"It was a great time. I've had some good eras in my life, and that was one of them." - Harley Feinstein, Sparks drummer, 1971-1974.
Recently, I spoke with Harley Feinstein, who drummed with Sparks during their formative years, from 1971-1974. During those years, the band released two albums: Sparks, their 1972 debut produced by Todd Rundgren, and its 1973 follow up, A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing, produced by Thaddeus James Lowe. Lowe, who was a founding member of the Electric Prunes, was also the sound engineer on the first record. In addition to Harley on drums, Ron Mael on keyboards, and Russell Mael on vocals, that band also included another set of brothers, Earle and Jim Mankey on guitar and bass guitar, respectively. In 1974, Ron and Russell Mael moved to England and reconstituted Sparks, with new musicians.
Harley and I recapped some ground covered in two excellent and highly recommended podcasts with Harley conducted in 2013, but also focused on the the formation, production, and performance of Sparks' music during the time that Harley was involved - in particular from a drummers' perspective. (Steve Worrall's two essential Retrosonic podcasts can be found at: http://retroman65.blogspot.com/search/label/Sparks).
Harley remains musically active and we also talked about some of his current projects. I am very grateful for Harley's generosity with his time. Herewith, highlights of our conversation.
Monte: What inspired you to become a drummer, and when?
Harley: That would have been around 1963, before the British Invasion. Surf music was my thing. I suppose that might be in part because I was in Southern California. I remember getting very excited over Wipeout, and then the Vultures. The instrumental surf music - Dick Dale and the Deltones. The vocal surf music that I heard later, the Beach Boys and the Rip Chords - I liked that but it wasn't what I considered surf music. I considered the instrumental music to be surf music. That was the kind of drumming I liked. Maybe even before that, seeing Polynesian drummers throwing their sticks in the air, pounding away - that appealed to me. Wipeout was like that, and that's what appealed to me.
I was in junior high school - 13 or 14 - and they'd have surf music playing and I just felt like all eyes were on the drummer.
Monte: Were you thinking about a career in drumming at that point?
Harley: No, I was not. It was something I did because I enjoyed it.
Establishing the Band
Monte: Can you recap how you first got in touch with the Maels?
Harley: The short story is that I put an ad up in Ace Music in Santa Monica, and Russell found it and gave me a call. Around that time, I was around 19, and I was in college, but I wasn't sure what I was going to do with my life. And my brother said, you know, what you should consider is becoming a recording engineer, because I've heard that there are these guys recording and making an album, and apparently the recording engineer is the one in control of things and making the good money, so you should seriously consider that. I started moving in that direction, and around that time, that's when Russell and I connected, and just by coincidence, it turned out those were the guys that were making the recording that had led me to becoming a recording engineer. They were in the process of recording the (unreleased) album now referred to as "the Demo," that's what they were working on. (note: the "demo" album, is a fully realized, self produced album that the band would use to promote itself and to obtain a recording contract.
When I first had some contact with Russell - he was the first person I spoke to - they were making music and very serious about it. Having fun, but probably the most serious musicians I had spoken to. They were serious musicians not in a technical sense, but in a career sense. And they didn't have a drummer. They told me yeah, we have some drums on this song, and not on that song, but we basically are a band without a drummer. And, we like being a band without a drummer. But the way it was explained to me by Russell was that for a band to tour, and promote its records, there needed to be a drummer for live performances. I think that's what they were thinking when they plugged me into the operation.They were not hesitant to not use drums, and not use guitars.
Harley: One of the drummers that they used was John Mendelsohn, but I think he had (and has) too strong a personality, and is far too opinionated and persuasive, for Ron and Russ to handle. They considered him a very intimidating fellow. So he wasn't going to be the drummer in the band, though he was a perfectly adequate drummer.
The manager of the band, Mike Berns, played some drums, and he really wanted to be the drummer in the band but they didn't want him to be in the band. Probably because he looked like Charles Manson!
Monte: You've made the point though, that where you'd traditionally have your snare on the two and four beats, he put it on one and three.
Harley: That was a complaint that Ron, Russ and Earle articulated to me, that he wasn't playing a backbeat. I'm not sure why he did that.
Band Dynamics - and Making The Music
Monte: I shared with you a quote from Ron in 2002, where he said that your band "was the first and the last time that Sparks was truly a democracy, five equals and friends." You have a song (Beaver O'Lindy) where all the band members get a writing credit, two Earle Mankey songs...was there really an effort to have that kind of band experience or were Ron and Russell already clearly in charge?
