Vinnie Amico: License To Jam

vinnie amico

Saratoga Springs, a sleepy berg in upstate New York, doesn’t sound like the most exciting place for a professional musician. But for Vinnie Amico, on this bitter-cold morning, it’s a slice of heaven. The moe. drummer (the lowercase-with-period construction of the band’s name has become too much of an identifier to ignore) is at home in the middle of the living room waist-deep in cardboard boxes and paper, piecing together a new kit for the band’s upcoming tour.

For a split second, though, the 41-year-old is at an impasse. His setup, something he hasn’t messed with in over a decade, may need a tweak. “I’m actually reducing my cymbals by two,” Amico says. “I think I run ten or eleven cymbals and it’s just way too much. I can get away with having less. Trying to simplify in my old age, you know?”

Less Is moe.

Blame it on new album What Happened To The LA LAs, a sweet and sinister slab of inspired party music, for causing Amico to rethink the kit arrangement. With chunky guitar tones and dog-eared songs that get to the point, there’s no time for percussive filigree.

Dirtier and more Southern-tinged compared to the last few records, LA LAs is the first time moe. brought an outsider into the studio for guidance since Amico joined the band as moe.’s fifth consecutive drummer (!) back in 1997. If anything you would think the new album would be more sanitized. “John Travis, our producer, has worked with Kid Rock, Sugar Ray, and other people,” Amico explains. “So that’s what gave it more of that kind of rock feeling.” Though he never says so, having a producer at the helm freed up Amico to be as loose and gritty as he wanted without obsessing over the perfect take. Most of LA LAs’ songs were one or two takes anyway, but the presence of Travis, and his confidence in the drummer, was a powerful psychological buffer. “I was warming up, just trying to get different sounds, and within five minutes [Travis] said, ‘I’m not going to need to use the click,’ so that made me feel pretty good about what I was doing.”

If click tracks fly in the face of the jam-band spirit, it’s refreshing to hear Amico admit to their value. “I don’t mind them,” he says. “But I would prefer not to use them because stuff can tend to be square. Our songs — the ones that aren’t as long — need to move a little because if you keep them too straight or if it doesn’t move up or down a couple of beats per minute here and there, it tends to feel like it’s dragging.”

It helped that Amico got to record with his own kit, a condition seldom granted with commercial producers who tend to have a specific drum sound in mind. “I have this 14" x 7" steam-bent Noble & Cooley I’ve been using for years,” he says. “It’s the biggest, hugest snare drum ever.”

It’s obvious that the Vinnie Amico who first recorded drums with moe. on Tin Cans And Car Tires in 1998 is not the same drummer on What Happened To The LA LAs. “I think I put a lot more thought into the parts,” he says. “Not that they’re any better, it’s just that it’s more professional. I just don’t go out like, ‘Hey, here it is!’ It’s like there’s a little more thought into everything.”

Moe.’s one-time drum set player, Jim Loughlin, left the band in the mid-1990s. He returned five years later as a percussionist, and ever since then Amico’s style has become increasingly sensitive and tasteful. “It’s probably a little less busy and it’s probably a little more pocket, partially because I’ve been playing with Jim for 12 or 13 years now, so it’s not like I’m going to put this part together that’s going to stomp all over his percussion part.”

The pair not only complement each other, they have a telepathy that lets them shine individually at the appropriate time, like on the joyous “The Bones Of Lazarus,” a fan favorite the band has honed over the years. The recorded version on LA LAs sees Amico’s taut snare dance around Loughlin’s bell work with pinpoint precision. “We’ll write a song with a simple part, and if it evolves into a more complicated, complex drum line or something, then that kind of comes through playing and not through starting off with a complicated part and then taking parts away. So it goes in a reverse direction almost.”

Needless to say, it’s taken the pressure off Amico to be the proverbial chops-heavy jam-band player. “When I first came into the band I would be filling every four or every eight bars, and now I don’t have to do that. In some of the beats I still might be playing a few more notes — more ghost on the snare or washier cymbal — but now I can just play a little straighter rather than some funky cascara,” he says. “Jim might be doing a bell part over a clave part or something. [The busyness of] what I was doing before might confuse things or might work against each other rather than with each other.”

