Marco Minnemann is one of the most gifted, innovative and cutting edge drummers on the scene today. With his unusual drum set up, mind-boggling compositions and 15 solo albums he has established himself amongst the drumming elite.
In this interview Marco shares some of his musical experiences, composition tips and tells us all about Catspoon:
You were catapulted onto the big stage at the age of 20, what was that like?
You know, I’d been playing gigs since the age of 13 and I already took music very seriously. I loved how I was able to connect with the audience and I really felt this great passion for it. It was not about the business, it was about me playing good. Am I giving a good energy so I can get energy back from the audience. That was my intention and when I joined the ‘Freaky Fukin Weirdoz’, we were signed to BMG and started recording and touring big time. That was really just like a great bonus – to be able to perform more and in different countries, release records and spread the word that I’m out there. It gave me a nice chance to write my own music and present that to the public as well. It was exciting. We all had no money and lived on tour buses!
You’ve since played with a diverse group of artists including Paul Gilbert, Nena, Mike Keneally, FFW, Gianna Nannini, Garry Willis, The Kelly Family and many more. How have these collaborations influenced you?
There’s always gigs that are fun gigs and gigs that are sometimes business orientated – you never know. Sometimes those gigs that you think would be really boring and just in for the business turn out to be really great collaborations. Then other gigs maybe don’t. You know, when you play with killer musicians and you think, ‘Oh my god, he’s an ass hole!’ That happens too.
To be very honest, Mike Keneally, who lives round the corner from me here in San Diego is one of the best musicians I’ve ever worked with and still work with whenever I can because we have mutual rhythmic understanding and mutual musical connection. It’s the same now with Adrian Belew who we tour with and Eddie Jobson. These guys are really, really good and they are in it for the music. You can tell that the music is the most important thing and everything else happens around it.
I really mean what I play now and I think that’s important. I never do things half hearted and when I write music or play music I really mean it.
You’ve developed a very unique sound and style of drumming? What study and practice have you done over the years to get to this level?
I was heavily influenced by the book Stick Control. That helped me when I was around 11 or 12 to develop rudiments and then bring that to the drumset and make it side independent. I invested (and I still do) around 3-4 hours playing a day and 3-4 hours composing a day. That’s what I do -sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s more but I’m always playing and composing. I don’t measure it as such but here’s the key – If you try to develop a little thing everyday, even if it’s just like one exercise, then that’s a big step.
When people ask me what drummers I listened to or what drummers I was influenced by as a kid my answer is always, that I never really did listen to a lot of drumming. I started playing organ first of all and then piano and then guitar, which is how I write my albums. That’s my passion, that’s my thing, the overall packaged music.
When I write something I have to automatically play it and so that’s how I come up with drum parts and like three hi-hats in my drum set-up. It was just basically being influenced by music and trying to bring that thing to life somehow. For example, I learned to play rudiments and combinations on two hi-hats in almost a stereo effect – one on the right side and one on the left side and I have a gong drum on the left side which I use as a bass drum so I can play a cool beat with my left hand between the bass and snare while doing maybe a ride pattern with my right hand and I have the hi-hat going with my feet.
How have you developed your composition and production skills?
I mainly studied in books to be honest and then just through experience. I had organ lessons when I was really young (7-8 years old) and drum lessons for the first few years but kind of stopped those things. It’s kind of bizarre, when I write music I hardly really know or care exactly what chord structure I’m playing on my guitar because that only limits your freedom. You know you start to think I can’t play the 9 on this kind of chord then before you know it the song is just some constructed kind of thing. I don’t like that. For harmony playing or chords you should listen to what your ears like.
It’s the opposite on the drums because I think it’s really important to know what you’re doing. If the drums don’t groove or you don’t know how 15/16 works then you’re lost. I really believe that on drums you should learn as much as possible.
Being a multinstrumentalist how do you go about writing your material?
A lot of the time it’s a guitar riff. I get inspired by something I’m playing and then start the engine here and record it. Or, I come across a really cool drum solo I like in my practice routine or a groove that I like then develop something out of that and put a bass to it. Most of the time it’s actually a guitar riff or a piano lick that evolves into a song.
When I write I know exactly what I want but I think the biggest challenge is to produce it, dive into it and get a really good sound. Sometimes you have an idea in your head and you know what you want it to sound like but then all of a sudden it sounds like crap and you don’t know what’s going on. You’re thinking ‘What is it? Do I need to re-amp the guitar and play it again? That riff was so strong and it sounded so good when I was playing it on my own. All of a sudden now it’s all together it doesn’t right.’ That can happen, sometimes a strong song idea doesn’t sound that good when it evolves and vice versa, you write a tiny thing that sounds OK and then you develop it and it’s really cool.
