Bermuda has been the drummer with "Weird Al" Yankovic since 1980, and is seen and heard on all of Weird Al's albums, videos, and concert and television performances. (see web site for additional info).
Having begun his tenure as drummer behind song-parody master "Weird Al" Yankovic in 1980 by thumping on an accordion case, Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz has enjoyed more longevity (and played more styles of music,) than most drummers dream of. Yet, away from the countless large-scale tours and albums he has performed on with Al in his nearly three decade career, one finds in Schwartz a drummer that is tirelessly dedicated; not only to his craft, but to the gear and percussive community at large. A regular on as many drum building and collecting on-line groups as he is at Vintage Drum and NAMM shows, Schwartz takes some time from preparations for the next tour to chat about his impressive Ludwig collection, and why it takes more than a sense of humor to back a comic legend.
LUDWIG HQ: What is your schedule like for the next few months with Al?
"Bermuda" Schwartz: The 2008 tour starts June 27th in Henderson, NV just outside of Las Vegas, and continues across the U.S. and Canada. We're just doing 9 or 10 weeks, which is mercifully short compared to 6 months on the road last year! I posted the upcoming dates on my Artist page.
LUDWIG HQ: What is your Ludwig set-up like for this tour, and what are you digging about it?
"Bermuda" Schwartz: It's a Classic Maple kit in fairly ordinary sizes: 16x22" kick, 8x12, 9x13 and 14x16" toms. The finish is Arctic White, which has a classy & timeless look, and white drums tend look a bit bigger as well. White also reflects the stage lighting, and the subtle sparkles in the clear coat glisten, so it's a very dynamic looking kit. My main snare is a 6.5" Black Beauty, with a 6.5" Supra as a spare.
Aside from being beautiful drums, they just feel and sound great. They're a pleasure to play and it's a treat to sit behind them every night.
LUDWIG HQ: With as elaborate as the live show is, are there certain shows that stick out in your mind above others?
"Bermuda" Schwartz: Ideally, the show should be the same every night, like a Broadway show. So I tend to remember the occasional show where we add a song, or where something goes horribly wrong. And there's been plenty of each! Anything that brings the show to a halt is memorable: Al falling off the front of the stage because the lights are in his eyes... me starting a sequence for the wrong song... our video server crashing and catching us and the audience by surprise... that kind of stuff. But fun things happen too: Ben Folds playing onstage with us in Milwaukee last year... a few years ago the kid who played Anakin sang our Star Wars parodies with us... wearing different outfits for songs and not even telling the crew... playing occasional 'straight' versions of Sweet Home Alabama, School's Out, Purple Haze, Smoke On The Water and other classic rock songs.
LUDWIG HQ: What was the strangest thing that has happened (or that you have seen,) during a tour?
"Bermuda" Schwartz: Our tours have always been pretty smooth, but we still laugh about a few inappropriate bookings. The local promoters were obviously unclear on the scope of our show, even though the requirements are specified in the contract they sign. One tried to book us into a bar whose stage was literally a 1 foot high riser, with no wings, backstage, or provision for hanging lights. Our stage manager walked in at 10am, walked back out 3 minutes later, and we drove to the next city. Another booked us to play in an alley! Needless to say, that gig didn't happen either. Heh, idiots. Oh yeah, one time we were booked to play the parking lot between the Colisuem and the Arena. Yep - it was the parking lot behind the strip mall, right between the Coliseum bar, and the Arena bar. But we did that gig, got paid our guarantee, and laughed all the way to the bank. Well, most of the way to the bank.
LUDWIG HQ: You are required to cover so many different styles in Al's live set. What do you do to develop and maintain your versatility?
"Bermuda" Schwartz: I've always said that Al's made me play things I didn't know how to play, and that's an understatement! But with a good ear - and practice - there hasn't been anything thrown at me that I couldn't play. I'd been picking out drum parts on records since I first sat down at the drums in the '60s, so listening and repeating has always been second-nature for me. That's been crucial in keeping up with Al, who keeps things fresh and challenging on each new album and tour with new songs from mainstream artists. I'm fortunate that this gig forces me to learn & grow, it's easy to get lazy otherwise.
LUDWIG HQ: You have a reputation of being a vintage Ludwig collector. What are some of the "gems" of your collection, and what set-up do you typically use for your non-Al gigs?
"Bermuda" Schwartz: Well, I don't have the obligatory '20s engraved Black Beauty, but I do have some cool and obscure Ludwig drums from the past 50 years orso: a museum-quality transition kit in black diamond pearl, lacquer over brass transition 5" Supra, a 12x16" marching snare from the '70s, a sweet mid-'50s WFL kit in gold 'flash', old Standard kit with the nesting single-head toms. Of course I have older Pioneer and Jazz Festival snares, Acrolites, chrome over brass and regular Supraphonics, a few additional marching snares...
I have an early-2000s Classic Maple kit in a prototype finish - natural maple with a grey fade - which was pretty ambitious for Ludwig at the time. It was apparently on display for a while in the lobby at the plant, and it's been my practice kit at home for the last several years.
Oh, I have an impossibly rare kit and I happen to be using it on 3 gigs this week. It's an Educator kit from the late '70s, maple Cortex, and fitted with lugs, mounts & legs from different Ludwig eras. They're 4-ply shells made exclusively for that series, and they came & went so quickly, there's no catalog info or even a one-sheet on them. I was lucky to speak with a former employee from that era who provided some info and confirmed their rarity. This kit is immaculate, and I have to believe it's one of just a few surviving Educator kits. Might even be the only one!
