Live, From New York … It’s Shawn Pelton

Saturday morning, deadly cold, and New York City’s biggest blizzard of the winter is going to start dumping snow all over us any second now. Usually, I’d be curled up at home with a cup of cocoa laughing at all the suckers who have to be out there in the two-foot drifts.

Today, however, it seems like the laugh’s on me, since my assignment to spend a day on the set of Saturday Night Live with pocket drummer extraordinaire Shawn Pelton just happens to be on January 22, when anyone with any sense is home and staying there. But what I don’t know yet is that the next 14 hours are going to add up to one of the strangest, most memorable days I’ve had in a long time.

A day at SNL may be a mindblow for the average civilian, but for Pelton, who’s been doing it since 1992, it’s a nuttiness he’s learned to live with. “It’s a long day,” says Pelton, whose soft Southern-gentleman drawl belies the raw power of his playing. “If you’re starting out at 10:00 A.M., by the time it’s after midnight — well — you’ve been playing since that morning. It’s more like a focus/concentration thing, because you’re totally worn out by the end of the day.

“But it’s such a lucky break, because it’s only 20 live tapings a year and you’re free to do other things. It’s like having a steady live gig in town that allows you to keep roots in what’s left of the New York City session thing — if you’re always out on the road, producers don’t necessarily know if you’re in town.”

10:40 A.M./O" Of Snow

I’m standing at one of New York’s more famous addresses, the NBC building at 49 W. 49th Street, smack in the middle of the city’s famed Rockefeller Center. The blizzard of ’05 is about to show up, so is Shawn Pelton, and I’m eager to meet him. He has a reputation as one of the most solid pocket drummers in the business, at a level that’s seen him compared with Bernard Purdie, Rick Marotta, Steve Gadd, “J.R.” Robinson, Al Jackson Jr., and Jeff Porcaro — damn good company. It’s a skill that’s not only kept him on the SNL stage for a decade-plus, but put him on tour or on record with the likes of Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, David Byrne, Billy Joel, Buddy Guy, the Brecker Brothers, and hundreds more.

Pelton seems like he’s a few minutes late, and the 11:00 A.M. rehearsal with the rest of the SNL band is coming on fast, so I pull my phone out of my pocket to check the time. It goes off in my hands: it’s Pelton, who asks me where I am. I tell him I’m outside the chocolate shop on 49th where we said we’d meet. Turns out he’s standing inside. Score one for street smarts on this frigid day.

Safely inside, Pelton and I shake hands. He’s wearing his trademark black cap and a sleepy grin, and takes me over to the security desk for my visitor’s pass, which will be my lifeline for moving in and out of this TV world for the next half-day plus. Thus armed, Pelton and I bypass the metal detectors and head to the elevators, which work on a system too complex for my frozen brain to figure out. Fortunately, Pelton’s been pushing the buttons long enough to know the trick, and up we go to NBC’s legendary Studio 8H.

11:00 A.M./O" Of Snow

Upstairs, I’m blown away to be striding quickly through a hall packed with props and the smell of fresh glue and paint, through to a studio I’ve been watching on TV ever since my parents started letting me stay up on the weekends. Originally built to accommodate NBC Symphony radio broadcasts conducted by the great Arturo Toscanini, 8H has been home to Saturday Night Live since the show premiered on October 11, 1975.

Absorbing the fact that this is where the original cast of comic greats — from Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Jane Curtin to this year’s group, including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Darrell Hammond — romped has to happen quickly. That’s because next I have to absorb the fact that some of the most memorable musical performances I’ve ever seen also took place here, by Nirvana, En Vogue, Big Country, Foo Fighters, Sinead O’Connor (if you call ripping up a picture of the Pope and the sound of silence music), and the SNL band itself — the backbone of it all.

