STICK FIGURES – Part Two / Tris Imboden (Chicago)

November 6, 2017 by: Shauna O'Donnell

STICK FIGURES – Part Two

Tris Imboden (Chicago)

Written by Christopher Long

*Contributor’s note: “Stick Figures” is a six-part series featuring personal interviews I’ve conducted recently with drummers who I believe to be some of the most innovative players on today’s rock scene. Some of the artists will be members of iconic, platinum-selling bands, while others are “laying it down” for exciting new bands that currently are on the rise. Either way, I think you’ll find their stories all to be fascinating reads. This series will run exclusively, here in MUEN Magazine throughout the end of 2017. Enjoy!

It was a fantastic face-to-face conversation – my recent interview with Tris Imboden. For more than an hour we sat at his hotel, discussing an array of topics including surfing, surviving and the sweet sounds he has made over the years with various chart-busting acts.

“I love everything about this band,” Tris stated passionately of his current 27-year gig with the iconic rock band, Chicago. Brimming with vim, vigor and vitality, and glossed with genuine humility, the legendary drummer added, “It’s such a privilege to get to do this.”

The mere mention of Tris’ first drum kit back in 1964 elicited a huge roar of laughter from the acclaimed musician. “Oh, my God – that’s SO funny,” he began. “I was probably about 13 when I got my first set. I’d had a snare drum before that, and a practice pad first, which I got when I was about ten. My folks went kicking and screaming to acquiesce to get me a drum set. They didn’t want the noise, and I had younger brothers and sisters. My first set so funky. It was new, but it was so cheesy that it was affordable, and my folks said, ‘Okay, you can have a three-piece set.’ It was red sparkle and it looked like someone had taken Elmer’s Glue, put it all over the shell, and then taken some red glitter and thrown it at it. It had a rack, kick, snare, and it had a ride cymbal. Finally, there was a guy in town who was a pro drummer and came to assess my playing, ‘cuz my mom wanted to make sure I could play. And he said, ‘Oh, Tris is ready for a hi-hat!’ (more laughter) So, I got a used hi-hat with used Zildjian cymbals. And gosh, I was stoked. I was playing – just listening to records – early rock and roll records and R&B and surf music too. Instrumental music around that time was a big thing where I grew up in Southern California.”

And it was the Southern California surf scene that would affect Tris’ life almost as much as the popular music of the day. “I started surfing when I was eight or nine,” he recalled fondly. “It’s been a big part of my life – my whole life. There was a dark period when I sorta fell victim to ‘sex, drugs & rock and roll’ – probably mostly through the ‘80s, when I’d surf only a couple of times a year, ‘cuz I was up all night raving. I was such a knucklehead. I got way back into surfing in the ‘90s, and I moved to the island of Kauai. I never surfed professionally, but I was sponsored as a teenager by a couple of board manufacturers. I was on the team – I had the team jacket and I got my boards at discounts. About 2004, I won the nose riding championship on the north shore of Kauai in Hanalei Bay, at the Pine Trees contest, which is the longest standing longboard contest in Hawaii. I’ve actually been on Billy Hamilton’s team. I’ve know Billy for years.”

Tris’ professional music career was kickstarted early, when he got his first big break in the late ‘60s, playing for the band, Honk. “Those guys were heroes of mine,” Tris recalled. “It was the first band I was asked to join as I was graduating from high school, AND they already had a record deal. So, I was going, college, or record deal, college or record deal – uh, I’ll go with the record deal. We went on to be kinda famous in California and Hawaii, and a few other places. We had a #1 record in Hawaii for a couple of months and we’d done a soundtrack for a surf film. We weren’t a surf band but it was a great band. We were eclectic – everything from straight ahead jazz to rock. It was really good training for me, for things to come. It taught me so much about the recording process. We still get together once in a while and do these live (reunion) shows. In fact, this year, I got to do one in June. It was so much fun.”

Of his experience getting the “dream gig” playing for Kenny Loggins during the ‘70s, Tris remembers, “Kenny had seen Honk and loved the band, and loved the vocals. When I auditioned, I was amazed I even got the gig. First of all, there was 130-some-odd other drummers who were also auditioning. And I already had a gig with Ian Matthews, getting ready to go on the road opening for Little Feat. So, I kinda reluctantly went. And I thought, What if I get this gig? I’m gonna have to tell Ian that first of all, I’m bailing. That gig really put me on the map, ‘cuz I did all Kenny’s hits. ‘Whenever I Call You Friend’ – that was the first bona fide hit I ever had – it was Top 5 I think. Then we did an album that to this day I’m still so proud of, called Keep the Fire. That’s the album that had ‘This is It’ on it. And I did my level best Steve Gadd impersonation on the intro to that. Michael Jackson sang background vocals on the song and Michael Brecker did the sax solo.” Over the next couple of years, Tris would also go on to record with Kenny Loggins on two of the ‘80s most recognizable pop / rock classics – “I’m Alright” (1980) and the #1 smash, “Footloose” (1984).

