Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sparks Drummer Project (1): David Kendrick, 1981-1986!

"Sparks have never stopped recreating themselves. It's admirable, and it's true artists that are able to do that. I'm happy to be a part of it." - David Kendrick, Sparks drummer 1981-1986
David Behind The Kit
Greetings! This blog entry kicks off a new and exciting project, which is to interview
the talented individuals who have drummed or played percussion for Sparks over their entire career.  This is an admittedly ambitious goal - many individuals have been so fortunate.  These men and women have made enormous contributions to the Sparks canon, and the history of Sparks from their perspective guarantees to be a unique perspective that only then can provide.  In part, that is because these men and women are great musicians themselves, and it's worth hearing their point of view. In part, this is also because Ron and Russell Mael, the two brothers that comprise the core of Sparks, constantly reinvent themselves, seeking new paths of musical expression. This creates exciting contrasts in the demands placed on the drummers and percussionists, which is important to explore.

First up, the great David Kendrick, who drummed with Sparks from 1981 - 1986.  During this time, Sparks was a rock band, plain and simple, with Ron Mael's keyboards and Russell Mael's vocals augmented with
propulsive guitars and drums. This period produced two truly great Sparks albums - Whomp That Sucker (1981) and Angst In My Pants (1982) - as well as three others that are less consistent but nonetheless offer some enduring contributions - while also reflecting Ron and Russell Mael's transition from the traditional band format, to a more electronic approach. Those are Sparks In Outer Space (1983); Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat (1984); and Music That You Can Dance To (1986).

David has also drummed for Devo and many other bands, and currently heads up a long-term musical project called Empire of Fun, which we'll discuss. You can learn about Empire of Fun here (as well as later in this interview):  http://www.theempireoffun.com/content.html

David was essential to the success of these albums. But on Whomp and Angst, in particular, he clearly had the freedom to improvise and develop his own patterns, and his explosive drumming was put to extremely good use, as we'll discuss.

I am grateful for David's generosity with his time, and I hope you enjoy this interview. 

Becoming Sparks
David and Two Unidentified Gentlemen

Monte: So, let me jump right in with the logical first question - what inspired you to become a drummer in the first place?

David: Well, neither of my parents were musicians, but my dad was a sculptor and they were both big music people. So I grew up hearing everything around the house. I came of age with the British Invasion, so I was always a bit of an anglophile in that regard - the Stones, Beatles...

Monte: The Kinks, the Who...

David: Yeah, and early on I leaned in that direction more than American groups, it seemed like. And there was no question early on that drums was the instrument. There was no other was I was too keen on.  But my role models were Keith Moon and Ginger Baker. They were my favorite guys! So for a guy just trying to keep the beat...I mean they were great, but you have to be in the right context for that kind of stuff or it won't work at all. I really liked them though!

I grew up outside of Chicago. I played in bands in the 1970s then moved out here through a connection of Kim Fowley. Right after the Runaways he was forming a punk band called Venus and the Razor Blades, and we had a friend in common. He called me up and gave me the shpiel...I was playing in a band in the midwest. There were a lot of bands and you had to play a lot of covers, but you play all the time and I just packed up my drums and ended up here in California. But that pretty much fell apart.

Monte: How did you end up in Bates Motel (David's band at the time), and then in Sparks?

Whomp That Sucker
David: After I came out here for that Fowley band, I ran into a guy who was into the Kinks and stuff, and we formed a band called the Continental Miniatures. We did a Dusty Springfield song that charted. But (there was pressure) to pick songs for us instead of original stuff, so that band broke up. Bates Motel had existed, and I just joined them.

Monte: Is that where you met (Sparks bassist in the 1980s) Les Bohem?

David: Yeah, and (Sparks guitarist) Bob Haag was also in Bates Motel. We played around and had a small deal with Planet Records. Les came from a movie family so we were both film buffs and coffee drinkers, especially espresso drinkers. At that time, besides maybe, Little Italy in New York and San Francisco, there was really no espresso in the United States. This was 1980. There was one place here in LA, the Farmer's Market, and there was this one little Belgian Waffle place that had an espresso machine. We would just hang out there, and so would Ron and Russell Mael! That was their mid-morning thing.

I knew Sparks - I really liked them. When I was still in Chicago, playing in cover bands at the time, I forced one band to play a Sparks tune - Here In Heaven. The storyline of that song - the plot - was fantastic. I think we actually did it a time or two but the falsetto didn't go over too well.

