The Doane Perry Interview
By Shawn Perry
Much of the Jethro Tull story comprises a kinetic smorgasbord of musical dalliances intertwined with a wrangling flotilla of personnel modifications, readjustments, and the ever-so-slight tweaks. A revolving door of players spinning off its axis in the late 70s and early 80s came eerily close to usurping the group’s trajectory toward immortal greatness. Still, as long as leader Ian Anderson manned the bridge and navigated the crew through treacherous and trendy waters, the integrity and well being of the good ship Tull was assured for the duration.
And so it goes in the new millennium. Celebrating their 40th anniversary, Jethro Tull remains a stable, unwavering group of musical mavericks on a mission. Unlike many of their aging contemporaries, they’ve adapted nicely to the changing tides of 21st century classic rock with a steady stream of solo and group CDs and DVDs, constant touring, and a comprehensive, personally groomed web site.
While I have had the unique privilege of interviewing both Anderson and longstanding guitarist Martin Barre, it was during Tull’s most recent swing through America that I considered getting another perspective. Without hesitation, I realized no one was better qualified than the dexterous man on the pedestal, the suave and steady timekeeper behind a glass partition: drummer Doane Perry.
A vested, card-carrying Tullian of 21 years, Perry was forthcoming and extremely accommodating during our half-hour chat in his dressing room before a sold-out concert at the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, California. We spoke about his time with the band, his contributions, his influences, his outside endeavors, musical and otherwise. It all made for stimulating conversation. On the whole, I recognized that as multifaceted as he is – the real heart and soul of Doane Perry is that he absolutely loves being the drummer of Jethro Tull. He’s undoubtedly in for the long haul – however long that haul may be.
You’ve been the drummer for Jethro Tull for 21 years. Aside from Ian Anderson and Martin Barre, you’ve been in the band longer than the other 137 or so guys who have fallen from the ranks. What’s your secret?
Hot sauce (laughs). I like my job - I like what I do. You have to. It's a hard life in some ways. Not the music; the music is the good part. And I won't say the easy part because it's always hard getting all the notes in the right order every night. But the travel is difficult - that's wearing and taxing. But if you like what you do, at least that balances things out. So I like what I do. And I hope the reason that all of us collectively are still playing together is that we like what we do.
Aside from Mark Craney, you’re the only American who’s ever been in Jethro Tull. For a band so quintessentially English, has it ever been difficult to adapt?
It’s not something that’s an issue at all. I don’t really think about it. We’re just five individuals. They’re from different parts of England and I’m just a little farther away. We all get on really well. I think the bottom line is you have to have a friendship with everybody. If you work well on a personal level, you’ll probably work well on a musical level. That’s the crux of it.
In the early days, there were issues of language and understanding things they said (laughs). But having said that, I think that maybe I’ve influenced their use of the American language a little bit. There are different terminologies and I hear things that tend to be more distinctively American creep into their conversations from time to time, which I don’t necessarily take credit for, but we do work in America a lot. So there’s bound to be things that rub off in both directions.
I'm confused as to when you actually became a member of Jethro Tull. I read you were initially hired during the 1984 Under Wraps tour. Both you and Gerry Conway appear on Crest Of A Knave, but neither of you are listed as members of the band. So, for the record, can you tell me exactly how and when you became an actual member of Jethro Tull?
On Under Wraps, I wasn't sure if the band was going to continue after that. It would have surprised me if you had told me at that stage that I would be playing with the band 21 years later. Consequently, you might surprise me if you'd say, "And you'll still be playing with the band 10 years from now." That could happen. I just look at it a year at a time. It's a bit like the army where you sort of earn your stripes. There were some other reasons, which had to do with family and personal reasons, why Crest Of A Knave ended up that way, which are too long and complicated, and are noted elsewhere on the Internet if people really want to find out. There was another commitment that I had made while we were in that sort of down year. That was the early days of me playing with Jethro Tull, and I felt I had to honor a commitment to a record and tour. After that, it was much more full time.
Tull had been an ongoing enterprise for a little over 15 years before you came aboard. What did you hope to bring to the fold?
I think I brought some real enthusiasm for the music; a knowledge of the music, an understanding, and hopefully an ability to play the music. I think they could see that. I was very familiar with the band’s music and I loved playing it. I hope that enthusiasm, to some degree, rubbed off on everyone. Perhaps it did.
My influences range in terms to what I brought musically to the band. I started with classical music playing piano, which was my first instrument. I really wasn’t aware of pop music. I heard jazz, then pop music. Then I thought, “Ah, playing drums would great.” Drums are, in a way, a cousin of the piano – it’s a very percussive instrument. Four-way coordination and there’s a lot of independence required, certainly in the upper half of your body, which is similar to the piano.