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From Renting It To Owning It

School band is a common rite of passage for drummers and Vinnie Amico is no exception, picking up the snare drum at age ten. Soon afterward his mom bought him a drum set, but then “sports kind of got in the way” of what he thinks might have been a more rapid development. When not on the diamond or the gridiron, he was at home on the kit until his mom got home from work. “I wasn’t shedding,” he says “I didn’t even play to records. I used to have lot of music in my head so I’d go home and just play.”

Around age 16 or 17, he and several musically inclined friends gathered in each other’s basements, playing mostly beer- and weed-fueled covers of Grateful Dead songs. “You got decent at it because there was a lot of material. There’s improvisation, you know, and it’s kind of psychedelic, and the higher we got and the more we played, the cooler it was and the funner it was, so we did a lot of musical exploration.” As for the herbal use, Amico makes no apologies for being a teenager. “It kind of went hand in hand,” he says, “but you learn a lot that way.”

After enrolling at SUNY Buffalo, he decided to study engineering but then switched to economics and psychology. He joined a band his first semester and by summer was in another. During junior year he was a working musician in Buffalo, picking up gigs all over town. “I was blessed with good time and a good sense of groove,” he explains. “I’d go play a gig, someone would see me and say, ‘Hey, man. Can you play with us?’”

After graduating, he became a manager at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Even with a family to support, he still played out three or four times a week on top of working 60 hours. Moe., gaining momentum beyond the campus and burning through a series of drummers, was actively courting him. “They used to come see one of the bands I played in because we kind of had a cool little scene thing happening,” he says of the shows with Acoustic Forum. “It was bluegrass-y but we did a lot of cover songs and a lot of people would show up, a lot of partying going on, and so everybody kind of knew me through that.” Each time moe. would make a drummer change, their manager, Jon Topper, who had been Amico’s roommate freshman year, would invite him to go on the road and play with the band, and each time the drummer said no. “I was on my way to living the dream of Middle America.”

The next time Topper called it was in the middle of touring behind No Doy, moe.’s first record with Sony/550 Records. “That was a little more of a serious call,” he remembers. “This was no longer, ‘Hey, you want to come jump in the van for 60 bucks a week and peanut butter sandwiches?’ This was a real offer. It was like, Holy s__t! This is what I have been working toward my whole life.”

With the offer on the table he had to talk it over with the wife. It was an event-filled next few days. “It turned out she was pregnant and I joined the band — all in the same week.” His parents were not as enthusiastic. Mr. and Mrs. Amico divorced when Vinnie was still a kid. Amico’s father, Sal, a bebop trumpeter and sometime drummer, was a major factor behind his son’s early exposure to music. But Amico Sr. knew firsthand how difficult it was to make a living as a musician. Vinnie vividly remembers the phone call to his mother. “I was like, ‘The good news is you’re going be a grandmother. The bad news is I’m quitting my job and going on the road with a rock band.’ She was ready to freak: ‘Oh, my god! He’s going to be addicted to heroin and have no money,’” he recalls with a laugh. “But it’s a little different situation than being a jazz drummer. As far as musicians go it’s been a fairly decent career.

“Actually, it’s been more than fairly decent,” he continues. “We’ve had a good career. So I’m pretty psyched about it. It’s tough to stay in a band for 15 years. You have to fit personally and musically, and I come pretty close in both.”

Continuing Dead-ucation

Before there was any such thing as jam bands, improvisational music with any widespread appeal was limited to the Grateful Dead. Even before the band’s demise in 1995 after the death of Jerry Garcia, a new generation of bands had picked up on the San Francisco legend’s improvisational spirit. “All the H.O.R.D.E. bands became jam bands,” says Amico with a hint of disdain referencing the ’90s-era music festival started by Blues Traveler’s John Popper that would eventually include acts as disparate as Spin Doctors and Sheryl Crow. Moe. never participated.

Even after Phishheads replaced Deadheads, the Grateful Dead rhythm section of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart continued to insinuate into various musical entities, including moe., though Amico qualifies it. “I guess they were sort of influential in my playing, but not super influential,” he says. “John Bonham was probably my biggest hero, and he’s probably everybody’s hero. [laughs] Growing up and really starting to become a drummer it was Neil Peart and John Bonham. I was listening to Yes so I was into Bill Bruford. Genesis, too, so I was into Phil Collins and Chester Thompson. Because of my dad, I was hearing jazz all the time. Philly Joe Jones is probably one of my favorite drummers of all time. It’s just that the openness of the Dead’s music is what really drew me in. Garcia’s playing was super jazzy even though they were playing rock and country songs.”

