Rhythm Magazine interview
with Mark Walker

printed by kind permission of Future Publishing


The last time Zachary Alford graced the hallowed pages of Rhythm was in 1992, when the unfeasibly young drummer was pounding out the beats for the world’s best known musical ‘Boss,’ Bruce Springsteen, on his first global tour without the E Street Band. At the time young Zack voiced a concern that he was less than worthy of the ultimate accolade that a Rhythm interview undoubtedly is, (despite having previously toured the States, Australia and Europe with the B52’s). However, since then he’s gone on to travel the world again with yet another indisputable rock legend, David Bowie, so he must have considerably more to offer than just his quiet spoken charm. Maybe the fact that he put his own band together almost as soon as he had started playing at the age of eleven helped to forge his ability to create and complement the perfect groove, or maybe some guys are just born funky. Whatever the reason, over the last decade he’s been laying it down with some of the biggest names in the business.

When Rhythm first met Zack all those years ago it was in the cavernous auditorium that is Wembley Arena, in the rush after soundcheck before the pre gig banquet. This time we meet for lunch in the comfort and quiet of a top London hotel shortly after Zack had finished a three day session at the most famous recording studio in the world…


Rhythm: Let’s start with what you’re up to over here in Britain at the
moment.

Zack Alford: I'm working with a Japanese artist who loves London, so he likes to work at Abbey Road! His name is Tomoyasu Hotei, and he’s sold twenty five million records out in Japan, so he’s huge, though unfortunately the album will only come out over there.

Have you worked at Abbey Road before?
No, it was my first time, but it was great. You know, it’s a piece of
history. It’s been transformed now, but if you use your imagination when yougo into Studio 1 and Studio 2 you can kind of sense what it was like,because the dimensions of the rooms haven’t changed. And it was great tohave the opportunity to work with such an extensive tube mic collection. Some of them were mics that Ringo used!

Did you do the tourist photo opportunity on the zebra crossing?
No I didn’t, I was tempted, but you know. I wanted to take a picture withthe piano in Studio 2 as well, but I didn’t! Next time.
What else have you been up to recently?
I just did a summer tour with the B52s, a kind of an eighties revival thing with the Psychedelic Furs and the Go-Gos. That was great. It was particularly funny because I'd never met Richard Butler before (the Psychedelic Furs notorious lead singer), and I was a little scared, I thought he’d be kind of nasty, but he was all smiles! I think he’s in a good place in his life right now, and really happy.

You played with the B52’s at the end of the eighties, so is this the first time you’ve worked with them since?
No, I've done some stuff on and off with them, the Flintstones, a reunion tour in ’94 in the States. We’re still in touch. More stuff is on the table, but they haven’t quite made up their mind whether they’re going to write some more or just continue what they’ve been doing, which is a lot of corporate work, because it’s so easy, ha ha!

Last time you appeared in Rhythm you were on tour with Springsteen. How do you look back on the whole experience of that tour?
That was kind of like the pinnacle of rock stardom for me, because we had private jets, that whole thing. Bruce knows how to tour, he really knows how to do it, it was just fantastic. He’s an incredible person; he really looks after his own. And also he’s probably the most incredible showman I've ever been on stage with, he’s phenomenal live.
You must have been pretty young when you got that gig, how old were you?
Yeah, I was fairly young, ha ha!!

Okay, we won’t push it! The next time you toured in the UK after Bruce was with David Bowie. How did that gig come about?
Well, as with Springsteen, that was something where the phone rang out of the blue. I had just moved out of Manhattan upstate, and I was doing a recording project with someone from LA, who decided to do it at Bearsville. And I get this call that David needs a drummer, because he’s finally doing a tour that he’d been planning to do for about two and a half years, and the drummer who’d been waiting around to do it, Sterling Campbell, had just joined Soul Asylum and couldn’t do it. He happened to be one of my best friends from Junior High School, and he strongly recommended me. And there was no time for auditions, so they were kind of stuck with me, and luckily things just really clicked, so it turned into a fantastic experience. That was just awesome.

