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Interview with JON HISEMAN

November 2004

There's a contradiction in a harmony. The question "Do you understand what I mean?" was a refrain of this conversation, as Jon Hiseman has to be sure his listener gets to the point. And that's a man whose music is always open for interpretation! Well, he's an acute businessman as well as brilliant musician, one of the most respected in showbiz, and has to be protective of what he's been doing for the last 40 years. While many of his peers had been ripped of their rights, Jon owns the COLOSSEUM legacy, and his mindchild still stands as magnificent as its Roman namesake, though it's not destined to come down in ruins. Jon's drumming is a carcass for many a classic record, but it was some other drummer who, filling the Royal Festival Hall foyer with a delicate thunder, provided a perfect rhythm to Hiseman's musing.

- Everybody says you're a very strong-minded person...

Do they?

- ...the one who always looks at the little details to get to the bottom of the things. At the same time the music you play is often improvisational. So how these two things combine in one person?

I'm a schizophrenic! When I play the music I don't really know what I'm doing. I've always been able work like that. It was never any kind of a problem: I've always had a clear vision of what I wanted to do in terms knowing what was right. But for the last twenty years it's been a case of what I do being inevitable - as if I don't have a choice. But I don't think about the music as much as I do about the details. So for me, life's problem is more about getting a band and crew onto a stage in, say, Vienna in a year's time. Actually, what you do when you get on the stage always seems to work somehow, and that's the least problem for me, it's always been the least problem.

- But to be improvising you have to think a bit ahead of what you're doing at the moment.

No. I... I just could always do it. I started off playing completely improvising in a free jazz context and came all the way back to rock 'n' roll from there, so actually I don't know how it works. I don't know how the music works, but I know how to get a band on to a stage, looking good and playing great. I know how to do that but I don't know how the music really works, that's the truth - and I don't want to know either.

- What music is for you, a thought or a feeling?

It's a feeling. Music is a feeling. The most important thing to me was discovering that when playing music I could only be me, I couldn't sound like anybody else. I found that out very early on, by the time I was twenty-one, and I knew then that there was no point in trying to be something I wasn't. I had to simply do what I could. I couldn't be happy trying to be something else, and back in the early COLOSSEUM days, when people were asking me to go do session things, I used to say, "Look, you'd either say, 'I need a drummer, and the only drummer who can do this is Jon Hiseman', or 'I need a drummer, but don't call Jon Hiseman because he can't do that'. That's very important".

- A challenge?

Uh, to me it's... I found out very early on that I just do what I do, I'm happy doing what I do, I don't want to be a different kind of drummer or play a different kind of music, or anything. So the music I played with the UNITED JAZZ ROCK ENSEMBLE is only an extension of the music I played earlier with COLOSSEUM.

- And how do you do it within COLOSSEUM framework, where everybody's almost as strong-minded as you are?

The trick is to use people for what they're good at and don't take any notice of the things they're not good at. So if I want to get a band on a stage in Budapest in a year's time, I'll never listen to anybody about how to do that, 'cause they don't know. But if we're mixing something, and Clem [Clempson] says, "Well, I'm not sure, this doesn't sound right", he knows: he's got good ears, I listen to him. You know what I mean? That's the way I work with everybody.

- Is using people a good thing?

Yeah, you have to get the best out of people and you use the best parts of them. You've got to remember that a band is like any collection of people together: if you put the right strengths together, you have a very strong whole, but you have to use the strength in each person. If you try to make people play what they can't do you get nowhere. It's no good me saying to [the still alive at the interview time - DME] Dick Heckstall-Smith, "I've got an idea for solo, Dick. It's not the sort of thing you normally play but...". He would smile and nod but he wouldn't do it, because he can only do Dick. Dave Greenslade can only do Dave Greenslade. The most versatile person in the band is Clem because he's been a successful session musician, but I would never ask him to do what doesn't come naturally to him as an artist. It's very important to understand what people's strengths are and to play to the strengths, not get involved with the things they can't do. So COLOSSEUM is a collection of strengths - it doesn't matter what we play, we just sound like that because we're not ever asking each other to be anything different. And if you take the "Tomorrow's Blues" album, three or four tracks [on it] are first takes, we just played them once. Fine! That's it! Everybody did what they did naturally and that's what it sounds like.

- That's when you're the leader, but what about situations where you play for other people, like on Jack Bruce's "Things We Like"?

