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Denny Seiwell

Interview by Sean Mitchell // January 02 2010
Denny Seiwell

I need to get that thing that happens that we can’t put a name on—when you’re playing and somebody plays something that makes you play something else. You play off of each other and everybody inspires everybody else. God, there’s nothing better than that.

A number of years ago, a young drummer, paying his musical dues in the concrete wilds of New York City, attended an audition that would lead him into the history books. That drummer was Denny Seiwell, and the band was to be called Wings.

Now more than 30 years after the fact, the phone continues to ring off the hook for the in-demand drummer. What keeps the Pennsylvania native busy is well beyond his incredible skill and technique. Denny maintains a responsibility for the music he creates and the industry in which he flourishes. Not only does he respect his jazz roots and the catalogue of music he has contributed to in days gone by, Denny also keeps his feet well grounded in the present, as a technological savvy session and studio player.

Denny truly is the stuff legends are made of--99% hard work and a dash of opportunity. In talking with Denny, it is clear now that it is what you do with the opportunity that really counts; for many a player has been content to rest on laurels of past fame and glory. Denny, however, has so much more to give to the music world. What a great relief to know that Denny still has students. In the age of Pro Tools, Seiwell holds only himself and his musicality responsible on any project, for his are the philosophies that will bridge the gap between the old school and the new.

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Denny, tell me about your dad. He must have been a big influence in your life being that he got you into drumming.

He was a great drummer. He even played a little bit with Tommy Dorsey in the beginning. They lived very close to us and they started in Lansford, Pennsylvania—we were from Lehighton, Pennsylvania. My dad was playing with the local big bands; it was a very musical town in those days. He kind of gave it up when I was born. When kids started coming along (I was the oldest), he got a regular job and knuckled down and just worked weekends with the guys [in the band] once in awhile. He put music on the backburner and tried to provide for the family.

When I was three years old I was hearing him play with the big bands up at the Flagstaff. He talked about how I’d be there in my baby walker. So I grew up with big band music right off the bat. He played great brushes and just had a real good feel.

When he’d leave the house to go run an errand or something, he’d come home  and I’d be playing on the drums, and he’d say, “Get off my drums, dangit!”

He wouldn’t let me play them but enrolled me in this boy’s band association, and that’s how I started taking lessons when I was seven. He passed away unfortunately in September, 1973. In August I’d left Paul [McCartney] and my dad passed away from a massive heart attack September 28th 1973—just sitting at the Friday night high school football game with my mom.

If the Denny of today could give the Denny of 20 years ago a piece of advice what would it be?

Well, I guess I would have said learn a little bit more about the business side of the business. That would have been a good piece of advice to have. You always think that if you fall into a good situation that it’s going to be fair, everything will be taken care of, and you take people for their word. Soon as you start bringing money and music together there’s something evil that comes up. I wish I would have spent a little more time at understanding and knowing how to work all that [business] stuff—a few costly mistakes.

At one time, you actually surprised Paul McCartney by showing up to a Wings session with the Ludwig kit Ringo used at Shea Stadium. How the heck did you manage to come into possession of that?

Frank Ippolito’s Pro Drum in New York. Frank had called me one day and he said, “I heard that the Museum of Famous People is going out of business in New York and they’re having an auction of the stuff they had on display.”

One of the things they had on display supposedly (I’m not even certain if this is true or not) was the kit that Ringo Starr used at Shea Stadium. He said, “Would you be interested?” I said, “Yeah, man, go for it.” He calls me a couple days later and he says, “I went to the auction and guess what? I got the damn kit!” I said, “Great, how much?” He said, “Well, I’m keeping the snare but you can have the bass drum and the two toms for three hundred bucks.” I used them on the Ram album. When Paul showed up in the studio he did a double take because I left the Beatles head on it. (laughs)

Do you still have Ringo’s kit?

No, I sold it back to the drum shop that procured it for me.

As a player who has not only played for a number of big names, but someone who has been a founding member of a band like Wings, how do you overcome nerves, whether it be onstage or off?

I really don’t get nerves. What I get is a sense of responsibility. You’re not there by accident. You’re not playing with these people just because of some weird coincidence. You’re there because you’ve earned the respect of these people that call you to work with them. After that it just becomes a responsibility that you’re going to do whatever is necessary. You’re going to draw upon the musical reservoir that you have to just do what has to be done.

There’s no time to get nervous; it’s time to get your stuff together. That’s really the bottom line. I have to use all my musical sensibilities, I have to stay out of the way of the vocals, and I have to lay down a good solid groove. I want to make the perfect drum part for the song and then play it with incredible virtuosity.