Harley: This was in the early 1970s, and to act like you were in a position of authority, it wasn't that cool. We were just friends making this music. And that was the feeling. What would have given Ron and Russ the right to call themselves the leaders? That would have provoked laughter. In theory there was no leader in the band. That was in theory. We were just five guys making music.
In practice, though, those that had the most ideas would tend to be the leader and influence what was done, of course. It was really Ron and Russ and Earle. Ron and Russ were no more authoritative that Earle in those days. As the drummer I didn't really have anything to say about notes and chords and such, so my influence was bound to be much less than those other guys. I was simply more worried about what I did than what they did.
Monte: It sounds like Earle Mankey was very involved in the writing.
Harley: Very much. Earle was equal to Ron and Russ. At the time, I saw eye to eye more with Ron and Russ. I liked their ideas a little more than Earle's. But Earle was just as influential. In fact Earle made more comments to me about what I should be doing than Ron and Russ. I don't have any recollection of Ron every saying, "hey you oughtta play that one with a louder snare crack or you ought to cool it on the cymbal crashes, wait until the chorus, and then start playing the ride cymbal but switch to the High Hat during the verses...I don't recall ever getting any of that kind of thing. Earle, yes. Earle would tell me what do do.
Monte: In a recent interview with (current Sparks drummer) Tammy Glover, she talks about how her parts are mostly laid out by Ron and Russ beforehand.
Harley: When I was in the band it was completely different. We had a little practice studio that we rented for $75 dollars a month and and whoever had the song - and that was either Ron, Russ, or Earle - they'd say, OK, I have a new song I'd like us to start working on, and that person would generally have an acoustic guitar and start strumming it out, and they tended to sound a lot like the Kinks, like Ray Davies strumming on a guitar, and then the band would have at it. Earle had the most exotic tastes in music. He was a big fan of Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and he'd do something really oddball, and my perception is that Ron and Russell's ideas were more what you'd expect to hear.
Monte: You wouldn't think that would be the case.
Harley: Yeah, Earle definitely had the more non-standard, exotic sounding ideas.
Monte: Did you feel then that the band was doing something really different? If you listen to a typical pop song there's a pretty traditional structure, but almost none of the songs on those two records follow that pattern. Did you sense that you were doing something special with the music?
Harley: Oh yeah, we felt we were doing something "uncategorizable" at the time. You couldn't help but be aware of it because every day someone would say, "what kind of music do you guys do?" No one could really find a clear way to explain what we were doing. It was a bit of a concern, but we were all kind of proud of it. I remember someone wrote that they thought we were a cross between Cream and Herman's Hermits. We would really thrash on stage and were kind of loud, so I guess that was the Cream part. But then we had these concise little songs and a delicate fellow up front singing, so there was the Herman's Hermits part.
Monte: You have jazz influences in a couple places, and the multi-part arrangements, and strings on the second album, and it seems like you were very open to that kind of eclecticism.
Harley: That would be true.
Monte: And you mentioned on the Retrosonic podcasts that Bearsville was very supportive.
Harley: Yeah - they wouldn't have signed us otherwise. Our manager at the time, Mike Berns, was sending around a box (with the demos and pictures), and one of the boxes was sent to Todd Rundgren and his girlfriend, Miss Christine. She claims that she had the influence in getting us signed. She liked in particular the song Roger. She thought Russell was singing, not "Roger, Roger," but "La Cucaracha, La Cucaracha..."
|Sparks 1972 debut - |
Harley's second from right
Todd came to see us perform at a little mini-concert at our practice studio, and there was one song that Earle said shouldn't have any drums, or just minimal drums, and that was Simple Ballet. So I said, "how about if I go into the other room, with a floor tom and a cymbal, and I'll play my part in the other room so it'll sound like distant drums?" and they thought that was a good idea. So Todd Rundgren comes over and we said, "for this song Harley is going to leave the room," and I pick up my stuff and go in the other room and we do the song, and later he said, that was one of the coolest things he'd ever seen.
Later, as we were (preparing to record the second album, A Woofer In Tweeters Clothing), he said, "you guys have changed a bit, you don't do that oddball stuff anymore, you should get back to that kind of thing."
I used a single bass drum on the first Sparks album but a double on the second. You can hear it on the very end of Do Re Mi. Those "flams" in Girl From Germany are actually snare and double bass drum.
