Drummer Dennis Leeflang exclusive Q&A w/ I’m so Normal it’s Uncool/Bumblefoot Paddies (addressing numerous matters including Bumblefoot).
At what point did drums become your instrumental preference and why?
My uncle played trumpet in a marching band and as a very young kid I would go see him and his band every time there was a parade in town. I was impressed with my uncle but the snare drum players always had me completely mesmerized. I loved how you could feel their playing in your chest as the band marched by. I begged my uncle to be able to take lessons from the drum teacher in his band because I wanted to become a snare drum player in his marching band badly. He hooked me up and I took lessons for a while but it was a huge disappointment. My lessons were on a slab of rubber and for months I didn’t even get to see a real drum. Luckily I heard about another band that needed a snare drum player so I went to see their practice and 10 guys and girls playing snare drums in a room just had me drooling. I was 7 or 8 years old at the time. The band leader gave me a snare drum to practice on at home and I took private lessons from him for a couple of weeks before joining the entire drum section of the band. It went quick and it was awesome.
Once I went to high school and got into pop and rock music, it was a logical step to the drum kit. A guy in my street was practicing drums every day and I would spend hours standing outside of his apartment, listening. He later became a good friend of mine and now is actually one of Europe’s busiest percussionists. His name is Gijs van Straalen. He really got the spark going for me. Then seeing Matt Sorum and Tico Torres on MTV was what really did it for me. I got my first kit at age 13 and took off from there.
Whom would you regard as being your biggest musical influences both past and present?
It would be impossible to name one person. Many people have had a significant influence on me in one way or another. First of all, my drum teacher, Luuk Kranenburg, who gave me all the tools I needed and which I’m still using today. My first real drum “hero” was Nicko McBrain and his playing has had a huge influence on me. The way he plays his ride cymbal is unlike anyone else, and I love how he’s not afraid to push and pull tempos and play with a very loose, bluesy feel. He has a history of playing blues before joining Iron Maiden, and it’s just such a cool style. Very unlike most metal, where drummers play in a very straight and robotic way.
Another big influence on me is Steve Jordan. Same thing… so much feel. I love when drumming is not about what you play, but how you play it. Taking a simple beat but making it sound different than everybody else. It’s a much harder challenge than playing technical stuff.
As for non-drummers, Bumblefoot has been a huge influence on me. His drive, the way he refuses to compromise or accept anything less than perfection, and his constant search for trying something new and challenging himself in different ways. Technically and psychologically. Only your imagination can limit what you’re able to do. He’s made me push myself to play things I never dreamed I’d be able to. He’s one of the very few musicians who’s one of the most advanced in the world as far as technical ability, but still enjoys playing a really basic piece of music with the right feel. That’s a rare thing. A lot of people who are known for having incredible chops wouldn’t be able to play a simple song with the right feel and are unable to put actual emotion into music because they’re too focused on the technical aspect. Nowadays, a John Mayer song that’s just dripping with pocket, groove and emotion will inspire me more than some “prog” band. That kind of stuff is more like a circus act than music to me. I see music as a language and musicians are simply poets. I have no interest in hearing a guy couching up fancy grammar when there’s no interesting story. That’s not to say I don’t like a technical challenge myself sometimes, but it has to serve the song, not the ego.
Was there a specific instance in which you realized your drummer career was “going somewhere” as such?
It was never a realization. It’s been a goal or even a choice from the beginning. I don’t really have “hobbies”. Whenever I do something, I won’t rest until I have pushed it as far as I can. The second I decided I wanted to play drums, I had also decided I wanted to be a pro.
Why are you so willing to collaborate with various forms of artist?
