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The Tiger Interviews Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz
Weird Al Yankovic's Drummer
Exclusive Interview with Weird Al's Drummer
Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz has been playing drums professionally for over 20 years and most of those years have been spent in the drum chair for Weird Al Yankovic. If you're not familiar with Weird Al, his specialty is creating song parodies. He'll take a hit song like Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and turn it into "Eat It." So Jon and the rest of Weird Al's band get a workout having to duplicate various styles of music from the original hits.
I caught up with Jon online a while back and he was nice enough to grant me an exclusive interview. Jon discusses life on the road with Weird Al, talks about those WFD contests, and passes on some important tips on what it takes to make it in the drumming biz. Check it out and listen up.
TB (Tiger Bill): I understand that you've been playing drums with Weird Al for over 20 years, what did you do pre-Al?
JBS (Jon Bermuda Schwartz): I know everyone would like to hear about some illustrious career prior to working with Al, but he's my main claim to fame. That's not to say that I didn't pay my dues in the years leading up to that point. I'd played in marching bands, school bands, theater arts pit bands, orchestras, and pop/country/blues/folk/new wave bands. I had my own Dixie band, had done countless sessions & demos, and even marched in a military funeral! I had also submitted homemade recordings to the Dr. Demento Show, which received some airplay. By the time I met Al in late-1980, I was involved in an up & coming new wave band and continued to play around town with several bands through the early 90s (even though the Al gig was well underway by 1984).
TB: What drummers influenced you the most when you were starting out?
JBS: Growing up in the '60s, I listened to a lot of Ringo, Dave Clark, Charlie Watts, and later Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell and other British pop mainstays that were on the radio and on my record player. I listened to the records from my parents and older brother's collections, which included
TB: Were you self-taught or did you have formal instruction on the drums?
JBS: I took lessons at age 9, starting on the snare and learning to read. Eventually I was taking lessons on a whole kit, although I'd had a set at home from day one (it had been my brother's) and I was always trying to play whatever beats I heard. Later, thanks to being able to read, I was able to find books I liked and stopped formal lessons. I also found that I could recognize and write drum parts from records, which eventually came in quite handy on the Al gig.
TB: Speaking of Weird Al, how did you land that gig?
JBS: The old adage "right place at the right time" certainly applies here. I happened to meet Al on the Dr. Demento Show when it was airing live in Los Angeles. He and his accordion were already a staple of the show, though far from a record deal then. That night Al debuted a new song, a parody of Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" called "Another One Rides The Bus" live on the air. He asked if I'd keep the beat on his accordion case, which I did. I should point out that there was no band then, and no reason to
TB: Can you describe how an average rehearsal session goes with the band?
JBS: The current band has been together for 20 years, so we work well together and have learned to read Al's mind. Rehearsals are generally loose, and preparing for a tour (for example) may require only about a week brushing up on existing material, along with working up vocals for new songs. New material usually consists of songs we've recently recorded for the latest album, so we're already halfway there in terms of sounds and parts on those. We'll get together for about six hours a day, get through part of the show, have some pizza, do a few more songs... pretty casual really. Again, we've been doing some of the material for years, so a lot of the work is just a refresher.
TB: Keeping in mind that this is a PG-13 site, what is the weirdest thing that ever happened during (or before or after) a Weird Al gig?
JBS: I don't know if I'd classify anything as weird, but we've certainly had our share of mishaps during shows, including Al falling off the stage! The problem is that the spotlights are in Al's eyes, and he can't see the edge of the stage. This has happened a few times, most recently in 1997 when Al took a 6 foot plunge, wearing his accordion, into a narrow space off the front of the stage and between a security fence. He twisted his leg pretty badly - he's always in great shape and any of us would have broken ours - and was able to finish the show, limping.
There are more typical problems that can bring a show to a brief halt, such as equipment problems, and those gaps are generally filled with guitar or keyboard solos - or the dreaded Bermuda impressions, where Al will start naming things for me to impersonate over the mic: poodle in a blender, a turkey, a dog throwing up grass...
TB: What's life like on the road with Weird Al?
