Own the Temple: Corky Laing on club shows, Electric Funeral Fest and charging into your 70s

Fresh off a May run through Germany, Corky Laing, drummer of iconic Long Island heavy rock and roll group, Mountain, is back on the road, taking the Mountain repertoire (and then some) across the US on an ambitious five-week run that includes a headlining set at the much-anticipated second edition of Electric Funeral Festival this weekend in Denver, Colorado. (Get tickets here). We snagged a moment to chat with Corky prior to the first date of the US tour to discuss how live music and it's reception has changed over the past four decades, the merits - and traps - of playing songs identical to the way they were recorded, after parties, arenas, advice and more.

Interview: mg

 photo: Jerry Tremaine 

photo: Jerry Tremaine 

Hey, Corky! How’s everything going? You guys all ready for the road?

Hey! We are sort of doing a Nantucket Sleighride at the moment. We are on a ferry boat in the middle of the Long Island Sound. We are on our way to Boston to start this leg of the tour. Everything is sailing along, so to speak. It's really good. I am totally ready to go, yes. Very much so.

How was this most recent tour in Germany you just finished up? How was the reception?

It was excellent. On a scale from one to 10, I would give it a solid eight. I am not overdoing it. It is just that you have to balance between how you feel about the way we played and how you feel about the way the audience responded. When that balances out, it's really cool. I can't tell you how many times we all walk away from a gig saying, “What the fuck was that!” (laughs) And the audience loved it. And it’s the same with recording. When you’re playing, you find out pretty quickly what people like and what they don't.

And as the artist, you may get hung up on certain things that your audience isn’t even paying attention to.

I happen to have been fortunate enough to have had a good friend in Levon Helm, one of my favorite people of all time. I remember we were talking specifically about drum machines. And I said I hated being tethered to a click track. I always abandoned that in the studio and all that. I remember we were talking about all kinds of different things, and I remember in his solemn, southern accent he said, “Cork, music is a very special thing. You can do anything to music, music don't care.” Music don't care! Ya know, it's like you have the scenario where a kid writes a song for his girlfriend and it becomes a big hit. He goes on the road and he comes back and his girlfriend is listening to that song and she is banging his ex-best friend. Ya know, music don't care who it's being played for. I figured I would tell that sick story because, I don't know, I love it. (laughs) But the point is, you can do anything, it's just a matter of how the response is and what you are doing it for.

So we just finished a two-and-a-half week leg in Europe, got back, and Bill Ward from Black Sabbath, a good friend, calls me and says, “You gotta check out this agent. He is really cool. He is not a weasel. He is not one of the typical kinds of agents and he has this circuit that he books around the States. They are small clubs. They are not big events.” Quite frankly, I humbly said, “Hey, if they are interested, let's see what is happening!” Sure enough, he booked this tour that you are seeing, sends it to me and asks what I think. And I said, “Wow! You really think we are going to do all right?” Because it's tough out there. The paradigm has changed over the last 50 years years, to say the least. So yes, I agreed to do the tour. And actually, he started off with Denver. He said that this Electric Funeral Festival would love to have us, and I went, “Well, that sounds terrific. Now we have to fill in the dates to get to Denver!” We took the tour and I didn't get a chance to really take a breath and go, “Wow, this is pretty ambitious.”

Yeah, it's not a short U.S. tour you’re embarking on. A nice five-week run there with not much time off...

No, there isn’t! I am glad you noticed that! This is kind of a propitious time - here I am going into my seventies and I am doing probably one of the longest solo tours I have ever done. But you know, it's a time in life where you go for it. I am feeling really good, thank you, and it's a good time.

What else do I do? It's like they asked Keith Richards once - who I am not comparing myself to - but in terms of age and what we do, it’s similar. We play. Like Keith says, “What am I going to do? Go home and paint my house?” You get on the road and you play. That is really the purpose of this tour, to play the repertoire.

I have been watching some live clips from recent tours. The set that you are bringing on this current tour, is it similar to what you have done in the past, with a mix of Mountain, Cream and West, Bruce and Laing? Or is this one different? How do you go about selecting the set?

We are playing the Mountain repertoire, which people have been really responding to, as a result, by the way, of Warren Haynes, from Gov't Mule. About two years ago I was to be sitting in with Gov't Mule at the Beacon Theatre on New Year's Eve and Warren was talking about playing “Nantucket Sleighride”. He says "Cork, I'd like you to come up and play this with me on New Year’s Eve, but you have to rehearse it.” Because over the last 20 years that he’d gone to Mountain concerts, with Leslie and myself playing, he says he didn't recognize any of the songs because Leslie and I had changed a lot of stuff and we were jamming and all that. So I took it to heart. I went, you know what, the Mountain repertoire really has not been performed properly for 30 years. Leslie and I have been on the road playing Mountain in different ways and Warren Haynes brought it to my attention: "Maybe when you get out there on the solo thing, play it exactly like it was recorded.”