It’s kind of an old-school jazz mentality. Even though I don’t really play jazz, I do listen to jazz and have a lot of admiration for the genre, history and musicians. Everything we listen to nowadays stems from classical music and jazz. That’s where the roots lie. I just love how jazz musicians are always playing with different people. Never the same line-up on two albums, never the same touring band. It’s like a soccer team that’s always buying and selling players to see what will happen with a different line-up of people who will interact with each other differently and create a different chemistry. When playing with many different people, you develop an instinct that’s 100% you. It’s like being able to mix all of the colors of the rainbow together and create new colors. If you’re only exposed to red and blue, you’ll only be purple and never get to find out what orange is like. It makes me a more versatile musician and enables me to explore and be exposed to many different influences that will trigger many different ways of thinking and many different things to play. When you only play with the same 3 or 4 guys all your life, there’s a lot of unused potential inside of you that never got a chance to be explored.
Having said that, though, I’ve always wanted to play in one steady band first and foremost, and then do a ton of side projects next to that, which can benefit and influence my playing in my main band. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find that one band yet and end up just playing all over the place with dozens of different people. I can’t complain, though. I’ve been Bumblefoot’s drummer for about 10 years now and that’s definitely something I’m proud of being a part of. And whenever a situation feels good and the other guys in the band become your friends, it can last years. I’m definitely not against that.
What are the essentials for succeeding as a prolific musician?
The right attitude, dedication and patience. Money has never been a motivation for me and in general, money tends to spoil the fun a lot of the time. I just love contributing to a great piece of music, or a show. But because I want to be doing this full-time, it has to pay my bills. I’ve been teaching drums for years to take a little bit of the pressure off of having to get all of my income out of playing music, but it’s still at least 50/50.
I think the essentials for being a successful musician are, first and foremost, to be a very easy-going and positive person. When it comes to a recording session, it’s generally most important to be a great drummer and easy enough to work with, but when it comes to being part of a group that goes on the road and spends a lot of time together off-stage, personality generally comes before playing capabilities. People would rather spend 20 hours a day at airports and in vans with a cool dude who’s an OK player, than with an amazing drummer who’s a total a-hole. I think dedication is a close second. I always refused to get “day jobs”, even though there were some exceptions because they were cool opportunities and helped my career from a different angle. I’ve worked at a record shop and I’ve worked as a manager at the famous Blue Note jazz club in NYC. But otherwise I just refuse to waste time on anything else. Which means I’ve actually been so broke I’ve been homeless in NYC for a little while several times. Luckily enough I have some awesome friends who let me crash on their couches. Once I graduated high school, that was it for me. Music education in Holland was in a terrible state at that time and boring conservatories focused on classic music or traditional jazz were my only options. It was too one-sided with maybe 1 or 2 hours a week spent on your actual instrument. I just decided to do it all myself. Most of the musicians I played with when I was between 16 and 25 years old were studying or working full-time. Their motivation was that they were sceptical about ever being able to make it in the music industry and they just wanted to have a degree or a job as a “backup”. At that point you’ve already given up on being a professional musician. I never needed or wanted a “backup plan” because I wasn’t going to accept anything other than achieving my goal. When you approach your career that way, you command a lot of respect from people you (could) work with, and it works in your favor. It also simply forces you to work your butt off, which is the only way to make it happen anyway. I still get really sad when talented musicians around me turn down amazing opportunities because of their studies or jobs. I just can’t imagine that. I would happily quit a job and not know how the hell I’m going to pay rent and possibly lose my apartment when I come back from a tour. Carpe Diem baby! You could die tomorrow. Never turn down an opportunity to do something awesome.
Then there are other, more basic essentials such as reliability. Always be prepared; always be early (not “on time”… early!). It might have been “cool” in the 90’s, but I don’t do drugs. Never have, never will. Not having a criminal record also helps! Of course you have to be a great musician. But again, it’s better to be a great person and an average musician, than to be a total virtuoso but a person people don’t enjoy being around. Too many musicians are only focused on becoming extremely skilled in their instrument, and completely neglect the personality part. Make sure you are a cool, likeable, inspiring person. It’s essential!
Do you see yourself as ever following the path of many other drummers and putting together an instructional DVD or something to that effect of enabling aspiring drummers to replicate your style?
