Max Weinberg is a modern-day drumming legend. Gaining notoriety as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, he also served as the drummer on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and “The Tonight Show” when O’Brien briefly took it over. Now, as Springsteen heads for Broadway, Weinberg is taking his human jukebox on the road, allowing the crowd to pick the set list in real time as the concert unfolds. Among the stops on that tour will be in Charles Town, West Virginia, at the Hollywood Casino on Saturday. We recently caught up with Weinberg to talk about his career in television, the difference in drumming between him and his son Jay, and why he still drives himself from city to city.
Before we get into the tour, I wanted to get your thoughts on the recent passing of Tom Petty. Did you know him at all?
I did and it was a terrible shock to read about his very, very sudden death. I can tell you that he was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in the music business, a really lovely guy, really down to earth. I can visualize myself standing with him at his concert at the old Meadowlands Arena in the hallway and he was real friendly, really down to earth. Obviously, he was a phenomenal talent and he’s the same age as me, 66, so … it’s a big loss. It’s been a sad month or so, with Las Vegas and Florida and everything.
I’m glad you brought up Las Vegas because the issue of security at concerts now is at the forefront of the conversation. Has this been something that’s always worried you, or is this something in the last three to five years that even the idea that someone can do this at a concert now — it’s new territory, isn’t it?
Well, I think the issue of concert security was brought into focus with the tragedy in Cincinnati with The Who, back in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s with the stampede. The idea of security in large open spaces is something that I don’t think has ever been lost on anybody who participates. Whether it’s a stadium or a field or what happened in the club in Paris, in your wildest nightmares, you would never think that a mad man that would perpetrate such instantaneous carnage. There are really no words, only to say that the feelings you feel for the people at the concert and their families, and the horror — as a drummer, my job has always been to get people off their feet, dancing, and a concert has always been a reason to get away from the real world for a couple hours. Then, to have reality strike you so brutally and so suddenly … we’ve had fireworks at shows and that’s exactly what it sounds like. It takes your brain time to process what exactly is going on. Is it part of the show? You don’t really know. It’s just an unspeakable, unthinkable act. It seems endemic and it’s a horrible tragedy.
You’re going on tour now and you’ll be out for pretty much the rest of the year, right?
Yeah, I’m delighted to be playing with what I call Max Weinberg’s jukebox, which is audience-only requests. The audience creates the set list. It’s been really wild and a lot of fun. It’s not really a concert, it’s a party. With Bruce and the E Street band, in Europe several years ago, people just started bringing signs asking us to play songs, 90 percent of them Bruce songs. That was always a fun part — he would run out and collect these signs and we would play a couple songs in the middle of the set based on these signs. Then people started bringing signs asking us to play other people’s songs. This idea came about after we finished “The River” tour in February in New Zealand. I took about a month off, and when I take time off after a long tour like that, I REALLY take time off. I just sleep. Your body decompresses. When you’re on tour, even when you’re not playing, you’re always in a heightened state of adrenaline-ization, I call it. Four hours of playing three or four times a week is both physical and mental. So, I took a lot of time off and then my manager called me up and said, “What do you want to do next?” I said, “I want to sleep some more! Why?” He came up with this idea and I said, “Wait a minute. What you’re talking about sounds like a human jukebox — the audience picks the set and it’s different songs every night.” So, we developed the idea for that and debuted in Chicago in April and it was a huge success. People loved the idea. At that time, we put together a short static video board of songs that people could pick from and now we have two huge revolving scrolls of 400 songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s — stuff I learned how to play as a kid. We have a repertoire that includes 90 Beatles songs and we play about 40 songs a night over the course of close to two hours. This is a very up close and personal show. I go out into the audience and ask people where they’re from and what song they want to hear. It’s not formal at all; it’s a party. A reviewer described me as a cross between Dave Clark and Dick Clark.
Do you get a lot of Bruce requests?
Yeah. We play a number of Bruce tunes. There’s generally a volunteer who wants to come up and sing and I’m happy to oblige. They get to sing and I get to play the drums as I played them on the record so they have a memory of singing while the guy who played on the record is playing behind them on the drums. We played to a packed crowd at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park at the end of August and there was a lot of that. At the end, we must have had about 50 people surrounding us onstage for this type of singalong. That’s the type of thing that’s likely to happen. Last week, we had Nils Lofgren, who lives in Arizona, come up and do a bunch of Bruce songs with us. There’s always surprises and you never know exactly what you’re going to get. It can go from Chad & Jeremy’s “A Summer Song,” to ACDC’s “Highway To Hell,” all played with commitment and respect for the music.
Are there any songs you would not play?
No. The job of a drummer, in my experience, is you gotta know how to play everything and if you don’t know it, you need to know how to fake it. The other night, we were in Arizona, and someone yelled out “Rock And Roll” by Zeppelin. I had never played that song. In fact, the guys in the band had never played it, either together or on their own. But you’ve heard it a thousand times. So, I told a little story about the drum intro, which was taken from the Little Richard song, “Keep A Knockin.” Then I looked around and go, “Fellas?” And they go, “Yeah, we can play that.” So we played it and killed.
