Author: Kaufmann, "Pistol" Pete
Date published: May 1, 2012
Practice, hard work, networking, and perseverance are skills one must develop in order to become a working musician. Luckily for us mere mortals, these goals are attainable with focus, effort, and a master plan. Every now and then, however, a special individual is chosen by the gods of rock to put his or her stamp on music history. With his muscular, nofrills drumming style, self-dedication, and older rock-star brother to inspire him, it makes perfect sense that Vincent Samson Appice would be selected to join the ranks of the hard-rocking elite.
The native New Yorker moved to Los Angeles over thirty years ago, but he never let the "Hollywood" attitude replace his old-school Brooklyn charm, despite having played with some of the biggest names in the business. It might be that it never occurred to Vinny to be starstruck, since his brother Carmine, eleven years his senior, was already renowned for his work with Vanilla Fudge, Jeff Beck, and Cactus by the time Vinny began making a name for himself. Vinny recalls being a young teenager and seeing Carmine bring famous musicians over for Sunday dinner. (Could you imagine? "Excuse me, Mr. Beck, would you mind passing the meatballs?")
Inspired by his brother's talent, success, and encouragement, Vinny took to drum tessons and practiced regularly to earn Carmine's respect as a serious musician. And respect he got-not only from his brother, but from some of the biggest artists in the music world. It wasn't long before Vinny was playing with John Lennon-while he was still in high school-touring with Rick Derringer, and landing the gig that would point his career in a particularly weighty direction: playing with the godfathers of heavy metal.
As the 1970s were giving way to the '80s, Black Sabbath was in a rebuilding process. In 1979, original singer Ozzy Osbourne was replaced by ex-Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio, who, along with founder Tony Iommi (guitar). Geezer Butler (bass), and Bill Ward (drums), recorded the album Heaven and Hell. In the middle of the Black and Blue tour to support the LP (Blue Íyster Cult shared the bill), Ward left the band, and Vinny stepped in.
Appice recorded the 1981 Sabbath studio album Mob Rules, and in 1982 the Live Evil set was released. But musical differences within the quartet were already causing tension. Americans Dio and Appice, who'd developed a bond amid issues with Iommi and Butler, left their unhappy British bandmates and formed the heavy metal group Dio, which itself would go on to become one of the most beloved acts in metal history. Though Appice left the band in 1989, he would reunite with the singer in a mid-'90s Dio lineup. (In the interim he worked with Sabbath for its 1992 Dehumanizer album and tour.) Vinny and Ronnie joined forces again in 2006, in the group Heaven & Hell, which reprised the lineup from Sabbath's Heaven and Hell record.
Appice's last studio recording with Ronnie James Dio was Heaven & Hell's 2009 album, The Devil You Know. Not long after, Dio was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and in May of 2010 he succumbed to the disease.
Though he's greatly saddened by the loss of his longtime friend, Appice refuses to dwell on the past and continues to move forward. The veteran drummer is excited about Kill Devil Hill, the band he recently formed with Pantera bassist Rex Brown, guitarist Mark Zavon, and vocalist Dewey Bragg. We spoke with Vinny during a string of KDH dates across the U.S. in support of the band's brand-new self-titled debut album.
MD: So, Vinny, before we start talking drums, can we set the record straight on your last name? How do you pronounce it? When you performed with Carmine on the Drum Wars shows, you pronounced your last names differently.
Vinny: Right. I pronounce it "A-pa-see." That's how my father says it. But when Carmine first came out, people pronounced it "A-piece." I think he began pronouncing it that way himself around when he played with Rod Stewart-he liked the way it sounded. Everywhere we go together, we get that question. They don't even have to finish the question. They just go, "How do you...?" and I say, "It's A-pa-see!" My oldest brother, Frank-he doesn't play drums-he says "A-peach-ee." That's the Italian version. So there are three pronunciations.
MD: You've been playing professionally since you were a kid in Brooklyn.
