1. Blogs
  2. /
  3. Soundcheck

Max Weinberg talks early Springsteen gigs, ‘Late Night,’ his son drumming in Slipknot and more

Max Weinberg's Jukebox comes to the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on Saturday.
Max Weinberg will bring his band to the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on Oct. 27, 2018. Photo: Northstar Artists.
Max Weinberg will bring his band to the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on Oct. 27, 2018. Photo: Northstar Artists.
Published Oct. 23, 2018

Frank Lloyd Wright's drafting studio has excellent acoustics. So says Max Weinberg, drummer for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who played a gig there just the other day.

"Going back my whole life, I'm a Frank Lloyd Wright fan," said Weinberg, calling the night after a benefit for Taliesen, the famed architect's sprawling Wisconsin estate. "This is the second time I've played there, third time I've been there, and it's quite an amazing farm, about 800 acres. And we rocked 'em up really good. It's a slightly older crowd, and it reminded everybody of being in high school in the '60s. It was a blast. And that's pretty much what I do."

Weinberg, 67, has been doing it for six decades, not only with the Boss, but as the longtime bandleader for Late Night with Conan O'Brien. He just can't stop. Which is why he has a new project called Max Weinberg's Jukebox, an interactive outlet where the audience picks songs from a list of about 300 scrolling on screens by the stage. The Stones, the Beatles, Chuck Berry and of course a little Bruce — you want to hear it, Weinberg and his band are willing to play it.

"I'm not going to sit in my house and play paradiddles on the drum pad," he said. "I've gotta go out and be with the people and play hard and mean it. And when you come to my show, we don't take any prisoners. That's what I do. I play hard, I play intense, and I try to create a party."

Before the Jukebox comes to Clearwater's Capitol Theatre on Saturday, Mighty Max talked about the E Street Band's odd early venues, his Late Night days and his son Jay, who plays drums in a little band called Slipknot.

As a student of architecture, does it ever pain you to play in some of these giant corporate arenas and amphitheaters you play with Bruce?

I've had the opportunity to play so many classic venues, all the way up to Carnegie Hall. More than anything else, it's really about the audience and the interaction with whoever's performing on stage. Frankly, the bigger, the better for me. We had one occasion back in the '70s to play in Tempe, Ariz., where Frank Lloyd Wright designed a performing arts center called Grammage. It was originally designed to be an opera house in Baghdad. I think it was the first and only rock concert they ever had there. The audience was so enthusiastic that they cracked the concrete in the balcony, jumping up and down.

The first time the E Street Band came to Tampa in 1975, you played a jai alai fronton. Do you remember that?

Yeah, I sure do, because it was a jai alai court. We played one in Miami, too.

I can't imagine how a gig at a jai alai fronton would sound decent. Feels like your drums would be bouncing off the concrete like crazy.

Well, for a drummer, that's good. It should sound like a high school gym. The more resonance, the better. But in those days, we played any place you could set up. We played clubs, we played student unions. At one point we were booked to play a place in Dallas called the Sportatorium; Bruce wanted to play there because Elvis played there in the '50s. We got there, and they had a boxing ring set up. They wanted us to play in a boxing ring, with the microphone that came down from the ceiling. I think we got back in the van and left.

Do you indulge requests for songs that are not on the 300-song Jukebox setlist? Or do you just say, "These are the songs."

No, the thing with being a musician from Jersey is you've got to learn how to fake it pretty good. If somebody calls out a song that we haven't played before, if one of us can get through, we'll give it a shot. And that's happened. But that's the thing with Jersey. In the early days, you had to play six hours a week, every night of the week. You'd run out of songs, and you'd just have to play from memory from listening to the radio. I have the kind of memory where if I hear a song once or twice, I remember the arrangement from the original record. And we try to stay true to the original record.

How much of this ability stems from your years working with Bruce, and how much of it predates that?

I came up playing the joints and the bars and the dives in Jersey and New York. My whole experience was, play a little bit of everything. When I got with the E Street Band, and when I played on the Conan O'Brien show, all that training really benefitted me, because I was very versatile. I could play a lot of different styles fairly convincingly. Rock, specifically Chuck Berry-type music, was my real strength and my love, but I was a freelancer. I was a gun for hire. I could go in and play anything you wanted to play.

How many bands are you playing in these days? Obviously, there's the Jukebox and E Street Band. Any other combinations?

I have a little jazz quartet I play with sometimes that specializes in the hard bop of the '60s, which is kind of exemplified by Art Blakey, Horace Silver, that kind of music. Depending on the occasion, I also have a 23-piece society bandstand, but it's like moving the Queen Mary — we don't play that often.

Have you been offered a chance to sit in one night with Slipknot?

Ha! I couldn't if I wanted to. That music's too complicated for me. Jay is the best guy out there right now. He's amazing. I couldn't play that, much less even, at times, follow it. It's very, very complex music. They're working on a new record now. I've heard some of it, and it sounds just unbelievable, off the charts.

Slipknot made their network TV debut on Late Night back in 2000. What do you remember about that performance?

I loved it. Particularly seeing them play like that in our little studio. I went back and told my son, "Hey, I saw this great band…" He was just getting into going into concerts — he was 10 years old — and they were playing in Jersey a few weeks later. I took him, and he fell in love with that band. It was his favorite band. I think Slipknot was the reason he started to play the drums himself.

Were you consulted on Conan's Late Night archive that's launching next year?

I don't know much about it. I only saw a thing in one of the music trades. That should be interesting. In the early days, there was no Internet, so I'm delighted to see those first couple of years are going to make the light of day, because they were really ambitious. They used to call us "Every Night Live," because it was like Saturday Night Live, but every night — big sets, incredibly complex set changes. It was very, very exciting to be making it up every day. It almost seems like another lifetime ago. But I'm quite looking forward to it. Because I haven't seen any of those shows. I just remember doing them.

Is there a bit or performance from all those years that you might go back and search out?

I'd like to see it all, because I never saw any of them. You do them at 5:30, and it's a full day of work. You have to be there at 11 in the morning. And I lived in Jersey, so with the commute, I wasn't staying up until 1 in the morning to see those shows. One of the best parts about that was being home every day at night, being a father, not going on the road, and still playing drums. Work all day to put on a show, and then show off at night. It was great.

How long do you think it'll be before we see your other band back in Florida?

I have no idea. And I would venture to say that anyone I'm associated with has no idea. Bruce holds his cards very close to the vest. And after doing this for 44 years, I've learned not to ask. I kind of go by that line in the song Land of Hope and Dreams: "Faith will be rewarded." That's how I look at my whole experience with Bruce and the E Street Band. You gotta sort of feel it in the air.

— Jay Cridlin