ALL of their songs were just fantastic. I really liked Sparks. Lyrically, they were just in their own place. So by the time I came out here, and actually met them - they were film buffs, we could just talk about stuff.

They had gone through their Giorgio Moroder phase, and they hadn't really played live - with a band - in years. During that Moroder period -

Angst In My Pants
Monte:  Number One In Heaven and Terminal Jive -

David:  Right. And they really weren't happy with how Terminal Jive turned out.

Monte: Well you can tell.

David: To me it's their most lackluster album. And so they came to LA and saw Bates Motel, they were like, "we want to have a rock band again!" and they thought we were good and we got on in so many ways.

Terminal Jive wasn't even released in the United States and England didn't like it, especially after the last album that had two (big) hits. But there was this almost nothing ballad called "When I'm With You," and it was a top five hit in France!  They had offers to play but no band, and the first thing we did when we joined them was a tour of France - something like 30 shows, France and Begium! Right after that, we did a record of new stuff.

Recording and Touring

David:  So they were at a point where they really wanted to have a band again. They left the synth stuff a little at that point. And when we learned songs, it was literally Ron with his RMI Piano, and they'd come to rehearsal and write out the chords on a chalkboard. We really, as those five guys, learned those first two records that way.

Monte: You mean Whomp That Sucker and Angst In My Pants?

David:  Yes. Maybe he had a rough demo of chords. I wrote my own drum parts -

Monte:   That's something that really interests me. Tammy Glover has mentioned that now, they're very specific in their parts. But if you listen to the music you did, there's such a spontaneity on those records.

David: Yeah, I agree, and that's one of the reasons I'm so proud of those records. I feel like I really helped to re-energize them.

Monte: You absolutely did.

David:  I'm proud of those records. They're kind of eccentric arrangements, and cool drum beats, and to me the weirdest thing, we had a title to the song, and Russel would almost be signing nonsense words on the verses, and often times Ron didn't write the final draft of the lyrics until the final day or two before we recorded the songs. Which to me is amazing. He had some idea, but he didn't finish it until literally the night before sometimes.

Monte: In my entire life, I've only been able to write a grand total of two songs. and I'm looking at the records you're on, I pulled them out before we talked, and it's just mind boggling, that one guy could write all these songs, one after another!

David: Yeah...When we did those first two records, they didn't really want to work with Giorgio. It was amicably agreed, because the last record (Terminal Jive) didn't...jive. But there was a production deal in place for two more records, which were the two we did in Germany. So for us, the experience was amazing. We lived there for a month or six weeks, and we'd record songs - usually we did songs sometimes start to finish. We'd do a track, and then Russell would start to sing, and we'd do another couple, then another couple, and I was there the whole time.

Monte: There was a real band feeling.

David:  There totally was with those two (records).  They were really happy to have a band again. They had always had groups up until the two Moroder records.

Monte:  If you listen to those two albums, especially Angst In My Pants, there's a raucousness - and Sparks are not usually associated with raucousness - they're just not!

David: Some of it was the times, but it was also us - our band. We were a rock band, totally, and the three of us played before, and came as a group. And even the English guys, before us, they came in separately, whereas we came in together. We had a cool way of doing things that helped that period stand out.

There was a radio station out here in LA called KROQ that played modern music, or new wave. It started here, and Sparks were totally in there. Now at the same time - Do you know about Gleaming Spires?

Monte (smiling broadly because he has a chance to show off how prepared he is): In fact, as I was going through the records, I pulled out "Songs of the Spires," with you and Les on the cover and with some very bizarre liner notes from Ron and Russ! I'm holding it up right now!

David (laughing approvingly, clearly VERY impressed): Oh, all right! We would work six or eight months of the year as Sparks, and the rest of the year we'd make these records as Gleaming Spires. When we started playing live, Bob (Haag) played guitar and (Sparks's additional keyboard player), Jim Goodwin, he was our touring guy.

Monte: Wasn't he on Angst In My Pants?

David:  He wasn't on the records. Ron did all those those parts. He joined us live after that record.

Monte  Speaking of that, the first time I saw you guys was at the Agora Theatre, in Cleveland. And then we saw you a little later in Washington, DC.

David: Was that at the 9:30 club?

Monte: Yes! And I just saw them about a month ago at the 9:30 club again!

Creating The Music

Monte: How would you compare your drumming style to that of (Sparks drummer from the mid-1970s) Norman "Dinky" Diamond?

