||Interview with Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz -The Fifth Avenue Theater 2/25/00|
The decor of Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theater reflects a city historically known as "the gateway to the Orient". We rubbed Buddha's belly for good luck as we enter the lobby and immediately felt the positive fortune of luck in the air. We were here to interview the driving force of Weird Al's band, Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz. After enjoying an incredible Weird Al show our newly acquired luck lead us to an aftershow gathering and offered us the opportunity to sit down with Bermuda to talk drums...
SD: How long have you played the drums and how did you get interested in drums?
Bermuda: I started when I was 9, so I've been playing for 20 years, (laughter)… No, I started when I was 9 and I'm 43 now, so that's 34 years I guess. Oddly enough I started playing the accordion. Of course in the 60's that was one of the instruments your parents sent you off to learn. You either learned to play clarinet or the piano, and my parents sent me off to learn accordion. At the time, my brother was learning to play drums. So, he got disinterested in the drums, I got disinterested in the accordion, and the kit just moved over to my room. It was a great old late 50's Ludwig 3 piece mahogany with maple counterhoops. The snare was originally given to my father by Bill Ludwig Jr. who my dad had done some advertising for in Chicago. So, that was actually a gift from Bill Ludwig Jr., you know, the old brown macintosh cover (long gone), a 10" red vinyl record of Haskell Harr doing the 13 or 26 rudiments, a book, old brushes... it was a regular kind of student kit. And then they added on a couple more drums. I wish I had that kit. They were great, blue and silver lacquer, typical and really nice. The lugs were the Ludwig tower lugs (with the lug in the middle.) The snare was very odd, no lugs at all. It was never drilled. There were six (eventually five) rods that just went down to the hooks on the bottom. I think they actually probably had a nut on the bottom. It was an un-drilled drum; you just hoped you spaced them right cause there were no holes. You put them in the right place and both heads wound up the same tension. I wish I had that drum, too.
SD: There's a Seattle drummer, Don Bennett, which has a lot of vintage kits that are in really good condition.
Bermuda: Yeah, I've played Impact Drums for the last 15 years. I had them make just a standard kit, kind of a Hal Blaine small kit; 14x22, 8x12, 14x14... a really nice Beatles sounding pop rock kit. Not that I wouldn't mind just having an old Ludwig super classic, I had one of those too, but let that go - ran out of room. Staccato kit, Ludwig super classic kit, and a North kit also went at the same time... several great things I let go.
So anyway, I started playing when I was 9...
SD: So did you start in Chicago?
Bermuda: I wasn't playing yet in Chicago. We had moved to Phoenix and I had been living there for a few years before I started taking lessons. It was, literally, first just the snare. Then it's like "okay, now we are going to get you on cymbal." And so I got to use two things! And then they didn't really have a hi-hat so they told me to tap my foot. They really didn't have a drum set even though I had one at home. But basically, I learned rudiments and how to read music, which was a good thing. And my parents had albums from whenever. There was some
Gene Krupa and some Latin stuff, and, uh, not Drums Of Passion, but that kind of stuff; you know, Afro-Cuban stuff. And I also was listening to pop radio and started getting into the Beatles. So here I am listening to Krupa and Ringo at the same time, along with some other stuff in the 60's. I'm also hearing Hal Blaine play on Paul Revere and The Raiders and with the Mama's & The Papa's... the Beach Boys was also Hal. And it turned out that whole time I was emulating Hal! I eventually met and sort of became chummy with him later on. Hal's a great guy, a real sweetheart. He has a thousand stories... he's been there and done it all. Just get him started you know, the Byrds this, Brian Wilson that, and all the producers, like Phil Spector... Hal's is one of my heroes in the music business, along with Keltner, Ringo, & Bozzio. I'd be happy to do 1/10th of what Hal has done. I would also have been very happy to be in the Beatles for only six years you know, and I've been doing this for 19 1/2 years!
SD: Are you doing any other drum work?
SD: So you have been with Weird Al since the beginning?
