Mario Calire has boiled down his musical philosophy to three simple words: “serve the music.” It’s an obvious phrase of the type musicians sometimes throw out to mask more ego-driven motivations, or to make themselves look good in print. After all, no one grows up dreaming of becoming a rock star so they can “serve the music,” right? That’s why, when I call Calire at home in Ventura County, California the morning he’s getting ready to fly to Aspen to play the Winter X-Games with Ozomatli, I have my Geraldo Rivera game face on. I’m determined to crack the facade and get right to the juicy stuff. You know, like that quote where he admits he was the real driving force behind The Wallflowers during his eight years with them and that Jacob Dylan was just his pawn, or that the guys in Ozomatli are slave drivers who don't appreciate his brilliance. But time and again, my sleazy tactics are dashed against Calire’s ironclad sincerity until, finally, I’m forced to admit that this guy is the real deal.
“I hope that when people think of my drumming, they think not really of my drumming, but that the artist sounded good,” he says. (And dammit, he means it.) “I’m not really interested in a pyrotechnic display of drumming. I think it’s easy for drummers to just play their instrument. But it takes a specific intention to be musical and to play in the moment, to really stay connected to the piece of music you’re playing.” It’s the sound of each beat having a specific intention that sets Calire’s drumming apart and what has allowed him to savor the sweet taste of success within the relatively short span of his career.
Since he graduated from the California Institute Of The Arts ten years ago, Calire has lent his metronomic precision to artists such as Liz Phair, Marty Grebb, Ricky Lee Jones, and Bruce Springsteen, as well as to a host of other acts. But most people know him as the authoritative pulse behind The Wallflowers during their rise to pop super-stardom in the late ’90s. It was his drumming that helped earn the band, among other things, two Grammys and a seat at the double-platinum table with 1996’s Bringing Down The Horse .
But the ultimate evidence for Calire’s commitment to musical servitude came in 2003, when he made a dramatic gearshift into a new role as the drummer for L.A.-based Latin/hip-hop outfit Ozomatli. For an indication of how well that worked out, consider 2005’s Street Signs.
“That was cool because that was the first full-length album I did with Ozomatli,” Calire says. “It didn't blow up in terms of selling a ton, but I think it propelled the band forward in their career and we had some cool things that came out of it. We had an iPod commercial, we had a song in the John Madden video game.” Oh, and it also went on to win a Grammy for “Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album,” as well as a Latin Grammy for “Best Alternative Album.” But you won’t hear Calire boasting about that.
“I don't put a lot of stock in awards,” he says. “But it’s your peers, and it means your peers are aware of what you’re doing.” In fact, it was that peer awareness that put Calire on Ozomatli’s radar to begin with when he made the decision to walk away from The Wallflowers.
All Calire will say about that decision, by the way, is that “it wasn't really musical, and wasn’t necessarily personal. I left into the great unknown. I had the security of that gig for almost eight years. I jumped off not really knowing what I was going to get into. But I wasn’t really apprehensive to jump off that train.” Of course, he’s also quick to identify his time with The Wallflowers as overwhelmingly positive. After all, it was a key incubation period during which he was able to hone the consistency and timing that have come to define his sound.
Six months after the split with The Wallflowers he was sitting at home when he got an email from his buddy Cougar Estrada (of Los Lobos) saying Ozomatli was looking for a drummer. “I wasn’t planning on joining another band,” he remembers. But he knew percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi and trumpeter/keyboardist Asdrubal Sienna from the California Institute Of The Arts, where the three had played together in the school’s Latin jazz ensemble, so he decided to throw his hat into the ring and see what happened. Yamaguchi got back to him right away, and the next day he found himself in a “hot, dank room somewhere in Burbank,” auditioning with the band.
“I was the last guy they tried out,” he says. “I just remember Will Dog, the bass player, was really excited. He was practically jumping up and down when we were playing ’Ya Viene El Soul.’ It felt really good and they had a DJ playing a loop and I just sat right on the loop, and matched it feel-wise. I don’t know that they knew that I could do that,” he says laughing.
With consistency as his greatest strength, “fattening up the sound” of a drum machine track is something that comes naturally to Calire. He had the chance to practice it a bit on his last album with The Wallflowers, Red Letter Days , and it’s something he had no trouble doing again on Ozomatli’s latest (and probably most exuberant) release, Don’t Mess With The Dragon . The album as a whole has a deliberately processed, Latin club sound. And on some tracks, like “La Temperatura” and “La Segunda Mano,” where the band wanted an even more electronic feel, the machine replaces Calire entirely.
But how does that translate to the stage? “We view our live performances as something very different than our records,” Calire says. On stage, he tries to pull a much more organic sound from his drums, with toms wide open and loose, and a whip-crack snare capable of cutting through the racket of ten or twelve guys giving it their all. And since he acts as his own drum tech, he’s not interested in toting around trunks full of gear. “I think that playing live is about compromising because you’re trying to play a lot of different material with, for the most part, one drum sound,” he says. “I’m not trying to change my snares all the time. You've got to find things that split the difference.”
To make up for the areas where he can’t quite split the difference, Calire mans an Instant Replay 360 Machine. “I’m not hitting triggers in terms of drum sounds,” he explains. “But I'm controlling all the loops and any tracks that we may be playing along to.”
Listening to Calire talk about his role on stage is like listening to the oldest siblings in a big family talk about their surrogate parenting responsibilities. “Sometimes we come out with so much energy. It’s something where, I don't want to bring the energy down, but I want to sort of calm it, to where we can sustain a level for a whole show and still sound good. I think it lends to my personality, being able to be a source of energy, as well as being a point of reference for where we need to be sometimes.”
Calire talks about the importance of keeping a sustainable energy level throughout the arch of the show, as well as throughout the arch of the tour. “We really want to turn people on, and we want people to leave exhilarated and having experienced something together. And I want us to get there in one piece,” he says laughing. Although he does admit that sometimes his reluctance to step outside his comfort zone can cause a little friction. “Unfortunately they make me solo now and again,” he says. “I kind of dread it.”
But his ability to make the rest of the band sound good (not to mention his near-pathological positivism) continues to be his golden ticket in the music world. In addition to Ozomatli, he continues to do side projects serving the needs of other musicians, including a recent collaboration with Brett Dennen that allowed him to explore some more acoustic, jazzy territory. But mostly Calire finds himself spending a lot of time on the road.
“Touring for Ozomatli is kind of a lifestyle,” he says with a laugh. “We’re gone all the time.” By the time this article is published, the band will have completed a trip to India as part of a governmental cultural exchange program, continuing their solid commitment to community activism. Through it all, Calire remains upbeat and ready to give whatever is needed to his band and to his music. “I just want to be able to make music that I really enjoy with people I like being around,” he says. “And so far I've been really lucky to be able to do that.”