Vinny: Carmine used to rehearse in the enclosed porch at the front of our house. He was maybe eighteen or nineteen, and I was eight or nine. I used to see all these guys rehearsing, and I was inspired by all their gear and by listening to them play. That got the bug in me-the fever. I used to play Carmine's drums. At first I didn't know what I was doing. I was just banging on 'em. I think I broke a cymbal once. I remember one time he said, "I'm going out. Don't play the drums-you're breaking everything." "Okay, Carmine." I waited ten minutes, then I started banging on the drums. He came running in, shouting, "I told you not to play the drums-you're breaking everything!" I thought he left! [laughs]
Then, as I got a little older, I started playing a bit more seriously and listening to music. I listened to lots of stuff Carmine did and tried to cop his licks. He saw that and started teaching me things whenever he would come off the road. "Hey, check this out," some groove or fill. Finally Carmine told my parents that they should send me to take drum lessons from the same guy he took lessons from. His name was Dick Bennett. God bless my mom. She was totally into supporting me and Carmine, and so was my dad. The whole family was. I used to go for lessons every Saturday. They were $5. The first books I learned out of were Stick Control and Syncopation.
MD: Tell us about you and your band playing with John Lennon when you were still a teenager. How does a group of teens get to play with a megastar? At that point you were pretty much unknown.
Vinny: I took drums very seriously. I figured, Carmine is so good-so if I'm going to do this, I'm going to have to be really good to get noticed. Otherwise I end up just being Carmine's brother. Like, "Yeah, he's okay, but he's not as good as Carmine." I wanted to beat Carmine up. [laughs] So I took it seriously and practiced a lot, and I wound up playing in bands around Brooklyn where the guys were always older than me. That actually happened my whole career. Guys were always older than me, at least up until recently-because now I'm old. [laughs]
Anyway, I went from band to band for a while. I played a couple of weddings and things like that with a local cocktail band. I was like fourteen-you know, good money for the weekend. Eventually I wound up in this nine-piece funky rock band with a guitar player, Joey Dambra, whose brother Louie was in a band in Brooklyn called Sir Lord Baltimore. They were kind of the big thing in Brooklyn. Joey knew [future heavyweight producer] Jimmy Iovine, who played bass in a Brooklyn band called Fantasy. Jimmy heard our band and said he wanted to produce us.
So we went into the studio and did a bunch of demos, which Jimmy played for the owner of the studio, Roy Cicala. Roy liked the band and thought we had a lot of potential, so he signed a management deal with us and gave us a room at the Record Plant on 44th Street in Manhattan. It was a really big room at the top of the place, and we were rehearsing for free. It became like a club. At that time, John Lennon used to record at the Record Plant, and one night Jimmy said, "Guys, can you come down and do handclaps for us?" We didn't know what it was for. So we go downstairs and get in the room, and there's John Lennon and Elton John in the control room. And we're like, "Oh my God!"
MD: How old were you?
Vinny: About fifteen, sixteen. And so they tell us what they want. The song was "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night"-that's my band and me doing handclaps on that song. Afterwards, John asked Jimmy who we were. Jimmy said, "That's a band that Roy manages, and I'm producing them. They're really good." A couple days later, John came up and hung out with us and watched us rehearse. Then he asked us to do a gig with him at the New York Hilton hotel. It was a salute to Sir Lew Grade, a worldwide ABC special. Of course we said yes.
Yoko Ono had an idea to have the band go on in black satin jumpsuits and these two-sided masks, so we were like bald with two faces. That was to symbolize two-faced people-I guess. [laughs] John wore the same jumpsuit as us, but in red. We were like, "Sure, whatever you guys want to do," obviously. John gave us the tracks we were gonna play, and we played "Slippin' and Slidin'" and "Imagine" with him. [Footage of the event can be found on YouTube by searching "John Lennon Salute to Sir Lew Grade."]
MD: Would you say that Lennon gig was your stepping-stone to everything else you've done?
Vinny: No, believe it or not. The funny thing was, after those shows and working with John at night, I'd go to school the next day. I would be drumming on the desk while the teacher was trying to teach, and she'd go, "Who's making that noise? Vinny, stop that drumming!" And I would stand up and go, "Excuse me, did anybody else play with one of the Beatles last night? C'mon!" And the whole class would laugh. But that wasn't really the stepping-stone, because it was just a one-off thing. I didn't go on tour or make a complete record with John.
