Interview, Part Two: Max Weinberg on His Time with Conan O'Brien, Taking Advice from Ringo Starr and Being a Business Man

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(This is part two of our interview with E Street drummer Max Weinberg. Part one can be found here. Max Weinberg and his Big Band are at the Argosy Casino in Alton tonight.)

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Matt Wardlaw: As you alluded to, you're really playing some intimate venues on this tour, which is really cool. I would guess that it probably gives you the opportunity to be a road dog in a way that you haven't done in quite a while. Max Weinberg: [Laughs] The idea of being a drummer and a musician on the road is something I've embraced since I was a little kid. There's nothing better about it. Nils Lofgren [E. Street Band guitarist] for example, I think has been on the road literally continuously for something like 42 years. That is a big part of the pageantry of being a musician.

I had the good fortune to be on television for seventeen years while my children were growing up. In retrospect, one of the greatest aspects of working on television was the fact that I was able to be home at eight 'o clock every night and have weekends free, have a real life and present a different spin on music [to the public], which became very popular. But it all is as I said, a life led through music. As long as you're addressing that as a musician, you'll be fulfilled. When I'm up there playing, the last thing I'm thinking about is if I'm in a club, an arena, a stadium or a TV studio. I'm interested in playing those drums and getting that feeling that I had, and I'm able to find it pretty much every night, that I had when I was a twelve-year-old kid, up in my room practicing and just beating the hell out of the drums.

Since you mentioned the television show, when you first stepped into that gig, what were your expectations going into it? Was it in the cards that you would take on the sidekick type collaboration that you eventually evolved into? No, I never thought of that. In fact, when I met Conan about five months before we went on the air, which eventually led to my creating the band hiring the people that I did, all of whom I knew in various contexts, of course LaBamba [trombone player Richie Rosenberg] and [trumpet player] Mark Pender from Southside Johnny's band. I hand-picked everyone for their individual abilities, which is what band leaders do.

I had no pre-conceptions, other than the one thing I knew I wouldn't do was a lot of rim shots, and I wanted no undercurrent sort of rumbling of music when the host told a joke. That was something that was a hallmark of some of the other shows, and I decided that when you heard music from us, it was because we were playing music. Whether it was playing our own stuff, accompanying guest musical artists or playing the voluminous amount of music that was married to the comedy sketches, we were primarily there to perform music. The other stuff that came out of it was just mounting a daily show and [the] ability to commit to the comedy -- which was one of the most fun parts, just totally getting outside of yourself and doing the outrageous things that I did on television.

The writers work really hard, and you want to give them what they're hoping for -- and it brought out another side of me that people didn't quite expect, particularly fans of the E. Street Band, where we presented and always had been very serious about what we did. But, you know, seeing me walk pixelatedly[sic] nude down the hallway of Rockefeller Center, which became a favorite clip, that was something you didn't expect from me. I tried to be a good sport about everything and I figured that at 1 o'clock in the morning, if I can give somebody a laugh -- well that's a good thing because people need to laugh more, and that's what our show was about.

When the first chapter of your time playing with Bruce wrapped up at the end of the '80s, you gave Ringo Starr a call, because of his similar experience with the end of a high profile project. What kind of advice did Ringo have for you? Since I met him in 1980, Ringo has always been a great pal and certainly an inspiration both musically and personally. Here's a guy who turned 70 this past July and he looks about 40. Amazing. He's actually been one of the few people I've ever met to turn back the hands of time. He's just a remarkable individual. He was very helpful at the time with how to move on. Because he had certainly been through that a decade and a half before me in terms of a full time group disbanding. Conan and Max pal around...

Of course I don't compare myself to Ringo and the renown and impact that he and the Beatles had. You suddenly find yourself a bit a fish out of water and you have to gather your resources, find out who you are, what you like to do, what you were put here to do and get behind that. It's all about forward motion, and I've never looked back on so-called "glory days" because I'm getting better as a musician all of the time, I'm getting better as a drummer, no doubt about it, and you hope to gain some wisdom as you get older. These are the things that we talked about in those days, and I still subscribe to that. I still don't look back. I've been fortunate to generally over a 40-some odd year career have two long term musical involvements - that's a pretty good record. I'm building on that and I'm delighted to be able to take my music out to the people on a live basis.

Connected to that, I read the recent dispatch from [industry blogger] Bob Lefsetz and I was interested to read that you took a job at the BMG Music Club during that same era to learn the music business. Obviously, you would pick up a lot of knowledge during your time with Bruce, so what knowledge were you hoping to gain at that point when you took that gig? Well, to preface that, I would have been delighted to have met Bob, but I didn't. I respect his writing and I look forward to meeting him in person one day, but for the life of me, I can't remember [meeting Lefsetz]. I came in there, I said my piece and I left - I didn't really meet anybody except the moderator. But of course, I read his column like everybody else. Somebody sent it to me and I'm glad that he received my words with positive reception. My idea back when I went into the business side of being in music was to firmly ground myself on not how to play music, but how to exist within the music business, because it is a business.

The music business unfortunately doesn't exist that way anymore. I got hooked up with a great bunch of people who run an outlet called the Musical Heritage Society, which is the largest independently owned record club in the world. They have a jazz line of retail records called Music Masters, based in New Jersey. They took me into their business, which was literally a family run business and taught me everything from marketing to warehousing to inventory to publicity and promotion. I really began to feel grounded, at the time I guess I was about 39, as a grown-up individual, able to not just make music, but to make a living at music. The principles that I learned there have advanced my career to this point. And I can tell you that what I learned at that time -- the fundamentals of business, not music -- was what enabled me to be a successful music director on television.

The music director job on a TV show is as much about the corporate structure, dealing with a variety of issues every day [and dealing with] fires that need to be put out that have actually nothing to do with the playing of music. So it's an organizational, very bureaucratic type of position, which is why there haven't been very many music directors on TV shows. You have to be able to cross the line between being a 100 percent musical personality and a part of management. As a music director, particularly on the daily TV show, you have to be attuned to things like budgets and licensing and issues that very rarely come up in the lives of someone playing music. And that was what I was good at and actually it was something that I really enjoyed. The experience that I had for four years in the late '80s and early '90s really stood me in good stead when I got the job with General Electric [and Conan].

Out of all of the side work that you've done through the years, it would be interesting to hear more about the brief time that you spent touring with 10,000 Maniacs. What was that like? Well, that was great. Actually, it got me back into playing drums after several years in the business of music. Jerry Augustyniak, who was the original drummer in that band had had a slight bicycle accident and couldn't play for this tour, which turned out to be their last tour to promote that great record, Our Time in Eden. Somebody called me and asked me if I'd like to sit in for six weeks and I hadn't played drums much because I was so attuned to the business world. But I did, I went back on the road with them in the summer and fall of '92 and played long enough to get good again as a drummer and I really enjoyed it.

I liked hanging out with the band and musicians, Natalie and everybody in that group who were so talented. I started to believe at that time that well, maybe my future was not strictly in business, [but instead] within some sort of combination of being a musician and a business man. And that's what led me to look for other opportunities and I guess when you're looking for opportunities, you find them. And that's when I ran into Conan O'Brien, standing on the corner of 54th and 7th Avenue in May of 1993. So everything has a reason!

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