I had the good fortune to spend some time in the company of Pat Torpey, the drummer of Mr. Big when they played a one-off show in London back last September. The following is a transcription of the interview.
Pat, welcome to onlinedrummer.com. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
What influenced you to pick up a pair of sticks and start drumming?
I was about 7 or 8 years old, and my family used to go to this local picnic event with a live Polka band. I was able to sit behind them and look down on the drummer, right on the top of him, and so from that vantage point I could see what he was doing, and I thought, “Wow that looks like fun!”
That was my first memory of when I can remember wanting to play the drums. I went to my Mother and said “I wanna play the drums,” and she gave me that look that parents give you, you know the “Oh yeah sure you do… you’re 7 years old”.
So from there I kind of held on to that dream. I’d fashioned some drum sticks from a couple of sticks out of the yard. I carved them and drew my name on them with a magic marker, you know the kind of thing an aspiring kid would do.
Did your parents give you a certain time limit when you could practice on your drum kit? My parents would say I had an hour a day.
My mother had gotten me a snare, some sticks and a practice pad. I had to prove to her that it wasn’t a fleeting thing. So she eventually told me when I graduated from grade school as a graduation gift that she would buy me a drum kit.
My mother worked, and I was the eldest. I have younger sisters, and during the day I was meant to be taking care of them, but most of the day I was in my room playing my drums, and they were outside doing whatever. Luckily they never had any bad accidents whilst I was responsible.
I never really had any restrictions on my practice. I could sit there and listen to records and figure it out. I’m a self-taught player.
You progressed to playing in local bands and eventually on to Mr. Big. What was the path that lead you ultimately to playing with Mr. Big?
I started off with bands in high school. What I discovered, at the time I was living in Arizona, in a local park there were jam sessions at night where they mostly played a kind of 6/8 blues. I was really into that blues thing; I love that. I was asked a couple of times to sit in, and it was very encouraging when I was told that I was doing good, and mostly these guys were older than me by two or three years, so I really looked up to them. When you’re in your teens, two or three years older is really a big deal.
I then graduated out of High School and my Mother wanted me to go to College. I told her that I wanted to be in a band and she said “Ok, you can go for a year and try it and then you go to college”. I never went to college. I started playing in bands around the local area and then went on the road in very austere conditions — everyone, equipment and everything piled into a van. Looking back, it’s all part of an essential way to develop — being and working in a band, learning about the music and getting along with people. There are so many people who can play, but there are very few who can tolerate and get along with four or five other guys in close quarters.
What is prevalent throughout all the songs on all four of the original line-up albums is that you have that particular unique sound that drummers have. How do you maintain that Pat Torpey sound in the studio?
It is a team effort when you’re working in a studio with an engineer, but everything starts with my hands. Drums are so organic, it’s a stick hitting something and you’re trying to capture that. And you expressing to me that you notice the sound is a big achievement to me, and I appreciate that you do. I don’t consciously go out to find the sound; it’s just developed in part of how I tune the drum and how I stroke the drum. My approach in the dynamic level, there are so many little subtle things.
I love your snare sound; do you use the same snare throughout the album?
No, I use a couple of different ones. There is one snare, in particular, that I use a quite a bit, It’s a brass shell, a thin brass shell, like Tama’s version of a Ludwig Black Beauty. It’s a 6.5 x 14 inch, and most of the time I had a coated Emperor Head on it. And, like I said there were so many ingredients thrown in.
You’re in the UK for just one show, and I think that’s a travesty. Are you disappointed that you’re only playing one show?
We don’t really have a say in what gets booked. We show a desire to go to a particular part of the world and the management throw it out there and an agent looks to see what’s available and tries to route things. We want to play everywhere, but sometimes we can’t make that kind of demand.
There are lots of places to play in the UK. We’ve done some short stints, and we’d love to do it again. I never played in Ireland, and I’m Irish. My whole family, heavy drinkers (laughs), except for me. I guess I am disappointed, but I don’t have time to be disappointed because I’m just glad to be here. It’s a beautiful day. After the European leg, we’ll be going to India, Singapore, Bangkok, and Korea.
I’ve got a couple of questions from members of our forum. My friend Ed has one: what inspired you to do a drum solo and sing at the same time, and how difficult was it?
