Don Henley

Don Henley has the kind of grin on his face that usually means he's about to say something surprising or controversial. Or both. And here it comes.

"So, you're from Modern Drummer magazine," he says, pouring himself a Coke.

"That's right. I'm here to..."

"Well, tell me this: What does Modern Drummer want with me anyway? I'm no drummer."

On the surface, it's a good question. Judging from the liner notes on his latest album, The End of the Innocence, Don Henley isn't joking. He isn't a drummer. Not anymore. Nowhere on the album does it say that Don Henley played drums on any of the tracks.

Now, it is true that back in the mid and late '70s, when the Eagles were American's top rock -n- roll band, the man behind the drumset was Henley, you can also hear Henley on his previous solo album, the highly acclaimed Building The Perfect Beast, which was released in 184. But these days, Henley considers himself a singer and a songwriter. Period.

So what is Don Henley doing in Modern Drummer? For starters, Henley hasn't given up playing the drums entirely. During the End of the Innocence tour last year, he did pick up the sticks and play a couple of tunes Eagle tunes-during the show. And during the recording of Innocence, Henley did have something to say, in fact, a lot to say, about the drum parts and drum sounds.

But the biggest reason why you're about to read a Don Henley interview is because Henley is a particularly bright, opinionated musician, and he has a wealth of knowledge to divulge concerning the art of rock drumming under the right circumstances. I met Henley a few hours before one of his shows to speak with him, and despite a rather cold introduction, I later realized that I had caught him in a warm, most reflective mood. Besides discussing drum-related topics, Henley was wonderfully frank about his youth, his years with the Eagles, his solo career, his fears and frustrations, his quest to reach his fullest potential as an artist and why he no longer considers himself a drummer.

In the '80s, Don Henley (along with Phil Collins, Stewart Copeland, and perhaps one or two other rock drummers) helped redefine the drummer's role in pop music. By stepping out of the traditional drummer's mold, Henley and the others proved that drummers could write songs, sing songs, and become solo artists and successful ones at that. Thanks to Henley's ambitious stance, not to mention Phil Collins incredible success, the rock drummer in 1990 has more opportunities than ever before to become the complete artist.

"I'm not on any crusade," says Henley. "But I know that I've done some important things, and I'm proud of that. Maybe I'll be able to do some more of them before I'm through in this business."

Let's hope so.

 

You take your time making records. There's about a four-year gap between The End of the Innocence and Building the Perfect Beast.

 

Yeah, there is, but it's not like I wasn't busy during that gap. In the spring of '85 I put together a band to go out on the road. I toured that whole summer and got home in October. So that whole year was shot. I didn't really get started on my latest record until the spring of 1986. But the pace between records is pretty normal for me. I always take a long time to make a record. I would rather take a long time and make a record with eight or ten good songs on it than to rush one out with only one or two good songs on it, which is what I find to be the case most of the time.

I'm fortunate that I've been in this business long enough that I've earned the right to be left alone by my record company. They just kind of throw up their hands and say, "Call me when you're finished." To be honest, I'm going to try to do a follow-up to The End of the Innocence a little quicker. [Ed. We're still waiting, Don! : ) ]

 

Is there any special significance to the album's title other than the name of the song you co-wrote with Bruce Hornsby?

Not really. I was searching my brain for an album title once we started mixing the record. I generally like to call an album by one of the song's titles, one that's probably going to be the single. The only thing it means in the context of the album is that the song is kind of like an umbrella that you could apply to a lot of the other songs. A lot of the songs are about an end of an innocence, the loss of innocence, and about fallen heroes.

 

Did you set out to make The End of the Innocence a continuation, musically speaking of Building the Perfect Beast?

