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Artist Profiles

Gregg Keplinger: Drum Fight at the GK Corral

By Published: May 6, 2006
Gregg started taking drum lessons in 8th grade with Shorty Clough, who ran a drum school downtown in the Fisher Studio Building. He kept at it all through high school, also taking lessons from Fred Zeufeldt and Dave Coleman Sr. He played his first gig at a jazz coffee house in Pioneer Square, jamming on Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder and Les McCann's "The Shampoo. But the first time he actually played with musicians was a few years earlier, with a band called The Galaxies.

"I couldn't play hardly anything. I'd been playing about 7 weeks or something, and I couldn't play nothing but a snare drum. And then they got a drummer who could really play, and I was in love with this guy, you know. They felt real self-conscious about playing a dance I went to and playing with this other drummer, but I was like, 'Yeah man, put it on me. I want to learn from this guy. He's really cool.'

Soon after graduation Gregg got news that Uncle Sam wanted him in Vietnam. He enlisted, but the medicos rejected him on account of a bum knee. So he headed south to Mexico with a couple of buddies, fellow army rejects, all the way down to Guadalajara in a '53 Studebaker that he'd bought for 30 bucks. After a year down there, he came back to the States and joined a psychedelic blues band in L.A. Bluesberry Jam, with Gregg on drums, worked all over town. They opened for some big name acts—Iron Butterfly, The Doors, Canned Heat; and played some groovy venues—the Whiskey-A-Go-Go on Sunset, the Magic Mushroom on Venture Boulevard. It was a wild scene, man, the late 60s.

Then Kep went home and joined the circus.

Jackie Walcott hipped Gregg to the circus gig. Walcott, a legit vaudevillian known as The Mad Drummer, possessed an incredible left hand technique. Gregg was floored by Jackie's left hand, told him so, and soon was subbing for Walcott at the Blue Banjo (now Doc Maynard's) in Pioneer Square.

When the Mad Drummer wasn't playing in town, he was touring with the James Brothers Circus up and down the coast. Once, when Jackie couldn't make the tour, he asked Gregg if he'd take his place. Talk about on the job training. Jackie scripted the entire drum part—rim shots, drum rolls, cymbal crashes—on paper for Gregg to follow during the show. Crib notes in hand, he joined the James Brothers under the big top in Portland and later agreed to drive a trailer in the circus caravan. The lion-and-tiger trailer. At each stop, when those cats smelled the horses, they went ape shit.

Gregg lived in New York for a year during the disco era—a hard time for drummers. There was some kind of city ordinance restricting excessive sound—clubs would hire a piano, bass, saxophone, but they wouldn't carry drums. And it was a sweat moving them in the city.

"I remember playing New Year's Eve in a hotel on Central Park South. Right in the middle of it. Played to a room full of strangers. When I got done I carried all my stuff up a flight of stairs to the street, and there were only 150,000 people walking by the hotel. It was one o'clock. Everybody's walking home from Times Square.

Back in Seattle, Gregg played New Wave/R&B with Red Dress for a couple of years in the '80s. He played Dixieland for a couple years. Elks club gigs. Musicals—Rocky Horror at the ACT Theater, Little Shop of Horrors at the Empty Space. The big bars with live music had closed down or changed their format to canned music, deejays. So Gregg started his business, the Keplinger Drum Company. Ran it out of his house. And he practiced a lot, sending claps of thunder reverberating throughout the neighborhood—creating loud, dense, petal-to-the-metal, balls-to-the-wall SOUND.

When the grunge scene hit in the early 90s, Gregg found work as a drum tech. He toured the world with Our Lady Peace, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, who reprinted a picture of his heart (after multiple surgeries) in their 1994 release "Superunknown. What looks like a blue planet surrounded by a web of red rivers—is actually Gregg.

The surgeries, plus chronic back pain, tendonitis, arthritis, partial hearing loss—the occupational hazards of a drummer—haven't prevented Kep from recording more in the last six years than at any time in his career. His latest disc is a blow-your-mind collage of sound titled Absurd World Country. It features 20-plus musicians and singers playing electric and acoustic instruments over a foundation of drum and saxophone sketches by Keplinger and Mike Monhart. The large group sessions were taped at three local studios (Avast!, Chroma Sound, Studio Litho) over a period of two days, with the exception of one live track recorded at a Seattle nightclub.

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