(Laughs) Well, what ended up happening was this, and it’s a specific thing that made me do that, and it might sound somewhat shallow or not the most important thing in life, but at the time it seemed important to me. We were very popular in Japan in the early nineties, very quickly. And in Japan they have a heavy rock magazine called Burn, and every year they have a readers’ poll, and this particular year, 90 or 91, we won everything: best band, best single, best video, best album, best album cover, best bass player, best guitarist, best singer, and the only one we didn’t win was best drummer. I was second, and Terry Bozzio was first.
Now, obviously polls aren’t the most important things in the world; it’s a popularity contest. Just the fact that I’m mentioned on a poll is fantastic, but I was in this band where everyone had won everything and everyone was saying, “You know two is ok, it’s cool,” but I was kind of crestfallen about the whole thing. I was thinking how do you get noticed? What tangible thing could I come up with to make me get to number one? How do I get that when there are so many great drummers? Iain Paice was in the top ten. These legendary guys, and here I am standing on their shoulders.
So I got this idea. Now Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire, Jimmy Page had a violin bow with his guitar, and I was thinking what if I sang something whilst I play the solo at the same time? And how can I do that? And it would have to be an identifiable song that everyone would know, and the most covered and recorded song in the world was Yesterday by the Beatles. I love the Beatles anyway, so I tried it, and I came up with the concept. There is an anchor in here (points to head) that keeps me together and it’s kind of hidden in what I’m doing. For the most part, it’s what the kick drums are doing; I’m doing an ostinato pattern, and I actually stole this whole idea from Dennis Chambers where you do a single on the left with the hi-hat, cross your foot over and catch the hi-hat, and then a triplet on the right. (What follows is 20 seconds of tapping and singing.) So, as long as that’s going on, I can separate everything else, and that’s what I was holding on to.
The next year, we won every category again, including top drummer. I was number one, and Terry Bozzio was number two. So if anything, it reinforced this lesson I learn all the time – If you put your mind to something, you can make it happen. At least for me, and I’ve had that lesson taught to me many times, and I’m still learning.
I didn’t like the fact that the anchor was on my left foot — I’m right handed. My right foot is my main kick drum foot. I was leading with my left foot and hitting crash cymbals with my right hand. It made me out of balance, so I switched them. I switched so that the right foot was doing the anchor and the left was doing the triplets and it opened up a whole bunch of things that are hard to explain. But, as I’m doing the triplet, I’m one step away from a double stroke. And that opened up even more stuff. I spent many, many hours behind my drum set working on it and building my muscles up.
Do you have a drum room at home?
I have a drum room at home in my garage. I have a studio, but most of the time I have a drum room in a warehouse where I store all my stuff, and I have a drum kit setup there, and that’s where I spend most of my time because at home at the time my son was four or five, and I had to get away or else I’d get nothing done. I find it better to go somewhere else, sit there, and not have any distractions. I do a lot of things with muscle memory. I’ll do one drum pattern for twenty minutes solid, and it helps to increase the muscle memory, and for me I just try to find something that works. Everybody has a different approach but this works for me.
The next question from the Forum is from Semi Circle Tiger. He asks, what is it like to be on the road with an internationally known and respected band?
I think it runs the gambit of emotions because or course I am really proud to be a member of Mr. Big, and I still don’t take it for granted, Paul and Billy are arguably world-renowned and are in the top five of the best guitarists and bass players in the world. Part of our experience in touring meant that we’ve opened up for some really big bands, legacy bands, like Aerosmith, Scorpions and Rush. And they would watch us because of Billy and Paul, and they can hold their own in any musical situation.
I think you underestimate yourself.
Well, I can only say how it is, and I’m on the inside looking out. I’m more concerned about what I can’t do than what I can. I never take it for granted, it’s a constant learning, achieving and constantly trying to better myself.
And Semi Circle Tiger asks, do you have a show that stands out that triggers a fond emotion?
Well you know, there have been so many gigs, and sometimes I forget a place we’ve played and we’ve got there, and I realized that we’d played there before. But most of the time I remember loads of little things about the gigs like playing Budokan in Japan for the first time, which was a big deal because it’s a legendary place. The Beatles and Cheap Trick have played there and we sold out the first time and then on our return we had three sell out shows, and we’ve just played there in June to a sell-out audience and could’ve added another show but we played a place called the Yokohama Arena which was an hour’s drive away. Just logistic-wise it made more sense, it’s huge, it’s a ten thousand seater.
