Interview with 'The War On Drugs' king of drums Charlie Hall
When you go to a The War On Drugs concert there’s no way you can avoid being mesmerized by their drummer Charlie Hall. He stole my heart a long time ago, but many more are captured by his way of performing and exquisite style. Hall never took lessons and doesn't spend much of his limited time off from touring with The War on Drugs practicing his rudiments- that's because things like ‘spirit' and ‘musicality' can't be learned from a book. He’s our hero and therefore I asked him about his heroes.
CHARLIE HALL of THE WAR ON DRUGS and RUDY:
Was there lots of music in the family house? Is there a history of musicians in your family?
There was always music in the house as long as I can remember, mostly because of my older brother and sister. They are nine and eleven years older than me, respectively, and so from a very early age I got the classic rock stuff – Zeppelin, The Who, and The Stones – from my brother and I got things like The Beatles, Blondie and The Cars from my sister. Those bands are all still part of my musical DNA. And although on one in my family really played an instrument, there was a piano and a guitar in the house, which I taught myself to play, so I am very grateful for that.
So, you’re pretty much the drummer of the world’s biggest band! How does it feel to be in the midst of it and have it become your whole life? Next to being a member of TWOD, do you have more musical outlets?
Hah! It sounds like you have been talking to my mother. But yes, I do enjoy staying busy with different projects when I have time off. I record with other bands, I am working on my own music, and I have a mens choir in Philadelphia that I conduct and arrange music for as well.
How do you find a balance in being TWOD drummer and away for long periods of time and coming home again? Do you have a certain ritual or structure to get back to ‘reality’?
I feel like the best way to get back to reality is to just jump right back into it. While it can be disconcerting being on the other side of the world on a travelling circus, the best way to get back into the rhythm of being home is to hop on in – pack the kids’ lunches, pick them up from school, go to the grocery store, do the laundry, all of it. But yes, it can be an adjustment. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I remember hearing somewhere that Bono’s wife makes him stay in a hotel for a week when he’s back from tour – like keeping the goldfish in the plastic bag when you bring it home from the pet store to get it acclimated before you drop it in the tank. Again, I don’t know if that’s true or not…but I get it. The flow is different. But our band and crew is also a family so whether it’s on the road or at home – it’s all about taking care of each other and being thoughtful and also taking care of business.
Which drummers influenced you the most and helped you find your style?
That is such a tough one, though I know it should be easy. Early on, it was Ringo and Charlie Watts. Then it was Bonham and Larry Mullen Jr. Then it was Elvin Jones, Stevie Wonder and Al Jackson Jr. And then it was a couple friends of mine – Brian Jones (from Richmond, VA) and Darren Jessee – both of whom had a fire to their swing and their pockets when we were coming up that really affected me. But it is an ongoing learning process, and I feel like I am always learning and picking up new ideas from listening to music new and old. My musical outlook and drumming is as much a result of actual drummers as it is of songwriters and composers, in particular Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis.
"My grandmother bought me a Muppet Show drum set when I was four, and then I got my first set of Ludwigs when I was six".
Did a specific record or group ever make such impact that it changed your perspective in life?
In a way I feel like I can trace my life through the records that have impacted me at any given time. It’s one of the beautiful things about music – there are records that when you hear them you can remember exactly where you were when you first discovered it, what you were going through at the time, how you felt, what you were feeling, what it smelled like, everything. There are too many of these to name for me personally, but among them would be Joni Mitchell ‘Hejira’, U2 ‘The Unforgettable Fire’, Miles Davis ‘Bitches Brew’, The Blue Nile ‘Hats’, The Cars ‘The Cars’, Gaussian Curve ‘Clouds’, Brian Eno ‘Apollo’, Pink Floyd ‘Animals’…these are all records that have profoundly impacted me in my life. And there are hundreds of others.
Who are your favourite percussionists/drummers?
In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, I would have to say that the drummer I most admire of our generation is Brian Blade, whose musicality, feel, and soulfulness I am constantly in awe of. Though he certainly has chops for days, I’m most interested in drummers who play with heart and soul and who serve the song and the music. Brian is the real deal, and whether he’s playing with Wayne Shorter or Bob Dylan he’s always serving the music and bringing a spirit of real, true joy. And speaking of joy, I’ve always admired Billy Higgins’ spirit and approach. I’m also a big Jim Keltner fan. Did I mention Ringo?
So you always wanted to be a drummer? What made it happen for you to become one?
I guess I always wanted to be a drummer, as I’ve played drums since I was four years old. My grandmother bought me a Muppet Show drum set when I was four, and then I got my first set of Ludwigs when I was six.
I noticed you mainly play Ludwig Drums. Are you a big fan of vintage drum gear or do you prefer newly made drums? And is there a difference to it for you in studio recording or live performance?
While I do favor vintage gear in general – I have been collecting vintage drums, guitars, and keyboards for my entire life – I also am a believer in finding inspiration from instruments no matter where or when they are from. If you pick up an instrument and it speaks to you in some way and inspires creativity, who cares when it was made? We could get into the ins and outs of the quality of craftsmanship of certain eras or the maturation of wood and how that affects sound, but at the end of the day, if an instrument inspires you for any reason, then that’s the magic. What it inspires in YOU is what’s important. Technically speaking, the Ludwig Vistalite drums that I use live sort of have the best of both worlds because they do have a vintage vibe and remind me of what made me super excited about drums when I was a little kid but they are really well made and are even better because of some modern advancements, so they are perfect for me. I use a combination of new and vintage drums when I record. My cymbals are made by a company called IstanbulAGOP in Turkey and have the complex, smoky quality of the cymbals I’ve been trying to get a hold of my whole life (1960 K’s, for example), and these things are modern. Again, it’s about how the instrument inspires you as much as anything.