I did meet Rick Derringer in the same studio, though. He heard the demos we did with Jimmy and asked, "Who's that?" Jimmy said, "That's Carmine's little brother, Vinny." Oh, man! Then I met Rick at the studio, and he goes, "I like the way you play." He asked for my number, saying he was going to put a band together as soon as he was done with Edgar and Johnny Winter.
After that, I went out to California and played with a band that Carmine was trying to produce. Then I went to Louisiana to play with a band called Axis. This was like late '75. While I was down there I got a call from my mother, saying that Rick Derringer called. When he called, my mother answered, and when Rick said, "I want to speak to Vinny," she goes, "No, you must want to speak to Carmine." "No, I want to speak to Vinny." "No, Carmine's not here right now." Finally she was convinced that he wanted to speak to me. [laughs] On the first tour, we opened for Aerosmith. So it was a good learning experience.
MD: Were there any challenges the first time you went on tour?
Vinny: I remember the first big arena gig and how the sound was different. Everybody was farther away from me, and I couldn't hear the amps next to me. I remember thinking, Okay, I have to get used to that. Those were great learning experiences right there. Rick was like a teacher, and he's still such a great player-such a pro. I was in that band at nineteen, and he was pretty big back then. From then on I just kept my eyes open and tried to learn from everyone.
MD: Tell us about your transition from Derringer to Sabbath.
Vinny: Derringer lasted about two years, and then I got a call from Sharon Osbourne saying that Ozzy was putting a [solo] band together with Randy Rhoads. I knew Randy from Quiet Riot. At that point I had heard all these stories about Ozzy-you know, "He's crazy," blah, blah. So I decided to ask Carmine about it.
MD: Carmine was playing with Ozzy during the Bark at the Moon tour, right?
Vinny: This was before that. This was the first thing Ozzy was going to do [after leaving Black Sabbath]. He wanted me to go to England, and I didn't even know where England was. I hadn't really been out of the country yet. Derringer had only played in Canada and the U.S. And Carmine told me, "Yeah, he's pretty crazy," and said he knew Ozzy from the '70s, when Cactus used to play with Black Sabbath. So I turned it down. I was a kid, man. I was twenty years old at this point.
A couple of months later, though, I got a call from the tour manager for Sabbath. Bill Ward had left the Heaven and Hell tour, and they had to cancel a show in Denver. "We heard about you, and we're interested in you coming down to audition for the band." Tony Iommi had heard Axis and liked the drumming. Funny thing was, I wasn't a big Black Sabbath fan or even a Derringer fan. I was a Beatles fan-which was probably good, because then I just concentrated on doing my job rather than being goo-goo-eyed.
MD: You weren't really influenced by the heavier drumming of the time?
Vinny: No. I first listened to a Black Sabbath album at a friend's house, and I was like, "That's scary, man," but I didn't like the drum sound. Carmine and Bonham had way bigger sounds. When I met Tony, though, we hit it off. So we went to SIR studios on Sunset Boulevard, where they rehearsed, and the first song we played was "Neon Knights," from Heaven and Hell. I'd heard that song on the radio a couple of weeks before and thought, That new singer, Ronnie James Dio-he's really good. Incidentally, that's also the last song I played with Ronnie before he passed away. Anyway, we played that song, and they were all happy: "Yeah, we got a drummer!" Ronnie was so happy that they were able to keep the success of the band going.
We only had five days of rehearsal, but every day we'd rehearse a couple of hours and everyone was like, "Let's go to the pub!" I had to learn all these songs that I wasn't really familiar with-especially these old Sabbath songs where the changes are weird. Tempos are changing, there are stops and starts.... I had to write out charts. But we kept going to the pub, and we were running out of time. The first gig was Hawaii, a 30,000-seater at Aloha Stadium.
