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Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Corky Laing interview

Corky Laing: "In Mountrain I was like Henry Kissinger between Leslie West and Felix Pappalardi. It was insane."
Although fostering a career stretched well past his Mountain period, Corky Laing will always be best remembered for the overwhelming power trio he formed with Leslie West and Felix Pappalardi. Blatantly salacious and oozing with passion-driven, sweat-slicked intensity, Mountain were no doubt a revelation that took blues rock to a completely new level. Nowadays, the legendary drummer is back in memory lane with “Corky Laing plays Mountain”. 

What do you really look forward too with the “Corky Laing plays Mountain” tour or Europe?

I look forward to the music, the repertoire. You know, it’s been 40 years since I’ve played some of those songs. And it’s a joy to play them live with Joe Venti (bass, vocal) and Phil Baker (guitar, vocal). The three of us really work very well together. This is a thing that’s been going on for a while now.

Your CV includes various projects with names like Mick Ronson, Jack Bruce, Ian Hunter popping up – among others. So why the focus solely on Mountain?
We also do Bruce, West and Laing songs for the encore. But of course there is an abundance of material. For that reason the set list is comprehensive; it’s not a variety show. Needless to say, Daniel, a lot of material has piled up over 50 years. So I have to choose in just focusing on one particular thing. Now the thing with Mountain songs is that people want to hear them the way they were originally recorded. You see, what happened was that when I went to play new year’s eve gig with Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule in 2011, Warren asked me if I could learn “Nantucket Sleighride” the way it was originally played and recorded – he’d love me to come to play the gig at the Beacon theater in NY.  Warren is a bit fan of Mountain and he was a little upset that we didn’t play the songs the way they were done initially. You see, a lot of musicians feel that they want to jam, and Leslie West in particular always loved to improvise, that way a lot of things change over the years when you play certain songs, you know.

Nowadays the audience wants to hear Mountain songs the way they first met them and fell in love with them. It brings them back in their lives. So this is the route we are taking with Venti and Baker. When I play live with these guys, especially in England and Germany, the response from the audience is overwhelming. For me personally, the feedback is very redeeming.

Looking back today, was joining Mountain back in 1969 a challenge for you as a drummer?
Definitely! At the time I was playing in a band called Energy. We played original material, but we didn’t have a guitar player, at that time we had keyboards, you know, Hammond, drums and bass. So when it came to playing in Mountain, the whole power trio concept was totally challenging. But I enjoyed it from the start. I can use it as a metaphor for sports – when you watch a certain sport it is fun, but when you play the game, it the real deal. Your soul and your mind absorb all the aspects. I had to keep my shit well together, and it took time.

Where you aware of the band at that point?
No because the band was basically just starting. What happened was that Leslie played at Woodstock, where the band was announced as Mountain, while in fact it wasn’t yet called that, Leslie just wanted to have a record named “Mountain”. Felix (Pappalardi) joined Leslie at Woodstock and after the show the pair talked about creating a band together…and they didn’t want to use Norman Smart, I’m not even sure if they had the same keyboard player. Anyway, Felix came to me saying “listen, we wanna get Steve Knight in here and do a proper band, we wanna do a band called Mountain”. So the original lineup of the band was Leslie, Felix, Steve and myself. And that’s the band that recorded “Climbing!” and “Nantucket Sleighride”, and toured from 69 to 72. And of course we got together again every now and then.

I knew Felix had a great reputation, and Leslie was in a band called the Vagrants that was also pretty big. But speaking of Mountain, when I joined the band was not established at all. As a matter of fact we were pushing the band on the road in order to get some profile. We were already lining up dates for Mountain to play, high schools and stuff, anything to let people know that we’re coming.

Did you meet Norman Smart, the drummer you replaced?
Yes indeed, I met Norman. He was a nice guy and actually and excellent drummer. But he wasn’t at home with that style of music. He wanted to play quieter, not liking it loud at all. And Felix just dumped him right away. I remember him telling me of a gig in New York back in 1969 where then band was jamming and Norman turned around and went “can you turn down your volume”. That was the last straw. It was all over for him.

