AN INTERVIEW WITH TY DENNIS
By David Iozzia
When davesontour.com caught up with Doors of the 21st Century drummer Ty Dennis, he had just finished rehearsing with another band he works with, Firebug. As he settled in to answer our questions, he was relaxing with his wife as she watched the T.V. show "Medium."
Dave: Ty, thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview. Let's start on a frigid night in New York City during the winter of 2003. I'm attending a taping of the Carson Daly Show at N.B.C. studios and the Doors of the 21st Century are the musical guest. I was expecting Stewart Copeland on drums. My initial disappointment disappeared really fast as soon as I heard your awesome drumming. What happened with Stewart that led to you getting the job?
TY: Well Dave, first off thanks so much for the kind words. What happened was that initially I subbed for Stewart on a couple of Doors rehearsals in Los Angeles. I already knew the manager due to my association with Doors guitarist Robby Krieger and his own band, so when Stewart couldn't make it, I got to come down. I had played a lot before with Robby and bass player Angelo Barbera, but never with keyboard player Ray Manzarek or singer Ian Astbury, so this was an opportunity to do that. The second time I subbed for rehearsal I got the call about two hours before the rehearsal was going to start. I made it down and this time I played on Stewart's drums that were already set up (his green Starclassic kit.) They were playing the Craig Kilborn Show and a Mark & Brian radio show broadcast live from The House of Blues on Sunset the following week, so they asked me to play those, too. I think it was two days after that radio show that I got a call from the manager asking if I wanted the gig. I guess things didn't work out with Stewart for whatever reason. The first real gig was coming up at the Universal Amphitheater here in Hollywood the following weekend. Because I had toured for a year in Robby's band I already knew most of the Doors set and Doors arrangements, so I was able to step in with a week's notice like that, do a couple rehearsals and step into the gig.
Dave: Please comment on what it has been like for you trying to fill the shoes of not only Stewart Copeland, but also those of the original Doors drummer, John Densmore.
TY: I fill the shoes of those gentlemen with much respect! Stewart Copeland has been one of my absolute favorite drummers for years and years and I have really grown to dig John's drumming since I got this gig, especially his playing on the live Doors records. There will never be another John Densmore or Stewart Copeland, and obviously their drumming is classic and unique. John Densmore's drum parts are so integral to a lot of those songs. The challenge is to combine those signature parts along with what I do and how I play but always remember that it's important to try and keep with the spirit of that classic Doors sound.
Dave: You drummed previously in Robbie Krieger's band with bass player Angelo Barbera so there was a comfort level already established. I'll revisit that band later in the interview. What were your first impressions, and what's it been like since, playing in a band with the musical presence of Ray Manzarek and the stage presence of Ian Astbury?
TY: I remember the feeling at that first rehearsal playing "Riders on the Storm." Here comes the keyboard solo just like I've heard on the radio so many times, and it was awesome!! Playing with Ray is a unique experience because he will totally go out there on stage sometimes-just experiment. Ray and Robby both have more of a jazz mentality, and they welcome experimenting and taking things in new directions. For me, this is such a cool mentality to work with because you can really tap into your creativity. Ian really is a killer front man and the ultimate pro. He's been doing this for years and years and has done it all and seen it all. He always gives a good show, every time, and I really enjoy working with him.
Dave: The Doors of the 21st Century have toured extensively throughout North America, Europe, Asia, South America and they just retrurned from Australia. Where on planet Earth have you not played with this band and what are the touring plans for 2005, specifically in North America?
TY: Next on the itinerary, we're playing some Midwest dates at the end of April. I think this will be another good touring year, but I'm not sure of the schedule yet. Hopefully, we'll get to some other places in the world we haven't been like Russia and Prague and Norway. This summer I believe we will be touring quite a bit in the states, maybe with a couple other bands.
Dave: I attended a performance at the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia in 2003. Ray mentioned that he had begun writing some new material and I believe one of the new songs was played at that show. Please bring us up-to-date on the Doors of the 21st Century's efforts in both writing new material and trying to secure a record deal.
TY: Being that I am a sideman I really have nothing to do with record deals and such, and I don't know what progress is being made regarding that. I have on several occasions worked on new material with them. Ray has lots of tunes and Robby has some ideas, and they have gotten lyrics from a few different well-known poets. A lot of the tunes are very world beat influence. Ray likes African-influenced beats, Arabic-type beats, Latin, jazz, etc. He also really likes electronica stuff. Some of the drumming references I can recall Ray mentioning are from Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain" and Elvin Jones' drumming with John Coltrane.
