When you go see Gary Clark Jr, the first person you notice is the guitar player himself. But the second musician that catches your attention is drummer Johnny Radelat. He hits hard, he keeps a strict rhythm and he is the tracks on which Clark’s train keeps rolling.
But there is not a lot of information out there about Radelat. His bio on Clark’s website says he was raised in Miami, he plays Gretsch drums and he honed his style on reggae, R&B and funk. But there must be more to him than that. So the quest began.
His Sabian Cymbals bio listed 1990 as his drumming origins and 2001 as his professional debut. And a video for Modern Drummer goes into the particulars of his drum set (interesting fact – he uses military dog tag chains on his cymbals that work like rivets).
Radelat has been with Clark a little over five years now and appears on 2015’s The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim. When I mention to him that he’s a hard man to research, he laughs. But a peek on his Facebook page ended up being just what I needed to find the gateway to his past and his present.
I saw a photo on your Facebook page of you with a Mickey Mouse drum kit.
(laughs) That was the first one
Did you get that because you wanted it or because they thought you would like it?
I think my parents thought I would like it and it actually is the reason why I got into drumming. I must have been about five or six and that’s some of my first memories around that time period. I remember having it and then watching like MTV, the early days of MTV, and mimicking what the drummer was doing. So I think my parents kind of forced it all on me by getting me that drum kit (laughs).
When I was in school in Miami and got enrolled in like the concert and Jazz band in what they call Middle School down there, like seventh grade, I didn’t have a drum set at home but I still had those pieces from that toy. I was like thirteen/fourteen years old, kind of starting to play, didn’t have a drum set, but I remember having the kick drum pedal and I would set it up on a box and I had a couple of the cymbals from that kit. So I actually kind of learned how to play on that kit.
So you taught yourself? No real lessons?
No, except for being in school where I did learn how to read music, which I haven’t used in my professional career once (laughs). But, you know, I learned basic music theory and how to read music through school.
Who were you emulating once you started getting into it?
I went through phases when I first started playing. I was very into punk rock and heavy metal when I was really young. Initially, I was really into Lars Ulrich, Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax and bands like that; then like the Dead Kennedys and stuff like that, which I couldn’t really play cause that stuff takes a certain level of proficiency. Then after a couple of years, I kind of grew out of that pretty quickly and remember listening to seventies rock and really getting into Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Buddy Miles, the Hendrix Band Of Gypsies stuff. And that kind of became a little bit more attainable – not saying that the metal stuff wasn’t attainable. I liked the energy more than I did the musicality of it.
How long did it take you to realize that you had taken all these influences and were now developing your own sound?
Well, it’s kind of a work-in-progress. This kind of stuff takes a whole lot of time and five seconds before you die you go, “I got my own sound!” (laughs)
You don’t feel like you have your own sound?
Of course not (laughs). I definitely feel like I have my own technique style being that I have like a pretty unorthodox way of playing drums but it’s hard to kind of judge yourself. Like, Oh, I have my own sound. Cause everything I do always goes back to a reference. Even if it seems original at first glance, I’m always like, I kind of got that from listening to this guy and this guy and a combination of stuff. And I guess a style is created from that combination. But I think the point in my career or life when I started going my own way and not copying is when I took a break from playing drums in college for two and a half, three years.
Why did you do that?
Honestly, I was more interested in, you know, what kids do in college (laughs). I was really into in high school and then I went to college and I just stopped playing and it was actually great for me cause when I started playing again I met up with an old high school friend who was starting a reggae band of all things. I’ve always been a huge Stewart Copeland fan – Stewart from The Police – and he asked me and was like, “I remember you listened to a lot of reggae in high school,” and I kind of turned him onto it and he started writing songs and wanted to perform them. I was like, I could try it out and I’ve never tried playing reggae. It’s kind of a backwards way of playing when you grow up a rock drummer. And just relearning how to play drums in a completely different genre kind of changed my whole idea of what you’re supposed to do on a drum set. It kind of scrambled things up in a good way. And I learned how to play a little more subtlely with a little more taste, more musicality, rather than fast and heavy.
I understand that Gary calls a lot of audibles during a live set. As a drummer, how do you like that?
You know, for a while we never even wrote out a setlist. We have a couple of tunes, maybe three tunes that are generally what we start with and then one or three tunes that are generally what we end with. But everything in-between, Gary would always turn around and go. It was kind of the whole thing in this band and the whole thing with this band started with Gary’s fly by the seat of his pants and let’s see where this takes us and feel the crowd out and just be in the moment instead of planning out and doing segues from song to song. Gary would stop and tune his guitar between songs and it’s really casual, which is what I think people love about him and it’s what I love about him.
As a drummer, I remember the first couple of tours and that causes you a little bit of anxiety cause as a drummer you’re always like, okay, what’s the next tempo, what’s the next song, and ready to go, ready to go, ready to go (laughs). It took me a little while to get used to being lax between songs and not have a strict mindset of the way it’s going to go. But yeah, these days we’ll write out a setlist, just for the sound guy and lighting, but it never goes as it’s written.
How long have you been with Gary?
This band, it’s been the four of us since April 2011, so five and a half years. We did a tour, a nationwide tour, and ended at Bonnaroo and it was our first big festival experience.