While I’m trying to drink it all in, Pelton’s just trying to drink his coffee as he and I breeze past the cluttered sets, through jumbled masses of actors and stagehands, to climb past a heavy curtain (which is there to keep the noise of the band down on the set during their rehearsal) and up on the riser where the band does its thing, 20 Saturdays a year. If Pelton seems a little blasé about being a regular on one of TV’s most storied stages, it’s only because he’s worked damn hard to get there and stay there.

“There’s a school of music in Bloomington — University of Indiana — and I was a jazz major,” the 41-year-old Pelton explains of his life after growing up in Kansas City, Missouri and Louisiana and before making it to New York City, “but I was really lucky to be able to study privately with Kenny Aronoff. It made me a lot more well rounded and not just come out here as a jazzbo. Being around him before he broke as the successful session player that he is today, seeing what he was dealing with — it was a valuable experience to be around Kenny at that time. The stuff that he would work on, like the Mellencamp records and the way he dealt with people and issues that came up, handling the business and stuff, it was a real education.

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“One of the really invaluable things was the concept that, as the drummer, you’re almost always going to be a sideman working for someone else. I think there’s a real trip to dealing with that, working with other people and knowing how to take direction, knowing when to have your own ideas in a session, and knowing when to just shut up and give what they want. All those people skills that have to do with working a session and getting called back.” Along with his interpersonal talents, Pelton was honing his ability to sight-read a chart in a flash, play a wide range of styles authentically, and still season each stroke with his own unique flavor, a determined digging-in that seems to make every note count, from massive bass drum wallops to delicate brush sweeps.

When he’d finally had enough of the South and the Midwest, Pelton moved to New York City in the late ’80s and started getting gigs. The early going was tough, complete with failed record deals and bad Bar Mitzvah bands, but in 1992 a bass player who he’d gigged with named Paul Ossola put in a word about Pelton to then-SNL bandleader G.E. Smith. Matt Chamberlain had just abdicated the drum throne that had also been held by industry greats like Steve Jordan, Chris Parker, Steve Ferrone, and Buddy Williams. Pelton pounced and he’s never looked back.

As always, the space for the 11-piece band doesn’t seem anywhere near as large in real life as it looks on TV. A tiny aisle divides them into two sections, with bandleader/saxophonist Lenny Pickett, keyboardist Katrese Barnes, guitarist Lukasz Gottwald, saxophonist Alex Foster, and percussionist Valerie Dee Naranjo on one side; bassist James Genus, keyboardist Leon Pendarvis, Pelton, trumpet player Earl Gardner, baritone sax/arranger Lew Del Gatto, and trombonist Steve Turre on the other. The famous New York City street scene of fake storefronts where the guest host always pops out of is right behind them.

Space there is tight, especially for Pelton, who couldn’t be overweight if he wanted to be able to slide onto his drum throne without knocking anyone’s music stand over. A folding chair is procured for me, and I sandwich myself in between Naranjo and Turre. The other players breeze in, nod at each other, exchange a few pleasant words, and then start digging into their charts so fast it’s unbelievable — I’ve been in two-man bands that took ten times as long to play their first note at rehearsal.

The mission here is to be prepared to play about 50 of the songs in the band’s impressive 700-song master list of standards, ranging from pure funk jams to New Orleans shuffles and more high-energy styles. Pickett zeroes in on the ones the group needs to rehearse, and as the SNL band goes through each song, they seem to start and stop together as if by telepathy. The groove on standards like “You’ve Got The Love” and “Big Bang Theory” is positively ferocious, and they haven’t even had their morning coffee yet (well, maybe they have). The horns are rich, the bass is funky, and Naranjo flies around her well-stocked percussion stand like a highly focused trapeze artist, all part of an incredibly tight interplay that she enjoys with Pelton.

Watching this group go to work, I’m reminded of what it means to be serious pros. These players can come together effortlessly on charts, whether they’ve seen them before or not. And while the SNL band is designed to play for a national audience, it’s clear that they’re all-New York City. They’re loose, they’ve got attitude, and they’re totally casual about their mastery of the music.

