John “JR” Robinson interview, February 2010
By Carsten Weide & Søren Frost, February 2010 – Photos from the official John “JR” Robinson website.
First of all thank you very much for taking your time to this interview.
In 2004 you released your first solo album Funk Shui. Do you have any plans for another solo album?
Yes, I am working on my 2nd solo CD. Look for it in mid-2010.
You have done so many recording sessions and I assume that must be some that has been big highlights for you. Can you tell us about a few of the sessions that you always will be the ones that you admire most?
Obviously, Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall record stands out. I was 25 years old and it was my first huge record. Steve Winwood’s Back in the Highlife was amazing. The #1 hit Higher Love changed everything.
In 1989 together with the singer Mark Williamson you formed the group Bridge 2 Far and also released one album. This album became one of the most remarkable releases in the AOR world. How did this project started?
A friend of mine, Brad Westering introduced me to Mark and we started writing. Brad became our manager and got us a record deal with WTG records. We had a few small market hits but WTG went down after 2 years and so did we.
A couple of years ago you had another project called TRW, this time also with Mark Williamson. Are they any plans for more projects with Mark, maybe another Bridge 2 Far album?
Michael Thompson and I have been partners since we were at Berklee in 1973. The 3 of us got together and came up with this rock trio CD. There are plans to do a hybrid of TRW. Right now I have a new band with Michael Thompson, Bobby Watson [Rufus] and Greg Mathieson called Native Son. We are working on a CD and a DVD.
You were mention as one of the drummers to join Toto after Jeff Porcaro passed away. Was this actually true, or just mention because you and a couple of other drummers at that time did a lot of recordings sessions with the Toto musicians on many albums?
No, I was never in Toto. There were phone calls made but the majority chose to venture in another direction. I have however worked with all the members of Toto on hundreds on records. Steve Lukather became the guitar player in the Quincy Jones rhythm section. I just finished the George Benson CD, Songs & Stories and played on 10 songs. One written by David Paich and Steve Lukather.
How is it to be among the greatest drummers in the world? When ever there is a drum magazine or related media talking about the best drummers in the world you are always on the list. Is this having any effect on you, or just nice to be in this drummers club?
My mother always said that I would become one of the greats. I don’t think about that. I think about setting the bar higher than everyone else and keeping music innovative and fresh.
You are currently on the David Foster Hitman Tour. You have done many sessions with David Foster, and he is also considered as one of the greatest songwriters ever. When were your first recording session with him?
I believe it was Bill Champlin’s Runaway. There were great songs and two were Satisfaction and Sarah. I new that I would always work with him.
As a drummer you get some kind of a trademark. Everybody knows the Porcaro shuffle. I have heard that when people talks about “J.R”, they say: More steady than a drum machine. What is your own opinion on your trademark related to your drum style?
Hold on………………………….I need to change and upgrade my computer chips!!!
Today with Medias as MySpace, Facebook and www in general you are closer to the audience than never before. Do you need to invest more time into communication with fans etc.?
We all do. It’s essential that musicians today have a great challenge ahead of them. There are so many musicians and they are competing with unknown variables. Have your shit together cats.
Just saw the Native Son on Drum Channel are there any plans of you releasing a CD? Or even better a “live” DVD from one of your jams at the Baked Potato? Because that is really great.
As I said earlier, we are halfway through a new DVD and CD. The plan would be to tour Europe and Japan to start. Now, I have secured a Japanese tour for June 23-July 2.
Have you ever heard or seen the Blue Desert site before we contacted you?
Oh yes. Great!
What was the first recording session you ever did?
In 1969, I was 15 and my junior high jazz band played the Mid America Jazz Festival in Omaha, Nebraska and won it. I played Buddy Rich’s Uptight.
Are you planning to release a drum instruction DVD?
Yes, I am working on a complete DVD in Cooperation with Don Lombardi and The Drum Channel. I will cover just about everything including live performances.
Do you have a favorite album of all the ones you played? And why?
Off The Wall by Michael Jackson. This record symbolized the change to the 80’s and yet was cut with live players. The sound by Bruce Swedien still holds up to this day.
