Interview with Gary Craig
by Daniel Keebler
Gary toured with Bruce throughout 2006 behind the album, Life Short Call Now. I spoke with him from his home in Toronto on March 2, 2007.
DK: How did you get involved with percussion and drumming?
GC: I remember back around the end of public school, around grade seven or eight, I was interested in pop music. We would watch the Ed Sullivan show with my parents. Of course when the Beatles and the Stones came out, like all kids, I was fascinated. In grade eight there was a xylophone at school and I picked up the song, Windy. I played that and formed a little group. Sadly that was my last venture into melodic music because after that I got into the drums [chuckles]. I remember my first drumming performance was playing Wipe Out on my school desk with a guy on an acoustic guitar. That was also in grade eight. I was so impressed with myself that I could play Wipe Out with my hands. From that point on I took an interest in drumming. A kid that I knew had a drum set and I would go over to his place and just stare at it and would hit it once in awhile… and that was it. I was hooked.
DK: How did your career progress from there to where you are today?
GC: We moved to the Toronto area where there were more bands and in grade nine I started to see some bands. Again, I was just transfixed with the drums and the drummers. I decided I should own a drum set. I had a paper route at the time and I saved a little money, my Dad took me downtown and I bought a set. My next move was to try and see if I could be the drummer in the school band. I knew a couple of little fills even though I hadn’t played the drums a whole lot. A lot of people wanted to be the drummer in the school band. I sat down and I played a fill and the teacher said “Wow, that was good…you can be the drummer." What happened at that point was that it became this thing I related to… for me it was my little personal thing that I could do. Instead of being a hockey player or a football player I would go home after school and would play the drums and I wanted to be a drummer. Part of it, too, was when I would see some of these bands I actually thought to myself, I could do this. A lot of my friends would say “Well, we play but we’ll never be as good as these guys that we’re watching,” and I would say “I don’t know, I think I can relate to this. I think I could be this good.” I had this feeling, anyway. I just kept at it.
DK: Where were you born?
GC: Toronto. I went to high school in Mississauga. It’s not a suburb of Toronto but it’s next to Toronto on the west side. I had access to Toronto and I would go and see concerts which fueled the desire to be a musician. That was really handy.
DK: You have toured and recorded with an array of well-known artists.
GC: One of the first big gigs I had way back was with Anne Murray who I still work with. That was in 1984. Prior to that I played on the Toronto scene and played with some local artists that were popular around there but playing with Anne Murray was the first really big exciting gig that I got. Not long afterwards I played on an Air Supply record back in ’86. It was a bigger recording session. But really, though, I kind of stuck around Toronto. Through Anne Murray I got to record and play with people like Celine Dion… when I say that, she appeared live on a TV special that we recorded. She was a guest as well as Bryan Adams and Jann Arden. I didn’t do their sessions per se but I got to play with them and we made a live CD and DVD out of it. I started working with Colin Linden in 1984 who has produced five of Bruce’s records. Through Colin I ended up working with Jann Arden and toured with her in Canada. My first experience with Bruce was back ten years ago recording on his Christmas record, again that Colin got organized. Basically Colin worked it out so that Bruce hired our band, Colin’s band, to be on Bruce's record. Through Colin we also got to play with people like Rick Danko and Garth Hudson from The Band. Those were really exciting times. We did quite a few shows in Toronto with those guys. We did the Edmonton Folk Festival with them as well. Again, I've worked mostly with Canadian artists, working with Anne, Jann, Colin, Blackie, Bruce and now Tom Cochrane and Kathleen Edwards. It’s been great.
DK: In addition to the Christmas album you also recorded on The Charity of Night, Breakfast in New Orleans Dinner In Timbuktu, You’ve Never Seen Everything and Life Short Call Now. Then there’s all the Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and Stephen Fearing stuff.
GC: That’s right. Blackie’s had four records now and there’s a fifth coming out in May. Blackie’s recording band is Colin’s core band. It’s me, John Dymond and the great Richard Bell. It started ten years ago. It was an idea that Colin had… a “make work” project, a tribute to Willy P. Bennett featuring Colin, Stephen Fearing and Tom Wilson. It turned into a really cool thing. There’s been a consistency within the group to make all the records feature the same core band. There have been guests along the way. Through Blackie I’ve managed to work with Stephen on two or three of his records.
DK: Didn’t you just work on Yellowjacket?