JBS: I wish I could tell everyone that it's vacation and that we have a lot of personal time for sightseeing or recreation, but traveling by coach to five or six cities a week is grueling and gets disorienting. A lot of time is spent just going from city to city, and most days off are better described as travel days; it's rare to have an entire day and night free in the same
However, we are pretty comfortable on the road. Al and the band have a coach with satellite TVs, videos, stereos, kitchen, lounge, and plenty of room to move. After each show, we're usually in a hotel to get some real rest, but most of our waking hours are spent traveling. I have to also mention that the crew works VERY hard, and operates on a somewhat different schedule than the band. They are almost always traveling overnight after a hard day's work, so they can start all over again in the morning setting up the next show. I don't envy them but I do respect them, and we all get along well. There's no 'us' and 'them' in our organization.
But when I do get some time in one place, I'll seek out Indian restaurants, record stores, pawn shops, thrift shops, and especially music and drum stores. (I've found some pretty cool snares!) Some of my favorite cities are Seattle, Toronto, Chicago, Minneapolis, Phoenix, New York, Nashville, Philadelphia and Denver.
TB: What do you feel are the most important things that aspiring drummers need to know?
JBS: That there's the "real world" of being a drummer and musician, and that 99% of the time it does NOT include chops or flash or big kits or attitude! The young players don't have experience and imagine that these things are
What they don't realize is that for the most part, they're working for someone else and their leader probably puts more focus on timekeeping and tasteful beats and fills - not busy ones. And they want nice guys in the band, since they'll be spending time together. But these headstrong drummers rarely listen to or believe the voice of experience, so they'll just have to learn it the hard way.
Even masters like Vinnie and Gadd know when to play time, and unless these young hotshots are ready to knock those guys off the block, they'd better settle down when it comes to working with other musicians.
TB: What other music and/or other drummers do you listen to?
JBS: My musical tastes range from '60s to current pop, Motown, Country, classic easy-listening, orchestral, some dance and hip-hop, new wave and alternative, some ethnic, big band, all forms of rock, punk from 25 years ago and today, and a little bit of jazz.
I also enjoy listening to most drummers, there are very few that I dislike. Some of my favorites are Ringo, Hal Blaine, Gene Krupa, any of Tull's drummers, and especially any of Zappa's drummers from Jimmy Carl Black and Billy Mundi to Chad Wackerman. I also like some of the classic rock and pop drummers like Nigel Olsson (Elton John), Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello), and Clem Burke (Blondie).
I enjoy some of the newer alternative & punk players (many of the ones on the cover of the drum magazines) and I'll be curious to see if they're still hot in 10 years.
TB: Do you have any projects of your own that you'd like to tell us about?
JBS: I keep busy with some sessions and a few gigs, but nothing as visible as my work with Al. There was a period in the '80s when I did as many recordings and played with as many original bands as humanly possible, hitting every
These days when not touring with Al, I continue to work with Rip Masters, an LA country-rock veteran who I've
TB: What do you think about the "World's Fastest Drummer" contests?
JBS: I attended the WFD finals in January, 2002 here in LA and thoroughly enjoyed it! The contestants discipline inspired me - not to compete in a speed contest - but to apply myself to something the way these drummers did. I know there's a great controversy about what speed means in the scheme of
TB: Do you have any tips for drummers trying to make it in the music biz?
JBS: Persevere. I've heard drummers ask if they should give up because they're 28 and haven't made it yet! There's no timetable, and in the music business, some of the biggest heroes are hardly young.
Grow as a player. Listen to as many styles of music as there are styles of drumming. Learn from books and videos. I mentioned chops before, and while I agree that technical proficiency is important for growth, just remember
Play the right parts. This is a very subjective concept and when you start hearing "that was perfect for that song" you'll know you're on the right track. Players like Jim Keltner, Hal Blaine, Russ Kunkel, Gregg Bissonette, John Robinson, and Kenny Aronoff know what the 'right parts' are, and that's
Get your name and abilities out there. Go to jam sessions, talk with musicians who have gigs or do sessions. When it comes to working, it's not who you know... it's who knows YOU. Go out and get known!
Remember that in the music business, the nice guys finish first. There's no room for bad attitudes, bitterness, backstabbing, or anything else that starts with a B. If you're the player everyone likes to work with, the work will keep coming.
End of Interview
Thanks to Bermuda, for taking the time to answer my questions.
(Note: Photos that accompany this article used with permission of Jon Bermuda Schwartz.)
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