By: BISS Contributing Editor, Josh Danson
What do Timbuk 3, Jackson Browne, Tracy Chapman, Anders Osborne, Sheryl Crow, Stockholm Syndrome, David Lindley, Bob Weir, Blues Traveler all have in common? The connecting thread that runs between these seemingly disparate musical acts spanning decades, styles and scenes is embodied in one man: Wally Ingram. For more than 30 years, Wally has been adding his trademark rhythmic textures to the music of these musicians and many others.
As one of the pre-eminent sidemen of his generation, Wally has recorded and/or toured with more top acts than you could fit in your typical mid-sized venue. From his Wisconsin roots, where he got his big start playing with the eclectic and ground-breaking Timbuk 3 (“The Future’s So Bright I Gotta’ Wear Shades”?? Yeah, those guys), to Austin, Texas, to L.A., S.F. and beyond, Ingram has charted a musical path that has left toes tapping, hands clapping and faces smiling wherever he’s been. Equally happy sitting behind a drum kit as he is standing in front of a set of congas, Wally is content to define himself as a hybrid drummer/percussionist – but whatever format he finds himself in, he has a way of making the musicians around him sound better. Which is why it has become something of an open secret within the industry, that if you want to add something special to your mix you should, “Just add Wally.”
Most recently, Wally has joined forces with some of the Bay Area’s finest musicians to help bring to life the music of John Modell, a long-time producer, composer and engineer who has steadily been building up his songbook over the course of decades. Together, as Casa Del Sol, Modell, Ingram, Mike DiPirro and “Mighty” Dave Pellicciaro are diving into Modell’s extensive songbook and writing a new chapter in their musical careers. The music is sometimes dark, sometimes edgy, but built on good old-fashioned rock and blues, with psychedelic undertones and a hint of Latin soul to add spice to the mixture.
I recently got a chance to speak with Wally and John on the phone in advance of their upcoming, inaugural, Bay Area show at Amados in San Francisco, and learned more about Wally’s amazing career and about how Casa Del Sol came to be.
Interview minimally edited and condensed for length and clarity.
BL: Wally, you’re almost always referred to as a “Percussionist” versus a drummer, but obviously you can do both. Did you start out playing the drums and if so, how and when did you make the switch, or have you always considered yourself a percussionist? And if so, what does that designation mean to you?
WI: That’s a good question. I really consider myself a 50/50, equal application drummer versus percussionist, and I’m quite endeared to the hybrid drummer moniker. As far as how that came about… We recently had a memorial for my mother, so we were recounting all of this stuff about our family history, and how my mother was a drummer in the Iowa City – University of Iowa Scottish Highlanders Drum and Bagpipe band.
WI: Yeah. There’s a great photo of her in a kilt with her snare drum. So, around the age of five when the Monkees came out on television I became obsessed with them and just started hitting pots and pans and stuff like that. My mom saw that and kind of channeled that energy, and gave me a pair of her drumsticks. Her older brother, my uncle, was a big band drummer named Duane Means, so she grew up with music and drums around her, and she basically handed me a pair of drumsticks and a board and said, “Here hit this, and stop hitting all my pots and pans.” That same year for my birthday she knitted me and about five of my friends those Monkees-Michael Nesmith stocking caps, and I got kind of a toy-ish drum set, and another friend got me a pair of bongos. So, I started playing both and I took to both pretty much from the start. I took to playing with my hands on the skins. And with sticks. Then I started studying when I was about seven, with an older kid who was a drummer and had played with my sister in band. Then I got a real drum set when I was in 7th grade, around 12 years old.
In high school I started playing drums in the varsity marching band as a freshman. I was playing bongos and timbales marching, and then in the jazz band I split duties between drums and percussion because there was a bit of a log-jam on the drummer’s seat. My friend Paul Scoville, who has gone on to a career in drumming and runs a recording studio in Nashville, he and I both tag-teamed on what would normally be a one drummer position. Because we both had fairly equal skills and skills-set, they bought congas and we started playing percussion and drums with the jazz band. So, I’ve always liked to have a shaker in one hand, brushes in the other and hand drums mixed in with my drum kit. And I’ve taken gigs that are either role, or both. Left to my own devices I’ll usually try to incorporate percussion into my drum set and I welcome both of them. I don’t know if I’m any better at one than the other. I think when you put it all together… that’s kind of my thing – the “Just Add Wally” business model.
