In Conversation With Carmine Appice

carmine appice on drums

Along with Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker, Carmine Appice was one of a few drummers who exploded into popular music in the late ’60s and completely changed rock drumming. But while Mitchell and Baker freely borrowed from jazz drummers like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, Appice’s sound with Vanilla Fudge was nothing short of snarling, heavy, radical, unapologetic rock drumming. The most active member of Vanilla Fudge after the band’s breakup in 1970, Appice went on to play with Cactus, Beck, Bogert & Appice, and Rod Stewart. Today he leads Slamm, a theatrical drumming troupe that combines his percussive skill with his innate flair for showmanship. Appice spoke to TRAPS about the highlights of his long career as the prototypical hard rock drummer.

What’s your opinion of the current state of the recording industry?
Oh God, it’s terrible [laughs]. It’s really bad. I mean, let’s put it into perspective. I just looked at a new live Jeff Beck album that’s coming out. It’s coming out on Eagle Rock Entertainment. Okay? You know what that is?

I do. We have the CD at the office.
Okay. For his whole career he was on Epic — a major CBS label — and now he’s on Eagle Rock. That sort of puts it a little bit in perspective. You know, a lot of artists that are well known and big don’t even have record deals. The only people getting signed to major labels are young bands, and it’s really a shame.

What impact has the decline in CD sales had on music?
If you listen to the heavy music, all the music’s the same. My son listens to all that stuff and I happen to say, “Who’s this?” “Oh, it’s Avenged Sevenfold.” “Oh, who’s this?” “As I Lay Dying.” “Who’s this?” “So and so, and so and so.” And pretty much it all sounds the same. The melodies are very similar on all these songs. It’s very homogenized. I can’t tell one from the other. There’s nothing unique and different coming out where you go, “Wow! That was amazing!” But they’re getting signed. It sort of started a little bit in the ’80s. That’s why when the ’90s came with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and Nirvana, what a welcome breath of fresh air that was.

Back to good old rock and roll.
Back to good old raunchy, dirty, rock and roll. The cool thing about that era was that it was very bass- and drum-oriented music. It was very cool time signatures and weird ones. It was very progressive. It was really, really great. Then after that we got into Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync and all that stuff, and they’re still in that direction, mixed up with the rap. I’ll tell you, the coolest thing I’ve listened to lately, I downloaded some Beyoncé songs with Jay-Z. I heard it on the Virgin America flight. It really impressed me because the drum rhythms were mixed with Middle Eastern riffs and melodies — it was awesome. So when I go to the gym I listen to that, and then I follow it by “Bonzo’s Montreux.”

I think a couple of the younger guys at the office get tired of hearing me say how great the music scene was in the ’60s and ’70s. There were so many different styles happening at once, and people went out to hear live music more often. But the main thing is that I think we were really lucky to be alive back then, because I don’t think we’re going to see anything like that again.
You’re exactly right. I feel really blessed that I grew up and made it in that era. Because all the stuff we all did — the stuff that I am [credited with] starting was just stuff that I did out of necessity. I pioneered the use of big drum sets and played with the butt end of the sticks early on. I did that because there were no P.A. systems. So I was part of a great musical movement, including The Beatles and everybody else. The ’60s and ’70s were amazing.

What’s your favorite memory from the years you spent with Vanilla Fudge?
Well, there are a lot of them. Like playing on The Ed Sullivan Show, twice. I mean, that was unbelievable — going down in the elevator, asking the elevator operator, “How many people watch this show?” And he goes, “About 50 million.” So talk about getting butterflies in your stomach. And now Ddrum’s releasing a Carmine ES drum kit — it’s called the ES kit for “Ed Sullivan” because it’s the same drum kit on Ed Sullivan the first time — a Red Sparkle kit with the 26″ x 15″ bass drum. I remember when I went to England with that, all the drummers — Mitch Mitchell, Keith [Moon], and all the guys who were famous then — would say to me, “What’s with that bass drum? Man, it’s loud!” We had no P.A. system and so it had to be loud.

That was a Ludwig kit, right?
Actually, it was a Gretsch kit. A Gretsch kit with a Leedy-Ludwig bass drum. I bought that bass drum at a pawnshop for five bucks. It was an old drum. In those days an old drum didn’t warrant anything but five bucks.

