Corky Laing, drummer with legendary Canadian band Mountain amongst others, is about to embark on a UK tour playing the music he helped make famous. Before then, he spoke about his career and beyond.
Which artists influenced you the most in your early days?
I grew up in Canada in the 50s and 60s, so there wasn’t as much music around as there is nowadays. And it wasn’t so readily available. I sucked in all the influences I could get. Be it the early rock of Elvis, the Latin rhythms that my mother loved, the pop and jazz of the times, or the heavier R&B that we could hear listening to the radio stations from Buffalo. Anything and everything musical – that’s what influenced me.
As someone who was drawn to the drums from the beginning, the great jazz drummers like Art Blakey and Gene Krupa were definitely my heroes. However, looking back, it was the English drummers who really did it for me. I wanted to play like them. First, Mick Avory from the Kinks – and then, John Bonham, Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, B. Wilson and Cozy Powell. I’m proud to say that sometimes I was mistaken for an Englishman (until I opened my mouth, that is). Then again, since my father had come from Birmingham, that wasn’t so far fetched.
When did your musical career really start to take off?
It’s difficult to pinpoint one exact moment other than September 1969 when Felix Pappalardi and Leslie West asked me to replace Norman Smart III on drums in Leslie’s band and to form Mountain with them. Steve Knight joined us on the keyboards. Within a few months we had a huge hit with Mississippi Queen and well, the rest is history.
I had had bands from the early 60s onwards and we’d enjoyed some local success and were starting to get recognized south of the border. We, then called Bartholomew +III, even had a record deal with Atlantic Records in 1967 with Felix Pappalardi as our producer. As B+III we had opened in Montreal for a number of major acts coming from Europe to North America for the first time such as The Who, Cream, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
By 1969 we had changed our band name to Energy and were starting to get bookings in New York clubs. Perhaps my career was then starting to take off with my long time friends George Gardos and Gary Ship. I will never know. I embarked on a sleighride with Mountain instead.
When did you first get into drums and do you play any other instruments?
I’ve always thought that everyone is a drummer. We all have a pulse. We all have the rhythm. My first gig behind the kit was at a local country club in 1961 when, during a musicians’ strike, The Ink Spots needed someone to lay down the beats. At 13 years of age, I was there sweeping the stage. I guess they figured that I could brush the drums just as well. And I’d only had my Bongos for half a year by that time!
In terms of other instruments, I play a little guitar. Not to perform as such, but to write songs. Having said that, currently, there are a couple of shows that I’m doing in which I occasionally pick up the guitar.
How many albums have you released to date?
I’ve played, at least, on a hundred of recordings. However, if you mean studio albums on which I’ve been a major contributing artist and not a guest, I think the number is 23 – give or take a few.
Do you still get a buzz from playing live and how does playing live to a receptive audience make you feel?
Oh yes! I love playing live. Communicating your music to a live audience is where it all becomes real. There’s nothing better than playing to a receptive audience – especially when they like what you’re playing! It’s never a one-way communication; the energy coming from your audience is what you live for. When it all comes together, it is beyond words.
Is there anyone in particular you like listening to?
A couple of years back a dear friend took me to see this Tuareg band Tinariwen, from Mali in Africa. They really blew me. Enchanting percussive rhythms, combined with bare guitars, bass and mesmerizing singing. I wish I could do music that moved people like their music moves me.
Who have/do you enjoy playing with most and why?
Whoa! That’s a tough one. I’ve been lucky to play with so many greats. It seems unfair to list them and I’m afraid I’ll forget someone. Let me just list the obvious ones and be assured that this is far from an exhaustive list.
Playing with a guitar virtuoso and an excellent singer like Leslie West was truly something. At his best, no one can make their guitar sing like Leslie. As far as bass players go, Felix Pappalardi and Jack Bruce were in leagues of their own. Both were totally versatile in everything musical and I just count my blessings for having had the opportunity to work with these geniuses.
How would you say the music scene has changed since you started playing?
Totally. When I started, the music business was only starting. For the musicians it was clearly music first. However, soon after, the agents, the lawyers and the executives started to flood the scene. For decades music struggled, but held its ground. Musicians didn’t get their due, but the scene remained music driven. The last decade or so, has, in my view, destroyed all that. There is no music business. There is an entertainment marketing business that only happens to use certain kind of music, because it sells. It is not about the music at all.
What advice do you give to young musicians?
Focus on what you want to do. Dig deep into what is inside you. Practice and perform. Do what you want to do. Do not compromise. Believe in yourself. Do not give up.
This, by no means, guarantees success, far from it, but you’ll retain your dignity and if you happen to make it, you’ll make it with something you want to make it, with something that is important to you. On a more cynical note: Get a day job that allows you to do what you really want to do, At least until you get there.
Anything in the pipeline in the future that fires your adrenaline?
First of all, I’m really thrilled to return to the UK! It’s been 44 years since I first came to your lovely country, to my father’s country. That was in 1971, soon after Mountain had released Nantucket Sleighride and we were flying high. Coming back now feels like the first time. I’m just as excited.
Over the years, Mountain has toured the UK a number of times and we’ve always been very warmly received. Granted that, at times, playing the songs for the umpteenth time, we got a little complacent and started to improvise beyond what was called for. What I now want to bring to you is Mountain songs like they were originally written, like you heard them on the original recordings with some West, Bruce & Laing, and also Cream thrown in for good measure. I have great musicians accompanying me and I can’t wait to play in England again.
Other than that, I have my one-man show that combines anecdotal stories of my life in the rock world and musical performances. That overlaps with the lecturing I’ve been doing in universities around the world. Both of these I love.
Then there’s Playing God: The Rock Opera (www.playinggodrocks.com), a collaboration with Finnish philosophers and amazing musicians from around the world. This project has kept me busy during the past few years, and will, I hope, in the coming years also.
And then, I’ve done some producing and I’m also in the midst of writing the first part of my memoir. I’m a lucky boy. Lucky to still be alive and so very lucky to be able to participate in all these wonderful projects that keep me feeling very much alive.
Corky Laing pays Mountain at the Roadhouse, Kings Norton on 8th November and the Leamington Assembly on 14th November www.facebook.com/corkylaing