It just depends. If I’m playing with Steve Kimock’s son, Johnny, I’ll do more straight up drums, or a hybrid kit. Same with Anders Osborne. With Voodoo Dead, and DeadFeat – those kind of jazz fest gigs – I’ll do more percussion. I was percussionist for Tracy Chapman. Then I was drummer for Sheryl Crow, but ten years later I toured with her on percussion. And with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, they directed me into a role where the specific request was to not play a traditional drummer, but to play as if there was already another drummer playing, as Phil described it. And I was kind of like, “OK, I wonder who’s the other drummer that I’m playing with?” So, there was no bass drum, it was a stand-up gig. Kind of like what I used to do with Timbuk3 in the late-nineties – where there was just a bass drum and snare drum and a tambourine and a cowbell. And I just mixed it up, choosing whatever else I wanted to use as my weapons – you know, brush, multi-rods, stick…
Anyway, that’s a long answer, but I think it covers a few phases. I kind of fill all those roles the best I can, and I welcome them all equally.
BL: You mentioned your work with Timbuk3, and I was listening back to the first Timbuk3 album that you were featured on (Big Shot in the Dark, 1991) and the very first sound you hear on that album is your bongo intro to “God Made an Angel”. Tell us a little about how you got your start with TimBuk3 and why the decision was made to feature you so prominently right out of the gate there.
WI: Well I was kind of last in a long line of drummers to play with them in Madison, WI, including Clyde Stubblefield of James Browne fame, who played with pAt [his preferred spelling] McDonald and the Essentials, and also Dave Stanoch who went on to have a long and successful career. A lot of great drummers went through that chair, but during that time they had kind of had it with the music business and decided to scale down and that was when drum machines and boom boxes were both kind of coming on the scene at the same time. And they actually borrowed a drum machine from a band I was in – Electro Love Kit – and borrowed the bass from the bass player, and programmed drum tracks for a bunch of their songs and then played bass onto cassette on a boom box. They had it set up with a foot pedal so they could turn it on and off. They could play on the street corner, or they could set it up where they had an output from the boom box that they could plug into a PA system and perform with these things, with this series of cassette tapes with like three or four tracks each, and that’s when they were discovered in Austin, Texas. They were playing on the street and in clubs and they were finally discovered by MTV and were booked on their Cutting Edge show for the episode on Austin. And then they invited the bands that were featured on that episode out to LA to perform. I was already living in LA at the time and I may have been one of the only people that they knew out there at that time, so they called me and I picked up them and their rig up from the airport and I was kind of their roadie. And they performed and were offered a record deal by Miles Copeland [founder of I.R.S. Records and brother of Police drummer Stewart Copeland], the very next day. So, they went on to record two or three albums out there, including the first one I was on was, “Big Shot in the Dark”.
pAt McDonald invited me to sit in with them sometime, just to see how it worked. This was the year that the big earthquake happened in San Francisco, when I did my first audition gig in San Diego. And he said to just bring a kick drum and snare drum – stand up – no cymbals, no high hat. So I just kind of rigged up a tambourine and a cowbell, and after that gig they told me, “We want you to come on tour with us.” But I was like, “Hey man, you gotta’ give me at least a day or two to get it together.” So I got my stuff together to go on tour with them and our first gig was supposed to be at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, but that was the day of the [1989, Loma Prieta] earthquake! They couldn’t even open the doors of venue because they were wedged shut from the movement of the earth. And back in those days nobody had cellphones or anything, so we had to cancel the gig of course. But then I flew up and met them in Portland for my first gig and I was with them for years after that.
I’m still involved with pAt to this day. He’s the creative director of the Holiday Music Motel up in Sturgeon Bay, WI. And I’m one of a number of shareholders in the motel [including Jackson Browne, among others], and we host three singer songwriter events up there and workshops, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. Eric McFadden goes every year. I go there when I can… so anyway, we’re still very connected, pAt and I.
