you really do that
dance good." When you hear them say that, you start to gain some
confidence. You start adding some of your own little moves to it. Then you
start asking girls to do the dance with you. Your confidence is shining
RM: You seem to believe that freedom, then, is somewhat dependent on a
disciplined knowledge of the instrument.
Look at Sugar Ray Leonard. He obviously has a great natural talent for
boxing. But by working with a great trainer and learning all of the
different punches and combinations, he was able to sustain a world
championship, as opposed to winning and losing and winning and losing. His
study and training gave him consistency. That's what musicians need. It's
very frustrating when you feel that one night you're great and the next
night you're not so great. I went through that, and it was terrible to feel
like "I'm great; I'm horrible; I'm great; I'm rotten."
So I'm a believer of both: You have to have natural ability, but you also
need to understand the technique so that your soul can blossom through it.
Just to have technique-there are many drummers who only have technique, but
no soul power. You don't want to have the technical knowledge with nothing
behind it. If you had to make a choice, it would be better to have the
soulfulness and not know any technique. But the best thing is to have both.
That way, you are inspired, and you have the technique to give that
inspiration to others.
To up-and-coming drummers I would say, "Realize the God in yourself.
Realize that the spirit in you is a real inner shrine. To help that inner
shrine speak, know your rudiments. And if you can listen to the masters
that have come before you, it will inspire you."
NMW: Well, I do think it's important that people feel the freedom to play
the drums. You don't have to study. There are many great musicians who just
pick up an instrument, and their love of it just manifests itself. So I
wouldn't want to confine people, but I'd try to make them realize the
importance of knowing what the masters before them have discovered. It's
important to know the tools of your trade. Yes, play your instrument on
your own, but also take the time to know your rudiments so that you can be
even better than you might be on just your natural instinct.
RM: You mentioned Benny Benjamin earlier. Who were some of the other
masters that inspired you?
NMW: There are so many. A guy who was a big inspiration to me when I was in
high school was Sandy McKee, who played with a group called Cold Blood. He
is one of the most underrated drummers in the world.
RM: I remember Steve Jordan talking about Sandy McKee.
There are a lot of bad cats. Omar [Hakim] is a great drummer, and he
keeps good time. I miss Jordan on the Letterman show. I miss that high,
pingy snare drum he had. Tony Thompson is another one I like. I wish that
more people would listen to some of the forefathers, like Max Roach. He's
still making records, but it's like they're in a bin in the back. Do you
know what I mean? Art Blakey plays with a lot of spirit. I see him play,
and it's like I'm looking at a great Nigerian king. He's got some chops,
too. Art Blakey was the first guy to make jazz swing like rock 'n' roll.
There's a song by Jimmy Smith called "The Sermon" that takes up a whole
side of an album. That was my favorite record when I was 11 years old,
because Art was laying down that backbeat, and I could relate to the
Mitch Mitchell was a big influence on me, because he was one of the few
drummers in the '60s who could really play. He understood rock power, but
he also had some chops. He really inspired me to develop good hands.
Nowadays there are so many good drummers, but back when I was coming up in
the '60s, you could count the bad cats on your hand. Everyone's so much
better today. It's inspiring.
I feel a kinship with so many drummers. There are a lot of great people
who have made it and who are still struggling to make it that need to be
reminded that drummers have a special mission. When we hit the drum, it
inspires and makes a difference, even if we're just playing in some
hole-in-the-wall club. I can remember playing in a lot of little nightclubs
with smoke all over the place, but people would come up and say, "Wow, you
play with so much spirit! Are you going to be here tomorrow night, too?"
People need music. It's a real gift, and it's tangible. People feel that,
because they can't see the spirit, then maybe the spirit is not real. But
it is, and music can really do a lot of good for the world.
So to all of my brothers and sisters who play drums, I want to say that
you must never forget the power of your heart's love, so that you can truly
do what the Supreme wants you to do. Being able to communicate through
music is a gift that God gives us, and we must always try to please the
NMW: Oh man, if you want to hear some inside funk, listen to this guy. I
also dig Phil Collins. Talk about playing to full capacity-he does it. When
you see Genesis live, Phil and Chester really get it going. It's not really
complicated stuff, but it's all worked out and they get some voodoo
RM: I'm sure it's not difficult to feel that you're playing for the Supreme
when you're working with Mahavishnu, but what about a drummer who's working
in small clubs? It's not always easy to feel inspired in a situation like
Another thing is to be clean. Have clean hands when you play the drums.
Make sure you smell good. Be pure. Go out and run, and work up a sweat. Be
in good shape. Breathe properly. Do things that inspire purity, because
purity inspires inspiration. If you have to play the drums in a rotten
atmosphere, just try to rise above that and inspire yourself. Inspire your
life and then everything you do will be inspired.
It's all a matter of love. I felt love for John McLaughlin. Elvin felt
love for John Coltrane, and that's why Elvin could do what he did every
night at such an extreme height. You could hear that love. That's what we
need more of: more love for ourselves and for the situations that we're in.
Bands break up left and right because they can't stand each other. Well,
who's problem is that? You're going to have problems with people no matter
what band you're in. You've got to learn how to jump some of these hurdles.
That stuff all surfaces when you play. You can see people's insecurities,
their doubts, their loves, their joys-everything surfaces when you play
music. Drummers have big hearts, and sometimes they run into confusion
because life has many obstacles. So you need to take time to nourish
yourself. You've got to meditate, man. Meditation is simply being able to
concentrate on your own inner being, so that your own uniqueness can shine.
Take what you're good at and intensify it. There is no fixed goal. The
music can grow every day.
NMW: We bring a lot of problems on ourselves, and I'm as guilty of that as
anyone. Many times we feel, "I'm stuck in this situaton," and it's hard to
rise above that, but you can make anything beautiful if you choose to. In
my life, I played many holes in the wall, but I would stick a flower on my
drums, or I would take a photograph of someone I loved. You need to find a
way to inspire yourself. Have a picture of your mother, your father, Jesus
Christ, Buddha, or whoever inspires you. In my case, Sri Chimnoy inspires
me. But there are many roads to God, and you have to find your road.