Pat McDonald Interview – 1998

This article was originally published by INK19 in October 1998.

by Ed Furniture

If there was a contest for “Most Relaxed Drummer,” Pat McDonald would win, hands down. In fact, his showmanship consists primarily of an almost infuriating level of Howard Roark-like relaxation/focused mental intensity; aside from inserting an occasional witty stick twirl while scoping out prospective chocha. The guy is so ridiculously relaxed, one might suspect that through his high-tech in-ear monitors he’s listening to some new-age sedated whale mating sounds CD. This docile facade should not fool you, however, as he can, at the drop of a hat, confidently fashion some mind-boggling improvisations as he sight-reads the most rapidly-shifting and complex odd-meter changes known to man. … While fixing a sandwich.

Mr. McDonald is a very well-rounded drummer, whose playing comfortably draws from the opposing musical philosophies of “less is more” and “more is more.” But despite his monstrous technical and creative abilities (which, in my opinion, can only be compared to virtuoso drummers such as Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Dennis Chambers) he modestly describes himself as a “bald guy who bangs on shit and occasionally finds 1.” Yeah, right.

I first heard his playing while in downtown Sarasota. I was in a tiny club to watch some crappy punk rock band (I don’t know why…) and got sick of it and walked outside. About a block away, over the punk rock, I could faintly distinguish drum rudiments. IN SARASOTA?

I excitedly crossed the street and hurried past several groups of unhappy, sweaty, goth kids (it’s Florida, OK? Why wear all that black Anne Rice here? Maybe you wouldn’t be so unhappy if… ah, never mind) and made my way to an outside patio-area where local cover bands usually play sloppy versions of “Wild Thing” and “Purple Haze” while 2-3 drunk, ugly people would stumble around the fringes. And there was Pat in the middle of a maniacal drum solo. Curly hair, beret, flashy drum-corps snare tricks, lightning-quick double bass (executed with impeccable, crisp, dead-on timing) and that same sarcastic, bored face that he’s often noted for. When Pat did his solos downtown, it was not uncommon for 50-75 people to come out of the woodwork when his solo started. I always went away with on of those numinous feelings that if this is what it meant to be a musician, then I didn’t deserve to be called one.

He eventually got TOO bored with Sarasota and relocated to Nashville, where he has since landed several [space ships? no… ] lucrative studio and live gigs; most recently with Tanya Tucker. He has also been awarded endorsements by companies such as Zildjian, Vic Firth, and Evans Drumheads, in addition to already having Noble & Cooley drums under his belt. What the hell makes this guy tick?

Q: Who and what were the major influences & turning points in/on your playing?

A: I’d say the MAJOR milestone influences from the beginning until now are Peter Criss (He and KISS were the reason I started playing drums back in the 70’s), James Bradley Jr. with Chuck Mangione, Neil Peart, Steve Smith with Journey, Dave Weckl with Chick Corea, and Vinnie Colaiuta with Frank Zappa and Allan Holdsworth. All of these sort of overlapped in the timeline, and there were other guys I checked out heavily at the same time, such as Jeff Porcaro with Toto, Simon Phillips, Dennis Chambers, Terry Bozzio with Missing Persons and Frank Zappa, Steve Ferrone, Phil Collins, Ricky Lawson, JR Robinson, Jack DeJohnette, Peter Erskine, Omar Hakim, Tommy Aldridge with Pat Travers, Paul Wertico with Pat Metheny, and just about anyone else who played cool shit!

Q: What would be the ideal playing situation for you?

A: I think a fantasy ideal situation would be a band that played a little of everything from metal to hard funk to laid back R&B to straight ahead jazz to intense fusion to WHATEVER and was able to make it a commercially viable thing that would sell and be able to support the players comfortably. Unfortunately, the business side of music these days makes that virtually impossible. Everything these days is labeled and categorized and compartmentalized into neat little blocks that consumers can buy without much thought. That’s too bad.

Q: When you are improvising, especially during some of your more polyrhythmic shit, are you consciously counting?

A: Very rarely. At this point, I tend to just feel the time and go for it. Sometimes I play myself into a corner and get so “out” that I lose the original pulse, and I have to find a way to get back without falling on my face! It’s much easier for me to let go of the time and goof around if I’m playing over a steady vamp like “Goodnight,” because I can just let it fly and keep one ear on the vamp all the time to find my way home! But if I just blow unaccompanied, I ALWAYS have at least the PULSE of time going. I’m not counting “1,2,3,4” all the time, but whatever I play relates to the pulse in my head. The time is the framework that I build all the ideas on.

Q: What current MTV/Top 40 bands do you enjoy?