But on that first album I played on, “Big Shot in the Dark,” which I love, there were some really interesting techniques used in the recording. It was before ADATS (Alesis Digital Audio Tape), before there were any muti-track digital machines that were affordable. There was a TASCAM setup – DAT machines, two-track machines that you could synch up with an 8-track reel-to-reel machine, analog machine. So their idea was to put everything on these two tracks of digital at a time, synch them up later for mixing, and it was just a very odd process. They would cobble things together the best they could and there was a lot of sampling and looping, with these primitive samples and loops, but it was a labor of love and one of the earliest of digital recordings using a home setup and attempting to do multi-tracking [laughs].
BL: Wow, very interesting.
WI: Yeah it was very interesting. As the years went on they would move up to ADATS and other things, but they were never afraid of kind of doing it the hard way. And it always ended up being an interesting process, very much doing it their own way.
BL: Sounds like they were very experimental and ahead of their time.
WI: Yeah, for sure. And I love that record [“Big Shot in the Dark”]. I love “A Hundred Lovers” [the sixth and final studio album by Timbuk 3, released in 1995]. And there was a live one from Europe, called “Espace Ornano,” which was the name of the club. There are some hidden gems there and I really encourage people to search them out because I think they really hold up.
BI: After Timbuk3, you began a long and fruitful collaboration with David Lindley, how did you guys hook up and did that coincide with your move to the West Coast?
WI: I moved to the West Coast to work with Kevin O’Neal, from the BusBoys. He was looking for a drummer, but by the time I got out here he had already found a drummer so I ended up playing percussion. We ended up doing lots of stuff together, including touring with Tracy Chapman, but that’s what originally brought me out here.
So initially when I was out here, I was commuting back and forth between LA and Austin and playing with Timbuk 3, and we ended up playing at the 100th anniversary of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. We did a lot of Indian rights benefits back then and at that gig we met Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt and Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Cockburn, Floyd Westerman, from Dances with Wolves, the native American actor, performer and singer – all these great resisters… And Jackson was doing a trio with Debra Dobkin on percussion and Scott Thurston, who went on to be in the Heartbreakers, in an auxiliary role. He was kind of like the “fifth Heartbreaker”. Anyway, I gave Scott my card – this was back when people still had cards – and he thought of me when Debra couldn’t do a few dates. Scott recommended me to Jackson and Jackson was like, “Yeah, let’s get Wally.” So I started working with Jackson and Scott as a trio and we did a ton of benefits. Like a LOT of them – Jackson does a ton of philanthropy and benefits. We did a lot of shows with Jackson and then I would play with Bonnie, and Crosby and Nash, or sometimes Crosby Stills and Nash, all at the same gigs. And I also got to work with John Trudell, native American poet and activist [Trudell was the spokesperson for the United Indians of All Tribes’ takeover of Alcatraz beginning in 1969, broadcasting a radio show from the island as Radio Free Alcatraz, and later served as Chairman of the American Indian Movement].
Anyway, around that time Jackson was rehearsing with Lindley when I came by to pick up some gear at the studio one day, and Jackson was like, “Hey, go get your djembe.” A djembe is an African hand drum that I play in unique way with a brush, which was something I started doing with Sheryl Crow back in the MTV unplugged days. And Jackson was like, “Show Lindley how you do that.” And Lindley responded immediately, “Oh, that’s good. Oh, I like that! OK, give me your number, I’m going to be giving you a call.” And he did!
We ended up performing as a duo for about 12 years. It was really fantastic. But at some point he just kind of made a decision that he wasn’t going to play with other musicians. We remain great friends. Nothing personal. And he’s told me, “Wally, if I were to play with somebody it’d be you,” but he’s been pretty much solo ever since. We made four records together that we recorded at my studio, and recently there’s been some talk about the idea of putting them out on vinyl, which I think would be a really great thing to do, because you can’t even get them on iTunes anymore.
So that’s how I met Lindley. It was through Jackson and it was a very fruitful relationship and musically, it was just kind of a dream gig for me. I was able to do a super crazy hybrid approach, you know, right up my alley. Some people say, “The World’s Greatest Duo” [laughs]. It was pretty powerful.
