Old Interview: Danny Seraphine, October 21, 1994

Stephen Busken Photography
Stephen Busken Photography

I tracked Danny down at a company called Street Sense, Inc. …didn’t know his relationship to or with the company, just knew that he could be reached there…figured maybe it was a management company, so I called and said “I’m calling to talk to someone about Danny Seraphine,” to which he replied “This is him”…I told him why I was calling and after a few seconds of thought, he said, “Let’s do the interview right now.” So here goes…

Why don’t you start off by telling me what exactly Street Sense is.

It’s a production company. And also a small record company, but basically a production company. I sign unknown talent and develop them in hopes of getting them a major label deal. And if not, then, you know, trying to place them with an independent record company.

How long have you been doing this?

About three years.

Name some of the acts that you work with.

There’s a country artist by the name of Matt McKinney, and an alternative band by the name of Love Lies, and a jazz/fusion band called Wake Up Call… none of which have had any successes, but are very talented. And I’m in the process of signing a kind of classic R&B group called Forever. Basically, really talented people. I haven’t hit any paydirt yet, but I’m working on some new material with Matt McKinney that I think is really great.

What led you in this direction, as opposed to doing a solo album or session work?

I always liked producing and wanted to produce while I was with Chicago, but because it was so busy, and because I had a different role in that band — although I was very active in the making of the records — it’s just, I really enjoy producing. It’s like being the director of a movie, you know? You really are in control of the project and nurturing it from the infancy until the end. And I enjoy that. I probably enjoy it more than playing right now. I miss playing to a certain degree, but I’ve been wanting to get out and get into production for a long time.

Do you still write for yourself?

No, I haven’t been doing much writing.

The last few albums you were on with Chicago, the drumming got more and more computer-oriented.

Yeah. Absolutely. At first I really, really fought it. I hated it. And then, what happened was, whenever there was any programming done — none was done on 16, 16 was all live drums — but 17…I was one of those guys that really, really tried to stay away from anything to do with drum machines. Hated ’em. In those days, it really put the drummer in a very subservient position. People started really bashing drummers, you know? Keyboard players, especially. It was terrible. “We’ve got a machine now that’s gonna replace you guys and it doesn’t talk back, it keeps perfect time, and we can program it to play exactly what WE want.” You know what I’m saying? And then I started hearing all these records that were being programmed by what I could tell were keyboard players–non-drummers. You could just hear it.

So I said to myself, “Well, you can fight it or you can learn it and take it to another level,” so I bought a SP-12, which at that time was the top drum machine. It was the only sampling drum machine. So I bought one, and we were off the road for quite awhile, so I just took it and learned it inside and out. And then I got myself this really extravagant MIDI setup, with pads, and a computer, and the whole shot, and in fact I just put my sticks down and started programming, because I thought, “Shit, if I want to hear better programming, then I better do it myself.” So the 17th album, I didn’t like some of the parts that were programmed off that 17, but it’s a great record. It wasn’t all programmed, but parts of it were. Now the 18th album, I think I programmed every note except for one ballad — I forget the name of the song — I overdubbed some drums. And the 19th record, I think I programmed one song. Everything else I played live.

That’s interesting, because on 19 there are something like six programmers and five keyboard players listed.

Yeah, but if I’m correct, there was only one song…”Heart In Pieces,” I think the name of it is…that was programmed. On a Fairlight, I programmed it. Everything else is just played live. You can kinda tell, you know? Especially in those days. Now it’s getting harder to tell. I still do quite a bit of programming, but it’s more…I play it in real time, with pads and stuff. For some things…I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s better, because I like live drums. Acoustic drums breathe, you know? But there is some good stuff out there digitally that you can make sound real.

I always thought it was interesting. Because in the early part of your career, you were a hell of a drummer, but to trace the progression…on the last couple of albums, it was just…

Well, there wasn’t much I could do about that. It was delegated. As a musician, you have to play what’s right for the songs, and I wasn’t able to stretch like I did in the early days. I certainly miss that. I can still play, don’t worry. [laughs] I don’t know if I can play as well as I did when I was really a drum fanatic, but you still carry a lot of that. I’ll always have chops. At least until my hands fall off.

Do you think, at any point, you will find yourself recording a solo album?

