Fever Pitch

This is the complete interview/conversation between Karen Stackpole & Michael Bettine from January 2004. A shortened version was published in FEVER PITCH magazine #9 to coincide with the release of the double CD set, Just Drums II, which features gong tracks from both Karen & Michael.

For Whom The Gong Tolls

A Conversation With Gong Artists 

Karen Stackpole And Michael Bettine


Gongs have long fascinated people and cultures across the globe. It has been found that any culture that reached a "bronze age," produced gongs. They have been used as symbols of wealth and power, for healing and meditation, and for music. Who cannot forget, whether it's a symphony or a rock band, when the drummer winds up and hits the big gong in the back of the stage, sending it's powerful and mystic vibrations reverberating outwards. Karen and Michael haven't, and they remain today dedicated to keeping those vibrations going.

Karen Stackpole: So when did you get into gongs?

Michael Bettine: Back in around 1975 I got my first one. I was playing a lot of progressive rock, so it was like, "I need to get some gongs." I bought some, but then really started getting into them, beyond just banging one at the end of a song.

KS: They're very deep instruments. But most people don't know that.

MB: Most people think of just a big crash...

KS: ...Or the "Gong Show" or Led Zeppelin.

MB: They're fascinating and you don't have to play them very hard to get fantastic sounds.

KS: I actually prefer to not play them that hard. Unless I'm agitatedthen I'll just wail. (laughs) Now do you have gongs from all over? Paiste or Wuhans?

MB: I have all types. I have like 37 gongs right now.

KS: Holy cow! I'm jealous. I have 23. But I want more.

MB: Yeah, you can never have too many.

KS: What do you have?

MB: I have five Paiste's, some Chaus, wind gongs, Thai gongs...

KS: Ooh, I just got a full octave of tuned Thai gongs.

MB: Cool. I have a set of Philippine Kulintang, which I just absolutely love. That's sort of become my thing.

KS: I used to play in a Philippino gong ensemble. I played the Agung, like the bass gong. That's really cool. Now have you studied other types, you know how there's the Philippino Kulintang and the Balinese Gamelan-the Gamelan of Java-or the Chinese gong ensembles. Have you studied those types of gong music or do you mainly go on your own, improvise on your own?

MB: I haven't studied anything formally. But I buy a lot of recordings and try to, as opposed to copying the music, to pick up the spirit of what they're doing. I get the flavor of what they're doing and come up with my own sort of Western interpretation.

KS: I would like to check out Gamelan, I just haven't had the time to do it. You try to make a living and sometimes it crimps the creativity, or saps it. What Paiste's do you have?

MB: I have a 32" Earth gong.

KS: Ooh, nice.

MB" Yeah, I really love that one. A 32" Symphonic, a 24" Water gong.

KS: Ooh, I've got one of those.

MB: I really like that too. I'm trying to find out if they ever made, or could make a bigger one, like a 30" Water gong. I'd really be intrigued to hear that.

KS: I bet that would be amazing.

MB: Then I have 22" Accent and a 20" Symphonic. They cover a lot of different bases there.

KS: Nice. I have a 40" Symphonic, a 30" Symphonic-which is my baby-a 38" Earth Sound Creation which I fell in love with when I went to Germany, the Water gong, the #7 Sound Creation Fight gong, and the #2 Fire gong, which sounds fantastic with the Water gong. They are like opposed-you play them together and they beat together in a certain way where the waves come together and it's just mesmerizing. So when you play the Water and Fire gongs together, it's just incredible.

I have a full octave of tuned Thai gongs-13 gongs there, and a Chinese Opera gong, and one of the Wuhan 22" Tam-Tams. It's wonderful to have all these gongs. But if I put them all in my truck with all the stands, I step on the gas and it takes a second or two for the truck to start moving.

MB: It's crazy to haul all that around.

KS: Yeah, I keep my chiropractor in business. (laughs)

MB: So when did you get into gongs?

