DRUMS AND BEYONDTwo drummers collaborating on a project is a fairly rare occurrence. And when those two drummers are stalwart session man Jim Keltner and the Rolling Stones’ legendary backbeat man Charlie Watts, one can assume it won’t be a run-of-the-mill production. In fact, the Charlie Watts Jim Keltner Project, released this past summer, doesn’t fit neatly into existing musical categories. There are elements of both avant-garde and electronica due to the project’s unorthodox and highly percussive orientation. However, it lacks the mind-altering dissonance of so much avant-garde and goes beyond the pulsating drum ‘n bass grooving of electronica.
To truly appreciate Watts and Keltner’s efforts, you have to know the history of the project. This could have very well been one of those many well-meant efforts that end up collecting dust on a shelf in an anonymous storage vault or suburban garage. Luckily that didn’t happen, but with the disc being released three years after the initial sessions, it came damn close. “It grew into what it is,” the always-reserved Watts says from his home outside of London, England. “It was Keltner’s idea to begin with, then I carried on.”
Keltner, who has played with an incredible array of artists of every style through the years, was recruited by the Stones as an additional percussionist on their sessions for the Bridges of Babylon CD in 1997. This association with the Stones led to his collaboration with Watts. “I didn’t want to mess with any of [Watts’] grooves at all,” Keltner comments from his home in Los Angeles, in respect to the sessions. “[The Stones] wanted to know if I wanted to play double drums, and Charlie was into it. But I refused. First, it’s not something I like to do, and secondly, it would be a crime to interfere with somebody like Charlie’s groove. It would almost be sacrilegious. So basically, I’d sit back and play around his stuff on part of a drum-set without a bass drum or snare.”
During breaks between the sessions at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, the drummers sometimes had long down periods. To amuse themselves, they would often jam and then listen to the results on tape. Taking advantage of the situation, Keltner thought it would be a great time to experiment. “He asked me to play on some of these `things’ that he’d done,” Watts recalls. The “things” that Watts refers to were Keltner’s sequences made from his collection of samples. “I started back in ’85 collecting samples,” Keltner says, “anything from a metallic shelf that you find in a basement to a fish steamer. I mean anything, but I don’t use other people’s samples. I have things I transferred from a cassette tape that I’ve had for 10 years. Then I sampled them into an SDS-7, then later into sequencers. I don’t actually have many drum sounds; I do have a real bass drum in there somewhere.
“Also I have a lot of sequencers. One of my favorites is still the old E-mu SP-1200. I would throw [the samples] together in a groove, but they aren’t loops. I’m careful about doing those, because they’re very boring. Anybody can do a loop, basically. I live by the `Song Mode’ on my sequencer. What I created are songs that go from a verse to chorus to a bridge. They don’t come off that way to the average listener unless you have a vocal or a strong melody. The ones I brought down weren’t completed with a melody, but structurally they were. So I just wanted to see what it would be like to have Charlie’s drums on there.”
Upon first hearing the sequences, Watts didn’t know what Keltner had in mind. “So I asked where would I come in or if I could just climb in,” Watts recalls. “Jim’s a drummer, and a very fine one, so I said, `You do them.’ But he said, `I want you to play on my little songs.’ So I said fine; we had the opportunity and did it. I personally play the same drums and the same way that I play with the Rolling Stones, except that the songs I’m playing to are electronic instead. The selections are a bit more than jams, however, because of Jim’s sequences. But it wasn’t like we came in every day strictly to work on this; it was actually rather loose.”
Keltner, who at the time of this interview was working on a similar solo CD, affirms, “The Stones and Charlie aren’t very precious about the stuff they do. They’re very spur-of-the-moment.”
One interesting aspect of the CD is that all of the tracks are named after various distinguished jazz drummers. “I like all the tunes,” Watts points out. “I used the drummers’ names because Tony Williams had just died that week, and his was the first cut. That gave me the idea to call all the rest after drummers. Jim titles [the samples/sequences] by where he recorded them, and what he used on them. `Elvin’ [after Elvin Jones] is actually structured to be Africa, Airto is Brazil, and the others are all around.”