This record is a continuation of the previous record only in the way that my life is a continuation of a previous like. (Laughs) I have things that I am interested in, and that's usually what comes out on the album. I have a certain pool of subject matter that I like to write about, things that interest me: politics, religion, ecology, and relationships between men and women. And that's usually what I focus on. Between each album I try to gain a new insight that I didn't have before and perhaps write a song about something that I've written about before, but from a fresh viewpoint. I used to laugh and say that I've been writing the same songs for 15 years, I'm just trying to get them right. People have said to me, "Wow, your solo work is really a departure from the stuff you did with the Eagles." But if you look back on the Eagle songs that I had something to do with, the themes are kind of the same. Hopefully, I've gotten a bit more articulate in expressing myself.

 

There might be a consistency in your songwriting, but as a musician you've certainly departed from your role in the Eagles. You used to play a whole lot more drums back then than you do now. How many tracks on The End of the Innocence do you actually play drums on?

None. (Laughs) I think I did some overdubs on one track, but I can't remember which. It was a difficult track, because me, Stan Lynch, and Ian Wallace all took a stab at it. I think we went back to using the machine at the end.

 

Is it because youÕve lost interest in the instrument that you contribute so little in the way of drums on your records?

Playing the drums is not my first love anymore and hasn't been for a long time. Playing the drums hurts my back. I have a bad back partially from playing the drums and singing. I used to have to hold my body in such a position that my spine got out of alignment. Between playing the drums and keeping my mouth in front of the microphone, it really twisted my whole body. I got to a point in the 70s where I literally could not sleep. There was so much pain involved in the sleeping process that I would have a mattress carried around whenever the Eagles went out on tour, just so I could try to sleep. One of my shoulders got to be an inch or two higher than the other one. I had to do a lot of yoga and exercises to straighten myself out. Consequently, I don't have much in the way of back problems anymore.

 

It seems strange to me that in spite of your health problems, you continued playing for as long as you did. Even on this tour you play drums on a couple of songs. Why?

Because people want me to do it. I come from the school of thinking that believes that the customer is always right. I could stand out front and sing Eagles songs that I sing in my set, but I think people enjoy watching me sing and play the drums. It seems to fascinate people. I don't know why.

I don't mind doing two or three Eagles songs and playing the drums. I'm not one of those artists who's going to sit here and deny the past. I'm certainly not thrilled with everything the Eagles did, but there are some things I'm quite proud of. So, in that respect, I don't mind playing the drums on stage. It also gives me a little exercise on stage; it wakes me up in case it's a slow night.

 

I noted you use Ian Wallace's kit when you do play. Isn't that a problem? He's left-handed, isn't he?

That's right, he is. And it is somewhat of a problem. The damn kit is backwards. The tom-toms are backwards. The hi-hat is on the wrong side. So I can't get too fancy. Not that I've ever been fancy, but I play my couple of tunes.

 

Has your lack of interest in playing the drums accounted for an interest in drum machines?

That's more of my partner's department. Danny Kortchmar has gotten to the point where he handles all of that. Because, to tell you the truth, what I care about is the song as a while. I care about the drum sound. I'm very critical when it comes to the sound of the drums that will go into a song. But Danny does the programming. Danny used to be a drummer. That was his first instrument before guitar. And he's gotten quite adept at doing the programming. He's also got a collection of samples that I swear to God you can not tell from the real thing on some of the tracks on The End of the Innocence. It's just amazing how well he can make them sound like a real drummer.

We have tried several times to replace drum machines with real drums. We'll put a drum machine on a song and say, "Well, it sounds phony." And then we'll get a set of real drums in the studio, and sonically, they just do not slap you in the face like these drum machines do sometimes. Now what we've done quite a few times is put a drum machine on the track and then have a drummer come in, such as Stan Lynch or Jim Keltner, or sometimes me, and overdub over the top of the drum machine and mix them both together so that you can have the fills and the little cymbal incidentals and things like that to give it a live feel.

I don't know what I think about all this new technology, but Danny says, "It depends on who's driving." Some records with drum machines on them sound phony and plastic. It all depends on how you use the tools. We try to balance things by using the organic and the synthetic. I let Danny keep up with all the latest technology, and then I get it through him by osmosis. It sort of leaks over into my consciousness. Where I come in is in the actual sound in the studio. I'll say, "This drum sound is not appropriate. It's not beefy enough; we've got to add something to it."

