Modern Drummer - Interview with Mark Zonder (07/1992)
by Matt Peiken
Note: There are some editorial comments in {} from around 1996 or so, by Piotr (fates@poczta.fm).
His original posting of this interview can be found here - http://republika.pl/fates/markan01.htm
Text copyright by Modern Drummer© by kind permission of Suzanne Hurring

Mark Zonder is more of a music critic than he is a music fan. That, perhaps more than anything else, shapes the direction he takes with his playing. Deliberate, dynamic, poly-rhythmic, and completely unpredictable, his approach goes against the grain of traditional heavy metal fare. And, quite simply, that's the only way he would have it.

"I can't stand ninety-nine percent of the metal that's out there right because the drumming is so unimaginative," Zonder says. "People say metal is limiting, but I think players limit themselves. I just decided I wasn't going to do that to myself and that, whatever style of music I played, I was going to make the drumming as interesting as possible - to play and to listen to.". It's a good thing for Zonder, then, that he's found a band that allows him plenty of room to make good on his self-promise.

Fates Warning is far from a household name, even in metal circles. Many who've heard only a brief earshot of the band have been quick to write it off as a Queensryche clone. But that label proves to be, upon closer inspection, a big injustice. Like Queensryche, Fates Warning employs an operatic lead singer (Ray Alder) and goes out of its way to throw listeners to curve with healthy doses of odd time signatures and engaging sweep s of intensity. But Zonder, through mental and physical dexterity, creates percussive novellas - like songs within songs - that few rock drummers ever approach.

All of that manifest on Parallels, the band's fifth record (and second with Zonder){and next four already launched plus one upcoming since then - fates}. The album marks Fates Warning's most forward attempt at elusive commercial success, but shorter, more accessible songs do nothing to water down Zonder's contribution. On the contrary, they enhance it. The resultant combination of factors makes Parallels one of the most unheralded artistic successes in metal this year {1992-fates}.

Modern Drummer: Is album-oriented rock station something this band has always shot for?
Mark Zonder: No, Fates Warning never targeted radio until this album. We specifically decided to do something that was accessible to more people, but still keep a product that was real true to what we do. It's not selling out or anything, but it has to do with structures of the songs. We're in a position now where we want to sell a lot of records.

MD: Is it hard to bridge that gap, between keeping with the band's musical vision and making music that's more accessible?
MZ: Actually, in a way it was a little easier for us, because you're talking about a band that has a pretty wide musical range. There are so many tastes in this band - from Paula Abdul to Yes to everything in between. I think that's one of the things that's special about this band. It's not five guys {four at the moment & guests on keys - fates} who have grown together and listed to the same music and ripped off the same people. We all have different influences, which comes across in the music, and that makes us different than most.

MD: But you're relatively new to the band {twelve years now, hug! - fates}. How did you first meet with the other guys?
MZ: I had a band in '83 called Warlord that was on the same label as Fates Warning {Metal Blade - fates}. We did a couple of albums and the guys in Fates Warning were really big fans. They came out here to L.A. to record one of their records, and I used to work with a few engineers as a drum specialist - tuning drums in the studio. They used some of my different drums and cymbals, and we just met up from there. We kept up with each other after Warlord died, and we developed a relationship over the years.

MD: Was Warlord doing things that touched on what Fates Warning was into at that time?
MZ: Oh, very much so. It was in that classic heavy metal vein á la Rush, Deep Purple, Rainbow, Uriah Heep - those kind of bands. This was between 82 and '84, and it was very much a time when metal was non-existent here in the U.S. It was around the same time that Iron Maiden and the whole new wave of British heavy metal was breaking, and it was a tough time for us. The band was well-received by its fans, but it was just one of those things that wasn't meant to be.

MD: So did Fates Warning come at a perfect time for you?
MZ: There were a couple of years there where I did a lot of different things. After Warlord died, I spent a little time looking for a band in the same style, but I just got sick of the same old thing - double bass and screaming vocals. I've always been into different kinds of music. So I started studying funk and a more linear type of playing, and I hooked up with a couple of bands. They weren't great bands, but the whole object after learning different skills was to apply them to a band situation. That's where you find out whether you've really got it and if you really understand it all. At one point, I was rehearsing with a full-blown funk band from 3:00 to 5:00. Then, I'd play with a sort of new wave, very straight, electronic-oriented band from 5:00 to 8:00. And from then until around midnight I rehearsed with a rock band. That happened here in my studio for about three months, five days a week, and it really developed things for me. Probably one of the best things I ever did was get away from rock and metal and start playing different things, which I ended up applying to rock and metal.

