Whitten: The Story Behind "What I Am"

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Cauldronics

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What a great opportunity we have for learning from a true professional and class act in Chris Whitten. We don't often get an in depth look at the choices made that become iconic to the sound of a well-known song, and stamped into music culture.

This is a huge reminder to me about being consistent from hit to hit. I struggled with losing punch and attack on the snare when playing the ride, but corrected it over some time after hearing the problem on playback. Or the same with consistent rimshots when called for.

It boils down to mindfulness while playing and keeping aware of each aspect of your playing while tuning yourself in to what's needed.

While we're at it... the Pork Pie kit sounds really good. I'd be happy with that sound every time.
 
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DrummerJustLikeDad

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I never followed the band, but when Shooting Rubberbands came out, I ate it up, believe it or not. Spun the record again and again. It came at just the right time in music's evolution to me, even if it was just an anomaly.

For someone who had long since rejected radio’s plastic, casio sounds of Whitney Houston R&B, but before the cleansing by grunge (which I was never going to enjoy), Bohemians music hit me like a fresh growth of my own generation's musically technical but organically juicy sounds. And as a drummer, I especially valued that album for the seriously talented, tasty drumming.

I'm sorry for the band's story as I'm only now catching up to where they'd come from and where they went subsequently, but I'm learning how much Chris's playing was what kept me glued to that anomalous record for as long as it did. What a great thread.
 
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dale w miller

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I replaced band drummers a lot in the 80's. I have a few things to say.
Although I wasn't being replaced, I did an album around 1983 where Jerry Marotta was hired to share the drumming with me. I sat in and watched him do his session. It completely blew my mind, changed my way of working and arguably MADE my career.
It always amazed me that when I replaced a band drummer, they would go home, or spend the whole time playing pac-man in another room. I mean for me it's a huge opportunity to figure out - what does this guy do so well that I can't do.
The songs are almost always simple, so it really comes down to consistency. Is your timing consistent, is every snare hit consistent (in volume and tone)? These are all things you can practice and become better at, but the replaced band drummers would never know because they didn't watch me or ask me any questions.
It's funny, because at the same time as we were recording the New Bohemians albums, a producer on the McCartney album I was working on (Flowers In The Dirt) was nagging Paul to replace me with a famous American drummer and Paul said no. So depending what level you are at, you can replace and be replaced!
But Dale is right, replacing drummers almost always damages the band and often leads to a band breakup.
If you look at Dire Straits - the founding drummer, who had a big part in establishing the band sound, was Pick Withers. Then they had Terry Williams for a few years.
Omar Hakim played on the Brothers In Arms album, Porcaro and Manu Katche played on the last album (On Every Street). They failed to persuade either Hakim, Katche or Jeff to play on the tours.
The replacement drummer thing really ceased with the advent of Pro Tools and sample replacers. These days you can fix any poor performing drummer with a lot of digital edits and replacing all their inconsistent sounds with samples.

Whether it’s replacing a player or using protools, this drive for “perfection” I believe has nothing to do with the art created as much as it does making it easier on the producer/engineer. On a technical side, I get it. You can’t have the tape clip as an example, but it’s gotten to the point producers are making decisions by what they’re seeing on Protools as much as they are listening to the music.

Mistakes aren’t always mistakes in my opinion. The way he pushes & pulls, I can’t imagine how Bonham would be ripped apart today. Would he even had a chance to make a major label record?

Do not get me wrong, I’m sure there’s something you did different in a way that the producer wanted, but if the original drummer’s part was creative enough for you to imitate, than to me it’s good enough to be on the album.

And let’s be honest here, the fact he had you do the drums and cymbals separately shows he was looking for “perfection”.
 

dale w miller

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Let’s not forget too the band is hiring the producer to capture the band’s sound. It’s not a jingle or solo artist in which the producer is developing a sound.

If the band was great live or at least good enough to get a deal and attempt to record with the original drummer, it sounds to me like the producer is the one not doing his/her job as much if not more than the original drummer.

I’m surprised labels don’t see how this destroys bands, ruining their investment, which is far more concerning than perhaps spending a little more money on some additional recording time.