I used a Rogers set on the first album (detailed below in the section on Harley's gear). I remember using an extremely thin crash. It had a very short decay. I liked to play quarter notes on it. You'll hear it on No More Mr. Nice Guys during the loud instrumental sections. Instead of 4 on the floor (the bass drum) I was playing 4 on the crash.
Monte: Speaking of those two albums, there seems to be a progression toward darker lyrics.
Harley: I never paid too much attention to the lyrics. (An exception is) Girl From Germany, I was interested in the lyrics to that song. They would write songs, for example, someone would say "no more Mr. nice guy," and then suddenly a few days later a song like No More Mr. Nice Guys appears and I think that was part of the technique Ron would use. He would hear a phrase. Hasta Manana Monsieur, a funny phrase that caught his attention. He would build a song from that one phrase.
|Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing - |
Harley's in the yellow T-Shirt
Monte: When I hear those two albums, I think that Thaddeus James Lowe brought more out of you guys. He seemed to have that engineering perspective, but also from a drummer's view, the cymbal sound is much better on that album.
Harley: James was the engineer on the first album and I think a lot of the effort of getting the right sound is due to his efforts on both albums. James knew what he was doing.
Monte: On the first album you had more straightforward parts. By the second one there's a more assertive drum sound overall, for example on Do Re Mi, Nothing is Sacred, and many of the others. They were challenging parts. How did you approach those songs?
Harley: When I first started playing with those guys I could hardly play the drums. Extremely basic, extremely simple. I played a lot with those guys. We practiced quite a bit. That is how I developed, how I learned to play the drums, by playing with those guys. And, listening to the music they liked, my musical tasted broadened considerably. We were listening to the Who a lot. You mentioned Do Re Mi, I was listening to I Can See For Miles.
Monte: I can hear the influence, now that you mention it! And No More Mr. Nice Guys, you change beats a couple times in that song - at one point you go into a cut time tempo a little bit.
Harley: Yeah, at the end a bit. I had seen the Beach Boys, and at the end of Sloop John B, Dennis Wilson slips into that 2/4 beat, and I thought, that's kind of cool, I'll use it on something.
An interesting story involves the recording of Big Bands. Todd sat cross-legged next to my snare drum with his wallet in his hand. During the quite parts he placed the wallet on the snare head. Then he would take it off for the loud parts.
On Wonder Girl, I originally played it something like Neanderthal Man by 10cc. Todd thought it might be better if I played along to a tape delay, which would double what I was playing. And that's what you're actually hearing.
Monte: On Do Re Mi, the drumming sounds almost chaotic, but when you really listen to it and break it down, what you're doing is very methodical - it's very carefully constructed.
Harley: I played that one the exact same way every time. What I like about that is how the bass and drums were locked in. Jim Mankey was a very good bass player.
Monte: On Beaver O'Lindy there's also a lot of nice parts, and you have that perfect single stroke roll right in the middle. So I wanted to give you your kudos on that.
Harley: Thank you. I don't know why I did a drum roll there, but Jim Lowe added something to it, which made it sound better. He added a Cooper - the Cooper Time Cube, and it was a type of echo. He added the echo to it, and it sounded better.
Monte: That is an amazing song - there seems to be some songs you really enjoy playing.
Harley: I liked Do Re Mi - that was the song I got to really cut loose on. That was our big rave-up number at the end.
Monte: Let's talk about the live performances a little bit. In the video of you guys performing in Germany, you see Ron doing a lot of the stuff he became famous for later - the vamping to the camera, the severe mustache - even then there was a visual aspect to the band that was critical to the overall presentation. Was there always an image consciousness with the band?
Monte: How could you play drums in a suit?
Harley: I took the jacket off! And I don't think I generally wore the tie. Sometimes I did. Now, Russell used to do the tie, the suit, the whole three piece banker look. But I'm glad we did that. If you look back at pictures of us from that era, we look pretty good, we're all wearing these designer suits, Pierre Cardin!
The U.K. Years - Sparks In Transition
Note: in 1974, Ron and Russell Mael moved to England to pursue their career. Island Records wanted to focus on Ron and Russell, as the lynchpins of the band, and the Maels left for the UK without their Los Angeles bandmates. They hooked up with new musicians and made three albums, the first of which was the classic Kimono My House.
