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Marco Minnemann: ‘Never Underestimate the Audience’

The drumming virtuoso on “being nice to people,” the “Borrego belly” that inspired his new album and performing in India this month

Nabeela Shaikh Sep 08, 2017

Marco Minnemann. Photo: Christophe Pauly

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While exploring the mysterious desert town of Borrego Springs a few years ago, ace drummer, multi-instrumentalist and “very rational person” Marco Minnemann was witness to one of many of the Southern Californian desert’s “intriguing ghost stories.” The German-born drummer, who also performs with prog/jazz trio The Aristocrats, guitar extraordinaire Joe Satriani and countless others at the top of their game, describes cheerfully over a Skype interview from his home in California, his stay at one of the “10 most haunted places in the USA.” “I found this strange city which has almost a film vibe; Quentin Tarantino could do a movie there,” he says. “And it was just such a joyful experience… But honestly, I went there with a friend, and we did see something weird.”

And although he “can laugh about it now,” Minnemann’s other-worldly encounter and the rest of Borrego Spring’s curiosities were the sources of some serious inspiration for his latest concept-driven, 28-song release. On Borrego—which includes performances by longtime-collaborators Joe Satriani and bassist Tony Levin, a “very long song” co-written by prog pioneers Rush’s Alex Lifeson and numerous other musical guests—Minnemann crafts fantastic tales and even more fantastical soundscapes: whether it’s the unnerving dissonance of “On That Note,” the bizarre drive of “Horsepower,” or the sublime “Gold Digger.”

Ahead of his India shows next month promoting Borrego with bass player Mohini Dey and guitarist Rhythm Shaw, Minnemann talks to Rolling Stone India about the pros and cons of touring simultaneously with two bands, his very first stage experience and his plans for the rest of the year.

What kind of differences do you experience when you’re playing to 25000 people with Joe Satriani and then you go back to playing club gigs with The Aristocrats?

When you have so many people, a sea of people in front of you, it gets sometimes a little bit impersonal… It’s the weirdest kind of thing. You don’t get more nervous or anything—maybe even the opposite. Because you see all these people there and the stage is so big, and the distance is fairly big too. So you just go like “Oh yea, okay, cool,” and you just play. And with club gigs it’s so intimate, you can see the people, sometimes you can see how they react. But in front of a big audience it’s different, you can just animate them, play with the audience. You can make them yell, it’s like this unbelievable cool control or this bond you can form with many people together. But it’s both [types of shows] cool, at the end what matters is how you play.

Minnemann at one of The Aristocrats’ shows in Mumbai. Photo: Prashin Jagger

You were doing this for about two years, when you toured with The Aristocrats and Joe Satriani more or less simultaneously. How do you look back on that now, not only in terms of experiences but also as a musical challenge?

There were also more things going on. About two years ago I was still touring with Steven Wilson by the time, which was fun too. It was a cool tour, ended a bit sad but it was all good, it was a great experience after all. But when Joe Satriani and The Aristocrats took over, we literally toured simultaneously. That was sometimes a challenge because once one tour ended, another one started so we were nonstop on the road. It was sometimes madness! Looking back we sometimes thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” We were sometimes going back to the same country twice within a few months with a different band. So it was a bit intense but it was great, there was nothing to regret.

But it’s kind of also weird when all of a sudden, everything stops. All of a sudden. It’s not like one tour was over and the other kept going, it was both tours at the same time, and both tours stopped at the same time. It is a weird feeling, it’s like you get thrown into a hole all of a sudden, where you think, “Hang on, what just happened?” So that was strange, but now obviously other things are coming along.

You’ve mentioned that this is a concept album based on the desert town of Borrego, and have also described a few songs like “The Healer” and “Gold Digger.” Could you elaborate a little more on the concept and how it ties into some of the songs?

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It’s an album I’m actually very proud of. It started a few years back when I drove into the [Borrego] desert, and I found this strange city which has almost a film vibe; Quentin Tarantino could do a movie there. And it was just such a joyful experience. When you enter the Borrego belly, when you’re on the hills, all of a sudden this whole valley unfolds itself in front of you, it looks just beautiful. I went there a few times because it’s so quiet and it’s so hauntingly beautiful… There’s no noise pollution, nothing, and at night the stars are just incredible, the wildlife is incredible. I kind of explored a bit, started interacting with the people… There were so many inspiring things. One song which I wrote, “What Brought You Here?” was literally what the lady in the bar asked me as I soon as I sat down. Nowhere else would anybody ask you that, but in Borrego people will ask you, because nobody goes there! And I just thought “Oh that’s a great song title!”

So then I started investigating and there were many intriguing stories. There’s one which is called “Lady in White” which is about this haunted place [Vallecito] which is so fantastic. It’s an old stage station which is in the middle of nowhere… There is no soul there and you’ll find it’s one of the 10 most haunted places in the USA as well. People always see stuff there. I’m a very rational person, I don’t believe in all that kind of stuff, but honestly, I went there with a friend, and we did see something weird. I thought, “What the hell was that?” I mean I can laugh about it now, but it made me literally talk to the janitor and he actually confirmed he said like “Yes, there are ghosts but they don’t mean any harm.” … I always find explanations, my mind is very rational, I don’t believe in anything but I remember seeing something.