Yeah, I do! At some point…I keep threatening to. I’d love to do a big band project. But I’m pretty much immersed in what I’m doing now. You know, developing artists and producing. So I don’t really have the time for that. But yeah, someday I will. I really need to, because it is a dream of mine, and you have to follow your dreams.

It’s amazing that you tracked me down [laughs].

Well, I’ve been trying to track you down for about three years now.

Really. I imagine if you call the Chicago offices, they don’t know, do they?

Right. I started calling their management right about the time TWENTY 1 came out, and they had no comment…and there was no comment until I interviewed Peter Cetera in October of ’92.


…And he told me that you were fired.

Yeah, but how did he say it?

He said that you’d been fired because you no longer fit in with the stage presentation. Which I thought was kind of odd, but I —

Peter Cetera said that? REALLY? I no longer fit in with the…sounds like he didn’t know what to say.

Tell me how you got interested in drumming in the first place.

My uncle was a drummer, and I was about eight or nine years old…I started when I was nine, so I was probably about eight…I used to see him playing at weddings. I was also a pretty crazy kid, all that energy and stuff. A really Type A personality. I still am, but I’m a lot better than I was. So I really needed an outlet, and I was fortunate to find it at such an early age. So my parents got me a little drum kit, and I practiced on that, and then a snare drum, and then a bass drum, and then I got a tom-tom, and it just kind of evolved. I started studying at a very young age, and then kind of fell off the studying thing for awhile, and took it on my own, and then I got to a point where I was pretty much stalled. I think I was about fifteen. And then when I was about seventeen, I started studying with a guy at DePaul University by the name of Bob Tillis, who was renowned. He’s passed away, but in those days he was a renowned educator and percussionist. Incredible.

That’s where I really developed my technique and my style, and that’s why I always thought my style was very unique and different from Bobby Colomby of Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Bobby was more jazz-oriented, but could play rock and roll and R&B, and I was more rock and roll and R&B, and I could play jazz, so I played a little harder, with a little more tack, but I still had the chops and the finesse. Then, when I moved to L.A. with the band, when we first moved there, I got hooked up with a guy by the name of Chuck Flores. Great drummer. He played on a lot of Woody Herman things…Shelley Mann…tutored him…and he was a great, great drummer, and he helped me a lot. And then when we used to go to New York and record, some of our early records were done in New York, I got connected with Papa Joe Jones — probably the all-time greatest brush player — and studied with him whenever we were in New York. So I was really in that mode for a long time, and it really obviously helped develop my technique. That’s kind of the capsulized version. [laughs]

I think you’ve always been really underrated. You ought to be up there where Porcaro was before he died, or even, say, Jim Keltner.

Yeah, I probably should be, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. I tell you what, yes, you’re right, and probably one of the reasons was that I was so commercially successful. People tend to take that for granted, or that tends to taint your artistic image. Because all those guys used to tell me that they looked up to me — Porcaro, Keltner — and that they thought a lot of my playing, and when they did interviews they would even say so, but what are you gonna do? Probably because Chicago…we went from a very, very incredibly artistic kind of band to incredibly commercial. A lot of people were really put off in some ways by our departure from more artistic approaches to the commercial, but yet respected us for standing the test of time in some ways. Still being successful after so many years, and having so many comebacks.

I think at some point when we made that departure, we lost something, and we lost a lot of fans, and I probably lost — I became, like you say, basically a ballad drummer. I mean, I enjoyed it to a degree, because if you saw us live, even then, I would tear ass, you know? But I wasn’t able to do it on record, really. But that was the way music was if you were a recording band. I think if Chicago had stayed true to what they really were, today they would be like the Grateful Dead, with huge gigantic followings. I really believe that, because Chicago had a huge following, and we may have maintained a level of success by having all these hit singles, but I think what we sold was a loyal following.

Well, possibly…but you guys lost your rudder creatively around 1980 or so.

There were a couple of times when we lost our rudder [laughs].

There wasn’t any kind of artistic direction —

What albums were around 1980, do you know?


Was that the thumbprint? You gotta remember, that was a really tough time. Terry died. And so, I’m not making excuses, but you have to understand that when you’ve got guys in the band that have serious drug problems and alcohol problems, you’ve got Peter, who was about ready to leave the band — he had one foot out of the boat and was ready to go, he just wasn’t happy — it was a very, very tough situation. It wasn’t Tom Dowd’s fault.

No, it wasn’t. But if David Foster hadn’t come along, I wonder who would have stepped to the forefront.