Bermuda: Well, it depends on what you call the beginning. Prior to MTV (and I joined Al September 14th 1980) he'd already had a single out on Capitol, called "My Bologna". He got on Capitol Records in December 1979. His exposure came via the Dr. Demento show which, at the time, was on quite a few stations. Dr. Demento was very instrumental in Al's exposure. The way I met Al was through Dr. Demento. I had sent stuff to Demento in the 70's; I'd been a fan of his since the early 70's wihtout even knowing who Al was. I got interviewed in 1980 about being one of the original guys to send in homemade music and get it played on the show. By 1980, it was pretty common, so this was sort of a nostalgia thing. You know, let's go back 5 or 6 years talk to some of the guys who were in on this since the beginning... Al and I were some of those guys, and we were both there that night. It was a live show out of L.A. We both met at the station KMET FM on Sunday night September 14th, 1980. Al was introducing a new song, live on the air - "Another one Rides the Bus." Al knew I was a drummer; I had just done an interview with Demento live on the air, and talked about me being a drummer and how things were back "then", what I was doing now (in 1980)... So Al asked if I would beat on his accordion case for the song he was going to play on the air, sort of getting everyone involved... and that was it. So after we're done, I said "that was pretty fun, you should have a band and I'll be your drummer." And that's where it all started. I guess that's sort of the "beginning" because that was the song that made it into "morning drive" radio. Radio stations would always go to the Dr.Demento show that had aired that weekend - the jocks on Monday morning doing their Zoo or whatever - and they would find funny stuff from the show and play it. So they picked "Another One Rides The Bus" off the Demento show and all of a sudden it's getting played on morning drive and the phones are lighting up! And it went from there. We had no idea this would last this long, you know... it's probably bigger than ever now. We're not way up and not way down. We are in the middle, and that middle seems to get a little bit higher as we go. VH-1 has been tremendous to us last year and this year. We are not playing giant places but this is fine. I would rather sell out a mid size theater than go into a 7,000 seat place and only have it half full. The tours pay for themselves. The label is not funding the tour, and we still do very well.
Bermuda: Weird Al is first call. I'm not really pursuing any other stuff right now, but I probably could. I've done some studio work... nothing that's really ever escaped; a lot of demo stuff, a lot of country stuff. You know, oddly enough, in L.A., country is the one thing you can actually get paid for! It's all "2 and 4" to me, so I don't really care what the bass line is doing or any of that stuff. If I can just play 2 and 4 and be Jim Keltner for a night, I'm happy.
SD: When did you release this last Album?
Bermuda: This came out in June, 1999, and went gold fairly quickly. It's kinda cruising a long a bit; it was on the charts in the top 20 so, not bad. The album before that was on the charts for like 53 weeks. They sell alright. Out of 10 original albums (which is not counting greatest hits compilations), 8 of them have gone gold and 4 or 5 of those have gone platinum. We've sold about 11 or 12 million albums worldwide. Over the years we've done really well. We have been releasing albums and touring since '83 so, it's been pretty good.
SD: So is the show still challenging to you?
Bermuda: I still enjoy it, it's still a fun show for me... yet I'm far from being on autopilot. I've got so much going on up there, and I can't sleep through the show. I even sing, but I'm not very good; I'm only used for parts that are not melodic!
SD: Describe your typical workday with AL?
Bermuda: On tour, we usually travel to the show happening that day, I may get some time in the morning at the hotel, go online, answer some emails... Once at the venue (um, we are at that point where I don't set up my gear,) I may do some maintenance (I don't ask the crew to polish my cymbals, I don't touch them either. It would drive me nuts, you can end up doing that everyday!) maybe change heads... we don't do sound check anymore, this is all done by the sound and lights people. We have dinner, I may go online again, and we do the show. When we are done, we walk away and go wherever we go, meet guests or go back to our hotel or get on the bus and head to the next show.
