Drums In The Key Of (Stevie) Wonder

The Perfect Wonder Drummer

Kevin Carnes has been on the forefront of Bay Area sonic surrealism for over 20 years now, regularly pushing the boundaries of what a drummer can do on stage and in the studio. In the late ’80s, he co-founded The Beatnigs, a proto-industrial/rap group with Michael Franti. He then cocreated the Afro-Surrealist trio Broun Fellinis with sax man David Boyce and bassist Kirk Johnson, and went on to play for everyone from P-Funk icon George Clinton to electro-industrialists Consolidated to rocker Storm Large. Having shared the stage, the studio, and uncomfortably cramped van space with Kevin, I was also aware that he is a disciplined student and admirer of Stevie Wonder’s drumming. When we were discussing the upcoming session, I asked him for some thoughts on Wonder’s style and approach, and how he was planning to prepare to channel that vibe in the studio:

“I grew up practicing to Stevie Wonder’s music, but I actually didn’t know he was often the drummer on his own stuff until I was in my twenties. One thing that strikes me about Stevie’s playing as a drummer is that it’s very relaxed – not so crisp and not so metronomic. He’s using different parts of the stick at different times, and his hi-hat parts change throughout the song. A lot of times, each chorus in a given song is played slightly differently, too. He escalates a song over a long period of time, really growing the whole piece, instead of topping out [energy-wise] early; it gives the music somewhere to go. That, and the fact that he never allows the groove to disappear while adding little embellishments and variations throughout a song really had a huge impact on me.”

When asked how he felt about multi-instrumentalist artists like Wonder and Prince and whether or not their songs would be better served by a “session pro,” Kevin’s answer was swift and sure:

“Ultimately, the great thing about Stevie is that his songs always sound exactly like they should. There’s not too much of anything, and nothing is lacking, either. I think both Stevie and Prince are great examples of playing the right thing for the song, so in that sense, they are ’session pros.’ Could another drummer play it better? Maybe. But it isn’t necessary for the song. As for me, I try to approach each recording session and gig with the goal of making an emotional connection with the listeners ... I’m definitely not trying to create the ’perfect’ drum track. If it does what it’s supposed to do, then it’s fine.”

stevie wonder

6. Kevin Carnes on the 1966 Ludwig Mod Orange kit: 22", 13", 16"; '70s Ludwig Supraphonic snare; Hi-hats: ’60s-era 14" Zildjian A; Crash: ’90s-era 17" Zildjian K Medium Thin; Crash/ride: ’60s-era 20" Zildjian A.

stevie wonder

7. The band: (L-R) Michael Blankenship, Darryl Anders, Chase Martin, Kevin Carnes.

stevie wonder

8. Gobo placement.

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