KS: I'd say, probably November 14, 1991. (both laugh) I'm sort of an idiot savant when it comes to dates. I was delivering some books down to a booth at PASIC (the Percussive Arts Society International Convention) in Anaheim and I was walking through the show and I just heard this big roar. "What was that?" Paiste had the 60" Symphonic gong there with one of those big old GMS drum kits with big power toms that were popular back in those days. I couldn't believe it. I thought I died and went to heaven. So I got really fascinated with the gong. That's when I first met Rich Mangicaro and Ed Clift (both from Paiste). I spent the rest of the show in the Paiste booth around all the workshops. I was just fascinated with that gong. Eddie kind of told me what the deal is with the gongs, and after that I became obsessed. I said, "I have to have a gong." That's when I got the 30" gong.

At that point, all I thought it was, was to use the big, fluffy mallet to hit the gong. Everything I played was about rolling on the gong in different ways. I was really into exploring the gongs. Then Ed (Mann, ex-Frank Zappa percussionist) would show me some of the stuff he did. That's when the super ball thing happened and he showed me how to bow the gong. I ended up getting a cello bow to do that. So I learned all these different techniques and started working with them on my own. I started adding on a gong a year. Through him and going to the Paiste factory and talking to the gong master, I learned things like strings, Styrofoam, rubber mallets, bows, and pieces of metal-scraping and doing all sorts of things with the gong. It's just been such an exciting journey to figure out how deep you can go, and I'm still learning things.

MB: I think it's a never ending journey. Gongs are so personal. I find that when you play them, they reveal more to you the more you play. It's like you develop a relationship with them.

KS: And with each one, a different relationship.

MB: Yeah, they have their own personalities.

KS: So what was your journey like?

MB: I started really with progressive rock wanting to add more tone colors. I was into Yes and King Crimson. I see we have the same influences, like Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir.

KS: Oh really? Bill Bruford's my hero.

MB: Like King Crimson's Larks Tongues In Aspic recording just turned me on to sounds, percussion as sounds, or at least in a non-classical sense. Or like (French drummer) Pierre Moerlen's Gong. They were an amazing band with all the percussion and mallets. Like [the CD] Expresso, it's some cool stuff. And some of his later ones where he used the flat tuned gong play.

KS: Did you ever check out the Sabian gongs? For a while there, maybe back in 97, they started making some gongs. But I haven't seen any for a while.

MB: They still have them. I know when Terry Bozzio first went to Sabian, at PASIC in 97 they really had a lot of gongs. Terry helped design the Zodiac gongs, which is a nickle-silver gong, because he wanted to replace his Paiste gongs. I remember when he first switched over and he still had his black Color Sound Paiste gongs.

KS: He had an Earth gong for a ride. I figured out that if you play your Earth gong with one of those flat wood blocks-bow the rim and run the wood block over it, or run a friction mallet with the block-you just get the most crazy, dark, anguished sounds out of the gong. (laughs) That's kind of fun.

MB: It's fun to explore the different sounds like that.

KS: Do you play with other instrumentalists with your gongs?

MB: Sometimes.

KS: How does that go for you?

MB: It depends on the people. (laughs)

KS: It does, doesn't it.

MB: Some people really like it and some people are, I guess you could say, put off by it.

KS: I think they're sort of stymied by it.

MB: They don't know what to make of it.

KS: Just the resonance. They're not used to dealing with something that lasts a little longer. They prefer a blatt.

MB: It's like, "Oh, you can play a sound that lasts two minutes." (big laughs from both) It's like you just sit there with the sound going and they're like, "OK, hit something please!"

KS: Do you do muted gongs? Mute them.

MB: Some I do. I use clothes pins.

KS: Oh yeah. On the rim?

MB: Yeah.

KS: Do you do that on the Paistes or on the Wuhan Wind types gongs?

MB: On the smaller Thai and Wind gongs.

KS: Yeah. It's a challenge, because solo you sometimes want to go hog wild. But you need to tame the resonance. I mute them with my thumb, hold it by the bottom with my thumb on it.

MB: I think with Gongs we can be so many different things, and that's what surprises people. But I find if they're open minded, they usually get drawn into it.

KS: Oh yeah, every time.

