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Drummer Gregg Bissonette Interview: Ringo Starr, David Lee Roth – Rolling Stone

Drummer Gregg Bissonette Interview: Ringo Starr, David Lee Roth – Rolling Stone

Drummer Gregg Bissonette Interview: Ringo Starr, David Lee Roth – Rolling Stone
July 29
15:56 2020

When the Beatles played Detroit’s Olympia Stadium on August 13th, 1966, a seven-year-old aspiring drummer named Gregg Bissonette sat high up in the nosebleeds, rapturously soaking up every second of the experience. “I spent the whole night focused on Ringo,” he says. “He was keeping the whole thing together. It was the defining moment in my life. I remember praying to God, ‘Some day I’d love to play with Ringo.’”

His prayer was answered 37 years later when Ringo invited him to play a few promotional gigs to support his 2003 LP, Ringo Rama. It led to an invitation in 2008 to join his All Starr Band, a position Bissonette has held to this day, even though every other member from his original run is long gone. That means he’s been in a band with Ringo longer than any member of the Beatles, and he’s gotten to back him on Fab Four classics like “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “With a Little Help From My Friends” nearly 400 times each.

That would be a career-defining accomplishment for most drummers, but it’s just a tiny part of Bissonette’s life story. He first made his name as a member of David Lee Roth’s original solo band, and has gone on to play with everyone from Santana and Toto to Don Henley, Spinal Tap, Duran Duran, Ray Charles, Ozzy Osbourne, the Doobie Brothers, and countless others. He’s also worked on the soundtracks to movies like The Devil Wears Prada, Best in Show, American Pie, and Finding Nemo. Amid all that, he also found time to play drums on the musical interludes in every single episode of Friends. (And if you shoot him an email, he’ll gladly play on your song, too.)

How is your quarantine going?
It’s as good as can be. I have a great son and a great daughter, and we’re hanging on here at the house. Thank God, as crazy as things are now, I’ve got this setup in Sherman Oaks, which is about half an hour from where I live, where my drum kit is all mic’d up.

I go into a socially distanced room with my own entrance, I play drums all day on people’s tracks from all over the world that people send me. And then my engineer gets the drum tracks to files and sends them back. It’s a good thing. I’m keeping busy working, so I’m very, very blessed.

I want to go way back here and go through some key moments in your life. How old were you when you first knew you wanted to be a drummer?
I was about six. My dad was a drummer and he always had drums in the basement in Detroit, Michigan, and then later in Warren, Michigan, where we grew up. I’d go down to the basement and play his drums. And my dad had a band that played all around Detroit, and my mom played jazz vibraphone in his band.

That’s how my brother Matt and I got started playing together. It was through my dad’s band. We were just a supermusical family. My sister was involved in music. Both my kids now and my nephews are, too. It’s just a supermusical family, and so I knew I wanted to play more since I’d go down and jam on my dad’s kit. We’d always have little groove sessions by the stereo in the living room. My dad and I would play on album covers with brushes. We’d play along with everything from Buddy Rich to the Beatles.

How did you go from drumming being just a hobby to being your career?
It started with my dad. My parents didn’t go on vacation a lot, but they went on one when I was about 12. He said to me, “Your mom and me are going to Spain with some friends in a couple of weeks. I have a gig, and your Uncle Chuck is going to come over and he’s going to drive you and take the drums to the gig.”

I said, “I’m going to go and play a full gig with your band?” He goes, “Yeah. It’s my band and you know the songs.” I was so excited, but kind of nervous. At a wedding or a party, you’re playing bossa novas, you’re playing swing tunes, or “The Girl From Ipanema” and “Satin Doll.” You’re playing polkas, since there are a lot of Polish and Italians in Detroit.

Whenever my dad wanted to take a break, he let me sit in on drums and play “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night or Creedence Clearwater’s “Proud Mary,” and he’d go over to the bar and have a beer.

I knew I could cover the rock songs, but the bossa novas and the swings? I was really in my basement practicing like crazy because I learned we were getting $50 a man. At 12 years old I’m going, “I’m going to make 50 bucks! I’m going to sub for my dad!”

And then my brother Matt and I have been playing together since we were 14 and 12. He started sitting in with my dad’s band on bass. Then we started our own band back in Detroit. It was a great group of guys, and we called it Grand Circus Park, named after a park in downtown Detroit. We played Beatles, a lot of Chicago, Zeppelin, Aerosmith. We played all the high school dances. To this day, my brother is my favorite bass payer.

I know your earliest professional gigs were with Gino Vannelli and Maynard Ferguson, but tell me how you wound up in the David Lee Roth Band.
I was doing an audition for Vinnie Vincent of Kiss. He was starting the Vinnie Vincent Invasion. I went down with Myron Grombacher from Pat Benatar’s band. He’s one of my best friends. I went to the audition, but little did I know that Vinnie already had a drummer picked out. It was this guy from Texas named Bobby Rock. But he didn’t want to tell the few drummers that were there, “Hey, don’t bother showing up.”

We played and had a great time. Afterwards he said to me, “I already have a drummer, but I really enjoyed jamming with you. You’d be great for Dave Roth.” I go, “Dave Roth? Isn’t he in Van Halen?” He goes, “Not anymore. He left Van Halen. He got Billy Sheehan from Talas [on bass] and Steve Vai on guitar. They are looking for a drummer. I think you’d be great. Call Steve Vai.”

They were advertising it like the Steve Vai band was looking for a drummer. And so I called Steve and went down and jammed with him and Billy. We had a blast. The next thing was playing for Dave and [producer] Ted Templeman. It all just clicked.

Let’s talk about making Eat ‘Em and Smile. He had made the Crazy From the Heat EP by this point. The record was pretty successful, but it’s pretty weird. There’s a 1920s lounge song and a Beach Boys cover on it. What was the idea going into the album? He was clearly veering away from the Van Halen sound.
The first thing we did when we got the gig was go into Dave’s cool car and we drove to get some Mexican food. He put on a cassette of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and he said, “You played with Maynard Ferguson’s band. I’m sure you can handle this.” I went, “Wow, Sinatra’s ‘That’s Life’!” It was big band with horns, and he said we were going to record it on the album.

Source: Drummer Gregg Bissonette Interview: Ringo Starr, David Lee Roth – Rolling Stone

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Martin Nethercutt

Martin Nethercutt

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