I had the chance growing up in New York to play a lot of different kinds of music – from orchestral and jazz – small band, big band – pop music, R&B, World music, folk music, every kind of ethnic music imaginable. I’m not saying I brought a more American feel because a lot of my influences are British. I have influences that range quite broadly, and to a very large extent I get to use those almost nightly in the context of Jethro Tull because it’s like playing in an orchestra. Having a classical background, a rock background, an R&B background, jazz…all of these things come to bear in the band.
I think I’m much better equipped to deal with the music than if I had just come from playing in a garage rock band. I have a lot more to draw on in that way, perhaps an ability to cope with the different kinds of Tull music, from the early stuff to the more modern stuff. I think I brought some degree of understanding of that music. I don’t know, you might have to ask the other guys (laughs).
I bring this up because I definitely hear some Eastern influences on Roots to Branches and J-Tull Dot Com. I don't recall hearing those kind of rhythms on previous Tull albums.
I used to study tabla for a while. I don’t play it particular well, but I’m familiar with Eastern rhythms. I love that kind of orchestration of percussive instruments in music. I utilized a lot of Latin American rhythms (on those records), but I orchestrated them in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m playing like Tito Puente, but more within the context of the songs. It would sound ridiculous if Tull went down to South America and played a Latinized version of “Aqualung.” There’s no point in that (laughs).
When you play some of the classic songs like “Aqualung” or “Locomotive Breath,” do you approach them with a certain reverence?
I do observe the original parts on the record. There are certain trademark parts, but there’s also things that I’ve had to alter to be more comfortable for me to play, whether it was Clive Bunker’s part or Barrie Barlowe’s, Mark Craney’s or Gerry Conway’s. To an extent, I’ve tried to keep the original feel and flavor intact, but play in a way that feels right for me.
Before becoming a member of Jethro Tull, you played with a vast cross section of major artists, like Lou Reed, Bette Midler, Liza Minelli, and Todd Rundgren, to name a few. You’ve said that you either learned something or at the very least enjoyed yourself. What do recall learning from any of these artists?
Todd Rundgren – economy. He likes real economical drum parts. So, I’ve always tried to edit myself in the studio. There were times when he wanted things almost, on the borderline, in a very simplistic way, but I realized what he was after. He didn’t need a highly evolved, really developed esoteric part that’s full of lots of embellishments. But other people like Kataro, for example, liked all those embellishments and all the development. Conversely, I remember him saying to the percussionist one night – all he had in this one song was literally one triangle part – “It’s just as important that the triangle part is perfectly placed. You must play that note in the right place.”
Bette Midler was kind of an interesting cross section of having to play a lot of 30s and 40s style swing, and make it really sound like I’m playing music from that era. It was natural because I grew up listening to that. I’m not the world’s greatest reggae drummer, but I really like reggae and I can play that kind of stuff if it feels right – even if it’s not totally authentic. The same with any music, if you can find that thread, the music will very often dictate what you have to do.
With Lou (Reed), it was very unpredictable. When we did The Blue Mask in 1982, he would sometimes give you a lyrics sheet and no music. Other times, I pointed out that this was a nine or seven or some compound time signature, and he was totally unaware of that, but really thrilled by the fact that he had something in an unusual time signature. He had no idea, it was just the way the melody would fall, and I realized we had to turn the phrase around every time we got to this particular part of the song. You couldn’t just play straight through. It was listening and playing intuitively, not over thinking.
Sometimes, I’m given written music and it’s very defined where things are going and you follow that. A great experience I had was with Teo Macero and his big band. He was Miles Davis’ producer from, I think, Kind Of Blue all the way to the very end. He was the architect of Miles’ sound and a great, great musician. He had his big band and I happened to play drums in that, which was frightening – I was only 19 years old. He used to give me charts that just had simple figures. And then he said, “In between, I want you to make it up every night.” We had some people that really couldn’t improvise and he had to write everything out. They’d look at my chart and go, “How do you know what to play in between the notes?” I said, “I make it up.” They asked, “You mean, you do it differently every time?” I said, “Yeah.” That was a foreign concept to them. Some of them were from the more classical world where as soon as you take the paper away, they can’t play. I was lucky to have been exposed to rock and jazz where you had to make it up.
Everybody that I’ve worked with, to a degree, has demanded something different. So you learn. When I was playing lots of club gigs, I used to always pretend – even if the musicians weren’t that good – that the Rolling Stones Mobile Truck was outside and I was making a live record. And I had one take to do it. I’d think even if everyone else screws it up, I’m going to nail it. So I pretended like I was making a record every night, playing with different people in clubs. With some people, it was a great experience, with other people, it wasn’t that good. I’d do something to challenge myself, to get through the gig and really feel like it wasn’t a waste of time; it was part of the learning curve.
