It’s been 25 years since the New York rock band Living Colour emerged into the spotlight with their debut album, astounding audiences with their immense chops, fusion of metal and funk and robust choice of day-glo leisurewear. This year, the band – singer Corey Glover, guitarist Vernon Reid, bassist Doug Wimbish and drummer Will Calhoun – will be executing one of their frequent re-formations in order to celebrate their quarter-century in business, but that doesn’t mean that any of them are slowing down their individual side projects. In Calhoun’s Native Tongues case, it’s quite the opposite: when Drummer spoke to him back in December, he had recorded a new album, Native Lands, an as-yet-untitled jazz record and various sessions with the mothership band as well as levelling the crowd at the London Drum Show. No wonder he has a lot to talk about.
We begin by asking about Native Lands, the epic album (plus DVD) of world music that he has spent the last few years researching while travelling through Africa. On the album you’ll hear Calhoun delivering the goods on his usua array of percussion, from his usual Mapex kit to handmade African instruments of all shapes and sizes, as well as guitar and woodwind instruments. Here is a musician who genuinely knows no limits.
Asked about the inspirations for Native Lands, Calhoun tells us: “It all started out after I’d worked with [legendary jazz veterans] Wayne Shorter and Pharoah Sanders. Both those guys inspired me to go off and mix what they allowed me to play on their gigs – the electronic stuff, and udu drums and samplers – but they told me that I had to make my own mix: I couldn’t make it for other people. That started me on the road of putting the songs together, and since then I’ve been travelling in Mali and other countries, working with [Malian singer] Oumou Sangaré and recording in Salif Keita’s studio. I really enjoyed the research into the dogon [native Malian music] culture. A highlight for me was a five-day drive from the city of Bamako to Timbuktu: along the way I stopped at these wonderful towns and went to the weddings that were going on there.”
In case you were expecting Calhoun to encounter a local version of your standard cheesy wedding band, the truth was rather different. As he puts it: “Drummers at the weddings are the most frightening drummers in the world. They don’t play for entertainment and they’re all really sick players. All of these musicians play four or five instruments – balafon, djembe and guitar, for example, and they sing too – but the drumming at the weddings is really to die for. I stopped at a few of those on the way and learned a few rhythms and researched where they came from. People were telling me that I had to stay here and see certain musicians play, and there was so much information that I decided to photograph it and field-record it. When I returned back to New York I had so many photographs as well as music that I decided to merge together the Native Lands project into not only a jazz recording, but a DVD explaining how I was affected by music in Morocco, or in Senegal, or in Mali.”
For Calhoun, whose background – like the other musicians in Living Colour – is famously a combination of more or less any genres you care to name, this multi-faceted approach was a home from home. As he recalls, “All of this goes together perfectly with the music I was into when I was growing up in the Bronx – Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and so on – and that’s why it’s a collage of so many different things. I had spent a lot of time in Africa before this project, but not in those places. I was mostly in the north before, because I played the Gnawa festival in Morocco three or four times, and I really fell in love with the Master Musicians of Joujouka. That stuff is just the blues, really. Desert blues music. I was already hooked on that, being a Taj Mahal, Howlin’ Wolf and BB King fan, and this Gnawa music was my first love. But then Mali got under my skin for some reason. The tonality and the scales… it was a beautiful experience, and it still is.”
The many differences between African music-making and the western version were, of course, witnessed by Calhoun time and time again during his trips to the continent. He remembers, “You grow up in the west and you rehearse, and you practise, and some of us go to university, and some of us study privately or we study in church or in the basement of our parents’ house, but Africa was a deep and enlightening experience because a lot of the younger children actually build their own instruments. They build koras, and they build balafons and djembes with their parents, and they’re wicked players by the time they’re 13. They really understand the make-up of the instrument and its tonality and how it’s supposed to sound. Growing up in that culture, you’re so much more in touch with your instrument than you would be if you were buying a violin or a drum kit or a guitar from your local music store.”
Talking of unorthodox instrumentation, Calhoun has once again used his beloved Korg Wavedrum on Native Lands. This drum, a standalone head with a hidden brain underneath from which the user can coax a huge number of sounds, caused jaws to drop when he took it to rural African communities.