“My very first experience of going on stage when I was around 12 years old was that I was so scared… I didn’t do my first show.” Photo: Prashin Jagger

How did the collaboration with Alex Lifeson come about?

I knew Alex already from a few years ago… But I never communicated with him before. The record company that released Borrego—one of the guys is a huge fan of Alex—he asked him if would like to play on this album… Alex wrote back and said, “Oh yes I would really like to.” So I was like, “Fuck yes!” I’m a huge fan of his work and Rush is such a great band.

What happened next was very interesting… When Joe sent in his guitar tracks, there were really accurate files, maybe just one or two files you would import them into your software and it would already sync up great, the guitar solo was done, everything was perfect. And Alex was perfect too, but he worked completely differently. He sent me instead of one or two files, 13 or 14 files per song and made entire guitar arrangements… It was so rich. You couldtell the difference of Joe being also a session player and Alex being mainly Rush; he doesn’t do that many collaborations. So he kind of presented—which I was very proud of and feel very happy about—he kind of worked with me as if he were in Rush. He would offer all these ideas, and it was so rich and beautiful that I took one part… And made a completely new song out of it, and then I played it to Alex. And he was like “Oh this is cool, can I do some more to it?” All of a sudden we started writing a song together, so that’s how that happened. It was a very beautiful and very musical experience.

[The song is] “On That Note,” you’ll hear that it has some of these guitar tones he came up with… It sounded so beautiful, it’s very haunting, very dark and weird, and I played it back to him after I mixed it and he wrote back saying, “Wow it sounds so scary!” And I just said, “Look I know all of your albums with Rush, including your solo album Victor  [1996], and I never heard you make sounds like that!” And he was very delighted about it. When you listen to that song you hear some parts that sound like Rush, so you can hear his imprint. But some stuff is —which made me especially happy— unusual where I thought, “Wow I haven’t even heard him doing that with his band.”

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What do you have planned for the India shows/clinics, considering you’re performing with Mohini and Rhythm Shaw for the first time?

I will be playing some songs off Borrego and also some songs of Mohini and Rhythm, so it’s going to be fun. I do want to do some stuff a little different, so I will play some stuff on screens, there will be some videos and there will be singing. I know that Mohini sings, and Rhythm sings, and I sing a little bit, so we will probably work a few songs out where we will present “songs.” And it’s beautiful, it will be a different experience than The Aristocrats would be but it will also kind of entertain the same kind of audience. When we play with different bands, with The Aristocrats we have like three people who people know. A lot of guitar players will come because of Guthrie is a famous guitar player. Bryan is a famous bass player so bass players will come, and maybe some people because they know me as a drummer. Now if we would do this individually, I hope that there will be good attendance. I don’t know what to expect, but hopefully people will come out.

“We all have been around enough that there is a certain fanbase of people who want to come see you.” Photo: Courtesy of the artist

What’s the most pleasant surprise or rude shock you’ve received when you travelled to play in new territories?

There was never really anything that was a complete disaster. We all have been around enough that there is a certain fanbase of people who want to come see you. The only part that can get a bit disappointing is when not that many people come to certain shows, that sometimes can happen, but sometimes it can also happen that if you play with the Aristocrats or with anyone else. You don’t have to worry, you literally just have to be yourself and present what you love and what you just do… I remember my teenage years and my early 20’s when you still had to prove many things, you had to prove to different countries, to different audiences to see whether you’re going to be accepted or not. But the more rooms you explore in the house, the better you can decorate them and the better you can feel at home. With more experience and with a larger fanbase, people know who you are and what to expect; you can almost do anything.

Whatever you do, never underestimate the audience and always give the best you can, that’s to me the most important part. Be nice to people, listen to what the people want. I don’t believe artists that just say, “Oh I can do whatever the fuck I want, I don’t care what people think.” That’s not how the world works.

My very first experience of going on stage when I was around 12 years old was that I was so scared… I didn’t do my first show. What my drum teacher did, he didn’t discourage me and he didn’t exactly try to encourage me… The next time I walked on stage, I heard every footstep, like the audience for me was not there. And instead of going on stage and saying, “Hey this is going to be fun!” all that was in my head was “Don’t fuck up, don’t fuck up…” I sat behind the drums and just concentrated on playing… And then I heard clapping, and the song wasn’t even over yet! That’s when I looked up to the audience and I saw all these smiling faces looking at me… And all of a sudden I didn’t want to leave the stage anymore. So to me it was an experience that made me think, “Wait a minute, if I give energy to the people, they give this energy back.” To me, that was a very strong statement, because it formed me a little bit. The stage is there for you to entertain people. Also to have fun, but that’s why you’re on stage. So never underestimate the audience.

What is your schedule for the rest of the year? Will you be touring in other countries after the India shows or working on other projects?

After the India tour… [thinks] I did a collaboration with [Kerala fusion rock act] Thaikkudam Bridge, which is coming out early September, so, “What a great coincidence!” I thought. And then I’m doing something with [English sessions drummer] Simon Phillips, a drummer friend of mine—a DVD and a little bit of production stuff and playing, so that will be filmed. After India, I will go directly into the studio with two players of a [Swedish progressive rock] band called The Flower Kings, and a singer from a band called Pain of Salvation [Daniel Gildenlöw]; we will do an album together.

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