I hope you still have the kit.
I still do. So I bought the kit, and then, in those days, the only real magazine where you could look at drums was Downbeat. And in Downbeat they used to have ads for companies that made sparkle and pearl wrap that you could order. So I ordered the Red Sparkle from them and when they sent it to me I cut it myself, measured it. I took the whole bass drum apart and took off the … I guess it was a White Pearl or something on there. I took it off, sanded it all down, and then I put the new Red Sparkle wrap on, glued it on there myself, drilled the holes, I re-drilled everything. And I didn’t have a tom holder on the bass drum because it didn’t come with one, and I didn’t want to put one on anyway, because it was so tall. So I put the tom tom on a snare drum stand, which was a unique thing for 1967. It was an innovative drum set. Sounded great too. All the people who saw it freaked out over it.

Hard rock drumming was still in its infancy when you first hit it big with Vanilla Fudge, so you had to literally invent your own vocabulary. Were you influenced at all by jazz drummers?
Oh yeah, without a doubt. They were my influences. Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, and Joe Morello were my four guys. I think I got my time-signature stuff from Joe Morello. I got all that stuff on the bass drums from Max, I got the showmanship from Gene, and I got the fire, the viciousness from Buddy.

You’re such a stereotypical rock drummer, though.
Well, it just happened that way because I originally grew up playing jazz and rock and Latin and weddings and bar mitzvahs and all that stuff. I played everything. All through my teens I would play all kinds of society gigs, as they called it. Then when I got out of high school I just wanted to be like my teacher. My teacher was a drummer who made a really good living playing drums. He would play, like, four gigs on the weekend, teach during the week, and he’d make himself about $700 a week. Now, we’re talking 1963, 1964. Okay? So, he’d make himself, like, $35,000, $40,000 a year — in those days, that was really good money. He had his own house. He drove a really nice car, like, a Caddie. He had a great lifestyle. He had a basement with a cool drum studio downstairs, all finished up nice. So for me, that was it — that’s what I wanted to do. So I played the same kind of stuff.

And then in 1966 these guys came into a club I was playing and asked me to join the band. The band was called The Pigeons. They said they were looking for somebody who had a great right foot and good hands and who could sing. They were going to start working with this manager who would pay us a salary to try and become a recording group and make it. That hadn’t ever even crossed my mind. So for me, that was a life-changing decision I had to make there. I had a lot of fear about it because I was playing with my friends for years, and we played a lot of gigs. I made money. But that was it. I was just staying in that same circle — it wasn’t going anywhere, but it was a steady gigging thing. But you know, that would be interesting to be like The Rascals. You know what I mean? So I made the decision and I went, and The Pigeons changed our name to Vanilla Fudge. Nine months later, we had a record on the charts.

Things moved so quickly — your head must have spun.
Oh yeah. I said, “Man, that was easy.” We did “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” it came out, and it was amazing. And then the album came out three months later and hit the charts at #200. Second week, it was #33. And we were like, “No way! Oh my God!” And then it went up to the Top Ten without a hit single. And then we found out it was harder to stay there than it was to make it.

Vanilla Fudge’s history was short-lived — really, just a couple of years — but you didn’t seem to miss a beat. As soon as Vanilla Fudge dissolved you immediately formed Cactus.
Well, it was immediately. We broke up Vanilla Fudge to do Cactus with Jeff Beck. Rod Stewart was going to be our singer. Then Jeff Beck had a car accident, and was going to be laid up for two years, so we just broke up Vanilla Fudge. I was 23, 24 years old. I wanted to play, I didn’t want to sit at home and fuck around like these English musicians, do a tour every two years, that wasn’t me. That wasn’t Tim [Bogert, Vanilla Fudge bassist]. We wanted to play.

Many drummers who were active back then have since faded into obscurity. But you kept a high profile with one big gig after another. I assume you’re a really good businessman.
Well, I was and I wasn’t. I mean, I wasn’t a good businessman because I got married five times and lost a couple of million bucks in divorces. I was a good businessman in that I had Cactus and I wrote a drum book [Realistic Rock] when I was in Cactus — and that’s when I started realizing there was a whole drum industry I didn’t even know about. Then Ludwig was really the one that forced me into doing clinics. And in retrospect, I was the very first rock drummer to ever do a clinic. And I was the very first rock drummer to ever write a book. I didn’t relate the two together, but they said, “Hey, look, you’ve got a book now; you’ve got to do clinics in order to make the book sell, just like you go out and do shows to make your record sell.” I said, “Really? Wow, that’s interesting.” I did my first clinic replacing Joe Morello in a Ludwig symposium in Florida.

You also did clinics with Morello. What was that like?
I had different concepts I was doing then. Joe asked me to take fours with him, and I’ve got to say I was shitting a brick. I sat down on the drums, looked at Joe Morello on my right, and my arms were shaking. But I realized when I started taking fours that I could play some swing things and some jazz things, but he couldn’t play the rock stuff that I did. That’s when I realized that those guys do what they do and I do what I do. It went over great, and then I started doing clinics. All my clinics in those days — I had clinics that had tons of people. In ’82 I was around doing clinics for my solo album I was doing. All my clinics had 900, 1,000 people at them. They were like gigs; they weren’t like clinics.