But Budokan has been good. The anticipation in June was great. We recorded a DVD there and the anticipation of having fifteen cameras on us was “oh my God!” but you don’t have time to concentrate on it as you’re preparing for the show, in Mr. Big we call it Buck Fever. We’re like everyone else, I’m a regular guy, I get anxious.
Opening for Rush was a great and fun experience.
Did Neil Peart ever come up to you and discuss your playing?
Well yeah, we talked a lot actually; he’s a great guy, really gracious. He’s the first guy that will point out the things he’s inadequate with behind the drums. One of the things that Neil asked me to show him was one of the things I was working on at the time, some Latin styles. He doesn’t understand them at all. He has no concept on them. I was doing some things at sound check and he asked me about them. He has a little practice kit setup in his dressing room, and we just started showing and sharing ideas with each other. Neil is a legend in his own right, for me, because I was never a huge Rush fan until we toured with them. I was into the more earlier progressive rock bands like Yes, Genesis, and Emerson Lake and Palmer. So when Rush came out, I considered them to be second generation band, and I didn’t pay much attention to them, so I wasn’t so much in awe of Neil then. I am now. I really appreciate what he does, and seeing him play every night for months, they are a really great band it was a great time.
You’ve done a couple of albums by yourself as a drummer. Do you play other instruments?
I do play a bit of guitar and bass, but on my solo albums I play mostly all of the drums. I have got to know a lot of great musicians over the years and have asked them to guest on the records and I co-wrote every song on there with a couple of guys that I’ve worked with, and I sing everything. I have a co-production credit also as most of the decisions came down to me, and I spoke with the producer and said with all the playing involved, someone has to be the final arbiter, and I’m going to be that, my name is on it, and he agreed. A couple of times there were things I didn’t want to do. In a lot of ways these records reflect me, who I am, a lot of styles, very eclectic. I’m very proud of them.
Is there a new Mr. Big album on the horizon?
We haven’t really made any plans to do that, but we haven’t discarded the notion. We’re just taking it one day at a time. If anything, we want it to be very organic and let it grow at its own pace.
You reunited as friends again. How did you go about it?
There were a couple of things that happened, but it’s serendipity really. Paul was playing a show last year in May at the house of blues, and he asked Ritchie Kotzen to open for him (we’re all friends). I was doing some shows with Ritchie and Paul didn’t know I was playing for Ritchie, and when he found out he sent me a couple of emails asking me to sit in for an encore, and he emailed Billy to see if he wanted to join, which he did.
We played a couple of songs with Ritchie singing and Paul really liked it. He had a great time, the crowd went nuts, and it was smiles all round. And that was the beginning, I think, of the idea. In August of 2008, I was in Italy playing some shows with Ritchie, and Eric was there too doing some shows and we ended up on the same bill together. Eric and I were discussing backstage about the possibility of getting together, and at that time we weren’t sure if Paul wanted to be involved as he had his own solo thing going on. Well out of the blue we got an email from Paul asking what we thought of doing Mr. Big again, and here we are.
Do you do a lot of clinics?
I’ve done a few in South-East Asia, South America, Australia, and Moscow.
Would you do some more? I take it Tama (Pat is a Tama endorsee) arrange the clinics for you?
Sure, a drum manufacturer has a plan to promote their drums, and as an artist I get to do these promotions for them. I really enjoy doing them. I’m a natural born ham. I love being onstage doing my own thing. It’s a lot of fun.
Has your drum kit setup changed over the years?
It’s always changing a little bit over the years, but not much. I can still do a Mr. Big gig with a regular four-piece setup and two crash cymbals a hi-hat and a ride. I stick to that basic low ride, single rack tom. For awhile I had two kick drums at the beginning of Mr. Big, but then I went back to one kick with two kick pedals. I never played double kick until I joined Mr. Big; I was always into the John Bonham, single pedal like a purist trying to make a single pedal sound like a double, but then I could see the benefit of the double pedal and what it could do. There are still plenty of things I’m trying to figure out. I very seldom do the dugga dugga thing apart from a small bit in the song Shy Boy. I’m trying some different things in the verse to break up that pattern but the left still does the up’s and the right pops in so there’s a lot what you can do with it.
I love having two floor toms for some reason. If I have more than one rack tom I get confused. I love the low ride idea. I think it looks cool, and it’s easier to play.
