Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features drummer Jerry Marotta.
There have been a lot of bad album covers throughout the past six decades of rock history, but few of them have generated quite as much mockery as the one Orleans created for their 1976 LP Waking and Dreaming. It shows the group, best remembered for their soft-rock smash “Still the One,” in a shirtless, goofy-smiled embrace. There’s so much visible body hair that it’s almost blinding. Future New York congressman John Hall is in the center of the bunch, but move your gaze to the young lad with his head on Hall’s right shoulder, the only fellow without a beard.
That’s drummer Jerry Marotta. He was just 19 years old when he joined the group earlier that year, just in time to cut “Still the One,” and he’d leave in 1977 when a prog-rock singer he’d never heard of named Peter Gabriel needed a new drummer. He’d stick with Gabriel for the next ten years, playing on Peter Gabriel II, Peter Gabriel III, Peter Gabriel IV (a.k.a. Security), and So. Along the way, he found time to tour and record with Hall & Oates, helping them create classics like “Kiss on My List” and “You Make My Dreams.” He also worked with Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Stevie Nicks, Cher, and many other A-listers in the studio before spending much of the Nineties on the road with Indigo Girls.
Marotta’s road to shirtless immortality, “Shock the Monkey,” and countless Lilith Fairs started started in the East Side suburbs of Cleveland in the Fifties, though his family moved to Harrison, New York when he was five. The first records he remembers loving were R&B releases by Motown and Stax, and he started playing drums after his older brother Rick — an extremely accomplished drummer in his own right who has worked with Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, John Lennon, Jackson Browne, and many others — began finding local success.
Rick was Jerry’s greatest inspiration as a drummer, but he also worshipped Steve Gadd, Jim Keltner, and jazz greats like Gene Krupa. “I remember listening a lot to James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James,” Marotta tells Rolling Stone on Zoom from his home in Woodstock, New York. “Russ Kunkel was playing brushes on drums. I loved that soulfulness, that tastefulness.”
The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York was very close to Marotta’s home, and his brother’s band rehearsed there on the weekends. “I would go with him and be like a little roadie/gofer,” Marotta says. “I got to know everyone there at the theater since I’d get them coffee and sandwiches. One day, [rock promoter] Howard Stein called me into his office. He said, ‘Jerry, everyone loves you and is so grateful for what you do. I want to reward you with this.’ It was a platinum all-access backstage pass to every show.”
The only problem was that his parents saw the Capitol as a den of drug use and other evils, and they told him he wasn’t allowed to see shows there. That didn’t stop him from sneaking out to see Traffic, Humble Pie, Johnny Winter with Rick Derringer, the Allman Brothers Band, the Faces, Delaney & Bonnie with Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and many other big tours of the early Seventies.
Things came to a head one night when he was at a Grateful Dead concert. “You could smell the marijuana across the Long Island Sound that night,” Marotta says. “My mother barged in and pushed her way past security. ‘My son is here and I’m going to find him!’ She found me in the crowd and dragged me out by the ear. The security guys looked like Hells Angels, but they were my friends. They were like, ‘Hang in there!’ They told me later if that had been anyone but my mother, they would have wound up in the hospital.”
When his brother told their parents he was going to devote his life to rock, they threw him out of the house. “When he started to be really successful, went on a couple of trips to Europe, and started doing things for them, they realized how music could be a good career,” says Marotta. “He really paved the way for me.”
By the time that Marotta was ready to skip college in favor of touring with folk rock trio Arthur, Hurley & Gottlieb, who hired him due to a recommendation from his older brother, his parents were on board. But it wouldn’t have mattered if they weren’t. Marotta was determined to devote his life to rock.
“I always like to joke that when I went backstage at the Mad Dogs and Englishmen shows I saw things that I still don’t understand at age 67,” he says. “I still don’t know what those three people were doing to each other, but they were half-naked. I was so young and naive. But I did realize, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Your first tour was with folk trio Arthur, Hurley & Gottlieb. What was that like for you?
First gig I did, we flew down to Miami and opened for Richie Havens. Because of Woodstock, he was huge. I quickly realized I was not ready for life on the road. I grew up in a small town where I knew everybody. My support system, the values, the morals, the honor… When I got into a band, “Oh God. What are these people doing? It’s everyone behind each other’s back, talking and complaining.” It was a very quick lesson in the way the world really works.
We did so many great shows, though. Back in the Seventies, it was very typical that you go out on a tour and you play places like the Bitter End and a lot of college gigs. They oftentimes you’d be on tour with a comedian. We played with Billy Crystal, Shel Silverstein, Robert Klein, who I idolized. Jay Leno would be hanging out in the dressing room, eating and talking to us.
