AN INTERVIEW WITH ROD MORGENSTEIN
By David Iozzia
When WINGER drummer Rod Morgenstein sat down to answer some questions for davesontour.com, he was at home, multi-tasking. Songwriting with guitar and piano, and constructing his drumkit for an upcoming Dixie Dregs tour.
DI: Rod, on behalf of davesontour.com, metalforever.com and music fans everywhere, Id like to thank you for letting me conduct this interview. WINGER toured the East Coast in 2002, and I attended the show at Asbury Parks Stone Pony. WINGER rocked the place!! Will WINGER record again or tour again?
ROD: First off, touring with the guys in 2002 after a 9-year hiatus was a fantastic experience. We all are still very good friends, and I speak with Kip on a regular basis. Recording and touring are all about logistics. I think we would all like to do something at some point because there's a mutual respect between everyone AND we have so much fun hanging and playing. So I'd say there's always the possibility that we'll record and/or tour someday. In fact, there is an offer on the table for a live recording and studio recording.
DI: Was drumming in WINGER a culture shock to a musician with a jazz-fusion background?
ROD: I think every style of music requires a particular mindset adjustment and a respect for the specific musical style. Jazz-fusion is all about chops and over-the-top drumming, whereas in rock one needs to be focused on the attitude and feel, and be conscious as to what works best for the song. If you have an understanding of the components that make up a style of music, then there's no shock involved whatsoever. I loved the challenge of moving from one style into a completely different world. And it was actually my fusion background that got me the gig in Winger. Kip was looking for ways that Winger could be a bit different from all the heavy metal bands on the scene at that time and felt that a "fusion" drummer might add to the uniqueness of the band.
DI: What type of reception did WINGER and other American "hair bands" receive when they toured Europe for the first time? Was the reception in Asia the same as in Europe?
ROD: Our first European gigs were opening for The Scorpions and the reception was great. We did a second run a few months later on our own and did extremely well. As cool as Europe was, Japan was a whole other story. The fans over there were completely out of control when it came to "hair bands"- in a VERY good way. We felt like we were the Beatles! You couldn't be out in public without being mobbed by fans. Unfortunately, we did not make it to any other Asian countries back then.
DI: What is your favorite WINGER song to play drums on?
ROD: "Headed For A Heartbreak" is an amazing song drumming-wise because I get to go crazy at the end for as long as I like. But on the groove side of things, I also love to just sit back and lay down the very simple beat for "Can't Get Enuff" and "Blind Revolution." I find playing these two extremes equally challenging and rewarding.
DI: Kip Winger did a cool acoustic set during the recent Bad Boys of Metal tour. The encore was Kip sharing vocals with Quiet Riots Kevin Dubrow on AC-DCs "Highway To Hell." I was hoping for an electric WINGER song like "Cant Get Enuff" but it didnt happen. Did you happen to attend a Bad Boys of Metal gig?
ROD: I didn't get to see Kip on that tour, but I've seen him doing his solo thing on several other occasions and think he's the consummate performer. He's one of my favorite singers and he's really powerful doing his one-man show. I recorded with Kip in Nashville in March of this year. He's collaborating with a Turkish guitarist/producer Cenk Eroglu and their blend of East-meets-West rhythms, harmonies and melodies is quite remarkable. I'm not sure where they are at in the process, but it will be well worth the wait when it finally sees the light of day.
DI: Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse and you played in The Dixie Dregs in the late 70s. The Dregs are touring the West Coast in 2005. Tell us more about re-uniting the band and the upcoming tour. Are there any East Coast tour plans?
ROD: Actually, the Dixie Dregs were formed in the early 70's by Steve Morse and bassist Andy West in Augusta, GA. I met Steve and Andy in 1973 at the University of Miami where we were music students along with most of the other Dregs. When we graduated we decided to go for it. And here we are, 30 years later! still doing it, although on a part-time basis. One of the really cool things about the band is having Mahavishnu Orchestra electric violinist Jerry Goodman in the band. We were all major fans of his and Mahavishnu Orchestra back in the 70's and could not believe it when he agreed to join the Dixie Dregs a decade or so ago. We will tour the west coast in January and probably follow with an East Coast tour in the spring.
DI: RPM, the Rudess Morgenstein Project, was formed by you and Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess. Please tell us more about the new CD and what its like playing with a incredible keyboardist like Jordan?