It’s interesting because as we are doing this tour, we do mostly Mountain material, and then people are calling out for West, Bruce and Laing. And we are ready - we have a couple of those babies. And then if people really love it, the Cream stuff, at that point, it’s sitting right there. I played with Jack (Bruce) for years. I played the songs a million times with him. What I am saying is that there are these levels you sort of build the set on. But like anything, it has its movement and over the years you get to know the sequence of what songs you are going to play when. We have an amazing guitar player who is very musical so we have a couple of surprises. I won't reveal those but it expands some of the music. Not that we change it, but we expand the ends and we are having a great time with it. The evolution of the set has been going on for 40 years, for me. And I have to say, Felix (Pappalardi) always looked to me when we did an album and were picking the sequencing. I love doing that. Getting the feel of the record when you listen to it and feel the pulse and you work it. It's really sort of a cryptic thing. But it’s fun. I consider myself pretty good at it.

Anyway, the sequence of songs over the years has come from playing and getting a reaction from the audience. For instance, the German audience is very different from the audience in the UK. They are in different mindsets. It sounds a bit out there, but you go into a room and you listen to the room. Then you do the sound check, and sometimes I would scare the guitar player and say, “By the way, you are going to do half the song here and then we are going right into that.” You know what I mean? A lot of guys are set in their ways, which I respect. I happen to be a guy who constantly changes his mind, so that can screw up a lot of things. But that is just the way people work - in different ways. I don't think the set will change that much in terms of this American tour, but then again, we are just starting so I should be very careful in what I say! Everything changes!

Who is joining you on stage this time around?

Leslie (West) is known as a guitar player and the Mountain music, it’s guitar-oriented. So I went shopping for the very best, contacting about ten guitar players on the East and West coasts. Sure enough a fellow out of Toledo, a friend of a friend, actually flew to New York from Toledo and says, “Let me play for you.” And the fucking guy, Chris Shutters is his name, he is my Shakespeare. He blew me away. Sings beautifully... And I have a bass player I have been playing with for years, Joey Venti. He is solid as a rock. He will just look at me and blink his eyes in time and I will know what the tempo is. It’s about having people who you trust on stage, who you trust to really have your back when you need it.

Joe actually is the image of Felix and Jack together. He plays just like them. Now I am not saying that he plays better or worse, but he, as they say, lives and breathes that style. There are a lot of great players out these days. God knows they want to play and they want to get out, but there is an era, a feeling about that time and place, sonically, that you sort of surround yourself with on stage. You want to make it evident that this is unique. You may not like it, you may love it, you may say it's old, whatever, but it is unique. And I love it because it just inspires the energy to get out there and do what we are doing.

You mentioned you had a small crew, what are you guys traveling in?

We are in a Sprinter van. In the old days, and even on the last Joe Satriani tour a few years back, we had a tour bus, but really there are no frills (this time around). We are playing small clubs. We have road manager - she is terrific - and right now we have a friend of mine who is driving. So really it is like camp. We just get out there.

But you know, you have to get along with who you are with. You are married to your band. So when you are spending 24 hours a day in the presence of each other you want to have good people. And that is the hardest thing to find. Often, everybody has an ulterior motive, but these guys are here to play. It's not like anybody is going to be able to buy a Rolls Royce at the end of this tour. Which is, by the way, too bad. But the fact is, we can use the support. We are not in any position to be cocky about anything. We have been on packages, and that works, but this is a solo tour. And dig it - we are able to get into a club whether it’s 200 people, 500 or 1000 and just have the stage. There is no big production. We don’t have an 18-wheeler with lights and everything. It is the music that ought to do it. And I have to tell ya, a lot of your generation are back to that. We get a lot of young musicians coming out.

 photo: Keith Curtis

photo: Keith Curtis

The Denver date for Electric Funeral Festival will feature musicians from across a few generations, including established acts and some of the best rock and roll bands on the rise - bands with musicians who’ve grown up on your music and your drumming and really view this as a once in a lifetime opportunity. Is playing at the top of a bill like this, at a festival like this, as significant for you as I know it is for these younger bands?

To put it in perspective, let's put it this way. I remember being on the road with Mad Dogs & Englishmen with Joe Cocker, and Joe went up to Dee Anthony, his manager, and says, “How could you put Mountain on the bill with us?” Because we were a power trio, or at the time, a quartet. I remember Dee Anthony saying, “Joe, you always put the very, very best opening act on any show to keep you on top of it.” And I never forgot that.