We'd rehearsed probably two solid days, then we played the show. Ronnie told me that was the first time they ever played with another drummer. They were probably more nervous than I was. But I just went, "The hell with it-whatever happens, happens!" I had my charts-not really serious charts, more like notes: verse, chorus, stop, hang for four beats, that kind of stuff. But then it started raining, blowing water on my book, and after three or four songs all the ink started running, and the charts became useless. So we had to wing the rest of the show, but it turned out great. At the end of that show I signed the book and threw it into the audience.
MD: Your playing style is very focused and musical. Your drumming has a lot of energy, but you also have the ability to lay back-a not-so-common trait in the world of heavy metal. How did you approach the early Sabbath music? Bill Ward's drumming is manic. It almost sounds like he's not going to come out of his fills on time.
Vinny: That's right. I love the way Bill plays, and when you talk to Bill he says, "I'm not a drummer-I'm a percussionist." And that makes sense when you listen to all that old Sabbath stuff. Because he didn't just play 2 and 4; he sometimes played tom rhythms-crazy stuff, kind of like what Keith Moon or even Ringo would do. And I respect that stuff more than anything. Anybody can play 2 and 4 through a song-but somebody who thinks of another part that works, whether it's on toms or bass drums. . .that's creating music, playing more musically, thinking out of the box. Bill did that. His stuff was crazy, and some of the timings on those records you can't even count, because they just stopped and watched each other and all came in together. I listened to that and went, "Wow."
In the beginning I tried to emulate Bill, but I don't play Bill. I'm more "power and straight ahead." Bill's more melodic and orchestrated. I tried to incorporate both approaches to see how it would fit with Tony and Geez. That's where I learned a little bit more of the laid-back-ness too. Especially from Tony; he's so steady and almost behind the beat, and everything just sits in the pocket. When we played the song "Black Sabbath"-it's really slow, with almost no time to it, and it's supposed to fall apart a little bit-that told me there's no rush to let it get to the next part. You know, we just let it breathe.
MD: What about incorporating Bill's fills?
Vinny; Some of Bill's fills I definitely had to do-I wanted to, because they're an important part of those songs.
MD: Was Ronnie always cool with your drumming?
Vinny: Ronnie was the man. He was always so cool with the drumming. If you listen to Dio's "We Rock" on the Last in Line album, I went nuts. There are a lot of fills going over the vocals, but it doesn't get in the way.
MD: When you play longer phrases, it's almost as if you're playing in the cracks of the music. "Holy Diver" is a perfect example of groove and creative fills falling in exactly the right place.
Vinny: When I hear a song, it almost becomes part of me. I get inspired, and these things...I just feel them. It comes from my heart and soul, almost like pictures. I never sit there and think, I need to play a Jill there. It's really weird-where the dynamics should build, where they should come down, it's just inside my soul and kind of comes out.
MD: You can play with great simplicity and with great complexity; someone could watch you play a certain song with Dio and not even know you have the chops to do what you do on another song.
Vinny: Yeah, right-you can't do it on every song. That's called playing musically. If it's more of a straight-ahead pop song, like Dio's "Rainbow in the Dark," yeah, there are a couple of things in there that you can listen to and say, "That's a cool drum lick." But then if you listen to "We Rock," it's on fire with fills and drum-led stuff. The drums are pushing that song. And I get that from having listened to Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Carmine-those guys didn't play it safe. I remember always backing up the needle to learn the fill.
MD: Your timekeeping is solid as a rock too. Did you ever use a click with Dio?
Vinny: No, there are no clicks on any Sabbath or Dio records, other than The Devil You Know by Heaven & Hell. There's no click on the Kill Devil Hill record either. We thought we'd go old-school and just pump it up. If it speeds up a little bit at the end, that's okay.
MD: There's a signature drum fill of yours, a 16th-note snare/bass drum combination, that appears on "Revenge" by Kill Devil Hill and at the beginning of "King of Rock and Roll," from Dio's Sacred Heart. Can you talk about that?
Vinny: I base those on what I call "two, four, and sixes": two on the snare, two on the bass drum, four on the snare, two on the bass drum, six on the snare, two on the bass drum. You can put it into the middle of a longer 16th-note fill, and you can end it with four on the bass drum. It sounds powerful and fast.