What are your memories of making “Climbing!”?
Yes, I’ll give you a couple. When we were finishing the album at the record plant Jimi Hendrix was recording in one of the studios next door…and I had previously met Jimi in Montreal way back when he first started touring, so I sort of knew him. Anyway, we finished “Mississippi Queen”, and we were basically done recording, it was our last day. Felix turned around and said to me “listen Corky, you say you know Jimi, why not invite him in to take a listen, and we’ll see what he things of it”. I said “yeah ok”, and went down and knocked on the door “Hey Jimi, we’re right next door, would you take a moment and listen at something, we’d like to have your take on it” and he said “no problem”. So he came in, sat down and put his head down right in front of the engineer’s seat, and we played him “Mississippi Queen”. I remember he was just bobbing his head. Needless to say we were on needles and pins. When the song finished he looked up and started singing the riff. He looked right at me and said “now that’s cool”. So Jimi was the first person to hear “Climbing!”, and we got his endorsement. He was very polite.

I had the lyrics written for “Mississippi Queen” way back when I was in Nantucket in a beach club, and I was watching this girl Molly. She was dancing while wearing a see through netted dress, a really hot chick. Anyway, I remember my friend saying to me that she’s from Mississippi. The power went out in this beach club, so there were just these emergency lights shining on Molly, and people just kept on dancing even though the lights were down. But there was enough light to see through that dress she was wearing, you know. I kept the beat to “Cripple Creek” and I just started screaming “Mississippi Queen” and she looked at me and I went “You know what I mean”. Anyway, I brought that idea in to Leslie, and within 5 fucking minutes he was wailing on his guitar. He just came up with the lick and the feel. Basically the song wrote itself.

But I could go on and on about “Climbing!”, that one of those things you may call me one because there so many stories there.

Were you disappointed when Mountain first disbanded in 1972? Decades later it still seems like a wasted opportunity.
Yes, I was very disappointed. I was like Henry Kissinger in the band between Leslie and Felix. They had their girlfriends and egos, you know how it goes. Plus when the band started to get really successful everybody began grabbing for credits and stuff. Leslie was in Woodstock and Felix had moved to Nantucket as a result of me taking him there. So I was literally commuting the turn pipe going back from Nantucket to Woodstock all the time, trying to keep the whole damn thing together. I thought it was insane. Of course at the time I was not a principle owner of Mountain, it was just Felix and Leslie. So disappointment is the right word to use here. And as you said, decades later is seems like a waster opportunity. I couldn’t agree more. A total waste! It was stupid, you know. We could just say that we’re taking a sabbatical for a while, but we never did that. It was sad.

With Felix Pappalardi there was a strong connection between Cream and Mountain. With that linking in mind, was Ginger Baker in anyway an inspiration for you at that time?
We’ll I must tell you that these are some pretty involved questions, a lot of personal stuff here. Absofuckinlutley! Ginger was the man at the time. It was quite a challenge to meet up to that bar. But Felix was very patient about it and I had a great deal of freedom probably as a result of Ginger’s approach. You know Cream was basically a jazz band. And this really helped me; it made me work so much harder. And god bless Felix for letting me go, you know. In other words, I didn’t have to go with a click track – you know how important is that for a drummer? In Jazz they don’t go near it. There’s only a few drummer left in the world that don’t use a click track, in rock anyways. I take great pride in the fact that I’m all over the place. I would say that Keith Moon is responsible for that style of mine. I guess I’d go shopping between John Bonham, Baker and the Who guy as far as influences goes.

Coincidentally, last week we did a show with Corky Laing Plays Mountain and we packaged it up with Kofi Baker (Ginger’s son) plays Cream, or the Cream Experience. I must say it was a joy to play with Kofi, he’s a great drummer. And he couldn’t have been kinder when he said that the only other drummer that he felt closest to besides his dad was me. I tell you what, I just about cried. I was such a kind remark before a sold out audience. But back to Ginger, he played a very important role and inspiration in my life.  Many times I had an opportunity to meet him at parties and different get-togethers, but I never went out of my way at all to say hello to him in person. I wanted to keep my idol on the pedestal. I know Ginger has a lot of personality flaws, but I didn’t give a shit. When you have an idol you just don’t care about things like that. But I didn’t want to meet him as a person; I wanted to enjoy his talent, and his soulful playing. (chuckles) I remember Kofi asking me “did you ever hang around with my dad?” and I said “no, I stayed away from him”. He laughed and said“boy I gig it. I know exactly what you mean”.   
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