GC: Yes, I did. That was the first one I worked on without Colin as the producer. That was kind of different. It was interesting to go outside of that and work with Stephen and Scott Merritt. The same with Life Short Call Now… It was my first experience with Bruce outside of Colin. It was really a different kind of experience. It’s nice to know that your ability to work with certain artists isn’t contingent on someone else being there to produce it. You get the feeling that you can work with that artist regardless, which is cool.
DK: Are there particular memories that stick out from the five albums you have done with Bruce?
GC: There are a couple of neat little things. The first one that I can think of… the Christmas record was unique. Bruce recorded that by himself and we came in and put the music on afterwards which I thought was an interesting approach. It was a neat way for Bruce to sit back and produce the record, because he could listen to what we were adding to his music objectively and make comments about it. In essence we didn’t really play with him on that one, live. So, I was really excited about the next one, The Charity of Night, because it definitely was going to be live off the floor. On that one I remember a lot of cool little anecdotes. First of all this was Colin's first production with Bruce and being there with him made things so much more comfortable for me. I felt I was very fortunate to be on that record because of the other players that were there. Gary Burton and Rob Wasserman are just magnificent icons of their instruments. It was a thrill. All of us were quite enamored and somewhat intimidated by Gary Burton. When he came by the first day he made it known that he wasn’t going to tolerate any sort of rock and roll session that went late into the night with everyone sitting around navel gazing and playing until one or two in the morning. He wanted to make that clear. [laughter] The good news is that Bruce isn't that kind of guy either, so it worked out just fine. After the first day he was very enamored with Bruce and they did great things. To this day I love that record. Breakfast In New Orleans, that was fun. It was Colin's band again only this time it was live. The next one was interesting, You’ve Never Seen Everything. Colin was producing again and asked me to come to Montreal to be sort of a human click track, with Bruce and Hugh Marsh. They were going to do that thing again where they record their tracks first and then add instruments later. I snuck a few extras into my bag and when I got there I set up this quirky little kit which was the genesis of what I ended up playing on Bruce's last tour. Bruce really dug it and I think Colin was surprised, but excited at the same time. It was a cool happy accident. I thought that here is a chance for me to kind of do this little percussive thing that I like to do with another singer in Toronto named Gregory Hoskins. In essence I think they were going to keep only Bruce and Hugh and have me be the human click track and add the backing tracks later. When it was done we ended up keeping most of what we did as a trio which was the foundation for some great performances that went on later. What came out of that was a trio show in Perth and Ottawa the next year with Bruce and Hugh and then a Bravo TV special. That approach was the inspiration for the lineup for Life Short Call Now and when Hugh wasn't available, Julie Wolf, Bruce's keyboard player for a few tours came in and did a magnificent job. I upped the anti a bit on the drums because Julie brings so much more sound and texture with the keyboards. I think that was a fun anecdote in Montreal, sneaking in the extra little kit and everyone liking it.
DK: Do you recall the first time you met Bruce?
GC: It was either around the time of the Christmas session or it was at a gig at the Horseshoe in Toronto where he came and played with Colin Linden's band. I remember when I met him I was kind of in shock. It was very exciting. Anytime I’ve met anyone like that it’s always really, really exciting.
DK: Tell me a bit about the Life Short Call Now sessions and Puck’s Farm.
GC: It was about a year ago north of Toronto in the country. Puck's Farm is actually a place where kids can go and have a farm experience, but they also have had, for years, a really nice recording studio. They’ve done a lot of jazz sessions there. The room where musicians set up and play is a big, beautiful barn that’s been modified into a studio setting. The sound in the room is warm and very natural. The producer, Jonathan Goldsmith, had worked up there before on some jazz projects and knew the sound well. After talking to Bruce about how this record was going to be made they decided they wanted to make a record very naturally, like records used to be made… everybody playing together live off the floor in a big warm room and not a lot of overdubs. Of course they added some things after we did the basic tracks. We rehearsed there. It took a while setting up and then we had two days of rehearsals at the studio. After that we went pretty much every day, and it didn’t take very long. I think we did five days or so and we were finished. Bruce stayed on for another few days and did some extra things. Jonathan brought in some auxiliary players… trumpets, singers, etc. It was very, very natural… no interruptions. It was a full-on project.
DK: What was typical day like for you on this tour?