 

You mentioned Stan Lynch before. I noticed that he got a "special thanks" on The End of the Innocence. Why was that?

He deserved it. He's a real morale booster. When we were into our second year working on the album (laughs) and were getting completely batty and nuts, Stand would come down to the studio and just sit around with us sometimes and make things lighter. Stan's a very funny, very bright guy. Sometimes he assisted in production. Kootch and I would sometimes get so fatigued that Stan would catch things that we weren't exactly listening for. He was a fresh set of ears, a fresh sounding board.

 

Your road drummer, of course, is Ian Wallace. He also played drums on the Building the Perfect Beast tour. How did your relationship with Wallace form?

We used Ian in the studio for my first solo album. That's the first time I met him. He's a hell of a nice guy and a hell of a drummer. That's why I wanted him in my touring band. And frankly, I just could not sing this entire set and play drums. I just couldn't do it. In the Eagles I got relief because there were other singers in the band. Therefore I would get to rest and just play the drums if you could call that resting without singing. But I have to sing every song now. It would be a physical impossibility for me to drum and sing these days for reasons we've already discussed.

 

Do you see in Ian Wallace the style that you yourself would have incorporated into your songs live, or do you have him in your band because of what he brings to your music in his own style?

I like the way Ian plays. He plays simply, although he can get very complex. He can play jazz very well. He's also one of the few drummers I know who doesn't rush. I just like his style, even if it is left-handed. (laughs) He's also very good at programming. The show is a combination of him playing and things being sampled and triggered. He's very adept at that sort of thing.

 

The End of the Innocence often sounds like it was created by a drummer. There are a number of interesting rhythmic passages that you don't find on ordinary rock or pop albums today.

If that's true, then credit has to go to Danny. I have the final say on what goes on my records, but Danny's the man. It's his baby. HeÕs got a little studio in his house, and he does a lot of work right there in his basement. The key is that I know how to conceptualize to him, and he knows how to read me. If I want to write a song with a certain style or about a certain subject, he knows what I'm talking about. We talk to each other sometimes by referencing old records or certain styles of records: Motown, the Philadelphia Sound, and Memphis. We talk in a language we both understand.

 

Are there any songs on The End of the Innocence that, rhythmically speaking, you're quite fond of?

"I Will Not Go Quietly" just knocks me out. And that's a drum machine, ladies and gentleman. Danny did that in his basement with his Akai drum machine. He recorded on a little Akai 12-track. The sound is really pretty amazing.

 

I was surprised to see you playing drums with Guns -n- Roses at the American Music Awards show last year. What prompted you to sit in with the band?

They asked me to. It was after Axl came down and did the vocals on "I Will Not Go Quietly." I was in the studio about two or three weeks later and the phone rang. It was Axl. He says: "I got a proposition for you. We've got to play the American Music Awards, and our drummer's sick. We want you to play the drums." I was a little taken aback by the proposition, I can tell you that. So I told him I'd think about it and call him back. I told Danny what Axl wanted me to do and he said, "You gotta do this. You have to do this." So I called Axl back and said okay. Fortunately it was a ballad that we played, not a balls-to-the-wall number. I rehearsed with Axl a couple of days, although the whole band never showed up. But it was a piece of cake. There was really nothing to it.

 

Is Guns -n- Roses a favorite band of yours?

I think they're an interesting band. It's gonna be interesting to watch them now, to see how they grow. I feel a lot of empathy toward them right now, because of what they're going through. Getting that hot that fast can be hard on your head. Selling eight million copies of your first album will mess you up. I know it's been rough sailing for them on a couple of occasions. If they can keep it together, I think they might turn out to be a real interesting band. I'm watching them and rooting for them.

 

When was the last time you sat in with a band?