BL: Yeah, it was an amazingly full sound for two musicians.
WI: Yeah, it was.
BL: You always seem to bring a lot of joy to whatever you’re playing, whoever you’re playing with. Is there something about playing music with lots of different musicians, in lots of different formats – versus being a long-time member of any one single group – that keeps you happy and keeps the creative juices flowing?
WI: Well, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have loved to have landed in some group that ended up being full-time thing, but that being said, I love the variety. But being a free agent is great because like you said, it keeps the creative juices flowing. It’s challenging, and it also gives me time to focus on my studio, WallyTrax, that I run out of my home. I really like to play on other people’s recordings because it also gives me the opportunity to travel, sometimes internationally.
Like in March, I’m going to be in Germany for the whole month playing with a German artist called Stoppok. He’s got – I think – something like his 18th solo album coming out and I’ve been on the last two. I’ve toured with hm twice and it’s great. So, I like keeping it international, but I also like coming back to my home-away-from-home in the Bay Area. And I’ve definitely achieved frequent flyer, A-List status on Southwest, but more to the point I feel like I’ve become part of the fabric of the Bay Area music scene, which I love.
BL: Well that’s perfect segue, because I was hoping to ask, before you have run, to talk about your connection to the Bay Area and the Jam scene. So maybe you could talk a little bit about those connections there and working with folks like Dave Schools, Phil & Bobby, our mutual friends in Blues Traveler, etc.
WI: Well the connection with the Jam band world kind of sprang from my relationship with Blues Traveler and Sheryl Crow.
BL: Oh nice. I wanted to circle back with you and flesh out that connection. It sounded like you knew Bobby Sheehan [Blues Traveler’s original/founding bass player] first, or maybe best?
WI: Well I knew them all, but Bobby and I became really tight – like brother-type friends. Nowadays, I feel that same way towards all the guys in the band, but at that time, before Bobby passed away, the two of us were very close. Like, I met my wife at his house in New Orleans during Jazz Fest.
But at that time, I was touring with Sheryl Crow and both bands were on A&M Records. So the promotions guys there got this idea: Sheryl was not that big yet, her record was starting to move but she still wasn’t selling out the bigger venues, and Traveler was doing pretty well with their grassroots approach, but I don’t know if they were selling out places like the Warfield either, so I guess they figured – maybe together? So, they put us on tour together and it turned out to be a really dynamic one-two punch. It was really great. We sold out everywhere and we were like family. We all got to know each other and it was just really fun.
A couple years later when Sheryl was taking a break and getting ready to record I found myself with some time on my hands. Bobby and I were hanging out a ton and he invited me, or rather he pitched it to the band – because it was definitely a democracy – the idea of me running the Workshop Stage on the HORDE Tour. I’d done the HORDE tour like three different years with Sheryl and other people, so the idea was to have me at a third stage that they were expanding out to have a more prominent billing and to pair me with Taj Mahal as co-hosts of the stage. Taj would do like two or three sets a day and I would kind of fill in, in between other acts. So whenever there was something happening on the main stage, I would invite players from the other bands – guys from the Black Crowes, Dave Mathews, Primus, Morphine, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Leftover Salmon, you know – to jam out and improvise. So, I kind of made my mark as something of a ringmaster of all that music.
I can’t even remember how I landed in the Grateful Dead world exactly. Kind of came in the backdoor, I think. Loved coming to The Bay Area and played a lot with the Dave Nelson Band… Steve Kimock, Mark Karan. And have been playing a bunch with Lebo recently. And now, most recently, have been collaborating with one of my oldest and bestest friends, John Modell on our Casa Del Sol project.
He’s a prolific songwriter but has not had lot of opportunity to perform and record his music but he’s been writing for years. We’ve been playing together and messing around in home studios for the better part of 20 years. So finally we decided to start demo’ing his songbook and working up versions of his more than 60 songs – now I think he’s over 70!
BL: Well that’s amazing and thanks for handing it off to John to tell us more about it.