David:  I'm probably a little more "crashy" than Dinky, but we're probably the closest. The songs were, I don't want to say a similar vein, but there was a lot of uptempo stuff, shorter, at least early on in my period. Harley (Feinstein, Sparks' drummer in their early years) is a little more minimal and a little more tom-tom.

Monte: Even on those rocking UK records, you had a sense of that meticulously arranged feel, but on your records, especially the first two, you just had a sense of a lot of fun.

Dave:  It was instant gratification. We'd learn a song in a day and get a feel for how it would go, and Mack - the guy who produced (Whomp That Sucker), was extraordinary. He was more of an engineer really. He was great with bands. At that time, Queen was (in the studio) after us, and he worked with the Stones on Black and Blue, so he was working with big time stuff. A really cool guy, a good dude to work with.

We did some really cool drum stuff. The studio is in the basement of a hotel in Munich, and they were working on a subway line that would be close to the hotel. At that time, part of the subway was done and you could access it through doors close to the studio. The echo was mind boggling and I convinced Mack that on the song Upstairs, there's a lot of percussion on there, you can hear me banging two 2 X 4s together, banging on metal parts in the subway, you can hear that on this song.

The sound of that record - the drums have this cool, trashy sound, and the snare, we double recorded it. We recorded it first, and then I did an overdub in a tiled bathroom.

Sparks In Outer Space
David:  (Our third record) Sparks In Outer Space...that record was a a little different. A lot of that was the Linn drum machines.  The initial beats on a lot of Sparks In Outer Space was a "boom whack boom whack" Linn drum pattern, and I would add cymbals and hi-hats over that. The songs got very simplified, because Ron and Russ tried out the Linn drum machine when they made demos.

Monte: It seems like there was a shift in the band dynamic.

David: For sure. The arrangements drum-wise got much simpler because they used these existing drum patterns. Most of them were just "boom whack boom whack" to a tempo.

Monte: The album lost something. It's a good album that could have been a great one. The material is there.

David: I tend to agree. From a drummer's perspective, I was playing to those initial patterns, and that was more limiting. I guess they started heading there to controlling all the parts, and figuring it out in advance.

Monte: You could see the shift. But from the live videos I've seen, it seems like you guys were hotter than ever.

David: Yeah, live those songs really took off.  That was their most popular time in the States. It speaks to how good we were as a group, too. Then, that song Cool Places got on the radio, nationally. But the first two records, in Los Angeles especially, were big hits. A lot of those songs got a lot of play. And we were doing a lot of concerts there.

A Few Specific Songs

Monte: Let me just ask you about a few of the songs from the various albums. The tremendous introduction to All You Ever Think About is Sex - how many parts did you have to lay down for that?

David: I had about three sounds, we didn't do them all at the same time. But even the tom-tom parts on that, they were added afterwards. So everything was kind of stripped, it wasn't played organically or cohesively on a drum kit, at one time. At that point, they wanted to go with the Linn simplified thing. On Decline and Fall Of Me, there's that wonderful "inside out" rhythm that you really have to stay on your toes to play.

David: I literally had the idea of playing the beat backwards to the rhythm, and then turned it around in the middle part as a roll, and then came around back. At that point, odd ideas like that, they were game. Those drum parts were my parts, essentially.

Monte: On Wacky Women you do that (plays out the tricky rhythm with hands on table), you add that extra note, and I'm wondering, is that double bass, or tom-toms?

David: Tom-toms, definitely!

Monte: Great, that's going to make it a lot easier for me to play it!  Another great one from the Whomp album is, of course, That's Not Nastassia. A fantastic drum opening!

David: Ah, the Nastassia bit! I was "into" boleros for some reason and they never let me use one in a song so we threw one on the top! This song is pretty odd really, and we would go into a kind of Velvet Underground repetition forever at the end when we practiced it.  I love how the guitar riff keeps turning the drum beat around, and it sort of is about Nastassia Kinski, who was around Munich at the time.

Monte: A mystery solved! and I love the tricky interaction between the guitars and the drums there.

David: Sherlock Holmes is really fun to play. That song was originally called Midnight Rodeo with a totally different set of words.

One of my favorite songs to perform is Mickey Mouse, a great live song. It's probably the most high-energy Sparks song to play, manic!

Monte: It's a great song! Was it fun when you guys were on Saturday Night Live? 