What is so far the greatest moment for you as a musician?
Man, that’s a tough one. One was when I won a Grammy with Rufus & Chaka Khan.
Don’t you miss the good “old” sound from the late 70´s and the early 80´s? (when the west coast sound were at it highest?)
Sure, I miss that time period. There were times when I was juggling 3 drum sets around different studios in one day. We had a ‘family’ of session players that saw each other every day. There were great songs being written, unlike today. There are hardly any songs being written today.
Do you ever get sentimental when you listen when you listen to music from back the late 70´s and early 80´s, where every seemed more pleasant in a way? All you and the rest of the “cats” in the studio at the same time.
Like I previously said…..we are the last of the breed. When I do get sentimental I have “vinyl night”. I open up a great cabernet and pick out one of 2000 records and listen.
How do you deal with the pressure of having the world as your workspace? Being under pressure of, for instance, jetlag and travelling in general, having a bad day, missing your family at home, or maybe working for an artist with a completely different cultural background etc., and still having to perform at the highest level possible, and under time pressure?
I have the great fortune of controlling my own life. I know that that sounds strange but I only take road gigs that I want to, like David Foster. I usually not away that much, maybe a couple of weeks.
What music do you listen to when you relax and what music do you listen to for inspiration?
I don’t usually listen to music when I am done working or playing music. If I do it’s Miles or 60’s/70/s rock and roll.
I’m Søren Frost, playing with The Danish Radio Big Band. I was at the Yamaha Groove All Stars with you in Frankfurt last year, played ‘Hey Pocky Way’.
Hey Soren — great choice. It’s ALL about the GROOVE!
How did you practice your fantastic time and your rock solid groove?
Most people think that I practiced to get this groove and time but in reality I never practiced, it just came to me-kind of a God thing. I practiced through Stick Control and Syncopation but not for groove of time.
What was you focus point(s) on the above?
Chops wise I would utilize the Alan Dawson techniques from the Syncopation book and work on sight reading while playing the intricate parts. This would prepare me for the real world.
How was it to work with Quincy Jones, especially on Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’?
Quincy or “Q” is one of reasons that I am successful. He truly believed in me and allowed me to control certain recoding situations that ended up being number ones. He would allow the entire rhythm section to control the situation. His production on Off The Wall is one of his best of his career.
Was Michael Jackson ever present in the studio, did he make any comments, and have you ever performed with him live?
Yes, MJ was there throughout the entire Off The Wall period. He would always compliment me or any of the other guys. We got to OD on bottles together non Workin Day and Night. He was very shy but extremely gifted musically. I was allowed to hang throughout the entire recording process. When he would layer his vocals, it was magic in real time.
Yamaha drums for twenty- something years, why DW?
Yes, I was with Yamaha for about 29 years. I now am with DW. It’s a marriage that is so amazing. My relationship with John Good and Don Lombardi has always been there from the old days but the new relationship is like no other. My new sound is light years better than it was. I mean not to bash on my old sound-it used to be of the best sound in the business but now it’s creating a completely new direction for me and the business.
Working on any new projects, like solo albums and stuff?
Yes, I am working on my 2nd solo CD. I think the people will like the new surprises. I will try and complete it by the end of 2010. Native Son will have a CD done by summer and a live DVD to follow. I will have my education DVD released through www.drumchannel.com hopefully by the end of year.
Who are your ‘heroes’, who do you get inspired from?
Buddy Rich, Ed Soph, Alan Dawson, John Bonham, Steve Gadd, Billy Cobham and Tony Williams.
Did you ever play traditional grip, and why matched?
Yes, I started in 1963 with traditional grip and continued with it throughout high school in 1973. When I got to Berklee in 1973 I realized that my left hand needed to catch up to my right hand so I switched. I still go back and forth but only on lighter jazzier styles.
When are we gonna see you in Denmark again?
I can’t wait to get back to Denmark. I truly loved it and the people.
If you could choose between any artists or group that you have not worked (living or dead) who would like to play with?
What are you plans for the future?
Set the bar higher so the next generation will set their bar higher.
Thanks for the music and the inspiration.