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From Recording Reggae in Jamaica to Working on the Who’s New Album: Q&A with Zak Starkey

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Powerhouse drummer Zak Starkey has sat behind the kit with The Who for many years, his exciting percussive style uncannily summoning up the spirit of the band’s legendary drummer Keith Moon. Having recently wrapped the first leg of a North American jaunt, the band will be back in the States in the fall continuing their new tour featuring The Who augmented by an orchestra.

Away from his work in The Who, Zak, a devoted reggae fan since he was child, has launched a new label, Trojan Jamaica, with partner Sharna “Sshh” Liguz. Calling from Jamaica, the spiritual home of reggae music, we had a candid chat with Zak who spoke effusively about his love of reggae, his new label venture plus his memories hanging out with Keith Moon and news about The Who’s forthcoming new studio album.

Rock Cellar: What was your first exposure to reggae music?

Zak Starkey: I first got into reggae music through my mother, who had a copy of Funky Kingston and then I got into punk and “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” name checks a bunch of artists like Dillinger and I started checking them out. Then when I was about 12 my dad gave me a copy of Man in the Hills. He’s a big Burning Spear fan, so basically my first exposure to reggae came through my parents and The Clash, which is a bit weird. (laughs)

Rock Cellar: Punk rock bands like The Clash with songs like “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” “Police and Thieves,” “Rudy Can’t Fail” and “The Guns Of Brixton” were delivering their own take on reggae to a new audience. 

Zak Starkey: That’s right. For me, Black Market Clash, that ten-inch vinyl, is the best example of punk embracing reggae music and turning it on to a new audience. If you check it out, reggae is pretty punk. If you know what I mean? The attitude is really similar.

Rock Cellar: What is it about reggae music that connects with you so deeply in 2019?

Zak Starkey: Attitude. Reggae is a devotional form of music and I really get that.  If fact, before we started the first record I was trying to get some other guitar players to take the heat off of me. The only other person who I thought would get it was John McLaughlin, because he plays music devotionally. But he didn’t get back to me, so I had to do it.

Rock Cellar: Describe how your passion for reggae music transformed into wanting to take the leap and start your own label, Trojan Jamaica, with your partner Sharna Liguz. 

Zak Starkey: Well, because we recorded so much music that the only way to stay in control of it and make sure everything was done right and that everyone gets a fair share, was to actually have a label and make the deals ourselves so everyone gets taken care of.

BMG saw the future in that, and we got distribution. Our first record is a compilation called Red Gold Green & Blue. The album features reggae artists like Robbie Shakespeare, Toots and The Maytals, Mykal Rose, Kiddus I, Andrew Tosh and Freddie McGregor covering blues songs. The album is a reggae blues hybrid. “Sshh,” which is Sharna, and I wanted to take American blues lyrics to Jamaica and take the blues and make it red gold and green and that was kind of what we did.

Rock Cellar: There’s a deep connection between blues and reggae.

Zak Starkey: Yeah, there absolutely is. It’s the music of sufferers. Reggae came much later because that kind of oppressive treatment was coming to the Rastaman. The Rastaman were persecuted. They were rounded up and killed, that was still going on in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They were wanted dead or alive, which leads us nicely to Peter Tosh’s Wanted Dread And Alive.

The whole way this happened was we really got into the first mantra and Peter Tosh manifesto. He was probably the bravest dude going at the time, with what he was saying and his absolute refusal to back down. So me and “Sshh,” we covered his version of “Get Up Stand Up.” We cut that with Eddie Vedder and also the Soul Syndicate, who are probably the most recorded band in Jamaica up until Sly & Robbie.

You had all these different bands like The Aggravators and The Upsetters, they’re not actually a set unit but are names given to the guys by the producer so that he owns it. So they can be any group of musicians but they’re mainly Tony Chin, Chiller Smith, (George) “Fully” (Fullwood), and (Carlton) “Santa” Davis. We cut “Get Up Stand Up” with “Santa” and “Fully,” the rhythm section who also played with Peter Tosh’s band, Word, Sound and Power after Sly and Robbie quit.