After joining moe., one of Amico’s first major outings was Further Fest in 1997 supporting the Dead, or what was left of it. He has probably played 20 times with guitarist Bob Weir, who often sits in with the band, usually at moe.down, an annual summer festival which has included everyone from punk bands to hip-hop acts. (There’s also a winter version called snoe.down but it’s on hiatus for 2012 due to moe.’s headling tour.) He has also played with Dead bassist Phil Lesh on occasion.

Amico’s taste isn’t shaped by the protocols of a scene, however, but by talent alone. Like the kind he saw on display last weekend at a Lyle Lovett show. “Russ Kunkel was playing — oh, my God,” he gushes. “Lyle’s stuff is really mellow, slow to mid tempos at most, and everything’s super quiet, and I mean every single drum part was perfect. That was enlightening.”

Primus’ Jay Lane, who drums in Weir’s post-Dead project Rat Dog, is another name that gets dropped. Two of moe.’s early drummers were total clones of then-Primus drummer Herb Alexander. (“They probably weren’t the best fit,” Amico recalls.) When prompted, he speaks admiringly of a certain jam-band drummer hero: ‘I love Fishman’s playing,” he says of Phish’s stickman. “Very interesting player. He’s definitely an influence of mine because he was doing such interesting stuff and he still does. His ideas are different than everyone else’s.”

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Roots Of His Roots

When DRUM! spoke with Amico a few days later, he was on his way to a rehearsal with Floodwood, a progressive string band he started with moe. guitarist Al Schnier at last year’s moe.down. You might say it’s coming full circle for him from his days hustling in Buffalo with Acoustic Forum. “We’re both really into roots music and I was like, ‘There’s no bluegrass band in the Northeast,’” he says of the project’s genesis before ticking off names like Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, and The String Cheese Incident, all of which hail from Boulder, Colorado. “‘So why don’t we put one together and see what happens and we’ll have drums in it!’ You put a drummer in bluegrass and it actually has a decent groove and takes the pressure off the mandolin and guitar player so I can drive everything and then they can play a little more.”

Vinnie Amico

Amico’s Kit

Drums Mapex Saturn (Galaxy Blue Burst)
1 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 7" Mapex Black Panther Phat Bob Snare Drum
3 10 x 8" Tom
4 12 x 9" Tom
5 14" x 14" Floor Tom
6 16" x 16" Floor Tom
7 13" x 5" Mapex Cherry Bomb Snare Drum

Cymbals Paiste
A 10" Twenty Splash
B 14" Dark Energy Medium Hi-Hat
C 8" Twenty Splash
D 18" Dark Energy Crash
E 19" Twenty Crash
F 22" 2002 Deep Full Ride
G 18" Signature China
H 17" Twenty Crash

Vinnie Amico also uses Mapex Falcon single pedal and Mapex hardware, Evans Coated EC2 heads, and Vic Firth Extreme 5A sticks.

Playing a pared-down version of the moe. kit and changing over to traditional grip for the brushwork and train beats has been the Floodwood approach so far. In fact, mastering the brushes has become something of a minor crusade for Amico. “If you can get the bounce stuff happening really good with the brushes that’s key. It’s just a real light touch and it’s just a stroke thing, but I’m really in the beginning stage. I haven’t really sat down and had a month to just mess with it.”

Amico knows there’s room for improvement in his main gig, too. Doesn’t matter if no one in moe. requires it of him — it’s a personal goal. He recently saw Albany, New York–area instructor Ted McKenzie, an authority on Buddy Rich, for a quick tune-up. “I need to really get my left hand free,” he says. “It stiffens up and my bounce rolls get really crappy. I’m more of a single-stroke player but I would like to play more bounce and like to have it more even.”

Amico mentions sometime McKenzie student Jason Bittner, who in the past sought the instructor’s help for tendonitis. Stamina is one of the things Amico hopes to address before it becomes a problem. “I could play for hours and hours, but I’d like to feel less tight when I play for that long. If you saw me, you’d be like, ‘Wow, you play real loose,’ but it doesn’t feel that way to me.”