MD: Was it that you just didn't know what you wanted to do musically at the time?
MZ: Since I was really young, I've heard things in my head differently that I could actually physically play them, and I wanted to try to bridge that gap. I heard a lot more sounds than just kick, snare and tom. I ended up in a band that had former members of Animotion, and I got into the whole electronic thing. It was all pads, and I was playing to a click, which was driven by a sequencer for keyboards. So I got fully engulfed in that. At first I was a little out of place. I wasn't hanging out with rock guys, but it was basically going to school for a year. I punched enough buttons and looked at enough computer screens and programmed enough stuff that I have it down. Ninety-nine percent of the things I learned there I apply to what I'm doing now. I'm playing to a click and using electronics, and I'm doing a lot outside of straight 2 and 3, kick-and-snare type of playing. And that would never have happened if I hadn't gone to another band and musical situation.

MD: Did you grow up in the middle of the L.A. music scene?
MZ: No, I was born in Detroit, and we moved to the Bay Area when I was ten. Then at about 22, I moved out to L.A. when I had an offer to play wit h a band, but it turned out to be a big farce. It was the classic story of moving out to L.A. on a prayer and a suitcase. I was young and naive, but it was the best thing I ever did. If I had just given myself a month or a year for things to work out, I probably wouldn't still be here. But I settled in and persevered and put up with a lot of smooth-talking people to get into some situations
that have actually helped my career. Another good thing was that I didn't have to do the starving-musician routine. I got a job a collection agency as an office manager, and I had friends who helped me out. I love L.A. now, probably because I'm settled here. Granted, it has its bad points, just like anywhere else. But this is where the music scene's at, and I like being around people.

MD: Did you take drum lessons?
MZ: Oh, yeah, for years! I took my first lesson when I was seven - my mom still has the receipt. When I moved to L.A., I took lessons from a lot of big-name players, but it wasn't really happening. It killed my bank account, and I didn't feel I was really getting anywhere. Then a few years ago, I hooked up with a guy named Craig Yamek, who was a friend of David Garibaldi. He's just an incredible drummer - more of a jazz-funky guy, not a real rock guy. It was one of those things where he'd charge me $10 for an afternoon, and I came out of those sessions with so much stuff that it kept me busy for weeks. Most of it dealt with just opening things up - poly-rhythmic, playing with all four limbs, different stickings. He was definitely someone who gave me one thing that led to about fifteen others.

MD: Did you have a goal at that time of eventually hooking up with a band you could apply those things to?
MZ: I always hoped to, but the bottom line is that I liked playing the drums, period, so I was fine by myself. I didn't put a lot of pressure on myself for it to happen within a week or a month or whenever. If I got a chance to play in a different kind of band where I couldn't apply the progressive, fusion-type things, that would have been fine, too. I played in a band called Plain English that was the ultimate 2 and 4 gig, but what was cool about it was all the electronics. So instead of riffing and playing a lot of chops, I was playing pads for sounds and it was just a big learning experience. You can sit at home and program all this cool stuff. But unless you take it out, rehearse it in a band, and play it in front of people, and figure out what to do if the sequencer goes down and things like that, you're not going to get the full experience of electronics.

MD: You also seem really business-minded. I mean, not everybody owns an eleven-room rehearsal studio. How did you fall into that?
MZ: I've always been sort of a businessman, and it was just an opportunity that came along. In the Warlord days, we all moved into small building where we lived and rehearsed. When that fell apart, I wound up with 1,000 square feet in a 10,000-square-foot building. Time went by and friends of mine would come up and rehearse. It just turned into something I started making money at, and the opportunity arose with the landlord to take over more and more of the building. I eventually wound up with all 10,000 feet and now we
have eleven rooms with one soundstage and a professional recording studio with double walls, double doors, and sand-loaded floors.

MD: Changing the subject, I notice you use traditional grip.
MZ: I always have, since I was seven years old. I don't have the matched-grip thing down at all, and I've spent so much time playing traditional grip that I get just as much power out of it as I would if I went matched. I have a lot more speed and dexterity this way, too, and I like the way it feels. And I'm a traditionalist at heart. All the guys I love play traditional - Steve Smith, Dave Weckl, Vinnie, Gadd.

MD: When you finally got together with Fates Warning, did they share the same musical vision you had at the time?
MZ: Sort of yes and sort of no. The albums that they'd done in the past were a little different from what they w ere going to be doing on their next album, which turned out to be Perfect Symmetry. I liked the guitar playing and the vocals they had, but, more importantly, I knew that mentally and socially, as people and where they were going, we'd click. A lot of it also had to do with the fact that the new album was going to have a different style, and I wanted to be part of this growing style. They were basically at the point where they wanted to change drummers because they wanted to expand, and the previous guy {Steve Zimmerman - fates} couldn't do certain things.