So we cut this record “Red, Gold Green and Blue,” Shush has a solo deal and we went to launch “Sshh” in Australia. Funnily enough, while we were there, Sly & Robbie were in town so we cut some more tunes with them. (laughs) Then we came back from Australia and came to Jamaica and cut a record, U-Roy’s Greatest Hits with Ziggy Marley, Shaggy, Richie Spice, Tarrus Riley, “Santa” God, the list goes on and on. It’s a really fabulous record, and then we cut an original record with Jesse Royal and cut an original record with Big Youth and then we cut the second volume of the blues reggae record even though the first one wasn’t even out yet.

Rock Cellar: Sounds like you’ve been very productive.

Zak Starkey: Jamaica is the most productive musical country I’ve ever been to. It’s second to none, in fact. The other great thing about it is everyone’s really fucking happy. There’s no pressure. It flows.

Rock Cellar: As a drummer, speak about the rhythmic interplay that’s part of the fabric of reggae music.

Zak Starkey: The interplay is that everything is a slam. Are you a drummer?

Rock Cellar: No, I’m a guitar player.

Zak Starkey: Well, if you look on a screen at ProTools and you know when everything is bang on the grid? It doesn’t look like that. (laughs) If you look at it you go, “that’s not gonna sound good,” but if you listen to it it really works. It’s a great lesson working with your ears, not your eyes.

Over here in Jamaica everyone knows me as a guitar player, not a drummer. It’s great actually because I started as a guitar player and I would like to end as one. I saw Marc Bolan play when I was seven and I got a guitar the following week. Then I played guitar for a couple of years. In my house my Dad had a studio so I used to sneak up there and play guitar; there were a couple of Fenders, a Fender Mustang and Fender Jazzman that I used to play in secret.

Also, he had a really beautiful Les Paul, which my dad was given by Marc Bolan, and with me being inspired to play by Marc Bolan, that was the Holy Grail. But then three years I heard The Who. I heard their album, Meaty, Beaty, Big And Bouncy, and I made a connection that this guy, Keith Moon, who was always in our house hanging out with us when we were kids. I put the record in and I fuckin’ never heard anything like it. It was so exciting that I switched to drums that day.

Rock Cellar: Having been a die-hard fan of the Who for many years, I’ve seen the band perform with Kenney Jones, Simon Philips and you. Given that Keith Moon is my favorite drummer of all time, you are the perfect drummer for The Who because you are able to summon the spirit of Keith Moon but put your own stamp on it too.

Zak Starkey: Now Ken, that’s really nice of you to say. See, the thing about The Who is I first heard them in 1975 and decided to play the drums and a couple of months after that I actually got to see them with Keith Moon, which is really what inspired me. I saw their 1975 Christmas show at Hammersmith Odeon. Then I just literally learned how to play the drums by playing along to Who records.

Then a year or so later The Sex Pistols and later The Clash arrived and that changed everything. Without Paul Cook, the drummer for The Sex Pistols, I wouldn’t know how to hold a groove. I sued to play along to their record incessantly. The drummers in those bands were massive influences on me but I have to say the guitar players in those bands are even more of an influence on me, Mick and Steve Jones.

Rock Cellar: You were fortunate enough to have not only spent time with Keith Moon who was friends with your father, but he also gave you some pointers on the drums. Do you recall specifically the guidance he provided?

Zak Starkey: We only used to ever ask about it. We never really sat around a drum kit. We used to talk about girls, surfing and drums. Me and my little brother Jason would go and spend weekend with Keith at his house, which sounds really irresponsible, and it was, but it was great fun. Keith loved drummers like Sandy Nelson and Gene Krupa. We’d talk about that kind of stuff and surfing. He didn’t really surf; I think he did it once and nearly drowned. He was living in Malibu at that point.

I just have great memories of Keith. He was so encouraging. My dad was a little bit afraid I was gonna be a drummer.

Rock Cellar: Do you think Keith knew how good he was?

