FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S APRIL 2018 ISSUE | BY DAVID A. BRENSILVER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY ALEX KLUFT
Upon hearing recordings and watching video of Tracy Thornton’s Pan Rocks projects, which feature a steel drum ensemble performing arrangements of well-known rock tunes, Los Angeles–based drummer and producer Matt Starr found himself “envisioning a show, kind of like a Trans-Siberian Orchestra meets Cirque du Soleil meets Kiss.”
Thornton’s steel drum (steelpan) arrangements and recordings, on which he had been working for years, came to Starr’s attention somewhat accidentally. In January 2017, he was meeting in Los Angeles with fellow drummer Mark Schulman (Cher, Pink), who was scheduled to meet with Thornton after Starr. After meeting Thornton, Starr said, “He had sent me a video of him at a college playing ‘Immigrant Song’ with a drummer, a bass player, and a hundred steelpan drummers. It just blew my mind, because I had never heard it applied to Western music, let alone rock and roll. This sounded like strings rather than someone hitting a steel drum. I was blown away.”
Starr, who’s worked with Ace Frehley and Mr. Big, to name just a few, told Thornton, “The sound is so orchestral in nature it really demands a large venue. And then there’s so much imagery that comes from the Trinidadian culture and Carnival, which they celebrate every year. People are walking on stilts and [there are] fire breathers … it’s mind-blowing. So that’s what I saw. And he said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Now, Starr and Thornton are focused on creating a production that shows off an instrument that’s captured the imagination of plenty of musicians and music-lovers beyond its Caribbean origins in less than half a century of existence.
Thornton, a rock-and-roll drummer himself, was first turned on to the steel drum in 1988 when he heard the instrument on the Jane’s Addiction song “Jane Says.” “I was around 18 or 19 when Nothing’s Shocking came out,” says Thornton. “So, I started researching it, listening to music out of Trinidad, and fell in love.” He found a steel drum, learned to play the instrument, and within a few years was traveling to Trinidad to learn more. Twenty years after hearing the steel drum on “Jane Says,” Thornton recorded a steel-drum-focused tribute to Jane’s Addiction and got the music to Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins. The two have since become friends, and a year ago Perkins invited Thornton to perform with a small steel drum ensemble at the Whisky A Go Go’s Ultimate Jam Night in Los Angeles.
Since he first immersed himself in the world of steel drums, Thornton has recorded and released 18 albums of music arranged for the instrument, 11 of which were released on his own Steel Pandemic Records label. The albums include original compositions as well as tributes to The Ramones, Jane’s Addiction, The Police, and Jack Johnson. Thornton’s also led performances around the United States and beyond, including appearances at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention. He chooses the tunes, works out melodies and harmonies by ear, and contracts an arranger to make charts for the drums like sections of a symphony orchestra.
French planters brought slaves from Africa to Trinidad in the late 18th century, and promptly banned African drums. As a result, in the 1930s, steel pans evolved, fashioned from various metal objects, to become a sonic hallmark of the calypso and Carnival sound.
“Ellie Mannette is credited for making the first one on a 55-gallon oil barrel,” Thornton says. “The first pans were paint tins and biscuit pans, and it was a total accident. These guys would be marching in the street playing bamboo sticks, and then one guy picked up a paint can, or a biscuit tin, and he started hitting the metal. And, of course, when you hit the metal, it changed pitch. So, the first steel drum pan had one or two pitches on it. Around 1939 or ’40, a guy named Winston ‘Spree’ Simon was credited for putting, I don’t know, three or four notes, five notes on a drum. But it was Ellie Mannette who was credited for making the first pan, putting an octave on it. And I think he played, like, Brahms’ Lullaby, or something, on the radio.”
While the steel drum is most commonly associated with Trinidadian culture, Thornton has been working for years to bring the instrument to rock-and-roll audiences. When Starr saw and heard what Thornton has been doing, he says, “I was wearing my producer hat, and my I-saw-Kiss-at-age-nine-in-1979 hat. That was the first concert I saw, so I just think like that, in terms of visuals — and how big can this thing be? In a small club, it’s okay. But you put it on a big stage, you’re like, ‘Oh, I get it. You can spit blood and fly around. Okay, great.’ That’s how it works.” To achieve the desired effect, Starr needed a rhythm section to help present the tunes the way Thornton has on his Pan Rocks albums. So, he put together a group of bona-fide rock stars.
“All the guys that we had come in are guys that I’ve worked with in the past, and I knew that they would appreciate what this is,” says Starr. Perkins was a no-brainer for the drum-set chair. Guitarists Tracii Guns (L.A. Guns) and Bruce Kulick (Kiss) signed on, as did bassist Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, David Lee Roth) and the cello-duo Emil and Dariel (Liakhovetski), who gained notoriety as contestants on America’s Got Talent.
