Something Else! Interview: Drummer Danny Seraphine, Formerly of Chicago


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Chicago co-founder Danny Seraphine is putting the finishing touches on his second album with California Transit Authority—which fashioned its name and its muscular jazz-rock approach from his old group's initial sound: “If you love early Chicago, then you are going to love this," Seraphine said in the latest SER Sitdown. “I'm very proud of it, and I think everybody in the band is."

A group co-founder, Seraphine had been in two prior groups with eventual Chicago saxophonist Walt Parazaider and guitarist Terry Kath. Together with trombonist James Pankow, trumpet player Lee Loughnane, keyboardist Robert Lamm and bassist Peter Cetera, they helped establish a muscular improvisational amalgam in the early 1970s. After the untimely death of Kath, inarguably the very soul of Chicago, it was Seraphine who brought in producer David Foster, a new management team and R&B-soaked singer Bill Champlin—moves that hurtled the band to superstardom in the 1980s, even as it fundamentally shifted the group's sound towards a more commercial bent.

[COMING TOMORROW: Danny Seraphine takes over our One Track Mind feature, discussing Chicago songs from their early jazz-rock triumphs to their later charttopping successes with David Foster.]

Though his playing with Chicago is now part of the rock-music tapestry, Seraphine counts among his musical influences a number of jazz greats, including Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Jo Jones, among others. That added a lyrical complexity to Seraphine's playing. Still, by the time he left Chicago in the early 1990s, much of his drum work had been replaced by MIDI and computerized beats—a programming process that Seraphine eventually mastered himself before disagreements with the band led to his ouster.

There followed a long quiet period, with Seraphine doing some production work but little else musically, until he ultimately reemerged in the middle of the last decade with California Transit Authority. CTA's debut Full Circle included an instrumental update of Chicago's first Top 10 hit “Make Me Smile," a showcase for guitarist Marc Bonilla; as well as new takes on “Introduction" (from his former band's 1969 debut album) and “Happy 'Cause I'm Going Home" from Chicago III, among other cuts.

Seraphine has since penned “Street Player: My Chicago Story"—a harrowing autobiographical tale of his tough upbringing, that rocket ride to the top of the charts with Chicago, then how it all fell apart—and is now readying a new CTA project, to be issued in 2012. Seraphine talked about all of that, and more ...

Nick DeRiso: Take me back to the beginnings of CTA. How did you first formulate the idea for this group?

Danny Seraphine: It started with Peter Fish (a six-time Emmy winner), one of the keyboard players in the band, a great arranger and a really dear friend. I had pretty much stopped playing, and he had an independent label called National Records—which was a fairly significant independent, well funded. We became very close friends. He kept saying: “What a waste that you're not playing. What a shame. Why are you not playing?" As time went on, it seemed like everything that I was attempting, as good as it was, all the production projects, everything seemed to be out of sync. You're a step behind. I had, over all those years, this emptiness in me from not playing. I just wouldn't admit it. I didn't want to say what it was. Then, in 2006, around the Thanksgiving holidays, Peter called me. He said “I want to ask something of you, but don't say yes and don't say no." He said, “You know you're one of the greatest rock drummers of all time. There are maybe three or four guys who are as good as you, and I can't think of the other four." It was really an amazing thing that he said to me. He said, “Look, before I die, I'd like to be in a band with Danny Seraphine. So think about it." We always talked about it, that if I came back, I'd like to do a rock big band. So that was our initial talk. I said, “Let me woodshed for a couple of weeks, and let me see if it comes back to me."

Nick DeRiso: You must have felt some trepidation, not just because of your legacy with Chicago but also for having spent the bulk of a decade and a half away.

Danny Seraphine: I hadn't seriously played for many years. Of course, you never really lose it. But at the level that I had left it, I had this fear that I might be like the athlete that should have stayed in retirement. I really had a fear of coming back and letting my fans, and the guys that believed in me, down. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but that's kind of the way I'm wired. I studied with Joe Porcaro (the late Toto co-founder Jeff Porcaro's father), a dear friend of mine and a man who I trust. I felt very vulnerable. He's a wonderful percussionist, teacher, and a great drummer. I studied with him, and he said: “Man, you've still got it. You sound amazing." I started working on my technique, getting back to where it was, and even better.

Nick DeRiso: Chicago began on an amazingly prolific run, debuting with a double album and continuing at that pace for years. Was there a sense of bottled up creativity once you got together?

Danny Seraphine: Without a doubt. Like CTA, Chicago was put together for musical purposes—and for musical purposes only. It also happened to be at the right time, because there was a renaissance in music happening. You're right, it was a like a perfect storm of a band. There wasn't a weakness at all. There was no weakness.

Nick DeRiso: Fast forward to the 1990s, and you have been fired by Chicago. I understand you quit drumming all together for a while. Yet when you returned, you seemed to have so much still to offer.

Danny Seraphine: It took that time away for me to have so much to offer. I just felt disillusioned, burned out. I really didn't want to play. I didn't like the business, how ugly it could be. I was bitter. I needed to go hide out. There's still wounds. The book helped me let a lot of it go. There isn't a whole lot I would change, though I left some things out—to protect the innocent, and the not so innocent. I tried to keep it to where the person that I called out the most, maybe, would be myself. I wanted to be accountable. After all of it, I feel like I'm in a good place. What I want to do is, with this next record, I would like to see many, many more people find out about CTA. I'm not talking about superstardom. I don't even think about that anymore, especially with the landscape of pop music the way that it is now. I don't even entertain that. If it happened, that would be a really pleasant surprise, but it's not my aim. I would like to get the band to where it's a viable consideration, though.

Nick DeRiso: You were born into a tough Chicago neighborhood; in the book, you say music kept you from becoming a street thug. Did growing up under trying circumstances make you more adaptive as you experienced not just the highs but also the lows of your time with Chicago?

Danny Seraphine: It was a pretty ugly at the end with Chicago, and yeah, that helped me out. It does to this day, I am very grateful that I had that breeding ground—musically, too. It helps me musically and mentally, to adapt and learn. I feel very blessed; I've had a great life. I have a few complaints, but compared to most people, I'm really lucky. I'm very grateful.

Nick DeRiso: What's next for California Transit Authority? What can fans expect from the new album?

Danny Seraphine: There's some mixing left to do, and a little recording. My goal for 2012 is to really broaden the reach of CTA. But, I'll tell you, it's such a different landscape now. It's been a tough road. There have been a lot of challenges, as far as getting this band booked—because we're not a tribute band but yet we're not actually Chicago. Promoters and club owners have had a hard time embracing that. I feel like with this record, though, we really have a chance to break out of that. There's a cover of a Blood, Sweat and Tears song, and also a Chicago song that I cowrote—which I don't want to divulge right now, because that would take the surprise out of it. The rest of it is original jazz rock, in its true form. There's nothing out there like us.

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