Dave: Obviously, you never knew Jim Morrison. Describe your feelings and emotions visiting his gravesite outside Paris when the band played in France during the 2003 European tour.
TY: That was more of a press spectacle really, a publicity event. There were so many reporters and cameras present since The Doors had not performed in Europe in 30 plus years, so that's really what that was about. I know that it was sentimental and meaningful for Robby and Ray and that it brought back a lot of memories for them about their long-lost friend.
Dave: Personally, I would pick the performance and taping for DVD of the classic Doors album "L.A. Woman" in its entirety, an album that was never performed live, as the highlight so far for the Doors of the 21st Century. Please comment on that, and what has been your personal Doors highlight?
TY: That "L.A. Woman" live DVD taping was more stressful than it needed to be because we only recorded that one night and really had one pass at each of the tunes as opposed to recording multiple nights where there could have been different performances to be able to pick the best takes of different tunes. I just watched that DVD for the first times in months, and it sounds okay. My personal highlights are some of the shows we've done that had some of those magic moments. I'll never forget my very first show with them at Universal Amphitheater here in Hollywood. It was completely sold out, filled to the brim-the first time The Doors had played Los Angeles in decades, and lots of critics and celebrities were there. I had literally a week's notice about that show. Also, it wasn't announced that Stewart Copeland wasn't playing, so people showed up expecting him and I think that kind of put some extra special scrutiny on me. "Who's this guy? No Stewart?" Trying to make the fans not miss Stewart not being there...that's a tall order, especially for a first gig! Well, that show was killer. Great energy, great connecting on stage, no mistakes ...awesome! I'll never forget it. I think to this day that the Universal show was one of the very best shows we've done ever. Also, I'd have to say the shows in Athens, Greece, and Buenoss, Argentina, are highlights for me and I'll never forget them. The people in Greece are amazing and Athens was just such an amazing place to be. In Buenos Aires we played a huge outdoor stadium where the 25,000 plus crowd was so into it and feeling it that they tore the fences down and destroyed the chairs. The whole time we're playing there were parts of chairs flying around us on stage. Around the crowd there were fires started with the destroyed fences and chairs while firemen sprayed with big fire hoses. There were also police dogs around if things got out of hand.
Dave: Tell me about your preparation playing the classic Doors material, first with Robbie's band, and later when you became a member of the Doors of the 21st Century. Did you know the songs already, did you study the drum lines by listening to or reading them, or did you use your own interpretation when you started practicing these songs?
TY: Before playing with Robby Krieger's band I did not know The Doors material. I had heard some of the classics on the radio over the years like everybody else, so I was a bit familiar with the hits. When I got the call to audition for Robby's band back in 2001 the manager told me the list of songs that the band played, so I went the extra mile and kind of got familiar with most of them so that the band could play at my audition almost like it was a first rehearsal. With Doors songs and any gig I do, the way I generally learn new music is to write out my own charts so that I'm not trying to rely on memory alone, especially when you're dealing with lots of material. You'll never have to panic if you blank out on just how that song goes because you can reference the charts till you have it down. I would highly suggest that drummers practice writing out their own charts, so when you have to learn tons of music you can do an even better job. At first I stuck really close to the original drum parts until I knew the songs well enough to be able to infuse more of myself in there.
Dave: What is the most difficult Doors song to drum on from your perspective? Why?
TY: "When The Music's Over" is always a challenge just because of the interactive sections of the song. Also, there's a certain way to capture the dynamics the right way in this tune that keeps me on my toes. We used to play "La'Merica" sometimes off of the L.A. Woman record, and that was pretty tough because of the form.
Dave: Have you heard any feedback from either Ray or Robbie that touches on the similarities as well as the differences between Jim Morrison and Ian Astbury?
TY: I've gotten the impression that Jim and Ian are similar philosophically speaking, but apparently Jim had some real "off" nights sometimes as well as all those great nights. I have heard Robby and Ray mention how Ian is way more consistent performance-wise. Ian is the ultimate pro, and he always pulls out a killer show.
Dave: Whether you were a Doors fan or not growing up, you must have known some of the band's history, especially the exploits of Jim Morrison. Is the band still influenced by Jim in the writing of new material? In the way Robbie and Ray approach and perform music?
