Walfredo Reyes, Jr.: Drumming Up The Stars (INTERVIEW)

Drummer Walfredo Reyes, Jr. has illuminated the music of a surprising diversity of musicians that include: Elvis Costello, Santana, Lionel Richie, and Smokey Robinson.  Walfredo plays all styles, delivers flawless playing and deeply emotional musical results. Chances are you’ve heard Wally play drums on a film score, on a hit song, or with one of your favorite bands.

When did you start playing drums, and what were your influences?

I started playing drums when I was around 12 years old, taking lessons from my Dad (master Cuban drummer) while living in Puerto Rico. Then my family moved to the U.S. where I continued to play, travel and absorb the American eclectic music like blues, jazz, R&B;, zydeco, etc., and by the time I turned 16, I was already a professional musician making music and earning a living .

When did you know what you wanted to do with your life?

Most of my family members were musicians, but I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was young (that made me a rebel I guess – ha!). When I reached the eighth grade I realized that music was a part of my daily life, and I asked my Dad for drum lessons. After a few years of studying music, I started to perform with different bands, and I thought, if I can play music as a career it would be great, ‘cause it gives you so much satisfaction and emotional release…so music is what I have been doing since I was 16.

I understand Steve is planning on performing some songs from Traffic and his solo work on this tour. When did you start playing with Steve Winwood?

I started to play with Steve in 1994 when he reformed Traffic with Jim Capaldi and asked me to join the band, which I was honored. I shared the drum set and percussion chair with Jim Capaldi. I have been working with Steve since then, on and off. He takes long brakes from touring.

I know you liked playing with Jerry Garcia, and you did play with the Grateful Dead when you were with Steve Winwood before, in Traffic…do you have anything to add to that?

Oh man!…Jerry Garcia and I first met when I used to play with David Lindley & El Rayo-X. We opened for The Grateful Dead back in 1987. He was a true music fan and used to hang all day at the concert site listening to the bands opening for them. He loved to talk about all kinds of music. In 1994 Traffic opened for The Grateful Dead for 11 shows, and on our last show Jerry jammed with us on the song “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” It was great! We spoke about playing together. He wanted me to play in his solo band after the tour was over but it never happened unfortunately. As you know he left this world abruptly, and I am sure there’s a great jam right now going on somewhere in Heaven!

I loved your playing with El Rayo-X and with Santana…do you bring some of that to the Winwood band?

I am sure I do, cause I carry those experiences in my heart. I have been very fortunate and blessed to have played with these fantastic, unique artists. Steve is a very versatile, eclectic musician, a very special artist and a great human being. He likes to be free to take his music anywhere it can go. Especially in this coming tour. This band can go anywhere in the world in one show. It’s like a musical travel agency! ‘Where should we fly to today?’

You are immortalized by a song written about you, with your name as the title. A song written and recorded by Phish…how does that feel?

It’s an honor, especially now that they are so big and successful. This song is kind of biographical of their youth experiences…going to see bands I was in, and also biographical of myself too, so now that years have gone by, it’s like a funny/serious song to hear, with great sentimental memories.

What was it like going to England to record with Steve?

Fantastic! Where Steve lives in England is very beautiful and tranquil. He built a studio/house from a 17th century barn on his property. It was a relaxed atmosphere, and the thing he was looking for musically, was for the band to just play like a non-studio situation (no headphones, click tracks, loops, etc.). Just set-up close to each other and make music like when we were kids, and that’s what we did. Not much rehearsing, just play and record, play and record. In fact there’s a track in this album, “Sylvia,” where it was the very first time I ever played the song, and it was a great band performance on the first take, not perfect, but raw and unique. We tried recording it later on, and that first take just had something special, so Steve said ‘that’s the one.’

Jose Neto is a new member with the band. You two have known each other for a while, right?

The first time I heard Jose play was when he played with Airto & Flora Purim. He is a very versatile guitarist that compliments Steve’s playing, great rhythm & lead player. When I get the chance, I play with his own band, which is an exciting band to play with.

What can you say about the About Time recording, as it’s a new Winwood project, and it’s the first release on his own label.

This is the first time Steve did not have a record company looking over his shoulder, you might say, in a studio situation. The songs are personal for him. He just wants to play songs that he can stretch out and feature the B-3 Organ on, in this album, which is a big part of his musical roots and youth. I just hope people like the record as much we did recording it. Steve is playing organ bass pedals, the organ and singing at the same time. It’s going to be great playing these new songs and the older ones too, on this tour.

Can you let me say anything about shows that are still unannounced?

Well…a lot of stuff is being confirmed at the moment. Check out stevewinwood.com or my site walfredoreyesjr.com periodically for new add-ons. We will be touring with The Dead in June, Europe & Japan in July, and we will tour again this September and October in the U.S. and Europe.

Yesterday was the first rehearsal before the tour, and this morning you performed on the Today Show. Tell me how that felt.

Well, it always feels great to rehearse Steve’s music. We had to edit the songs we played on the Today Show, like on any other TV show, they have to be shorter than the live performances. We are opening for The Dead, so we want to have enough songs so we don’t repeat the same songs in every show.

I’m not going to guess how many songs, but I’ll guess that it’s a lot. I’m really looking forward to hearing the mix of both early and newer songs of Steve’s, along with songs from the new CD. Are you using any type of format for the shows?

Not really. Steve makes up the set list before the show and we just play.

Usually when I see you play, you use your white drum kit and assorted gems from your cymbal collection, as well as other percussion. What are you using this tour?

I am basically using an Orion Mapex Drum kit, Sabian cymbals, LP percussion, Remo drumheads and Regal Tip sticks. All these companies have ALL the goodies and toys to create great grooves. They are very supportive of me on tours.