MD: So did you have pretty much carte blanche to play whatever you wanted to play?
MZ: That brings up kind of a funny story. In the beginning, since they were in Connecticut and I was in L.A., we did a lot of stuff by mail. They would send me tapes with just either click or a guitar part and Jim (Matheos, guitarist and songwriter) would write out the time signature so I could count it out and know where I was going, and it was up to me to come up with whatever I felt like. The first couple of tapes I sent back with drum ideas, I was just trying to get a rough idea down. Jim called me back a couple of weeks later and didn't really know how to say it, but wanted to know if he could get me to play more, which is basically a drummer's dream come true! Then I started coming up with all these parts. But when you finally sit down as a band, they don't all work out. So obviously, when we started to rehearse before the album, we simplified things a bit and tightened parts up. But to answer your question, it was definitely a go-for-broke approach.

MD: It seems like it would be kind of hard to avoid stepping on each other's toes that way?
MZ: What's really cool about this band is that, musically, we're not stuck in formulas. We're not one of these bands where the singer says, "Turn that guitar down because it's louder than me," or "Stick the drummer in the corner," or anything like that. We want the best musical performances out of everybody and for everybody to shine as much as possible. If you have a bass player or drummer who is unbelievable, you should utilize those strengths instead of just going by one's guy vision. Our band feels that the more exposure one musician might get, the better it is for the band.  On Parallels, we were a little bit more subtle with that concept. There's a lot more hi-hat and cymbal stuff going on, which doesn't get in the way of the music like big tom fills. There's a way to use hi-hats and cymbals and ghost notes on the snare to break things up and give it more texture. It sounds funny to hear a hard-rock guy say this, but with both records I wanted to groove and make them accessible, but I also wanted them to have more of a smooth texture instead of "slam, slam, bam, bam". I know there's a time and place for that, but I wanted to go the other way for these records.

MD: With everybody in the band so geographically spread out, what's the mode of operation for the band?
MZ: Jim, who writes the music, lives here in L.A., Ray lives in Texas, and Bones (Joe Dibiase, bass){not with the band from 1996 - fates} and Frank (Aresti, guitar){not with the band from 1996 - fates} live in Connecticut. For Parallels, about three out of the eight songs were written before we went into rehearsals, so we had a chance to work out our parts separately. We all met up in Toronto to put the rest of the songs together, rehearse for three or four months, and do the album. Then we all went back to our respective homes and, a little later, everybody flew out to L.A. to do the video. Then for the tour, everybody flew back here to L.A. to rehearse for a few weeks before going out. Working this way had good and bad points. The bad points are pretty obvious. With everybody so spread out, it costs money to get us all together to do anything. But at the same time, since it's expensive to hook up, our time together is very serious and productive.

MD: How much time do you spend working out your parts before getting together with the rest of the band?
MZ: I usually play a couple hours a day, every day. I don't know if it's one of those built-in Jewish things that makes me feel guilty if I don't, [laughs] but I get antsy if I don't play. I'm constantly screwing around with something on the drums, between the electronics or going over old songs. I remember doing things during soundcheck and that I later developed during my own practice, that either showed up one the new record or will show up somewhere else down the line. It's just a thing of constant playing, because the more you play, the more you improve and come up with things. I've turned my hands around and tried playing the basic ride with my left hand - not that I have it totally down - and I try to come up with complicated bass drum patterns with my left foot. I may never do some of these things in a band situation, but they strengthen my playing.

MD: Have you improved a lot as a drummer since doing Perfect Symmetry?
MZ: I'd like to think I have. I spent a lot of time doing physical things, but also just mental conditioning. I don't thing people realize that playing a musical instrument is such a mental process. My style has changed a little bit. I've spent time working with just one bass drum, and I basically don't even use the second one anymore. I've got that down to where I want it, but I have spent a lot of time playing double-stroke rolls with the kicks. I've worked more on playing four strokes with one foot, and a lot of it is just a matter of woodshedding, deciding what you want to do. That's how I learned to play double-bass to begin with, just holeing myself up in a room and going right, left, right, left for hours. I've spent a lot of time in between records just playing with my hands and training them for strength. I just like to play all the time, just for the heck of it.

MD: Do you think the mental aspect shapes your playing more than physical dexterity does?
MZ: Most definitely. If you know how to read, even just enough to get by, and you know the mathematics of music - halves, quarters, 8ths, 16ths, and triplets, and how everything fits together - once you have all that mastered you can play just anything you want. You can sit down and think of exercises yourself by just breaking down a bar. You can come with millions of riffs and ideas with that approach. Writing it out opens up so many avenues to create, and it's just another tool to express yourself. Guys who don't know how to read it all and have no conception of it are in the dark and are hurting themselves. They're doing it all by ear.

MD: You told me you spent a lot of time recently going over your specific parts. Do you have every note you're going to play etched in stone?
MZ: Oh, yeah. There's nothing left to chance with me. I'm not a jam drummer at all. What you hear is what is going through my mind, and I see it written out as I'm playing it. Night in and night out on tour, it's going to be exactly the same. I figure I spend enough time coming up with these parts that those are probably going to be the best ones to play, so there's no point in trying to go around them. What I've done with some of the songs off past albums is simplify a couple of riffs or make the fills a little bigger and simpler so the audience can grab them more easily. I still like to play the 32th-note stuff, and it sounds good if you're standing real close to the drums and can see what I'm doing. But nobody's ever going to catch it in a concert setting. And what that does is take a song that I might otherwise be sick of playing after three or four years and make it challenging again and give it a new feel. But also, in a lot of our stuff, you can't just jam through the verse and stomp on the bell in the chorus. There are odd bars here and there and specific parts that have to be played, so there's not a lot of room for s crewing around.

MD: Sometimes you seem to play a song within the song yourself.
MZ: I'm glad you brought that up. Only drummers would pick that up. My approach is that I like songs to build. If you take the song "Eye To Eye" {from "Parallels" album - fates}, the first verse is just the kick and the hi-hat, and the snare comes in on the second verse. I'm also a big fan of real big dynamics, and this ultimately leads to a better song. If your drum part from beginning to end is its own song and has relatable parts - like your first fill being pretty simple, the second being simple with a little twist, and third maybe an all-out blow of chops - the building process there is more interesting to a listener, even if they don't consciously realize it. I definitely sit down and try to compose my parts with that in mind.  One thing I like to do a lot - and I notice Neil Peart {Rush drummer - fates} also does this - is change the drum pattern. Sometimes it might just be quarter notes kept on the hi-hat with just a basic snare backbeat, and then in the second verse, there will be a paradiddle played between the ride cymbal and hi-hat, with the snare still falling on 2 and 4. That change of motion will pick the music up, even if the rest of the band keeps its parts the same. That also sets up the vocals well, especially in a chorus. It adds to the song.

MD: When recording, do you do the drum parts first, or do the other guys play with you? One might assume that with all the odd-time changes going on, you would get lost if you recorded by yourself.
MZ: Actually, I recorded all the Warlord albums and some of Perfect Symmetry with just me and a click. I knew the songs well enough, and we didn't have to waste time setting up the guitar sound we weren't going to keep anyway. And it's easier for me, too, because if I screw up, we can just stop right there and do it again. But it's nice to have a scratch rhythm track and vocals to go by, too, because it enhances the feel of my playing, and you also get a better feel of the space in be tween.  On Parallels, the songs are a lot more groove-oriented, and we wanted it to have more of a band feeling. Also, as a reference point for the rest of the band, it's nice to have everybody record together because, otherwise, they might discover a kick drum part that doesn't quite lock up to what the bass is doing - and you can't go around editing drum parts.

MD: You mentioned Neil Peart. Was he a heavy influence on your style?
MZ: The thing about Peart is that I'd steal more the idea of his riff than the lick itself. I like the slower, groove things. I'm not a big tom-tom fan - you'll never hear eight notes descending down the toms from me, that's just not my style. But Peart was one of those guys, along with Aynsley Dunbar when he played with Journey, who inspired me to take the drums to a different place. It was more of an outside playing style.

MD: Most hard rock an metal drummers are going away from electronics, yet you really embraced them on the new record {Parallels - fates}. Where do you come up with these sounds and decide how they fit in? It seems like it would be hard to meld the acoustic  drums with the purely electronic sound you went for.
MZ: I think I proved it can be done very effectively. It just goes back to my hearing things differently than just snare and kick. I like the mix between the two because I think it adds excitement, and the electronics are just another voice for me and a means of  expression. I've been lucky enough over the past few years with my Akai S900, to get literally hundreds of samples from lots of different people - ever thing from goofy things like Pee Wee Herman talking to dozens of kick and snare sounds. And you can manipulate samples and gate or delay them with the outboard gear. It just came down to humming the songs in my head and hearing different sounds. I like combining acoustic and electronic snare sounds, because you still have the presence and the attack of an acoustic snare, but the electronic sounds can add variety and make certain parts stand out.

MD: You've told me that Parallels is sort of the band's do-or-die attempt at commercial success. If it doesn't happen, what do you see happening with the band, musically, in the future?
MZ: I doubt you'll see Fates Warning going back to doing wild concept albums {what about APSOG, hug! - fates}. We're trying to put a lot more emphasis on the song that on the individual, and I already see a couple things developing for the next record.

MD: What about you as a drummer? This is obviously the most successful band you've played with, but what if it doesn't break big? What then?
MZ: I love playing in this band and the luxury I have of playing what I want. Plus, it's very important for me to play with guys who have a similar musical vision. That's one of the things that keeps us together. Whenever this band ends, though, I'd like to have ability to make records with a variety of different people. That's something I really desire.