I hadn't done anything like that in a long time. I was very relaxed. They were pretty nervous, though. I remember how we felt when the Eagles used to do those TV shows in the early years. Those TV shows are kind of slick, and I knew Guns -n- Roses really didn't want to be there. They felt like they sort of had to be. And I think they were kind of rebelling about the whole thing. I understood that very well, because I lived through one of those periods. So, in a way, I was reliving my past. Hell, I hadn't seen Dick Clark since 1970.

 

Let's talk a little about the art of songwriting. Do you follow a particular strategy, or do you work entirely off inspiration when you write a song?

I'm always jotting things down on pieces of paper. I've got pieces of paper all over my house. I make it real hard on myself because I'm a little unorganized when it comes to things like that. There are ideas of mine on matchbooks, napkins, legal pads. I'll take a legal pad and start three or four different songs on the pad. I'll write one kind of lyric on one page and then a completely different kind of lyric on another page. When it comes time to make an album, I have to go back through all that stuff and sort it out and put it into some kind of order which is another reason why it takes me so long to make a record! (laughs)

So it works both ways. I will have a concept or a song title that I want to write a song about, and I'll go to Danny and tell him I want to do this kind of song. He'll think about the idea for a while and come up with a piece of music that he thinks the song ought to sound like. Then I'll take what lyrics I have and try to marry them to that particular piece of music and fill in the blanks after that. I never come with a complete set of lyrics. Sometimes, though, Danny will give me a track, and I'll either come up with a whole new set of lyrics to graft onto that track, or it will fit some idea that I already had for a song, and I'll graft that on and then fill in the blanks. It happens all different ways.

 

Does being a drummer help in writing songs?

I think rhythmically it does. It helps define the meter of the lyrics. It teaches me how to sing in the holes, and it helps my phrasing a great deal. When I used to play and sing at the same time I would sing around my playing, and vice versa. I try to write conversationally; I try to write like people speak and put the emphasis on the right syllable. I hear a lot of songwriters who put emphasis on the wrong syllable of a word and it drives me up the wall. When you're singing a word, the emphasis should be on the syllable that it's normally on. Sometimes songwriters and singers forget that. They get a melody in their head and the notes will take precedence, so that they wind up forcing a word onto a melody. It doesn't ring true.

 

During the past decade, drummers who were aggressive and eager to go beyond the stereotype of just being the guy in the back of the band, and become something of a complete artist musician, songwriter, singer, even producer and bandleader really could for the first time. You've been in the vanguard of that movement. Is this important to you? Do you see yourself as something of an innovator?

Well, I don't know how all this happened. All I know is that when I was a teenager and had my first band, it wasn't something that occupied my time. My first band was an instrumental band. This was in the early '60s. But then when the Beatles came along, we figured we had to start singing. So we all got together in someone's living room one night and kind of went around the room with everyone taking a turn at singing. I ended up having the best voice. I can't really take credit for it. It was just there. I also happened to be the drummer in the band. So I had to learn how to sing and play. It wasn't that difficult for me to do. It came rather naturally. I still find it more difficult to sing and play guitar at the same time than I do to sing and play the drums. But playing the drums just wasn't enough for me. I've got a college education. I was an English literature major. I've got a lot to say. I'm blessed with a pretty good voice. So just sitting back there banging on the tubs wasn't enough.

 

Did the eagles break up at the right time?

Yeah. (laughs) I think so. I think it was about the right time. If we had all decided to take maybe a two-year hiatus and go our separate ways, then maybe we could have come back together and continued. But I'm not sure that would have worked out either. I think we peaked. We had a good long run at it. We had nine years or so, and that's plenty. Plus, we were growing apart musically and philosophically and every other way you could imagine. There were jealousies and resentments. It was all very typical. There wasn't anything particularly unusual.

 

At the time, were you sorry to see the Eagles break up?

