The Professional Drummer Mike McCraw

The in-depth interview

Under what circumstances did you start playing drums?

I started playing at age 11 after hearing the High School Stage Band concert at my School. I went home and told my mom that they were having an instrument sale at school. She asked when was it going to happen and I said, “In five minutes”.  She was very supportive but was hoping that I would not choose the drums. She realized later that I had some natural ability for the drums.

 

Who are your favorite drummers?

Manu Katche, Phil Gould, Steve Smith, Vinnie Colaiuta, Gregg Bisonette, Zoro, Jeff Porcarro, Steve Gadd.  There many others, an endless list but those are the ones who come to mind.  I was fortunate enough to have a few road gigs in the late 1990s which allowed me the time to transcribe the drum parts to songs like “Aja”, the Steely Dan song on which Gadd played on.  I transcribed a bunch of tunes on which Vinnie Colauita played on as well, such as Tom Scott’s “Get a Grip”, Sting’s “Seven Days” and Joni Mitchell’s cover of “Baby, I Don’t Care” which was the  first song I ever heard Vinnie play on.  I was floored instantly because I was into Neil Peart as the November 1982 issue of Modern Drummer hit my mailbox.  I didn’t respect Vinnie until I saw the video and I was instantly captivated!

 

Can you play those songs?

Yes, definitely!  It was a real journey to first transcribe and then study the drum part for actual performance!

 

What about John Bonham or Neil Peart?

I respect those guys and, at one time I was a low rent Peart clone.  But two things made me go another direction.   A buddy turned me on to Level 42 and another friend turned me on to the “Nothing Like the Sun” CD by Sting.  I noticed that the drummers on these songs had something that I didn’t – an undeniable groove and immense feel and commitment to every note that they played, even if it wasn’t ground breaking.  I had to change if I wanted to be better and that change was painful at times because I realized that I was a mere caricature of someone else and that I had no adaptability.  I had to burn down what I was in order to become what I needed to be, a more employable drummer with a deep pocket and commitment to the groove.

 

You said two things made you change your direction.  What was the other?

It was Neil Peart himself in the Modern Drummer article in December of 1989 when he stated that he found Manu Katche and Phil Gould to be very enjoyable drummers.  He stated that Phil Gould was simple drummer who played R&B but that when Phil played a fill, it was beautiful.  In that same interview he stated that Manu’s playing was elegant and yet simple and that while some drummers play simple, you can tell that they know everything because of the manner that they play, their authority is implied.  And to me, there will never be another “Nothing Like the Sun”.  That CD is special.   That sealed it for me as I also had to get out of a toxic relationship that I was in and get back to my first love, drumming and the drums.  It took time and some pain in the practice room but it lit a fire in me that has burned ever since.  I just want to be a fine drummer.  So thanks, Neil, for pointing me in that direction!

 

What about Bonham?

It’s like I said, I respect him but he isn’t the end all of drumming.  There’s been quite a bit of drumming since he left this life.  And there are many, many, many Bonham clones out there right now; he’s become the modern version of all of the Neil Peart clones in the 1980s.  Those clones better find some other drummers to emulate and find themselves along the way.  If the only music they know how to play is Led Zeppelin, they are in for a tough career!

 

What are you listening to these days?

Everything – like I said there has been a lot of music since the days of Led Zeppelin!  Johnny A is about as imaginative and creative in his music as can be and his music is simply addictive.  I love the music that the wrecking crew made.  I am a serious Sting fan, both solo and with the Police.  Peter Gabriel as well – Manu, as well as Vinnie, played for both of those cats and that is about as creative as it can get.  Paramore has some music that is really well done and I think that Bruno Mars is here to stay.  Buckwheat’s Zydeco Party and Tito Puente’s Mambo Birdland practically lived in my CD player for a long time as well as Santana’s Supernatural.  I have been buying downloads from the late 1970s and 1980s lately, with a few 1990s in there as well.  And I have already mentioned what a big influence Level 42 has been.

Who are some of your teachers?

I like to say that I have received free lessons from anyone I have ever listened to. Paul Bowman was my first formal teacher and he’s great; a one of a kind. He was pretty much the first call guy for a long time. I highly recomend his Rock Shop book as it is pretty much the Bible for four way independence. I wish that I could go back and take lessons from him all over and not be 13! The drummer Zoro is a HUGE influence as well; he was accessible and really helped changed my playing for the better. I take lessons from him any chance I get! Gregg Bisonette is another influence and teacher. His big band swing is ideal as is all of his playing! Anytime I play small group jazz, I imagine that Ed Soph is sitting in front of the band, saying “You’re too loud!” Mark Schulmann is another. He helped me gain perspective on a few things.