After the Babylon sessions wrapped up, the Stones went on tour in support of the CD. Watts’ and Keltner’s pet project went untouched for more than a year. After reviewing the tapes, which were recorded on 24-track analog, Keltner realized that more studio time and a program such as Pro Tools were needed to complete it. While hanging out in Paris in 1998 during an interlude between tours, Watts started looking into fashioning the tapes into something workable. He recalls the scenario: “Jim had said [the project] needs Pro Tools, and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. So I walked into this studio [Twin Studios] in Paris and said I needed someone to Pro Tools these [tapes] properly. I had already chopped them up. So they said there’s a man down the end of the corridor sitting in his little room. And there he was – Phillippe Chauveau. He Pro Tooled the tapes pretty quickly, so then I started having him arrange things. At the end of the month, it came out like it is.”
Of course, there was a lot more to the process than that. Watts freely admits he only likes being in studios to play. He loathes all the other aspects of studio work, such as mixing and editing. “I would hate to do what Phillippe does for a living,” he says. “Sit at a screen and working with Pro Tools would drive me mad.” Fortunately for both Watts and Keltner’s sake, Chauveau, who had worked on many world music and ambient recordings, didn’t subscribe to those sentiments. “When I first met Charlie Watts,” he recalls from his studio in Paris, “it was only to fix one part of the drumming. I had never worked with him before, but I knew immediately who he was, because he was one the legends of rock `n’ roll. He’s actually on-track with the technology, but he doesn’t know how to fix things. But he did want to learn and asked a lot of questions about how the equipment worked. So I ended up working with him for 29 days to fix everything. Charlie kind of knew how he wanted to translate the jams into compositions.”
They added ambience, samples and even some real musicians – Kenny Aronoff and George C. Recile on percussion, Marek Czerwiawski on violin, Emanuel Sourdeix on piano, Remy Vignolo on bass, Blondie Chaplin on vocals, and Keith Richards on guitar. Watts, however, wasn’t at the studio with Chauveau for the entire process.
“Sometimes he would stay with me to help me find things,” the engineer/programmer says. “Other times he would prefer to let me work on my own to check and find things. It was a real pleasure to work with him. He’s an uncomplicated man and very honest. What I remember most was that he took the time to listen, he’d let me work, and at the end he’d tell if he liked or didn’t like what I had done. Then he would explain either way.”
Augmenting Keltner’s samples, the Frenchman contributed Middle Eastern-flavored voices and samples along with his own percussion playing. “[Watts] asked me to find things for atmosphere,” he says. “He didn’t care if it was sampled or real. He was really attracted to the weird stuff. I used Pro Tools mostly because it’s more efficient when it comes to moving things around.” Many of the effects on the disc were created using a Sherman Filter Bank. The mixing was done at the Paris studio, which encompasses two large rooms for recording/mixing sessions and a smaller room with an abundance of digital equipment for editing and commercial production.
Although the Charlie Watts Jim Keltner Project is essentially an electronic work, it still has blemishes, quirks and uneven qualities that are rarely heard on recordings of this type. Though not totally by design, these are some of the characteristics of the recording that Keltner is most proud of.
“Charlie has great taste in everything he does, always has,” says Keltner. “He left all the little quirky parts and loose bits in, and rightfully so. That’s the way it went down at the time, so let’s go with that.” Chauveau, who once played drums on sessions with Stevie Wonder and Nina Hagen, never met Keltner and had to figure out what his intentions were. “I only really know [Keltner] through the recordings,” he says. “I did speak with him several times to check into a few things, such as the sequences and programming he’d done. That was to make sure I fully knew the way he wanted things to be organized.”
Keltner, on the other hand, had to trust both Watts and Chauveau to sculpt the many hours of jamming into something palatable. “I wasn’t a part of that at all,” he notes. “I was completely surprised. I had encouraged Charlie to go to someone with Pro Tools to mess with it a bit and edit some things. But I had no idea he would go to such lengths. It would have been a very expensive proposition for me to go to Paris. I trusted Charlie implicitly with this. In some people’s hands, they would have used the Pro Tools to `make it better,’ such as chopping it up a lot, using only the good bits, and they would have wanted to straighten out the beats where the time went a little screwy. But thank God that Charlie was in charge, while I was thousands of miles away in Los Angeles.”