A couple of old interviews with the Scared Weird Little Guys
Jimmie Walker is actually quite funny

Chad Wackerman Decides To Beat It

Last Sunday I was leafing through the music pages of one of the entertainment industry gossip compendiums that masquerades as a newspaper – (this is not a criticism; I read them for their entertainment gossip and I’d have no scruples to overcome were I ever given the opportunity to help them compile entertainment gossip in an on-going, professional capacity) – when I came across a little piece on Chad Wackerman.

I was first aware of Chad Wackerman’s presence in Australia back in the mid-90s, when he was serving as the drummer for the house band on Roy & HG’s show Club Buggery on the ABC. As it happens, Chad had married an Australian, and after the pair had lived in Los Angeles for eight years, they decided to move to Australia. At the time, I was working weekends in a music shop and one of my duties was to field inquiries from hard-core Frank Zappa fans. The process of remastering and re-issuing Zappa’s back-catelogue (and a wonderful smattering of new releases) was continuing posthumously, but no local label had bought into the deal yet in Australia; everything had to be imported. Thus, as titles would come up for release, the hard-core fans who would come in wanting to place orders would be stonewalled by shop assistants who of course would not be able to find any mention of Zappa product in the local release schedules. At that time, Shock was the distribution company that would bring in European pressings on the Music For Nations imprint, right up until Festival in Australia struck a deal with Rykodisc in the late 90s. My job was to allay the fears of the hard-core fans: of course I knew what they were talking about; of course our shop would be getting copies of the album; of course we’d call them when the stock arrived. I got to know a lot of Zappa fans at that time, and naturally expected that they’d be as excited as I was to discover that Chad Wackerman, who had been Zappa’s longest-serving drummer, was now living in Australia. “Oh yeah, I know,” most of them would reply when I’d tell them. “He gave a drum clinic the weekend before last. He’s been here for a while.” They were clearly more hard-core than me.

The journalist working for the gossip compendium had really outdone himself (or herself) since, in addition to announcing that Wackerman would be launching his new album at the Basement the following evening and that the legendary drummer would soon be quitting his adopted home of Australia, the item also discussed the piece of music known as ‘The Black Page’ at some length. Clearly, this was more than the mere re-writing of a press release. (It turns out that ‘The Black Page’ was a reference to a difficult piece of music one of Zappa’s bandmembers had to play at a session. Not shown the music prior to turning up, he was handed sheet music so difficult, staves so dense with musical notation, that the page looked more black than white. Zappa responded by composing his own version, a piece of music so deliberately difficult that it deserved the epithet ‘black page’ as an official title.) I thought I’d be a good little journalist and attempt to get my own interview out of Mr Wackerman, particularly since he would soon be leaving the country.

When I rang the Basement in order to find a contact for Wackerman, I was encouraged to come down in person and try my luck. I am indebted to people at the venue, Wackerman’s management and Chad Wackerman himself for allowing me to stick around in order to stick a microphone in Wackerman’s face backstage before the gig. Now I regret that I didn’t ask a few more questions – like how Chad felt about augmenting his drumkit with synthesiser drums when he was in Zappa’s band, seeing as how he eschews the use of drum loops and the dated feel they automatically give to music. (Try listening to live Zappa recordings from 1984 – on albums like You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 3, for example – to hear state-of-the-art technology of the time sounding painfully out-of-date.) I also would have liked to ask what inspired some of the titles, let alone the tracks, on the new album. ‘Legs Eleven’, descriptively referring to the hindu-arabic numeral for eleven, is a turn of phrase I suspect native if not to Australia, then at least to countries of the Commonwealth that set great store in bingo. The track ‘Tangara’ seems to refer to the train of the same name, a model introduced to Sydney’s CityRail network in the early 90s during Liberal Premier Nick Greiner’s time in office. (This tangent is proof, if you needed any, that hard-core Frank Zappa fans are trainspotters!) ‘Tangara’ supposedly translates (from the language of indigenous Australians?) as ‘let’s go’, so it is quite apt as a title for a Chad Wackerman composition at this point in his career. The track ‘Newtown’ is of course named after the colourful inner-city Sydney suburb favoured by students, bohemians and beggars.

The interview was broadcast Saturday 8 May.

Music: ‘No Time Like The Future’ (drum intro) by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

Demetrius Romeo: Chad, I won’t be the first person to make this observation; you have the perfect name – ‘Wackerman’ – to be a drummer. How did you come to the drums?

CHAD WACKERMAN: My father is a drummer and a music teacher. He teaches at a high school, has taught at a high school for thirty-five years now, in California. When I was a little kid, my dad would be practicing on the drums, and I just naturally gravitated towards the drums, towards what my father was doing.

