Randy CookeInterview by Jayson Brinkworth // May 02 2010
It’s very natural that everyone will gravitate to a specific personal musical genre, but that doesn’t mean (s)he can’t appreciate and round his/her perspective on all other styles that exist. I think the best players at any one genre surprisingly have many deeper layers of prior exposure to all the others.
What do you get when you combine a good eh-saying Canadian kid, who can stand a -40 winter, with a passion and desire to commit whole heartedly to the groove, and a boundless and energetic work ethic that just won’t quit? The answer is the one and only Randy Cooke. Randy’s career has spanned the who’s who of the music industry, but he doesn’t rest on his past accomplishments. He is a believer in the “you are only as good as the last notes you played” concept, and he has a knack of playing all the right notes. So, how does a kid from Toronto end up working with the likes of Mick Jagger and Ringo Starr? How does he network himself into one of the hot shot players in Los Angeles? Read on and get into the very funky world of Randy Cooke. Just a word of warning: this article is very inspiring and you might find yourself reaching for new heights in your own playing.
Randy, first off, let me say what a pleasure it is to have a chance to get a glimpse into your groovy world. To start, let us know what your formal years were like growing up Toronto. When did you start playing, how did you start, and what were some of your first experiences drumming?
My exposure to drumming occurred practically from birth, as my father was a snare drummer in the Toronto Scottish Regiment Pipes and Drums. There was always a snare drum lying around and sticks that I could bang away with. He taught me my first rudiment (the long roll – “mama – dada”) along with others as I progressed. I loved drumming, but didn’t want to wear a kilt, so he enrolled me in the Cadet Lancers of Etobicoke Drum Corps. I was about thirteen years old at the time and in grade 8, I think. The first two years of high school found me messing around on the school drum kit during mornings and after school, which led to me inevitably begging for a kit of my own! That first kit came Christmas of grade 10 (fifteen years old). The following summer, I joined a funk and reggae band called Phase IV comprised of close family friends. We played originals as well as covers, and to this day I attribute much of my groove sensibilities to that musical environment. . I played for four or five years with them.
Being fifteen years old, you couldn’t play clubs, so we all had to get special notes from the LCBO allowing us to play licensed establishments as long as we went straight from street to stage and back out again without loitering. There were only a few clubs that catered to R&B so we ended up at a lot of the same places for years. We still loved every minute of it.
You did a lot of live playing as well as studio work throughout your Toronto years. How did you break into the studio scene there?
My exposure on a live basis brought me into enough social circles that enabled me to rub shoulders with people that hired drummers for sessions. I didn’t wake up one day and decide I wanted to be a “session guy.” I just became one through a slow and natural process. I do think one of the necessary tools for being reliable in the studio was being able to comfortably play to a click. Since I was already used to playing to a click live for many years in the funk band (we used loops and sequences etc.) the transition from stage to studio really wasn’t that intense. If you’re considered a great live player, the only thing separating you from being called a session player is your ability to do what you do to click without it feeling or sounding as such. Of course, when the record button gets pressed, you’ve got to be able to overcome any nervousness or confidence issues!
You are also very diverse in playing many styles. For the younger drummers out there, can you talk a bit about the importance of diversity and open mindedness as a musician?
I know how important musical diversity is to one’s approach to feel, fills, and song concept. It can be compared to having a great vocabulary and being able to speak with many ideas, colors and layers. If you’re training to compete in a one mile race, you run ten miles a day, so that when it comes time for the race, the one mile comes more easily, and without strain. It’s very natural that everyone will gravitate to a specific personal musical genre, but that doesn’t mean (s)he can’t appreciate and round his/her perspective on all other styles that exist. I think the best players at any one genre surprisingly have many deeper layers of prior exposure to all the others. As far as boot camp for young players, the school of Top 40 will always remain the best! I did so much of that in my early years purely for financial stability. Little did I know that having to learn so many different styles of music for one Top 40 band would teach me things I never would have learned otherwise. I may not have enjoyed some of the songs myself but that didn’t mean I wasn’t up to the challenge of making them sound like the original.
I studied privately and know how important that is in and of itself, all the while forcing yourself to learn different genres of music so you’re armed with more musical ideas from which to draw upon in your personal playing style. I remember thinking, I’m never going to join a Latin band, but practicing those exercises absolutely gave me things that creep into my playing today.
I had the pleasure of seeing you at the Montreal Drumfest in 2003. Your performance was fantastic as always, but it was the presentation that was so powerful. You came out and blazed out a great solo, stated afterwards that you have never been hired to do that and proceeded to play a variety of tunes from all over the stylistic map. What made you decide to approach the clinic in this way?
Thanks so much for those kind words. I guess I chose that approach because it was the most honest way of me letting young drummers know that there are alternative ways to go about being a live and/or session player –and make a living at it. I’m always in awe and greatly respectful of players that delved much deeper into improvisational and technical layers than I did, but it’s just the musical cards that life’s dealt me. As a young player going to clinics, I felt that some of the material went over my head technically and musically. My ears weren’t trained enough to really appreciate the full extent of what was going on. I think you either left drum clinics inspired to want to reach those limits or frustrated and depressed feeling like you’d never reach them. My message probably speaks to the young players like myself who wanted to chop my hands off after hearing a brilliant fusion player. Of course there’s a little tongue-in-cheek that goes along with that statement, but the fact of the matter remains: in the studio, for pop music, drum solos and playing in odd time just aren’t required. So, that was my (hopefully) humorous point.