A lot of guys, they choose the opening act and cut half the PA so they don't have the power, and I mean, this goes on all the time. But I personally believed Dee Anthony when he said that. You want to have the very best guys, because you want to get to that bar, you want to stay at that bar, you want to get above that bar. So when you talk about these young bands, I love the idea that they are going to be on the bill. This is a big deal. It’s a great event, a musical event, and they are going to come with their game. This is not the Super Bowl of music but it is a musical nova. We are going for the moment. And if there are guys out there that are the best of their era, I think it’s great.

Does it change the way you approach the show at all, playing in a small club, like a lot of stops on this tour, versus an amphitheater?

No, it's different, and any band will tell you. Even the Stones. They love the intimate settings. And they played the arenas, and we played the arenas. It's good, for what it was at that time. That is what you did - you had the arena tours. And in those days, by the way, they didn't have the sophisticated mic-ing. I had two or three mics around the drums and I had to fight with the Sunn amps and the Marshall amps. It was a physical thing. It's funny, I was in England and I got an award - I can't believe this - for the “Grandfather of Heavy Metal Drumming.” And I am like, “WHAT!” That was the only thing you could do at the time, to cut through. And it wasn't that much of musical event in an arena. It was an event.

To answer your question, we are able to dig into the dynamics of the repertoire at these clubs. I could do a song and stop and talk about “Nantucket Sleighride” and if the music is right you could hear a pin drop. It's wonderful. You couldn't do that anywhere else. It’s not as if I am Bob Dylan and they are going to hang on every word, but I do a Bob Dylan song. I do “Like a Rolling Stone” as a drum solo. Who knows. I have a chance to stretch out and that is what is wonderful about these clubs. We play for two or three hours. Never did that before. I used to laugh at Jerry Garcia. We did shows and he’d say, “I am so fucking stoned man, I don't know what time it is.”

But we don't play just to play. We play because there is a dedication to the actual dynamics of the songs. We are a trio. So we gotta make it work. And we do. I don't want to hype you on it. I am so thrilled, by the way, to hear you describe these venues, because in most cases at this stage in a career, you have no choice. You either get on a package and you are in there - and I have seen these heavy metal concerts where they have 10 bands and they just go for it. Which is one style of doing it. But we get to own the temple, whether there are 100 people or 1000. It is our job - a job - I don't call it a job that much. We don't work. We play, and you can tell by my enthusiasm - I am not putting this on. I am psyched. It's an honor. It’s a fucking honor to get up there and have people listen to a repertoire that is 40 years old.

I think it is really a joy to get that reaction and I will say this very carefully: If there are 5 or 10 people, so be it. We go out and we say to the promoter, “Don't lose any money. Don't worry about it.” It's not a money tour, believe me. I've already paid my mortgage so I am all right. (laughs) Small little house... But anyways, to answer your question, it is very, very different. This to me is the new paradigm. To get into an environment where you are with the family. I don’t have fans. I have family. They know things, they live, they follow you, and sometimes they don’t. It's a sentimental thing. People come up: "I remember you doing this, I remember this, I was getting laid in the back seat to ‘Mississippi Queen’ and I didn't even make it to the solo!" Shit like that. I mean come on, you gotta get a kick out of that.

I gotta tell you, we don't have millions of Lady Gaga fans, but the fans that we have really loved the Mountain records. And we are finding that out. They are coming out of the woodwork. Not millions of them, but the ones who come out are so dedicated. They hear songs that they don’t quite know the names of but they remember the day when they were playing it on FM. It's wonderful. I thought this tour was a good idea because before I buy the farm and pass on, it's nice to have people remember a proper concert where you are playing the songs the way they are recorded.

Ok, so you are out on the road, the first day of many. Is there one thing you wouldn't dare hit the road without these days?

Yeah, I happen to have an amazing road manager, so I don't worry about any of that! She's not only beautiful, she is a very bright girl. She is a professor, and she is very strong and she has got a great focus. So when you ask me is there anything, no, she seems to have that together! As long as my hair is good! (laughs)

I have to say, you have to be fortunate to work with people you like. Essentially, you want to be covered. The main thing is that I know where I am going to play. And I always get nervous, no matter what gig it is. I always get that feeling in the belly, which I don't want to ever lose.

Makes you feel alive.

Yeah, it does. Sometimes it makes me feel sick. (laughs) But it's a good thing. You can't be complacent in rock. As soon as you start kicking back, all of the sudden people are saying, "Ah, they are just like the Eagles." Speaking of the Eagles, because they are on the road a lot . They were opening shows for us - and I love the Eagles – and I became friends with Bernie Leadon, the guitarist. He was saying, you know, I am just so fucking fed up with playing the same songs exactly like the record. And I sort of took that because at the time, I think we were West, Bruce and Laing, and we jammed a lot. We had the basic song and then we flew off the handle. And it was fun. It was great, but you don't know if the people are with you. In most cases, if you're playing hard, and bringing the game on, people love that. They love the energy. I remember I used to criticize the Eagles for it and now we are playing the songs exactly how they were recorded. But we don't play them casually. We play them with the same energy that I believe we had.

