Keeping the beat for Sir Paul
By James Sullivan
JULY 04, 2013
Paul McCartney has carried more tunes in his day than a pallet full of iPods. Music, says drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., is in “every fiber” of McCartney’s being: “Even if he’s making a little fruit salad, he’s humming a tune or whistling away. The music doesn’t stop around him. It’s beautiful.”
The same could be said of Laboriel, who is not only McCartney’s drummer but his harmony partner of more than 10 years. Musicality runs in his blood: his father, Abraham Laboriel Sr., is a highly respected bassist, and Abe Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps when he graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 1993.
Watching Laboriel work has been one of the great joys of McCartney’s return to the stage, after the 71-year-old former Beatle took most of the ’90s off from touring. (McCartney and his band, including Laboriel, guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray and keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, return to Fenway Park on Tuesday.) A big, enthusiastic drummer with a shaved dome and a bushy goatee, Laboriel sings into his overhead microphone with as much gusto as he plays his kit.
After declaring at age 10 that he wanted to be a pro drummer, encouraged by Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, and more of his father’s technically gifted Los Angeles session buddies, he earned a legacy scholarship to Berklee.
“I fell in love with the city, and I still miss it to this day,” says Laboriel, speaking on the phone from his LA home during a brief, rare break from the road. While in Boston he became a fixture at jazz clubs including Ryles and was a member of an early incarnation of the band Letters to Cleo.
He’d been born and spent the first two years of his life in Boston, while his father was completing his own studies at Berklee and his mother, Lyn, a pediatrician, was attending Boston University. They lived not far from Fenway Park, says Laboriel. His parents, he says, recalled a rougher Boston. When he told them he was lugging his drums down Massachusetts Avenue to gig at Wally’s, “that was a bone of contention with my folks,” he says with a laugh. “They thought I was crazy, that I was gonna get mugged.”
Laboriel was a hungry student. “I ask my students to open their minds and take responsibility for every note they play,” recalls Ian Froman, an associate professor of percussion at Berklee, “and Abe just ate it up.” But he didn’t particularly like to draw attention to himself: “He was very shy, kind of quiet.”
The first time Froman realized his former student could sing, he says, was when he saw him singing classic Beatles songs onstage with the man who co-wrote them.
Laboriel, now 42, credits Froman with teaching him the utility of open spaces and how to play with maximum expression.
“He would push me, sometimes physically as well as mentally, to break a pattern,” says Laboriel with a southern Californian surfer’s inflection. Along with the guitarist Steve Vai, the first bandleader to hire the drummer after he graduated, “those were two guys who really broadened my experience,” he says.
He’s also grateful to Phil Wilson, a brass professor who agreed to include Laboriel in his ensemble on the condition that he study with the professor three times a week to improve his chart-reading skills.
“I showed up the first time with my whole drum kit on my back,” he says, “and he started laughing. He had one of the world’s smallest offices. ‘I should’ve told you,’ he said. ‘Besides, you should be able to make all the music you need on one drum.’ That really opened my mind up to explore as much tonality as I could on one part of the instrument.”
After becoming a session regular in the late 1990s, Laboriel met McCartney through producer David Kahne, who was helping Sir Paul assemble a new band for the 2001 album “Driving Rain.”
“I think Paul wanted to start fresh,” after losing his first wife, Linda, to cancer, says Laboriel. “I think he just wanted to see what was out there.”
The night before being introduced to McCartney, “I didn’t sleep a wink, of course,” he says. He thought back to his first record player, which he got at age 4; he’d sit in front of the speakers for hours on end, playing and replaying the albums “Meet the Beatles,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and “The White Album” (as well as a cherished 45 of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star”).
“That was very formative for me,” says Laboriel. “Melodically, rhythmically, arrangement-wise – it all fascinated me.”
In fact, his father has his own Beatles history, dating back to the group’s earliest days. Signed to Capitol Records in his native Mexico with a garage band called Las Profetas, he recorded Spanish-language covers of his labelmates’ songs even as they were still on the international pop charts. The family is trying to track down copies of those records.
From the beginning, Laboriel says, McCartney recognized his ability and encouraged him to use it.
“It all felt very natural. He never said, ‘Oh, could you play it more like Ringo [Starr] or Denny [Seiwell, drummer with McCartney’s band Wings].’ The cool thing about Paul is he’s very much into exploring the music, rather than dictating it.”
Now beginning their second decade together, McCartney’s solo band is working on their fourth studio album. Six years since their last, “Memory Almost Full” (McCartney’s most recent album, last year’s “Kisses on the Bottom,” was a collection of Great American Songbook standards), they have “a wealth of material” amassed, says Laboriel.
“It’s exciting,” he says. “A lot of different styles. It’s very youthful – aggressively rock at times, and singer-songwriter, insular and intimate, at others.”
Despite his age, McCartney remains an inspiration, he says. “He has boundless energy. At the end of an almost three-hour show, I’m completely wiped out. I’ve run the marathon. It’s amazing – he’s still bouncing around.
“The truth is, every time he gets onstage, he’s enjoying himself beyond anything. That gives us confidence that there’s no sign of this gig slowing down. He loves being in front of the audience, with his band, rocking out.”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
Abe Laboriel Jr., on drums, playing with (from left) Joe Walsh, Paul McCartney, and Dave Grohl in Los Angeles in 2012.(JASON MERRITT/GETTY IMAGES/FILE 2012)
Abe Laboriel Jr. (ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IMAGES/FILE 2009)