Well, I don't do that very often but in that situation I'm happy to take direction and try to get into their world. But I can't help if in the end it just sounds like me.

- But how does it work when you do a session?

I'm a chameleon. You know what a chameleon is? It's a small animal, and wherever you put it it changes its color to blend with its surroundings This is how it's with me. I played with Andrew Lloyd-Webber for ten years - I was his drummer, working with big symphony orchestras, Placido Domingo, [Jose] Carreras, Sarah Brightman - and you have to be completely different with all those symphony orchestras. You play the drums somewhere else from in a rock band because the orchestra is so slow that you have to work inside it, you know? Then, the next minute, I play with UNITED JAZZ ROCK ENSEMBLE, which is ten different bands, actually, and each band leader brings a completely different kind of piece and, as a drummer, you have to get into each head. But I'm a chameleon, and I change the color.

- Well, chameleon may change its color, but it never changes its shape.

That's true. That's true and that's what you do: you change the color, you get inside, you become a part of their head, the way they are thinking about the music. But remember something - if you work for somebody else, you have to be prepared to go into their channel, and if somebody works for me, they have to go into my channel: that's the way it works, the way musicians have always worked.


I don't remember much about this, it was a long time ago. I was an amateur, I was doing a day job every day and working with THE WES MINSTER FIVE only in the evenings. I was not a professional.

- Do you remember how you met Dave Greenslade and Tony Reeves?

This was when I was thirteen years old, and I made an album with them when I was fourteen, maybe a little bit later. Yeah, fourteen, in 1958. I will transfer that onto a CD, I must do this. I probably have the only copy of that!

- How does it feel working with Dave for so many years?

We're a family. We can say anything to each other, just like families do. I don't talk so much to Tony Reeves but send him royalties twice a year, and then one day I pick up the phone, "Hi, Tony!" He says, "Hi, Jon!" Maybe I didn't speak to him for five years but we talk as if we spoke yesterday, because we are family.

- Don't you think that if you weren't so close you could press on people a little bit harder - in terms of work?

I never wanted to do this. I came to the conclusion that you couldn't change people. You could stand in a dressing room before a gig - one gig - and say, "I don't want you to do this, I want you to do that. I don't want you to do this, I want you to do that. I don't want you to do this, I want you to do that". Before half the gig is gone, they've forgotten it, they're doing what they do. So I never had any pressure with these guys to do something different - I chose them because I knew what they could do!

You know, one of the great albums ever made is Michael Jackson's "Thriller", this is truly one of the greatest albums. If you put in a studio, on studio monitors and just listen to the sound, it's incredible! Forget the actual singing and the playing - it's incredible. And Quincy Jones who produced it started off as a twenty-two year old boy writing arrangements for THE COUNT BASEY ORCHESTRA, he came all the way through with every style of music, and people say, "If you go into the studio when Michael Jackson and him, you don't see anything happen at all, they just sit there. 'This is okay, we'll do it again. That's fine, thank you!' And you think, 'What they're doing?'" The point is that he would take a drummer in New York and fly him all the way to Los Angeles, put him in a Beverley Hills hotel for a week, then place him in the studio, and this guy only plays the hi-hat - because Quincy knows that he could play the hi-hat the way Jones wants. Then he flies all horn players in, from Memphis all the way to New York, and they play on one number, because he knows they can do exactly that. And when he mixes it, he mixes them so far back in the track, you'd hardly hear them anyway.

In other words, you don't do anything in the studio if the people you pick don't play naturally what you hear in your head - that's the secret if you're a producer, that's the secret if you're a band leader: pick people who do naturally what you want and get them to do it. It works fine! All the problems with bands are when you get one guy leading the band who picks a team of players and tries to make them to be something else, something they're not. The same with marriages: you fall in love with a girl not because you like her, but because you're going to make great babies together - you usually know the difference. You then spend the rest of your life trying to make her into something that will be comfortable to live with, but you have no chance, you're due to fail. That's the way it is - strong babies come from opposites. People who know it marry people that are always opposite and then they fight the rest of their lives; if you understand that they're opposite, and you enjoy the opposite and you can live with your opposite, then you can have a very good long marriage. So actually, a band is a mirror for a country, it's a mirror for a town, it's a mirror for the world.

- Was it like that with John Mayall?