When I started off with my first two records (Marco now has 15 solo albums) I tried not to lose any songs. I didn’t want to waste any riffs or compositions and really tried to make something out of each idea – but I was always frustrated when it didn’t work. What I’ve learned is that I can sit back and relax about these things and just concentrate on the really good ideas. When I start recording and it starts sounding good then I work on it. If it doesn’t sound good, even if it’s not close to 100% I just lose the idea and maybe use it somewhere else. That’s a very important lesson you learn through experience.
You write and record in your own home studio. What set-up do you have?
Apart from the drums, I record everything here at home in my living room. I work on a Mac Book pro and I have a Fireface 400 audio interface. I have a KRK monitoring system with subwoofer, Marshall amps, a Vox, some nice little SPL preamps, SSL plug-ins which are amazing, some Stillwell plugins and I run Cubase 5. That’s a great program – Kraftwerk use it and there records always sound good!
I record drums in a storage locker. They put my up on the second floor because I can get a nice reverb from all the structures around in this industrial style space. It’s really great for recording.
Can you tell us about your latest solo release, Catspoon?
It was recorded in a very relaxed environment at my home here in San Diego. It’s actually a story about a cat who I think is outside my door right now. I was out walking with a neighbour of mine who is a drummer too and all of a sudden there was this really cool, young cat following us the entire time. We started bringing him food out and all of a sudden he joined us. He’s this really big, strong and powerful cat. He’s also one of the most social and intelligent cats I’ve seen in my life. Whenever I would record my songs he would hang around eating and listening and so I dedicated that album to the cat! I sacrificed one of my spoons which was a little old and rusty to give him food all the time and that’s how that record was called Catspoon.
I like this album a lot because it has a certain ease to it. A lot of songs were planned for the UKZ album I’m planning to do with Eddie Jobson but they ended up on my album because the working process for the UKZ album is so slow that I decided to release the songs myself. A few of the songs are rock oriented and there are three or four tracks that are really experimental and very complex in their structure. All in all, it’s very easy to have access to that album. It feels very organic and not overpowering. The album has a nice balance to it.
With all your achievements and recordings to date what keeps you motivated?
Motivation is the most important thing because If you don’t have motivation you’re not going anywhere. Otherwise you end up playing in top 40 bands all your life – I don’t want to put that down, I did a Police tribute for a while which was fun – but the perspective is always to be innovative and always go to certain places you have never been before. I think it’s like traveling, you don’t always go to the same place, some people do but I like to explore. Say you are going to South Africa or something, you think, ‘I can’t wait to see this country and see what’s going on!’
It’s the same with music. Once I enter a room I want to go to the next room and see what’s going on in there. I don’t want to go back, I always want to look forward to these things. I’m very interested in collaborating with musicians that give me and them a challenge. When I work with musicians I never choose them for there names, I always choose them for something that I like or is special about them. Maybe they are not discovered yet or they have a particular strength. For example, I’m about to go to LA to work with two girls from this band called the Binges – they’re from Japan, they have a great Rock attitude and with their looks together it’s so bizarre that you think ‘Wow, what is that?’ I like stuff like this and these are people I want to bring to the stage.
What are your goals for the future?
Everything is good right now, but lets think. Somehow make $2million (laughs!) to buy a really cool place here on the beach. That’s definitely a goal, to have a bigger house with a studio. My girlfriend lives in Montreux so we also have the goal of her moving down here.
Musically, I think it would be great to form this really cool band that give you like a fortress around you. Like a home or something like that. With my solo career, it works, but sometimes it feels nice to have a band, like Queen, you know. Something big and your just focussed on this thing. That’s maybe my next step, to form a killer band and work at that for a while.
What advice would you give to aspiring drummer/composers who’d like to follow in your footsteps?
First of all, don’t follow in my footsteps, follow in the footsteps of David Gilmore or Brian Eno because they make way more money (laughs). Seriously, I’m not doing that bad because my music works and my career works so the advice that I would give is to really believe in what you do and if you have success with it, you know, the audience appreciates it and people come to you and say it’s cool then you’re doing something right.
If another musician or somebody from some company says to you, you can’t do this or you can’t do that – I wouldn’t really care too much about it. People are helpless when they are confronted with something they have never heard in their life before and this is the risk because that’s when musicians start repeating and covering other bands, basically copying what’s already been done before.
Try to create something because that’s what’s going to make you unique.
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