John, tell us a little about Casa Del Sol. Who are the members? And how and when did it come together?
JM: Well, the members of the band are me, as guitarist, singer, songwriter. Then we have Wally Ingram, of course, on drums and percussion. Mike DiPirro, on bass, who brings a lot to the table. He’s got his own band, Free People, that plays a ton around California and tours the rest of the country, as well. And then we’ve got ‘Mighty’ Dave Pellicciaro playing keyboards. He’s got a band called Materiaized and he also played with the Jackmormons and I think all of those guys have at one time or another played with Bill Kreutzman and other members of the Dead family.
Wally and I had done a lot for work together for years on lots of different projects and have been friends for years, since our kids were babies. He’s my son’s Godfather. So he’s one of my best friends and I’ve been lucky enough to have had Wally play on various projects for me over the years and also a lot of studio work for me and other stuff like that.
With Mike DiPirro, we just become close living up here in San Francisco and I’ve always been in awe of his talents as a musician. He’s an amazing collaborator and I was almost a little intimidated at first to demo some of these songs for him. We’d actually been friends for a while before we played a note of music together, but when we finally got around to playing music together he was like, “Wow, I really like your stuff and I’d like to work with you on it.”
Same with Mighty Dave. We’ve been really good friends for a number of years through my wife Bev and through the larger SF “familia” that we’ve got up here and he’s just a great guy and an amazing player. So when I started putting Casa Del Sol together, I reached out to him and said, “Let me run some of thee songs by you and let me know what you think.” So I went by his studio and played some of the material for him and he loved it and basically said, “Let’s do it.”
So, it’s really a band of friends. It’s almost as if we were in high school and just really good friends who decided to start a band, except we’re doing this in our 50s, you know [laughs].
I think Mike D might be the youngest. He’s like the baby of the group at 45 or something. But it’s really cool to be doing this at this age when everybody is normally tied up with their other projects, and just life and whatnot. To put the time in to start a band is very time-consuming and takes a lot of effort. So to get these guys to do that is really a joy. My heart is warmed by it and I’m really grateful and flattered that these amazing musicians would fall in and work with me on this stuff. It definitely feels like an embarrassment of riches.
BL: Well that’s great. So, it sounds like you guys are playing mostly originals. Is it all originals, or are you doing some covers as well? Seems like you’ve got quite a songbook to draw upon.
JM: Some of these songs are 30 years old. This is stuff that I’ve been writing over a long period of time, working in the music business as a composer, a producer for television, doing commercials and other stuff. So we’re really focusing on the originals. We’ve jammed on some covers just for fun and every so often I’ll bring up a potential cover with the guys, like a Dylan song or something, doing our own take on it… but Mike DiPirro – who I look at as our defacto music police or musical director – he’s like, “We don’t need no stinkin’ covers!” He’s really adamant that we focus on working our way through my songbook, which again I’m totally flattered by. And of the more than 60 songs I’ve got in my songbook, we’ve probably worked our way through about 25 or 30, in terms of arranging them and working them out. So we’ve got some repertoire there to fall back on. We’re probably going to start recording soon and that represents about six albums worth of songs there. And the guys have really expressed a lot of belief in the stuff I’ve been writing, so this is like a dream come true.
BL: That’s amazing, because obviously that’s one of the main challenges for many musicians starting out – coming up with original material. So, if you’ve already got that much music in your back pocket, seems you’re way ahead of the game.
JM: Yeah well, while I was working for other people I was always writing my own stuff. But for me what really changed was when I started singing and really becoming a singer, that changed my approach to writing. And it became apparent to me that I needed to focus on writing my own stuff and really fleshing it out because you know, none of us is getting any younger.
BL: Sounds like you’ve really found your own voice working with these guys and that’s great at any age. So how would you describe the Casa Del Sol sound? I thought I detected a little Velvet Underground, some grunge notes, blues, Latin… Any other key influences?
JM: Well, you know Josh, we see each other at so many shows and obviously your tastes are as eclectic as mine are in terms of the kind of music that you listen to. I listen to everything. Like Duke Ellington said, “There’s only two kinds of music – good music and the other kind.” So I’m influenced by all different kinds of music – jazz, rock, classical, world music, African, Latin, Brazillian – it all kind of goes in there but I’ve never made conscious effort to describe my music one way or to copy any particular style.
