Ringo Starr on EPs, Epic Concerts, and How to Become a Master Drummer

Ringo Starr Joined by Dave Grohl, Jenny Lewis, Paul McCartney and More on 'Here's to the Nights'
Ringo Starr Joined by Dave Grohl, Jenny Lewis, Paul McCartney and More on 'Here's to the Nights'

Ringo Starr could easily rest on his laurels. Seriously. What more does the man have left at this point to prove? The 82-year-old English drum God has more gold records to his name than you or I have actual, vinyl records. He’s a Knight of the British Empire, who’s widely considered to be one of the greatest percussionists on Planet Earth.

“With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “Don’t Pass Me By,” remember those? Ringo Starr.

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Some people can claim they’ve seen and done it all. Ringo truly has. And yet he still has more to say. More than you’d think actually. Over the last couple of years, the percussive heart of the Fab Four has released a trio of smaller, extended play releases, the most recent of which dropped last week. Titled, succinctly enough, EP3, Ringo’s latest project is yet another joyful attempt to bring a little bit of Peace and Love to the airwaves.

“I thought, I don’t want to go and do a CD,” Starr says over Zoom from his hotel room, somewhere on the road. He’s popped onto the computer screen wearing an electric lime green, and black tracksuit, with his signature gold peace sign dangling from his neck. “Ten tracks, in this weird age we’re in right now? I thought, let’s make EPs. It was so much easier and calmer. You got your rocks off on four tracks, and then you could relax again.”

More than just riding the recent wave of artists releasing EPs lately – “I thought I was bringing them back!” The Beatle exclaims – he’s also diversifying the medium. “In November, you can get me on cassette,” he promises. “I heard the kids were back into cassettes, so I said, ‘I want to make cassettes.’ And Universal said, OK.’

While the styles, arrangements, and musicians surrounding Ringo’s kit have morphed and changed through the years, the man in the middle of the madness has largely remained the same. So has his world-altering, signature style. “I don’t have to hit a lot of drums,” he explains. “And the drums I’ve got, I don’t have to hit all the time.”

EP3 has been out for a few weeks, but Starr barely had time to savor the release before his most recent tour with his All-Star band called him back out to the road. That’s not to mention the upcoming remastered release of the Beatles’ Revolver album next month. Or the upcoming, potential project with Get Back director Peter Jackson that he’s not at total liberty to discuss. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Starr stays very, very busy.

“That’s how I like it,” he says. “I’m not big on days off.”

Recently, we had the chance to catch up with Starr to talk about his life on the road, how he developed his signature drumming style, as well as a few memories he made alongside George, Paul and John all those years ago.

Ringo Starr
(Credit: Scott Ritchie)

SPIN: So, how’s a day in the life of Ringo Starr?
Ringo Starr: A day in the life is great because I am on tour. I’m playing. Nobody wants to tour. We all want that Star Trek box, which just buzzes you down to the gig and then home.

Wouldn’t that be something.
I finally sort of settled down to, “You’ll have to tour, and then you can play.” Anyway, it’s going great. We started this tour in May. We were booked May, June, and then two weeks in, Edgar Winter and Steve Lukather came down with the madness [COVID] and so we had to stop it. The 12 gigs we didn’t do, we’re doing them now. So, the tour has been extended…or descended because we started earlier. We did six shows last week.

All gas, no breaks! You’re not known to be a guy who likes to play solo drums by himself. How has it been to play with your band again?
I don’t like to play by myself. I’ve never liked to practice. I practiced with every band I was in. That’s how I learned to play. And, yeah, the band is great. Now that I’m not changing the band completely every time, as I did at first, in the ‘90s. I’m keeping members, like [guitarist] Lukather’s been with me 10 years. He is such an asset. And Edgar was in the band 12 years ago. I brought him back. This band was together, and we’ll see when it ends. That’s the deal.

It’s a long and winding road, as someone once said.
Hey, yeah, somebody said that.

EPs have been having a little bit of a moment lately. Nine Inch Nails has put out some EPs lately. A lot of indie groups and rappers are putting out EPs.
I promise you, I did not know that.

