The Drums, the Music and Other Things
Drumming with frenetics
by David M. Beard
Endless Summer Quarterly Magazine
John Cowsill is all about music. Before the Newport, Rhode Island native joined the Beach Boys in 2001 he was best known for his work as a singer and drummer in the Cowsills, a group comprised of his mother and siblings. Over the years John has also been a member of the Bel Air Bandits (with Jim Armstrong, Chris Farmer, Gary Griffin, Mark Ward, Randell Kirsch and Philip Bardowell), the Pranks (with Jeffrey' Foskett, Randell Kirsch, Bo Fox and Robby Scharf), in addition to recording and performing with Jan & Dean.
In the early 1980s, Cowsill also joined the Tommy Tutone band on the hit single "867-5309/Jenny," playing drums and backing vocals.
More recently, John played the drums on the re-recording of "Do It Again," when Brian, Mike, Al and Bruce gathered together in May [as noted in ESQ's Summer 2011 interview with Mike Love].
This interview was conducted via email. I was amazed by this candidly funny journeyman who just so happens to have a percussive background.
David Beard: You joined the band in 2001. How did that come about?
John Cowsill: It happened over several years and a few sessions "subbing" for others. I played with Mike in the early 80's when he and Dean Torrence were doing the Mike & Dean thing. I had met Jeff Foskett and Randell Kirsch up in Santa Barbara while I was visiting my mom and brother Barry. (I was trying to get out of the LA mosh-pit of the "Too Groovy" people). Barry had met them at a club and sat in with Jeff and Randell - they became fast friends. I was introduced to these hilariously funny and talented creatures, and was invited to play with them as well. I mean...these guys were crazy in a good way. The antics, the bits...believe me, you would think they were on something, but they weren't. And that was refreshing to me. So it was just the best of times, playing all the pop music that one could endure. I could write a book on just that era...but we shall move on.
Jeff was living with several friends in a large condo on the Mesa. It was Mike's compound (The Love Foundation), and we would crash there after shows. Jeff had just joined the Beach Boys at this time. So, on a beautiful, perfect Santa Barbara afternoon, I was introduced to Mike Love; in the same breath (and the same day, I believe) we recorded a couple of tracks at his studio. After that, Jeff somehow got me on those Mike and Dean gigs. I also played with Mike and his Endless Summer Beach Band several times. Unfortunately for me, I was having way too much fun, fun, fun, and I didn't know when to turn off the funny, crazy, hilarious antics... and I was not asked back out. I was, however, asked by Dean to play with Jan & Dean full time. I must say that I was in a dire situation at the time, and this was just what I needed. I said yes. I was with them for about 6 years and then it was time to move on... so I called Dave Logaman (great drummer and human being), and passed the baton on to him.
Now...(this is where we do the blurry-squiggly- screen- effect to represent passage of time)... we can bypass my darkness - two divorces - and move into the growth period of my life, including changes to the way I would be conducting myself in the future. So I'm sitting in the living room of my apartment, my very young son and daughter are asleep in their beds, the TV is on and some guy is shouting at me, telling me that if I pass up this opportunity to own these ten gem mint Tiger Wood cards I'm an idiot. So, like an idiot, I charge $1,000 dollars so I can "get rich quick." Like I said, dire situation... ha ha ha. Then my phone rings at around 12:30 a.m., it's Chris Farmer. I hadn't spoken to Chris since I quit Jan and Dean. He asks me what I'm doing, and I tell him what I just told you. He says that Kowalski is having an ear problem and needs to get off the plane...could I come to LAX (airport) and fill in for several dates...? I say, "Chris, are you nuts? It's 12:30 in the morning, I have two kids sleeping and I can't just leave." Chris was calling from a private jet with the engine running...what a trip. He then asked if I could get on a plane tomorrow, so I said yes. After waking my best friends the Oaklands (God Bless Tracy and Chris Oakland - they made sure the kids got to school). I was on my way to Minneapolis.
It was great to see Phil and Meros and Mr. Baker again. It had been a lo-o-o-o-ng time. During this mini-tour, Adrian asked if I could sub for him later down the road. I said sure. Well, he made good on that request about six months later.
I was asked to go to New York and play guitar and sing with them at BB King's. So I show up with my little Dan Electro and I see that Scott Totten is on the same gig. I guess they were trying us both out. I was sick as a dog(literally). After hearing Scott play - no, correction, just after seeing his guitar - I was completely intimidated and so nervous I didn't even break my guitar out of its case. How embarrassing. Ha! I opted for percussion and no one seemed to care. So then I'm on stage during sound check and I mutter to myself, "What am I doing here...?" Mike turns around and says something like, "You're getting paid." I uncharacteristically shut up.
