There’s a point in Jay Bulger’s compelling documentary Beware of Mr. Baker where the filmmaker sits down with Eric Clapton and asks him to pit Cream drummer Ginger Baker against his rock contemporaries – John Bonham, Keith Moon. Clapton makes a sour, disgusted face, and immediately dismisses the notion that they’re even on the same plane. Baker, he explains, didn’t just bang things with sticks. Baker understands music, arrangement, dynamics. This immediately made me think of one of the best rock drummers in present-day Philadelphia – Chris Powell of avant-garde indie luminaries Man Man, as well as side projects Adventuredrum and Spaceship Aloha. Powell is someone who you could watch perform and think, wow, that’s one tripped-out percussionist. But those paying attention can also quickly pick up on the nuances of his playing, his imaginative arrangements and attention to detail.
With Beware of Mr. Baker opening at the Philadelphia Film Festival with a screening tonight at West Philly’s Rave Theater, and another one on Sunday at the Ritz East, I decided to get Powell’s take on this drummer whose career bridged rock, jazz and African percussion – as well as polo, drug addition and no shortage of emotional and domestic troubles. We each watched the film, and met up last night to compare notes. Powell observed the similarities between Baker’s untamed red beard and Animal from The Muppets. We pondered Clapton’s skepticism of rockers who die young. “It’s like you’re preserved in amber,” Powell said in agreement. “You don’t have to deal with real life – things like trends changing, or the music business changing, or navigating a career in an industry that mostly wants young people.” And we had a wide-ranging discussion on this dynamic portrayal of a fascinating figure in contemporary music, which you can read below.
The Key: As a non-musician watching the movie, I responded to Ginger Baker as a versatile drummer but also a fascinating personality. As a drummer, what was your take?
Chris Powell: You know how there’s certain bands you like, and if you really connect to it, that’s when the digging starts? I never really connected with Ginger Baker that way, probably because I never really liked Cream that much. So definitely his personality was pretty shocking, I had no idea it was how he was, manic or whatever. I didn’t know about his background in jazz. Which is funny because Mitch Mitchell, for example, he played with Hendrix, and he’s one of my favorite drummers. Hendrix had a rock band essentially, and Mitchell was a jazz drummer who was doing the rock thing. But I didn’t know the extent to which Ginger Baker was actually straight up a jazz drummer.
TK: It was neat to see this period towards the beginning of rock, where the people who were playing in bands are really schooled people. Not that people today aren’t…
CP: They’re not! A lot of them aren’t.
TK: But in a pre-punk era, its interesting how, wow, a lot of these people seriously know their stuff.
CP:I feel like this comes up pretty regularly, just because of the roots of music in America and those Big Bands. If that’s when you grew up, that’s what you know. You know jazz, because that’s kind of all there was, and you had to take your pick form all these really brilliant bands. Regardless of the arrangements, and what your taste is, you’re around nothing but pure talent. So it created this situation where, at the beginning of rock and roll, there’s just these brilliant players. They could totally play this rock stuff, yeah, but they are also dynamite musicians. It was also really funny to hear him talk smack about John Bonaham and Keith Moon. I was like wow, no shit!
TK: Yeah! That description of Ginger’s playing – where he seems all unbridled, but unlike those guys, he actually knows a lot about music and arrangement…
CP: He’s actually a really musical player. It’s interesting because when they were talking about his influences – how he heard Max Roach playing drums and connected to it instantly – for me, it was the same drummer. When I heard Max Roach, it all made sense. That’s what I want to do with drums. I don’t want to just hit them because, up until hearing that, I was just getting coordination going. When I heard Max Roach, I was like wow, it sounds like a piano. It’s musical, it’s all about arranging, about this whole world of what you can do on the drums so you’re not just hitting them like Keith Moon, who’s just bashing the shit out of them. And I have to say, I never liked Keith Moon because of that. It’s a one-trick pony. But you think about Bonham on the other hand, and the drum solo in “Moby Dick” – that actually references Max Roach, a track called “The Drum Also Waltzes.” So I thought it was funny that Ginger Baker was also talking shit on Bonham. I thought Bonham was a really musical player.
TK: Another thing I took from the movie as a non-drummer was probably the best description I’ve ever heard of the thing drummers call independent limb coordination – and how Baker’s not really playing as fast as it sounds like he’s playing. For you as a drummer, how long did it take you to get to that point?
CP: As soon as you get the gist of how jazz works, and wrap your head around all that coordination you realize how all the different limbs can do different things. Then you can start doing some really fun, syncopated, coordinated stuff on the different limbs. It can be really simple, but the combo all of a sudden sounds like this big wild thing. But it’s just four parts that are pretty simple in a lot of cases, but when they’re all doing something different, it sounds really exciting .
TK: What did you think about John Lydon’s take on Ginger Baker as a character? How his music was fueled by his personality, and when the music is this spectacular, he can’t question what it took to make it…
CP: That’s always a weird thing, right? With musicians, bands, artists. A lot of people who we really enjoy their art and enjoy their music, they actually do things that when you actually get down to us as individuals, and what our morals are, you get to thinking “Wow, I would never that in a million years. That dude rolls like that? Holy shit.” But if you’d never found out, you would have enjoyed it. People do all sorts of really dumb shit, but strangely they give this gift to the world. Not to get all deep or whatever, but straight up, they create this thing that’s a gift to the world, that everybody gets to share and enjoy, and they can be total dickheads. It’s funny how that works.
TK: Do you think is it better not to know more? Like with Mitch Mitchell for example, would you want to find out…
CP: Yeah, no, I’m good! For me, his drums are like gospel, that’s the jam. That shit is brilliant to me, and I’m leaving it at that.
TK: If you can think about this movie without your drummer hat on, how would you see it?
CP: It’s a story that has all these ups and down, but it makes for a really fascinating life story. People have their different legacies that they leave, and his certainly has more drama than your average person. It’s funny ‘cause I I watched it with my wife, and of course I was on the end of listening for information on who he played with, and their background, and she got to take it in as, well, he’s this dude. It’s the story of a dude, and not so much this amazing drummer. This movie actually does both of those things really well.
Beware of Mr. Baker opens tonight at the Philadelphia Film Festival with a show at Rave Theater at 5 p.m., and also screens Sunday, October 21, at the Ritz East at 9:40 p.m. Tickets and information at the festival website.