Yeah, it was my whole life. I thought about the end a lot, but it's like dying, you know. You know you're going to, but it really doesn't affect you while you're young. The Eagles ended on a rather abrupt note, although in retrospect I realize now that it had been ending for quite some time. Glenn just had the foresight or whatever to call a spade a spade and to call it off. It left me with the feeling that I was cut adrift. I felt like I was in limbo. Of course there were some desires expressed by other members of the group to carry on the Eagles without Glenn. But I don't think that would have been the proper thing to do. I think that would have been selling people a phony bill of goods.

So I realized that I would have to do it on my own. I started looking around for another partner, because I'm a collaborator. I can't do it all by myself; I need that other half. I came up with Danny on a more or less intuitive decision, which turned out to be the right one. I've known Danny casually for several years. He'd been around the LA studio scene, and I hung out with him and stuff. I just picked him out of intuition more than anything.

 

Once you realized the Eagles had ended, was the prospect of starting anew frightening or challenging?

Both. It was pretty frightening because as we all know, when large, famous groups breakup, a lot of the members don't survive in solo careers. Hell, Mick Jagger can't even make a successful solo album, and the Stones are the biggest rock group that ever was. It's a very tricky tightrope to walk. So, yeah, I was scared. I was very frightened. At one point during the making of your first solo album, I considered chucking the whole thing, selling my house in LA, moving to Colorado, and buying some head of cattle and retiring. But I was only 32 years old at the time. You can't just sit down and retire when you're that young. So I just sucked in my gut and stuck out my chin and decided to see if I could do it. And I think I made a pretty respectable first album. I don't think it did as well as it should have, because I think the people at Elektra records saw me as a dinosaur, and really didn't have much faith in my future. I don't think a great effort was made on behalf of that album.

 

Critically it scored points.

Yeah, it did all right. Things have turned around for me, when you talk about critics. The Eagles and the critics were not the best of friends.

 

What's enabled you to go as far as you have in your solo career? Don't think is a negative way, but I think you realize you're not all that marketable when it comes to image and star quality and all of that.

And that was fine with me. I think part of it is my voice and part of it is my sense of direction. I really know what I want and what I don't want, and I always have. I also learned a great deal in the Eagles. I learned a lot from Glenn about arranging and songwriting. I learned a lot from Jackson Browne, and from JD Souther. And I built on the knowledge and added my own ideas to it. I learned a lot about producing from all the producers we worked with over the years Glyn Johns and the others. I just soaked so much stuff up. I didn't realize I knew as much as I did until I got finished with the first album and started on the second one. I said to myself, "Hey, I know how to do this. This is just what I've been doing all along, basically." Glenn and I had a bit to do with the production on a lot of the Eagles albums. So by the time I got around to doing Building the Perfect Beast, my confidence was pretty much up. I almost drank myself to death making the first album. But with the second album, things were much lighter because I realized things were going to be okay. So, to answer your question, it was partly my voice, partly my sense of direction, and partly because I picked the right partner.

 

Let's drift back to drumming for a minute. There must have been some time early on in your life that you made a conscious decision to become a drummer as opposed to say a guitarist. Do you recall any particular moment of decision?

Actually, my mother and father were both musical people, not in a professional sense, by my mother played gospel piano and my father could sing pretty well. I think my first instrument was a ukulele that they gave me. I used to know how to play that pretty well. Then, when I failed at football, as all 98-LB kids do, I took up the trombone, but I never quite got it together. A friend and I used to go around beating these cadences on our schoolbooks. We used to drive everybody nuts. So finally somebody said, "Why don't you guys try playing the drums and stop doing what you're doing in the classroom?" So my friend and I both joined the high school band and it just came naturally. I even learned to read drum music pretty well for a while, although I don't know if I could now. I won All-Region one year and our high school Jazz Band won the entire state competition one year, so we went to the New York World's Fair to play in 1964. I was a pretty good jazz player back then.

 

Who were your main influenced?

