“I was in L.A. at the time, so I was in Union Local 47, which was heavily anti-sampling and anti–drum machine,” he remembers. “But this stuff always fascinated me. Even in the mid-’70s, I got a Roland Rhythm Ace [released originally by Ace Tone as the FR-1 Rhythm Ace in the late ’60s]. It was this little cocktail thing that lounge keyboard players would use. I used to practice with it and take it to sessions to kind of notch the tempo. I was intrigued by what Carl Palmer was doing in the early ’70s. I got to work in a trio with Michael Boddicker, who was the go-to guy for synths in L.A. during the late ’70s. We had Bob Easton’s 360 Systems’ pitch-to-voltage converters, and we’d put a mike on my drum and plug it into that big wall of patch cables.
“The turning point was when I met the Misters,” he continues. “They had been auditioning drummers for almost a year, but I got the gig at the audition. Later, I asked the guys why. They said, ‘You were the first guy that could play the whole song through with our LinnDrum and not go out of time.’ That was because I had some experience playing with drum machines.”
When the band gave that LinnDrum to Mastelotto, “I got right into programming it,” he recalls. “My drum technique is not that good, but I have my imagination. I hear what I wish I could play. And I realized that a drum machine could help me do this stuff. I was lucky to be in a pop band at a time when that was kind of accepted in commercial music.”
One of the first payoffs of diving into electronics was that it had a positive impact on tightening his live playing. “Even just seeing something as simple as the [Roland] TR-808 grid made sense to me more than all those little notes with flags and staffs and stuff,” Mastelotto says. “I’m not a good reader. I know what the notes are, but I get really twisted trying to read rests in particular. But the dots on grid paper were like, ‘Now I get it!’ Then when you start to track in a studio, you go, ‘Man, it’s really got to be tight! It’s got to be aligned microscopically.’”
Significantly, though, Mastelotto sensed that technology was an asset as long as it assumed a positive role in his musicianship, rather than coming to dominate it. “We went through a whole thing in the ’80s where we were realigning and measuring,” he says, speaking of Mr. Mister. “The Go On record we made with [engineer] Kevin Killen was really precise in terms of all that, but it didn’t feel good. When we finished it, we went, ‘Well, we’ve seen precision and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Some of the sloppy stuff actually sounds better.’ So I started realizing the beat box is good for this, and Pat the drummer is good for that. If I want to sound like Mickey Waller and get some sloshy hi-hat, a machine could never give me that little bit of swing that I don’t even think about but it’s happening when I’m playing. I don’t even know what I’m doing; I’m just playing.”
Mastelotto’s insight into the balance between these elements has deepened through decades of envelope-pushing work onstage and in the studio. Because of that, he sees Recidivate as a much more unified than bifurcated self-portrait. “I remember when I was doing XTC’s Oranges & Lemons in the ’80s, we had a little debate about whether to use a machine or a drummer on this. My philosophy was that the end justifies the means. I don’t think the listener in those days gave a s__t whether it was programmed or played; they just wanted to hear it come on the radio and sound big. We’d put ten samples behind the snare, if that’s what it took,” he says, with a laugh. “I wasn’t a purist about that kind of stuff and I’m still not.”
Regardless of which route he takes, traps or buttons, Mastelotto faces and aces a number of challenges throughout Recidivate. One that surfaces frequently is 7/8 meter, if that merits being called a challenge for him at this point.
“It’s weird because I don’t even think about it,” he says. “I never go through a record thinking of time changes. I think of tempos and timbres and things like that. When I was a kid, I never knew ‘All You Need Is Love’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ were in seven. I grew up listening to a lot of little Yes things that might have been in seven. And it was almost always ‘1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3.’ It wasn’t until much later that I realized it could be ‘1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2.’ That came when I started to work with [Robert] Fripp and David Sylvian. We were doing some stuff in five, and Robert would call it the ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ five, depending on whether it was ‘1-2, 1-2-3’ or ‘1-2-3, 1-2.’ That five feels almost like a shuffle to me, with a little broken leg in it.
“I didn’t get into the math part of this very much until somewhere in the ’90s, when I was involved in Crimson and started to think of how things could lock together and superimpose with Bill [Buford],” Mastelotto adds. “The whole idea was that he plays in seven and I play in five, and 35 beats later we’re at an anchor point. That was how we thought — and that’s very much how I think with Gavin Harrison. Gavin is really precise and persistent. We have long anchor points. We’d do the tricky bits but we knew if we heard that splash cymbal that we were still together on the 35th beat or whatever it might be.”
The idea of superimposing one meter on another has been in Mastelotto’s playbook ever since he heard John Bonham playing in four while the rest of Led Zeppelin bashed through “Kashmir” in seven. What interested him most was how natural it felt, much as he found out when learning “Discipline” with King Crimson. “It’s a really simple song with these interlocking guitar parts in five,” he says. “I always thought the drums were in four, but Bill was actually in 15 or 17. How could I listen to that song hundreds of times and never even realize it’s in an odd meter? Because they did it right!”