Since the Steve Winwood and David Lindley shows are so close together, I’d guess that the drum kit you’ll use with Winwood will be in cartage when the Lindley shows start. Are you going to use a different drumset when you do the Lindley shows?

I have different drumsets for these kinds of situations. Mapex Drums provides me with drumsets in different countries also, thank God. For example I will play on July 27 at the Fuji Festival in Japan, (3 hours from Tokyo) and the next day I fly to L.A. and rehearse with Lindley! As far as the musical equipment, my theory is; let the music dictate your set up, let the music ask you for what it needs.

You are known for bringing a lot of joy to your playing. What is it like to be the only non- observer of that?

Maybe that’s because I feel the Joy! I am lucky and blessed to be able to play music. I must say that I have learned from my father to be a professional musician, meaning that no matter of how you feel inside, or what has happened to you in your personal life…the worst you should play is always good! When it’s great, that’s even better. You should always be consistent and give out your best, and not let anything come and block your musical performance. The people come to hear you play, not moan and whine about your personal life and hear you play bad, even if you are not feeling your best. So, sometimes even if I am sick, I will be smiling and playing with lot’s of joy, and the music does take over in a healing way.

So, by rising above personal pain, and giving joy through music, heals you as well as the audience?

Absolutely! Music is an exchange of energy, band with the audience, musician to musician, and when you are playing by yourself you draw from your emotions and energy of your memories, ‘cause this influences you at that particular time of performance.

People see you as an easy to identify drummer, perhaps because one of your signature emotional traits is “fun” in your playing. Is there an emotional difference between playing live and working in the studio?

I think that when I am playing in front of an audience there’s more of a performance element than when you are recording and there is no audience. I just try to emit the emotion that it’s needed of me from the music. If it’s dance and fun, then that’s where I am going 100%, but if I have to play something angry or sad or a love song…then I will emit those emotions from the drumset. The drumset is not just the tempo & beat maker, it’s part of the whole music mood.

I can’t think of many drummers who can get an audience anywhere in the world to have such close emotional involvement. I’ve seen you play large venues in lots of countries, and during your solo you can get a unified “hey!” from the audience when you throw your arms up. It’s amazing, it transcends all language and culture.

Thank You. That’s the ultimate compliment. I’d rather hear ‘I had a great time tonight at the concert,’ rather than ‘ah, it was ok, but that drummer had chops.’

Do you have plans to do anything besides playing gigs when you go to Japan or Europe?

When you are on tour there is not much time for anything other than travel, soundcheck and perform. It’s a tight tour, not too much time to sight see and party. We came, we played, we went!

As the summer goes on, you’ll go right from a tour with Steve Winwood to touring with David Lindley & El Rayo-X, two very distinctive bands. Of all the things that you’ll do in the next two months, is there any single thing you’re looking forward to doing?

I am used to doing many different kinds of music styles. Going from one style to another…for me it’s fun! It’s like eating in a French gourmet restaurant today, and sushi tomorrow, and stopping for a hamburger a few days from now. Variety is great for a diet! It makes my heart happy and grateful. Each music style has a history behind it. People, culture, different eras, attitudes, pain, laughter…they are all different entities. I am looking forward to all these tours, then getting to L.A. to try to finish music for my CD that I have put on the back burner for a long time, and spending time with my children.

Let’s come back to El Rayo-X in a moment. Speaking of your kids, are they all musicians? I’ll never forget a show at the Greek Theater, and your son Joseph was sitting in a chair behind the drum riser, watching you and drumming along with the band on the padded seat of another chair. That’s not odd, but he couldn’t have been any older than three at the time.

My 13 year old son Joseph has been playing drums since he was two. Now he is playing bass. He’s into Punk rock. My 12 year old daughter Lilliana is an amazing singer and she is starting piano lessons, voice lessons, and she also plays flute. My younger son Gabriel, 8, is into animals and wants to be a zoologist but his talent for singing in perfect pitch and remembering lyrics is undeniable. He wants to start taking guitar lessons. I am really proud of them, and of course while I am doing all this touring, the medal has to go to their mother that takes them to all these music lessons!

David Lindley and El Rayo-X was arguably one of the best party bands of all time, it’s an over-due reunion.

Yes, it’s a long overdue reunion and it’s going to be great. I got a call to put the band back together and play some concerts with David Lindley and El Rayo-X in August and September when I have a break from touring with Steve. This worked out great. I already rehearsed with Lindley and it was just like playing back in 1988, the music played itself. Of course, Smitty on B3 organ, passed away. Ian McLagan will be playing with us. I can’t wait!

What a great choice, Wally, he’s an amazing keyboardist. He’s played with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Faces (and Small Faces), Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, Carly Simon, and a hundred other great artists on albums now known as ‘classic’ or ‘timeless’. That’s going to be a real treat!

And he is a funny and very humble musician too!

Do you anticipate any jams with The Dead this summer?

Every night we jam with each other’s band! We sit in with them & they sit in with us. They are so much fun to tour with…it’s like a bunch of children in a playground!

I know part of the fun of a tour is seeing friends who are touring too. Are you expecting to see some friends on the road this summer?

Always you will bump into other bands while on tour. Sometimes at music festivals there are many of the same bands staying in the same hotel so it can get very festive!

In July you’re playing in Italy at a club with a 1,500 person capacity. That’s going to be filled with some very fortunate music lovers. Are there any club dates in the U.S.?

With Steve we will be doing from clubs (House of Blues) to huge festivals, and in September we will do theater venues.

Your first Lindley show is August 2nd and you’re opening for Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. To date, this remains the only west coast show they’ll play. Have you played with them before?

No I haven’t. Roxy Music is a great band…”Avalon”…I love that song.

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