Oh, all kinds of people. Gene Krupa, Ringo. I don't care what anybody says about Ringo. I cut my rock -n- roll teeth listening to him. And then there was some Ginger Baker influence and some Levon Helm. I picked up licks from all the records I ever heard, as I guess all drummers do. My mom and dad used to go to concerts. I remember going to see Hoagy Carmichael. My parents went to see Lawrence Welk, and I got the drummer's autograph. I don't even remember who he was. It was a weird thing, too, because it was a long time before I ever took up the drums. So maybe there was an interest in drums that far back.

 

It's interesting that you mentioned Ringo as one of your main inspirations. I've always thought you incorporated a lot of what Ringo was about in your drum style.

I was definitely a "less is more" drummer, there's no doubt about that. And that was by choice. I could have played more complex stuff. I could have been a busier player. But that's not what I wanted to do. I played what I wanted to play. I even started out with the traditional grip. And then when Ringo came along I turned around the left hand and started playing that way. So that takes away some of your dexterity right there. When you turn that stick around, rolls and things like that become almost impossible, although I can do sort of a rudimentary kind of thing with that grip. And remember, I was singing. And that in a way forced me to be simple. But the simple drummers were always my favorite kind of drummers.

 

Do you remember the point when you became confident enough as a drummer to know that what you were playing was, indeed good?

Yeah. It was before the Eagles. See, before the Eagles I was in the same group for seven years. It was the same group of guys that I grew up with in Texas. We all went to junior high, high school and college together. Then Kenny Rodgers came along and sort of discovered us and took us to California, where we remained together for about a year before things fell apart. I was extremely ambitious, and I wanted something more. I really wanted it. Because I had already played so many clubs an gigs that by the time I got to California, I knew that I could probably play with the best of them at least with the kind of people who did the music I liked. Consequently, when I decided to leave my group, which was when Glenn offered me the job with Linda Ronstadt, I knew I could cut it. I walked into that rehearsal and knew all the songs. I got the job immediately. And when they found out I could sing took they were usually thrilled. Shortly thereafter I started getting studio work. I played on a lot of records being made around LA. Hell, I played drums on Keith Carradine's first record. (laughs) I played brushes. Somebody was playing stand-up bass. It was weird.

 

Did you enjoy doing session work?

I did at first because it was another challenge to me, and it built up my confidence. People would say, "Hey, good job!" And I'd say to myself, "Yeah, I'm happening. I'm cool." And then session work got tedious and I didn't care about it anymore.

 

Do you think your drum style remained consistent over the years?

I believe it did, yeah. When I was growing up, I played so many different kinds of things. Like all young bands, we played Top 40. We played everything from the Who to Cream to Linda Ronstadt to Creedence Clearwater, to Spirit, to Wilson Pickett and James Brown. I had a good cross-section of musical styles that I was able to take from. I took a lick from here, a lick from there, and mushed it all together. The band I was in was doing pretty good. We were playing all over Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana. We played frat parties, clubs, private parties. We were pulling in six or seven hundred bucks a night, which was pretty good wages back then. So on a weekend I could make some pretty good cash. We could afford to buy a new van, so we drove all over the Texas-Oklahoma-Arkansas area.

That's when I learned to do what I do. Those were my dues-paying days. I felt like I had paid my dies in Texas and that I really didn't owe any dues in California. Once I got out to California, I knew where to go. I knew to hang out at the Troubadour because I knew that all the people who I admired hung out there. It was the scene I wanted to be involved in. It was the musical scene at the time. It was a magical time.

 

When did you quit session work?

After the Eagles got successful I stopped playing drums on other people's records unless they were really good friends of mine. Plus, I wasn't getting asked to play sessions anymore. When a group gets successful, people are more hesitant to ask you to come and play sessions. I still get asked to sing, which I still enjoy doing. I don't mind doing it for someone I admire or like. But I just phased out studio work as far as drums are concerned.

 

Do you think it's possible that some day you'll go back to at least playing drums on your own records?

I may go back to it. But it's fun just to sit on your ass and watch another drummer work.

 

Robert Santelli