King Crimson

An interview with drummer Pat Mastelotto
by Sal Serio
November 2017

Pat Mastelotto of King Crimson

Pat Mastelotto of King Crimson

Legendary prog-rock group King Crimson, who formed in 1968, play the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, Sunday, November 26. Currently Crimson is comprised of an eight member line-up: Robert Fripp, Mel Collins, Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, Jeremy Stacey, Jakko Jakszyk, and Bill Rieflin. The following is a recent interview with longtime drummer/percussionist Pat Mastelotto.

MAXIMUM INK:  I believe the first time you worked with Robert Fripp was the tour in 1993 in support of the David Sylvian/Fripp album ‘The First Day’.


MI:  Was that also when you began a working relationship with [stick player] Trey Gunn?

PM:  Yes, I met them all that very day that I got the gig. David, Trey… [guitarist] Michael Brook was not there. It’s kind of interesting that they were auditioning managers at the time too, so actually the manager, Richard Chadwick, and the road manager Tim Hook, were also there that day I auditioned.

MI:  That must have been an exciting time, without even the realization of what your association with musicians of their caliber would eventually lead to.

PM:  Yeah! Well, Robert just kind of opens up the playing field, so I think with every musician, it’s a real joy to work with him.

MI:  Besides playing on the King Crimson ‘ProjeKcts’ CDs, aren’t you also doing other behind-the-scenes work on those releases?

PM:  I’m involved with a few of them as the mixer, and also with editing. To make a long story short there, usually when no one else wants to do it, I will! [laughter] The same is true with KTU, the thing I do with Trey Gunn and Kimmo Pohjonen. When we recorded the first record, we recorded the shows live, and sent [the recordings] to a prestigious engineer who was going to mix everything. And he spent a few days and sent them back, saying “I can’t do anything with this”. We sent them to another guy, and, same thing. So, when I got those tapes, I realized quickly that the problem was the drums were not mic’ed very well. The bass drum mic doesn’t even have a bass drum on the channel… the microphone has been pushed away or something, and the accordion has got every instrument bleeding in to it. So, sometimes… I know what I played, so I have to find it, or remake it. I [may] have to put a trigger in to replace a sound, or something like that.  That wasn’t really the case with [King Crimson’s] ‘ProjeKct 3’ or ‘ProjeKct 4’, and ‘ProjeKct X’, too… those projects we did simultaneous while we were recording ‘The ConstruKction Of Light’. I was filtering through a lot of the outtakes, along with my engineer buddy Bill Munyon, and we made a ‘ProjeKct X’ out of those outtakes from the studio. ‘ProjeKct 3’ we recorded mostly here in Texas, where I live, and I had the multi-track, so it would only make sense that I would jump right in to mixing that. And, quite often I would take Crimson rehearsals, and go through those just to learn myself what I played, or to hear better what the other musicians played, [and] then I can start to mix some of that and present ideas back to the guys. Maybe just as a random example of, you’ve got a song and I’m thinking, wow, it would be great if we had a “B part” but I can’t really suggest the chordal movement when we’re at rehearsal. But I can go through those tapes and find something that appeals to me, and suggest to the guys, what if it went from this place over to this place, and here’s a demo, an example.

MI:  Looking at the years you’ve been in King Crimson, and… I’m assuming Robert Fripp is still considered the leader of the band…

PM:  Absolutely! [both laughing]

MI:  … and he has a very staunch work ethic. The word “discipline” is automatically associated with him. How do you feel that disciplined work ethic has improved your playing, your thinking, and what you bring to the band?

PM:  That’s a really good question, that nobody has ever asked in the 25 years that I’ve played with Robert! You can lead by example, and I think that’s what happens here. Robert is an example to me, and to anybody that wants to participate. Don’t give up, don’t take the easy way out… if it takes a little longer, persevere. He inspires me to practice, and, as a musician, the goal is endless. I don’t think anyone can ever learn to play as fluidly as they would like to. There’s always a bit of a hold-up between the brain and the hands, or the heart and the hands… getting an idea OUT. The better our technique becomes, the easier we can translate those ideas. So, I think what happens to a lot of musicians, is they reach a point where they can do everything needed to satisfy the gig they’re currently doing, and they stop at that point. It’s unusual that I have an opportunity like King Crimson, where the boundary is limitless. But, even before that, and for any musician that wants to continue to grow, you can’t stagnate once you reach a point where things are working, and you’re surviving, making a living, or satisfying your artistic goals… that’s not a touchdown. [laughing] That’s not the goal line. You haven’t reached the goal yet. The goal is still way out in front of you, and it always will be. I don’t think any musician will ever get to where he wants to be. I know I’m not there yet, and as I get older I realize that life won’t go on long enough to let me learn all the things I want to learn.

MI:  King Crimson seems to be one of those rare bands that continually strives to be fresh, and reinvent themselves with each new era embarked upon. I assume that’s a natural extension of some of those characteristics you just described.