John was a brilliant leader. So many bands came out of John Mayall because he made it look easy, but he was a clever guy when it came to leading a band. He knew, instinctively, how to manage people, how to handle people, how to get the best out of people - a very good guy!

- About understanding people... Do you really play piano and violin?

I did, but I haven't played it for years. I learned both when I was a kid.

So does it help you to understand, say, Dave Greenslade?

Yes, yeah, sure! I know exactly what's going on. Look, the only thing I'm not interested in is the drums. I was never interested in the drums. I fell in to the drums by accident because I played with a little band when I was twelve, and they didn't have a drummer. So I played the drums. The drums are for me only a way to be a catalyst, to mix things up and make things work. And I could have been a manager and just sit in the audience and watch - actually, this might have easier - but in the end I'm just glad to be inside, to be a drummer, because a drummer has a fantastic amount of control. There is so much control in the drums - doesn't matter it's a rock group or a jazz group - that you can lead from the drums very easily; that's why a lot of drummers have been good band leaders. It's a very powerful position when it comes to making the difference the audience can hear. The trick to a band is only making the differences; the music's played - you like it or you don't like it, it's a good or it's great - doesn't matter, but the thing that makes audiences come back is how you can actually shape the music in way that's bigger than the music. In other words, the detail in a music is not so important as the way the show grows in a live performance, and each individual number is only a small part of that. Where I come from the drums are very powerful, so I was never interested in the drums - I was always interested in leading the bands.

I learned very early on, again, that you have a responsibility and must develop a real understanding of the audience, of what the audience comes to, and why they come, if you want to earn a living. I played with a lot of groups that never played to any people: music was wonderful, but it's gone; they never made records and they never played to people, so that music actually did not exist. The only music that exists is the music that people hear, in vast numbers. A painting is no good in an artist's studio, it only works when you hang it on the wall in a public place. So to me the drums was the way to sit in the center of that and control the proceedings. When people come up to me at the end of the gig and say, "Hey, there was a thing you did on the drums in that number...", I say, "I don't know what that was but I tell you what - the bass player was out of tune:. This is what I tell to all the young drummers that come to me and say, "How do you do this?" I say, "Listen, don't play the drums, play the band. If you play the band, the drums will play themselves". Too many drummers play the drums in a band with a vocalist but they don't play to the vocals - If it's the organ solo, you play the organ solo - the drums will play themselves.

Mark Clarke and Jon Hiseman, COLOSSEUM go wild

- You, though, can play even without a band, because you play very melodically.

Yeah, they say I'm the only drummer that can do this. I never heard another drummer that could do it. And that's, basically, because I, again, don't play the drums: I play shapes, I play links and I take audiences with me. That's music - I don't know what I'm doing. I know drummers who do drum solos and they can tell you what the technical names are for the games they play, whereas I don't think like that and I'm not interested in that.

- At what age you started to understand that the drums are not only for a rhythm but for a tune too?

I can't think of drums... I can't think of drums... (Contemplating the answer for a while.) I'll never forget going to see my first professional drummer. I had started to play the drums by accident, but I'd never heard or seen a professional drummer. He played for a dance or something - I can't remember - in some college in London, and I stood all night watching him because it sounded fantastic! It sounded fantastic, and I wanted to be a part of this. I said to him, "I'd like to play the drums", and he said, "Oh, sit at the drum kit". So I picked up the sticks, and he said, "Hit this!" I hit the drum, and it went, "Ummm!" Terrible! But I played a cymbal: "Tshhhhh!" It sounded absolutely awful. I hadn't a drum kit at the time, I was playing brushes on a washboard, and I thought, "How does he make it sound so good?" because, when I tried it, it sounded terrible. The drums are a terrible sounding instrument: I've got great snare drums and I've played three thousands drum kits, but if you do a mistake it sounds terrible. You somehow have to make this work, you have to make magic from this terrible collection of rubbish - and the only thing you can make is a feeling, there's nothing else there. You have to make feelings take on the people, and you can't do that by playing exercises.