Starr booked time at Ocean Studios, in Burbank, California, where he’d tracked drum parts for Mr. Big’s 2017 album Defying Gravity. One reason he booked time at Ocean Studios: Its large tracking room could accommodate 30 pannists. “That was the first time in my producer role that I was talking square footage with somebody,” he says.
The sessions took place in May 2017 and yielded recordings of Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing,” Kiss’ “Detroit Rock City,” Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” the holiday favorite “Carol Of The Bells,” and an original tune by Thornton called “Dain Bramage.” The rhythm section recorded its parts first, followed by the pannists. The pan drums were double-tracked, with each of the ensemble sections recorded through a pair of microphones. “When I said to Tracy, ‘How about steelpan players?’” Starr says, reflecting on the session in Burbank, Thornton told him, “Dude, I could have a hundred players here in a day. This community is so tight, and these people all want to come and play together.”
When the sessions, which were filmed by 360-degree video specialists Everest Media Productions, were done, all involved were thrilled with what was accomplished. “I played the finished product for everybody and they were all like, ‘Wow,’” Starr says, explaining, “I was in Ohio and L.A. Guns was playing and I went to the show and I was on the bus with them and Tracii goes, ‘Hey did you finish that Pan Rocks [project]?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, here, listen.’ All the guys from the band were like, ‘Where’s the steel pan?’ thinking it’s going to come in in the middle, and we’re going, ‘No, this is it.’ They’re like, ‘Oh no, those are strings.’ We’re like, ‘No, this is the steel drums.’ They were just like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ So, again, they all had the same reaction that I’ve had, which is great.” In October, Jane’s Addiction shared the video of Thornton’s arrangement of “Been Caught Stealing” on its Facebook page, and it has already been viewed more than 100,000 times.
Ready For Vegas
The goal at this point is to present the Pan Rocks project like the previously mentioned “Trans-Siberian Orchestra meets Cirque du Soleil meets Kiss” show, with the spirit of Trinidad’s Carnival. Las Vegas, of course, seems like a natural fit for such a production.
“That city’s used to doing these kinds of things, and we have contacts there, so I think that would be the starting point,” says Starr. “I think ideally there would be a show parked in Vegas, and then there would also be a touring show. That would be a calling card for people, so when they come to Vegas they can go see the original.”
Starr has also tossed around the possibility of presenting the show in different ways, for different audiences. “I think anyone who is a fan of rock and roll, who would go to a rock and roll show, could enjoy this. I would go see this and I would bring my kids to it too, because it’s rock and roll, and it’s exciting.”
“It’s almost like a field of dreams,” Thornton says. “I’m putting something together that really doesn’t exist. I have no idea who’s going to be in the band once this thing drops, or if we’re going to be 12 pan players or 25. So, it’s real exciting, it’s definitely moving and it seems like every day or every time I talk to Matt there’s something crazy going on to move everything forward.”
Pan For The People
For Thornton, who does performances and clinics around the world, Pan Rocks is about introducing people to the sound and the instrument he loves. “I do high schools all over the country. I go to New Philadelphia, Ohio — it’s this little, tiny town — and they have a 50-piece steel-drum band at their high school, and there are bands like that all over the country. And these kids are killing it, man. And we’re just trying to get that out from the underground.”
The pannists who played on the recordings made at Ocean Studios, for instance, come from all walks of life. “They had come from all over the country and Canada to be part of this thing,” says Starr. “There’s a whole community of these steelpan drummers that exist in every state. That was something I didn’t know.”
Many of the pannists are teachers, says Thornton, “and they have teaching gigs — teaching pan or percussion in colleges or high schools or elementary schools. A couple of them are professional musicians, but I would say about 90 percent of them are probably educators. A couple of them had just gotten out of college.”
For Thornton and Starr, the vision is clear: Pan Rocks is something the world needs to see and hear. Thornton speculates the majority of people who saw the “Been Caught Stealing” video were not yet familiar with steelpan. “I’d love to be a bridge between Trinidadian culture and what they’re doing and what I’m doing,” he says. “Then it’s like, ‘Hey man, we like this steel pan thing,’ and I can then say, ‘Well, go check out this stuff that’s going on in Trinidad. It’s going to blow you away.’ So that’s just a beautiful thing. You get to educate people on the history of the instrument and the culture. I’m in Trinidad all the time. It’s my home away from home. They’ve been real accepting, the people I know down there, knowing that there’s a sense of integrity and we’re not stealing the art form, we’re trying to expand it.”
“It’s intriguing,” Starr says, “and also, again, there’s the international nature of this — the fact that kids in Texas are listening to this art form that was invented in Trinidad, on the other side of the world, and are seeing it fused with rock and roll, that’s a good thing for me. Bringing different cultures together, bringing different nationalities together, is really important.”