I'm pretty sure the first time I ever heard Russ Kunkel's drumming was while being shuffled back and forth to pre-school in my parent's sweet station wagon. Russ Kunkel is a renowned session drummer who first broke onto the scene in early 70's, recording hit albums with artists such as James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne (to name just a few). With my mother's affinity for light-FM radio programming, Kunkel's grooves were ingrained into my little head from an early age. The thing that made the biggest impression on me was the SOUND he got out of the drums. Fuzzy, warm, funky and round... all at the same time.
It was a few years later (after receiving my first pair of brushes) that I discovered how he achieved this unique tone. Most drummers instinctively gravitate towards a pair of sticks when recording pop/rock music. Russ Kunkel was a pioneer in the use of brushes in this particular vein. On top of having an amazing feel, he also used the sound of brushes to carve out his own distinct identity in the world of LA session drummers. Just listen to the tom fills on James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" and you'll hear what I'm talking about.
My early exposure to Russ Kunkel came full circle (almost) several years ago while I was recording at LA's famed Conway Studios. I was initially excited about the session because I had the opportunity to work with Peter Asher who was producing. As well as being an accomplished artist himself, Peter is the one who produced all of those early James Taylor albums that were such a staple of my childhood. To raise the "oh shit, what is going on?" factor up another notch, Peter had hired Russ Kunkel's son, Nate, to engineer the session.
As we were setting up to record (and as I was trying to keep my cool) I overheard Nate say to Peter.
"Dad might stop by the session later today and say hi."
And with that, the "oh shit" factor jumped off the charts. With one eye on Peter and the other on the door to the studio, I spent the next 6 hours laying down drum tracks, just waiting for Mr. Russ Kunkel himself to walk into the control room. Four songs later and before I knew it, the session was winding down and the assistants began winding up the dozens of microphone cords strewn across the studio floor. Half relieved, half disappointed, I realized my chance encounter with Russ would have to wait for another day.
I guess the irony of this long-winded story is that I never reached for the brushes on this particular day. Between having Peter and Nate on the session, and a possible 'drop in' by Russ Kunkel, I don't think I (or the world) would have been able to handle the magnitude of such a thing. It's the kind of cosmic intensity that could have sent us (along with most of Southern California) tumbling into the Pacific Ocean. For the love of mankind and the safety of millions, I stayed with the sticks.
However (for all of you equipment geeks out there), I did get to use Russ's own Yamaha subkick which Nate brought to the studio.