With your practicing, do you do more practicing these days as you did in the past.
It’s pretty much still the same. I still try to better myself, working on things. Part of what I tend to practice more is on the utility things, keeping up the precision part, staying on top of the physical aspect. I really noticed it on the build-up to the Japanese tour. It’s totally different playing by yourself than in the band. It’s a different intensity. All the little muscles that have to get in shape became more apparent as we got on. When I was younger it would take a couple of days to recover, but not anymore. The routine still remains the same. I still like to seek out and explore new ways of doing things.
When something comes along and you think “How does that work?”, you obviously try to master it, but do you have times when you think it’s not for me?
Mostly I am a thief. There are so many drummers and when I see one doing something special, I think that’s really great and try to do it. I have to make a judgment call and think what’s the reward for working this all out? Will I use this? Is it something practical? There’s so many techniques and approaches to the drums. So I have to make a decision on whether to go through hours and hours of practicing and know I’ll never use it or to maintain a level, but I am always on the lookout for great ideas and rhythms to utilize.
Most drummers are thief’s. They take something and expand on it.
Yeah, and I thinks that’s how you create a style or a sound. You know from me, I steal everything from everybody and everything I do. If somebody asks me something specifically about something that I do, I can tell them where I stole it from, and who I took it from and what I changed about it. Sometimes it’s accidentally and sometimes it’s on purpose. I’ve played long enough; I feel confident enough to be able to steal something from somebody because I will put my own approach or vibe on it, my own Pat Torpey stamp on it because I won’t do something so blatantly ripped off unless I intend to. John Bonham is a big deal; I’ve stolen from him.
What I like about your playing is that you and Billy can weave between each other. You play so well. How did you feel about Mr. Big introducing an acoustic song into the fray on the album Lean into It, the song Be With You? Did you have any input into that song?
Yes I did. I was the big advocate of that song. I played kick drum and tambourine on it. What happened was that we were getting the music up together for that album, and Paul gave me some demos, and I remember listening to them, and at the end of the tape was Eric singing this song with just him and the piano. I remember thinking what a great song. So the next time we got together with our producer, I’m not saying it was my idea to do the song, but I remember saying that we should do it. There was some discussion about whether to do it or not and at the time we hadn’t had a big hit single. It’s not that we were going for a hit single, but we were trying to make an album of songs that people would like.
So we ended up doing it. It was the last song on the track listing. We weren’t thinking it was going to be a hit song. Most bands put there hits songs second or third, which is the formula for that. We put it on the end for more of thanks along for coming, see ya type song, and the next thing we know, here we are. I don’t care; it’s opened up many doors. I enjoyed playing on it, and I love singing it. It’s a great singalong sing song.
Now some short questions that I throw to everyone. What car do you drive?
(Laughs) Currently I own a BMW 745. It’s a 2003, and I’ve had it for five years. I used to be kind of a car person but now that I have a son, I have to think practical, but I still like cars. I’d have a couple of I could.
What’s the first thing you do in the morning?
I make coffee, depending on my routine. When I’m home I look after my son, get him ready for school, that’s my job. My wife has a day job. The routine changed some more this year because we got a dog. So it’s down to me to look after her. She’s a great dog, and I love her. We’ve had her since she was a puppy, and she looks to me. I am her world, she follows me, watches me. So that’s what I do. It’s very homely and domesticated (laughs).
When not with your family, do you hang out with other drummers?
I don’t really hang out with anybody. My family is more my thing. Paul and Billy both live in Los Angeles, Eric lives in San Francisco and we hang out sometimes but not much, maybe on the 4th of July.
Who would be on your guest list for a dinner Party alive or dead?
I guess from a music perspective I’d like to meet Paul MaCartney, and it’s kind of a toss-up between Buddy Rich and Jimi Hendrix. I think it would be more Buddy Rich as you’ve got to have a drummer in there.
Finally, what words of wisdom could you give to members of onlinedrummer.com?
Don’t give up. You will be discouraged but don’t give up. Be tenacious. It’s hard sometimes. It’s so easy to give up, but don’t!!
Pat has a website – www.pattorpey.com
Pat has some instructional dvd’s out which can be bought via www.pattorpey.com
Mr Big’s latest DVD is out now – Back to Budokan (and its ace!!!!)