How did you join Orleans?
I was working up here at Woodstock. I was doing a session. My brother was producing a singer-songwriter named Allee Willis. She was amazingly talented, but didn’t have two nickels to rub together. She lived in New York. We were doing some demos at Bearsville. This is like 1974-’75. Orleans were based here. John Hall was over at Bearsville. He was talking to my brother about how they were going to look for another drummer. My brother, of course, wasn’t going to do it. He recommended me. I went and auditioned to play with them. They were my favorite band on the planet, my absolute favorite. If the Beatles wanted me to join the Beatles and Orleans wanted me to join Orleans, I would have joined Orleans.
What did you love about them?
They were amazing. Their first record was absolutely incredible. Every song was a guitar-based riff. Nothing like their hits like “Dance With Me” and “Still the One.” Orleans is a good example of a band that got swayed by L.A., the music business, and they didn’t stay true to what they instinctively do. They are an amazing, amazing band. Four guys all sang, all played great. It was super-funky music. They songs were very R&B-based.
What do you recall about recording “Still the One?”
I wasn’t supposed to be the drummer on that song. Wells Kelly, the other drummer in the band, was really supposed to be the drummer. But a couple of things… We were in L.A. Wells was sick. But here’s what I think really was going on. I came from a background, because of my brother, where my style was very much pocket session player. I didn’t play a lot.
Wells was a dynamo. He was one of my all-time favorite drummers. The guy was amazing. But was a little more…not Keith Moon-ish, but he wasn’t exactly trying to conform to the “simplify” thing. I think the day he wasn’t feeling well, they decided, “Let’s just do ‘Still the One.’ We’ll have Jerry play on it. It’ll be more straightforward and session-y.” Some of what I did was basically what I heard him do. But the general thrust of it was just to play in a simple rock shuffle.
What was it like to turn on the radio and hear a song you played on over and over like that?
I can’t even begin to tell you. It was such a charge. You have to understand that I was immersed in rock and roll since I was like 12 or 13. Those years were like triple-A baseball. I was learning and I was playing. My bands in high school never got hired. They were too big since we had horns and were doing offbeat music. Having a hit like that was an absolute gas.
You’re on the famous album cover.
Yeah. I don’t see how that’s one of the world’s worst album covers. We have our shirts off. Whatever.
What are your memories of shooting it?
We were in L.A. Norman Seeff was the photographer. He was the hot, hot guy at the time. We went to his studio. I was pretty young. We were pretty straightforward guys, not a lot of drug-taking… The shoot didn’t last long. It was a couple of hours, tops. There’s no big story. I was 19 years old. I had no say in anything. I didn’t care. I was just so excited to be in Orleans. I was in my favorite band on the planet.
Who had the idea to pose shirtless?
I have no idea. That had to be Norman or someone in his crew. We didn’t want to do that.
Why do you think it’s become so iconic? I’ve seen that picture on so many websites and in so many books.
I can’t tell you how many people e-mail or message me and they’re like, “I bought this album at a Salvation Army for a dollar. Do you want it? I thought you might want it.” I have so many copies of that record. [Laughs.] I have a coffee-table book of the worst album covers. That is on the cover.
Maybe it strikes people as weird because you guys look like you’re naked.
I’ll tell you this. I got my first fan letter from a gay sailor in Okinawa. I guess it was sent to Elektra and they gave it to me. But honestly, I don’t remember any real discussion of, “Oh God, I hope they don’t use that picture.” We did whatever they wanted us to do, for the most part.
There’s a video on YouTube of you guys playing in Passaic, New Jersey. You were great live.
Again, it is really unfortunate that people’s impression of Orleans is “Dance With Me” and “Still the One.” We would go out on tour with Little Feat since we had the same manager. They were badass. It was like a slugfest when we toured. Depending on the market, either we’d open for them or they’d open for us. Whoever went on first killed. And whoever followed killed even more. Then we’d all get onstage together. It was so amazing. Little Feat were badasses, but Orleans were in the same mode. We could kick their asses all over the stage.
Why did you leave after just the one album?
I would still be in the band. First of all, John Hall quit. There were all kinds of band politics. It was mind-boggling. When I joined Orleans, my older brother said, “Jerry, you’re going to be a millionaire by the time you’re 21.” Everybody thought Orleans was going to be what would now be the Dave Matthews Band — like, a band that’s very hip, not every song is a pop song, but just a badass group.
I’m 19. I was like, “Life could not be any better.” But then John Hall quit. When he called me to tell me he was going to leave. I said, “Listen, is it me? Do you want to get a different drummer?” He said, “It has nothing to do with that at all.”