Absolutely. Even though I teach a lot and have done clinics all over the world, it’s really something completely on the side for me, though. I have no time to organize or finance something like that myself so it will only happen if a production company or publisher would approach me and have everything sorted out and all I have to do is show up, play and talk. I’ve made several attempts in the past but trying to work with people who can only help you in the context of a “favor” are usually pretty unreliable so I’ve given up on that. I do have some videos on YouTube which basically came to be out of necessity for my students. I literally have an entire DVD worth of material written out and ready to go and really hope I can do one someday. Also, it’s material no other drummer has ever covered on a DVD before. I would have no interest in doing a DVD in which I explain the obvious stuff that has been covered in a dozen other DVD’s, just because I want to be able to say I did a DVD.
How do you feel about new musical initiatives such as Spotify?
I gotta be honest with you…. I have no idea what that is. I’m too busy to keep up with other thing sometimes. It took me years to finally sit down and get a Facebook page. And now people keep talking about this Google+ thing. I’ll probably be the last one to sign up for than one also!
Can you illustrate some of the projects you are presently involved in?
Apart from the one single a month I’ve been doing with Bumblefoot since January, I’ve been working on a ton of recordings at my studio. I’ve produced some stuff, including the new Indestructible Noise Command album, which is coming out this summer. I also play drums on it and that album was probably the biggest challenge I’ve ever had as far as technical playing goes. That album was purely a technical challenge and a pay check for me, but it sure was fun to do. I produced and played on a song I did with Ted Poley (Danger Danger) and I also toured with him a bit. Unfortunately I had to step out of his band because there was no money involved but it required a very significant investment time-wise and I ended up putting a lot of paid work aside for it. A great example of how sometimes money can really get in the way of doing what you really want to do. I’m currently recording drums for a bunch of songs for Anneke Van Giersbergen’s new album and I’m about to finish up the drums for the album of an amazing guitarist/songwriter from Europe called Milan Polak. I also did the drums for the album of guitarist Noud Smeets, an old friend from Holland. I’m very proud of that one. I believe it’s coming out in October. Then there are dozens of indie artists/bands I’ve recorded for, am still recording for, or will be recording for soon. Sometimes a full album, sometimes a couple of songs. Almost always fun! ;-)
Other than music, what consumes your time?
Not much. I like spending time with my wife but since she’s a huge music fan herself and also plays the drums (as a hobby, in her case), it’s basically drums and music all day, every day. My wife and I will actually discuss bass drum pedals while watching drum videos on a Friday night at home on the couch. We’re geeks. We recently got a couple of kittens which I actually purposely did to distract myself a bit and force myself to relax more!
What do you gain from travelling to and living in numerous localities of different cultures and so on?
Weight! Hah! I love food and the different foods all over the world. But seriously, it’s just extremely fascinating to meet people from places thousands of miles away with whom you share the same interests and then to see the differences and similarities in how their approach to everything that’s involved with being a musician. It’s extremely inspiring. I grew up in The Netherlands. There’s a distinct difference between the European music industry and the American music industry, and between the musicians. In Europe, music (or entertainment in general) is considered something that’s not much more than a “snack” or “side dish”. Even though fans and musicians are as serious as anywhere in the world, the industry is small and has sort of a “hobby” vibe to it. There are big artist and labels, but the ones actually making a living off of it are few and far between. It’s next to impossible to make a living as a musician and sustain to do so for years. Only very few can make that happen. As opposed to the US, where the music industry is an actual huge industry and it’s more realistic to become an actual professional musician. However, musicians in Europe tend to be more disciplined, organized, focused and dedicated to the actual music and tend to not get too side-tracked into the whole musician lifestyle thing. Probably because almost all of them still have to maintain a day job next to it. They don’t have the time for over-the-top photo shoots and to spend all day on the internet promoting their band. The little bit of time they have, they use as effectively as possible. It keeps them more grounded. Of course there are exceptions on both ends. But at the same time, it’s great to be part of the American music industry because people in the US tend to take you more seriously and being a “musician” is generally accepted as a profession. It’s just very interesting to sort of be part of both of those worlds.
What inspires you?
