As drummers, there are certain luminaries in the rock n' roll firmament that most of us would give practically anything to have played with. Sure, we all honed our chops by playing along to their records, but what would it be like to actually play on one, or play live with them?
For Michael D'Amico, it is simply part of a day's work. Having backed the likes of Paul McCartney, Elton John, Billy Joel, and a slew of others (not only on drums, but also as a percussionist, rhythm guitarist, and vocalist,) Michael's straight-forward approach and melodic sensibility have taken him from the LA pop scene to Buckingham Palace and all points in-between. As a member of legendary pop quartet The Wondermints, D'Amico and Co. caught the ear of their greatest influence -Beach Boy Brian Wilson- in the late 90's. When the invitation came to play, then tour, then record with Wilson, the band has evolved into what D'Amico calls a "small orchestra" to handle the complex arrangements and textures in live performance.
As daunting as this might seem to the outsider, Michael takes it in all stride and drives the band through classic Beach Boy numbers and material from Wilson's latest offering, That Lucky Ol' Sun. Here D'Amico takes time from the rigors of the road to talk music, life on the road, and playing live, one legend at a time.
Ludwig HQ: What is your schedule like for the next few months with Brian Wilson?
Michael D'Amico: With the release of Brian's new record this year, ( That Lucky Old Sun) We will be touring the upper midwest and east coast this fall. Conan O'Brien is scheduled for 11/20/08. 2009 should see the band doing a world tour including U.K. ,Europe and Australia. Hopefully Japan will be included.
Ludwig HQ: Backing a legend like Brian Wilson is a dream-come-true for most drummers; what are some of the things you love about your job?
Michael D'Amico: So many things to list here! Brian is such a wonderful person to work with. His creative genius never ceases to amaze me. The band is absolutely the best group of musicians I've ever worked with. I love that it's not your standard rock outfit but, more like a small orchestra that can accomplish any sound or texture required. Being with this band & crew for so many years gives a real sense of family. With Brian's legendary status, we get to perform at some very unique events. For example, we were guests at the Buckingham Palace Queens jubilee in 2002. It also gives us the opportunity to play with many other legends and great artists.
Ludwig HQ: What are some of the drawbacks?
Michael D'Amico: Drawbacks? I must be honest... they're really aren't any! Traveling tends to be an inconvenience and hassle. Being away from home and family for long stretches is difficult. That's about it!
Ludwig HQ: What is the connection between your original band, The Wondermints, and Brian Wilson?
Michael D'Amico: Prior to joining Brian's band in 1999, The Wondermints were often noted as having a Brian Wilson / Beach Boys influence. Though we were inspired by a variety of great artists and composers, Brian's influence is always apparent. I remember doing a Brian tribute show in the mid 90's. Brian was back stage and liked what he heard. Soon after, Brian was quoted in an interview; " If I had the Wondermints back in 1967, I would have taken Smile on the road". Which he eventually did! We had always played obscure Brian Wilson songs on occasion. We just always admired his arrangement sensibilities and use of unusual sounds. It helped to have a deep appreciation for his music when we began working together. I suppose our reverence for the music benefited the song performances you hear today.
Ludwig HQ: You were originally in the band as a multi-instrumentalist, what transpired to put you in the drummer's seat?
Michael D'Amico: Let me back up here....... around 2004/2005, I left Brian's band for several reasons. First, I needed elbow surgery that would put me out of commission for about six months recovery. I finally could put it off no longer. Second, the touring became difficult and lengthy at a time when I needed to be there for my family. And finally, I simply was losing my desire to continue in my current position. Percussion was not my preference, but I do miss playing guitar and singing Brian's music. The percussion chair is occupied by Nelson Bragg. He really took that position to the next level it needed. And, He's a great drummer and singer! Although Bob Lizik (bass)and Jim Hines ,(drums) are no longer in the band, It would be inappropriate for me to comment on their departure here. I do miss them very much.
Ludwig HQ: The drummer who occupied the throne for Brian before was Todd Sucherman; did you feel any pressure in trying to fill his shoes?
Michael D'Amico: Well, Todd Sucherman was the first drummer for Brian. Although he was only there briefly, his influence is still evident on many of the songs. Todd is one of the finest drummers in the world, and we are still great friends. I never felt any pressure because, he and I were the drum / percussion unit. And Jim Hines after Todd left to join STYX. It just seemed like an obvious choice that I take over the chair. To answer your question, I wasn't worried about his shoes but my own!
Ludwig HQ: What do you do to develop and maintain your versatility?
Michael D'Amico: I hate to admit , but I'm really not the most disciplined drummer. I do stay 'on my toes' by simply running a typical evening's set list ( approx. 105 min.) to stay in physical shape. I accomplish this with listening to Live tracks and board ( FOH) mixes. My time is split with drums, guitar, bass & keyboards.
Ludwig HQ: In your opinion, what in your playing says “HIRE ME” to acts in need of a drummer, and what advice can you give to help others develop that?
Michael D'Amico: I consider myself a style and groove oriented player. I sing and play other instruments. My strong areas are obviously rooted in classic pop material. To me, dynamic playing makes a dramatic difference. I would advise not to overlook intangibles. By this I mean things like personality. How well do you interact and communicate with others? Do you take direction well and adapt to situations or circumstances? Dependability? All these factors combined can be the fine line for success or failure.
Ludwig HQ: Are there certain shows that stick out in your mind above others?