Besides saving the label money on studio time, the producer’s motivation to move quickly is how he/she can make more money by being able to move onto the next job. It ruins their bottom line whether it’s broken down by their producer fees to by the hour they worked on this particular record or the fact they can’t record more albums in that year’s span. I can’t believe the producer’s reasoning is always genuine, looking to truly make the band be the best it can be.

This topic has me fired up if you can’t tell. :)
 

MrDrums2112

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This is great, especially the inspiration for the middle section. Thanks for posting.
 

hsosdrum

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Although I'm familiar with the version of "What I Am" that was eventually released, I would be keenly interested to hear one of the takes of the song that the band's original drummer played on.* The interaction between the original drum groove and the guitar part is what really moves the song and gets toes tapping, and since @Whitten says he copped that original drum groove, I'd really like to hear the difference between drum performances that get a producer's thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the point that they feel it's important to replace a drummer and run the risk of wrecking a band.

*Since this was pre-Pro Tools, I'm sure that those original drum tracks are gone, having been recorded-over by the final tracks. Of course a mixdown of an earlier version could be lurking on a long-forgotten cassette in some band member's closet...
 

Whitten

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Besides saving the label money on studio time, the producer’s motivation to move quickly is how he/she can make more money by being able to move onto the next job.

In my experience it is never about money. Don't forget, at the same time someone was trying to have me replaced on the McCartney album. I could record a McCartney backing track in two takes (under an hour), but the producer was more comfortable working with his usual 'go to' guy and presumably thought they would bring something extra to the track I wasn't bringing. Paul disagreed, and so did I.
I don't think Brandon's versions of the songs lasted more than a few minutes after their recording. It is distracting if the snare s changing volume and tone every other hit. It is frustrating if there is a pretty good take, but the second chorus (or something) loses the groove and contains a couple of scrappy fills.
I don't know what it was, but because I turned down the session and they tried to proceed without me, it had to be more than slightly less than perfection that motivated the producer to get me in.
 

Whitten

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Let’s not forget too the band is hiring the producer to capture the band’s sound.

No, the record label has hired the producer. When you sign to a very ambitious major label, you gave away a lot of your control. f they had signed tom an indie label they could have caed are of the shots.
Don't forget they had one of the biggest albums of 1989/90 as a result. They hired a world class drummer (Chamberlain). They had more control on the follow up album and it was a flop. Arguably the producer contributed to making that first album the huge success it was.
 

hsosdrum

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...I don't know what it was, but because I turned down the session and they tried to proceed without me, it had to be more than slightly less than perfection that motivated the producer to get me in.
I imagine that too, but my analytical side would love to be able to compare the versions so I could hear for myself just how far (or how little) things need to go awry for a producer to make that sort of decision.
 

hsosdrum

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Not far, probably.
I figured that, and I think it relates to your comment in post #12: "Unfortunately, drummers are probably more unfairly analysed during the initial process of making the backing tracks for an album."

I truly appreciate your willingness to candidly share your experiences with us, @Whitten.
 

Whitten

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I figured that, and I think it relates to your comment in post #12:

One producer heavily analysed my drumming on the McCartney album, although some others didn't.
My (sort of) audition for Dire Straits comprised of me going to the studio where they were finishing the album, being played the songs with Jeff Porcaro on drums and being asked to record my drums to the songs. I know they analysed my playing and timing after I left.
 

hefty

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I don't think Brandon's versions of the songs lasted more than a few minutes after their recording. It is distracting if the snare s changing volume and tone every other hit. It is frustrating if there is a pretty good take, but the second chorus (or something) loses the groove and contains a couple of scrappy fills.
"Pretty good take, loses groove at one point and contains a couple scrappy fills" could be used to describe most of the recordings I've been on.
 
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Mcjnic

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It happens to everyone.

Amen!
Good on you Chris for not playing the "better drummer" card.
I think the key takeaway is to remember that one drummer is not "better" than another.
It's all in the set of ears that make the decisions.
Those ears will determine what is "right" for the song ... and that is a business decision.
And the repurcussions of those decisions are played out for all to see. Some good. Some not.