On "Revenge" I tried to do more of a Keith Moon fill and spread it across the toms so it would take up the stereo effect; if you listen to that on headphones you'll hear it. "King of Rock and Roll" is two, four, six, four, two, and a flam at the end. We'd open with "King of Rock and Roll," which starts with me doing that fill. It was a challenge some nights to pull that off. Sometimes it sputtered out and sometimes it was great, so it was a lot of pressure.
MD: Regarding your hand technique, you seem to hold the sticks pretty far up when you play.
Vinny: I don't hold them too far up-I'd say about a third of the way up. In my right hand I do hold the stick between my index finger and middle finger, which looks weird. I also play butt-end all the time, even on ballads. And there's no middle of the snare for me-I hit rimshots all the time, which makes for a different, more powerful sound.
MD: Did you always play that way?
Vinny: That happened when I was younger; my tips kept breaking, and Carmine started playing butt-end. To get more distinction off the ride cymbal rather than having it ring uncontrollably, I'll hit it more on the edge of the butt.
MD: Tel us more about Kill Devil Hill.
Vinny: I've known Rex since '92, when Pantera was on the Black Sabbath Dehumanizer tour. I loved the way he played. He reminded me of Geezer-he's just got that clank.
In 2009, on the last Heaven & Hell tour we did, I had a giant drumset with about ten drums that were mounted high up in the air, some of them behind me. So I was playing facing the audience but hitting backwards and up, and eventually my shoulders started killing me. When the tour ended I got an MRI and found out that one of my tendons came off my right shoulder. I was told I needed to get surgery, which was scheduled for January 2010.
Meanwhile, at the end of 2009, a company approached me for some drum tracks [for a sample library]. So I did twelve tracks, three to four minutes long each, with different tempos and different feels. We were going to put them online for people to download.
After I underwent surgery, I was going, "Man, this sucks." It was my right arm, so I couldn't play the drums. But a couple of days later, I was in the little studio in my house, and I put on the drum tracks for the sample library. I thought, These actually sound killer. Why don't I get [Dio's] Jimmy Bain down here to play bass to them? So he came down and started messing around with the tracks, while I was engineering with my left hand.
I'd met this guitar player named Mark Zavon, so he came down and put guitar on it. We kept working on the tracks, and the next thing you know, Mark says, "I've got this singer, Dewey Bragg," and he plays me this song that Dewey was on. I go, "That's the guy!" I was being approached about a lot of singers that sounded like Ronnie, but nobody's Ronnie, plus I wanted to move forward to a different sound.
Eventually it didn't work out with Jimmy, so we tried a couple of other bass players, and then I met [late Pantera guitarist] Dimebag Darrell's missus and she said that Rex was looking for something. So I contacted Rex and played him some of the stuff, and he loved it. When Rex put his bass on it, man, it just came alive.
Then we did a six-week tour across the U.S., just to warm the thing up. That was a trip-some of these places were just really bad. But it got the band so tight. Each night was a different PA-some good, some really bad. Same with the monitors, the stages... But I used a little kit, and we just kicked ass. We're going to go on tour again this summer.
My dream was always to have my own band and play big arenas-making decisions, and having people support it because it's me. I'm totally thankful for everything I was able to experience with Sabbath and Ronnie James Dio, but I just happened to be doing my job. This is a new challenge.
MD: Things have changed drastically since you started playing professionally. What kind of advice would you give to someone entering the music industry today?
Vinny: I always believed in myself. And I'm very aggressive-I'm an Italian guy from Brooklyn, you know? Whenever I've gone into a place to play-a club or an audition-I get on the drums, adjust them, tune them a little, then say to myself, Now I'm gonna make my mark. Whoever is in the room, whether it's the road crew, the people I'm auditioning for, or the club owner, instead of warming up, I make a statement right there, like, "I...am...here!" That sets the standard-and it works. It's like a cat spraying its territory.
So always play from your heart, from your soul, and believe in what you're doing. That way, even if you don't quite make it to where you want to go, you can say, "I gave it everything I had, and I'm proud of it." Put 110 percent into everything you do. And never let anyone see you play badly.