Your son Jay is the drummer in Slipknot. What if somebody yelled out a Slipknot song? Would you guys play that?
That’s where I draw the line. I can’t play that. I am amazed every time I hear or see my son play that. His interest in Slipknot began when they made their TV debut on the late-night program, I think in 1999. If you can imagine that band, and me sitting five feet away off-camera. I thought they were great and really entertaining. I ran home and told my son, who was 9 and a dedicated goalie in hockey and he hadn’t played an instrument at that point. He was starting to get into music, and I said, “This band was really great; if they ever come around here, we should go see them.” So, a few months later, I took him to Ozzfest and Slipknot was on the bill. We got to meet them and he loved it. Whenever they came around, we’d go see them, and I think that’s what sparked his interest in playing an instrument. I could play maybe two bars of “The Devil And I” or “The Negative One,” which Jay played on, but I couldn’t get further than that. That is hard conceptually and that’s hard to play. So, my hat is off to my son. I’m very proud that he won the “Modern Drummer” readers’ poll as best metal drummer this year.
I read that you always used to drive around with your drum kit in your car in case if any opportunities to play came up. To you, what makes a good drummer? How do you define a good drummer?
That is a true story — I did carry my drums all the time because you never knew. My idea was that once my young, teenage bands broke up, I wanted to be a freelancer. What makes a good drummer to me is the ability to drive the band. To be a commanding presence. And above all, to keep good time. I think the only drummer that was ever hired to do a drum solo was Buddy Rich. You’re there to support the band, to make the transitions, particularly in pop music, from one section to another, and to lend your creative voice, but in a structured way. There are rules, and you gotta learn those before you start to break the rules. I also have a five-piece hard-bop band and it’s a completely different style of drumming. Almost every song, you’re doing a solo and you have to have a different vocabulary than when you play rock. I don’t consider myself a jazz drummer, but you know, I played one on TV (laughs). But, to answer your question, time, time, and time. That’s what a drummer is supposed to provide.
You had the opportunity to step out as a bandleader, most famously, with Conan O’Brien. I read that you once said being the drummer in a “Tonight Show” band would be the most ideal job and then you kind of ended up getting that job. Was it the most ideal job?
Well, I did say that in an interview, shortly after I became the bandleader and music director of “The Tonight Show.” I had never been on TV, except for one time, I sat in on the short-lived Dennis Miller show. It was a whole new experience for me and it came at a wonderful time in my life because the E Street Band had broken up, I hadn’t been playing a lot and my children were young. For 17 years, I was able to be home every night, so I loved that job. It was a great time. It was stressful like any job where you have to be spot on all the time. But it was a comedy show, and I really enjoyed the people and going into my bit to make people laugh or to enjoy the music. My model for that band was Doc Severinsen, dressing up, playing everything we did small. Paul Shaffer, my dear friend, changed the landscape when he brought rock to late-night TV. So, I wanted to go the other way — a big band approach. It was different at the time and then a few years after we debuted, the swing dance craze happened and we were playing that kind of music. So, I guess we tapped into something and it became a hook, it became a gimmick. One of the high points for me was when I saw my name in the same sentence as Doc Severinsen, having been one of, at that point, six individuals who had become the bandleader on “The Tonight Show.” It blew my mind.
You’re in your mid 60s. Do you ever plan to retire?
No, I don’t think I’ve ever met a musician who wanted to actually retire. Frank Sinatra retired for about 15 months. I never have any downtime. My first love, of course, is playing with the E Street Band and actually, over the last 14 years or so, we’ve played a lot. More than we’ve ever played. But it’s never like we plan a tour. It’s very ethereal. Fifty percent of my drumming work is in private events. This jukebox idea is efficient because it’s two guitars, bass and drums. It’s fun because I love playing Beatles songs. Or a Manfred Man song. Or an Eagles song. The list is endless. But no, I never think about retiring. One of my great role models is Roy Haynes, the drummer who is, I think, 93, but he plays like he’s 23. I mean, I still set up my drums.
Wait. You don’t bring out a drum tech with you?
No. I drive myself from job to job. I’ll fly if it’s more than three or four hours. I played in Pennsylvania about a month ago, and I drove to West Virginia, so I had the car. And a couple fans surrounded me in the parking lot after the show. They looked at me and said, “What? You’re driving yourself?” I said, “Of course! If it’s good enough for Chuck Berry, it’s good enough for me.” I’m very proud to get my drums up and get them the way I want them. Of course, when I’m with Bruce, a very, very talented guy helps me out with that stuff, but that’s the most mechanical thing I could do. I’m very happy to be a beneficiary of the comfort that Bruce and the E Street Band affords us all, but I subscribe to what Frank Sinatra said when asked what his favorite places to play were — a night club with 500 people or a stadium with 50,000. He said to the woman, “Hunny, they’re all 50-dollar dates.” You do your best no matter where you are.