I've never heard a better or best drummer ... only much different takes on a particular groove and such.
Some appeal to my ears ... some do not.
We use the language incorrectly, I believe. It's not that one drummer is "better" ... it's that, for that particular piece, that drummer's artistic choices please my ears a bit more than the others.
Some appreciate the Van Gogh take on flowers ... some are fans of the Dali flowers ... and still others are Monet flower people. But one is not "better" than the other. They are all just "artists".
I believe it's vital as an artist to keep that at the core ... we are who we are. We play what we feel is appropriate. And that's how it works.
All of the other noise is just that ... noise.
 

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Amen!
Good on you Chris for not playing the "better drummer" card.
I think the key takeaway is to remember that one drummer is not "better" than another.
It's all in the set of ears that make the decisions.
Those ears will determine what is "right" for the song ... and that is a business decision.
And the repurcussions of those decisions are played out for all to see. Some good. Some not.

I've never heard a better or best drummer ... only much different takes on a particular groove and such.
Some appeal to my ears ... some do not.
We use the language incorrectly, I believe. It's not that one drummer is "better" ... it's that, for that particular piece, that drummer's artistic choices please my ears a bit more than the others.
Some appreciate the Van Gogh take on flowers ... some are fans of the Dali flowers ... and still others are Monet flower people. But one is not "better" than the other. They are all just "artists".
I believe it's vital as an artist to keep that at the core ... we are who we are. We play what we feel is appropriate. And that's how it works.
All of the other noise is just that ... noise.

I disagree here. There are definitely better drummers. Chris is one. And it's appropriate to say so when there are quantifiable things that make one drummer better than another in a particular situation, like a big major label recording. Consistent sounds from the instrument, timing, feel while playing to a click. Very objective measures to say one drummer is a "better" fit for the job than another. And to take things further, the drummer who is better across those measurements is usually better across most other measurements as well.
 

Mcjnic

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I disagree here. There are definitely better drummers. Chris is one. And it's appropriate to say so when there are quantifiable things that make one drummer better than another in a particular situation, like a big major label recording. Consistent sounds from the instrument, timing, feel while playing to a click. Very objective measures to say one drummer is a "better" fit for the job than another. And to take things further, the drummer who is better across those measurements is usually better across most other measurements as well.


Ok. That is a fair point of view.
But as was stated, Bonham ... is he known for his consistent sounds and feel against a click? Definitely falls into the "big major label recording" particular situation. Same could be said for Van Morrison ... the guy is a freekin floating metronome with no rudder.
No ... again, it is the ears of the decision maker at play.
As much as I really dig Chris' choices on the tunes, I can't say that Chris' tracks appeal to me more than the original drummers ... or for that matter, Matt's.
I have not heard the original drummers and I've not seen the band live to hear Matt's take ... so it is still up in the air.
It's always a personal decision whether the artistic choices appeal or do not appeal to the individual.
It is not a quantifiable thing.
The business end justifications are of course quantifiable.
But in no way shape or form does that make one artist "better" than the other. Only a better fit for that set of ears.
 

Whitten

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It is not a quantifiable thing.

It is actually and I completely agree with 'Tornado' on this.
My whole career I have been measuring my own skills against 'better' drummers.
Better drummers groove ALL the time, they can learn songs quicker, they can come up with little ideas or licks that make the song better. Jeff Porcaro, Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta - they are all clearly BETTER studio drummers than me.
I am better than a guy who can't play with a click (when asked to), can't play with the same volume and tone on their snare or bass drum from bar to bar. Can't record a take without a mistake in less than three hours (say). A mistake might be forgetting to play the ride in the chorus when asked to, playing a big fill into the chorus on bar 8 of the verse, when that verse is actually 10 bars long.
These are all things that are quantifiable, measurable, and all things band drummers have done badly and which I've then been called in to do 'better'.
That's the problem with band drummers who are replaced. They think their playing is misunderstood, rather than it has faults that could be improved upon.
 

Whitten

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But as was stated, Bonham ... is he known for his consistent sounds and feel against a click?

He wasn't a jack of all trades freelance player. But in any case, everything he did grooved like a mother. His playing was actually super consistent (in tone and volume).
He innovated by combining the feel of great jazz and soul drumming, with the heavy sounds of rock.
He probably could have been a fantastic studio drummer if he had wanted too. He probably could have played perfectly well with a click.
 
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