Whether sitting behind hard rock pioneers Mountain or the supergroup West, Bruce & Laing, drummer Corky Laing is one of the most thunderous players to emerge throughout the 1970s. Even to this day, his aggressive style on several iconic songs is regularly heralded on both the heavier side of the radio dial and in the hip-hop community with Kanye West, The Beastie Boys, Nas and A Tribe Called Quest all taking their stab at some sampling. Though tunes from his primary band such as “Mississippi Queen” are a guarantee when Corky Laing plays Mountain comes to Reggie’s Chicago on July 5, the beat keeper hints at a few other surprises while reflecting on a multitude of fascinating subjects and fellow legendary musicians during a conversation with Chicago Concert Reviews.
I’m proud that Mountain is considered one of the early pioneers of metal…Mountain was about volume and the same goes for metal.
How did the idea to build a show around Mountain songs come about?
Corky Laing: On New Year’s Eve 2011, Gov’t Mule was doing a show at the Beacon Theatre and Warren Haynes was talking about including “Nantucket Sleighride” to the set. I was right there and I thought it was a no-brainer. They were going to ask me to sit in for that song, but no! Warren was apologetic and explained that during the past few years when he’d come to the Mountain shows that Leslie [West] and I were doing, he couldn’t really recognize any of the songs. He said that he didn’t think I remembered how “Nantucket Sleighride” really goes, but that if I was willing to rehearse the song like it was recorded, they’d love to have me join on stage. I went back, listened to the song, and sure as hell, I had forgotten it all. I listened, rehearsed, rehearsed some more and got it together. Playing that song with Gov’t Mule was great and the idea of doing the Mountain repertoire like it was originally recorded was planted in my mind. In 2015 and 2016, I did a couple of European tours playing Mountain and the reception was enthusiastic, to say the least. And I’ve gotta say, I love playing the Mountain repertoire. Often on stage, I feel like I’m 20 again. You know how the body remembers. Playing the fills I created almost fifty years ago transports me back to those times. I feel what I felt then. It’s great.
This tour has yet to swing through Chicago. Will the night be exclusively centered around Mountain tunes or will you be incorporating any material from other periods of your career?
Laing: The show will definitely center around the Mountain material. We vary the set list a little from show to show, but it is very likely that a West, Bruce & Laing track will be included and possibly a Cream number too. And then there’s my drum solo, which is actually a rendition of a Bob Dylan song.
Any fun stories from previous trips through town?
Laing: Well, I don’t know how fun a story this is, but it’s a story anyways. Back in the ‘70s, we were put on the same bill in Chicago with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishman. Joe worried that Mountain was too strong to open for him, but his manager Dee Anthony told him: “you always get the very best artists to open the show. It keeps you on your game.” And he should know. He was a veteran manager who’d managed Tony Bennett before Joe. We took on that advice and soon after had Black Sabbath open for us on our “Bible Belt” Tour. That was a win-win. We kept our game and they broke to fame. Having some brilliant opening acts on this current tour is more than an icing on the cake.
Flashing back awhile, what was the vibe like joining Mountain so early on shortly after their Woodstock performance?Laing: For me, it was a monumental event. As the US landed on the moon, I landed on the drum throne in Mountain- the best seat in the house. I had enjoyed some small scale success with my local Montreal band Energy, but with Mountain, I skipped multiple tiers and got straight into the major league. For a kid from Canada, that was huge– and challenging. I had to get my chops together. I had to get physically fit. I had to live up to the expectations. It was intense and it was loud. We had only a week to rehearse before three shows in Boston and then we went to the studio to record “Mountain Climbing!” It was a challenge that I celebrated with all my musical and physical facilities.
What is it about the band’s music that’s allowed it to resonate after all these decades?
Laing: It’s kinda difficult for me to say, but I would assume that it is a combination of several factors. Mainly because of Leslie, Mountain had its roots in blues and blues will never go away. Steve Knight brought in some mid-Eastern influences that resulted in diverse time signatures, Felix Pappalardi’s classical background added sophistication to the arrangements and his love for folk music added an organic feel. And even though a strict leader, Felix gave me freedom that only a few drummers get to experience. In terms of vocals, the raw timber of Leslie’s voice combined with Felix’s soothing sound created a magic of their own.
Mountain is often credited with being one of the earliest examples of heavy metal. How do you feel like the group helped lay the genre’s foundation?
Laing: I’m proud that Mountain is considered one of the early pioneers of metal. I would think that Leslie’s raw voice and guitar sound contributed to that. And perhaps the fact that in the beginning I played metal timbales instead of tom-toms to cut through the stacks of amps on both sides had something to do with it. I also had to play with considerable power and I liked to use double bass drums for impact. Mountain was about volume and the same goes for metal. Norman Smart, the drummer who played with Leslie and Felix in Woodstock, wasn’t too smart when he asked the others to turn the volume down. He got turned out of the pasture, and luckily for me, I was asked to step in. It’s all about collaboration and volume is a contributor. And to this day, I’m loving it.
What is your opinion of “Long Red” becoming such a staple of hip-hop sampling? Did you ever see that coming?Laing: One has to feel honored to have his drum figure sampled and used in various rap tunes. Rap is all about the feel and my contribution is about feel. Then again, I would feel even better if there was a financial reward (laughs), but I just write it off as a gift to the rap nation.
Mountain has reunited on several occasions, but what is the current status of the group?
Laing: Well, ever since he lost his leg, Leslie can’t really travel. He plays locally around the New York area and puts out a blues record of his own almost yearly. I love the man, but honestly, I don’t really see us playing together again. I’m enjoying playing Mountain with the wonderful band that I have, honoring the material the way it was recorded.
You’ve also been a part of the supergroup West, Bruce & Laing. What are you most fond of from that period?
Laing: I would have to say that the fondest memories I have of that era have to do with spending time in the studio with Jack [Bruce]. Along with his soul mate, Felix Pappalardi, he taught me more than anyone else. Recording and jamming with Jack was something else, and when I managed to lock into his intriguing time changes, I felt like being transported to a higher level of existence as a musician. Those are the moments you live for and I’m very lucky to have had many of those with Jack.
What other projects have been some of your favorites over the years?
Laing: I’ve loved all of my projects. It’s really difficult to pick one or two favorites. From this century, I guess I could mention my band Cork with Noel Redding [Jimi Hendrix Experience] and Eric Schenkman [Spin Doctors]. Eric and I still jam together whenever we get a chance. Also, “Playing God: The Rock Opera” that I co-wrote with two Finnish philosophers has been a lot of fun and a learning curve. The album came out in 2013 and since that we’ve performed it in Europe and US yearly. It has an international cast of 25 people. It started out smaller, and as a matter of fact, in our first performance in Basel, Switzerland, I played four roles – and the drums. Luckily, we now have a cast member for each of the roles.
Do you have any future plans outside of Mountain music at the moment?
Laing: I’m still very much involved in “The Rock Opera” and we are looking at ways of taking it on the road or getting a residency somewhere. Naturally, I’m constantly writing new material and now that I have a wonderful trio together with Chris Shutters [guitar, vocal, flute] and Joe Venti [bass, vocals], I’m hoping to go to the studio in the near future. I’m very much looking forward to putting out some new repertoire. Sorta outside the music, I’m writing an autobiography called “Letters To Sarah” with my manager. She found these hundreds of letters that I had written to my mother from the road over the decades and the stories in the book center around excerpts from those letters. Also, I will be doing some recording with Kinky Friedman later this summer. And who knows what’s around the next corner. I’m always open to new, exciting projects and opportunities.