Let’s talk about songwriting. In particular, what did you bring to the table with your songwriting collaborations with Rod Stewart?
The songwriting started back in high school. I majored in music in high school, so I learned how to play chord structures on piano. And from doing that I actually learned how to get those same chord structures on guitar and bass — so that’s where my songwriting capabilities came in. So Rod used to listen to songs and tell all the bandmembers, “Hey, I want a song like ’Missing You’ from The Rolling Stones.” So I went home — I had an electronic piano there — and I came up with chords for the verses and the bridge, and the melody for the bridge of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” So then I went to see my friend Duane Hitchings, who had a studio. He took my chords and we put a drum machine pattern into it, so when I presented it to Rod on the demo it sounded a bit better. So I wrote the verse changes, the bridge changes, and the melody, and Rod wrote the chorus and the lyrics. So that’s how that happened. And Rod was always fair — he’d always split it equally. He wasn’t an asshole. And before those days, with Beck, Bogert & Appice and Cactus, I co-wrote all those songs. I was always writing songs. I mean, I had probably 120, 130 songs on my catalog at ASCAP.

Drummers don’t often consider contributing much more beyond drumming — like writing books and songwriting. But those types of things can really enhance your revenue.
Oh yeah, I talk about that at clinics. I say to the drummers there, “Look, if you’re in school, try and learn some theory and harmony; try and learn some chord structure so you can get involved in the songwriting process. Because what happens is, you join a band and usually the guitar player and the singer will write the songs. So what ends up happening is they’ll be driving around in Corvettes or Lamborghinis, and the drummer and bass player will have Volkswagens. That’s the difference.” And they go, “What do you mean, that’s the difference?” I mean, the whole key to being successful in this business is to own copyrights, whether to songs or drum books or videos. I’ve made so much money with the songs that I wrote in my life, so much money because I own the copyright of Realistic Rock — I mean, literally millions of dollars have gone through my bank accounts for these things.

You’re well known for recording with Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, and Vanilla Fudge. But there are some surprises in your discography, like Bo Diddley, Ronnie Wood, and Stanley Clarke — even Pink Floyd.
I’m not really known as a full-blown session guy, because I never really did want to be a session guy. I always thought that I had a special drum sound and a feel and stuff, and I wanted to keep that for my own projects. And every once in a while something would come along that I thought was a good career move because of the people who were calling me. But if Joe Schmo called me up said, “Hey, I want you to play on my album,” I wouldn’t do it, because I don’t need the $500, $1,000, whatever it is they’re going to pay me to play on the track, because that’s not what I do.

They really are two different worlds, aren’t they? Some drummers play in bands and others are session players.
Oh yes, without a doubt. I’ve hung out recently with Marco Minnemann, and he did a lot of sessions in Germany from what I hear. And Russ Miller has been telling me that a lot of these guys don’t even go into studios anymore. They have a studio in their house and people just email them the tracks — it’s crazy.

You might not ever meet the guy you’re working with.
It’s terrible, there’s no communication at all between musicians. You’re playing to a computer. You listen to the original “You Keep Them Hangin’ On.” Did the vocals and everything all at once, in one-take mono. Seven-and-a-half minutes that changed my life. You can hear one of my drum sticks fall off the drums and onto the floor with earphones. But that’s what made things good in those days. Sometimes mistakes happen, and they work. You know? But today it’s so clinical — it’s awful.

You celebrated your 62nd birthday last December, and you’re still rocking out. Does drumming keep you young?
I think it does. I’ve always had a very immature attitude for my age. My girlfriend says, “You’re 61, but you’re very sufficiently immature. Even when I was in my forties I didn’t act like I was 40 — I acted like I was 20. And that comes from my father — he told me when he was 75 that his body is 75 but in his brain he’s still 17. And that’s basically how I’ve been all my life. I get very inspired by playing music and drums, and I think it helps keep me young. I try to be healthy. I go to the gym. I try to go at least four times a week. I never got hooked on the cocaine and the drugs and the drinking. So that’s probably why I don’t look as old as I should be. My girlfriend keeps me young.

Do you plan to retire one day or will you just keep playing right up to the end like Buddy or Elvin?
I’m not planning to retire at all. Hopefully I’ll drop dead of a heart attack on a drum set. That’s the way I should go — either that or in bed having sex.