Just about a year later, Phil called me up and asked if I could sub for him during the European leg of the 2001 Summer tour... I told him no way - just kidding. I said that as long as I didn't have to play any leads on the guitar I could do it. I'm not a lead guitarist, but I can play rhythm. I took a month off from my day job (master finish carpenter) and charged rent, food - you name it -so I could practice Phil's vocal and guitar parts. A week before I'm supposed to leave, I get a call from Farmer asking me if I was ready to go. I told him yes, as long as Adrian covers the lead guitar parts. Farmer says, and I quote, "Didn't anyone tell you? You're playing piano."
Now, piano is my second instrument/tool, but, again, I don't play "twinkle" piano - I play chords. I know a lot of Beatles and Elton John on the piano, not Beach Boys. So Farmer sends me a disc of the show, but no charts. No idiot sheets. Just the disc, with piano turned up in the left channel. It was daunting. I only had a week and a couple of days to learn the songs. My savior was my dear friend Billy Hinsche. I called Billy and, man, he was willing to meet with me and show me how it all goes together. We didn't have enough time for that, so he put the charts together for me and shipped them overnight to me. I don't know if I could have pulled it off without him... Thank you, Billy.
DB: What do you remember about your first official Beach Boys gig?
JC: My first official gig was July 5th, 2001 at Caesar's Palace in Atlantic City. I was out of my comfort zone. I'd never played piano in a live band in my life. I'd had one week to learn piano parts that were never on the records and a few that were. I love knowing how to play "God Only Knows" on the piano (again, thank you, Billy)... So, we're at sound check and I'm sitting - not standing - at the piano, never having played with these guys and I've got four of them coming up behind me saying, "Play it like this ..." I used to think EVERYONE'S a drummer. How silly of me. In this band, everyone's a keyboard player. (Actually, Kowalski was the best piano player of them all. OK, well, maybe Bruce is better ...ha-ha). So finally I Shut 'Em Down (couldn't resist) and said, "GUYS! Later! I learned what I learned and I have enough on my plate just singing the parts you gave me..." From then on, it was earn-while-I-learn.
DB: What do you recall front the first tour?
JC: After Atlantic City, we flew up to Nova Scotia and then to Europe. Biarritz, France was the first stop on the tour schedule. Right before Scott and I came onboard, the band had been hittin' it pretty hard, so by the time we joined, there were several days off. I didn't like that, but I guess everyone else needed a little R&R. They had just done 170 shows that year. Don't get me wrong, I loved Biarritz, but I was chomping at the bit to work. When we finally started the run, I was happy to be working. We went everywhere in Europe and the UK.
Man, I remember playing in Liverpool on Kings Docks with Status Quo. In fact, we did several shows with Status Quo. They weren't very big in the states, but across The Pond? They were huge. Everything was happening so fast. I was now secretly wishing I could do this full time. Things were going well and I was having fun. But the end was nearing, and Phil was supposedly coming back out when we got stateside. Then... there was talk of him maybe not coming back...hmmm. The latter proved to be true. I was hired full time. And it's been one big tour since then.
DB: How do you feel Scott Totten has improved the band in his role as music director?
JC: After seven years, a slight personnel change occurred. Scott was made the Musical Director, and I was moved to the drums. I'm just a simple drummer and not schooled as a musician in the technical sense at all. Scott is educated; he graduated from The Berkley School of Music. He has done an amazing job; he respects this treasure of a catalog, and communicates that to the band. He painstakingly, very carefully and sensitively, introduced the idea of getting back to the original arrangements. He had to deal with many different personalities. After playing the songs a certain way for so long, one has a resistance to change...but as things started to unfold and take shape, everyone started getting excited. We felt proud to be playing the same parts that the Beach Boys had made famous. Scott would work with us, handing out parts individually and as a group. He was never heavy-handed, and has earned the utmost respect from all of us.
Bruce was an amazing asset as well. Scott could go to Bruce and vice versa. I know you're asking about Scott, but I just have to say that Timmy Bonhomme was faced with the most challenges of all the band members, and he's done an incredible job on the keys. I'm just so honored to be playing this music with this band; and to have Scott overseeing it always making sure we don't fall into old habits. He keeps it fresh. He does this cool thing where we learn a "song of the week" (or month sometimes, depending on our touring schedule). I must add that when Scott started he was not given the opportunity to sing as much as the rest of us. But this guy - and I grew up singing so I know a thing or two - gets the vocal award for tenacity. He's made leaps and bounds as a featured singer and has a beautiful voice. And understand this: we are all still a work-in-progress, and passion is what leads us... kinda' like Carl and The Passions. .. man I wish he were still here.
DB: You attack the drums with ferocity... It's almost a primal energy. What do you enjoy the most about performing?
"We have some great singers and a really good blend...and I get to play with John Cowsill; he's really incredible. Instrumentally, it all starts with the drums and he is the man."