TY: Well, they are still influenced by the poetry lyric style that Jim did, and they have lyrics from a couple different poets for some of the new tunes. The Doors have always had a certain adventurous performance spirit. They have no fear going into the "unknown." Sometimes it works, sometimes not as well. If there are some music mishaps sometimes so what, it's art in the moment. I love that philosophy.
Dave: During the summer of 2003, the Doors of the 21st Century performed at Holmdel, New Jersey's PNC Bank Arts Center. You graciously vacated the drumset and let "E" Street drummer Max Weinberg sit in for the encore song "Light My Fire." I don't know if you're a fan of Bruce Springsteen, but if you were at a performance of his and Max returned the favor, pick the Springsteen song you'd like to drum on.
TY: I'm only familiar with a handful of Springsteen's songs, so I have a limited selection. Let's see, maybe "Dancing In The Dark." I kinda like that one.
Dave: I've been listening to a CD the last few days called "Lost Voices." It's a tribute to the songs of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. It includes several cover versions of Doors songs: "L.A.Woman" by Billy Idol, "Soul Kitchen" by X, "People Are Strange" by Echo and The Bunnymen, and "Love Her Madly" by the New York City band Tyris. Are you familiar enough with any of these bands to return the favor and pick songs that the Doors of the 21st Century could hypothetically cover?
TY: Of course I know Billy Idol and I know of that song 'Lips Like Sugar' from Echo and the Bunnymen, but I'm not familiar with the other bands. If D21C were to cover any songs it would be an old blues song re-done. Nothing from the last 20 years.
Dave: Talk about your drumkit and the set-up that you use playing in the Doors of the 21st Century. Did you change your normal set-up because John Densmore only played one tom-tom? Also, you've played in TV studios, clubs, theatres, and outdoor venues with this band. How does your equipment and how does your frame of mind change when playing different-sized venues?
TY: I didn't base my drum set-up at all on John's Doors set-up. My set-up is basically what I always use so that I can play comfortably. With D21C I use a 5 piece set, 22 inch bass, 10 and 12 inch toms, a 15 inch floor tom, and a 14 inch snare. However, I do set my rack toms up backwards, the 12 inch then the 10 inch tom. The reason for that is that I don't like leading tom fills with the small 10 inch tom, but I still want the 10 inch around for sound options. Also, I prefer the shallower toms and kick, the "traditional" sizes. I think of the kit really as a 4 piece kit, and the small tom is a bonus. Most of the other gigs I do I will just use your standard 4 piece kit. By the way, the drums are DW which everyone knows are great drums. We play all over the globe and DW kits sound good everywhere I get them. I use Bosphorus cymbals which are fabulous hand made cymbals. With The Doors I use a 21 inch Traditional ride, 14 inch Gold hi-hats, an 18 inch Traditional medium crash, an 18 inch Gold crash, an 18 inch Antique crash with 2 rivets, a 20 inch Traditional china, an 18 inch Gold china stacked with an 8 inch splash, and a Traditional 10 inch splash. I use DW pedals and Vic Firth sticks. My set-up doesn't change for different venues with the Doors of the 21st Century, and I don't think my frame of mind changes. I try to focus on doing my best for the music always although you cant' help but be influenced by the crowd size, enthusiasm level, etc.
Dave: Tell me a little bit about your experience playing live with Robbie Krieger's solo band in 2001 and 2002. Also, I'm sure Robbie played some classic Doors material. What other types of material does Robbie play live when he's touring as a solo artist?
TY: With Robbie the majority of what we played was The Doors stuff. We knew tons of Doors tunes, so we were able to just call out songs we hadn't played in a while to keep it interesting. The other side of Robby's band was the jazz/fusion stuff. We played stuff off of Tony Williams' Lifetime records and a couple Billy Cobham Spectrum tunes. Throw in bit of blues and an occasional Dick Dale tune and that was the gig.
Dave: You also recorded with and toured with Martha Davis' group The Motels. Please comment on those experiences.
TY: Martha is such a cool person, really. I worked with her for two years gigging as The Motels and recording Martha's solo music. She has her own studio so we were always recording something, and she is very creative and always had new songs, all the time. One minute we'd record a moody Tom Waits style song then turn around and cut a country tune with a train beat. I can remember in the studio literally recording country, ska, rockabilly, and a weird kinda' out there jazz swing thing. She had some real straight forward Tom Petty-ish rock/pop tunes and the more exploratory side like David Bowie and Tom Waits. At The Motels shows we'd play the older Motels hits like "Only The Lonely" and "Suddenly Last Summer" and also some of her new music. The first year of the gig with the band was great! Angelo Barbera on bass, Mick Taras on guitar, and Michael Barbera on keys.