For a while when I was younger I wanted to be a jazz musician and I remember a lot of the jazz heads would spend hours trying to transcribe a Charlie Parker solo. And I loved Charlie Parker too, but I never tried to transcribe it. I would listen to it and absorb it, but then play whatever it made me feel or whatever my interpretation of that was.
Our music is, I hate pigeonholing it, but we’re definitely a rock band. We’re psychedelic-alternative-latin-blues-soul-rock [laughs]. But definitely psychedelic. We’re all influenced and informed on some level by the psychedelic experience in a lot of what we do musically. I grew up in Southern California and was born in 1960, so I was exposed to a lot of Latin music on the radio, and Latin culture, you know just driving around L.A. and stuff. And then when I was seven years old, I got a transistor radio while I was quarantined at home with the chicken pox and the first thing that came out of it when I turned it on, was like, “Here’s the new single by The Doors.” And it was “Come on Baby Light my Fire,” which has some very latin-sounding elements, and classical… all that stuff. But I’m 100% Irish. You know, they’ve got the black Irish up there, so maybe the moors made it up that far and that’s where it comes from. Really there’s not a Latin bone in me, but I’ve always gravitated towards Latin music. Be it Mexican or Cuban, Brazillian… and of course, Flamenco and Spanish music and that brings you back to Spain and North Africa and Moroccan music. So you just keep going up the river to all those different sources.
BL: Yep. And I guess that love of Latin music was kind of reflected in the first gig you did with Casa Del Sol, which was at your wedding last year down in Mexico, right?
JM: Yeah, well Oaxaca was the first place that Bev and I had gone on a trip together, so it was a very special place for us to return to. And it’s a really unique part of Mexico, still somewhat untouched. Very indigenous. And there’s a lot of the Dia de Los Muertos influence. And that show we did down there kind of reflected that that Dia de los Muertos culture where you pay homage to your departed loved ones and build altars and leave offerings. So the set we did down there as called the Family Album, and it was a set of 14 songs, all of them about the ancestors that have gone before us and the children that we now have.
On Saturday night though we’ll be starting to get into the other kind of stuff we do, which is more social and political themes, some blues, and darker themes of things like love lost… we don’t do a lot of bubbly, boy meets girl kind of stuff. When boy meets girl, it usually means trouble. But I do believe any artist working in this day and age has to reflect on this time of tremendous upheaval going on in our society and how there’s some pretty intense and dark forces at work and I think artists have to spend at least some of their time and energy talking about that, acknowledging and focusing on that – that’s what you’re supposed to do.
But there’s another song that we’re going to be playing that’s called “44 Little Hooks,” about Bev, that’s totally sexy. But when Bev and I first got together she used to ask, “When are you going to write a song about me.” And I used to say, “Honey, you don’t want me to write a song about you – because if I do it means something’s gone horribly wrong.” But seriously, it’s hard for me to write bubbly songs. Even some of the greatest pop songs, you know, “Stop in the Name of Love,” or some of the Beatles stuff, there’s some beautiful gloss on the top, but if you really listen to the lyrics, there’s pain and heartbreak and blues in there.
And that goes back to when I’m talking about our music and I mention the blues I’m not talking specifically about 12-bar structures, when I talk about the blues it’s more of a state of mind. Like when you listen to flamenco music it’s got such pain and emotion in it, and I call that the blues too.
Any future plans for the band that you can tip us off to? Upcoming gigs beyond Amados this weekend? Plans to record?
Well, we’ve got a lot of material that we’re working our way through. And I know we’ve got a few gigs that are starting to come together for February. Maybe one at the Boom Boom Room, that hasn’t yet been announced, and one that Mike is working on up in Occidental and another one down in Southern California. Then in March Wally is going to be touring in Europe, so in April we’ll get some other gigs on the calendar. But we’re definitely going to keep going with it and keep getting out there, because if we keep at it we’ll definitely be a force to be reckoned with – even at our advanced age!