David: That was pretty fun. They would rehearse the whole thing as a show, and we got to see how skits were worked on and dropped at the last minute. We did a skit with Danny Divito that got dropped which was too bad. But that was obviously one of their biggest audiences, TV wise.

At that time, we did a lot of television. American Bandstand, all these kinds of shows.  There's a lot of live representation of that period out there.

Monte: Yes and I love watching it. I sent you a video I love watching, it was actually a sound check, which just captures that band feeling so greatly. Ron wasn't clowning around as much, it was a very serious thing, it gave a lot of insight and I loved watching it and you guys were totally in synch.

David: That was a lot of fun. That was in Munich, it was a live show called Circus Krona, and there were other bands, I think Tangerine Dream, Peter Hammill, and all these other guys at the end, all doing a big jam of "Give Peace a Chance!" We were all playing, jamming with Tangerine Dream and all those people.

The Close of an Era

Music That You Can Dance To
Let me ask you about another of my favorite songs, one that isn't very raucous at all, and that's Change. It's actually one of my top five Sparks songs.  There's so many wonderful parts to that, and from a drummer's perspective, do you have any thoughts on that song?

David: That was on our last record (Music That You Can Dance To), and they had shifted a lot. By that record, I was the last of the group still with them...

Monte:   You're all listed on the credits.

David:  Yeah, but there's hardly any guitar on the record, and  a lot of drum machine parts, so I was there, but not all the time. Live when we did it, we used Tympani and stuff, that was a great song. It was really fun to play. But the record was really just  the two of them by that time.

Monte:  It's an amazing record in its own way.

David: To me the live show suffered a little when they decided to move away from guitars. Some of the songs lost some edge, for my taste. Then after that, they stopped being a live group at all, for many years.

Monte: It seems to me like they were reloading. Interior Design was a bit of a let down.

David:  It was lackluster, I thought. I can understand them wanting to move to a different place. For me, nothing beats a band rocking.

Number One In Heaven - The Impact of Live Drumming

Monte: This might be an off beat question, but it's consistent with what we're talking about.  When I hear Number One In Heaven (recorded in 1979 before David joined Sparks, with Donna Summer producer Giorgio Moroder at the helm), what makes it for me is the live drumming.

David: The live drumming - yes! I actually talked to (Number One In Heaven drummer) Keith Forsey about it. There really weren't drum machines yet. When they worked on the songs, Giorgio was way more involved, and they would play a portion and literally Forsey would play the beat, always had to be "four on the floor" as he says!  Giorgio would literally wave his hand when he had to play a roll or something. They didn't record any of that as full songs, he would just roll out, or play intros to other sections of the song. But it definitely retained that live feel. Forsey said that he never heard the full thing at the time - Giorgio would say "you're doing 16 bars and then doing a roll," it was that kind of thing!

Monte: That's amazing because his fills sound just brilliant.

David: They do. To me, when the Linn drums thing started, I was not happy about it.


Smooth Noodle Maps
Monte: So, you were in Devo for a while? I didn't realize that.

David: Yes, right after that period, I moved from a band on one set of brothers to a band of two sets of brothers. They had taken a hiatus, and their last record, they weren't real happy with it. I was friends with them, and I told them if you guys want to play with a real drummer, I would love to do it.  I saw them  right after the first album, and they were a really great as a playing band. So when they started up it was live drums again so that's the reason I did it. It wasn't their highest point, but I'm very happy with their last record, it was called Smooth Noodle Maps, really good songs, and great drumming if I say so myself!They were very distinctive, popular to a point but real outsider quality. They were really trying to matter then, to be a real band.

I played with them again briefly in the mid-2000s.

To learn more about David's time in Devo, catch this excellent video: 


Empire of Fun

Monte: Tell me about Empire of Fun. (Which is at: http://www.theempireoffun.com/content.html)

David: I have a current project called "Empire of Fun," I was doing a record, and I had a whole slew of songs about - I'm a film noir buff and these were all songs with protagonists that were criminals....

Monte:  We have that in common. Just this morning  I watched "He Walks By Night."

David: That is really cool. Well, you would probably really enjoy this Empire of Fun record. I realized I didn't want to have one guy singing all the songs because it was all different people, and Russell sings on one of the songs. (In the song), this guy is in jail and he's s a genuine sociopath, totally not remorseful, and wondering who is going to play him in the film.It started off as three guys.