I ran into John a year later at a club. He was very emotional. He said to me, “You were the only person that tried to talk me out of quitting the band.” It was, “The king is dead. Long live the king.” Larry Hoppen was like, “John is out. I’m going to step up and be the main writer now.”
I was a kid. I wasn’t thinking about anything more than, “This is my band. This is my life. I want to ride this out forever.” I really wanted to know exactly what was his motivation for leaving. It was his band. He started the band.
Where did things go from there?
Orleans ended in the spring of 1977. I’m crushed. I go out to L.A. to visit my brother, who was living there at the time. Within a month, someone handed either one of us, or both of us, a cassette tape of a record. They went, “This guy is looking for a drummer. His name is Peter Gabriel.” It was a cassette of the first Gabriel record. My brother didn’t want to do it. He was just working with everybody. It was going to start in August or September in England. It was a job. It paid well.
I didn’t know who Peter Gabriel was. I’d never heard of him. I didn’t know who Genesis was. I didn’t care about them. But it paid well and I was going to Europe. I’d never been there. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that record, but it was off-the-wall. There’s no funk. There’s no Black influence. There’s nothing that was in my soul. It was very English, very different style. The songs were like “Moribund the Burgermeister” and “Excuse Me.”
I was thinking, “I don’t know what I think of this music. It’s not exciting me. But it’s a job. Go to Europe.” Tony Levin was the bass player. I had known Tony. I was like, “This is going to be an experience. I’m very open-minded. I’ll broaden my vistas. I’ll do this tour and it probably won’t work out. Then it’ll be over with.” That turned into 10 years.
He was touring the first record at the time with Allan Schwartzberg on drums. Why did he leave?
I’ll tell you exactly what happened. This is the music business back then. Allan Schwartzberg was a jingle drummer in New York, and a disco drummer. All those guys, like [percussionist] Jimmy Maelen, were New York session guys. Then there was [guitarist] Steve Hunter and [guitarist] Dick Wagner, who were in Alice Cooper’s band. Bob Ezrin was producing. These guys were all high-level professional musicians. Robert Fripp was touring and playing from offstage.
What happened back then is the record company would pay for a promotional tour. It’s like three weeks in L.A., Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Cleveland. Major markets. And the record company paid everybody. But that was done. Now it’s time for Peter to tour with guys that aren’t high-paid New York session guys.
Ironically, Tony Levin was one of those guys. But he had a very different mindset than staying in New York and doing sessions. Tony stayed on with Peter, as did [keyboardist] Larry Fast. He was a Moog synthesizer guy and was as much an engineer as he was a musician. Larry was a big Peter fan, big prog fan.
They added me, and guitarist Sid McGinnis. He did that tour and the next record. Then he went on to do the David Letterman show for the next 30 years. Peter was moving on from different people in search of the right combination.
I’m sure seeing Peter play at first was pretty stunning. He’s such an intense performer that really connects with the crowd.
I don’t remember. I was just trying to do my job. Peter is a wonderful human being, though. He’s nothing like you’d think from listening to his songs and watching him onstage. He’s such an English gentleman. Beautiful guy. Super-talented. I was thinking about this today. He’s as much theatrical as he is musical. He happens to do both very, very well.
Yeah. In the early days of Genesis, when he had virtually no budget, he still found ways to create a theatrical experience.
When I first toured with Peter, he had no money to spend either. What’s funny is that Genesis had co-ventured with Showco to develop Vari-Lite. They were co-owners of that. Genesis had, like, 200 Vari-Lites onstage at this point. Peter had nothing. When we played, I think, “Rhythm of the Heat,” he’s running around with just a flashlight.
People in L.A. that would come out, like the Jackson 5 or Prince… Everybody was infatuated with that band and with Peter. People were like, “That was the greatest show I’ve ever seen, ever.” It wasn’t about Vari-Lites. It was about Peter. He is such an amazing performer.
Tell me about making the second Peter Gabriel record with Robert Fripp.
Robert produced that. I didn’t know who Robert Fripp was. I didn’t know anything about him. But his reputation preceded him about what an unusual, strange human being he was. He didn’t pick up his guitar for a year and just dug ditches. I heard a lot about Robert and didn’t know what to make of it.
The first time I met him was when we started making that record at a studio in Holland, in the country. I was thinking, “This guy is not going to like me and my playing. I’m going to be out of here fast.” The first day or two, he says, “Jerry, would you please stay after the session?” I’m thinking, “OK. This is it. I’m going home.”