But I have some primary go-to kits I've been playing in town, a '65 Super Classic in blue sparkle, and an ultra clean mid-'70s clear maple kit, 24" with 13, 14 & 18" toms in walnut Cortex, which has the sharper edges Ludwig was doing at the time, and those absolutely rock. The Legacies are replacing the blue sparkle kit for many of the local gigs, and will also be my main studio kit. For snares, I usually grab the Black Beauty, or a 6.5" COB Supra, or a standard '80s 6.5" Supra. They're all hard to beat... oops, no pun intended!
LUDWIG HQ: How important to you are the drums you play and how do you feel it affects your playing?
"Bermuda" Schwartz: Drums are a tactile instrument, and if I'm getting good 'feedback' through my hands & feet, I enjoy playing, and I play better. Drums definitely differ by manufacturer and era, and head selection and tuning emphasizes those differences even further. I've always loved the feel of Ludwig's drums, whether they're the '60s, '70s, or the current Classic shell, which has the best modern drum sound out there. And the Legacy shell gives me a very pure version of the old drums I grew up with. There's not another company who does it all, and that's why playing Ludwig is important to me.
LUDWIG HQ: Can you describe how you tweak your drums to get your personal sound?
"Bermuda" Schwartz: I'm not really sure there's a "Bermuda Schwartz" drum sound, I just like my drums to sound like drums, if that makes any sense. I never try to go for hyper drum sounds, they just don't exist for an acoustic kit that's not mic'd and effected. I like toms that sing, a kick that has oomph and a little boom, and a snare that has a bit of buzz to it. So that means leaving the toms unmuffled, often no padding in the kick - the Evans EMAD batter is perfect to use on a wide open kick - and no muffling on the snare. Tuning is right in the middle, not too low, and nowhere near jazz tunings. I usually tune a head until it starts singing, then go a bit higher. Sometimes I like a clear head, sometimes a coated, and that's governed by the gig I'm doing. At home, I'm in 3 bands and do some pick-up gigs as well, and those kits I mentioned have different heads & sizes to instantly cover what I'm doing that night.
But I do have a definite style as to how I approach playing, and for most gigs and certainly with Al, I hit the drums with authority. Not necessarily loud, not aggressive, but assertive. It's partly a feel thing, partly the way I play the snare, it's a little hard to describe. I'm one of those drummers who makes a kit sound different than the next player does.
Now when it comes to the Al gig, it's a different matter.
On the albums, I'm usually matching sounds, which requires a good ear, and experience with drums and their characteristics. I may not be able to always identify exactly what snare was used on an artist's track, but I will know how to get that sound with one of my snares, and I keep a large arsenal of them! Heads, wires, shell material & thickness & size, muffling, tuning, stick size, and hoop type all govern the sound I'll need for a particular song, and it's not unusual for me to bring 6 snares and assorted heads to an Al session. How I 'play' the drum is also important in getting a sound, and I have to recognize elements of the drum sound that result from compression, EQ and miking, and allow the engineer to do his job with respect to those.
But onstage I get one kit, one snare, one tuning, and that has to work for a lot of styles. That's where I really strive for the normal sounds I mentioned, where drums just sound like 'drums'.
LUDWIG HQ: What snare are you playing, and how have you made it your own?
"Bermuda" Schwartz: I guess my #1 snare is the Black Beauty. I use a Safehoop on the batter side, which adds a bit of warmth and makes playing rims easier. The batter is an Evans ST (Super Tough) tuned slightly on the high side, but short of having much crack. I play the hoop a lot, and the attack comes from there. As usual, no muffling. The resulting sound is very pleasing and maybe a little bit average, which is surprisingly elusive on many new snares. I get a lot of compliments on my live sound, and honestly, a snare with a more specific voice would sound out of place on many of the songs we perform.
LUDWIG HQ: Who are your major drumming and musical influences?
"Bermuda" Schwartz: Growing up in the '60s, it was The Beatles, and I'd have to say Ringo was - and still is - my #1 drum hero. But I listened to a lot of music both on the radio, and from my parents' record collection, which included Gene Krupa, Latin music, and big band. My brother was a major Country music fan, so I heard a lot of twang & hillbilly music at the same time. I was influenced by the sensibilities of Hal Blaine's drumming on countless U.S. pop hits, but I also had an appreciation for Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, and Bonham. As I became more experienced working with other musicians, I began to respect the solid yet playful drummers like Jim Gordon and Pete Thomas (with Elvis Costello), and Ted McKenna from the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. I've always been a fan of whoever played with Frank Zappa and Jethro Tull. I'm a big fan of Tre Cool. Truthfully, I get some inspiration from almost every drummer I hear, whether the parts are simple or intricate, or somewhere in between. It's all good.
LUDWIG HQ: Having played with Al for over a quarter century for such a diverse crowd, are there any upcoming projects or shows that you are particularly excited about?
"Bermuda" Schwartz: The tour starts shortly, and that's exciting. We'll start working on album #13 next year, and that's always exciting. We've recorded 12 albums and been touring steadily since 1983, not many bands or their drummers get to enjoy that kind of longevity. I guess that's pretty exciting, too!
LUDWIG HQ: It takes a lot to hold the same drum chair for such a long time. What would you attribute this to in your playing and personality?
"Bermuda" Schwartz: Probably the fact that I'm as anal as Al when it comes to the music! I know the lyrics are 'funny', and we often get brushed aside as a 'comedy' band, but make no mistake - Al is as meticulous as Zappa, Becker & Fagen, and McCartney all rolled into one. He really demands perfection, and making each album is genuine brain surgery. When I come into the studio, I've got to have the parts and sounds exactly right. 'Good enough' isn't good enough... I'm not even sure that 99% is acceptable! But he and I are of the same mind on that stuff, and that's why I've been on board forever. I've always been able to give him the performance and sound he expects, and I don't intend to let him down.