Manfred Mann wanted me to do something - I've known Manfred all my life, but I only played with him a few times on TV shows when he was doing his jazz thing - he rang about a year ago, after I sent him two or three PARAPHERNALIA records, and said, "Whenever a drum solo starts, whether it's in my band or any other band, or on CD, I always look out for the kettle to make a cup of tea or go to the bar. But there's a drum solo on one of these records, and I've never heard anything like this in my life! This is just music, the pattern of the drums! How do you do this? Did you learn that?" I said, "No, I made it up that night, and it might never come again. We were lucky to record it". He was astonished. That's very interesting to me. Then he said, "Look, I've got this idea and I want you to come", but this hasn't happened yet and may never happen.

- You're talking about Manfred's album that's just out, with Barbara on?

Is this out? We've never seen this. But it's not this album at all. The Barbara Thompson story is I got a call from Manfred about four months ago, and he said, "I need to put Barbara on a track. If I send you a stereo mix of the track, can you record Barbara in your studio and then send the recording back to me on a disc?" I said, "Yeah!" So this track arrived, we set it up in the studio, Barbara went down and played two or three solos, we sent it back to him on a CD and forgot all about it. Then, a month ago I got an e-mail saying, "The album is coming out, it was a great solo, and thank you ever so much!" So I'd love to find it, she'd love to hear that. We'll get a copy, it must be a nice record.

- What could you say about your contribution to THE BLUESBREAKERS and GRAHAM BOND ORGANIZATION?

Jon Hiseman, Graham Bond,
Dick Heckstall-Smith, Mike Falana

I don't know... Other people have to talk about contributions, but I can't. I just did what I do.

- Did Mayall and Bond try to take the best of you?..

They never asked, they never asked. The both of them asked me to play because they wanted what I did. Graham Bond heard me in a rehearsal in 1964 - I was rehearsing with a big band called THE NEW JAZZ ORCHESTRA - he turned to Dick [Heckstall-Smith] or whoever was with him and said, "Ginger Baker leaves, and he's got to be a new drummer. That's the best thing I've ever heard". When Ginger Baker left, Graham rang me up and asked, "Want to do it?" I was semi-professional and had to quit my day job to join Graham - and I left Graham Bond after a year and went to work with Georgie Fame. About four months after I'd left Graham Bond, I got a phone call at six o'clock one night, from Graham, saying, "My drummer's let me down, I've got a gig tonight at 'Klook's Cleek', can you come and do the gig? - you know all the numbers". So I threw my kit into a car, went up to 'Klook's Cleek' and set the kit up. We went on stage, and Graham started to play a number which I knew, but instead of stopping between numbers we just slipped from number to number, going back to a number two or three times sometimes. To the audience it must have seemed like a miracle, but because we'd worked every day for a year, we could change tempos, we could read each other, and we just played for two-and-a-half hours straight. There was never a stop, and we just played all these numbers, improvising. I wished somebody had recorded this, as we played absolutely perfectly.

John Mayall was in the audience that night. Three days later, I got home from a gig at about two o'clock in the morning, and John had been sitting for three hours outside my house in a car waiting for me to come home to say, "Right, you're going to join THE BLUESBREAKERS". So I joined THE BLUESBREAKERS after leaving Georgie Fame, did six months with them and then formed COLOSSEUM. In fact, I formed COLOSSEUM before I left THE BLUESBREAKERS. We took three-weeks holiday, John went to America and I went on holiday, too; when I came back, I rang Dave and Tony and Dick and asked, "Do you want to join the band?" And the word went around London so fast that John Mayall, who arrived back a week later, rang me up and said, "I hear you're leaving us".

- Was it in Graham Bond's band that you met Dick for the first time?

No, I had met Dick, briefly, a couple of years before, but it was the first time I really played with him, yeah.

- What did you find in Dick that made you realise you could make a band of your own?

Oh, he's a very sane guy, very down-to-earth, very intelligent and interesting man with a completely unique saxophone style that I thought would work very well in a rock band with vocals.

- According to Dick, you planned to make a band together, but then somehow you did it alone and just invited him on-board. How did it happen?

Well, when we said we'd make a band together, I'm not sure really what we meant by that. I don't think once I'd worked with the guys I worked with that I would have gone into a partnership with Dick. But remember, financially, COLOSSEUM was always a partnership, we always shared whatever profit there was, and all the record royalties were evenly distributed. Still, as I said, people do what they're good at: Dick's good at standing on a stage and playing to audiences, but he's not good at organizing bands - I'm good at that. Dick's written some interesting numbers, he's good at that - fantastic! In the end, in a band, you take the bits of what you can and make it work, like I said before.

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