“To me, music is music and as long as you play honestly you can really do anything you like.“
Originally published in The Black Page – May 2013.
His famed drum intro on “Two Princes” is one of the most recognized on radio over the last 25 years. His band Spin Doctors has sold millions of albums, and he has contributed to over 200 albums with diverse artists through his multiple talents. He is Aaron Comess!
The Spin Doctors have a new album coming out, If the River Was WHISKEY. Can you tell us about that?
Yea, we used to play in blues bars in NYC in the late 80s when we first were starting out. In order to get these gigs, we had to play blues covers but we decided to write our own blues songs and just fool them into thinking it was some old songs. It worked like a charm and we would do the first set of our blues songs then start slipping in the other stuff that we later recorded for Pocket Full of Kryptonite and lots of songs that we never recorded. So we decided it would be fun to go in my studio and cut a few of these old blues songs as well as some new ones, and next thing we knew a few days later we had this great raw rocking blues record; it’s all live in the studio with no overdubs, no click, no editing, just good real music by four guys who have been playing together on and off for 25 years … hard to beat that kind of chemistry and it is something we all really appreciate and value now more than ever.
Can you tell us about your solo record Beautiful Mistake, and what it was like playing with that band? I once read you play some guitar and may have come up with the parts.
This is my second record of my own group. My first record is called Catskills Cry and had Bill Dillon and Tony Levin. This new one has Teddy Kumpel and Richard Hammond. It’s all my original instrumental songs. I usually write my music on guitar, so yes, the guitar melodies and chords I wrote, but I like to give Teddy and Rich liberty to make it their own. When I asked Teddy to do this I said, “Teddy, you have to play this music like you wrote it yourself.” He is carrying the biggest weight on his shoulders playing the melodies and solos. I think of these melodies just like I would a singer singing a song, so that is my approach to writing this type of material and it’s been really fun playing with this band live and opening things up. Both records are available on iTunes.
Can you tell us about your jazz quintet?
I’ve always had a big love for jazz and have played it since I was young and finally got inspired to put my own group together playing jazz standards. I have some amazing musicians and I tell them to play free, open and change feels, tempos, moods and colors any time; feel free to play the melodies as many or little times as feels right whenever it feels right, connect the songs together, etc. So it’s developing into a great creative jazz group. Even though it’s jazz, I want it to be open enough to be able to stretch in any direction we want to go… the same thing goes for my instrumental group as it does with the Spin Doctors. To me, music is music and as long as you play honestly you can really do anything you like.
You played on Joan Osborne’s Grammy-nominated album, Bring it on Home. What was that experience like?
I’ve known Joan since back in the early Spin Doctors’ club days, as she was on the same scene, so we have been friends for years and I worked with her some on her second record, Righteous Love and have been playing in her live band for the last five years or so. It’s a great group of musicians. She wanted to make a blues-based covers record and use the live band. She did a great job of picking really cool, obscure covers and putting great arrangements on them, and the band went in and we recorded it in a few days. Similar to the new Spin Doctors record, we used no click and usually only a few takes per song. It’s a great record and it was cool to see it get such great recognition with the Grammy nomination.
The Spin Doctor’s song “Refrigerator Car” has such a great beat—and it’s in 9/8! How did you come up with this?
The 9/8 comes from the guitar intro riff. I wrote that riff and showed it to Eric and he had some other music he thought would work with it. So we put the music together with Mark one day in rehearsal and Chris came in and had these great lyrics, and bam we had this amazing heavy rock song with a 9/8 intro. The whole drum, guitar intro happened spontaneously when we were recording the song for Kryptonite … I started playing the guitar rhythm on the drums and Eric was like “Yea, keep doing that,” then he came in and bam we had that intro. To this day, I love playing that song and never get tired of new ways to play over that 9/8 riff.
So many drummers love and talk about the sound of your snare drum, especially on “Two Princes.” Can you tell us what kind of snare drum you used and how you got that sound?