Except for deleting a few cymbals, there is no urge to alter the moe. setup. When the topic of double pedals is brought up (certain players in the genre, such as Kris Myers from Umphrey’s McGee, use them) Amico does consider it for a moment. “I probably should venture out and try a double,” he says. “But with the percussion player and the way our songs are, there’s not a lot of space for me to be cranking a double pedal all over the place.
And I got enough John Bonham bouncy pedal stuff happening that I can cheat my way through the double kick–type stuff.”

Between moe., side projects, open-mikes, and the occasional lessons he offers, Amico has a working spouse and two kids to look after. Obviously there isn’t much time for practicing. “Most professional drummers would be like, ‘What a lazy ass,’ because I don’t sit home and shed,” he says. “We play long shows; we have two-hour sound checks; it’s like six hours a day of playing when I’m on the road. So at home, unless I’m teaching or have side work, then I don’t play.”

Improvise Or Die

While he uses the “J” word freely, Amico’s feelings about the jam-band label are conflicted. “It’s got its pluses and minuses,” he says. “It used to be more of blessing because you went into a genre of music where there’s a live music crowd. They go to shows, they are very open minded towards music, and you’d have a fan base of 20,000 to maybe 100,000 people that you’re automatically plugged into.”

Today the competition is too fierce and the mega festivals are too many. Radio stations and movie executives are especially averse to the genre, he adds, bemoaning the loss of one of the few viable revenue streams left in the brave new world of the cloud. Moe.’s contract with Sony ended and now they’re with indie label Sugar Hill. “So it’s like you can’t really get a lot of mainstream success if you have the ‘jam band’ moniker on you unless you’re Phish or Dave Matthews.”

Did we mention moe. is a jam band? No need to ask whether Amico changes up his parts live from what they are on the album. “They actually want that,” he says of the moe.rons, the informal name for moe. fans. “If we start sounding too much alike every time, it’s like, ‘What the hell are these guys doing? Why aren’t they jamming?’ There’s times when I actually would like our songs to be shorter. They might even be better, but we’re going to explore here, so I’m going along for the ride.”

Complaining a song is too long? That’s the sort of problem most working drummers — those confined to three-minute pop songs or in thrall to the music director — would kill for. Amico’s wish is purely in the interest of preventing fatigue then, right? “No, it’s just because sometimes we lose a little focus, but we also can’t push the envelope if we don’t go there,” he says, crystallizing the jam-band paradox. “You tend to find a lot of really good stuff when you’re out there exploring music. So if you don’t go there, you’re never going to find it.”

Next Page: Transcription and analysis of Amico drum parts from .moe’s latest release What Happened To The La Las.

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Groove Analysis

Moe. has been writing music for two decades, and in that time they’ve mastered the art of the jam, creating memorable songs evoking everything from modern pop to ’60s psychedelia that have all the ingredients one expects from their genre; funky grooves, good hooks, and lengthy guitar solos! Drummer Vinnie Amico brings much of the funk to the band offering some unusually angular, unpredictable grooves.

“Puebla”
This track features a funky groove with an unusual hi-hat rhythm and a surprising snare note played on the ah of 3. There’s not much ghosting in the snare part so all the notes are played at a consistent volume. The second line of the transcription shows a simpler groove that Amico uses to let the rhythm breathe a bit. At the beginning of the guitar solo he changes his groove a little by playing all the &’s and ahs on his hi-hat and simplifies the snare part.

DRUM! Notation Guide

vinnie amico

“Rainshine”
For this song, Amico plays another unusual pattern with a normal snare note on count 2 but then shifts to a syncopated rhythm that accents the ah of 3 and the & of 4. The second line begins with the tasty fill he uses to lead into the next section, which is a bit reminiscent of the great yet underappreciated ’60s band Blind Faith. This part is played on the ride and uses a Latin-flavored tumbao pattern that places the dominant pulses on 1 ah (2) & 3 ah (4) &. The last section of this excerpt has offbeat snare and tom hits that do not follow the main guitar riff but instead offer a more interesting and contrasting rhythmic counterpoint to it. He ends this with a build into the guitar jam.

vinnie amico

“Smoke”
For this melodic song, Amico plays a simple pop groove that complements the tune. The interesting stuff happens at the outro at 2:55. At this point a new angular guitar riff in 7/4 occurs and unlike the previous song, this time Amico plays the same rhythm on his snare and floor tom for a couple of measures. From this he launches into an odd groove on his kit that still suggests the rhythm guitar part while he adds subtle variations to it as the song slowly fades.

vinnie amico