MB: So I'm pleased with the reaction I get when I play out. Sometimes I end up doing like a mini clinic, because people are so fascinated by Gongs and they just want to know more.

KS: Last night I played a gig and I actually discovered a whole new sound. So I don't think it really stops. I think the limit is your creativity and the sounds you can get out. I used a little toy cymbal and bowed that off the rim of the gong, the edge, and the sound was incredible. It was unlike any other sound I'd ever heard. It's really thrilling to have been playing for over 12 years and to still be able to discover new sounds. It's a great thing. That's part of the fascination to me, the discovery, just going down and playing, listening, different things like that.

MB: You listen to a lot of sci-fi movies and it's like, "Yeah, there's a gong."

KS: You know on the Star Trek movie, I guess (LA studio percussionist) Emil Richards was doing the sound and they used a 60" Symphonic gong for the sounds of the spaceship. The whole Lord of the Rings trilogy-there's gongs all over the place.

MB: That's how they get those really cool sounds.

KS: I love to go see the movie and then see it again just for the soundtrack. Just listen to it and there's gongs everywhere. You can always recognize the gongs after you get to know them.

MB: I also see that you're into Pierre Favre (Swiss master percussionist).

KS: Oh yeah.

MB: He's probably my main influence...

KS: Really?

MB: ...on gongs and drumming.

KS: He is metal man.

MB: I've been into him for a long time.

KS: Did you check out his Singing Drums? Well you know Fredy Studer.

MB: yeah, and I know Pierre from interviewing him.

KS: I've never met him but was completely blown away by the CDs he did with Tamia.

MB: Those are fascinating. I love those two. If you ever get the chance to meet him, he's just about the nicest person you can talk to. He's a very quiet, unassuming person.

KS: I saw an article in Modern Drummer once, an interview with him.

MB: Yeah, I did that one.

KS: Was that you? That was awesome. I just remember being so blown away by that article and talking to Ed Clift about him. I had found the CD of the Singing Drums ensemble he had done in 84, and I was telling Eddie about it, then I saw the article and he said I needed to pick out some stuff he did with Tamia. That's when I got De la Nuit...le Jour and Solitudes (both on the ECM label), and I was just completely amazed and inspired by that. I mean, it's very inspiring.

MB: It's just amazing the way he constructs things with sounds. He and Fredy Studer have a duo CD coming out in April.

KS: Oh really?

MB: I just wrote the liner notes for it. It's just amazing stuff.

KS: I'll have to hear that. There's all sorts of eclectic stuff coming out, but I still think Paiste just takes the cake with that depth and commitment of coming up with something other than cymbals. And I don't mean just cymbals, but something in addition to cymbals. Do you like bowing cymbals?

MB: Oh yeah.

KS: Have you found, like in my cymbal collection I have like Sabian, Zildjian, UFIP, Paiste, and stuff like that. I found I can get the most consistent whacked out and varied notes out of Paiste cymbals-reliably-by using damping methods and stuff like that, more so than any other cymbal. Have you found that?

MB: I think that's true. They tend to be just more consistent cymbals. I think that might be part of it. To me, Paiste's were always more balanced, like the thickness and the weight around the cymbal. I've had other cymbals that had a heavy side and a light side. You put them on a stand and they want to lean.

KS: I guess it's a manufacturing process. Because like Sabian, Zildjian, and UFIP all start with that lakar [a bronze casting] and just hammer and flatten it out that way. I guess they [Paiste] do the pie crust thing, which makes it more uniform.

MB: I like to bow cymbals a lot. I have a lot of Paiste bell cymbals, which they unfortunately don't make anymore.

KS: Are those like the tiny little Accents or an Ice Bell?

MB: No, these are really thick and like 8-12 inches in diameter. They're real heavy and when you bow them, the sounds just leap out of them. They're great. Or like the Sound Discs. Those are nice to bow with a lot of harmonics.

KB: Yeah, those are cool. Do you use the Rotosound at all?

MB: No.