He invites me into the control room. Everyone is gone besides us and the engineer. He’s got two Revox tape machines sitting apart from one another. He says to me, “Have a seat.” I sit down. For the next half hour, he does a Frippertronics [tape looping] thing. I said, “Thank you.” And that was it. I kind of left and went back to where I was staying. I realized it was his way of telling me that he liked me. He let me watch him do that. He shared that with me. I don’t think he shared that with a lot of people. We became pretty close after that. We did a bunch of recording together. It was fascinating.
What do you remember about making Peter Gabriel III with Steve Lillywhite and Phil Collins?
I wasn’t around when Phil Collins was there. But that was very interesting. That record was being recorded at a farm house that Peter had rented in the English countryside in Bath, near where Peter lives. It had a stone barn. We used to rehearse in there. Peter decided, “Hey, let’s try and record in here.” They brought in a remote truck.
I didn’t know Steve Lillywhite, but he’d worked with U2 and the Psychedelic Furs. The one record that got Peter interested was Drums and Wires by XTC. Steve produced it and Hugh Padgham engineered it. They were the guys. I got along great with them both. They were really talented. Everyone was really young. Steve just had a great way of making records.
The famous story is he wanted no cymbals on that record.
My recollection on that was that we were in this stone barn. They were experimenting with compression and distortion. They wanted things to sound different. The drums would sound amazing, but the minute you hit a cymbal, it sounded awful, because cymbals and drums don’t sound anything alike. In theory, they shouldn’t even be recorded together. They are not similar sounds. I think the idea was, “Let’s take the cymbals away and we’ll overdub the cymbals later.”
This is at least my recollection. I don’t recall anyone saying, “We’re going to make a record and not use cymbals.” What I remember is that as the record progressed, there was no real need to overdub cymbals. It had a whole different kind of strange, subtle texture to it. There weren’t cymbal crashes going into choruses. It was very different.
I could not love that record more. It’s perfect.
It’s a great record. We never felt, honestly, “Oh boy, wow. We’re going to be famous.” There was always a question. When you’re doing something like that, you’re always questioning yourself in the back of your mind. “Are we doing the right thing? Should there be cymbals?”
I think Peter didn’t really like traditional drums, just like I don’t think he likes traditional guitar playing. David Rhodes, who became his permanent guitar player, has a very different approach to the guitar. I had a very different approach to the drums, ironically, through working with Peter. My background is R&B. Gabriel records were nothing like that stuff. But it had such a big influence on my approach to making music.
How did you wind up with Hall & Oates?
Peter did an unannounced gig at the Bottom Line. Back then they’d do that. “We’re not going to announce this, but it’s going to turn into a real happening.” Daryl Hall came to the gig. Daryl had been working with Robert Fripp. The next day, I get a call from their manager, Tommy Mottola. He goes, “Daryl was at your show. He’s freaking out. What are you doing? What’s your schedule? They want to make a new record, and they want you to play on it.” We worked it out. That’s how I started working with Hall & Oates.
Ironically, of pretty much all the gigs I’ve ever done, that was my favorite. Hall & Oates were doing that rock and soul thing. They had that Philadelphia background like Todd Rundgren. When I came in, I brought the Gabriel approach. It was like magic. It just blew them away.
You’re on X-Static and Voices.
Yes. And some on Private Eyes. I also did a tour with them. It was absolutely unbelievable. Hall & Oates had been really big. Then they made a couple of records [Beauty on a Back Street and Along the Red Ledge] that totally tanked. They were building themselves back up again with X-Static. When we were touring, we were playing the Bottom Line, My Father’s Place. We played clubs.
You play on “Kiss on My List” and “You Make My Dreams Come True.”
I’m pretty much on that whole X-Static record. Whatever I don’t play on on Voices is probably because I was gone. I was working for a couple of years for Hall & Oates and Gabriel. They were actually arranging their schedules around my schedule.
Did you ever have to make a choice between one and the other?
I did have to make a choice. I choose to work with Peter.
I had been working with Peter for a few years. I just felt loyal to him. It was like a family thing. I wasn’t really that business-minded. I wasn’t thinking career-wise what made the most sense.
I was way into playing with Hall & Oates. I’ll give you an example. We played the Roxy in Los Angeles. We did two shows a night for two nights. My brother came with his buddies in his band, like Waddy Wachtel. They were all in Linda Ronstadt’s band. We played our show. I walked offstage and my brother was sobbing. He was fuckin’ crying. He was devastated.
This is kind of an L.A. thing, but our road manager says, “I have a letter from people here out in the audience.” He hands it to Daryl or John. It goes, “You guys were unbelievable. Amazing show. Come and meet us at On the Rocks,” which is a private club above the Roxy. It was Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Jack Nicholson. That’s a very Hollywood thing. Hall & Oates was not in that zone. They were trying to build it back up again.
