The Pat Mastelotto Interview

Drummer Pat Mastelotto has the distinction of being one of the longest standing members of King Crimson, a group with a high volume of personnel turnover. Of course, King Crimson also goes for long stretches without activity, almost as if it's supposed to change and evolve with every comeback. Mastelotto, in the drummer's seat since 1994, stays busy working with other musicians during those Crimson lulls. As you’ll learn in the following interview, he’s booked solid with and without Crimson for the next couple of years.

King Crimson, however, is a priority, and at the time of this interview, Mastelotto and the rest of the crew were preparing to hit the road for their 2017 North American “Radical Action Tour 2017,” a 17-show run, from June 11 to July 10. On June 2, the band also released an EP called Heroes - Live In Europe 2016 featuring a live version of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Crimson leader Robert Fripp played the guitar on Bowie’s original version.

Talking with Mastelotto, I got a good sense of how complex working with two other drummers can be. A veteran of countless sessions and a founding member of the 80s pop rock band Mr. Mister, Mastelotto is an accomplished pro, similar to other like-minded, working musicians completely immersed in their craft. He’s obviously up for the challenge. When he’s not pounding it out with King Crimson, he’s touring, recording or experimenting with the likes of Stick Men, TU, KTU, ToPaRaMa, O. R. k. and a host others. After he filled me in on his schedule, I didn’t have the heart to ask if he had any hobbies.


Let’s get into the upcoming King Crimson U.S. tour that launches in June, this time with four drummers, including yourself. So, I guess my first question is why four drummers?

I’m the wrong guy to ask (laughs).

Right (laughs).

But I can tell you there will only be three drum kits on stage. Bill (Rieflin) will be predominantly playing keyboards.

I saw you with the three drummer configuration a couple years ago. How do you coordinate your parts?

Carefully (laughs). We just spend a lot time diving into it, sending emails, Skype, discussing it, playing it, discussing it, trying different options, listening back. Trying to work out what’s best for each song in the most equal way to divide up of the parts throughout the entire show so everyone stays happy.

Are there challenges playing with other drummers?

Yeah. The parts become pretty defined. It’s not like you just go off on your own that often, as you could with most other bands. It feels like the drummer’s the traffic cop in most bands, sort of a conductor of dynamics and energy. It’s not exactly like that when there are three guys. A lot times of you just get a bar or just a couple bars to get the energy going then you got to pass the baton to the next guy. It’s a different way to work and its important to eliminate a lot the notes, specifically in the bass drum. That’s a bad place for two drummers to be playing unison. So we try to detail those things.

Last month, we had three weeks over in England rehearsing. The first week, we did just the drummers alone, which is what we’ve been typically doing for the last three or four years. This time, for the first couple of days — just Jeremy (Stacey), Gavin (Harrison) and I in Gavin’s studio looking at the computer screen. Identifying some parts we had discussed and agreed on, but after a year or two of playing live, things evolve, it's only natural we listen and learn at every gig. So we decided to do some forensic listening and spotted some flammy things and said, “Hey, what’s going on here. Let’s look a little closer here and clean this up.” Then we drummers went into a dingy rehearsal room and spent four days tweaking what we discussed and honing ideas for our new songs.

I took rehearsal tapes from the last week and they’re in front of me now whilst I'm speaking with you. I’m doing the same kind of thing here in my studio where I pull up our three drums tracks and go through them in a little bit more detail. For instance, this is on “Level Five“ offset section. It’s about a 16-bar phrase where I wanted to have a little bit more space to improvise each night, but it’s limited by what space is available there is to improvise in (laughs) it’s basically a one-bar phrase where Gavin gets to kick a foot and crash cymbal, and Jeremy is playing a foot and crash and the next beat, and I answer with crash, so my area to occupy and work within is between those couple beats, that’s where I have a little room to improvise, if you will. We’re talking about a very short section of music with limited space available to improvise in. So here I am once again, checking the screens. It's often hard for me to hear everything onstage, especially the details of the three drum kits, so a lot of times I don’t hear it until I step away. It’s important to stop and listen and try to get the perspective that the audience has.

When I asked, “Why four drummers?” You said you’re not the guy to ask. So I imagine that would be a question Mr. Fripp could answer, is that right?


So he comes in with a vision of the band and you guys adhere to it?

Yep. When he called me in 2013...first off, I didn’t think he’d ever call to start the band again. I’d just seen him a year before when he was quite retired. I saw his name light up on my iPhone. An occasional call from Robert is not out of the ordinary but I was shocked when he said he wanted to put the band back together. He told me then there would be seven in the band and three are drummers. After we hung up and I realized I didn’t even ask who’s in the band.

Would it be fair to say that King Crimson operates at the whims and moods of Robert Fripp?

Well yes, but he’s influenced by world events and musical events. It’s not as petulant — the word I see being used a lot about one of our political leaders here. It’s not like Robert goes off down the path and takes his ball and all that. There’s a lot of logic behind the movement of the band. We currently have about a four-year calendar. I started to work with Robert in 1993 with David Sylvian, and this was before we had laptops, nothing like today. We weren’t using a Google calendar, we were using a datebooks! Remember those days? And Robert was the first guy I ever worked with who had a three-year datebook. He opened up a page and pulled out like an accordion for three years, and he’d be discussing what we’re going to be doing in 95, 96, and it was like, “Wow, this is a different way of planning.” And it’s still like that.