You’re a very stylish performer; you seem to have fun with it, you wear bandanas, beaded necklace, polka dotted shirts etc. You always seem to have the perfect wardrobe with you on tour. Do you enjoy dressing up? Do you have a certain pre-show ritual?
Hah! Well, thank you. It’s funny you should mention it, because I am visiting my childhood home as we speak, and looking though the old family photo albums it seems that more often than not I was dressed rather lavishly. I suppose I have always enjoyed dressing up. As humans, we express ourselves through words, through music, through our actions, and through how we present ourselves, which includes how we dress. I enjoy dressing in a way that is both fun and interesting yet is honest and a sincere extension of who I am. And while I pretty much dress the same offstage as I do on, there are some things that might not fly at the grocery store, such as the paisley kaftan. But also, I don’t really care.
Which bands/artists may have had an influence on your taste of clothing? Are you inspired by a certain time/ era in history?
In my opinion, a couple of drummers that have always had a keen sense of style are Charlie Watts and Roy Haynes. Those dudes are impeccable. I find inspiration in lots of different eras and enjoy finding my own blend of things that suits my feeling. Denim is a big part of it for me, certainly, and I like how it can work together with things like polka dots, cravats, etc. It’s fun to juxtapose different styles sometimes.
How about nowadays? Do you look for inspiration in clothing or do you find everything naturally? Do you like finding vintage treasures?
I love finding vintage treasures. I love digging. I find it to be a really fun and strangely soul searching exercise to look at a piece of clothing that catches your eye and try to figure out if it is an authentic expression of yourself. Of course, every once in a while I’ll come home and my wife will just shake her head in embarrassment.
What’s your favourite city/country to go on tour to and for what reasons would that be?
There are records shops and vintage shops all over the world that I look forward to hitting when we are on tour. Amsterdam is always great for both. Record Palace and Red Light are my favorites for records. There are so many cool vintage shops for clothes in Amsterdam too. Tokyo is great. In the US, smaller cities and towns are better in general, as places like New York City tend to be really overpriced. Mystic Disc is my favorite record shop, in Mystic, Connecticut. My wife and I used to live in San Francisco, so there are still some old favorite spots I like to go there, and there’s a really cool newer spot there called Pyramid Records.
What’s your signature drink? And are you TWOD’s biggest party animal?
“TWOD’s biggest party animal”! What a dubious distinction. I hope not. We are a pretty reasonable bunch, actually. I’m not sure what my signature drink would be – I suppose my usual is a vodka martini, straight up, very dry, slightly dirty, with two olives and a twist. I like that sweet/salt thing with the olives and the twist. I guess it’s like the denim and the polka dots.
How would your perfect day look like when not on tour with TWOD?
My perfect day not on tour would be in my house with my family – possibly involving, in no particular order, making pancakes for my sons, doing a crossword puzzle, listening to records, playing some piano, and putting some songs on the jukebox and having a long, early dinner and laughing with my family.
I read you were a music teacher in the past? Would you like to go back to being one?
Not particularly, no. I’m quite happy, as a matter of fact.
In our Journal de Nîmes ‘Playlist’ I always write up our most played records in our shops that season. I’ve read you’re a big record collector. What were your most precious vintage finds this year?
Hmmm…there were quite a few this year. I remember when we headed out on tour after ‘A Deeper Understanding’ first came out last fall, saying to the guys “I’m not buying any records this time around, dudes. I swear to god.” Well, that lasted about a half a day, as I found a couple ECM records that I’ve been looking for in Portland, Maine right across the street from where we were doing production rehearsals. Then we turned our tour manager’s old production case into a travelling hi-fi system with a U-Turn Audio turntable and some powered speakers and it just became an all-out fucking free for all. Everyone was buying records like they were going to be executed in the morning. Our pack got insanely heavy, but we were listening to sweet records backstage every night. What were my most precious finds? Well…I collect ECM records from a specific timeframe, so a couple that I have been looking for – Eberhard Weber & Gary Burton Quartet ‘Ring’ and Jan Garbarek ‘Withci-Tai-To’ – are among my favorite recent aquisitions. I finally found a clean Linn Records copy of The Blue Nile ‘Hats’ and a nice copy of John Martyn ‘Glorious Fool’. In Germany I got an original copy of Pink Floyd ‘Atom Heart Mother’, which has always eluded me. Lately, I’ve been most interested in collecting 45s for the jukebox we have at home, so I’ve added three or four hundred sweet 45s to add to the mix. In fact, Dave Hartley (TWOD bass player) and I were in Aukland, New Zealand in this great record shop digging through thousands of 45s when both our wives called to tell us we’d won the Grammy for ‘Best Rock Album’. I had a really sweet stack of 45s in my hand (including a picture sleeve copy of Weird Al Yankovic “Fat” for my son because it’s his favorite song right now) so that grip of singles will always be special for that reason. I’m not going to buy any more records. But actually, I will.
Charlie Hall - Interview by Rudy Ross