PM:  Yeah, and the number one character is Robert! [both laughing]

MI:  King Crimson is a traditionally English group, and Tony Levin and yourself are the two Americans in the current line-up. Do you two bring anything different due to being American?

PM:  We definitely do, but it’s hard to describe, from the inside. There’s an old, old, joke, I think Bill Bruford or Adrian [Belew] said it in the 80s band, that the Brits will talk about it while the Americans take a break. That is, typically, Americans want to get on with it. But, that’s not altogether true. And, we’ve got one more American, [keyboardist] Bill Rieflin, but Bill is actually very European, in my opinion. His presence and his upbringing… he’s a little more elegant than the normal American. [laughing] I’m a little more grubby. I’m not that sophisticated. I didn’t even finish high school! I just started playing in a band and left town. [But] I think the world as a community is getting closer, so there’s not that many distinctions, whether we’re American or British.

MI:  There’s a new CD release planned from your Chicago gig this past Summer. What was it about that show that made it stellar compared to the rest of the tour?

PM:  That’s a tough question, and we don’t all feel it at the same time. There’s eight people in this band, so for eight of us to have a night where we all come off [stage] and say wow, that was the one… I don’t think that’s ever happened. It didn’t even happen in Chicago. When we walked off stage, Tony in particular, said, “Wow, I think that’s the best show the band has played, ever!” And Robert said so too. I don’t dispute their observation, even though it wasn’t my observation. There’s always peaks and valleys with bands, like the stock market or something. If you improve, sometimes you don’t realize. If you look at the graph over a year, you go, wow, we did get better. But, if you go day to day to day, a lot of the time what I’m thinking about, or remembering, is, oh shit I made that clam tonight, I don’t want to do that [again], or this was good last night, I want to make it fresh and happen again.

MI:  Midwest audiences tend to be pretty enthusiastic, and a bit rowdy.

PM: They are! But that’s true in America, compared to a lot of other countries in general. If you come from Japan, and you get to America, and tour in San Francisco, Seattle, L.A., the West coast, it’s mind-blowing in terms of the enthusiasm presented. Not that the Japanese audience isn’t enthusiastic, they’re just not loud. They’re respectful, so they don’t shout in between songs. If you go to Mexico, it’s outrageous, man! They’re yelling in every [individual] passage of music. The Midwest is great, but Italy is great… everywhere we go is great. Chicago has always been a real favorite for Crimson, and especially Adrian Belew. It’s near home for him. Obviously Adrian is not in the band now, but still, Chicago is a strong place to us. One of my favorite memories of the [Chicago] gig is Victor Salazar, who owns one of the biggest drum stores in the world and is a long time friend, popped up and we went out to have a bite to eat. If I’ve broken something or need a different piece of gear, he’s my go-to guy in the middle of the tour. I always look forward to that. We just played in Milwaukee with Stick Men, did you happen to know that?

MI:  Yes, I did know, but unfortunately didn’t make that one. I’m really impressed with the new studio Stick Men CD ‘Prog Noir’.

PM:  Yeah! We play Shank Hall quite often. It’s a really great sounding venue for us. The audience is really close and intimate, which makes for a great show. All the guys there, we see them year after year, [and] they feel like friends.

MI:  Peter, the owner of Shank Hall, is involved with the promotion of this upcoming King Crimson show at the Riverside Theater.

PM:  There you go! I think we played the Riverside with Crimson in the 90s.

MI:  Yes indeed, I saw you there in 1995. It was the Double Trio line-up. Say, with all the physical demands of touring and drumming night after night, how do you keep in shape? Do you have a workout regime?

PM:  With Crimson, we have a crew that takes care of the equipment. Usually with Stick Men or the smaller tours, we’re loading the gear and there’s very little time for practice, but with Crimson, we can. I usually start the day, maybe a half hour or 45 minutes in the hotel [with] practice on a pad. Then, usually the band will go to the venue around 2:00 [or] 2:30, for soundcheck at 3:30, so we have about one hour where we can prepare, quietly. I’ll use some of that time to program and prepare for the set list, because the set list is different every day. Robert makes a new one, and I’ll try to get all that programming done before soundcheck actually starts. Soundchecks are 3:30 to 4:30, but usually we’re done by about 4:30-5:00, have a bite to eat, and then there’s 2 or 3 more hours before the show. And, I usually practice straight through, in the dressing room. I bought 3 of these little practice drum sets a couple years ago, for Bill, Gavin, and myself. They’re made by DW [Drum Workshop], my drum people. It’s about 3 to 5 pads that all clamp together. Then we do the show, and then the next day it feels like I’m starting all over again! [laughing] In the morning it sometimes feels like somebody poured concrete in my veins! You know, I’m just not limber again. I need that first half hour-45 minutes just to pump blood back in to my system. Get the blood flowing [and] the muscles loose. The practice I get after soundcheck is usually something that opens my head up a little bit more, if that makes sense. I’ll practice on pretty simple things that are just coordination exercises, things that I’ve learned from Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey, and actually there’s a few exercises that I learned when I played with Terry Bozzio… Bozzio is interesting in that he doesn’t hardly practice at all. He does mental practicing. He does a very odd thing, like a skier, he sits down, and takes the toe of both feet and goes all the way to his left, and then brings the heel all the way to the left. The toe, and then the heel. And then he goes back and forth the other direction. What he’s really trying to do is limber up his ankles. So, everybody has their own little routine.

