Considered by jazz and rock connoisseurs as one of the great drummers, CHESTER THOMPSON has done gigs or sessions for seemingly everyone. He found time to chat with Mike Rimmer.
It's six in the morning and I am on the phone to Chester Thompson. For him it's midnight, but having just returned to Nashville from Europe and, in his mind, already on the plane to Japan the following day, I'm not surprised when he's clearly struggling to stay awake! Chester's drumming credits stretch across the mainstream music scene of the last three decades, and although he's best known for his work as live drummer for Genesis, what's not so well documented is his faith in Jesus, even though it's twenty years since he became a Christian.
He remembers, "I'd been considered something of a seeker. I grew up going to church, but I reached a point where I was playing local bars and clubs around 13 years old, and all through school I was working and gradually fell away from church. Not horribly or anything, but to the point where it wasn't my priority. At one point, when I started getting really interested in spiritual matters again I got side-tracked, and ended up following some Indian teachings. It was the late seventies, and it sounded scientific and hip, so I thought it must be right." He laughs.
Bass guitarist Abraham Laboriel, who like Chester was much in demand as a session player, came to visit one day. Chester remembers, "He saw the picture of this guru and said 'my brother this is not the truth, only Jesus is the truth.' We debated and went back and forth. Soon after that I was immediately taken into the inner circle of this spiritual organisation, and I got to see a lot of unholy things that I couldn't come to grips with, and I began to get a bit suspicious. One good thing about it, they encouraged everyone to really read all of the scriptures and so I ended up reading all sorts of things. I read the Gita, the book of Buddah but my wife and myself mostly read the Bible. I guess God's word doesn't return void, because we kept reading and things kept becoming clearer to us. Within a few months we had started going to a home fellowship group with Abraham Laborial that he was hosting. Then we started going to the church where the group was based, which was Church On The Way with Jack Hayford in Los Angeles. Then in 1980 we both accepted the Lord and haven't looked back."
These days, Chester is an Elder in the Nashville Church On The Way and he also teaches music at the local university. "I've never done that before but I must admit I am enjoying it. I teach at Belmont University and it has a fantastic music programme. I do some of the drums with a bunch of private students, the performance majors. I also conduct a seminar every week, which is sort of like a drum clinic. I put them on the spot and they have to play. It's a bit like a master class I suppose. My son is actually in each one of the classes I teach. He's got the unfortunate fate of having to be in each one of my classes. He doesn't get any favouritism though."
The young Chester Thompson played in local bands, developing his talents and considering the significance of his future career playing in studios. His first recording wasn't really a portent for what was to come. "The very first thing I played on was local." He thinks back, "We drove over to Washington DC to the recording studio and it was a local release, a local singer. I was within a pretty good local band and this guy managed a couple of singers. He also owned a tuxedo shop, and we had a job coming up and we needed tuxedos. He said Tell you what guys if you play for my guy, I'll supply the tuxedos for free.' So that's how much we got paid!" He laughs at the memory, "We got paid in free rental on tuxedos."
His first serious recording session was with the legendary Frank Zappa. Chester was drummer with Zappa's band The Mothers Of Invention from 1973-75. Always controversial, The Mothers were banned from playing at London's Albert Hall because of the nature of their material, but Chester remembers, "He loved pushing buttons. This was a very happy period in his life, when I was with him, and no, he didn't ask me to wear a dress! I look at it as probably one of the best schools I ever went to. He was really a brilliant teacher, as much as anything else that he did, and he did a lot of things well musically. He was one of those people that could really draw the best out of you. I was certainly grateful for that experience."
The musical experimentation continued as Thompson then went on to play with jazz fusion outfit, Weather Report. One of the highlights of his career was playing on the Weather Report album 'Black Market'. He recalls, "It was just the way everyone played. I was listening in the headphones to what everyone was playing, and I was just blown away by it. The level of musicianship in that band was pretty phenomenal." Humbly, he reflects, "I've had a pretty wonderful career. I wish I could take credit for it. I practised, and I showed up when I was called, and these fantastic doors were opened.