It’s a trend.
I thought I was bringing them back! I thought “Me, me, me.” I thought I’d invented it again. It was so much easier and calmer. You got your rocks off on four tracks, and then you could relax again. Then, I had nothing better to do. “Well, I’m going to do another EP.” I’d make a few calls and get some songs. Then, I had nothing to do again. And I went, “I’m going to do one more EP.” And it’s EP3. It’s even called EP3.

One of the more affecting songs on EP3 is “Let’s Be Friends.” It’s a song centered around your central ethos: Peace and love. We’re all people. Let’s put our differences aside and…just be friends. You know?
Well, if you listen to this EP, it’s peace and love, and “Let’s Be Friends,” and change. Everything needs to be changed. It all has the same sentiment written differently. With “Let’s Be Friends,” there’s a friend of mine called Sam Hollander; he’s a producer and writer, and he lives in New York lately. I thought, “I’m going to call Sam, and see if he had a song.” My engineer Bruce Sugar sent him a track of piano in my key. And Sam turned her into “Let’s Be Friends.” It just happened, he was coming from New York to LA before we put anything down on it, and so he was there for that and singing backing vocals, and I put the drums on. I just put drums, and percussion, and sang it.

Ringo Starr
(Credit: Scott Ritchie)

You’re a left-handed player. Paul McCartney is left-handed, and so was Jimi Hendrix, but you all played with right-handed instruments from a young age. What impact do you think that’s had on your style? Playing from an opposite direction?
I think it made me the drummer I am today because I didn’t know any better. The first kit I saw in the shop, I had just sat on it, and it was built for a right-handed guy. I said, “Okay, let’s go.” I couldn’t play really, but it stayed like that. At least Paul can play this way [mimics flipping over an invisible bass] you know what I mean?

Right.
But if I had to play even reggae in the olden days, I’d have to turn the whole kit round, because they play on the on-beat. Or they used to. Now, it’s all rock. That’s how it happened. The left leads, and so if I want to go and fill, the other guy would go back, they got the free hand already. I’m going, “Hey, boom, baa daa.” It gave me a style. You can tell when Ringo’s playing, because it’s like, “Boom, baa, pidja, baa, baa, baa.” Which gives me style to get the left hand up and over. It’s just how I am now.

There it is.
The other thing that happened that amazes me and everybody, I have great timing. Do you know what I mean? I can keep time well. And that’s the most overlooked skill there is. You can do all the fills and solos you want, but it’s got to be one, two, three, four, right? If you ever watch bands, if anything goes wrong in the band, they all look at the drummer.

The live experience is such an essential element of what it means to be a musician. What are some of the more memorable gigs you can recall from across your career?
One of the most memorable shows I did was at the Cavern. I went to see the George Lewis Traditional Jazz Band from New Orleans, and this was in the ‘50s.

Oh, wow.
They had a drummer whose name I don’t know. He only had the snare drum, and the bass drum, and cymbals, and he’s playing just to make it. Anytime he had tom-toms and stuff, he just went, “Baa daa bum bum,” on the bass drum. I was like, “Oh my God.” He had everything he needed with two drums. They used to come, because it looked good, with two tom-toms. But, now I’m down to one. I only need one. That was a great moment for me, because I realized then I don’t have to hit a lot of drums, and the drums I’ve got, I don’t have to hit all the time.

That’s a great way of putting it! Back in the day though, when you’re playing warp speed in ’64 and ’65 at places like the Hollywood Bowl with all the crowd adrenaline and the rest of the Beatles playing like crazy…how did you not have your arms fall off?
Yeah, well, we did a 25-minute show.

That helps. That helps.
It’s pretty hard to get tired in 25 minutes when you’re in your twenties, for God’s sake. We loved it. That’s the one thing about the four of us, that we all loved music. And then I was blessed, we had two guys, incredible writers, and besides being a great bass player and rhythm guitar. Then, George started writing. I don’t know, it’s just the best band I was ever in anyway, and I’ve been in a few bands.

You certainly have!
In Get Back, you can see it musically. We’ve got a song, we’ve got something to do, let’s do it the best we can. And everybody, if there’s a count in, it doesn’t matter what’s been going on, if there’s a count in, we all gave our best. Nobody said, “Well, that’s fine. I’m not playing very…” We all did. That was just a cosmic rule, if the count in, we gave all.