MI:  You mentioned that Robert mixes up the set lists. Are there favorite songs of yours from the King Crimson catalog, that are never in the set, that you wish you were performing?

PM:  Well, of the stuff we have learned, there’s a piece called “Radical Action”, parts I, II, and III, there may have even been another part, I forget now, but on the last tour, I don’t think we ever played “Radical I”, and that was one of my very favorites. Of older Crimson material, that’s a pretty long list! [laughing] I would love to see the band do “Cat Food”. I think this band could do amazing things with “THRAK”. I’ve always been a champion for the song “The Great Deceiver”. I’ve been trying to get Stick Men to do that for about 5 years. Whenever they ask me, I’ll suggest that again.

MI:  Great song!

PM:  Yeah! I really like that. One I’m really fond of right now, it goes through my head all the time… it might be called “Lament” [starts singing and humming] do you know that piece? It might be on ‘Starless And Bible Black’.

MI:  I was going to say, that sounds like a John Wetton song.

PM:  Yes! It’s definitely a John Wetton piece. [continues humming/singing] It’s a beautiful piece [that] goes through my head all the time.

MI:  You’re also playing, well, this is probably not current, but in a band with my friend, Phil Brown, and also Mark Andes from Spirit, called M.P.TU…

PM:  Yeah! Man, you really unearthed that one! [both laughing]

MI:  Well, I’ve known Phil for a few years now, so it caught my eye.

PM:  Oh, Phil’s great! I’ve known [him] since the 70s. I played with Phil and Jimmy Haslip, if you remember that bass player.

MI:  Oh God, yes. One of my favorites.

PM:  I met them playing in kind of a punk band, in about 1978 or ‘79, out in L.A. with a girl named Shandi [Sinnamon], and in the first sessions we did, Phil and Jimmy came together, and what a powerful… like… these guys are serious players! We had a lot of punk guys who played aggressive and cool, but these guys were deep. But yeah, I’ve got a series of projects I call “TU”: TU, KTU, Tuner, Tunisia… and M.P.TU was kind of a joke because you had 2 M’s, Mark and Malford, and 2 P’s, Pat and Phil. I actually tried to bring Phil in to the Mr. Mister band, but that didn’t work out.

MI:  Phil Brown is a really interesting guitarist, almost like Jeff Beck in the way he uses the whammy bar, and he does a lot of banging on the body of the guitar to coax various noises.

PM:  Yeah, and he uses his thumb [like Beck]. The deep treasure of Phil, I think, is his singing. His voice is phenomenal. It’s got so much soul. As well as Malford [Milligan]. I really enjoyed that M.P.TU project. We just did it in between things. I wasn’t that busy, and we started to play on a Monday night, downtown at a little blues bar with Pinetop Perkins. We’d open the show, and usually play for tips. Pinetop would usually come out at the end of the set, play one song with us, and then take the tip jar! [laughing] The M.P.TU record is kind of unusual, because I thought I’d want to make a record but didn’t want to get in to the whole “committee production”. So, I have a studio here at my house, [and] I took our live recordings, put them in to Pro Tools, and I slighted edited and quantized to put them on a grid. Then I played drums to it. I did 5 songs this way, to start, then I invited Mark Andes over, so he could be completely uninhibited. So we started the basic tracks off, just Mark and I, and then invited Phil and Malford out together. They didn’t know what I had done. We do a pretty good version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. The guys had never heard that. I put it together and then put all 3 of them in my bedroom, with one microphone, and said I’d like you guys to try and sing on this song. So, they’re all 3 singing live together, which is why it’s so casual… the talking and conversations within the piece.

MI:  Back to those earlier sessions with Shandi in the late 70s, did that result in a record?

PM:  We did make a record, with Mike Chapman, the guy that did “Chinn and Chap”, he was Australian but he came through England… The Sweet, The Knack, Blondie, Suzy Quatro, a big list. Looking back, that was kind of a big deal for me, that Mike Chapman saw Shandi, heard her, heard the demos we did with Phil and Haslip, and the newer demos we’d been doing, and we got a record deal. By working on that record, Mike asked me work on several other things he was doing. I would have to say Mike Chapman is my mentor, in terms of working in a recording studio. Mike is gifted at making a pop hit. I learned a lot with Mike. He’s pretty demanding, and a lot of guys would walk out of his session, but I enjoyed the abuse because I knew I would be stronger at the end of the day.

MI:  Pretty amazing stuff. Thank you so much, Pat. Take care on the road, and we’ll see you in Milwaukee.

PM:  Okay, definitely, man. Bye!

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