I’m the one who got David Foster. See, no one talks about the things I did during that era. The band was, you’re right. “Lost its rudder” is an understatement. The band had gotten — some of the guys, a couple of the guys were really messed up on drugs. Obviously Terry died, you know, he had a very bad drug problem. And it’s sad, because I think it contributed to his death. And subsequently, there were a couple of guys in the band who were really, seriously into cocaine. It was a bad problem, and a real tough era for the band and everybody, and I was probably one of the only coherent ones at the time.

I wasn’t really elected as leader, but I kind of took over and…the things that I did that were probably most instrumental during that era were, I went out and got David Foster to produce Chicago — you can ask David, hopefully he’ll give me credit for it, but it doesn’t really matter, I know — and I got Howard Kaufman and Irving Azoff to manage the band, and lastly, I brought Bill Champlin into the band, because after Terry departed, there was a big void as far as an R&B voice. So, those three things, I think, were really instrumental as far as bringing the band back. But have I ever gotten credit for it? Behind doors, yeah, “Great job.” But in the press, Irving, somebody takes credit for it, but I was the one who brought David in. In fact, on the fourteenth album, I was voted down. I went and approached David to do that record myself, took a meeting with him, and was voted down by the record company and the band.

I think the book for Group Portrait says something about how David Foster almost produced XIV.

Yeah, but that book practically wrote me out of the script. That’s the part of the band that I find very tacky and very offensive. Because I started the band, you know? They were saying it was Walt’s idea, that’s really, really not true.

Walt Parazaider was going to…when I decided to put the band together, Walt and Terry and I had been in two other bands prior to this, but Walter was just getting his degree in clarinet and was being groomed for a seat on the Chicago Symphony. And Terry had played bass in the other bands prior to Chicago. Incredible bass player, but he wanted to play guitar, so another band called the Illinois Speed Press had given him an offer to play guitar with them and go out to the West Coast. The whole hippie thing was just starting to happen. And Walter was going to get his degree, and play on the symphony, and teach. That was his dream, and that’s what he was going to do.

I mean, when I say it was my idea, I had no idea that it would evolve into what it did. I just wanted to put together a great band, a horn band, with all the best players in the city, and good vocalists, together. And that’s what I did. When I say it’s what I did…I said “Walter, let’s put a band together, let’s give it one more try,” and I had to twist his arm for maybe five minutes. That was the inception, that’s how the band was born. And Terry, it was the same thing. “Terry, instead of going to California, why don’t you stay here and play with us? We know how great you are, you’ve always wanted to play…” It was just meant to be, all the pieces kind of fell together, and the first rehearsal was very magical. But what bothers me is that I was written out of that whole…it was during the lawsuit, because I was suing them. But that’s the way it is.

It’s always bothered me that you just disappeared and nobody really had any explanation why.

You know, they really couldn’t. They couldn’t in a sense because I think it was pretty embarrassing. To do what they did to somebody who was with them for twenty-five years. So I think that they were, and probably still are, somewhat ashamed of what they did and how it was done. Hey, life goes on. My life has gone on and their life has gone on. But has anybody benefited from it? That’s the hard part. I don’t think so. They certainly haven’t reached any new heights without me. I think what they lost was someone who really, really loved the music and loved the band and cared about the band, and knew really what was good for the band. And I think that in losing that, they lost someone who was willing to take chances and stand up for what he believed, and now they basically are a bunch of followers trying to be leaders, and when you have that combination it’s pretty bad. And that’s about as deep as I want to get into the Chicago thing, because it’s just…I don’t want to rehash it anymore. Someday I may write a book, and really go into it in detail, not just to slam anybody, but the whole odyssey. And that was part of it, you know?

For my last question, I was going to ask you why you did in fact leave Chicago, but if that’s as far as you want to get into it, then that’s as far as you want to get into it. There still is a lot of intense speculation. There are a lot of people who claim to know why you left.

Well, they probably do. You might ask them. I’d be curious [laughs]…to get into detail, if I do that, I’d probably need a chapter in a book to explain it without making it sound like I’m the complete victim. Because, listen, I wasn’t a total innocent bystander. I just wasn’t. And I don’t want to portray it like they’re these bad guys, because they’re not. They’re good guys, and they just got misguided and made a mistake and got too far into it to change. Whether they would admit to it or not, I don’t know.