GC: A typical day would be waking up on the bus, checking in to the hotel and having breakfast. We would always go over to the venue around one o’clock in the afternoon. The crew guys were amazing. They would unload the trailer. I started to clue in that the more I helped, the more they liked me! I didn’t really do any of the loading per se, but I would set up my kit and we’d have it ready to go around three. Bruce would come in and we would go through our soundcheck which was usually about an hour and a half. We’d try everyone one of his guitars. We played a lot in the afternoons and we got tighter and tighter. After soundcheck there would be a catered meal or a buy out, so I’d find some funky little restaurant somewhere and then come back and do the show. We’d finish the show around 10:30 or eleven. We’d pack up and be on the bus by midnight or 12:30 and on our way to the next place. It was a full day and very relaxed. We got a lot of playing in. We had a quite few days off, too, which was nice. We had days off in Chicago, Washington, San Francisco and a lot of other cool cities, where I was able to go out and explore a little bit and take my camera with me. It wasn’t a rushed tour. We weren’t tired.
DK: Figuratively, how did you see the soundchecks from where you sat?
GC: The way I see it is that I’m there to support Bruce and to provide what it is that is working for him. Within that he’s great because he’s an artist and he encourages people to bring their own expression. With soundchecks with Bruce or Anne Murray, it’s part of your job to be there for whatever it is that they need. If Bruce wants to do a particular song once or twice, or if there is something that has been uncomfortable about the way we’ve been playing a song, he might bring it up. When I say "uncomfortable" I mean it could be some new idea to try, or maybe we played it too fast one night. He was great. Ultimately what I think he’s doing is he’s getting himself warmed up and he’s absolutely assuring there won’t be any problems when we hit the stage at night…all his guitars are working out, all of Julie's instruments are ready and all the percussion instruments are miked properly. We absolutely go through every aspect of what might happen during the show and make it foolproof so during show-time there aren’t any unforeseen circumstances that could make it fall apart. Of course a big part of soundchecks are making sure that the soundman, Bob McFee, and our monitor guy, Russ Wilson, have a chance to make sure all is good for them as well.
DK: Were there times when you discussed how the show went as you were rolling down the road in the tour bus after the show?
GC: No, we didn’t do much of that. In fact Bruce and I talked about that early on in the tour and said that we weren’t the type to analyze the performances after the shows. If there was something that we wanted to address we usually addressed it the next day, early in the day before soundcheck. That was refreshing because when you put out like that emotionally and musically I think it’s best just to leave it alone afterward. Unless there was something extraordinary that happened. But generally, because we do such good soundchecks nothing extraordinarily strange happened during the shows that needed to be talked about. If we had a great show, we would definitely be buzzing about it afterwards.
DK: Did you have a few of those?
GC: Yeah, there’s always a few of those. No matter who I’ve ever played with there are those nights where everything is so effortless and just feels fantastic. A lot of it has to do with the crowd and the mood of the whole evening. I can remember a few on this tour that were like definitely that.
DK: Are there things from this tour that have stuck in your mind?
GC: There was a funny line that Bruce had at Massey Hall in Toronto that I really, really liked. It was so Bruce! He totally enamored the crowd with it. It was perfect. Some guy yelled out “So, Bruce, how long have you been in the business?” …and there was a pause. Bruce walked up to the mike and said “ I’m not in the business,” and everybody cheered.
The venue that we played in Houston was very small… the Mucky Duck. The thing that I can remember about that was it being a very conservative crowd. We were on a tiny stage. It was a pub. The thing that I liked about it was that Bruce delivered like he would anywhere else. We followed suit. I was probably about five feet away from him. It was really tight, and a challenge to get everything up there for sure. In fact, my song bells were on the floor, they weren’t on the stage at all. Bruce had a bit of a chuckle while I was playing them. It was pretty funny. Quite a few great memories, and I took a lot of pictures. There were some great stages that we played: The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and Petaluma was fantastic, a beautiful theatre there. The Cat’s Cradle in North Carolina, which is a rock club, turned out to be a great night. One of my favorite gigs though was in Asheville, North Carolina at the Orange Peel. There was a packed house, great, great energy and the music was amazing that night. Everybody was buzzing afterwards.
DK: When you and I were talking at the soundcheck in Olympia, you told me this tour might be your one shot to play with such an involved array of instruments. Can you break down the contents of your kit on this tour?