You know, that has changed over the years also. I used to get really inspired by other bands and seeing concerts. I was very focused on just music and bands. Nowadays, I get more inspired by little things like a great friendship, my wife, my family, a beautiful day outside… My new kittens. Being an independent drummer who gets hired to tour or record, I often step into situations where there’s a lot of personal drama and ego involved. The artist or band often doesn’t have a drummer for a reason. So sometimes I really have to force myself to channel inspiration from external sources and that can be challenging. I try to avoid those kinds of situations and I rarely ever end up joining a band that hired me for an album or tour. But, even though being an unnatural type of situation, it can often lead so some incredible music. It’s all about how you deal with it. But luckily I also work with a lot of really cool people and it inspires me when they are really into what I do. Nothing is cooler than to get a call for a session and the producer or band wants me to do whatever I would naturally do, just because they want *me* on the record. Or when I am asked to do a tour and the artist wants me to play whatever I feel like, even if I completely change the drum parts of a well-known song. It’s a huge compliment and those are usually my best recordings or performances. Listening back to such recordings inspires me because it reminds me of a fun time.
What are some of your immediate to long term goals as a drummer and person?
Nothing crazy. Just to keep doing what I do. I would love to tour more and ideally with a major act. Touring with Lita Ford was a dream come true, although short-lived. A bit of a tease! Again, personal drama and egos and some of the guys who had nothing to do with it ended up losing the gig in the process. It’s the name of the game. There are generally no contracts or guarantees.
I would love to someday buy a nice house with a big piece of land and a couple of dogs running around, somewhere sunny. But as long as me and my wife are healthy and happy, anything else is just gravy.
How did your relationship with Bumblefoot come about?
I was a fan since the “Hands” album came out. When I visited NYC for the first time in 2000, I met up with Ron and we jammed. I was extremely intimidated and totally sucked but we became friends. I saw him play in Paris during the Uncool tour and it still is one of the most awesome concerts I’ve ever attended. Then, in 2002, Ron was set to do a clinic tour for Vigier guitars in The Netherlands and he asked me if I wanted to get a band together to play with him at these clinics, rather than him playing to a tape. I agreed immediately but I knew I was getting myself into trouble. I had been a fan for several years, but had never actually attempted to play his music. I was a decent drummer at the time, but some of Ron’s stuff is flat out sick. Me and two friends of mine rehearsed for a couple of weeks and somewhat pulled it off. Ron was really cool about it. He was happy to be playing with a band, even if we were screwing up all over the place. It was a dream come true to be playing with him, but I wasn’t happy with my own performance. Then, several months later, Ron called me from France saying he was on tour and his drummer had to go home sick after just 2 shows. He needed me to fly to France the next day. I was actually in Germany at the time, on the road with one of my bands. Luckily it was the last show. The only thing was… I could play 15 of Ron’s songs but needed to know 30 for this tour… Rather than staying at the hotel as planned that night, I volunteered to drive the band home so I could make my flight the next morning. It was a long drive all through the night. Once home, I burnt the set list onto two CD’s, got a pack of batteries for my discman and a stack of paper, and wrote everything out at the airport and on the plane. That was a total preparation time of maybe 5 hours and my notes were less than adequate. But it had to do. When I arrived in Bordeaux, I basically put the drums together, had a quick dinner while the opening act played, and then stepped into the scariest moment of my life in front of 800 people. Ron was cool to suggest we leave out some songs, just to take some pressure off and we could go over those at sound check the next day. The show went surprisingly well and much better than any of the clinic shows I had done with him. It definitely had a lot to do with the fact that the band on that tour was tight as hell and really helped me through it. It was a total blast.
I’ve basically been Ron’s drummer since. I had been playing with the idea of moving to New York for years and had totally fallen in love with the city. In 2004 I took the plunge and made the move. So from that point on I played on all of Ron’s recordings. It’s been a huge pleasure and honor. At this point in his career, Ron could probably get any drummer to record with him. So when he still calls me, I am excited every time.
Is it perhaps your most important relationship musically?