“I’m glad that it was invented,” he chuckles. “I was a bit frustrated, and I still am a bit frustrated, by some electronic drum set components. I feel like since the days of MIDI in the 80s, when musicians were able to manipulate things together and have effects and have signals pass through triggers and so on, the guitar community has seemed to be so far ahead of everyone else. As a drummer, I wanted to have distortion and to be able to bend notes and so on. The Wavedrum was a way for me to get off the kit and start to experiment with plugging it into other effects and sounds, and make loops and come up with a whole other palette of sounds for myself. It is what it is: it’s how you feel and what you create, and really, you are the effect. The drum allows that, and so you can express yourself.”
He adds, “I love the Wavedrum. When it was released a few years back, Jack DeJohnette called me up and mentioned to me that there was a new digital drum percussion that I might want to check out. Jack was connected with Korg, and so I called them and I found that you could bend notes with it, and change modes between Mixolydian and Phrygian and so on. Academically it was such a brilliant instrument. I purchased two of them and took them home, and read the manual about two years later. I just plugged it into everything humanly possible because I wanted to get an understanding of how this instrument worked. It blended perfectly with my personality and the way I play. I took it on my travels with me and it was a fascinating instrument for many people: they called it the magic drum.”
For Drummer readers who want to explore the African rhythms that Calhoun uses on Native Lands, where should they begin? “There’s a master drummer, who is my favourite drummer in the world. His name is Dudu N’Diaye Rose. He’s from Senegal and has been a hero of mine for a long time in terms of arrangements of percussion, which are so far beyond anything I’ve ever heard in my life. I had a chance to meet Dudu and then record with him. I met him and he said, ‘Well, young man, what do you want to do?’ and he didn’t want to waste any time, so I asked how much it was going to cost me to record with some of his sons, who are also musicians. We worked out a nice deal and I had a few days off in Senegal and I went in to record with him, and I showed him the Wavedrum. I have video footage of Dudu playing it. He told his tech to go out and find him one immediately. He was fascinated with its ability to make loops. I take that drum everywhere, excess baggage permitting.”
One song, the title track, was recorded not in Africa but in Recife in Brazil. How did that come about we ask? “I met Naná Vasconcelos in the early 80s when Living Colour were just signed,” remembers Calhoun with an audibly nostalgic tone. “One time he said to me, ‘Hey man, I just got a copy of you guys’ record, Vivid, it sounds great’. I thanked him and said I was a fan and that I hoped maybe one day we could play together. On the Native Lands DVD, there is an emotional moment when he’s listening to the playback and he says, ‘Remember back in the 80s when we said one day we’d work together?’ I’d forgotten about it, and he reminded me. Really I called him because I was studying maracatu, a drum rhythm that totally blew me away in Brazil, and I wanted to study Indian folk music in Recife. While I was there I figured I’d try to contact him, so I called him and he was home and said ‘Let’s go in the studio and do something’.”
Does Calhoun’s grasp of other, non-percussion instruments improve him as a drummer, we wonder? “Absolutely,” he declares. “Those things did change me quite a bit, especially when it comes to songwriting and arranging. The idea for me to play wind instruments on Native Lands came from Pharoah pushing me to get out of the rhythmic thing. He taught me how to breathe and play melodies and harmonies, because those things will make you a better drummer. You’ll relax, and it will change your phrasing. So I picked up these Chinese flutes when I was in Austria, in a classical music shop, and started learning my scales. Pharoah was teaching me how to play one note really soft to loud at 60BPM on a metronome, and that’s really where it started.”
He adds: “I always explain to younger drummers to take up piano, voice, guitar: simple things that will exponentially change your approach to grooves. If someone plays something to you in E flat, if you know what E flat sounds like, maybe you won’t hit a certain tom because it’ll sound out of tune with the track, or if you have a jazz singer who likes to do all these light sounds, then maybe you won’t use a mega bell ride. You’ll use a flat ride instead. It’s all about understanding frequencies, and the definition of your sound. When you play a 26” kick drum, how much real estate does it take up in the mix or in the PA? You might like it and it might sound cool, but if you’re playing that big a drum, and the bass player’s got a six-string bass and the guitar player’s got a seven-string guitar, everybody’s in that same real estate and it will only sound good to you. Be aware as a drummer of where you are in the music. I’ve used 20” bass drums for years because the guitar players seem to keep tuning lower and lower. I just stay out of it. My bass drum is like a tenor vibe in the music, and if I need to go lower I’ll put a trigger on my kick drum for a bottom sound. It makes no sense for us all to be in the same area in the PA.”
