Live From New York ... It’s Shawn Pelton
by Paul G. Hichak
With performing and recording credits that read like a “Who’s Who” of contemporary musical talent from Elton John to Springsteen to Celine Dion ... Shawn Pelton has fashioned a solid reputation as one of the most in demand drummer / percussionists on the music scene today. And besides that, who can argue with a guy who’s always got a “date” on Saturday night?
How did you become the drummer on Saturday Night Live?
It was wild, you know. I was a student of Kenny Aronoff and I moved to New York from Indiana to be in John Eddie’s band, who was signed at that time to Columbia Records. It was during the Springsteen “craze” back in the mid ‘80s. But, after a while, the John Eddie thing kinda fell apart, so I realized that I needed something to survive.
So what did you do?
I started doing more and more pick-up gigs around town. I ended up meeting the bass player who was doing Saturday Night Live at that time, Paul Ossola. And Paul goes back with then SNL band leader G.E. Smith a long way. Chris Parker had the gig back in the ‘80s and Matt Chamberlain had done it for one year, but when that fell out they had some auditions. And since I did know the bass player, that’s how I got the chance to get in. It really just came from doing so many pick-up gigs and getting to know people. It’s funny, we’d done a gig together the night before G.E. called about the audition. And it was one of those terrible gigs where some guy who’s a lawyer during the day is on stage and singing his original stuff. But that’s typical of what you have to do in New York to survive. And it goes to show that fortunes can change so suddenly in this business.
When did you first start on SNL?
That must have been ‘92. I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. (Laughing.) This is my seventh year.
Who else were you playing with back then?
I was also playing with Joan Osborne at the time ... but I was doing ten or twenty different gigs just to pay the rent. And Southside Johnny, as well. I’d just done about six weeks with Southside and then I went to Europe with Joan and the SNL audition happened at the end of August.
Did you expect to stay with SNL for seven years?
No, I didn’t. I was so thankful to have a gig that was in town and that was steady and was financially secure was great! I remember thinking that I’d be thrilled if it lasted just three years. So seven years later, I’m still thankful.
So do you have to spend a lot of time rehearsing with the SNL band during the week?
No, it’s a pretty mellow gig. It’s really only 20 days out of the year. We do about 20 shows a year with five weeks off at Christmas and the entire Summer off. Plus SNL’s schedule is to tape a couple of weeks, then take a couple of weeks off during the season, anyway.
It’s great in that it’s a steady thing, but it doesn’t keep you tied down for five nights / 52 weeks out of the year like if it was The Tonight Show.
And how does that work out for you?
Well, people know you’re in town and I‘ve been able to set roots into the session scene here. But it’s always good to still have a steady thing going on.
So getting back to the actual prep time for SNL...
The band goes in on the Saturday morning of the broadcast day and we start to rehearse about 11:00 AM until about 1:00 PM and then we’ll come back kinda around 5:00 PM and stay all the way through until about 1:30 AM, the next morning.
And, unlike Letterman’s band, the SNL band doesn’t have to back-up the show’s musical guests, right?
Rarely, but there have been times when we’ve been called upon to help out a guest.
I remember when Edie Brickel came on I played drums for her, since I did work on her album. I also played percussion (including Rhythm Tech Shakers) when folks like Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, and Paul Simon came on. Just last Fall this group called All Saints, kinda like the Spice Girls, they were on and the rhythm section from the show played with them. So there have
been examples, but for the most part the guests come in with their own band.
So, what kind of session work have you been doing lately?
Playing on Bruce Springsteen’s “Box Set” collection that was released last November was a thrill. So was playing on Shawn Colvin’s A Few Small Repairs. That was a real highlight. She, and the record itself, won a couple of Grammies last year. But lately I’ve been in with Roseanne Cash. And another singer / songwriter that Hugh Padgham’s been producing named Kim Richey. I’ve also been in and out with Joan Osborne a couple of times on her new, self-produced, album.
Though you don’t do much touring, you have been doing some traveling, haven’t you?
I was just in Argentina working on a project that Phil Ramone was producing for an artist named Cito Paez.
How did that come about?
Actually I had just done a couple of tracks on Elton John’s Aida record and Phil Ramone had produced that. So from working with Phil on Elton’s record, he invited me down to South America.
So it sounds like the New York City session thing has opened a lot of doors for you.
Oh yeah, it’s been going good. I’m really thrilled to have been asked to work with such performers as wide ranging as: The Brecker Brothers, Peter Wolf (of J. Geils fame), Celine Dion, and Bruce Hornsby.
And what have you been taught by the whole experience?
The reality of session playing in New York is that it’s a wide-ranging mixture of things as far as day-to-day playing. It also means jingle work or TV work ... plus whatever record work there is. But I think that the “romantic” era of a ton records being made in New York, like they were in the ‘60s and ‘70s in terms of the New York session scene, is a bit of a shell of what it once was.
Why do you think that?
I think that the climate in New York changed with the whole MIDI revolution and the advent of home studio recording. Also, with the alternative music scene back in the early ‘90s ... a lot of self-contained bands started recording. So there were less individual artists who needed to work with session players.
Trips to argentina aside, do you ever tour?
I do go out on little hits, here and there ... like when Shawn (Colvin) was promoting her A Few Small Repairs release I did some dates, including some on the Lilith Faire with her. What’s great about the Saturday Night Live gig is that you do have the Summer off and weeks off during the years, so you can do road work and stuff.
Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to us. We’ll look for you on “Shawn Pelton Li ...” Er, I mean “Saturday Night Live.”
(Laughing.) Hey, thanks for watching!