— Scott Totten
JC: Was that a compliment? Why not add "frenetic" to the pot? I've heard that one too. LOL Look up the definitions... OK, maybe on the rockers I get a little excited, but things like "You Still Believe In Me," "God Only Knows," "Surfer Girl,", "Please Let Me Wonder," etc... I take a more reverent approach, which I hope comes through. I think it does. Scott would let me know if it didn't...ha! But I love playing drums. And I love Dennis Wilson, Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, and those wonderful drum and percussion parts they all created with Brian. I grew up listening to them, and then playing them. I do try and stay true to the arrangement. I don't get bored. I play like my life depends on it, 'cause it does. I learned early on, from my upbringing and brother Bill, never to "step" on the vocals with a bunch of crappy fills. I just play the beat and the pick-ups. So, my philosophy is: if you can't do it with one hand, don't do it.
DB: What do you enjoy the most about performing music from the Beach Boys catalog?
JC: The symphonic stuff is my favorite - all the different textures and subtleties that Brian used are just brilliant. When we play the UK, which is not nearly often enough, we get to do more of those things. I mean come on: '"Til I Die." Need I say more?
DB: Have you recorded anything with the group?
JC: Nope, nothing that I can think of as "official" recording anyway. We've done some pre-records for TV... And after I'm done with the Beach Boys, I promise I won't be re-recording their hits as a vanity project to see how close I can sound to the Beach Boys. It's been done. I would, however, consider doing a version of "Feel Flows," sans the psychedelic instrumental. I love that song...we did it over in the UK. I would also like to do covers of "Friends" and "Break Away." The problem is that the catalogue is so tailor-made for the Beach Boys it would be difficult to cut away from their arrangements. So why do it? Now, if I'm at a party and you want to hear a Beach Boys song and there is a piano in the room...you got it!
DB: Talk about your experiences working with Mike Love.
JC: I love this guy. No one works harder than Mike. And something you should know is that he never asks us to do something he wouldn't do himself. I notice things like that. He's "old school," and that means he's ready to work whether there's a monitor on stage or not. In my house growing up, it was Beach Boys before the Beatles...Wilson/Love, then Lennon & McCartney. He deserves the recognition for all those great lyrics he penned. Often in writing teams, the music and arrangement gets the credit, like a Burt Bacharach song. You don't ever hear someone say, "Hey I love that Hal David song." It's just how it's perceived. But he and Brian wrote and made it happen.
He is a funny man and quick to start the antics with his legendary punning. Mike, Scott, and Randell really get into it. I may get lucky sometimes, but they be the pros. And then there is the more sensitive side... the side that doesn't defend himself from the hits he takes from supposed "fans." Man, I don't care how you slice it all up it wouldn't have happened if they ALL weren't there. Just saying ... I was a group effort and that is exactly the bottom line. I can't stand all the people who bash him when they've never even met the man. There are two or more sides to every story people. Everyone's the star of his or her own story; what I see and experience doesn't match up with the BS on the street about Mike Love. Mike is straight up and gets an A+ as a friend and co-worker. (Okay, "Boss"...ha ha-ha).
DB: Talk about working with Bruce Johnston.
JC: If you've ever seen the EverReady Energizer Bunny, you have seen Bruce Johnston. He has more energy than kids half his age, and he is a walking encyclopedia of music. He has played with ev-eryone! The man is just so talented.. just Google his accomplishments. On stage he is all over the place, getting the crowd going. I have the best seat for watching the show. I don't think I've ever seen Bruce really down. He takes things in stride. Sometimes I'm not in the mood to hear what a great hotel it is we'll be staying at, but Bruce is persistent and will eventually get me laughing. The guy is so funny.
He has the gift of gab. I know... I am the same way, but he has a little more experience than I do, and I don't start conversations with total strangers. He loves life and loves his sons... it's very sweet... he takes a million pictures everywhere he goes. He's an old school entertainer as well...and a friend.
DB: Talk about working with John Stamos (when he performs with the group).
JC: Johnny Stamos! He is a good friend and we have the best time onstage. He's a bloody rocker. We have a blast playing drums together, but the people really want to see him up close, so he goes down and plays guitar and sings with the guys and leaves me all alone in the back. We split the drum duties up and I'll play percussion, or vice versa. He's always making me laugh. He's a Theater Boy...(inside joke). I like when he plays drums and I can go pee... now that's extra special. But seriously, he takes the crowd up a notch due to his celebrity status, which is great for us. That's just a by-product of him being there. The love for John is the music... he's the biggest fan...
DB: What inspires you the most it comes to music?
JC: The way it can align my soul and physical being. I am thankful to the writers who speak the words I can never find, the composers whose chord changes make me laugh (or cry), and the way it makes me feel at any given moment. I am blessed to be a part of such an art form, to be able to be an interpreter of songs. There is different music for everyone, and my heart and soul know which music is right for me. It's another dimension. It's personal, and again it's to be shared. It's my soundtrack. My bed-time play list reads: "Your Song"; "Surf's Up"; "Rocket Man"; "You Still Believe In Me"; "I Need You To Turn To"; "God Only Knows"; "If"; "Shower the People"; "Nowhere Man"; "Caroline, No"; "Across the Universe"; etc...that's where I go to heal and feel...