Seated just a few feet from Pelton and his five-piece kit, which includes two snares, a DrumKat, and his own personal Mackie mixer, I’m startled again and again by the fierce intensity he applies to his playing — the snare strokes are like gunshots that make me blink every time they land. In the next tune, however, he can pull it way down with gentle brush strokes, all while sight-reading if need be. It’s a compact demonstration of the diversity and approach that Pelton has applied to reaching his position in the drumming scene, whether he’s on the SNL set, playing with another artist, or with his own band, House Of Diablo.

“If you’re freelancing, the more styles you can slip in and out of and survive in, playing-wise, probably the more work you’ll do,” he explains. “Playing for the song and what the track needs is something that I place a high priority on. I’ve always been interested in drummers that have a great feel, and that’s always been the focus for me. They can play the simplest beat but for some reason it feels so good, makes the walls sweat — maybe another drummer can play the same beat but it doesn’t sound as good.”

The core of this outlook is Pelton’s mastery of finding the pocket, that mystical zone that — if a drummer nails it — can make any funk, rock, or jazz song all the sweeter. “A pocket drummer establishes a great groove that a band can build on,” he states simply. “It has to do with being in love with playing simply. I think that’s a real bridge for drummers to cross, playing a simple groove but making it feel amazing. There’s a real art to that, especially since drummers today can be seduced by the louder, faster mentality.

“With pocket drumming, it’s almost like some of the simplest beats that you learn within the first month of playing drums ends up being the stuff you’re doing 30 years later on a gig. It’s all about getting inside, making something feel really great and believing in that. There’s a lot of drummers that, once they learn a certain technical facility, it can be hard to simplify that and go back to the basic building blocks of what good groove is about.”

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12:00 Noon/1" Of Snow.

The last hour has whipped by like a flash. Pelton and the rest of the band take a break, which is a good opportunity for me to finally (a) see what’s happening on the other side of that curtain, and (b) grab as much free food as possible. Emerging from the band riser, I can see set designers, camera people, actors, and giant cat-suit-things milling around in the tall, wide room that is Studio 8H.

When the band’s curtain is raised later on, it will face an island of about 60 seats fixed on the floor in the center, with room on either side for at least four sets to be up simultaneously, in various stages of readiness while the featured skit goes live to air. Looking out over the studio’s rear wall are three or four more rows of what looks to be about 200 seats that wrap around the back, left, and right of the room. Although the place hums with activity, there is a relaxed, unpretentious air about the people who are making this iconic show — now into its 30th season — tick.

After I take a second to drink it in, Pelton takes me to the backstage area, a small but action-packed space with stalls and a big mirror where the actors race to change costumes during commercials. Right now, however, it’s the catering facility, and a simple but very good meal of spaghetti, salad, and bread is out in large, industrial strength trays to feed the stream of crew, band, and actors. I grab a paper plateful and wander over to the studio security desk, where a camera monitoring the street reveals that the snow has started to fall — and fast. Am I bitter to not be romping in it? Or feeling privileged to be in this slightly surreal place?

Just then, Pelton grabs me and takes me back through to the studio, which already seems to have a completely different layout of sets in just the short time we were away. I decide I’m glad to be here, as I settle back in between Naranjo and Turre the trombonist, especially as Turre tells me the first of his considerable arsenal of unprintable jokes.

The band receives a pink sheet with that day’s “Dress Rundown,” listing all the skits that will happen during dress rehearsal and the songs that the band will play subsequently during the commercial break. For example:

Surprise Party

Commercial #8………………………………Filly’s Soul

Pelton tells me later that there are more skits listed on the dress rundown than will actually make it to air — the ones that get the weakest response during the dress rehearsal will get cut. I’m relieved to also finally figure out who the guest host is: Paul Giamatti, the unassuming star of movies such as Sideways and American Splendor. He’s been walking around the set for the last hour and as familiar as he looked, I couldn’t figure out exactly who he was. Now that I’ve figured it out, I can relax.