 

What album made you want to be in a band?

Early on, Rush – Moving Pictures, The Police- Zenyatta Mondatta.  But then I discovered the drummers previously mentioned, noting that they were not in one particular band.  I felt that if I tied myself to one band, then I was putting all of my eggs into one basket and I would be over-reliant on people in a field who tend to be unreliable.  There’s a great scene in the movie “Almost Famous” as Russell and Jeff are arguing about a T-shirt.  Jeff Bebe states that “There is a responsibility here” and Russell Hammond retorts “Excuse me, but didn’t we get in this business to avoid responsibility?”

 

You seem to hop around with no steady gig or band right now.  Do you prefer that or would you prefer to be in a band?

I like the variety I get from being independent.  That being said, if the right band came along, I would go with it.  I do have a band leader/contractor situation with some of my high profile acts such as the Drifters.

 

How did you end up as the leader on that?

Simple attrition.  The guy who hired me to play drums for the gig grew weary of all the peripheral parts of being the band leader and asked me to take it over after 6 years of simply being the drummer.  So I didn’t slide right into it or anything and I definitely did not believe that  I was owed that position.  It just came to me as a step up from the hired gun to the guy who hires the hired guns.

 

Are there specific challenges on that job?

Definitely!  As the contractor, you, alone, are legally liable for having the set number of players because you’re the one who signed the contract.  If the keyboard player initially commits but then drops off of the face of the Earth, you are still responsible.  And then there’s the challenge of managing the personalities……..

 

What would the right band be defined as?

I can think of a couple of situations.  The first is a touring situation with the financial arrangements to back it up. The word business is bigger than the word music and the moment a musician seeks money for his services, he’s in the business end of it and is no longer just there for his own enjoyment.  Let me put it this way, REO Speedwagon is a real band – the band members are paid a salary and the check has the band’s name on it and it is the same with Journey.  Everyone from the singer to the drum tech is paid with a check from the company known as “Journey”. 

    Any other arrangement is simply a contractor hiring a bunch of hired guns.

  For example, neither Journey nor REO can fire a member on their own; the management company is responsible for doing that as it’s a matter of business known as Human Resources.  Such a measure isn’t handled by voice mail, telephone calls, text messages or social media.  It has to be handled professionally.  That’s the touring situation I’m looking for.  Professional.

The second would be another party band catering to the women who simply want to have fun.  That kind of band works all the time, to the point of turning work down.

 

Can you specify “party band”?

Sure, it means playing what the girls will dance to and getting all of the band members’ egos out of the way.  More dance music, less classic rock, less blues or what have you.  I can go play classic rock or wood shed on my own time and a dance band, like the ones that I was making unbelievable money in, facilitate that.

What are your favorite musical acts, if you throw down your cash?

Sting, Peter Gabriel, Level 42, Chris Botti, Toto, Steely Dan, Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Incognito, Frank Zappa, Journey, James Brown, Santana, Motown (Any) & Blues (Any).

Would you care to share your favorite drummers?

Manu Katche (Sting, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell), Phil Gould (Level 42), Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Sting, Tom Scott), Steve Smith (Vital Information, Journey, Montrose, Jean Luc Ponty), Zoro (Jody Watley, Bobby Brown, New Edition, Lenny Kravitz), Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcarro, David Garibaldi (Tower of Power), Kenny Aronoff (Mellencamp, Bob Seger, Smashing Pumpkins) &Chris Layton (Stevie Ray Vaughn, Arc Angles, Storyville).

 

Let’s lightening things up a bit.  Give me the quick answers here:

 

Favorite sports team(s)?

Arizona State Sundevils, OU Sooners and Pittsburgh Steelers, or as they are really known – the Sixburgh Steelers.

 

No baseball?

After all of these years, I just got into baseball so any team is good right now.

 

Do you speak any other languages?

Yes – sarcasm and like I really need you to understand that!

 

Favorite state you’ve been to?

California – La Canada Flintridge, La basin, El Cajon Pass and driving up the Pacific Coast Highway.

 

Most annoying habit?

Mine or someone else’s?  Inflicting upon, I don’t have any bad habits! See the answer for other languages.  Inflicted upon me, people who don’t plan anything out or someone who demands that I respect their rights and/or beliefs but won’t allow me the same.  I was on the road with a couple of guys like that and a 10 hour journey seemed like ten days!

 

Favorite TV show?

Past or present?  Past would be Breaking Bad.  It saved my life and that’s no exaggeration.  I looked forward to it.   Present – I would tie it between the Americans and Better Call Saul.

 

Movies?

I quoted Almost Famous above.  I tend to gravitate to movies about music such as “That Thing You Do” for the educational aspects.