GC: I had an eighteen inch bass drum and I had it tuned up pretty high so that it had a bit of a note to it. I had a sixteen inch Brazilian surdo, a drum made out of tin. I had legs on it like a floor tom. There was a small djembe next to it, a couple of old roto toms up top, a regular 13" brass snare drum and a small sonor jungle snare drum beside me. Also an ocean drum, which is a twelve inch drum with ball bearings on the bottom. I would use that in a couple of songs. It has a thick textured sound to it. Bruce had desired to have some tubular bells and we ended up renting some in Toronto. I had those on one side. Bruce has this set of cow bells from India that he bought in Vermont. They were huge and amazing… I had those set up on the left side. We’d use those in a couple of songs and visually they had such an appeal. The other thing I used was a little mini xylophone called "song bells" which I was able to bring on the second leg of the tour. They were really fun to play for me because it was like going back to grade eight again. I got to play a melody with mallets [chuckles]. Bruce was gracious enough to allow me to do that on a couple of songs. I really enjoyed playing them. I had more stuff than I ever could have imagined. I don’t know if I’ll ever use that exact kit again… well, you never know, but it had it’s time and place on that particular tour.
DK: When you finished that tour with Bruce you jumped right into a tour with Anne Murray.
GC: Yeah, I flew out from Houston to San Jose, had a day off and then started up with Anne. Not something I’d want to do a whole lot of because it's a daunting task to switch to another tour but because it was Anne Murray and because I've toured with her for twenty-four years. It was fine… like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. Even after the first soundcheck with her I felt like I was back in the saddle. Sadly, and it’s just the way things work, within three or four days… it’s not like I had forgotten about Bruce’s tour, I couldn’t possibly ever forget about it, but I was sort of right back in the world of touring with Anne again. As I started to look at all the photographs [from the tour with Bruce] all the memories of Bruce’s tour started to seep back in and it just got richer and richer, and I really began to miss it.
DK: You mentioned to me before we started the interview that you will be touring with Tom Cochrane and with Kathleen Edwards.
GC: Yes, I’m doing those two tours this spring. March with Tom Cochrane and April with Kathleen. I did some recording with Kathleen last month. I think Blackie and the Rodeo Kings have a couple of things coming up. I’m curious to see what comes around. There’s a little group I work with in Toronto… the artist is Gregory Hoskins. We have a trio and are really proud of it. I co-produced his new record, so we are hoping to do some shows with him. I would imagine Anne Murray has something in the fall. A lot of variety.
DK: What is the name of the new album from Gregory Hoskins?
GC: It’s called A Beggar’s Heart. Gregory and I have worked on three records together, but the last two have been this trio that we have with George Koller on bass. We’re all very much involved in the process and have more of a hands-on approach with Gregory which is so exciting.
DK: Leslie Charbon has worked with Gregory in the past… and speaking of Leslie, he appears to me to be quite an asset.
GC: Leslie made touring with Bruce so comfortable. I felt like I had been there all my life. I had to remember that Russ and Trevor and Leslie had been there for years and years and years. So occasionally when I was feeling a little bit like the new guy… because the new guy can sometimes do things that annoy the veteran guys… they were very, very nice about it [laughter]. Leslie was great and I hope to get to work with him again.
DK: I hope I get to see you on another tour with Bruce somewhere down the line.
GC: I hope so too. I’m not sure how that’s going to go. He was very gracious to say that he wished Julie and I were with him in Europe in January because he thought they would have just loved the way we played together as a trio.
DK: I can say through hearing from Woodpile readers in Europe, that a band tour is one of their biggest wishes. To be certain, they love to see Bruce solo. However, I think because these days when he goes to Europe it is almost always solo, there is a craving for a band tour. I know it is more expensive and logistically complicated to tour with a band, especially overseas, but folks would really look forward to that.
Gary, this is the first time I have tried this on all the interviews I have done. I’m going to say something and I would like you to respond with whatever comes into your mind. Are you ready?
DK: Bruce Cockburn.
GC: [Long pause] Wow. [Then laughter from both camps]
DK: A good response.
GC: Bruce Cockburn. Well, what comes to my mind? He’s a Canadian icon. There’s something special about Bruce as a Canadian. He’s our voice of reality. He keeps us in check. He has been an activist for so many important causes, an ambassador. He has this effect in Canada. He is respected on so many levels beyond his great musicianship and songwriting and yet it is his voice and his music that we all know. That’s what I think. I’m one of those Canadians who when I see him I just go “Wow… Bruce.”
I just feel so fortunate and so blessed to have had a chance to work with these artists. I’ve been drumming for a long time, but I haven’t been a drum school kind of a guy. I’ve been a guy that’s worked with songwriters for years… every variety. When you get a chance to work with people like Bruce it’s so special. You really do pinch yourself every day and I have to add that I get to meet people like yourself, who, under any other circumstances I would not get to meet. I’ve met so many really interesting people. I think it has changed me forever.