Pat Mastelotto: Beats By Any Means

pat mastelotto

The road leading from our time back to the 1980s is littered with broken LPs, scratched-up CDs, empty tubes of glitter and eye liner, and faded promo shots of artists who were once vital but exist now either as nostalgia acts or answers to music trivia questions.

That is positively not true of Pat Mastelotto. Sure, he was right in the front ranks of glam-era trendiness, as drummer with Mr. Mister. True to performance practice at that time, his kit boomed in the mix like artillery firing up from the bottom of a canyon. But as the thunder of that era’s backbeats began to fall from favor, Mastelotto adapted, to the point where much of what he plays and programs these days seems utterly unrelated to his earlier persona — an impression that’s totally incorrect, by the way.

Yet that reaction is understandable when listening to Recidivate, the two-CD Mastelotto career retrospective released in March by 7d Media. Organized into two distinctive collections, it features primarily acoustic drums and percussion on the disc labeled “Traps” and electronic performance and programming on the other, whose title is “Buttons.” There is some gray area between the two, of course, and Mastelotto acknowledges that one cut actually wound up under the wrong header. (That would be Peter Kingsbury’s appropriately named “Makes No Sense,” filed under “Traps” yet composed of Linn 9000 sounds triggered from pads.) Still, the panorama unfurled in all these 42 selections is consistent in its relentless experimentalism and search for new ways of applying rhythm to wildly varied and adventurous settings.

Finding His Voice

When you listen carefully to the Mr. Mister catalog, wild adventurism is exactly what Mastelotto was after even then, before beginning his journey from the mainstream toward further shores. Where most of his contemporaries might have kept slamming the beat right from the top of “Kyrie,” for example, he suggested delaying its entry all the way to the end of the first verse for maximum surprise and impact — and then pulling everything but the drums out for a massive a cappella lead-in to the finale, for musical effect as well as to allow the radio DJ to back-announce the tune on the air.

“Actually, I was experimenting before that, as a teenager, not even knowing what I was doing,” Mastelotto recalls. “When I was 19 or 20, I used to try to record one or two frying pans around the house that collected leaking water that was dripping from the ceiling and try to record it when I realized it was a polyrhythm. I’d play disco or with a country band that night, but in the day I was goofing off with all these other tangents.”

That curiosity flourished despite (actually, in part because of) Mastelotto’s sketchy drum training and endured his detour into stardom with the Misters. Today, his catalog is a who’s who of outside-thinking innovators, from the prog juggernaut King Crimson in its later, daringly inventive incarnation and the Chapman Stick virtuoso quartet — known sensibly as The Stickmen — to little-known and under-celebrated musical iconoclasts in Russia, Turkey, Finland, and even his current hometown of Austin, Texas.

Mastelotto’s extraordinarily broad compass is documented on Recidivate, yet he is reluctant to describe it as a solo project in any traditional sense. “I never had the desire to do a record under my own name,” he says. “I’m useless on my own; I’m a collaborator. But everybody else had one by the late ’90s, and people kept asking me, ‘Where’s your solo record?’

“So fast-forward to when Crimson did its last studio record, which was The Power To Believe [2003]. Matt Chamberlain and Trey Gunn shared a studio loft in Seattle at that time, and I went there to use his gear and make a record with Trey called TU. It was my idea to call it TU because we could say ‘TU + 2’ when I wanted to keep adding other duos in these once-in-a-lifetime projects. The first two we added were these Finns — this crazy accordion player Kimo Pohjonen and his percussionist Samuli Kosminen, who plays also with Bj...rk. That was a really great little quartet. From that came Tuner, with the touch guitarist Markus Reuter, and Tunisia, with the Theremin player Pamelia Kurstin. This was my way around having a Pat solo album, which still wasn’t on the radar screen.”

Split Personality

He crossed that line, in his own way, while preparing for his second marriage nearly three years ago. Mastelotto put together a compilation record for his wedding guests, which prompted Gunn to begin bugging his friend about developing it into something that could be sold at gigs. Inspired when Steven Wilson gave him permission to include any of the several remixes Mastelotto had done on his works, he set to work on what has now emerged as Recidivate.

