Max Weinberg talks about Conan, Springsteen

Chad Berndtson

Max Weinberg’s love of big bands goes back to his childhood in the ’50s and ’60s, and the drummer – famed as the anchor for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and, until recently, Conan O’Brien’s house ensemble – can most certainly pinpoint why.

“TV was a big part of what made music popular,” Weinberg said. “The networks had all these variety shows, and you’d see great orchestras, big bands, house bands. I loved Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and I’m a big Buddy Rich fan – I became aware of Buddy Rich on the “Tonight Show.” My love and my soulful passion is rock ’n’ roll, but I always appreciated these great jazz drummers for their incredible chops and musicianship and the sound of those big-horn big bands.”

Enter the Max Weinberg Big Band, a 15-piece ensemble made of what he calls some of the “best young players I’ve ever played with.”

He had put together one version of the band while still in Los Angeles with Conan’s “Tonight Show,” and when he moved back to New Jersey earlier this year, launched a similar concept with a group of East Coast musicians.

Back to Foxboro, Mass.

It’s with that band that Weinberg visits Showcase Live as part of a brief national tour on Wednesday.

“Back to Foxboro. Slightly smaller venue this time, I think,” laughs the affable Weinberg, alluding to the many shows played at Gillette Stadium with the E Street Band.

The worlds of rock and big band aren’t exactly siloed, Weinberg contends, pointing to D.J. Fontana, the famed Elvis Presley drummer, as a key example of bringing big-band swing-type drumming to a rock setting. Former Carson bandleader Doc Severinsen is another influential model, especially for how he used to take “The Tonight Show” orchestra out on the road during breaks, Weinberg explained.

Weinberg’s big band work is not a new development, either. During the E Street Band’s hiatus in the 1990s, Weinberg began sitting in with college jazz ensembles, and he’s quick to point out that the earlier years of Conan’s program emphasized a jump in blues and swing-type of sound from the house band.

“The way I play has a muscularity – people would call it an East Coast muscularity – to it,” Weinberg said. “So I began to get pretty adept at playing this driving, big-band swing. It’s not necessarily dance music, though you can dance to it. You can take your kids to this kind of show; it’s heavy on melody. I’d hesitate to call it jazz, and I don’t put myself in the category of the jazz drummers I admire, but it’s a very personalized repertoire and it’s not karaoke. We might do some Broadway tunes. We might do some old TV crime drama themes, some Henry Mancini, some Count Basie.”

There are Springsteen songs, too.

“We call it Big Band Boss,” Weinberg says. “I won’t tell you which songs they are because I want people to come down and check ’em out, but we do them in our style.”

“The places we’re playing are very small, and that’s something I’m committed to,” he adds. “I want people to get a peek into my life and my musical journey. I’d like to make a record with this band – I’ve got some great arrangers – but it’s a start-up business. My real great love is playing live for people. I’m all about having fun.”

Moving on

Weinberg knows the question is coming, and he doesn’t deflect. In a statement released at the end of September, Weinberg and Conan O’Brien confirmed that Weinberg would not be returning as O’Brien’s bandleader and drummer when O’Brien’s new TBS talk show launches Nov. 8. Much of the former Max Weinberg 7 is intact, but it’ll be guitarist Jimmy Vivino who takes over as bandleader.

In the statement, the move was described as a “mutual agreement,” something Weinberg backs up.

“My family has always lived on the East Coast. It wasn’t a question of moving on, it’s continuing to do what I’ve always done,” Weinberg said.

He will focus on the Big Band going forward, but there’s plenty to come ­­–– E Street Band related, as well. Top of that list is “The Promise: The Darkness On the Edge of Town Story,” a three-CD, three-DVD box set of material going wide and deep into the making of one of Springsteen’s most beloved albums and in one of the band’s most vital periods.

Out Nov. 16, the set’s CDs include the re-mastered original album and a deluge of outtakes, with a reported 21 unreleased songs, and the DVDs offer six hours of studio and concert vault material. There’s an 80-page booklet, too, and vinyl and Blu-Ray options.

“I think it’s a fascinating document on a real artist, and that’s Bruce,” Weinberg says. “I would encourage anyone who’s interested at all to check that set out. It’s gotten me thinking back to 1977, 33 years ago. We were like children, and to think we’re still doing it is really kind of a miracle.”

Weinberg remembers the period fondly: three years into his tenure, the E Street Band had graduated from its formative years and was shifting comfortably into the big time following 1975’s “Born to Run.”

“It was a really exciting time to be in music,” Weinberg said. “I’m not one of these people who criticizes disco; it was rhythmic music and wasn’t the end of Western civilization. And you also had Elvis Costello, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, U2 on the way ... so much energy. If you listen to a lot of the stuff we did back then, we were almost a punk band. We were skinny enough then to be a punk band.”

The Springsteen all-in ethos – give 1,000 percent every concert, every song – was driven home in that period, too.

“Bruce works so hard at crafting his music. I always viewed those of us in the E Street Band as colors in his palette,” Weinberg explained.

“You wanted hard to give him what he was aching for. You felt like you were doing something. All of us. We felt like we were doing something that was going to matter. We’d rehearse every day, for hours, and it seemed like every day Bruce had a half dozen new songs to try. We were obsessed.”

Back on E Street

Weinberg won’t commit to saying an E Street Band tour is in the works, but he doesn’t exactly deny it.

“I’m confident we’ll be back on the road somewhat sooner rather than much later,” said Weinberg. “I know we’ll play again. We’re not retired. I feel stronger than ever and playing better than ever. Our job is to blow into a town, set up, blow the doors off the place while giving people more than their money’s worth. I’ve been with Bruce 36 years. After a long time, you internalize that approach, and I’m bringing it to the Big Band, too.”

What’s the 59-year-old Weinberg’s secret to staying fresh?

“I can sleep anywhere!” he declares. “I can sleep in a car, in a plane seat, in a dentist’s office. I can. But sleeping, yeah. All the cliches you hear from your parents when you’re young about being healthy – about sleeping – are true when you get older.”

It’s a physically demanding business, Weinberg says, and he’s trying to impart those lessons to his 20-year-old son, Jay, also a tremendously gifted drummer who filled in for dad with the E Street Band when Conan’s short-lived “Tonight Show” launched. The younger Weinberg is also a hockey player, and Weinberg says he’s on both Jay and himself to stay in shape.

“You won’t feel it when you’re 20, but you will when you’re 40, and when you’re 60, it’ll stop you,” Weinberg said of staying fit. “Staying in shape’s a lifelong pursuit.”

The appeal, he says, isn’t at all that clinical, though.

“The important thing is to play the drums as much as possible,” he said. “When I play the drums, I take care of myself. That’s when I become a 12-year old kid again.”

THE MAX WEINBERG BIG BAND At Showcase Live, 1 Patriot Place, Foxboro, 8 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets $30.10 at the box office and Ticketmaster outlets. Doors at 6 p.m.; seat selection first-come, first-served.