ROD: The new CD, "Rhythm of Time," is a Jordan Rudess solo effort. Jordan is amazing. Most of the music on this recording is intensely instrumental prog/fusion. This recording was probably the most challenging of my career, as there was very little prep time. I had roughly two to three weeks to learn his incredibly intricate music before going in to record the drums. I figure I spent at least 100 hours getting my parts completed, and this all happened in between my racing from Long Island up to Boston to teach at Berklee College of Music each week. But in the end, when the madness was over, everything felt very gratifying.
Kip sings on 2 tunes, and other guest artists include Steve Morse, Joe Satriani, Vinnie Moore, Greg Howe, and Dixie Dreg's bassist Dave LaRue. Jordan and I are hoping to get another Rudess Morgenstein Project CD completed at some point. We've been working on and off over the past couple of years and have a fair amount of music already recorded.
DI: Speaking of Dream Theater, their bassist John Myung, Kings X guitarist Ty Tabor and you have the Jelly Jam 2 CD about to be released. What is the musical direction of Jelly Jam 2 and are there any live shows planned?
ROD: The Jelly Jam is one of my favorite projects as it has appeal for both musician and casual music listener alike. The songs are mostly vocal oriented but there's so much stuff in there for musicians to sink their teeth into. The writing/recording process for Jelly Jam (and the previous two Platypus CDs) is fascinating to me. Ty, John, and I get together for about a week at my house and jam out ideas. The music is set to go in one week's time. It amazes me sometimes how quickly the creative process can work when it is time-dictated. We're hoping at some point to play live but again it's a question of logistics - I have a Dixie Dregs tour coming up, Ty is on the road with King's X, and Dream Theater is about to go into the studio. But we're determined to figure it out one way or another.
DI: Playpus is another project of yours with Ty Tabor, John Myung and keyboardist Derek Sherinian. Is Jelly Jam simply Playpus minus keyboards, or did you aim for a different musical direction?
ROD: Even though three of the members are the same, I'd say that Platypus and The Jelly Jam are not the same. Platypus was a project consisting of four musicians with four agendas. Derek was looking to go in an instrumental fusion direction whereas I, coming from a career of instrumental fusion, wanted to have it be vocal heavy. So we all met in the middle, and Platypus was an interesting blend of vocal/instrumental prog/pop/fusion. I think the music of The Jelly Jam is somewhat more centered in its focus. And so it has more of a band vibe.
DI: Rush drummer Neil Peart produced a 1994 CD called "Burning For Buddy A Tribute To the Music of Buddy Rich." How did you get involved recording on that CD? What was it like drumming with The Buddy Rich Big Band?
ROD: I met Neil in 1985 when Rush invited The Steve Morse Band to tour with them on the Power Windows tour. It was an incredible experience opening for Rush because their audience is very musician-oriented. In fact, I felt my popularity as a drummer increase ten-fold after playing in front of the Rush fanatics. My guess is, there are more drummers at a Rush concert than at any other musical event anywhere. I got to know Neil pretty well over the three legs of the tour. And we kept in touch sporadically over the years. So in 1994, he contacted me regarding the Buddy Rich tribute CD to which I obviously was honored to be a part of. Recording with the BR big band was an exhilirating experience. It was one of The Most pressure situations of my professional life. Imagine, in the heart of New York City, in a world class recording studio, setting up your drums facing some 16 members of one of the world's most recognizable big bands, video cameras and bright lights everywhere all set up to capture the moment. Neil Peart is in the control room, along with whomever in NYC happened to stop by to check out the scene. So, you're told to relax, have a good time, don't mind the blaring lights or camera crew and all the other folks checking you out. And try to get your performance in one or two takes because time is money, and there's another drummer right behind you waiting to do his thing, too. Plus, let's see, when was the last time I played with a big band?.......that would be oh some 20 years ago in college! Anyway, it was an awesome experience and a wonderful gesture on Neil Peart's part, to bring the music of the big bands to the ears of Rush/prog/rock music fans everywhere.
DI: Its about this point in an interview that I offer to switch places for a question or two? Anything youd like to ask of me?
ROD: Hey Dave, who are you? Just kidding. How long have you had your website and have you always had an interest in journalism?
DI: Ive been writing interviews for metalforever.com during the last year. My friend Mark Washo owns this awesome website. I had journalism classes in college and opportunity knocked.