We went up there. I remember talking to Jack Nicholson. I don’t remember thinking, “Hey, I should go talk to Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.” I only talked to Jack Nicholson because he came over to me and G.E. Smith, the guitar player. We left pretty quickly. We didn’t hang out for very long. But it was one of those things where we were in the zone.
Daryl Hall is such an amazing singer.
Unbelievably talented. Oates is great too. I love John. He’s really much more than this, but in a way, he’s like the Ed McMahon of rock. He’s super-talented, but he’s overshadowed by the guy that’s sitting next to him. Oates was a really talented writer, maybe even more talented than Daryl. But I’m not taking anything away from Daryl. He’s a super-talented cat.
He sat me down and said, “What do we have to do to keep you with us?” I was going to go back with Peter. We had finished a Hall & Oates tour in Tokyo, Japan, and I flew to England, went to the studio, and waited for everyone to get up in the morning to start rehearsing for a tour with Peter. It was amazing, back to back. An amazing time. That doesn’t happen anymore. That hasn’t happened in a long time. [Laughs.]
Peter Gabriel III generated a lot of attention. “Games Without Frontiers” got onto radio. Did you feel a lot of momentum building by the time of IV/Security?
Yes. The thing about Peter is that no two records sounded anything alike. For me, and for many people, the fourth record, Security, was the masterpiece that he’s never topped. So made him a global star. Back then, a record came out and it was the biggest record on the planet and you were the biggest artist for like 18 months. Before Peter, it might have been U2 with Joshua Tree.
So was huge. It made him a global megastar. But Security… we had no sense of this… but it changed the way people make records. After that record, all the sessions I ever did, without question, some kid, some intern, would ask me if I would mind staying after the sessions to talk to the people about how that record got made. In every control room, there was Security. People would study it. “How did this record get made?”
And the songs. “The Family and the Fishing Net,” “Lay Young Hands on Me,” “Wallflower,” “San Jacinto.” In the past eight or nine years, I got roped into something called the Security Project. We were doing music mainly from that record. I hadn’t listened to it for years and years. When we started playing it, I realized it’s not rock music. It’s something else. “The Family and the Fishing Net” and “Lay Your Hands on Me” aren’t your traditional rock music. It’s very unusual. It was groundbreaking.
On the tour, he’d fall backwards onto the crowd.
Yeah. And they’d pass him around and eventually he’d get back onstage.
It’s a shame there isn’t more video of those early tours.
There was less of that back then. Now, everyone is filming everything… Also, there’s a funny story from when Peter was signed to Atlantic. [A&R rep] John Kalodner came to the studio and listened to what we were doing. He was talking to Peter and told him to be more like Michael McDonald. In some ways, that was absurd. Totally absurd. Honestly, when you think about it, what he did with So was a typical, straightforward… “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time,” those are R&B/pop songs, very accessible, with horns. It was very crafty for the radio. He did eventually, in his own way, get to Michael McDonald.
You play on a few So songs, but you didn’t go on the tour and haven’t been with Peter since. What happened?
Ultimately, I always remained loyal to him. At that point, Peter, for some reason, didn’t remain loyal to me. First of all, the timeframe was set to work with Peter. After that, I was going to do a record [Press to Play] with Paul McCartney. But Peter shifted the time to the same time as the McCartney record. I didn’t feel like I could blow off the McCartney record. Not because he was Paul McCartney, but it was Hugh Padgham, who worked with Genesis and Peter. He was the one that got me on that. I was the only outside musician. It was Paul, Eric Stewart from 10cc, and me. Just the three of us. Bailing on it didn’t feel right to me.
I think Peter felt slighted in a way that I chose to work with a more famous artist. This is pre-So, by the way. I don’t know what he was thinking. I do know this. I was there when Peter was doing an interview after Security. He said he was influenced by shortwave radio, Middle Eastern, African music. This interviewer said, “Well, don’t you feel a little bit guilty that you are four white guys exploiting that music?” In my mind, I just thought right away, “Uh-oh. Things are going to change.”
Soon after, he got a Black drummer [Manu Katché]. He got a Black keyboard player [David Sancious]. He got Paula Cole to sing background. He integrated the band. Also, Peter and I had, like, a sibling rivalry. He was a closet drummer. He married his high-school sweetheart. I was a maniac. I was living the dream of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. He was a repressed Englishman that never took a drug or had a drink in his life. He had two children with his high-school sweetheart. We were competing with each other.