On “Two Princes,” I used a Brady Jarrah piccolo snare drum, and we recorded it in the power station (now avatar) in NYC. It was recorded to tape with a lot of compression and a great room sounds. I still am not sure how we got such a great sound that day but I can tell you that that drum will never sound as good as that again (laughs).
Speaking of “Two Princes,” the drum intro on it is fantastic – accents mixed with open five-stroke rolls, combined with a funky feel. How did you come up with that?
It’s just something I did and somehow it stuck … there was not really much thought to it. We played a lot of clubs in the early days and sometimes I would just do drum intros instead of counting off songs, and in this case I found something that really worked. It’s really just the Bo Diddley beat or a 3/2 clave with five-stroke rolls in the middle and accenting the beats with the bass drum. It’s cool how it has become a recognizable thing.
When I was in college, my friends and I listened to the Spin Doctors’ album Pocket Full of Kryptonite countless times. You play excellent on the album, and there are so many great songs! From that album, at least two or three hits came on the radio all the time. That must have been exciting! What was it like to hear your songs everywhere you went?
I remember the first time we all heard ourselves on the radio; we were driving our old, red van down the west side highway in NYC and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” came on and of course we were over the moon! It’s amazing how those songs have lived on and keep going to this day and reaching a whole new audience. We could not be more grateful.
What were your lessons like with Bernard Purdie? What was it like subbing for him on the Broadway revival of Hair?
When I first moved to NYC, I studied with Purdie. Just being in his presence for a 19 year old was amazing, as he is and has always been one of my biggest inspirations. I learned a lot from him about playing for the song and finding that deep pocket. Getting to work with him on Hair 20 years later was a big thrill. He sounds as good as ever and it was an honor for me to sub for him. It was totally different than any other gig I had done before and a very cool experience.
What other teachers did you study with, and do you have any favorite drum books?
I’m very lucky to have had some great teachers. My first teacher, Jack Iden, started me on a practice pad for the first year then moved me up to a snare drum for two years before we even talked about a drum set. Turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, as I got my hands and reading together so when I moved on to the drum set I was ready.
Then I moved on to Rick Lathem, who got me started on big band chart reading, and he had just put out his funk book so that was a great experience. From there I moved on to the great Henry Okstel, who taught Rick and was the teacher up at North Texas State University. I was really lucky to hook up with him and studied with him all through high school. He really took me further in big band chart reading and we got into some really heavy polyrhythmic and technique stuff that really opened me up. But he always made sure that everything I played felt good.
From there, I went to Berklee and studied with Tommy Campbell and Ed Uribe, who both were great and took things even further technique-wise for me. Then I went back to Dallas for a year and studied with Henry again. Finally, I moved to NYC where I got with Purdie and really focused on groove playing. Purdie was really the main influence on me leading into the recording of Pocket Full of Kryptonite.
So after 20 years of playing with The Spin Doctors and so many other great artists, I felt the need to get a fresh start with a new teacher and have been studying with drum master Michael Carvin now for the last year. This had really been a great experience for me. After being “on the gig” for 20 years, I felt I was developing some bad habits and just wanted a fresh kick in the ass. Michael has been amazing and I really feel like I’m growing as a musician. This is a lifelong thing and I’m constantly pushing and searching for ways to move forward and get better … keeping my eyes and ears wide open to what everyone out there is doing.
How would you define “great groove?” What elements are combined to bring a great groove?
Anything that feels great. It’s all about making every note count and feel great. Where you place your beat, how you control your sound. Whether it’s a beat or a fill or a solo, it should all have equal groove. And every musician is responsible not just the drummer. It’s important to adapt to the people you are playing with—you can’t always just put it where you want it. You need to listen to where the people you are playing with put things and find that sweet spot where everyone meets and then you can have a great groove.
What do you like to do for fun outside of drumming?
I love to cook and right now I’m making Jerk chicken and collard greens with a nice bottle of red wine. Tomorrow morning, it’s back to the music.
Dan Brit is an educator, author and session musician based in New Jersey, USA. You can find him online at dannybritt.com