A Rational Conversation: What’s With All The Drummers Leading Late-Night Bands?

By Eric Ducker  |  NPR

Arsenio Hall with his band. Robin DiMaggio stands to the right of Arsenio.
Arsenio Hall with his band. Robin DiMaggio stands to the right of Arsenio. Courtesy of the artist

“A Rational Conversation” is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone or whatever with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that’s entered the pop culture consciousness.

This week Late Night with Seth Meyers joined the talk show landscape and chose Fred Armisen to serve as the leader of the house 8G Band. Before he became a star in the comedy world through Saturday Night Live and Portlandia, Armisen was a drummer in the Chicago indie rock scene and a member of the group Trenchmouth. Though Armisen looks like he’ll be playing both guitar and percussion at his new gig, he joins other recent drumming bandleaders ?uestlove for Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show and Robin DiMaggio at The Arsenio Hall Show. (In 2013 Armisen even had a drum-off with ?uestlove after he was guest on Fallon’s show.) And before any of them, there was Max Weinberg on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, prior to the host’s brief Tonight Show tenure and his current show on TBS. Shelia E. also led the band on Magic Johnson’s months-long stint hosting The Magic Hour in 1998.

Most people still expect bandleaders to be behind a keyboard or holding a horn, so what’s going on with this influx of drummers? To get some insight on why this might be happening, last week Ducker spoke with The Arsenio Hall Show‘s Robin DiMaggio, who has toured and recorded with artists including Paul Simon and Diana Ross, was a member of the house band on Lopez Tonight and also currently serves as the musical director of the United Nations. DiMaggio says drummers are natural bandleaders, especially as part of TV shows, despite our conception of them as supporting players and their reputation for not being the brightest bunch — hacky drummer jokes are the equivalent of Polish jokes in the music world.

ERIC DUCKER: How common or uncommon are drummers as bandleaders?

ROBIN DIMAGGIO: It’s been very uncommon. The only one that was standing strong was Max Weinberg during his Conan days. After that it was ?uestlove with Jimmy Fallon, and then me with Arsenio. So far there’s only been three of us. The good thing is that everybody loves a good show. Behind the drums –depending on the drummer — you have a lot more showmanship involved. You can also start or stop a band more aggressively and quicker behind the drums because you don’t have to make any certain movements, you can just hit the drums a certain way. As the band gets to know you, they know something is coming, that you’re going to start it or stop it. It becomes a routine.

When Max Weinberg was named the leader of Conan O’Brien’s band in 1993, was that a big deal in the drumming community?

Absolutely it was. Here’s a guy with immense talent and showmanship, and he’s running a band. We forget that the drummer always drives a band. That’s what we’re meant to do. So it was definitely a big deal.

Were you disappointed when you heard that Max Weinberg wouldn’t be coming to Los Angeles with Conan when he was bumped up to the Tonight Show slot and then when he moved to TBS?

No, I wasn’t disappointed, because to be honest with you, he is a free bird. I’m not quoting him, but in my opinion, I think he loves to be on the road. I think he loves to go out with Bruce Springsteen. I think that’s his first and foremost passion. The TV thing was great and it gave him exposure every night, but he was born and bred to play in the E. Street Band. And when you see him with Bruce, it’s kind of incredible and it’s historic.

You’ve done plenty of touring in your life. Do you prefer being a musical director to being on the road?

I prefer TV. I’m in charge, I can really pick music that I want to play, I can pick music that I want to hear my band play, I get to play with everybody I want to play with, I get to make suggestions that I might not be able to with other people and I don’t have to travel.

In terms of the broader picture, in recent history have there been lots of groups that were led by the drummer?

One was Phil Collins with Genesis. He drove that band and he sang. You also have Don Henley of the Eagles who drummed and sang. There have definitely been a few drummers who have led some major, major groups over the decades. As far as it being a fad, I don’t know. People have always thought of musical directors as being a guitar player or a keyboard player. I think times are changing, where people are demanding more energy on the bandstand on TV, so drummers are driving it pretty well.

Do you think that’s a reflection of the music that you guys are now expected to play, whether that’s backing up musical guests or the interstitial stuff for when guests walk on and during the commercials?

When you’re a musical director on any TV show, you should be a musician who can play anything or any style of music. It doesn’t matter who’s coming on, you have to adapt to any style. I look at this way: the U.N. has 193 countries, so you better have knowledge of — not be the greatest at it — 193 kinds of music that represent different cultures around the world.

There is a stereotype of drummers not being the most cerebral people in music? Is that a fallacy?

I think it’s a fallacy. I also think that, today, it’s a business. Playing drums is the easiest thing to do if you’re good at it. But it’s a business now, where you have to know how to go in and communicate with executives, with producers, with directors, with writers … [For musical directors] it’s not just playing the drums, it’s every detail behind the scenes.

When you say that playing drums is the easiest thing to do, do you mean in terms of the ability to get jobs?

If you’re talented and you know how to play, and you’re like me and have a 25-year career as a drummer, playing drums is the easiest part. The hardest part for me on stage is listening to ten or 12 people talking in my ear at the same that I have to play, and at the same time I have to tell the band what’s about to happen — this segment got canned, or this person isn’t coming out right now, so the bass and guitar players have to switch, or the auxiliary guy has to put his saxophone down and get his vocal mic up for a cue that wasn’t supposed to happen until the next segment. I have to get all of that across while I’m playing drums. Then I have the director telling me that we have to do a pickup in the next segment or that camera three is going to start on stage left and then they’re going to roll right. Then you have the executive producer asking a question. Then I have my boss, Arsenio, talking to the audience or to me. So you better not have ADD on that gig.

Is that a question of you having to be a certain type of person, or do you think drummers are particularly adept at managing all that stuff?

We’re ambidextrous to begin with, because we’re using both arms and we’re using both legs, so that’s a start. I’m not going to say it’s all drummers, because at the end of the day, anybody could do this job. The musicianship is one thing, but it’s the business part of it. It’s the knowledge and experience of having done TV, and watching other musical directors for eons doing their job. You pick up on stuff and sponge it, so when it’s your turn, it’s pretty much equal whether you’re a drummer or a guitar player or a keyboard player or sax player or the lead-singer. You can be the musical director to any show if you have the experience and can adapt and you know what’s involved. I don’t know if drummers are better at it or not; it would not be right for me to say. I will say that the drive to drive a band is always better from a drummer’s point of view because we have the actual instrumentation to push a band a lot harder than any other instrument.

Are there drummers now asking you how do you become a musical director?

Absolutely, but I tell them that it’s really about relationships from over the years. For me it’s 25 years of relationships. You can’t just say that it happened over night. I’ve known Arsenio for 20-plus years. He came on the other show that I was doing, Lopez Tonight. Basically back then he said to me, “Robin, if I ever put a show together again, I’d really like to talk to you about it.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, sure. I’m wide open for you.” He got the deal with CBS, and sure enough he called me and said, “You’re the guy.” It’s relationships. I didn’t have to audition. It was a relationship that was already built.

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