Absolutely. With Ron, I have been in many situations where I really had to push myself. And rather than being crushed by the pressure, I end up popping right onto a different level each time. Either chops-wise, or on a level of understanding music. Ron is really good at pushing me in a way that I’m barely even noticing what’s going on and before I know it I’m playing something totally crazy. It made me grow tremendously. It has given me the confidence to be able to accept any kind of gig without being afraid that maybe I can’t pull it off. Whether it’s complex music, or just a lot of material to learn in a short period of time.
What sort of person is Bumblefoot?
I probably know him on a very different level than most people out there. I’ve known him since way before GnR came along and he would travel with a guitar and one pair of fresh underwear so he could fit enough boxes of cd’s into his suitcase to sell and feed his band, hah! He’s a great human being. Always makes sure the people he works with feel good and are comfortable. He gets a lot of people that want to be his “friend” for the wrong reasons but he’s always fair and friendly. It’s a balancing act that few people have mastered as well as he has. We’ve gone through some frustrating situations together but we’ve never lost focus on the reason we’re working together and that’s something very precious. So many people get so carried away in ego trips so easily but Ron has remained the Ron I’ve known for 11 years, even though his life and career went through a drastic change in 2006.
What attracted you to working with Bumblefoot?
His music is obviously awesome. It’s like 10 genres in one. Extremely varied and challenging. And then when I got to know him as a person and a friend, the whole package is just great.
What in your opinion is Bumblefoot’s strongest musical output?
I don’t think he’s done anything weak. I love the earlier stuff he’s done. It’s so innovative. There’s no other artist like him. I love how he inspires people, without really intending to. It’s a very humble sort of thing. Even though he is quite possibly the most gifted guitarist walking this planet, he will jam with anyone and not get frustrated or feel or act superior. Even when he most definitely is. He simply immediately focuses on the possibilities and doesn’t worry about possible limitations. So I think when you are able to use your skills purely to serve the music but have your personality blend with those of who you’re working with, you can do amazing things without anything getting in the way. And that’s exactly what he does.
How do you feel about Bumblefoot’s involvement with GN’R?
I’m extremely proud of him but also fascinated. When he first told me about it, I was in total disbelief. Not about the fact they asked him, but I just couldn’t picture him in that band. And then right after that I got it. The style of music is very different than his own, but then it made sense simply because he’s so talented, he can do anything. He’s like a chameleon. He’ll adapt to the situation without becoming a different animal. And do it extremely well. He ended up fitting in that band like peanut butter in a Reese’s cup. Axl was determined to get him into the band and I now understand why. He knew Ron would fit so well.
You’ve been integral to Bumblefoot’s 2011 singles and several previous efforts – is it a partnership you’d like to continue as long as possible?
Duh :-) It’s been a ton of fun. The songs we’ve been releasing this year have been particularly cool because those are the first songs Ron and I actually co-wrote by jamming at my studio for months. For the Normal and Abnormal albums, he had everything written when I came in.
The covers are also really cool because they show a very different side of both of us, while being unmistakably Bumblefoot.
There’s been rumblings of a CD compiling the singles – what do you know about this (if anything)?
I remember Ron playing with the idea but we haven’t discussed that actually happening. Who knows!
Is a Bumblefoot tour a realistic possibility in the foreseeable future? Have you discussed this?
We haven’t. That’s really the kind of question I can’t answer. It’s Ron’s call and his schedule with GnR is very unpredictable and I am not in the loop as to his schedule with them. Sometimes we are both very busy and don’t get to catch up for a couple of weeks and I find out he’s on tour in Asia! But I sure hope we can tour again eventually. If you’ve never seen a Bumblefoot show… It’s not your average concert. It’s an experience!
Have you got any intriguing stories to tell from collaborating and touring with Bumblefoot?
I could write a book full of them…. Never a dull moment when hanging with Ron. From him stealing a moped in Paris and driving it around a busy street with his pants down, to us and the band checking into hotels in strait jackets and restraint masks and the crew wearing mental institution orderly outfits. We tour in style!
Which artists would you kill to work with?
Hmmm. Many. Whitesnake would be a dream gig. Or Foo Fighters. I would love to sit in with Iron Maiden at a Rock In Rio show for a song or two :-) John Mayer would be sick. Or Matthew Bellamy.