Forgive me if I am off here, but was one of the first breaks into the US market for yourself the Hillary Duff sessions? How did this session come about for a Canadian drummer?
It was either that or the Kelly Clarkson tracks. Both of those sessions were the result of personal relationships I already had with Canadian writer/producers (Raine Maida/Matthew Gerrard) that had already moved to LA. I’m so thankful and grateful there were some familiar faces already down here doing great things to allow me to be able to ride on their coattails!
The list of artists you have worked with here in Canada is impressive and has grown to be the who’s who in music. First, how did the gig with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) come about?
You know that saying “It’s who you know”? That was in full effect here. I had for many years played in various bands with an awesome rock singer/songwriter by the name of Andy Curran. He eventually landed a gig working at a management company called SRO. That company handled a Canadian rock act called the Tea Party. The singer of the Tea Party was managed by a fellow named Michael Lee Jackson, out of Buffalo, NY. So, on a regular basis Michael and Andy had to coordinate with each other as far as scheduling the singer’s solo appearances with his band’s own appearances. Michael also managed Ian Gillan’s solo project (as well as playing guitar for him). The day came when Michael was poking around looking for musicians to put together for Ian’s solo tour. He called his pal Andy who told him about his pal Randy. I got a call/email from Michael asking for some mp3s to be sent for his review and I was fortunately welcomed into the fold!
I believe the next artist was Dave Stewart (Eurythmics), how did you hook up with him?
Here’s the domino effect playing out. My Ian Gillan tour started in the east coast and ended in the west coast at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard. The dressing room was full of people I didn’t really know, one of whom ended up making a special appearance on stage at that evening’s performance. Little did I know, that was Michael Bradford who came up and displayed an impressive guitar performance during Deep Purple’s hit “Smoke on the Water.” Michael was actually a bass player that had worked with the likes of Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker. We chatted after the show, exchanged hugs and phone numbers, and weeks later I got a phone call to do a session at Bradford’s home studio. This was for a different project, but Michael and I were on our way to carving out a great personal and musical relationship. Some months had passed when Michael called and said he was putting together a band as musical director for Dave Stewart and asked me if I was interested. You can imagine my response!
So, I was happy and lucky to now be playing Dave’s solo gigs. Not only being a huge superstar from his Eurythmics’ fame, his songwriting has appeared in countless other hit songs with other artists. He really is an incredible wealth of talent and inspiring to be around.
Others in this list include Ringo Starr and Mick Jagger. What were these experiences like for you?
Both those gigs came about through Dave Stewart’s relationships with those gents. Again, one gig leading to another! Being in a room with Ringo Starr, let alone playing in his band, was incredible. He was funny, personable, and extremely talented. Made us all feel very welcome and played his ass off. We got to do a song with the both of us on drums and that was unbelievably fun. His time is so solid. It was so easy to play with him. Not an easy task generally for two drummers. The three day session with Mick was an honor—again, Dave’s handiwork. Mick was relaxed and funny and we had a great time recording some demos. You grow up being a fan and listening to records and seeing videos, but it’s strange in a great way when you’re standing in a room working with those same people. There is an initial surreal aspect about it all. At the end of the day, you realize, they’re all musicians like the rest of us sharing that common love of music and its expression.
You went out on tour with Five for Fighting. How did the tour go, and what was required from you on a gig such as this?
The tour went amazingly! We crossed the country in six weeks and played to thousands of appreciative fans. It’s the best feeling. This gig is pop all the way. My kit is tuned low. The shell sizes are large. The drum sound is big. Simple grooves with simple fills. I play to a click live so that the song tempos are consistent night to night and John loves that. It’s a really musical band. The other players are stellar and John’s a great musician and songwriter. Again, it’s always an honor to be amidst a gang like that.
You have also done a ton of the late night and daytime television shows. What is this experience like playing for millions of viewers? Any advice on how to prepare for shows of this magnitude?
The one thing I can say about playing television is that the pressure level is much higher. There’s no room for error. In the studio you can do another take. At a gig, if you make a mistake, it can easily be forgotten in time. But with television, you get your one shot when the cameras go red and it’s captured forever. Sometimes that’s an incredible thing—and sometimes not. I prepare mentally more than anything else. Clearing my mind of any distractions and reminding myself it’s just another musical moment in time that you’re there to enjoy with everyone else, all 5.7 million of them. (laughs)
You are definitely one of the hardest working players in the industry. What does the near future hold for sessions and live work for Randy Cooke?
It’ll be back to the studio for the most part. I enjoy a number of repeat producer clients and look forward to whatever new musical opportunities are put in my path. I really never know month to month what I’ll be recording or where I’ll be playing. I’m just really thankful that I can continue doing it on any level.
Visit Randy online: http://www.myspace.com/randycooke
Photos: Char Beck - www.charbeck.net
About the Author
Jayson Brinkworth is an accomplished drummer, percussionist, vocalist, educator and writer based out of Canada. He is co-owner of the Saskatchewan music school Music In The House, as well as the founder of both the Regina Drum Festival and The Stickman Drum Experience.
Jayson proudly endorses Yamaha drums, Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Evans heads, Impact cases, Kickport, Flix, Future Sonics and Mountain Rhythm. Visit Jayson online at www.jaysonbrinkworth.com.
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