I’m expecting more flat-out rehearsal, but the band has other duties to attend to now. First they have to do a pre-record for some gospel-type music that will run in a skit during the show called “The Lunford Twins,” allegedly a “variety show that never made it to air” like they’d show on TVLand. Next they have to practice a three-note vamp that they’ll play when Giamatti does his opening monologue. Another piece of music for one of the fake commercials the show often airs was recorded in a studio by the SNL band the day before. Union-mandated residuals from these pieces and other band performances, culled from reruns of the show on NBC and cable, will make for a welcome source of additional income for the musicians.

1:00 P.M./3" Of Snow

The band has its first and only break of the day — an awkward 3 1/2 hour chunk of time that’s just long enough to not want to hang out at the studio the whole time, just short enough to make it tough to do anything else. Pelton picks up his clothes from wardrobe, which like the rest of the band, are chosen for him by SNL’s wardrobe staffers, takes me on a quick tour through the warren of green rooms, dressing rooms, and offices that surround 8H, then tells me he’s sticking around to take care of some paperwork, which is fine by me — I want to get outside and see the snow. I manage, somehow, to get the elevator to take me down, and see that New York is quickly transforming to the beautiful, messy, white, slow-moving version of itself that only emerges in a serious snowstorm.

4:30 P.M./6" Of Snow.

I’ve just walked back ten blocks from my own studio nearby. The bad news is that I feel like I walked ten miles — walking carefully on the white stuff without slipping requires a kind of sliding motion that turns into a major leg workout. The good news is that while I was at my own kit, I practiced playing like Shawn Pelton, and it felt good. After watching him I decided one of the specific keys to his massive sound is laying more of the stick across the drumhead (as opposed to just hitting the center with the bead), and doing it forcefully. Another key is laying into each and every single stroke with complete focus, concentration, and oomph. It’s a disciplined way to play — I hope I can keep it up in the future.

“I definitely had a background where I was really into studying and learning about the drums,” Pelton explains of how he honed his sound. “I studied with Alan Dawson a couple of summers, and he was a huge influence. What he had to give was an incredibly sound, technical fundamental basis to your playing. I feel like I’ve been really lucky to have been exposed to that.

“But I’ve worked in musical situations where it was about grooving and making the song happen, so a lot of the focus came on getting a good sound, as opposed to developing left-foot clave, for instance. If I had time, I would probably spend it listening to, ’What did that drummer do to get that sound?’ as opposed to shedding on a groove in 7/8. It was never a priority to me to be an incredible technician, because I was always making a living playing drums in band situations, and that can be more about sound and feel.”

In the NBC building, I’m worried I’m going to have to work the elevator myself, but at the last second a studio electrician shows up and does the magic to take me to the 8th floor. On the way up, he helps me realize what a 24/7 operation putting on SNL really is — last night, he was up until 4 A.M. assembling the set. Tonight he’ll probably be up that late again tearing it apart.

I meet up with Pelton at the 8H security desk, and he takes me back to the band’s riser. The curtain is down now and the musicians are ready to be one with the rest of the set. It’s time to do a rough rehearsal of the monologue and some of the skits, so Pelton quickly settles in behind his kit and invites me to perch next to him, sandwiched between his floor tom and Pendarvis and his organ. It’s an exciting view, looking out on the set just as Pelton has for the last 13 years.

The band starts playing the opening theme and Giamatti races out to practice his monologue, which is about how excited he is to be there. He backs up his claim first by whipping out an asthma inhaler, then letting loose with a series of karate moves so animated that sparks seem to fly out of his body, capped by the song the band rehearsed, where he sings, “I” [VAMP] “LOVE” [VAMP] “THE” [VAMP] “…oh screw it, I’m a lousy singer anyway! Live, from New York, it’s Saturday night!” It’s absolutely hilarious, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. In front of me Pendarvis, who I thought would be jaded beyond words, is shaking with laughter, and declares it “the best monologue I’ve ever seen.” It’s a good sign, and many of the subsequent dry run sketches look promising. Aside from the snow, it looks like we picked a good night for me to be there.