You’re still active with some projects outside of Tull. You have a home studio, you’ve done some film and television music, and you also have a group called Thread.
We’re actually starting a new Thread record this winter. We’ve been writing and working on material. It’s really Vince DiCola and myself. We’ll try to get it out some time next year (2006). I write a lot of things that aren’t appropriate for Thread that maybe I’ll just put out on my own. I can play all the keyboard and drum parts. I can play guitar, but really not well enough, so I’d get a proper guitar player. Some of my material might be better suited for that. I have a backlog of material – some of which will go to Thread, some that will end up as a collaboration with someone else, or some just simply for my own separate project.
What are your views on the current state of progressive rock? Do you listen to new groups like Radiohead, Sigor Ros, the Mars Volta?
The Mars Volta is a great band. I like Porcupine Tree and Spock’s Beard. Actually, on the new Thread album, we’re planning on working with Roine Stolt from The Flower Kings. They opened for us and I got to know Roine and asked if he’d be interested in working with us. He’s an incredible writer and guitarist. And The Flower Kings, if you have not heard them – they’re from Sweden – you have got to hear this band! They are absolutely incredible. There’s lots of great new stuff. Radiohead is on my iPod.
What are you reading these days?
I usually read three or four books at a time. I just finished a very interesting book called The Men Who Stare At Goats. It’s about the methods of interrogation that our government uses on the Iraqi prisoners of war – which makes me more frightened of our government than I am of the terrorists. My friend Neil Peart gave me his book called Traveling Music. It’s a great chronicle of his associations with music – from his early days up to the present. It was interesting reading – I felt as though I was having the same sort of musical experience. He’s only a year or two older than me and we have very similar influences. There are a couple of surprising things that he listens to that I must check out.
I’ve also got Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything that I’m working on right now. That’s a very interesting book. Those are some recent ones. It changes all the time. I’m always haunting used book stores, here and abroad and dragging things home. I have two shelves of unread material that are slowly working their way to the front of the queue. I read lots of magazines. I love reading about science and things that are very different from what I do. I love reading biographies and autobiographies about all kinds of people – politicians, writers, artists. There are certain novelists that are able to pull you into a beautifully constructed world of their own that I love. I love the writing of John Cheever. He was one of these guys that seem to be able to capture this slice of American life – little things that happen that we see every day, but he was able to extrapolate them and go into the detail of somebody’s life. He had a great power of observation about human nature that’s fascinating to me. I’m very epidemical in my book tastes.
I imagine you do a lot of reading on the road.
Oh yeah. I pass the time well that way.
How’s the current tour been going so far?
It’s going well. We’re wrapping up the end of a huge world tour.
You’ve had some guest musicians sit in with you.
Lucia Micarelli has been primarily working with us on the American tour. She was in South Africa and came back some time today. She won’t be able to play with us until tomorrow. So tonight is the first time we’ll be playing with Antonio Pontarelli (a 14-year-old violionist from Temecula). But it’s mostly been with Lucia, a remarkable 22-year-old classically trained violinist who loves rock and roll.
When you have another musician join you, does it add a certain something to the music?
It keeps it fresh and different. She (Lucia) plays on our music, but we play a couple of things of hers too. We do a really great version of “Kashmir.” We never play other band’s material.
I heard you guys warming up on “Purple Haze” during your sound check.
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s right – we’re doing that with Antonio. But it doesn’t sound like a cover band. With Lucia, it really worked. It’s interesting being in a band like this and playing other bands’ material.
Any plans tonight to do anything out of the ordinary, like Thick As A Brick or A Passion Play in their entirety?
(Laughs) No, that would require a little rehearsal. We might do an excerpt of “Thick As A Brick.” I think tonight we’ll play one continuous set, rather than two sets with an intermission.
You’re giving away a free CD of Aqualung played live to every concert ticket holder. What can you tell me about that?
We recorded it at XM studios in Washington D.C. about a year and half ago. There was a small audience and it was the whole album in one take. We played the songs in the exact order in which they appear on Aqualung, but in a way that we play today.
The last official Tull studio album was The Jethro Tull Christmas Album from 2003. Are there any plans for a new studio album?
I’m sure there will be, but we’re working so much. We haven’t made any firm plans. I’m sure there will be at some point, but I don’t have a definite date.
I’ve asked both Ian and Martin this same question, so I will ask you: How much longer can Jethro Tull last?
If you had asked me in 1984, “Will you be around in 21 years?” I would have probably said, “Hmm…I don’t know about that.” I think that I couldn’t possibly answer that with any accuracy. We still have a lot of love and enjoyment playing the music and going out and playing live. This is by no means the last tour. But you never know. I suppose it will stop when we stop enjoying it. As long as people still want to come and hear us, then I hope we’re lucky enough to still be able to go out and play for them.