KS: They're very cool. I like to bow those most of all, better than anything. Just bow them and spin them-they're amazing. The thing I discovered, is if you use the butt end of a flume or a piece of wood-I was working with a sort of skronky sax guy and wanted to come up with something that would sort of rival the skronk. I found the butt end of one of the mallets was pretty good at doing that. So those are really cool.

MB: That's something I've been wanting to buy.

KS: You won't regret it!

MB: I do have a ring cut out of a 602 cymbal mounted on a swivel that I play and spin, which is kind of cool.

KS: What's that sound like?

MB: Really bizarre. It's about 10" in diameter and 3" wide. It has a muted cymbal sound. I have a couple of bigger rings that get a real wobbly sound because they flex more. It's a different tone.

KS: You know what's cool, if you have an old big computer hard drive, you can hack those things apart...

MB: ...and pull out the disc...

KS: ...those are great. We have a few of those at the school. A couple of years ago the chief technical engineer and I went out and got all these old computer hard drives and took them apart. It's cool to spin them on the ground and record the sound that they make, like spinning a coin.

MB: I do that with Sound Discs, spin them on a drum and get the drum resonance.

KS: That would be cool. I tried that with the hard drives but not the Sound Discs.

MB: I like to put a lot of things on the drums, like cymbals, gongs, pieces of whatever, and use the resonance of the drum.

KS: Now a splash on a floor tom is really great. Now if you put a pick up or contact mic on the floor tom head and run that through something, then have an overturned splash held down with a mallet and make it do all kinds of weird stuff. Now have you experimented with electronics or pick ups?

MB: Not at all really.

KB: I'll tell you, a cymbal through a contact mic, through a Wah pedal is amazing. If you're ever inclined to do that.

MB: I've had friends who've done that, but I've never really gone in that direction.

KB: Well there's so much organic things you can do.

MB: Back in the '80s I was really into the whole Simmons drums and drum machine thing, because that's what was happening. But I don't have any electronics now, because you can do so much more acoustically. Like the V-Drums are nice, but they're limited as far as sounds. Sure you can dial up 100 drum sets, but you can only get a couple of sounds out of each drum or cymbal. With a real one you are unlimited as far as sounds. Limited only by your imagination. I just like the challenge of exploring. It's like a percussive jungle. You go out there with your machete, hack your way through, and see what you can find. (both laugh)

KS: Imagination-that's the trick. It's always nice to have a big space and set up the entire rig, not just a few here and a few there-set them all up. Like on that Dielectric gig, we have such a big studio at school that I was able to set everything up, had so many mics to do all of it, and it made me wish that room was mine. Not only did it sound great, but I had 2 full walls of gongs, and 2 table tops loaded with percussion stuff.

MB: It is nice to have the space. I keep adding on and can hardly move around in my basement. I redid my main gong rack and can barely set it up in the house. I use Gibraltar racks and have like 48 feet of tubing on the gong stand. Then I have a big 3-sided drum rack. I'm carrying around like 68 feet of rack! So my mini-van is packed to the hilt when I play solo. I just built a new drum kit that nests inside each other so it's more compact.

I had a fit of madness. I have the Kulintang gongs and am really into playing them. I was like, "I wish I had a drum set like my gongs." So I put it together. I took a 10", 12", and 14" toms and had them each cut in half. Now I have 2-10". 2-12". and 2-14" shallow, single headed toms. They're in 2 rows in front of me, which is really neat. I have a gong bass drum to the right, and my regular bass drum, which is a 6" by 20" with the pedal.

KS: That sounds really fascinating.

MB: It's neat because they're tuned, and I'm working on playing all this melodic stuff like the gongs. I never turned the snares on the snare drum because I'm not playing back beats. So I finally abandoned the snare drum.

KS: So you've heard (my CD) Metalwork already?

MB: Yes. I really love that.

KS: I'm glad you like it.

MB: You have some great sounds on it. I was surprised to discover it. The fun part of collecting gong and metal recordings is trying to figure out what people are doing.

Karen Stackpole is based in the San Franciso area. Michael Bettine is based in Milwaukee. They are both Paiste endorsing artists and Gong/Metal Percussion fanatics.

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