I was watching an interview of you online, and one line in particular stuck with me. You said, "It's a small step from the limo to the gutter. Watch where you are going." I was wondering if you had any other bits of advice you might lend to some of the younger guys who are still cutting their teeth in the business?

I was with Kinky Friedman, another one of my favorite people, and he had the jokes and the stories between the songs and the songs between the stories. I remember where that line came from. Kinky used to do shows at the Lonestar Cafe in New York. It was like the country western place. A lot of comedians, actors and people from Broadway would go there on Sunday night and Kinky had his residency there. It was like a celebrity party. Everybody was a celebrity when they came to see Kinky, but in a joking way. It was a satire. He would bring people on stage when they didn't know they were going to be asked up and he would basically play with people. But that was one of the things that came out of those routines - “It's a short step from the limo to the gutter." And it stuck, because a lot of these guys have been up and down, you know what i mean? So that is where that came from. I like the thing about "you can do anything to music, music don't care" from Levon Helm. These guys have some great, great expressions, and god, just when you ask me to come up with them, my mind goes blank.

My father did tell me one thing. I have a big family - I have triplet brothers and a sister - and I was the youngest, so I didn’t get too much attention. But my father told me, "Laurie, if you are going to use your name and you are going to be in this business, you go and get next to the very best. You go to New York and play and you find out if you qualify. You gotta go and challenge yourself constantly." It was the best piece of advice I had. Sure enough, at 15 I went to New York and played the Peppermint Lounge. I don't think we were great, but I loved the whole vitality of the city.

Obviously I have no first-hand experience the ‘60s and ‘70s but to the best of my knowledge it was a time where rock and roll with a message, could thrive, with an audience to receive it. Do you see any of that environment in our society, in the social or political tension that we are experiencing today? Does today remind you at all of the way the country felt then?

Along with the way I feel that to be a teenager in the ‘50s was to be a nobody, to be a teenager in the ‘60s was to be an everybody. With that in mind, the teenagers in the ‘60s, they weren't tethered to anything. In rock music, the drummers did not normally play with a click track. And that is what gave the implication, metaphorically, that the songs were not tied down. That was a freedom that was just right there. Those kids, whatever was happening in the streets, in the country, there was nothing holding them back. That was true freedom.

Pop music is the sound you hear when you put milk into cereal. Right? Rock is drums. You cannot have a great rock band without a great rock drummer. Led Zeppelin and the Who and all the greatest bands, they are not the same (without their drummer) and that is why they are not going to get together again, because Bonham and Moon were the guys that kept that together. The rock drummer in any band really makes the listener feel free, if I may say so. So when you talk about the political situation, the trouble with everything now is people are tied to the phones and to their computers. In terms of politically, no, as a society, I feel, we are much more tied down now than ever. And there are certain people who will come out of the woodwork and they may change it but it is going to be hard to change things because the world is so small. I wouldn't want to paint it, but it is really small and everybody is doing the same thing, in general.

One more loose one for ya. I assume that much of the wildness, the partying and all the stories we've heard are largely features of the past. What does loosening up after a show look like for you boys these days?

(laughs) Three bags of heroin, two bags of coke, 17 whiskeys, 16 hookers,.... no, no. (It’s a) Glass of tequila, a beer and get back to wherever you are staying and have some wine and cheese. It's a little more civilized than it's ever been. I wouldn't say it's boring, but let's put it this way: when we put out what we put out for an hour and a half, two hours, there is not much energy left. We don't have that 18 year old body, ready to roll three nights in a row. I don't mind that because been there done that. I hate that expression, but really. And it was great! But a lot of people didn't make it through that time.

We do have a little issue here - we have our guitar player, who is an amazing player, but he is 30 years old and ya know, we finish a rehearsal for 10 hours and he says, "Hey, we gonna go to the bar?" I am going, "Bar? What are you talking about, bar? I need a bed.” So I don't know how we are going to keep up with him. He certainly is not going to mellow out, but we will do our best. He is a such a great musician and we don't want to kill that vibe. I don't think the business is anywhere as drug-infested as it was. I gotta tell you - and this is very important - I am enjoying myself probably 10 times as much on the road now than I ever did. I say that because I am seeing things. I am clearer. The priorities are different, and it doesn't mean you are getting complacent or anything like that. It means that you are getting that much more out of what you are here for.

To go back to the advice question for younger bands, the main thing you gotta do is listen. If I missed anything, it was that. I should have listened even more. There is a lot going on out there, a lot for you to pick up and feel and it is tough the way it is now. Everything is blocked. Everywhere you go it’s politically correct this and that. So it's a challenge, but it’s a real good one. And if you get over these hurdles, boy, it feels good.

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