Zak Starkey: No. I think he was just as insecure as the rest of us, sitting in the back. He’s quoted as saying “I’m the best Keith Moon type drummer in The Who.” (laughs) That’s kind of how it works, isn’t it? You’re only as good as what’s getting fed to you musically. I mean, I’m a good drummer, man, but when I’m playing in The Who Pete brings things out of me that no one else can do. I really love The Who and I really love the music and if I didn’t it wouldn’t sound like that.

Rock Cellar: Speaking of your work as a drummer, you’re currently out on tour with The Who and working alongside in orchestra each night. In many ways. Keith Moon approached his drums as an orchestral player, coloring the music. I understand you’re using electronic drum kit. How does your approach as a drummer differ when working with an orchestra?

Zak Starkey: Like you said, he did play in an orchestral manner. He would do things where he wouldn’t end on a cymbal like everyone else does or he would hit two cymbals and a kick drums where a snare drums would be. Things like that.

It was like an explosion rather than just a snare beat. But I’ll be honest, when I play with The Who I play to Pete. Me and Pete have had to adapt slightly to the orchestra. Pete is the conductor. I might be a conductor standing next to him, but the real conductor is that guy, Pete. Even though we’ve both had to adapt a bit by looking at our conductor and helping the orchestra out, in some ways it’s been great but we’ve had to be a bit more disciplined that we’re used to. We’ve just got to remember some things that we usually don’t care about. Pete Townshend never plays anything the same way twice, and if I do I’m sure he knows. He’s that sharp. Every move he makes is a cue.

Rock Cellar: Recently, Pete Townshend posted a video diary of the making of The Who’s album and you were regularly featured. What can you tell us about the album?

That was one of the greatest weeks I ever had in the studio. It was a joy to work with Pete and Dave Sardy, the producer. I couldn’t get there early enough and I couldn’t stay late enough. (laughs)

The songs are so great and they’re so direct. The lyrics are sometimes pretty heavy, but very memorable.

The way that it was recorded is a bit like the way that Who’s Next and Quadrophenia were recorded. Pete would bring in demos and then we would add to them.

After we would add to them we might subtract some stuff. It was that kind of an approach, and in that way it does sound a bit more like you want it to sound and I want it to sound. I don’t know if Pete wants it to sound like that, but we sure do.

The album doesn’t sound like any previous Who albums, it has the vibe of a 2019 Who album. But it doesn’t sound old, it sounds brand new and super fresh.

But you know, rock and roll intrinsically hasn’t changed very much. It sounds great and it vibes you up. They gave me a lot of freedom in the studio. Dave Sardy really let me off the reins as a producer. I think he took the pressure off of Pete a little bit because I think the last time we were in the studio Pete was the producer. I made two records with Dave Sardy with Oasis and up until now they hadn’t worked with a producer and Dave came in and took the pressure off. That’s what a good producer does.

Rock Cellar: Have you heard some of the finished songs with Roger Daltrey’s vocals?

Zak Starkey: I have actually, and it’s quite incredible the way Roger is singing. He’s just opened it up massively.

Rock Cellar: If you could convince Pete and Roger to do a Who song that you’ve never played with them before, which song would you like to perform?

Zak Starkey: Yeah, “Baby Don’t You Do It,” I fucking love The Who’s version of that. In 2000 when John (Enwistle) was alive they asked me to come up with a set of obscure songs for us to play on tour so I came up with six or eight songs and we rehearsed them all and then we went out on tour and didn’t play any of them. (laughs)

It’s been a long time, it was 19 years ago and I’m trying to remember some of the songs. One of them was “A Legal Matter.” “Melancholia” was one of them. Some of my favorite Who tunes are the crazy ones like “Now I’m A Farmer.” That’s really about the drumming and the slightly comedic lyrics.

We could do “Waspman.” (laughs) But when you’re talking about obscure songs, a couple of years ago I did a show with Mick Jones of The Clash. We put a band together for a one-off show for Elton John’s AIDS charity. Mick and I had been hanging out and had become really good friends. He wanted to play “Happy Jack,” which is his favorite Who song and have Roger Daltrey sing it. So I called Roger and guess what Roger’s least favorite Who song is? “Happy Jack.” (Laughs) But he did it anyway.

He sang it and it sounded great: he also sang “London Calling.”

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