Michael D'Amico: Mostly the surreal ones...... Buckingham Palace , the Queen's jubilee in 2002 was amazing! Brian Wilson and Tony Bennett were the only American artists invited. On rehearsal day, there was a fire in the palace. All artists and crew were evacuated to a beautiful lawn adjacent to the Tennis courts. There we were sitting on the lawn with every U.K. legend you can imagine, having a great time together. Also, our recent three night orchestra concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. What a unique experience to keep time for a 77 piece orchestra in addition to our 10 piece band! Too many to list!!
Ludwig HQ: What’s your Ludwig set-up like for this tour, and what are you digging about it?
Michael D'Amico: I'm a bit traditional in my setup.... 22" bass drum , 10 , 12 rack toms ( mounted to the left) 14 , 16 Floor toms. 4 crashes , 2 splashes, 20" ride and 13" hats. I love the Legacy Classics! Similar to the late 60's early 70's shell construction. These were the type of Ludwig's used on most of the original Beach Boys recordings by Hal Blaine. I always felt that Ludwig drums would be the perfect choice for performing with Brian Wilson.
Ludwig HQ: Brian is not the only "Legend" you have worked with; what was it like working with Paul McCartney?
Michael D'Amico: Paul McCartney.....where do you begin! He's very comfortable with his legacy in pop music. He considers Brian to be his creative equal. The love and respect these two have for each other is evident. Friendly, down to earth, and above all, the consummate professional. You sense he love's what he's doing.
Ludwig HQ: When playing with giants like Elton John and Billy Joel, what to you is the key to delivering "the goods" to masterminds of this caliber?
Michael D'Amico: Pay attention, listen and learn! Just being on stage or in rehearsals with talent of this caliber, keeps you on your game! Like I mentioned earlier, how you interact is key. They have a way to make everyone feel comfortable and confident. They're experienced in getting the best from people they're surrounded with. For example, Elton will not play a note until he has acknowledged every individual on stage. I almost fell over the drum kit trying to shake hands! Oh, I forgot to mention, show up prepared!
Ludwig HQ: How important to you are the drums you play and how do you feel it affects your playing?
Michael D'Amico: Great question. I'm a stickler for things being setup consistently from show to show. I have to give credit to my drum technician. He is Scott Daggett, in my opinion, the best in the business. He has worked with countless well known legendary drummers for many years. His commitment and care are remarkable. His theory makes sense to me. Everyday my kit is tuned, cymbals cleaned, and everything is where it should be. He feels you should WANT to play THOSE drums. If you can't wait to get behind that kit, then somethings wrong. I kinda feel like a kid on Christmas morning! And when they sound great, playing becomes effortless!
Ludwig HQ: Can you describe how you tweak your drums to get your personal sound?
Michael D'Amico: Again, that's Scott's department. I tend to accept a poorly sounding drum occasionally , while Scott will do everything possible to squeeze the best tone out of it. Heads are changed every third show. We're always fine tuning the setup throughout the tours. These Ludwig toms have been very easy to dial in.
Ludwig HQ: What do you do to keep your playing fresh?
Michael D'Amico: Attitude. I always approach a song as if it were the first time playing it. I'm always exploring new improvements and subtleties to improve the part or performance. At home, I try to utilize other styles and sounds to stay rounded. You may not need these other skills at the moment, but having a broader palette is always beneficial. You never know when you'll need it.
Ludwig HQ: Are there any upcoming projects that you are particularly excited about?
Michael D'Amico: With Brian promoting his new album, we are extremely busy with upcoming dates through next year. I always enjoy traveling overseas for tours. People love Brian's music in so many other countries. I'm also composing / recording new material for T.V. and films.
Ludwig HQ: Everyone has their own snare drum sound. What snare are you playing, and how have you made it your own?
Michael D'Amico: Although I have a modest collection of snare drums, I always end up on a supraphonic 400! My baby is a mint 66' keystone badge with a die cast hoop. P86 strainer. I use this drum for most of my recording and live shows. A coated ambassador for live ( wide open) and a powerstroke3 for studio. Depending on the venue, I may opt for a maple shell Ludwig. Both in 5 or 5 1/2 x 14. My vintage 8 lug Acrolite comes in handy to. I have a habit of tuning the batter head on the tight side. My drum tech finds a slightly looser sound tends to work better in live situations. Maybe 1 moon gel dampener on top. No mystery here.
Ludwig HQ: Who are your major drumming and musical influences?
Michael D'Amico: I always admired the great session guys. Hal Blaine , Earl Palmer, Jim Gordon, Sandy Nelson, Richard Allen , Benny Benjamin,etc......... How they quickly adapted and played for the song , is a testament to versatility. Of course there's the usual suspects: Buddy Rich, John Bonham, Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, Bun E. Carlos, Ian Paice, etc...... I'm also influenced by the singing / multi-instrumentalist drummers: Phil Collins , Levon Helm, Nigel Olsen, Karen Carpenter, Roger Taylor and Don Brewer to name a few.
Ludwig HQ: As you do play other instruments, how do you think this affects the way you play the drums?
Michael D'Amico: I consider myself an intuitive drummer. Most of the people I play with describe it as 'musical drumming'. Playing other instruments and singing help your awareness of the bigger picture. I'm comfortable with the drums taking a back seat. Your playing dynamics benefit tremendously. Over the years I've developed good independence while drumming and singing. Especially in the Wondermints, where I'm one of 3 singers.