Robert or different people in the band present timing issues that we can try to address well in advance. So we open up periods when we think the band will work and we try to clear out our other activities so we don’t have any conflicts. And then, as it gets closer, we fine-tune those dates. Maybe we held a five-week period open but we only need three weeks, so we can move those around to suit the schedules the guys need.

Anything special planned for this tour?

We’ve changed quite a bit and are now an eight-headed beast. It’s been a few years since we were in the States and we’ve added a lot of material. We’ve just added almost 30 minutes of new material — one new piece and four or five older pieces. Same thing last year. We added “Indiscipline” and a few other pieces. We’ve got a huge set list. It’s unbelievable. I’m not sure, but at least three hours, possibly four hours of material, but we won't play everything every night, so the shows can vary quite a bit.

Are there plans for any new music with this lineup?

Our philosophy is all the tunes are new no matter when written, so its all open for reinterpretation. But if you mean going into a recording studio then no, that’s not part of the plan. We record everything, so I’m not sure that this band will ever need to go in the studio in the conventional sense of a whole band going up and setting up in a studio and recording simultaneously,like human beings (laughs). Because we basically do that every day. We record everything rehearsals, soundchecks and the gigs. You know, it could be nice to spend time working on the sounds. When you go in the recording studio, usually you’ll spend a few days upfront working out those kinds of details. We sort of do that every day as we soundcheck. We have a new modern monitoring system where we pretty much do our own monitor mixing, so it’s constantly being dialed in with every day’s rehearsal / sound check.

You’ve been with King Crimson for 25 years, and I’m curious about you making the leap from Mr. Mister to King Crimson. On the surface, it seems like a real stretch.

Well, there was no direct thread, there was no jump. It’s a long story of how one thing lead to another, and I got the opportunity to play with Robert and David Sylvian. And then Robert invited me into Crimson. He wasn’t necessarily aware of the Misters or other things I had done. I think he was basing his opinions on being in the moment there and working together. I’m aware it’s sort of a curiosity to some people in the audience, they see it as a big jump, like you just sort of described it. But it’s odd within the band its not an issue; like with Robert, I don’t think he sees it as a big jump. We’re musicians and we’re working and that’s what working musicians do. The gigs come, the gigs go, and we move along. Like sharks, we’ve got to chew on new music to live.

When you first joined, you were paired up with Bill Bruford for Thrak. I saw you guys in San Diego back then, and it remains one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen.

Wow. I remember that gig.

Did you pick up anything playing with Bruford?

I picked up so much from Bill. He’s just the greatest — I learned so many things. He was so kind to me. He shared so many things.

I know you’re involved in a number of Crimson-related side projects, like O.R.k. and Stick Men, whom I saw you with aboard Cruise to the Edge. Because you and Tony Levin are in Stick Men, for example, I guess you have to schedule things around Crimson’s activities. With that being said, what’s next for Stick Men?

Well, you’re absolutely right. Crimson — that’s our top priority. And, of course for Tony, Peter Gabriel when he’s trying slot in, to find out what Peter’s plans are; you know, give himself some windows to be available for Peter. Crimson is going to tour June and July. We start up in Seattle, and we finish about the third week of July, we finish in Mexico City. Tony and I, with Marcus (Reuter), our third member of Stick Men — and by the way, Marcus and I have a duo project and we have a new CD just out called Face. It’s a 35-minute piece of music, not an improvisation; it’s a very composed piece. Anyway, we’ll head right up to Woodstock the beginning of August and join Adrian Belew and his Power Trio. We do a camp up in the Catskills. We’ve done it about six years now. It’s really a great little event with about 100 Crimheads , it's a pretty extraordinary gang of people. We hang for about five days and do a lot of interaction with the campers. And then we start a Stick Men tour the following day. Actually we finish the camp on Friday noon. And then we’ll play a gig Friday night nearby in Woodstock, and the next day we’ll carry on with our Stick Men tour for about three weeks into the first week of September.

Then off to Poland with Trey Gunn and we have a project called TU and We play with an outlandish Finlandish accordion player Kimmo Pohjonen as KTU, Kimmo is outrageous, kind of the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion. We have a couple gigs in the second week of September in Poland and Vienna and another show with just Trey and I . It will be about a week and a half over there. That will get me back at home in time to have a few weeks before Crimson starts again. King Crimson are going to tour North America more later this year, starting around the second week of October up until around Thanksgiving.

That’s a very heavy schedule.

Its fun! Next year Crimson will start rehearsals in April, so I’ll go out in January with O.R.k. for a tour in Europe. During that time, Tony will be touring with his brother Pete. When I know he’s going to be busy with Pete, I can work with my other projects, give them some of that time. Then Stick Men will do Cruise to the Edge again in February and we’re going to have David Cross with us. CTTE presented that idea to us and we liked it. So we’ll just do those couple gigs with David . and possibly do a few more after the cruise ends. Unfortunately, we don’t have the visas to bring David to the USA so those gigs will all be in Latin America. Then Stick Men will continue through the month of March working in Europe for about three and half weeks. That will leave us with a few weeks to prepare before we start the Crimson rehearsals next April. And on it goes.

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