The traps/buttons division suggests that Mastelotto harbors two distinct personas, or at least that they should be appreciated as complementary, if not separate. Not so, the drummer insists. In fact, where many of his peers felt threatened as drum machines began hitting the market, he saw the technology immediately as a tool with which he could stimulate his creativity.

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“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.”

Evening Out The Odds

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!”

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Recidivate demonstrates there are as many ways of fitting into a 7/8 groove as there are options for making any particular song expressive. On “Jacarando,” a “Traps” track that features Mastelotto, Pohjonen, and Gunn, a busy, percolating synth pattern pushes the momentum, leaving Mastelotto with a little less space for the drum part. “I went straight to four-on-the-floor,” he says. “Then it was about figuring out where I wanted to play the top side of the kit, wherever the bongo beat and the backbeat falls in seven with Trey. I didn’t want it to feel like it was a tricky song. I wanted it to feel like 4/4. And we were playing a lot in Eastern Europe, so that’s not weird over there. You’d see a thousand people dance in the audience every night we played that song.”

Pat Mastelotto

Mastelotto’s Setup

Drums DW (Broken Glass finish)
1 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Snare Drum
3 12" x 8" Tom
4 16" x 16" Tom
5 18" x 8" Modified Camco Tom from late 1970s

Cymbals Paiste
A 14" Sound Edge Hi-Hat
B 18" Signature Crash with 6" 2002 Cup Chime
C 22" Twenty Masters Dark Crisp Ride
D 20" Signature Crash with 7" 2002 Cup Chime
E 18" Signature Heavy China

Electronics Roland
F SPD-S Sample Pad
G KD-7 Kick Pad
H 8" PD-8 V-Pad
I 12" CY5 Dual Trigger V-Cymbal
J Korg Wavedrum
K HandSonic Pad

Pat Mastelotto also uses DW 9000 series double pedal and hardware (occasionally swaps in a DW Flat Chrome Accent Drum for the 12" x 8" tom), Hammerax Vine Chime or Boomywang, Evans heads, Vic Firth Extreme or Gavin Harrison signature sticks, M-Audio electronics, and sometimes a Paiste Nicko McBrain Powerslave Reflector Bell Ride instead of the Twenty Masters ride.

A different approach to seven unfolds on the track that follows “Jacarando.” Recorded by Tuner for its album Pole, “Black Well Monotony” grew from the sound of a piano Mastelotto had given to his daughter Noelle. “It was inexpensive, a couple of hundred dollars,” he says. “And it was completely out of tune. Markus Reuter was arriving in Austin in a few days, and I realized we could do prepared piano. When he got here, we put paper clips, cymbals, and drums in there. We beat the crap of the piano for about an hour and a half. I recorded it all. Then, we walked through that hour and a half. We cut out the bits that sounded like they could be foundations for a song. There was a riff on that prepared piano, and that’s what we started writing to song over. We must have channeled seven, because that’s how it came out.”

Humble Pie

Perhaps the toughest song on these two discs was “Nano,” played by KTU — Mastelotto, Gunn, and Pohjonen. It also happens to be one of the relatively few pieces in the collection that breaks down into 4/4, though with subdivisions rarely articulated on pop play-lists. “That was hard,” Mastelotto admits. “I could not find a way to fit in there. It never really sat right. Kimo pretty much hates Western drumming, the idea that you’re going to slam backbeats and play hi-hat eighth-notes. Robert Fripp isn’t too keen on that either, but Kimo has this emotional Finnish quality, and he doesn’t want a Western-sounding drum kit. That’s really a challenge: How do I give up backbeats and hi-hats and all of the things that could work — but not for this artist?”

The answer came in steps. First, Mastelotto put down a minimal basic part, with breaks added via LinnDrum. “Then Kimo put a lot of his parts to tape and traded it to Trey. I let the two of them fight over these arrangements, about whether this is a downbeat or that’s a downbeat. Then I came back in. Instead of playing a trap kit, I played toms as an overdub out of the room, because at this point with KTU I was trying to think of how this would translate to a live show. It would be more exciting if the drummer ran over there and played powerful stuff standing up on toms rather than doing it within the drum kit. That’s why when there are drums in one section, there’s no hi-hat; it’s more likely bongos, snare, and foot.”