A: I’m really a little disappointed in the MTV thing right now. It seems like there is a whole boatload of nameless, faceless rock acts out there, and none of them are really unique. They’re all in this nebulous “90’s Rock” category that doesn’t really have an identifiable sound or look. I feel like I can lump bands like 7 Mary Three, Tonic, Sister Hazel, Wallflowers, 311, Radiohead, Gin Blossoms, Third Eye Blind, Everclear, Live, etc, into this big pile. They all have some cool songs, and granted, a few of them do have a slightly more identifiable sound than others, like Wallflowers, Oasis, and maybe Gin Blossoms, but overall I’d have a really hard time telling you which was which if you played all their hits for me. The stuff just sounds so homogenous to me. I really like to hear something on the radio and know who it is. One of my favorites lately is Bjork. There is NO mistaking her voice. She is fucking amazing. When I hear Alice in Chains or Metallica or Primus or Zeppelin or Aerosmith or the Stones, I know it’s them. Know what I mean? They all have a sound. A lot of the bands out now just don’t have that. Lately, I’ve been digging the Dave Matthews Band, too. I think they have a really unique sound that is easily identifiable. Odd instrumentation and Dave’s voice combine to make them stand out. I’m really glad to see a band like that doing so well. It’s nice to know that it is still possible to do what you do and not cave in to the industry’s pigeonholing criteria and be successful anyway.

Q: What was your Berklee College of Music experience like? Good points? Bad points?

A: My whole time in Boston was great for me at that particular point in my playing. The school was just buzzing with music in all forms, and it was great to immerse myself in it for a couple of years. Berklee itself has a pretty efficient way of cramming a ton of information into your head really fast, so I kind of got ahead of myself as far as being able to really absorb it all, but in the years since, I’ve started to see it fall into place. I was studying Harmony, Ear Training, and drumset, and was getting pretty advanced. Especially as far as Harmony was concerned. I knew nothing about it when I got there, and in a few semesters, I was in Harmony 4, writing some intense chord progressions and tunes using some pretty advanced jazz harmony. I was doing it all by the numbers though, because I didn’t play an instrument that let me put it all to immediate use. I studied piano, but couldn’t devote enough practice time to it to catch up with what I was learning! I don’t remember any of it now! I’d have to go back and do some serious brushing up. Anyway, the coolest thing about being there was hanging out with all the other drummers who were as intent on learning as I was. We used to all just sit around and listen to tunes, trade ideas, dig the newest cool drummers, etc. It was a great hang with a lot of camaraderie. Drummers were always the most open to share. Guitar players there cracked me up. They would practice with headphones with a towel over the window so no one could “steal their new hip shit,” which was basically rehashed Metheny licks! It was hilarious!

I don’t think there were any bad points except that after awhile I realized that it was stupid to be paying all this money for a basically useless degree. A Music Performance degree isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on! You can’t go out in the real world and look for a gig and say “here’s my degree that says I know what I’m doing.” It doesn’t work like that. You get gigs because you can play and because you aren’t an asshole. Bottom line. A degree doesn’t mean shit. I was studying privately with Gary Chaffee, and he told me “You’ve had enough school. You need to go out and do gigs.” He was right. It takes awhile to develop your facility on your instrument, but it takes just as long if not longer of solid gigging in ALL possible forms to learn what to DO with it. That’s when you become a musician and not an Instrumentalist. Big difference.

Q: What’s your philosophy on showmanship?

A: Personally, I think it’s cool to see a drummer doing a little flash here and there. It gives the audience something besides a narcissistic, self-centered, egotistical frontman to watch! No, really… I enjoy seeing guys put on a show. Especially the ones who do it well. Guys like Sonny Emory, Gerry Brown, Tommy Lee, or Pat Benatar’s old drummer, Myron Grombacher, are a blast to watch. I guess I dig it because I have a little drum corps background, and the visuals/stick tricks are a big part of that. I learned how to do a bunch of that stuff and still spin a stick or two here and there when the impulse strikes! It’s just goofy fun to add to the show. The bottom line, though, is that it should NEVER be done at the expense of the music. It’s just fluff. If you can spin 20 sticks and stand on your head while playing, great. But if you can’t keep a groove, then you’ve missed the point.

Q: What are your hobbies?

A: Golf, scuba diving, and computers.

Q: What would be your favorite place in the world to live?

A: Anywhere tropical. I’d love to live in the Caribbean or South Pacific. Somewhere where I can lay in a hammock and feel the balmy breeze in January and think of all the poor bastards freezing their nads off in Chicago! Fuck a bunch of cold weather!

Q: Jenny McCarthy or Carmen Electra?

A: Carmen. Definitely.

Q: If music were to not financially support you, what would you turn to as an alternate career?

A: Probably scuba instruction or golf if I could get good enough! Can you get paid for looking at pretty girls?