Empire of Fun is essentially a studio group,  Originally it was a singer I knew back in the mid-west named Steve Summers and I just liked his voice, and we were in a group that was managed by the Cheap Trick people, that was the group I quit when I moved out here to join the Kim Fowley band.  He and I and a bass player that has since passed away, as well as a revolving circle of musicians.

I tend toward thematic records - there's a science fiction one (The Blue Head), and then there's this crime record, and I'm doing one now about fictitious Islands, and all the reasons people go to Islands. All kinds of great musicians play on them. It hasn't been much of a live thing for a while...

Monte: It sounds like you want to get back to playing live again.

David:  Definitely with that group. I'm writing the songs - Steve sings them. We've never played live. But one of our biggest releases was a retrospective box set with vinyl CDs, that kind of thing. We've done about seven records. I'm going to try to get this Crime one out though. It's got Terry Reid, Lisa Germano, Russell Mael of course. Andy Prieboy, he was in Wall of Voodoo, he sings some songs too.  I keep up with (original Sparks member) Jim Mankey, he plays some on the Islands record. He doesn't have as fond a memory. I think when Ron and Russell went to England he and his brother were kind of put out.

Look next year for this CD - it's called "Crime, Memory, and Loss," and I play with Andy Prieboy, some solo shows, but those are the main things I'm up to.

Wrapping Up - On Sparks Today, and their Enduring Contributions

Monte: Did you happen to see Sparks in their current incarnation?
Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat

David: I was out of town the day of the show. I would like to have seen this one. Did you?

Monte: I saw it a couple times. They did NicotinaPopularity, and earlier they had done Angst In My Pants and Sherlock Holmes, so they represented your years well.

DavidPopularity - it's such a simple song and has kind of a poignancy, a sort of melancholy.

Monte: I remember a comment from Ron many years back, that he tried to write that song the way people actually just talk to each other.  That comment always stuck with me.

David:  I still keep up with Ron and Russell, we still go and get some coffee - not enough. I really like them, and I'm really proud of those records.  I really like the English band, and my period - those two records are great and I'm happy to have been involved in that.

Monte: No argument here. They seem like nice guys. And I sent you that quote from Russell, where he talked about how a singer/songwriter thing kind of repulsed them. I thought that was great.

David: For a band that's been around as long as them - there's a lot of groups that are just kind of playing country fairs or whatever, they stop doing something new. They have a hit or two and that's all they do. A lot of bands - a lot of 1980s bands - are kind of in that place. But Sparks have never stopped recreating themselves. It's admirable, and it's true artists that are able to do that. I'm happy to be a part of it.

Monte: Those are great words, and I appreciate all the time you've given me for this. This was just great.

So I promised my wife I wouldn't tell you this until the end of our conversation, so I can tell you this now: you're one of my true drum heroes! I love what you've done and the contributions that you've made, especially those first two albums.  To me, the first side of Angst In My Pants is one of the best sides of music to play drums to, period.

David: Thanks a lot! Thank you so much! I'm really happy with that, that was a great period of time. I'm really happy that a group that I really admired I would end up playing with and being part of one of their best periods of time. It was like, everything I'd wanted as a kid.

Monte: It was a dream come true!

David: There have been some great moments in my life musically, and playing with Sparks was definitely one of them.

Monte: Thank you very much, David!

David on His Gear With Sparks
David uses size 5B drum sticks.  As for the rest of his gear, this is what David told me:  
On those first two records, I used a Ludwig clear VistaLite kit. They're plastic, oversize drums. We shipped them to Europe to record them.  Even though they were plastic they were good beat drums.  Later I used Pearl, the more traditional wood kits. I think every record except Sparks In Outer Space - that was rented stuff. We recorded that in Belgium. And most of that, as I said, was the Lynn drums. I added to them.
As to cymbals, I used 15" Zildjian quick beat hi hats, 20" Paiste dark ride (which I still have and sometimes use), and for crashes I burned through-these thin super fast Paiste 404 -- 16" and 18" crashes.  They didn't last long but they were a super fast crash that died quick which I wanted.  I remember them only lasting a month or two on tours before cracking. I don't think they are made anymore.
The cymbals I chose then were for speed and cut, not long languid tonal washes.  These days, weirdly, one of my favorite cymbals is an Avedis Zidjian 20" crash ride I had made into a sizzle, 6 rivets, for long, long finishes! Exact opposite!
Two final treats: This link gets you to a rockin' version of the Sparks classic "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us," featuring David's thundering drums: 


And Here's Sparks 1983, Cool Places with Jane Wiedlin