But Tris’ story has not been filled entirely with tales of studio sessions, concert tours, hit records, hangin’ ten and groovy parties. In fact, his recent charity work reflects his personal brush with near-tragedy. “This is a whole lengthy chapter,” he revealed thoughtfully. “I’m very, very involved with the American Cancer Society. Actually, my involvement was thrust upon me. In 2008, I was diagnosed with stage 3-A Squamous lung cancer. I was a smoker, but I’d quit 12 years earlier. The thinking used to be that after a ten-year period, your lungs would regenerate – but that’s not the case. Doctors know that now. Needless to say, receiving that diagnosis was like getting hit in the head with a 2×4. I thought I was a goner. The cancer was detected during an angio CT scan. They’ve got these CT scans now where they can look at your heart and check coronary arteries. I’d had some blockage they discovered two years earlier. So my cardiologist said, ‘We should have another look. You’re probably okay – but.’ Stage 3-A, if it’s operable, is considered the last curable stage. And there was only a 14% chance that I’d make it to five years. And now, here I am at eight years. So, man – I am SO grateful. I had incredible treatment at Vanderbilt in Nashville. My doctors did an amazing job. I’ve lost two-thirds of my right lung, but I’m still doing everything I used to do. I’m surfing, I’m playing drums – taking an extended solo. It’s like, goddang – I am SO grateful to be here. And as a result of all of that, I wanted to find a way to give back – or at least to inspire hope in others. Hence, my involvement with the American Cancer Society. And the band has been very supportive of my efforts.”

Currently, Tris is out on tour with Chicago, celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary – a “golden” anniversary in more ways than one. “DW Drums has created a one-of-a-kind, gold-plated kit, made just for me, for our 50th anniversary,” Tris expressed with pride. “They took great pains to do this. The process involved 19 different drum shell coats. So, when the light hits them, they look like solid gold.” A longtime “Paiste man,” Tris confessed, “Those cymbals – I’ve loved ‘em forever! I’ve always loved that glassy shimmer Paiste has, and the Swiss precision. He also points to Vic Firth’s wood tip, Extreme 5-A’s as his current “weapon of choice.” Given his powerhouse reputation, the 5-A’s might seem like a surprising choice. However, Tris addressed his need for a lighter stick. “I was playing 5-B’s for years,” he admitted. “But I’ve also had carpal tunnel since before there was a name for it.”

Possessing an impeccable past, Chicago is also a band looking to the future, as several exciting new projects remain on the horizon. One such endeavor includes a recreation of its landmark 1970, Chicago record (aka Chicago II). Proving to be a musically eye-opening experience – even after a near 30-year tenure with the band, Tris commented on the particular challenge of performing “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,” the record’s 13-minute opus. “It’s a bitch to play – still to this day,” he confessed, with considerable conviction. “If you ‘space’ for a second, you’re done,” he added, with a chuckle.

“It’s gonna be SO cool!” Tris proclaimed, regarding Chicago’s upcoming Vegas residency at The Venetian Hotel. “When we first started playing in Vegas for more than one night, it was back in the days of the original Caesars shows,” he recalled. “We’d stay for a week or two – it was a blast. We’d play four nights a week and we just loved it. We’re gonna be there for most of the month of February (2018). I think it amounts to three weeks or so. I’m hoping it might be a trial, and maybe we’ll make that part of our year. ‘Cuz I love Vegas. It’s just so much fun.”

Our concise 30-minute appointment had evolved quickly into a mammoth 60-minute session, and with the obvious tour schedule commitments we finally had to wrap up our discussion. Despite the overall spirited tempo of the dialog, I was impressed most by Tris’ final comment as we were shaking hands and moving on for the day. “To get to do this my entire life,” he offered warmly. “Geez, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

-Christopher Long
(October 2017)

*Christopher Long is an author, entertainment writer and radio host. Known to his readers as the “Show Biz Guru,” Long contributes content to various publications. He currently lives near Cocoa Beach, on Florida’s sunny “Space Coast.

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