Harley: It's often thought that Ron and Russ suddenly announced that they were going to England, and the rest of the band was fired. It didn't happen that way. We got back from (an extended tour of) the UK and not much was happening here...my perception is that the band was fizzling out. We all got involved with our own lives and stopped talking with each other, stopped practicing, gradually stopped being a band. Months later I found out through the grapevine that Ron and Russ and gone to the UK and retained the name "Sparks."
Monte: The records they made when they got to England certainly are tremendous achievements, but I think it was also the image that caught people's attention and made them stand out.
Harley: Oh yeah...
Monte: And Ron cut his hair back so much - it was clearly an attempt to "brand" the band, so to speak.
Harley: That was a real shock to me, when they first arrived from England and they were playing the Kimono My House album. When I saw him, he sat down at a table, he was so skinny and his hair straight, and pulled back like that - I was like "wow, what happened, man?"
Russ didn't really change much, it was Ron that went through the amazing physical transformation. When I first met Ron he was athletic, muscular, and in shape, he was wearing a tank top the first time I met him. Muscles, with a big Afro and a handlebar mustache. He looked like he could kick your ass! Not that he was mean. He was jolly, and friendly and all that. But he looked physically imposing. Why (he changed), we can only guess.
Monte: When you first heard Kimono My House, were you surprised by how different it sounded from the albums you were on, and what did you attribute that to?
Harley: I remember the first moment that I heard it. I went to see them at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. We all went - all of us that had anything to do with Sparks went to that (1974) show. It was an event because we had heard about what was going on with those guys and how they were returning, and it just knocked our socks off. John Mendelsohn came up to me and grabbed me, and said "my God, they're good!" That was kind of his take on it - what happened? Now they're good!
Monte: It was a big difference. To what do you attribute it?
Harley: It's a good question. I, and John Mendelsohn, and everyone else were all pondering it. It was a combination of things. My opinion is that well, they had been playing longer, had a chance to think about things more, more experience - that's part of it. And they had better musicians. When Halfnelson (note: the original name of the band) was formed, Ron, Russell, and Earle, none of them had any power, nothing. So here's Ron and Russell now, in England, they had a budget, they had control, they had power now. So they were able to select musicians that were able to play the way they wanted. I think the musicians that they selected played in a more straightforward, hard rocking manner. Probably the biggest factor. We played in a more oddball manner. That had a lot to do with it.
Monte: How would you compare your style to Norman (Dinky) Diamond (Sparks' drummer during the U.K. years)?
Harley: Great drummer. Different technique than me. I think he helped the band a lot. I think a large part of the success of the band was due to the fact that Dinky Diamond was playing the drums. I wish he hadn't died before all the connectivity we now have. I'm sure I would have connected with him, and would have had some sort of relationship with him. As it was I never got to know him, never met him. (Stylistically,) I think he was a more powerful, hard rocking drummer than I was. I was probably a little more wrists, a little more jazzy...I think he was a little more powerful.
Monte: I wouldn't underestimate your own contributions. Ultimately a musician is a reflection of the music he's making, and your work was right for the band at that time - just like his was for the band at that time.
Harley: I play the drums the way I play them, though I've improved. I'm still an okay drummer.
Monte: One of the things that David Kendrick said was than he felt he was a little closer to Diamond's style, whereas you're a little more "tom-tommy," I think was the phrase he used.
Monte: It seems like when you look back on your time with Sparks, you have a lot of pride in your work.
Harley: It was a great time. I've had some good eras in my life, and that was one of them. Having Ron and Russ and Earle, and the other people that were around the band at that time - they were a little bit older than me, and more sophisticated culturally than I was. I was a California surfer dude, and they were going to Ingmar Bergman movies, and going to see the LA Philharmonic. I entered that world, and that had a huge effect on me.
I see Jimmy now and again, and I see Ron and Russ a little when they perform.
Crash O'Malley and Other Ongoing Projects
Harley is involved in at least three ongoing musical projects today, primarily in San Diego but also with friends and colleagues in the U.K. Here's a brief rundown of Harley's current work:
Harley: Crash O'Malley is a band composed of local people here in San Diego, and it's got my wife as the singer, and on bass is Paul Jensen, an amazing bass player. He's a dedicated bass player. The guitar player, Jimmy Head, was a local legend in the 1980s and then kind of dropped out of sight for many many years, and I found him and brought him back. We're doing mostly covers and we're going to record some material written by others that has not been commercially exploited yet - perhaps from some of our friends' bands, really good songs that haven't yet made it. We're enjoying the project from a creative and recreational point of view.