So is Calhoun ever going to abandon the drums for pastures new? “I don’t want to say that I love playing those other instruments more than the drum kit,” he muses, “but it is a nice getaway and an escape for me to think about sound and not being a rock guy or a funk guy – just sound and nothing else. Being in Africa and taking the Wavedrum taught me how to relate to sound, and it made me think how I was going to match and marry those sounds. I erased the whole style and tempo thing because I wanted to deal more with sound. Pharoah Sanders was one thousand percent right when he said that those things would improve me as a drummer.
“He doesn’t really speak often or give advice: I asked him once why he didn’t make comments to musicians about their playing, and he told me, ‘If a guy doesn’t know that he’s playing too long or too loud or out of tune, who am I to tell him?’ So when he does make a comment, everyone listens to what he’s saying. I called him to play on my record, and of course what he played was incredible. He really blessed my CD and I’m very grateful to have worked with him.”
Don’t worry, though – Calhoun remains a drummer at heart, even though he’s been extending his talents into other areas. “I still love the drum set, I really do.” he tells us. “I’m playing Mapex Saturn G3 series drums, with maple finish and black hardware. I’ve stepped up to a 22” kick drum this time, with 10”, 12”, 14”, 16” and 18” toms. I know what the role of the drummer is. We have to drive the bus, from the back of the bus, and we have to take responsibility. There will be someone in the band who likes to play loud, or soft, or on the beat or behind the beat, and it’s our job to address everyone’s needs while making the music sound fresh.”
Calhoun concludes with news about his other projects. “Living Colour is writing songs at the moment. We start touring on the 25th anniversary dates on 8 March. Yeah, it’s been 25 years… I just did an interview with a journalist who told me she was two years old when Vivid came out. I was like, ‘Oh, thank you’. That’s the kind of reality that comes with this number of years. It’s exciting to be in a band for that long and still be making music, though. The music still sounds really good and Corey is singing amazing, like he always does. Everyone’s still healthy too.”
This being Will Calhoun, he has more than just a couple of irons in the fire at the moment. He explains: “I just finished recording my next jazz album, which is more acoustic and less world. There’s one Wavedrum track, which has all the electric vibes I could throw at it. It’s like a Hendrix dub, drum’n’bass, rock’n’roll, ambient mix. Just that one track. The rest of it is all acoustic, which is important to me because I love the language of the jazz vibe. I want to keep that narrative happening.” Sounds like the narrative will continue for a long time to come – and who better to create it?
Will Calhoun’s Native Lands is out now.
“I have a signature snare coming, called the Nomad – which is a 13” x 6” brass drum. I was inspired because I buried a brass Ludwig 5 snare drum in the ground for four years. I pulled it out of the ground and sent it to China. They had a look at it, put some new hoops on it and sent it back. I did it with a few cymbals too, and they sounded amazing. Of course, they lose a lot of the shine and they sound more gritty. They looked like they were in a fire, but the peel is all over so it looks good.”
Drums: Mapex Saturn G3 series, 22” Kick, 18” Kick, 10” Tom, 12” Tom, 14” Floor tom, 16” Floor tom, 14” x 5.5” signature Nomad snare
Cymbals: Sabian 14” Vault Mad Hats, Vault Resonating Bells – C note, Vault Resonating Bells – E note, Vault Resonating Bells – G note, Vault Resonating Bells – F note, 21” Prototype flat ride, 19” Prototype crash-ride, 18” HHX Evolution O-zone crash, 21” Prototype ambient ride, 10” Alien disc percussion, 28” Prototype hammered Meanie crash, 21” Prototype jazz ride with rivets
Sticks: Vic Firth
Cases: Protector XL
Other: Korg Wavedrum