Dave: Tell me about the band Firebug, and the musical direction of the three albums you've recorded and toured with that band.
TY: Juliet is a really cool, unique, and dynamic singer. She writes tunes on guitar, and when she brings them in they sound like old delta blues songs. She doesn't always think in your standard 4 bar phrases...a bit more unusual sometimes which I like. I think it's really cool, and we all love Led Zeppelin!! The music keeps getting cooler and cooler the longer we play together, and the new tunes we've got now are the best. This band is not formulated, and we do not care to copy other bands to join some sort of trend. I have absolutely zero desire to be in a band that has the headspace of being trendy and jumping on whatever sound and look it is that is the flavor that particular year.
Dave: Your father was a jazz drummer. Talk about his influence, and how your early exposure to rock, jazz and funk shaped you into the versatile drummer you are today.
TY: My Dad still is a working jazz drummer. There were always drums at the house for as long as I can remember, and also I was exposed to super hip music way before I even knew what it was I was hearing. What's funny is that a lot of the records my Dad had back then, the stuff I heard as a little, little kid are my favorite music now all these years later. My absolute favorite music is Herbie Hancock, the Headhunters stuff. I used to play along with "Chameleon" before I could reach a drum set. My Dad had that Brothers Johnson record "Look Out For Number One" with Harvey Mason on it, and I remember hearing that way back when. I totally love that record. "Get The Funk Out of My Face" is so bad. That kind of music makes me feel good and has a place in my soul. I've always been into great groove music of all kinds. Lots of fusion, funky R&B, funk, of course rock, jazz, and stuff like James Taylor, too. So, thanks Dad for having those records!
Dave: Feel free to comment on or promote any of the other projects you've drummed on.
TY: I've played on three of my friend Tina DiGeorge's records, and I think she is a really talented and cool songwriter. I also play shows around L.A. with her. Her website is www.tinadigeorge.com. My buddy Larry Marciano is a great guitarist/singer and songwriter who is based here in L.A., too. I played on his record "The Way It Used To Be," and I'm proud of that record. Cool songs. I also play some shows with Larry's band. His website is www.larrymarciano.com. Also, I recently drummed on a record for the other Sebastian Bach (not the ex-Skid Row singer) who is my keyboard player friend Steve Bach's son. Steve and I toured in Robby Krieger's band together. Sebastian's record came out sounding great, and I like the songs. The bass player on that project is great, too...Jerry Watts. Sebastian's website is www.sebastianbach.net.
Dave: At this point in the interview, would you like to switch places and ask me a question?
TY: O.K. Dave, what new artists do you especially like right now? What are your favorite artists ever?
Dave: I was not a fan of Guns 'N Roses, but I can't get enough of Velvet Revolver. Seeing them live in a small New Jersey club called Starland Ballroom was incredible. I love the rock band OURS. I just started getting into the Canadian rock band Theory of a Deadman. I'm a 70's punk rocker at heart and I love a newer group out of Sweden, the hard rocking punk band Backyard Babies. My all-time favorite band is Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Dave: What is the one question you've always wanted an interviewer to ask you that has NEVER been asked? How would you answer that question?
TY: What do I think of the two Star Wars 'pre-quels' that have come out in recent years? My answer: They're shit. They both suck completely, especially the first one. If someone else had directed them they might have faired better. I hope this third one coming up is decent.
Dave: What album defined rock and roll in the 20th century? What band defines how rock and roll should be played?
TY: After that new Led Zeppelin DVD came out I now know for sure that nobody has ever kicked more ass or ever will than Led Zeppelin. Best rock & roll band EVER. I wish I could have seen them in person. Physical Graffiti is the ultimate, coolest rock record. I love that band. I love Jimmy Page and of course John Bonham. To me, the artist that sort of carried the Zeppelin torch creativity-wise and who created their own brilliant and unique record was Soundgarden. "Superunknown" is perfect songs, perfect production, great lyrics, mixing, killer drumming, and that says it all. I don't think it gets better than what those bands were doing on those albums.