We used to go running every day. We’d go up Solsbury Hill, like five or six miles. I could blow him away. I was doing coke. I’d be hanging out late at night. But I’d get up early and start running. In the end, we’d always sprint the end of the run. We did that thing where we’d see who would get back first. I’d always win.
You play on “Veronica” with Elvis Costello, right?
I do. That same year, I worked with Paul on Press To Play. Later that year, I ended up working on Spike with Elvis. When I was working with Paul, they were trying to find someone to kind of fill the shoes of John Lennon. Elvis Costello is the perfect candidate for that. Paul was saying, “They’re trying to get me to write with Elvis Costello, but it never pans out.” When I was working with Elvis, they co-wrote “Veronica” and a couple of other songs.
I said to him, “What happened? Paul told me this wasn’t panning out.” Elvis goes, “Jerry, first of all, I don’t co-write with anybody. I write my own songs. But they kept bugging me and bugging me. Eventually I thought, ‘I’ve got these songs kicking around that I’ve never been able to finish. I’ll send a couple of those to Paul. What do I have to lose? I’m not finishing them.’ I sent them to Paul, he worked on it, sent it back, and I really like what he did.”
Was it intimidating to record for McCartney?
Look, he’s Paul McCartney. I wasn’t a massive Beatles fan, but I could appreciate them. I know they were really good, of course. Again, it was Eric, Paul, and me. And Hugh. It was funny. Long before we recorded, his manager picked me up in London while I was working on another record. He drove me down to meet Paul since he wanted to meet me before we started work. He wanted to feel like we knew one another.
We’re playing a song, playing it again, and again, and again. I’m not used to that. I’m used to getting the job done. We didn’t work long hours. His kids were all young and at school. The next day, we come in. We’re playing the same song again. I said to him, “Listen, if I’m not getting the job done, and you want to get someone else in…” I just couldn’t understand why we kept playing the same song. He goes, “Jerry, I’m not even thinking about a take. I just want to play.”
It’s kind of what made the Beatles. It was like a band thing. You play it and play it and play it. Some of them needed to do that. I didn’t. I knew how to come up with a drum part pretty quickly. He goes, “Jerry, you’re doing a great job. I’m loving it. Let’s just relax. I haven’t made a record in five years. I haven’t really been playing. This is what I want to do, have fun, relax, play.”
And so every song we did took three days to record. Then they figured which one they wanted. I fell into that groove. It was awesome. He was great to work for.
You spent a long time with Indigo Girls.
Yeah. Through the Nineties.
How was that experience?
It was awesome. The first record I did with them was called Rites of Passage. They hadn’t been really used to working with drummers, at least not good ones. We recorded here in Woodstock at Bearsville Studios. Peter Collins was the producer. He hired me. Sara Lee, the bass player, was a good friend of mine. She had been playing with the Indigo Girls.
That was a challenge. Their tempo was all over the place. They were used to folk. It’s a typical thing that happens to folk players, especially when they are playing festivals. They play hard, fast, and they speed up and slow down. The chorus speeds up, the verse slows down. It was a process. I worked hard on getting those songs to sound like they felt good.
You went out with them to Lilith Fair, right?
I did two Lilith Fairs with them. There was a point where somebody said to me, “You have played with every person on the stage tonight.” Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Suzanne Vega, Jewel… I had recorded and played with everybody.
There was another interesting moment for me. I suggested to the girls that we do “Acadian Driftwood” by the Band. There’s a million verses. Everybody was taking a verse. I sang a verse. The crowd got a big charge out of hearing a male voice all of a sudden.
It must have been cool to look into the crowd and see mainly women. Lilith Fair was a really unique moment in history.
Yeah. But that wasn’t always the case with the Indigo Girls. They have so many fans: straight, gay, trans, couples. The music is just so genuine and so sincere. Amy [Ray] is like the Neil Young. Emily [Saliers] is like the James Taylor. They don’t write together. But they cover so much. Amy is wearing army fatigues and pounding the guitar. Emily is doing songs like “The History of Us,” “Love’s Recovery,” or “Galileo.” There’s a lot to like about them. I miss them. I loved working with them.
Things shifted so quickly. One moment, the Lilith Fair acts were the biggest thing. They were all over Top 40 radio and MTV. Once Britney Spears entered the picture, it seemed to basically all stop at once. It was so abrupt.
This is what happens. I did a record with Richard Page from Mr. Mister [Shelter Me, in 1996]. He’s an incredible writer and great singer. We did a record I don’t think anyone heard. It was great. At the time, he was struggling. He said it was grunge. I remember him saying, “Everyone is looking for the next backwards-hat band.” The kind of music he was writing wasn’t fashionable.