 

You brought up Get Back. I’m sure everyone, who’s ever to ran into you, has sung the praises of that film. I can’t believe what Peter Jackson did with that collection of footage.
I thought you were going to talk about the song, because if you look at that video, “Get Back” is just straight rock. Then, it gets to the roof, and it’s different. I’m saying, “When did I change?” I was hoping in the movie, they would have that moment. But, I must have came in later. I was praying that they had footage of, “Oh. Hey, lads, let me try this way.” You know?

Peter Jackson has been working closely with The Beatles these last few years. His team helped with the audio isolation on the new Revolver set for instance. What’s that relationship looking like going forward? Do you have more projects in the work with Peter?
Well, you’ll have to talk to Peter. My lips are sealed. I don’t know. We’re hoping for an announcement, but that’s as far as I go.

In the meantime, the Revolver set, like so many other The Beatles album boxes that have put out recently looks pretty revelatory. Have you heard some of that newer stuff, and what’s your impression?
Yeah, well I’m on it [Laughs].

Is that your favorite Beatles cover image?
No, the White Album.

I don’t blame you.
No, I’m only having fun with you. I think Abbey Road is great, and the way we got there is what the Beatles would like. We’d be like, “We want to do the cover in Egypt, with the pyramids,” or “We want to go here,” or “We want to go up Mount Everest. Ah, sod it. Let’s just walk across the road.” And we did. It’s just one of those things, where that, walking across Abbey Road became the biggest icon ever. But, we just wanted to make life easy.

What are your memories of playing at the Last Waltz, the final concert for the Band?
Very few. I think they tell me we had a good time. I loved the Band. I was in New York, George was in New York in the same hotel, and Jimi Hendrix was in the same hotel. And Eric [Clapton] was in town, and he’d just been out, hanging out with The Band. He came with the acetate of the Band’s first album. He said, “Oh, you’ve got to listen to this, man.” And, we played it, we all fell in love with it. It was a great record. It stands on its own. It is good.

Ringo Starr Last Waltz
(Credit: Gary Fong/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Well, mentioning George, what about the Concert for Bangladesh? That must have been a scene.
Well, that was the first like All Starr Band. He had Eric, Bob [Dylan], me, Leon [Russell], and a lot of other people playing. Billy [Preston] was playing. And we all came out for George. He didn’t ask me, because he didn’t want it to be like a Beatle-y thing. I said, “Well, I’m coming anyway.” So, I just turned off, and got down to it. Leon Russell and I are playing behind Bob Dylan. I’m playing tambourine, Leon’s playing bass. And Bob does his songs, and we played them. Then, we go back to the hotel because there was two shows. Then we came back, and we did the second show, and Bob, it’s time for Bob, and Bob’s up there singing, and we’re playing like we did the first show. Bob turned everything into a waltz, but, he didn’t bother telling us [Laughs].

Information the drummer needs to know.
I know Bob well. I’ve seen a lot of his shows. You go and see a Bob Dylan show, and you get what you get.

One of the last concerts I want to ask you about is the Candlestick Park show, the last Beatles live public show in America. My uncle was at that gig. What was that situation like that day and how do you feel at the end of that particular show?
Well, we’d made our minds up to stop touring. It was beginning to limit us. The sound, of course…We were using house sounds everywhere we went. It wasn’t the screaming, that was part of us being us, and them being them. That was just part of the atmosphere. It was San Francisco, wasn’t it?

The Beatles in San Francisco
Policemen clear the field of fans as The Beatles perform on a bandstand in Candlestick Park, San Francisco, California. (Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

It was, yeah.
Yeah. We knew that was like, “OK, well, now we’re going in the studio.” [The Beatles] played live for years, before I was in the band, when I was in the band, so we’d made a date that this would be the last tour, and we’re going to express ourselves in the studio and see what comes about. As you can see, what came about was some great music, you know?

The best.
It wasn’t like, “Oh, it’s all over.” But, then you get, Get Back, and it was on the roof. We hadn’t played live, but we know how to play. We had ran through it twice, and then, “Okay, let’s go.” Anyway, I love that band.

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