On that tour Bowie deliberately avoided playing his old hits, and any of the older material that he did perform was completely reworked, for example Andy Warhol was played with a really strange backing track. How involved was the band in the creative reworking process?
Well, David would come in with an idea and then we would interpret it. That was one of the things I liked about working with him, he was never too particular about what anybody played. Sometimes he’d have a specific idea, but not usually when it came to the drums. He’d tell Reeves (Gabrel,guitarist) or Mike (Garson, piano) what to play more specifically than me, so there was quite a bit of freedom. He wasn’t too particular; as long as he could set something in motion he was happy. That’s kind of his Dada-ist side I guess; he liked to throw things out there and leave the interpretation up to those involved, and the listener as well. But Andy Warhol oddly enough was one of the tunes that had no backing track. We triggered everything live for that.

Over the last few years Bowie has had the amazing Gail Ann Dorsey on bass. How did you enjoy working with her?
She’s like perfection, she plays all the right notes, just the right feel,
she doesn’t play too soft or too hard, too fast or too slow, it’s so easy to play with her. And she’s a monster singer on top of it.

Have you done anything else with Gail?
Yes, we did this fantastic live album and show in Paris with three of the major Rai music stars, called the 1 2 3 Soleil project. Rai is kind of North African pop, and three of the biggest players live in France, ’cause it’s really big out there, the French have a big North African population, and the French are pretty connected to African music, as the English are too,more so than in the States. Anyway, someone had the idea to get these three guys to all sing together, Khaled, Rashid Taha and Faudel, and we spent a month learning all three’s repertoires. There were sixty people on stage, a thirty piece Egyptian Orchestra, fifteen piece French string ensemble, the rhythm section was basically American, Gail, myself and Randy Jacobs, and
the Horn section was from England, the Kick Horns, plus four percussionists led by Hossam Ramzy.

Sounds like it was a big event!
Yeah, it was great; a huge success in France and the album was on the charts for a year. It was a lot of fun because I don’t do much work in France, and I really got my French together. Steve Hillage was the musical director. He’s great to work with, I've never seen someone with that much patience.

And did you enjoy playing kit with a percussion ensemble accompanying?

Well, I’d never been really attracted to percussion instruments before, but playing with Hossam changed all that. I was totally seduced by the North African percussion. Not that I don't love the drumming of Senegal, and LosMunioquitos of Cuba, but there was just something I found so exotic about this Moroccan, Tunisian, Lebanese shit! I guess it's a little bit of that Lawrence of Arabia thing. Anyway, I had Hossam bring me back a darabuka when he returned from Cairo with the orchestra!

When you started drumming you didn’t get on too well with teachers, but you did form a band very soon after first playing. How important do you think it is to play with other musicians from the outset?
I think it’s crucial because eventually that’s what you’re going to do, you’re going to end up playing with people. So it’s a good idea to develop that awareness of how to interact even before you can do all your flammadiddles and bass drum triplets and stuff.

And did that have a big influence on your playing?
Definitely. Just getting out there and banging it out before you have a whole lot of technique just develops a whole different approach. I think that’s why I have trouble playing soft because I'm more interested in pushing air than I am in executing something I've been practising.

And when you first played drums, which drummers and bands were you listening
to?

I'm sure my first heroes were Ringo and John Bonham, but that was when I was just starting out, so they were more influences than actual heroes. I think that in Junior High School, when I was about twelve or thirteen, a friend of mine introduced me to fusion jazz and you know, I heard Billy Cobham and Lenny White, and that was it, that just took over for me. So I was really into fusion in my pre-Senior High School years, and then as I got a bit older I kind of got back and rediscovered my rock roots. In particular Hendrix with Mitch Mitchell, and I started to get into reggae, especially
Bob Marley, and I rediscovered Funkadelic and Parliament. Of course I was real big on Pink Floyd too, plus Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone.

What about some of the major stars you’ve worked with since, like Springsteen and Bowie, were you into them?
I really wasn’t. I was probably more a B-52 fan than I was a fan of anyone else I've worked with. But not to the level of being starstruck or anything. I just had their record whereas I didn't have any Bowie or Springsteen records. Sterling Campbell, who as I said, we went to Junior High School together, he was completely into Bowie. I think I probably heard more Bowie from him than I actually listened to on my own. But it’s really a funny thing, there are times when I’ll sit down and try and remember what was my first recollection of a particular artist? And when I think of David I just
can’t remember when I first heard him, it just seems like I've always heard it. In other words when Sterling was playing me Diamond Dogs and Station to Station some of it was new, but some of it I knew. I suppose the first Bowie song I really remember loving was Fame, which was a hit. But I was never a Ziggy head or anything, although I was aware of it on some level. And with Bruce, Born to Run was probably the first thing of his I was aware of. That was a hit too, I remember listening to it on the radio, hearing it in my bedroom, but I wasn’t a huge fan.