Did you always know that you would end up at this level in the industry, or do you feel you just sort of got lucky? Right place at the right time sort of thing?

There is a bit of luck involved. I was playing in a show band up in the Poconos when I first got out of the service. I knew I was good, but I was playing with singers, dance teams, and comedians six nights a week. They were bringing the guys from New York City up on the weekend to augment the band, and some of the top players in the world were brought up to this resort. So they would hear me play. I’d get a lot of compliments from the guys, so I felt really good about that.

One day one of the contractors in the city subbed for our bass player and he said, “Man, you gotta get into the city. I’ll get you some recording work.” So that really boosted my ego, and I thought, geez these guys say I can be one of the guys that does that kind of work. So I just waited ‘til the opportunity was right. What happened was another friend of mine Dave Frishberg (piano player) told me that Zoot Sims and Al Cohn were going to have an audition for a drummer because their regular guy at the Half Note was leaving to go on the road. I went down and played with them—sat in and got the gig. By having that gig, that’s where you kind of meet everybody in town. They come down to see Al and Zoot on a Sunday night and word goes out that there’s a new kid in town and kid plays his ass off. That’s how it happened for me. So there is a degree of luck.

Then one of the hot cats in town, Joe Beck, heard me playing and started calling me for little projects of his. Pretty soon I was in with some of the cream of the crop guys, and I was just getting more work and better work every month it seemed.

In those days it was easy too because there was so much work there were a lot of guys in the same boat. That’s how I met Paul [McCartney]. I just happened to be one of the top ten guys that was doing all the best work in town. When he came to town [to record] Ram, he said, ”Who are the top guys doing the sessions?” My name was in that batch.

Is it fair to say that it takes a little luck, but a lot of hard work and being prepared as well?

Oh yeah, you have to come in with your ass through the door. You really have to come in [the studio] with a degree of confidence, knowing what to do and knowing what not to do as well. Recording is different than playing live. You gotta really edit yourself; boil it down to the meat and potatoes. Sometimes there’s no room for anything but laying down a groove for the music to happen. Knowing what not to play is almost more important than knowing what to play.

It still amazes me today when I hear Steve Gadd or listen to the old recordings of Jeff Porcaro--the space that he used to leave in the tracks that he recorded. He still blows me away.

Being that you were a collaborative force in Wings, can you tell me, in your opinion, what is it about Paul McCartney that keeps him so relevant generation after generation? Why do they keep coming back for more?

It’s magic. (laughs) I’ve played with some of the heavyweights of our time, but McCartney has a gift—whether he’s picking up an acoustic guitar and just noodling around, or sitting at the piano, or playing a bass part. Whatever he does is just so unique. When he’s performing, playing, singing or writing, he’s just in a place of his own. I’ve yet to see that kind of talent in anyone that I have run across. That’s why people keep coming back.  Today, if  you listen to the songs that inspired a generation, or more than a generation, they’re still as meaningful as they were thirty or forty years ago. Granted some of the newer stuff doesn’t have the weight that it did, but I can’t imagine many songwriters of anytime that have a body of work to be as proud of as him.

What was the process in the studio for drum parts?

Paul wrote the songs. He would come in with the songs, and he’d play it for us, and then we’d start learning a part that would fit the song. The only time I remember Paul ever giving me any ideas was during Ram, like “Uncle Albert” or something. He didn’t tell me not to play certain things, but he’d say, “You know, that part you’re playing, I wish it could find something that wasn’t so much a regular drum part. Can you find something a little different that went along with the melody?” And I said, “Oh, yeah okay!” So he just told me to find something a little more different, and that was great fun for me. If you listen to the drum track for “Uncle Albert” it’s some goofy stuff that really works. And his music allowed me to get out of that capsule of just being a “drummer.” There’s only a handful of beats that get used on every record you’ve ever heard, and so, to come up with some creative new stuff was beyond fun. 

There you are, not just a young guy playing with Paul McCartney, but a drummer creating history. That must have been a fairly heavy realization when you landed the gig.

Very much so. During the Ram album, everyday [McCartney would] come in and he’d play us the song we were going to work on that day. Hugh McCracken or [David] Spinozza and I were the only other guys on the record, and we’d just look at each other after hearing the song and say, “This music is serious.” You know, we’re doing records every couple of days—we’re doing another record in the studio with James Brown or John Denver—but this was like so much deeper than what we were used to. So we knew it was going to be timeless right then and there. That sets you up for what’s to come, you know. You just really say, “Okay, man, this song is going to be heard for 50 years or more. I’d better come up with a really bitchin’ drum part.” There’s that responsibility thing that I was talking about earlier.

Denny, what is your take on reunion tours? Is there a feeling that maybe some bands shouldn’t do reunions and some should, or should everyone have a crack at it?