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8:00 P.M./9" Of Snow

After Pelton escorts me two floors down to the NBC commissary for a high quality, all-you-can-eat buffet of everything from pork roast to cheeseburgers to more pasta, he has to handle more paperwork, and I’m on my own for a while. The set that had seemed so mysterious nine hours before is pretty much old hat now, and I’m eager to get on with the official dress rehearsal.

At 8:20, I’m surprised to see the NBC pages start admitting a full audience that will view the dress rehearsal show, then leave and be replaced by another full audience for the 11:30 live broadcast. Who are these people? Pelton shows up again, and I take my place once more just to the right of his thundering floor tom. The band plays for close to a half hour as the people come in, and after cast member Darrell Hammond warms up the crowd with the standard geographical jokes (“Who here’s from Ohio?”), the faux show kicks in. Giamatti’s monologue is still hilarious the second time around, as is the “Lundford Twins” skit and a sketch making fun of Jared the Subway guy that allows Giamatti to go wild. The ballet that goes on behind the scenes, as stagehands expertly move, put up, and strike sets like the complicated “Weekend Update” piece in darkness and two minutes or less is equally fascinating. Pelton and the SNL band lays into nine different songs, from “Maceo’s Blues” to “Down N’awlins Way,” and sound awesome doing it.

As the band rips out the famous SNL “Closing Theme” I conclude I’m exhausted — sitting in the middle of all that high energy music all that time has beat me down. I suspect the band feels the same way, but they’re pros, the show must go on, and since that was just the dress rehearsal, there’s still a long night ahead.

10:30 P.M./12" Of Snow

The rehearsal crowd is long gone, and so is my brain. A half-day in this place is enough to drive anyone a little batty, and getting through it is starting to feel like the marathon that Pelton had implied. Just being a note-taking observer to all this is taxing — I can only imagine how tiring it can be to be doing heavy lifting the whole time, whether it’s set pieces, cameras, or drumsticks.

Today, Pelton is one of just a handful of drummers in New York City with a gig this steady. While the SNL band provides a regular paycheck for him, it’s just part of a business strategy that allows him to bridge the gap between an old-school drumming gig like this, and the new-school musician approach that’s needed to move forward. “The reality of being a drummer in 2005 is wild,” he concedes. “When I was coming up, there was more of a need for real drummers in the marketplace. For a song or a demo, you needed a real drummer to do it, but technology has made massive changes to all this over the last 20 years. I feel really fortunate to have had the run I did, and record with people like Dylan and Springsteen. I definitely hope to keep working, but I also hope to get into the music that’s inside my head.

“There’s always going to be a market for drummers that have a great feel, and also have the ability to work with people and realize that, unless you’re the leader of your own band — like a Lars Ulrich — that most likely you’re going to be a sideman. There’s a head for having that together, and the harder you work, the luckier you get.”

If the reward for hard work is more hard work, then Pelton and the band are getting theirs tonight. He’s scored me a tough-to-find seat to watch the show, shakes my hand goodbye, and goes down to the set for another round. At 10:55 the next audience is halfway in, and as far as they’re concerned, the SNL band is just getting started as they lay into the fiery funk of the warm-up set yet again.

Hammond comes on at 11:15 and tells the exact same jokes he told the dress rehearsal crowd, makes way for legendary announcer Don Pardo, and finally, at 11:30 on the dot, Saturday Night Live goes live. Giamatti does his monologue, and for some reason, he leaves all the funny parts out of his monologue and just raves about how excited he is to be there. I’m also surprised to see that the “Jared the Subway Guy” skit has been cut — I thought it was killer. But after 13 hours in this place, what do I know?