Did the fact that you weren’t a huge fan make it easier or harder to play
the gigs?

Well, that actually made it really fun to work with these people, because it was a journey of discovery at the same as being a job. I got to learn all these songs that I didn’t know and when you come out at the end of it you can honestly say ‘Yeah, I know this guy’s music now!’

And what about these days, who are the new acts you’re listening to?
Lately I've been really into the Latin Playboys, and I like Beck and D’Angelo. I want to get the new Texas album, I really loved White on Blonde. I don't always keep up with the current music scene but I have to say, I love the new album from Richard Ashcroft. And I don't know if music from dead artists qualifies as "new", but someone that I've felt stronger about than anyone in a long time is Jeff Buckley. In fact he's been the biggest motivation in getting me to write music, which I'm getting into more of at the moment. I was just so completely refreshed when I heard his first album "Grace", in 1994, it made me love music all over again. And on the summer tour with the B-52s I was listening to a lot of Iggy Pop. I pulled out the CD backstage and everybody was like, "Oh yeah, I remember this!" And it became kind of our theme for the tour. We'd jam on "Now I Wanna Be Your Dog" in the soundchecks! I even read his book "I Want More" and I just got totally into it. You know how when the time is right you can just get absorbed in something. Especially since I've met Jim, (Iggy’s real name) and I've worked with David, I feel like there's some kind of connection there.
You know, the people whose shoulders you brush as you follow your destined path kind of thing, and the interconnections among them. Like I love the fact that Bruce Springsteen was hanging out at the "Young American" sessions in Philly.

What advice would you give anyone who wanted to follow a similar path to you
in the drumming world?

I would stress trying to write your own music, I would highly recommend getting a home recording set up of some kind, because that will also help your whole approach to going into the studio with other people. You can put yourself on both sides of the glass and step back and get some kind of perspective. That’s something I can’t stress strongly enough, especially for drummers, who may or may not be writing songs. Because also, you need alternatives for earning your living when you start a family. I think that just as a lot of movie stars don’t really think about how to handle their money before they get famous, I think a lot of musicians don’t consider what it might be like if they want to have families later on if they’re musicians for hire.

And finally, do you have any overall philosophy about music?
I guess I like a pretty diverse spectrum of music, but for me there're only two types of music; good and bad. No matter what the genre, you have people who do it good and people who do it not so good. Two years ago for three months I was only listening to Miles Davis and Donny Hathaway. The next year I went into a John Barry phase. It's like food. You can't eat just one style all the time. You need variety.

GEAR BOX OUT

Let’s talk about what you’re using at the moment.
I've been with Yamaha for ten years, I'm very happy with them. As soon as I
became really aware of endorsements and stuff I've always thought of Yamaha as the Rolls Royce, so I was shocked when they called me. I was just in the right place at the right time. Endorsements are a funny game. I think you’re lucky if you end up with a company that you really want to be with, but I have with Yamaha.

What kit are you using at the moment?
For this record I used a Maple Custom Absolute, and we got some of the most amazing tom sounds, really fat, Abbey Road drum sounds. I like the wooden snare, it’s a standard 14” x 5 1⁄2” Maple snare drum, and I set up two floor tom toms, a 16” and an 18”. It seems kind of indulgent, but that 18” just sounds so good, it’s so fat and satisfying when you hit it, it’s great.

And cymbals?
Zildjian. I tend to go for the darker ones and I like bigger ones too. I use a 22” ride, and at the moment I'm kind of leaning toward the 16” and 18” Dark K Customs, those are really sweet.

Do you use many effects cymbals?
Occasionally I’ll throw an 8” splash up there, and I always like to have a 22” China, I love that sound. I used it a lot on my left side on the B52’s

And electronics?
I've used electronics on and off over the years, either triggering or playing stuff from pads, but I'd say I'm happier without them. I wouldn’t want to burn the bridge, but if there are no electronics involved that’s fine with me, though the romance isn’t over. I’ll probably continue toexperiment with samples and stuff.

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