The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim has been out a year and it really hits on soul and R&B. And that seems to fit you.
Yeah, definitely. I honestly lean more towards the Memphis soul stuff and the Muscle Shoals stuff more so than like Chicago Blues. I kind of grew up on more Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Al Jackson drumming, Stax Records stuff. So yeah, I’m a little bit more comfortable in that space. But honestly, I keep reading stuff and hearing, “There’s barely any blues on it,” and I’m like, do you even listen to Gary cause Gary since day one has never really done the straight blues thing. I think people are more referring to press stuff and write-ups that say he’s the savior of the blues rather than what he’s put out musically.
Did you have to adjust your style any to play with Gary?
No, and you know what, that was the beautiful thing is this band came about after one two hour rehearsal that Gary was an hour and a half late to (laughs). Then we went on the road two months and we all just kind of unspokenly knew what Gary wanted to do. And he’s such a strong player and frontman and he kind of takes the reins and is easy to follow.
Did you change your kit any?
No, I’ve always played this kind of kit. I’m using definitely bigger cymbals, bigger drums, definitely a bigger sound but the same size kit.
Your kit looks a lot like that Mickey Mouse kit
(laughs) Yeah, it’s pretty minimal
Why not go real big like Neil Peart or Mike Portnoy?
Honestly, I don’t know what to do with all those things (laughs). I mean, like when I sit down and play at home, I play a kick drum, a hi-hat and a snare drum and that’s really it. If you can get the job done with that, it’s almost like all the drummers I love. They didn’t even have to go to the tom here or there. Yeah, I don’t know what came first, like stylistically, if the small drum set creates the style or vice versa. But sometimes I feel like, yeah, if you feel uninspired or stumped, take away all your drums and just leave one cymbal and a snare drum and a kick drum and kick around.
What song in the setlist takes more energy or coordination?
“Ain’t Messin’ Round” – that’s an easy question to answer (laughs). It’s the one that if you were to drop a stick or something on the drum set would fall over, you would have a hard time getting through it. Most of the other songs, like if I need to lose a hand, I could do it.
You’ve played Jazz Fest in New Orleans several times. How do you like playing in the heat?
(laughs) Yeah, it’s hot but I actually enjoy playing in that kind of heat though. I do hot yoga and shit like that so I like the heat. I actually like the challenge of the heat.
What can you tell us about your work with the Greyhounds?
They’re kind of hometown heroes and the Greyhounds were kind of my introduction to Austin, Texas. I was living in Gainesville, where I went to college and started playing and touring in regional bands there. And the Greyhounds had been touring in a van and trailer since I started paying attention to touring acts and music really. Their first album was produced by Stanton Moore, who I’m a huge fan of. So I met them from them touring through Florida and doing shows and other bands opening for them and vice versa.
When a couple projects fell through that I was doing in Florida, I decided to think about going somewhere else and I tried Nashville out for a little bit but Austin seemed like a cooler place. I visited a couple of times and I absolutely loved it. And I called them up and was like, “Hey, I’m thinking about moving to Austin.” And they were like, “When?” “Like, I’m ready to go now.” And they were like, “We’re actually playing Austin City Limits Festival in two weeks and we just lost our drummer. Can you learn the songs?” And I moved to Austin, which was great.
And those guys are still doing it. You can ask any musician in Austin about the Greyhounds and it’s high praises. They might not be well-known everywhere but in Texas they are local heroes. And they’re kind of how I met Gary also. They’re good friends with Gary.
Is there any new music coming up with Gary? Have you been working on anything for a new record?
A single was just released that’s going to be in a movie about the oil spill with Mark Wahlberg [Deepwater Horizon]. It was recorded in London a couple of months ago while we were on the road. And Gary’s starting to write stuff while we’re on the road and record here and there. We’ve been promoting Sonny Boy Slim for the better part of this year but he’s still been finding some time on off days and whatnot to go into a studio. The new album will probably get worked on during the next holiday break.
When he’s writing songs, does he bring them to you guys in soundcheck to work on together or does he already have them more finished?
There’s some ideas that sprout from soundchecks, just jamming, cause there’s a lot of jamming that goes on in our soundchecks, and then he’ll take a riff or something and go back and come back with it later as a song. Honestly, from song to song, the process is really different. Gary writes the songs for sure but some ideas sprout from jams, some ideas will sprout from us kicking something around in the studio, some ideas will sprout from him messing around his sampler. It’s kind of a different process from song to song. We’ll see what the process is for this album (laughs).
What was your first “I can’t believe I’m here” moment?
There were a bunch of exciting moments, our first time playing Bonnaroo was pretty insane, but the first moment where I was like, whoa, was we were playing a show in East Hampton and Roger Waters and Paul McCartney and Jon Bon Jovi and Lorne Michaels were at our show – and we’re playing at a place that maybe fits two hundred/two hundred-fifty people – and after the show we’re in the dressing room and I’m about to ask our tour manager, “Hey, I usually wouldn’t do this but can we go down there and ask security if they could ask Paul McCartney if we could meet him?” And before I got to say anything I turned around and he’s walking up the steps and Roger Waters came up and they were all hanging out in our dressing room. That was definitely a moment.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough