Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sparks Drummer Project (6): Steve Nistor

It was easily the most challenging thing I've ever done musically - Steve Nistor.

This is the sixth in a series of articles about the individuals that have drummed for Sparks. The focus of this piece is the acclaimed Steve Nistor, who drummed with Sparks during their historic "21X21" undertaking in 2008, where they played all of their albums in succession over a period of 21 (not quite consecutive) nights. I was fortunate enough to have attended the first five of the shows; it was an unforgettable experience. Steve Nistor drummed for each of the shows that I saw, as well as almost every one of the others. Also accompanying Sparks leaders Ron and Russell Mael were guitarist Jim Wilson, Steve McDonald, and Marcus Blake on Bass. Steve's on-line rundown of each show can be found here, and is well worth the read.

Given the diversity of styles that Sparks explores in their music, the complex arrangements of the songs, and the breadth of material, such an undertaking requires versatility and serious musical chops. That's Steve Nistor. He has played with any number of bands, and along with Jim Wilson, is currently on the road supporting Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball tour.  

Steve's Facebook page can be found here.  Steve was most gracious with his time, particularly in light of his no doubt frenetic schedule in the midst of a major tour. I am very appreciative that Steve took the time to reflect on the 21x21 experience. 

Monte: What inspired you to become a drummer?

Steve: My father is a drummer, though he had stopped playing for most of my childhood. He wound up taking it up again a few years later, after I got serious about it. He's great - a real natural, totally self taught.  He would force me to listen to jazz/fusion records when I was a kid.  Weather Report and Return to Forever, that kind of stuff. I hated it at the time but I loved that stuff once I got really serious about playing. 

My mother hipped me to the heavy stuff. She introduced me to Led Zeppelin IV on the Fourth of July, 1990.  She dropped the needle first on "When the Levee Breaks" so she must've WANTED to make a drummer out of me! The hair stood up on the back of neck; I felt nauseous.  So I started to listen to the records; Sabbath, Deep Purple, Yes, the classic, heavy stuff. Around the same time the Metallica Black Album came out and that's when I decided I wanted to play drums. 

Monte: How did you, Jim, Steve and Marcus become the band for 21x21?

Steve: We were already touring with Sparks up that that point. The only exception was Steve McDonald, who would not be available for every date. So, Jim brought in Marcus from Mother Superior, who was also in Daniel Lanois' band at the time with Jim and me.  Since they were comfortable with us, it just made sense to ask us first and we were all into the idea.

We had six months of rehearsals, five days a week.  it was the most intense rehearsal schedule I've ever had. We just went chronologically spending about two weeks an album. It was funny though, getting to England after six months and having two days to prepare, coming back to the first album, trying to remember it. 

Monte: Were you familiar with Sparks' music before this project?

Steve: Yes, but of course not to the degree that I knew every note of every song, which I would six months into rehearsals.  Jim Wilson is a Sparks fanatic. I think he was something like the third person to join the Sparks fan club in the United States.  The dude is a virtual librarian of Sparks music. I think he was the only person who knew every song Sparks recorded. In fact, Jim had a number of recordings that Ron and Russell didn't have!

Monte: You were well suited to this, given your incredible versatility.  Did this seem like a particularly interesting challenge? 

Steve: It was the most difficult and the most challenging thing I've ever done musically.  I had a fair amount of experience as a professional touring drummer up to that point and had quite a range of experience as well - symphonic stuff, Latin groups, all kind of music.  But 21x21 presented me with a lot of new challenges.  The sheer volume of music was intimidating, and if you know Sparks' music you know that at least up to the mid 1980s, no two verses or chorus are the same. So it's not a "rinse and repeat" type of scenario that a drummer can fake, as in most other bands. 

The music is thoroughly composed and knowing this, and knowing how bad my short term memory was, I made the decision to write out every note! The only problem with that was that the songs had so many parts I would've had a stack of six page charts on a music stand on stage, and that wasn't going to work. It also isn't very "rock and roll."  I decided to chart everything into a computer program, wire my laptop to a flat screen TV I mounted on its side from one of my cymbal stands, and then found a USB Up and Down function pedal that they market for computer users who don't have use of their arms, which I used to digitally "flip" the pages.  It was something else!

The material was very diverse between the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but I was musically comfortable with shifting gears. That comes from playing with wedding bands in-between recording or touring "real music." Ha ha!

Monte: There was clearly a strong musical bond between the five of you.

Steve: It's just like playing with anyone. Once personal trust is established you can actually get on with the business of playing music together. I'd been playing with Sparks for about two years at that point so we were in sync.

Monte: Which of the Sparks drummers did you come to particularly admire during this process?

Steve: David Kendrick.  He was so oddball and counter-intuitive to my style that I just became fascinated with the ideas that he came up with. I also liked the tweaked drum sound he got on Angst In My Pants. Keith Forsey's drumming was also of interest to me as well because of the organic feel he gave electronic music. He was Giorgio Moroder's go-to drummer before he became a producer himself.

Monte: How is the Emmylou Harris tour going?

Steve: The tour has been amazing! The band is tremendous and Emmy has been very generous. She even featured our individual names in the posters and on the marquees. Sidemen rarely get that kind of respect. She's an absolute pleasure to work for and to make music with. I couldn't be happier.

Steve's Gear for 21x21

I had a (1970s) Gretch kit.  The tom-toms were 13", 16", 18", and a 24" bass drum, with a (Ludwig brand) Black Beauty snare drum. This was before I was a DW artist.  I used Istanbul Agop cymbals, the absolute best on the planet. From left to right it was an 18" medium Traditional, a 20" medium thin Traditional, a 24" Special Edition Jazz Ride (Heavy), an 18"XZist Crash, and a 21" Traditional China. For the more modern records I had a 6" and an 8" splash over my left side crashes. I use Vater Powerhouse sticks.

A couple great videos from the 21x21 shows for your enjoyment - Looks Aren't Everything, and Here Comes Bob/Moon Over Kentucky: 

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