By the way, when the McCartney record came out [Press to Play, in 1986], it tanked. It was really not fashionable to be Paul McCartney at that time. There was this whole thing about how “Lennon was at the real talent.” Lennon, of course, was what he was. But Paul McCartney is just a straight-ahead working-class musician. He writes songs like “The Long and Winding Road” and “Yesterday,” but he also writes “Silly Love Songs,” “Ebony and Ivory,” and “Say Say Say.” He just writes what he writes. He writes whatever he’s feeling. It was not well-received.
You worked with Stevie Nicks and Cher, and so many other prominent women. Is that just coincidence?
I don’t know. I was in the zone in my career. People sought me out. The Stevie record [The Other Side of the Mirror] was the same thing. Rupert Hine produced it. They recorded the record with a drum machine. When I came in, they had all the tracks down. They had me and Tony Levin.
On that record and the Elvis Costello record [Spike], I did seven or eight songs in two days. But Stevie’s record was great. I love her. She wasn’t there, but she came for a couple of hours one day. Rupert was producing. It was in his hands. She had other things she wanted to do.
Cher was amazing to work with [on 1987’s Cher]. If anyone had a right to be an absolute diva, let’s agree it could be her. There was nothing like that from her. She was one of the guys. She was one of the band. She didn’t say much. She just let everybody do what they do. Desmond Child was co-writing and producing it. It was back in the day where if there was a synthesizer, there was a guy playing that. If there was piano, there was another guy playing that. If there was acoustic guitar, there was a guy playing that. If there was electric guitar, there was another guy playing that. It was a big band.
When we played, it sounded like the record. It was amazing. She went in the booth and sang. I was blown away. That woman can sing. We were in the control room listening to playbacks and she’s near me, and I found out later from the producer she had a little crush on me.
She wasn’t far from me. We’d listen and everyone would be talking. I’d turn to her and say, “What do you think?” She said, “Jerry, you’re here for a reason. Everyone is here doing their thing. They’re here to do what they do. I’m not going to tell them. It’s not for me to tell. I’m just going to let everyone do what they do. If I don’t like it, I’ll redo it. I’ll record the song again.” But she was amazing to work with.
How about John Mayer? You’re on “3X5” on Room for Squares.
He wasn’t John Mayer at that time. He was living in Atlanta and playing in Michelle Malone’s band. I knew all these people from the Indigo Girls. He did this record with John Alagia as the producer. It was like an indie record. And then Columbia signed him. It’s funny. When a big label signs a guy like that… They probably had made the record for, like, $30,000. Columbia gets involved and it’s like, “You gotta get another song.” That was “3X5.” You gotta get Jack Joseph Puig to mix it.” Next thing you know, they probably spent $300,000.
But the record was done and mixed, and mixed well. It sounded great at $30,000. But it’s like, “Oh no. We gotta…” I think everybody has to justify their job. “I told them they had to go record another song. They had to get so-and-so to mix it.”
It was John and a bass player [David LaBruyere]. They got out of a VW Bug. I don’t even think they had cases for their instruments. They went into a studio here in Woodstock. Cut to two years later. I get a call to go into the studio to work on his next record. Meanwhile, that record was a massive, massive hit. Now we’re at the Power Station in New York. I walk in and there’s three guitar techs. There’s about 50 guitars. John was two hours later. It was a whole different scene.
I don’t even know what I did for that record. He was writing songs in the studio, which I felt was a mistake. It’s funny. I’ve run into him at different times. Even when I went to work with him again, he goes, “Jerry, no drummer can play that song like you do.” I said to him, “I’m just playing brushes. I’m not reinventing the wheel. It’s not a Gabriel record. I’m just doing my thing that I do. It’s so simple. What do you mean?” He goes, “Whatever it is you were doing, no drummer that’s worked with me has ever really been able to play it right.”
After Napster hit and the industry starts to implode, did your career suffer?
Big time. Big time. I’ve taken over and I’m running a residential studio up here called Dreamland in an old church. My friend Joel Bluestein built it. He bought an old church in the mid-’80s. I did a lot of session there. In that period of time you’re talking about, he shut it down. The labels stopped paying their bills. There were like 23 major labels. All of a sudden, there were three major labels. The whole industry completely collapsed.
He shut the studio down for about seven years. And then I approached him about taking it over. I was working on a project that was very unusual and interesting. It was a film geared towards dome projection, like planetarium-type places. The church was a perfect place to do some of the recording.
It had been shut down for seven years. I said, “Why don’t you let me get the studio up and running?” He said to me, “Jerry, you’re my good friend. I’d like to keep it that way. Don’t take over the studio. It sucks.”