As SNL finally draws to a close at 1:00 A.M., the one thing I do know that I didn’t ever notice before is that Pelton and the band, as good as they sound, really look tired. They’ve been playing their hearts out off and on since 11:00 the day before, and as the show hits its final minutes, they’re feeling it. But far from being a negative, I think it’s great that they don’t hide it. SNL is a marathon for everyone involved, and if the band looks like they’ve been through a long journey, well, that’s more than fair.

1:00 A.M./14" Of Snow

The show has ended and it’s actually time to call it a night. Normally, the cast and crew throw a party to mark another episode completed, but with the massive snow making it so tough to get around, I doubt they’ll get to it. As for me, I just want to slog it home. Naturally, with all the inclement weather, the already slow F train is taking forever to show up but it eventually does, and finally I’m out and just a few blocks from my apartment.

I don’t know about where you live, but in New York City, the night sky turns orange when it snows heavily, which I guess is a result of all those millions of street lights reflecting into the white flake-filled heavens. It looks weird, but as I fall inside my front door, everything makes sense: It’s the perfectly twisted last touch to a typically twisted day on the set of Saturday Night Live.

SHAWN’S SNL SETUP

Drums: DW in Rich Red Fade Over Quilted Maple
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 12" x 7" Edge Snare
3. 14" x 6" Solid Wood Snare
4. 12" x 9" Tom
5. 16" x 14" Tom

Cymbals: Zildjian
A. 14" A New Beat Hi-Hats
B. 16" A Custom Projection Crash
C. 22" K Custom rRde
D. 18" A Custom Projection Crash

Percussion
E. LP Ridge Rider Rock Classic Cowbell

Electronics:
F. MallletKAT

Rack:
Mackie CR 1604 16-channel mixing board, Roland SP-808 Groove Sampler, Akai MPC2000XL, Roland TD-10 brain, UC33-e MIDI controller, Korg Kaoss pad

Shawn Pelton also uses Vater sticks, Remo heads, XL Specialty cases, DW pedals and hardware

VALERIE NARANJO

Pelton’s Percussive Partner

After a decade into her gig as the principle ethnic percussion and mallet specialist on Saturday Night Live, Valerie Naranjo still sees herself as “the wild card in the band.” Yet she acknowledges … no, make that relishes being part of a team in which everyone plays an essential role: “A lot of what makes this show so special is the camaraderie.”

So for obvious reasons, she works closely with drummer Shawn Pelton, the other half of SNL’s blinding percussion duo. “We complement each other as a section,” she says. “My biggest consideration is what Shawn’s playing. For example, [if] I’m starting with a bell pattern and he’s doing a bell pattern himself, I may make a snap decision to do something like a shaker or timbale. He does really out and tricky things with the snare drum rather than the 2 and 4. That’s my opportunity to jot down his pattern and figure out how to converse with that.”

Of all the players in the all-star band, Naranjo’s parts run the gamut, from free jamming to precise ensemble work, depending greatly on the instruments she’s asked to play. “I read charts with very specific parts and I read charts that are slashes,” she explains. “I read mallet charts that are obviously [written] note-by-note, some where they want that triangle to be right there, and others that are much freer.”

If you’ve ever had the split-second opportunity to spy Naranjo in action when SNL cuts to a commercial break, you’ve witnessed a blur of energy behind a fortress of percussion packed into an impossibly cramped space. “I have maybe 150 instruments there,” she says. “My setup is two mallet instruments — a xylophone and a glock, three or four West African hand drums, five or six Latin percussion — three congas, bongo, timbales, a series of gongs and cymbals, orchestral percussion, for effects and such, and then your array of pop percussion — tambourines and shakers.”

When she isn’t adding texture and shape to the SNL band, Naranjo keeps a busy schedule as the director of percussion for the Broadway production of The Lion King. She continues to play around town, keeps a frantic schedule of mallet clinics and workshops around the country, and is just about to begin work on an ambitious solo album. “Sometimes I wish there was a little bit of a breather,” she laughs, but quickly admits she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s all been a really great experience.”

— Andy Doerschuk