DI: Rod, who is your favorite drummer to watch in concert?
ROD: Back in the 70's I used to be mesmerized by Clive Bunker, the original drummer of Jethro Tull. He brought jazz chops and an "anything goes" approach to the music. He also played with the shortest sticks I've ever seen. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago when he came to a drum clinic I was doing in England. It's always a highlight meeting one of your biggest influences.
DI: You are an Associate Professor of Percussion at Berklee. Are there any past or present students of yours currently drumming in bands we might know?
ROD: I have several students who are in the various stages of making their dreams become reality. I just received an e-mail from a former student, Joey Zehr, whose "power pop" band, The Click, just got signed to Lava Records.
DI: Who are some of your drumming peers on the faculty at Berklee?
ROD: Some of the percussion faculty you may be familiar with are Casey Scheurrell (Chaka Khan, Gino Vanelli), Jamey Haddad (Paul Simon), Kenwood Dennard, Mike Mangini (Steve Vai, Extreme), and Tony Thunder Smith (Lou Reed). It's an awesome and eclectic group of musicians. And I think the appeal of Berklee is the fact that so many of the staff are recording/touring musicians, with real knowledge and experience to pass on to the students.
DI: In your opinion, is there one album that defines rock and roll?
ROD: If I had to point to one album, which is really difficult, I'd say Led Zeppelin I because it has so much rock versatility-musicianship, attitude, stylistic variation. Plus it broke with the mold in so many ways, and that's what music should be about.
DI: Who is the one band that defines how rock and roll should be played?
ROD: Oh, that's an easy one. The ONE band .hmmm okay. That would be......The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, AC/DC. Sorry..........
DI: Youve played with some incredible musicians throughout your career. If you could form a supergroup for one CD/tour, with musicians youve never played with, who would be in your band?
ROD: Robert Plant (vocals)
Ian Anderson (vocals/flute)
Jimi Hendix (guitar)
Jeff Beck (guitar)
Jimmy Page (guitar)
Paul McCartney (vocals/bass)
DI: What new artist has impressed you the most?
ROD: I think Avril Lavigne is an extremely talented songwriter and singer.
DI: What CDs are you currently listening to?
ROD: At the moment, I listen mostly to the radio on my drives to and from Long Island/ Boston/Berklee. And, of course, you rarely hear the name of the artist you're listening to.
DI: Are there any other thoughts youd like to share with music fans?
ROD: Play music because you have to, because something deep inside you pushes you to be creative. This may sound trite, but there are times when you jam that the music will transport you to a really special, unexplainable, unbelievable, magical place which, I believe, can only be achieved through art/music.
DI: Thanks again for this interview. My final question is whats up next for Rod Morgenstein?
ROD: On the performance side of things I think the Dixie Dregs, Jelly Jam, Rudess Morgenstein Project, and hopefully Winger will stay active in one form or another. Also, I've been recording with members of what used to be Jazz Is Dead, a jam band that explores the music of the Grateful Dead in the most interesting ways. We can't use the name Jazz Is Dead anymore for legal reasons. So, as soon as we finish the recording, we will need to come up with a new name. This band in particular, because of the nature of jam band philosophy, offers an extraordinary amount of freedom of musical expression. Almost anything goes. How cool is that for a musician! Aside from the band thing, I'm also involved in songwriting for other artists. My wife, Michele, and I are writing with a songwriter in Nashville and have a song making the rounds down there. It's exciting in that it's a completely new and different aspect of the music business for me, full of the usual intrigue, stress, and uncertainty, but equally challenging and rewarding.
Full Name: Rod Morgenstein
Birthday: 4/19/53 (ooops, now the secret's out)
Former bands: Dixie Dregs (1975-present), The Steve Morse Band (1983-1986) , Zeno (Germany 1986) ,Winger (1988-1993) reunion tour w/Poison, Cinderella and Faster Pussycat (2002), Platypus (1998-2000), Jazz Is Dead (1999-2001) , The Jelly Jam (2000-present), Rudess Morgenstein Project (1995-present)
Hobbies: song writing, travelling, hiking/camping/nature, sports
Favorite metal band: Led Zeppelin (are they metal?)
Favorite metal song: "Back In Black" by AC-DC.
Favorite film: A Clockwork Orange
Favorite city to visit: Venice, Italy
Favorite venue to play: Red Rocks, Denver, CO