That triggers another thought, which Mastelotto is happy to share regarding studio techniques and drum kits. “When I record, I like to take all the cymbals and toms away because your kick and snare sound better without all the ringing,” he says. “There’s less phasing. I figured that out in the late ’70s or early ’80s, working with [producer] Mike Chapman. You don’t just put a blanket over them. You take them off the kit. When you get onstage, it’s, ‘I need my China for this song. I need that crash for that song.’ But in the studio, just play the drums you’re actually going to play on the take, and it records a lot cleaner.”

With this amount of thought going into each selection on Recidivate, it’s small wonder that Mastelotto’s setup can change radically from session to session. Although he uses a variety of items, depending on what’s needed, his preference for drums is DW, Paiste for cymbals, Evans for heads, and Vic Firth for sticks. “And Roland, Korg, and M-Audio have all been really nice to me.”

All these resources — the acoustic and electronic gear, as well as his own capacity for creating parts that are unexpected yet fully appropriate — trace back to Mastelotto’s admission that his chops are more limited than he would like them to be. “I realized the drum machine would be a big help to me when my technique couldn’t live up to my vision,” he says. “I could program that kick drum I hear in my head, and then I can play the rest of the stuff on top of it without having to keep that kick drum going. I’ll never be the drummer I want to be in my head or my imagination. I’m getting older and there are just some physical things I can’t do.”

He deals with these issues through lessons with Tobias Ralph, stretching exercises created by Jojo Mayer, and other means. He’s also reset his priorities for practicing. “Whenever I go through Boston, I try to ring Gary Chaffee and take a lesson at his house,” Mastelotto says. “One night, you’re coming home from a gig where a couple thousand people are like, ‘Man, you’re the greatest drummer in the world!’ The next morning I’m with Gary, trying to play like a five-year-old. And Gary says, ‘Well, yeah, of course, when you go onstage you only play what you can play. If you sound good in your practice room, you’re not practicing!’ And I used to sound okay when I practiced. I was playing all the stuff I knew and just having fun instead of going, ‘Holy crap, I can’t play this! I’ve got to slow down!’

“Most of us learn enough to play the gig and then we don’t get any further,” he reflects. “It really struck me when my opportunity with King Crimson came: ‘Wow, am I prepared to go to his next level? Did I take advantage of all the time before, when I could have been upping my game a little bit?’ That’s when I began to understand that as a person, not just as a musician, don’t work on your strengths. Learn your weaknesses, work on those, and no matter what, you’ll get better.”

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Groove Analysis

It will probably come as no surprise to fans of King Crimson that drummer Pat Mastelotto’s recent CD, Recidivate, is full of odd time signatures and innovative grooves and song ideas that will continually challenge expectations. It’s actually two CDs of material from Mastelotto’s various projects over the years featuring many iconic prog rock collaborators including Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree. Many of these tracks feature overdubbed percussion and efx so these transcriptions will focus on his decipherable drum set parts. He’s certainly come a long way since Mr. Mister.

“Blackwell”
This 7/8 tune has an unusual open hi-hat part that is moved to what sounds like a China cymbal in the third measure. My best guess is he’s playing his left hand on the hi-hat while his right hand plays the “melody” on toms, China, and his ride bell.

pat mastelotto

“Kataklasm”
KTU is an interesting quartet that also features fellow Crimson alum Trey Gunn. I saw them five years ago as a trio and they were easily the best accordion-centric progressive rock band I’ve ever seen. Kataklasm is a heavy instrumental rock tune in 6/4 that Mastelotto plays straightforwardly, always supporting the dominant riffs.

pat mastelotto

“XTCU2” by TU
This is a duet between Mastelotto and Gunn that features an all-too-brief drum solo. For the 9:8 figure Mastelotto uses a RLL sticking pattern. The last bar has a nice linear pattern again with his right hand leading the accents and his left hand following using variations of RLF.

pat mastelotto

“Makes No Sense At All”
I can’t get this catchy song out of my head, but in this case that’s a good thing. This is surprisingly funky, with tasty percussion overdubs. Mastelotto’s choice of a papery Roland 808-ish snare drum is an odd yet ultimately perfect choice for this track.

pat mastelotto