Now in the studio, preparing for an album is a whole different animal. When we're doing the parodies, we know what the original sounds like; there's not really any production issue. You know, if it's a machine and there are certain sounds, that's what I do - I program it, get certain sounds, create samples, whatever I need to do. If it's a live part, I try to approximate the cymbal sound (I have about 60 or 70 cymbals at home that pretty much can do whatever I need them to do) and I always bring about 5 or 6 snares into the studio... wood, metal, fiberglass (like the Impacts,) thin, deep, and a couple extra heads. Going in, I know what's supposed to be accomplished. I do all the pre-production on my own and write out the parts. If it is something we are playing live, we have to do the stuff 100% like the original. Soundwise, if we can get 99% of the production value, we're doing good. As for playing the parts, something we really can control, it's got to be 100% - 99% isn't good enough. Every grace note has to be there, every dragged beat, every slowdown, every speedup, every sloppy fill, every stick click or rim click... it's got to be in there. And it's very hard to do that... to go in and sort of "backwards engineer" the original songs. The original players go in, and they're not thinking about that... they're just playing a song. If they do another take of the song, it's like a different thing. On the parodies, we don't have the luxury of creating like that. We have to re-create a song exactly. And I don't like... okay, I do like to talk about David Grohl because I've done two of his things now. Regardless of what you think of him as a drummer, his parts are very hard to re-create (I don't know if that's good or bad.) When we did "Smells like Nirvana" back in '92, I went to Al and said "do you want me to play this right, or do you want me to play it like it is on the record?" because it's very loose and it's very sloppy, not just from a timing perspective but from a playing perspective. That kind of sloppy boogaloo sort of thing that he does on that... it's perfect for the song, but it's like, are we really doing it like that, or do we want to, ya know, sterilize it a little bit? Al said "no, I really want it to sound like that." It was very hard to do that. Now, we come back and do "It's All About The Pentiums" (It's All About The Benjamins), our version of which is the "rock" version with Rob Zombie, and David Grohl is playing drums and guitar on top of it as well, with a machine thrown in, on top of the original Puff Daddy track. Grohl's drums were pretty loose against the track. We did the song straight, like it was probably intended to be, and we knocked it out quickly and got some great production on it, too. Sometimes I can knock stuff out in one take, but most of the time I would say I do 5 or so takes on average.
SD: Do you always memorize the parts or do you write everything out?
Bermuda: I write it down if there are things I need to work on. I work out specific fills that I do need to practice, but for the most part it's for a reference so that I know what I'm doing; so I don't have to "remember" how this fill is different from that one, so I don't swap the fills. Al wants everything exact, and the band is that way, too. It's a very precise process that takes patience. But when you hear the song come on, you really think it's the original... of course, until the vocals hit.
SD: What are your experiences with the labels?
Bermuda: We were on Scotti Brothers since 1983. We did about a 1-month tour in a station wagon, as part of the Dr. Demento show; we did this a few times until "Eat It" came out the next summer in '84. But the label was good to us. These two guys, Ben and Tony Scotti, were major promotion kinda guys and they cooked up their own label. They had a rather dubious artist roster... James Brown (Living in America) except not any of the cool catalog stuff or hits, Petula Clark (again, none of the hits,) and David Cassidy. Scotti Brothers finally sold out to Volcano Records, the music division of Q-Prime, run by Cliff Bernstein and Peter Mensch (who have clients like Madonna.) Their pet label is Volcano. They gave Al his own "imprint" - Way Moby - so Al's current label is Volcano/Way Moby/Zomba/BMG. (Zomba's an umbrella over a whole bunch of independent labels, distributed by BMG, and Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears are in their roster.) Bernstein and Mensch very "heavy hitters" and can get things done. We have a much bigger worldwide presence then before with Scotti Brothers (which basically was, whoever wanted to distribute their product could... if they wanted... and if not, that was apparently okay too!) BMG has clients around the world. We have a gold album in Australia as well as product released in England, Japan, and the Netherlands. I don't really understand how the "Euro" market is, but I know we have a couple of things released there.
SD: What do you think of Strictly Independent labels for bands?
Bermuda: You know, with the Internet and the reach that it has, anybody can do anything. You probably don't need a major distributor or label if you're basically selling off the net, and if you can be successful at that (if you can get enough people to come to your site and if you can get enough people to enjoy your music.) If you can't do that, then the big guys can't help you anyway. But I think there are a lot of people looking at the Internet for things and MP3.COM is a big proponent of independent artist, which is great; if the labels don't want to do that stuff, then they shouldn't complain about MP3.COM or outlets like that! If they are not going to do it, then somebody else should... which I think is great, because a lot of people didn't have that type of opportunity before (the Internet.) I think it's a cool thing.
SD: How did you get started with computers? What's your background?
Bermuda: I kind of grew up with computers. At this point, I've been using computers for about 15 years. In 1992, I got my own computer, my first. It was a 486/33 with a local bus (which meant the video was sort of fast) and 4 megs of RAM, which was more than you needed to run Windows 3.1, and 120 meg hard drive, which actually took me a long time to outgrow, because we didn't have giant applications then. But I just sort of took to it (computers) and found myself one day writing web pages.
SD: Is that when you started creating the Weird Al page?