Dave: Who is the one musician that has been the biggest influence on your career? Why?
TY: I'd have to say my Dad. Having that exposure to those kind of records from such an early age really gives you an advantage musically later on. I learned to read from my Dad, too, and that has been super valuable to what I do. Oh yeah, let's not forget proper technique. Having a great, professional drumming Dad at home didn't hurt.
Dave: What new artists have impressed you the most and what CDs are you currently listening to?
TY: I loved John Mayer's last album "Room for Squares." I love every single song on that one. So good, but I guess now he isn't new anymore. I hardly ever buy CD's anymore. I can't remember the last time I bought one, but I do buy tons of I-Tunes. That's the best. I've been listening to a bunch of Herbie Hancock Headhunters stuff. On the heavier side I like a few of the tunes from the Audioslave record and that record from Helmet called "Betty." It's really cool.
Dave: What is the first album that you ever owned and the last CD that you purchased?
TY: Well, the first albums I listened to were my Dad's. The first record I remember buying was "90125" by Yes. That was before CD's. I just bought a whole bunch of Bill Frisell off of I-Tunes. He's great.
Dave: You've probably heard the phrase "desert island disc." If not, it's a CD that you'd want with you if stranded on a desert island. Let's update the technology a bit. Select a "desert island DVD" list for this interview. Pick two live concerts, two Hollywood films and the video highlights of one porno actress.
TY: Concert DVDs: Led Zeppelin DVD, Police Synchronicity concert (not released on DVD, but I LOVE it!). Hollywood films: "Boogie Nights" and "The Unforgiven" by Clint Eastwood. I guess Paris Hilton would now be considered a porno actress, so I'd pick her.
Dave: Speaking of desert islands, would you rather be stranded on the desert island with that porn star, and you have no chance of escaping. Or with her husband, who has the brains and ability to one day get you off the island?
TY: I'd pick the husband. I don't like islands. I need concrete. I always did like the know-how of the professor over the hotness of Maryanne & Ginger anyway.
Dave: Can you share with us two favorite musical moments, one as a music fan attending a show, the other as a musician playing a show?
TY: I'll never forget seeing my favorite drummer Mike Clark playing here in L.A. at the Temple Bar with his band. Paul Jackson from all those Headhunter records was here from Japan where he live playing bass, and also Robben Ford on guitar and Fred Wesley on trombone. It was awesome as you can imagine. They played all those Herbie Hancock "Thrust" type grooves all night long, and it was an experience. My favorite musical moment would have to be my debut Doors show at Universal Amphitheater in 2003, kind of nerve racking at the time but a great memory.
Dave: I once asked a musician about his band's philosophy, whether it was one night and one gig at a time or planning ahead to the next album. His reply was "all that counts is the gig ahead. Musicians don't get pensions, they get moments of transcendence. Without those nothing matters so the next gig is everything." Could you self-relate to that statement?
TY: Yep. What's the next gig? When's the next tour? Your gig can end tomorrow, so when you do have steady work that's a great thing for a musician. Real musicians don't get into the business for the money or stability. It is for the art, the love of it, and those magic moments.
Dave: In the late 70's, a college professor in Philosophy 101 asked me my philosophy of life. I was a punk rocker then, an angry young man, and I answered "Fuck Everybody But Me." Obviously, I was young and stupid, and had experienced next to nothing at that point. With all you've done, seen, heard, and learned, what is Ty Dennis' philosophy of life?
TY: Try to be nice to people, and be pleasant to be around. As they say, treat others how you want to be treated.
Dave: This is my final question, Ty. Thanks again for allowing me to conduct this interview. There's an ass-kicking rock band playing at the gates of Heaven as we speak. Jim Morrison is singing, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn are on guitar. Who is in the rhythm section?
TY: I'd like to hear how John Bonham and Jaco Pastorius would sound there.
Full Name: Ty Dennis
Birthplace: Anaheim, California
Hobbies: Spending time with my wife, movies, surfing the web
Favorite food: Mexican
Favorite beverage: Diet Dr. Pepper
Favorite rock band: Led Zeppelin
Favorite rock song: "Jailbreak" by Thin Lizzy
Biggest influence on your career: My wife 'cause of her support and wisdom.
Favorite film: "Boogie Nights"
Favorite U.S. city to visit: New York City
Favorite international city to visit: Athens, Greece
Favorite venue to play: Red Rock Amphitheater in Denver