Music: ‘No Time Like The Future’ (drum intro) by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

CHAD WACKERMAN: I played violin for a while in school as well, and a little bit of marimba, but that didn’t last too long; I was must further along with drumming.

Music: ‘St Etienne’ by Frank Zappa, from the album Jazz From Hell

Demetrius Romeo: A lot of people know of you through your work with Frank Zappa. What was it like playing with him?

CHAD WACKERMAN: Playing with Frank was amazing. It was an amazing learning experience. It encompassed so many different styles. It was like being in a rock ’n’ roll band, it was like being in a great jazz ensemble, it was like being in a chamber orchestra as well. He wrote a lot of music, to say the very least, and a lot of it was difficult, very detailed and complicated music, and I think a lot of it was very beautiful as well. He really knew what he wanted. His music was difficult, but if you were playing it, there was no problem. He spent a lot of time working on that music and he wanted to hear it played right. It was a great experience. It was a great, growing experience and it affected me in a huge way.

Music: ‘Tangara’ by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

Demetrius Romeo: You’ve just released a new album called Legs Eleven. Tell me a bit about it.

CHAD WACKERMAN: It features this great band that I have here, which is Leon Gaer on bass, James Muller on guitar and Daryl Pratt on vibraphone and electronics. I’m really, really proud of this record. It’s the second record that we’ve put out with this band, the first was called Scream, and it’s been five or six years since we’d done Scream, so the band has done a lot together; we’ve toured in Europe together.

Music: ‘Tangara’ by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

CHAD WACKERMAN: There’s just a tighter chemistry within the group now, and I think Legs Eleven really proves that. I’m really proud of their performances and proud of the compositions. It’s a mixture of band compositions and some short drum and percussion pieces mixed inbetween the band tunes, so it has quite a lot of contrast to it.

Music: ‘Field Of Mars’ by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

Demetrius Romeo: What’s it like leading a band from the drum stool?

CHAD WACKERMAN: Well, I find it a very natural thing. I don’t know if a lot of people don’t really this, but the drummer has a lot of control over the music, I think more than anyone else on the stage. If the drummer, for example, decides to give more energy to the last chorus that you’re playing, or to make a verse quieter, typically the band will follow you very directly. So you’re always kind of leading them anyway. You’re in the back, normally, you’re the sideman normally, but you have the most power over the band anyway, so it’s really a natural thing. It’s not unusual.

Music: ‘Tonight’ by Rachel Gaudry, from the (Chad Wackerman-produced) album Leaving Traces

Demetrius Romeo: You also produce other people, for example, you produced Rachel Gaudry’s first album. When push comes to shove, do you prefer playing someone’s band, playing in your own band, or producing someone else?

CHAD WACKERMAN: I enjoy all aspects of music, and producing can be really fun, if you get someone like Rachel who is really enjoyable. I produced Rachel, and Rachel is a really wonderful singer/songwriter. My approach to production is very organic, I guess… I’m always aware of not over-producing people, because I think you should find people with lots of talent and really let them do what they do and just surround them with the best kind of atmosphere that they need to really shine and show-off what they can do, and I’ve been lucky to have done that a few times.

Music: ‘Tonight’ by Rachel Gaudry, from the (Chad Wackerman-produced) album Leaving Traces

CHAD WACKERMAN: I don’t go for too much gimmickry, I don’t use too many loops or things like that because I think it really puts a date-stamp on it. If you hear a loop in ten years, you’re going to go, ‘oh, we know when this record was recorded’, but if you go back and even hear some of the great singer-songwriters from the 70s like James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, they’re still pretty much making records in the same way: live band, it’s all played by live musicians and it doesn’t sound dated. So I have more of that approach when I produce people.

Music: ‘Balancing Acts’ by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

Demetrius Romeo: Now you’re about to leave our country. What’s taking you away from us?

CHAD WACKERMAN: We’ve been here ten years, actually, and throughout the ten years, I’ve been having to travel quite a bit, usually doing three or four trips, out of the country, usually to Los Angeles, but sometimes on tours to Europe or Japan, tours of the US, or just for album work, and it’s getting to the point where it’s a bit crazy. We’ll be back here – we’re planning on a trip at least once a year, and I’m hoping to get the band together and do a tour at that time.

Music: ‘Balancing Acts’ by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

Demetrius Romeo: Chad Wackerman, thank you very much for your time.

CHAD WACKERMAN: Thank you very much, Dom.

Music: ‘Balancing Acts’ by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

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