There are some bands—I won’t mention them—but there are some bands that don’t need to do a reunion. But I love to see these guys get out there and do it if it still works. I think it’s just marvelous because the business [of today] has changed so much, the musical taste has changed so much, what gets played on the radio has changed so much. I don’t think the kids get a fair shake. They don’t have a wealth of music like we did when we were growing up to draw from. I think the teenagers of today are getting short changed by the music industry—and technology as it’s gone.

From your experience, where do you see technology headed in the music industry? Are we in need of an industry overhaul?

We really are. You know, I teach a lot of young students, and I really want to inspire them to go and make records and teach them how to get into that head of being a studio musician—learn what to play the first time and be able to perform that. But to tell you the truth, I don’t know if those days are ever going to be back again. I just put in a Pro Tools home studio. I miss playing with the bands, where you’re all together in the same studio, you know, playing off of each other, bouncing ideas off of each other. Now it’s all done at somebody’s home studio track by track. Then when they get around to the drums they’ll put a machine on it and they’ll send it over to me. I’ll wipe the machine off of it and try to put live drums on it and try to ignore the click to really make it feel like a human feel, even though they’ve got it narrowed down to a perfect tempo using a click track to record it. I’ll try to make that breathe a little bit. It’s not nearly as rewarding, but that’s the way it’s gotta be done these days.

Big studios are going out of business, and people don’t spend that kind of money on records anymore. Everybody’s got a home studio, a computer and Pro Tools. It’s like isolation booths for musicians. You don’t really get that magic that happens. That’s why I still play jazz. I need to get that thing that happens that we can’t put a name on—when you’re playing and somebody plays something that makes you play something else. You play off of each other and everybody inspires everybody else. God, there’s nothing better than that.

If you could put together an all star band of players past and present, who would you invite along?

Well, you’d have to make McCartney the piano player and singer in that case. I’d have my buddy Chuck Di Monaco be the bass player. I don’t know. If I had to do a tour of the music that I really wanted to do maybe there would be someone like John Coltrane on sax and Bill Evans on piano and Chuck Di Monaco on bass. It certainly wouldn’t be pop music with those kinds of people. Even Miles Davis. I’m sorry that I missed a chance to play with Miles. I’m from that school. The first record I made was a jazz record and I’m still partial to that. I’m still partial to the Brazilian music, the Samba stuff. [The singer] in that band might be Astrud Gilberto who I used to work with years ago.

Tell me about your DVD “Performance and Legends Award Ceremony”.

I was up at the [Cape Breton International Drum festival] two times. The first time I was up, Bruce [Aitken] had a local cable company film it. They filmed everybody’s clinic at the festival that year. Some of it was good, but it had a lot of problems to it. Then the second time I was up for the Legends award, they filmed it again and this time it was a little better so I just put the two years together and took pieces from each one and turned that into a clinic if you will. There’s some jazz tracks, there’s some big band stuff, there’s an orchestral piece that I do. The DVD opens up with “Live and Let Die”--I’m just playing along with the original tracks. I just picked the best pieces out of these two years performances, put it together and Drum Workshop helped me edit it down and put some bells and whistles on it and that’s the DVD.

What is some advice you can give to younger players in the industry to be more business savvy?

Well, anytime you’re entering into a situation that’s going to yield some money, it’s just nice to have it in writing, whether it’s a letter of agreement or an actual contract or something. So much of it when I was doing the thing was all done on a handshake and there was actually no documentation. It’s just not a good thing.

Even if you’re writing a song with somebody, you might not do anything with the song for ten years, then all of a sudden that song might be the perfect song for some artist. And if you didn’t have an agreement with your partner, you might loose a friendship over who wrote this thing—How come you’re getting all the money from it? Pay attention to these little things as life roles along and make sure that everybody is covered.

What do you have coming up in the next few months?

May 15th and 16th, I’m going to be performing in Chicago at the Chicago Drum Show. I’ll be doing the clinic there. The following weekend the 22nd and 23rd I’ll be performing up at the Cape Breton International Drum Festival. During the time between now and May I have my compliment of students that I work with. I’m always looking to record my jazz trio with a young fellow by the name of Joe Bagg and John Cudini the guitar player. We had a regular gig there for a little while, so I’m looking to do some more of that. I want to record that trio so I have some of that stuff to play with in these new clinics that are up and coming. I’ve got a whole bunch of tracks from people all over the place that have heard about my drum room and their sending me tracks to put drums on. Going to keep me very busy.

 

To hear more of Denny visit him online:

http://www.dennyseiwell.com/

Photo: Alex Solca (www.alexsolca.com)




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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.



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