In the UK, it was his sixteen-year stint with Genesis that made him a well-known name amongst rock fans. When Phil Collins switched to vocalist with the band after Peter Gabriel quit, Chester filled the drum stool for their live performances. I suggest that he spent sixteen years as a Collins impersonator. He laughs, "Yeah! That would definitely be an accurate job description. Phil has a very distinctive drumming style; he's a fantastic drummer. Funnily enough, I've just started working with Phil again this year. I went to see one of his big band gigs. He asked if I would come out and start working with him again, and the time was perfect. He did a bunch of the songs for the Disney film Tarzan', and we've done several gigs in Europe promoting that."
And tomorrow it's Japan! What a glamorous life! "Yeah! But then I get to come home and cut the grass," he laughs. "It'll be another one of these promo things for the Tarzan film. It will be the Japanese premiere. We did a live television concert in Germany and we'll do the same thing in Japan. We'll play the four songs from the film but then several of Phil's other songs. We're actually playing a couple of Genesis songs, which I was quite surprised to see him doing to be honest."
Obviously, he has the opportunities to rub shoulders with many musicians, and like Laboriel, isn't shy in sharing his faith. There had been recent rumours that Collins had become a Christian. Chester says the rumours aren't true and adds, "Funny enough, he's certainly a lot more open to the Gospel, although he never was hostile to it. It's funny because the Lord just keeps Phil surrounded with Christians. When I left, in his own band the whole horn section were Christians and they have a drummer that had become a Christian, Ricky Lawson. The Lord's definitely got his eye on him."
The Christian public first got to appreciate Chester's talents when he drummed on the ground-breaking Ron Kenoly project "Lift Him Up". He remembers, "I got to do three of those actually, lift Him Up' was the first one. It is probably one of the highlights of my life. I've never, ever, experienced worship like that before. It really was a praise and worship experience more so than a concert, and there was just a move of the Lord's spirit, and I had never experienced anything like it. Even now, I can't watch the video without crying. I had played a little on Christian music before, but not much. I'd done a few Integrity/Hosanna things but not very much. It was the same producer, Tom Brookes, that does Ron's stuff and he had moved to California. Funnily enough he had been a Genesis fan, so when he found out I was a Christian, he invited me to play on some of the things that he was doing because he had heard me play with Genesis."
The 'Joyful Noise' album was recorded back in 1991 but still sounds fresh. But why re-release it now? Chester explains, "Steve Hackett and I have remained really good friends over the years and Steve had formed Camino Records. I think the primary focus was to release some of his older catalogue because you put all your work into those things. The traditional record company approach is that it's no longer marketable and they're done with it. He felt like he had reason to believe that people were still interested in what he was doing, and of course he was right. He ended up forming a label to release some of his older things and it did well enough that they started looking for other things to release. I had actually given a copy to Steve, and one to his manager, so when they became interested in releasing other things the manager contacted me and asked if I would be interested. I guess he was fond of my album which I certainly appreciated. I had actually tried, unsuccessfully, to re-release it in the States and now it finally came together."
Chester confesses that he's not very prolific when it comes to recording solo projects! Perhaps it's because he's always working for others? "That's been a bit of it." He admits, "It's really weird, I kind of write in spurts. I'm most of the way through another one. Within the next few months I will be able to have another one out of the door!"
What memories does he have of recording 'Joyful Noise'?
"It was wonderful, but it was hard work. I've been so involved in so many recordings, but when you do your own you really appreciate what others go through. Suddenly, you're making all the decisions. In this case I got to produce it. Of course I learned a lot of things and there's things I'd do differently. I think that's the norm. I don't think that anyone that's trying to grow at what they do is ever totally satisfied. It was just a good, really special time in my life. A few real good friends helping out on it, and people, fortunately, worked for way below the wages they normally get to help me get it done. Most of it was actually written on a Phil Collins tour. I can never sleep after a show so I always carry a keyboard with me, and I just stayed up every night writing, except for 'Joyful Noise', which was written when my son came home from hospital after he was born. I was on a cloud and wandered out of the studio and this melody was in my head, it would just not go away. So that's the story of making the album.
Chester has made so much music in his life but for the last twenty years, the motivation for his music has been totally inspired by his faith. He concludes, "My whole concept of music is that everything we play, we should try to make it a new song unto the Lord. That's where I'm coming from. I hope there's that kind of freshness in what I do."