It was kind of sucky. There was no money. People were coming in to make budgets — like what it would have cost an artist to have me play on the record, and fly me to London or Italy or whatever — and what they were paying me, that was someone’s entire record budget.
It kind of destroyed the careers of some of the producers I had worked with, like Peter Collins. Guy that had made major records, and the advances they’d get… Nowadays producers are also engineers. They run ProTools. They have studios. They play keyboards. They play guitar. They play bass. They write. They arrange. They do everything. For the most part, if you aren’t doing that, you’re not going to work.
You’ve really adapted to this new world.
Yeah. Well, I don’t make the kind of music I used to make. I don’t work as much as I used to work. In many ways, I’m happy. I’ve been doing it a long time. I’m a little more picky about what I do. I really want to do things that I like, that inspire. And I’m running a studio. Dreamland is just killing. We’re so busy all the time.
People for a while were like, “I’m going to spend $30,000 or $40,000 and buy ProTools and mics and make my own record.” Many of those records sound shitty. People are now coming around to, “I don’t want to make another record like that. I don’t want it to sound bad.” So they’ll save up their money, come into Dreamland for about a week and do their basic tracking. Then they’ll go home and maybe do overdubs in their basement studio.
Did you ever reconnect with Peter Gabriel just on a social level?
No. Never reconnected with him. I didn’t feel like it would be genuine. I didn’t like that he cut me loose. In the end, I realized that I remained loyal to Peter. He didn’t remain loyal to me. I did about ten years with him. There are many Peter Gabriel fans that say to me, “You were there for the best stuff. He’s never done anything quite like that since then.”
I would agree with that.
I’m not saying that. But I have had that conversation with him afterwards. We have spoken. I think he got off track a bit. He agreed. Things change. When we were working, I always equate it to Rocky III, where Apollo Creed takes him to that stinky, smelly gym to get him the Eye of the Tiger back. That was us. We were banging it out, the four of us. We were fighting with one another and arguing and coming back and doing it again and playing and jamming.
I don’t ever remember him coming in with a single song written. Ever. Far from it. He ultimately is the writer. We jammed and played and worked out, little by little, the vibe. But whatever. I think Peter is brilliant. I don’t think he needs to ever make another record.
Peter is great at what he does. But I don’t think he loves doing it. Forcing himself to sit down and write. That’s opposed to Todd Rundgren, who I also worked with. You can’t stop him from writing and making records. It’s in his blood. He cannot help himself. He has to.
With Peter, we’d be there and supposed to work. He’d be like, “My secretary needs a ride to London. I’m going to drive her.” Any excuse to not go in the studio and work. That doesn’t mean he’s not good at it when he does work. He’s great at it. But he’s not driven like some other artists.
I’m grateful for the time that we worked together. I don’t know what else to say about it. I think Peter is great. But I have this residential studio. There have been times I’ve thought, “I’m going to reach out to Peter. I’m going to offer him to come to Dreamland. Don’t bring anything. Tony lives here. Larry Fast lives like 90 minutes from here. Bring David Rhodes. Let’s go back to the smelly, stinky gym. Let’s just do what we did way back then. Let’s just work the songs out.”
I’ll tell you a funny story. Tchad Blake is one of my best friends. We worked together on many, many records. He was working on one of Peter’s recent records. He was mixing a song that Peter did and it has about 120 tracks on it. Tchad is mixing it. It probably took him a couple of days. He said, “I got it to where I thought it sounded really good.” Peter comes in and listens to it. He says, “That’s amazing. That’s the best I’ve ever heard that song sound.” He comes back the next day and has 30 more tracks to add to it.
I mean, this is a guy that’s been working on his new record for over 20 years.
Technology has just enveloped him. That’s the difference between now and when we were working together. With the Security record, the technology thing that happened with that record was the Fairlight [synthesizer]. Nobody had a Fairlight. The BBC had one. It was used for television production, sound design. They were very, very expensive. That had a big effect on the way that record turned out. I think there’s just too many choices now.
Tell me your goals over the next five years.
I’m constantly working. I’d like to put out a little more of my own music, concentrating on that. I’m going out to Northern California to help a friend of mine who is building a residential recording facility in Petaluma. It’s going to be a phenomenal facility. I’m going to start going back and forth.
Mostly for me, my thing that I love is production. Finding an artist that I really like and that we work well together, and then producing and creating the record. I’ve done that with an artist called Sarah Perrotta on a record called Blue to Gold. I did that with Flav Martin on Soul Redemption. I’m a drummer, but it’s not all I do. I’m very picky about producing and finding somebody interesting that I want to work with and not make any money. If you’re not going to make any money, you want to get something out of it. I want to help build people’s careers.