Bermuda: Yeah, I just started a page. One day after about 2 ½ years, I said "I think we should probably grab WeirdAl.com." The label was trying to do a page but they didn't have a clue and didn't update it, so one day Al's manager proclaimed mine the official Weird Al site. So we grabbed WeirdAl.com, made the site a real site, and a short time later I said "seeing that now we have weirdal.com, and I've already started doing web pages for other clients, I have to assign some value to what I'm doing, and I'm going to have to start charging you." They said "okay" and I thought "Aw, I've been doing this for 3 years for free... great!" But you know, it was just a hobby and I was learning and they shouldn't have been paying me for that early stuff because it was really hokey by comparison. And the site is still very simple, and it loads very quickly. I assume that everybody out there has just as bad of a connection as I do, so if the site works for me I know that it works for others. I keep graphics to a minimum unless an image is required. I keep the sizes small, I keep the pages mostly text, and I use tables and some other attributes of a browser to assign colors and things instead of using graphics. I know what fonts are native to Windows and Macs. I will be very glad when everyone has fast connections and I can do other things on there and they'll load quickly. But I think for a few more years, I'm just going to keep things simple, and I know people appreciate that. They say "your sight isn't flashy, that's okay. It's the best site out there, you have a huge amount of information, easy to navigate, loads quickly..." Well, those are the hallmarks of a good site, right?
SD: Whom do you rely on for content?
SD: How have you become endorsed by various drum companies?
Bermuda: I've always been the archivist of the band. I figured someday, somebody will write a book or something, or I'll write a book, and somebody is going to want this stuff. A lot of it wound up on the web (at weirdal.com) In the meantime we had some other projects where I submitted photos and info. I have thousands and thousands of photos of our career! Al had a book out, sort of a mock biography, in 1985; a lot of my photos are in there. A box set came out in 1994 with a 64-page booklet; a lot of my photos are in that, too. VH-1 comes along in 1999 and says, "Hey we need some archival material," and I was the only one that had clean singles and albums... and of course, photos. There were about 150 of my photos in the Behind The Music special. Anyway, for the web page, I thought that fans would like to see some of this stuff. But I wasn't the first to make an Al page... I was about the 4th. There are now more than 200 such pages!
Bermuda: I have a whole FAQ on endorsements that I wrote for newsgroup rec.music.makers.percussion as far as how that works. I've been playing Impact drums for 15 years, been using DW pedals since 83, Sabian cymbals since 93. Heads... technically I'm a REMO endorser but I'm trying a bunch of stuff. . Snares, I'm trying a bunch of stuff. I have a BEAR head on there, Aquarians… I like Remo and Aquarians on toms I have been using Mainline sticks for 5 years a lot longer then he has been advertising. I was one of the early guys to get in there. Love those. My thing, especially on the road, is I don't like to replace things if possible. I don't like sticks breaking and the same with heads. I really don't like to change heads every 2 or 3 shows if I can possibly avoid it. So I use the Aquarian, the high energy one with the series of patches. They'll last me about 50 shows and they don't break but they tonally get choked up. And don't have any bottom to them and the soundman will say, I think its time to change your head. And the Bear head will last about 15 to 18 shows, which is pretty good. The Remos I have to change them every 2 or 3 shows and I hate to have to do that. I'm not one of those drummers that mooch gear. I've got a lot of inside knowledge of Impacts marketing, and DW, Sabian cymbals I'm friends with those guys. It's nice to know these guys on a different level. So, in terms of the endorsement thing, I've got sort of a different perspective than a lot of players have. But I worked all of those up myself and I only endorsed things I was using. If I didn't like the product, I wouldn't use it. You can give me all the free stuff in the world but if I'm not having a good time with it, I'm not going to play it, not even for free. And I've been through that with sticks and other drums before. I think I'm a Kurzweil endorser as well. Ruben, Al, and I use Kurzweil equipment. The endorsement thing varies also. Some of my deals are free gear, and some are nicely discounted gear. An important side of this is the support they give you. If you need something you can usually call the company and they will get it to you. You don't have to go looking for it in drum shops. The support is very important because a lot of times I will be somewhere where there isn't a Trading Musicians or a Jerry Garcia Drum Shop, which I was at the other day, or a Guitar Center or a Sam Ash or a Mars. Although I still shop locally for heads when I'm on the road, it's nice to have a relationship with companies... and it is