The link to the Crash O'Malley Facebook page is here.
Another project is Crash 74. Nicky Forbes from the Revillos, we're fans of each others' bands, we became friends years ago, and he came out here a few years ago with his wife and I put together a little event at one of our local venues. We did some old Revillos songs, some Sparks songs, and we had a good time so Michele and Paul and I went to England and we did the same thing in reverse. He used his guitar player from a couple past bands and a couple of horn players. We went over there and played some really good gigs. We had a good time. We assemble every year or two to play a gig or two, and we'll probably do it again this summer.
Click here for the Crash 74 Facebook page.
I'm also in a heavy metal band called Wag Halen. Lots of double bass stuff. I use a double pedal for those double bass drum shuffles (e.g., Hot For Teacher). Otherwise I use a single.
Monte: When you're playing on your own, is that what you enjoy playing - the heavy metal stuff - or do you enjoy a variety?
Harley: Variety. I like playing the harder stuff, and I like playing jazzy stuff too. I enjoy playing along to Steely Dan, I enjoy that kind of drumming too.
My father in law is an amazing drummer. His name is Mitchell Peters and he recently retired from the LA Philharmonic. He was the principle percussionist and tympani player for 30 years. He is a drummer of the highest stature in LA circles. He is so far beyond me in terms of the kinds of things he thinks about, when he plays drums. The most advanced that you can get.
Monte: Toward the end of the Retrosonic podcast you talk about the gratification you get from helping your clients, and the choices you've made in life. I came across feeling that this is a guy who is pretty content with his life, and the choices he's made.
Harley: Well, in some ways, yeah. What makes someone happy in life is having close personal relationships and loving somebody that loves you, and I've got that. A happy marriage, great kid...
A lot of people ask me, why aren't you a music business person? I've never wanted to be in the music business. Part of it was a feeling I developed when I was in Sparks and all that, we had an antipathy toward the business people. I developed a feeling that people in the business were trying to exploit musicians. They were parasitic rather than looking out for the best interests of the musicians themselves. I don't believe the musicians appreciate the music people.
My clients, on the other hand, hug me. They thank me. They are so grateful that I got them out of trouble. I get a lot of enjoyment out of that. That's why I practice in the area that I do. I prefer to represent people who are in trouble, and I can help them.
Monte: How would you sum up your time in Sparks?
Harley: It was a long time ago, but it was a very positive experience. It broadened my horizons and introduced me to a higher level of culture that I otherwise would not have been exposed to - British music, fashion, art...that's probably what I appreciated most. Great time.
Harley Feinstein's Gear
Harley: When I first joined (Halfnelson) I had a 1960s set of Gretsch drums. Red sparkle. A kick, one mounted and one floor tom. I had a Ludwig snare. (For Ron and Russ), my little four piece was inadequate. Our manger, who was also a drummer, had a huge Rogers set, with double bass drums, toms too numerous to remember, countless cymbals of all shapes and thicknesses. I longed to use Mike's drums but they were his pride and joy so they never left his house. But the others pressured Mike into letting me use his drums for the band ("how can you deny Harley the use of your drums?") so Mike relented and I used his drums for the shows. I used that Rogers set on the first album.
At some point, I think it was before we went (on an extended tour of) the UK, the record company agreed to buy me a drum set. It was a black double bass drum set of Rogers. It had two largish rack toms (on a stand) and one floor tom. I also got a Rogers Dynasonic snare with the kit. Our roadies hauled them to each gig. I don't recall ever having to use anyone else's drums during the entire trip.
(Today) I use a DW kit. (I use a) 14" snare. My favorite is a Craviotto. It's made out of solid maple.
Harley uses 13", 16", and 18" tom-toms, and a 22" bass drum.
For sticks, I use either big old, thick 2Bs or more moderate sized 5Bs -- I switch back and forth.
Monte: I use the same size sticks I used as a kid - Regal Tip Rocks. Those are still my favorite sticks.
Harley: Yeah, that would be the thinner ones. I like them.
My most recent cymbal that I bought is a Meinl. A different sort of sound. I bought an 18 inch Meinl crash. I like my 19" Zildjian K China crash, that's my current favorite. (Harley's other cymbals include a 20" ride Zildjian, 14" Zildjian high-hats, and a 14" Paiste crash.
Harley is more than an "okay drummer" as he modestly describes himself. Enjoy this video, where he performs Do Re Mi with Sparks alums Ian Hampton, Trevor White, and others.