Capital Region Timekeepers: Interview with Mark Foster (Albany Symphony Orchestra) -By: OP Callaghan
Written by Staff on July 12, 2022
Mark Foster has been a staple of the local music scene forever. As a member of the Grammy winning Albany Symphony Orchestra for over 40 years, he has performed at Carnegie Hall and The Kennedy Center, and has recorded over two dozen albums. Mark has performed several seasons with the Williamstown Theater Festival and has performed in Moscow and Jordan with the New York State Theater Institute. Mark is a music professor at RPI, The College of St. Rose, and he is the co-conductor of the Empire State Youth Percussion Ensemble. Mark does it all, from classical to jazz to rock drums. He is a true master of his craft, and has performed with Stewart Copeland, Ringo Starr, Levon Helm, Aretha Franklin, Wanda Jackson, and countless others. When I decided to begin drumming at the age of 8, my father asked around; “Who should my son take lessons with”? The answer, inevitably, was Mark Foster. I studied with Mark for several years in middle school and high school. As a new student, I was in awe of his talents and abilities. Over 40 years later, I am still in awe. Mark is patient, kind, knowledgeable and a fantastic person. So please welcome, Mark Foster!
RRX: Hi Mark! Welcome. Tell us how you came to discover the drums.
MF: My first kit was a toy kit with cardboard heads for Christmas. It had a big rainbow on the bass drum head, at the age of four. In fourth grade my family moved to the other end of the block, where a neighborhood dad played drums on the weekend. His son had a garage band, and I would go over and check them out. This was around the same time as The Beatles and the whole British invasion was happening and was a great time for music in general.
RRX: Who are some of your earliest influences?
MF: The British Invasion was the biggest early influence; Ringo, Dave Clark, actually Bobby Graham played on those records and with a lot of the other British bands, Ginger Baker, then the Allman Brothers, and I listened to a lot of Zappa. My cousin had Freak Out right when it came out. Then I got into jazz, mostly CTI (Creed Taylor Incorporated) stuff, some Blue Note, Mahavishnu, Chick, Herbie, etc., so for drummers it was Cobham, Harvey Mason, Steve Gadd, Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White, and I especially loved what Aynsley Dunbar did with Zappa. But Tony and Elvin were so deep. My dad bought me “Emergency!” for my birthday in 1970, but it took me several years of listening to appreciate that album. Coltrane’s “Crescent” and Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” were so elegant. I should say that the immersive experience of music is what drew me to my enjoyment and involvement in music versus banging on the drums or identifying with a certain style. I really got that from listening to my older brother and sister’s records. That connection with an age just before I was born and various locations; NYC, Detroit, the West Coast continues to be intriguing. The classic reverb that Columbia used for the Johnny Mathis records, The wall of The Bitter End on the cover of Peter, Paul, and Mary. Everything from Motown. The Beach Boys from “Help Me Rhonda” to “The Warmth Of The Sun”.
RRX: Were your parents in favor of your decision to pursue drumming as a career?
MF: Well, the “decision” took place in stages; they supported my Eastman degree and understood that the career thing is not as direct as most jobs, but they had me take some civil service tests as a fall back. They came to appreciate all aspects including rock bands, symphonic, and teaching as part of the package.
RRX: Certainly. Do you play any other instruments?
MF: Not professionally. I have functional piano skills and learned the basics on many instruments in college. I took a few years of piano lessons from Sister Annette Covatta from grades 2-4. I was a lousy student, but she was a great teacher.
RRX: As a percussionist, you can play it all, from snare drum to tympani to mallet percussion and drum set. What is your favorite thing to play?
MF: Drum set is still the most fun. Mallets and percussion (conga, shakers, etc.) can also be just as fun, but largely a different function musically. And it’s a lot more pleasurable in the morning to be playing something on vibes or marimba versus the drum set.
RRX: Do you have a favorite or least favorite gig?
MF: I can’t really say. Every gig is a combination of how I played, everyone else’s contribution, and the vibe in the room. All of that can change over the course of the night, and then your perception can change, even days after the gig. Sometimes a gig is very stressful as you prepare and in performance but rewarding in the end. Other gigs are easy or fun, but after a while can be somewhat unfulfilling. If there’s a balance, you don’t necessarily rate each one, you know?
RRX: I do. Do you ever play double bass?
MF: Quick answer, no. But I have a double pedal. I don’t even remember why I got it- I might have been trying some options working through covering some programmed parts. I never really listen to or play music with a double kick, except Cream or Cobham. It never really clicked with me.
RRX: Tell me about working with Stewart Copeland.
MF: I think that David Alan Miller and Stewart shared the same publicist or something- I may have that wrong, but Stewart was putting together what became the “Orchestralli” project and we did both full orchestra and the smaller Dogs ensemble if I recall correctly. He used one of these pieces when he did the drum set feature on Letterman. It had to cost a bundle for Stewart because we were all hired at full rate, and he had the Record Plant mobile unit. Everyone had headphones, it was all synced to the computer. I believe it got bogged down in the process to mix it live from the very live Troy Music Hall, but harder to edit with all that sound and so many variables. They built his drum riser in the middle of the hall over the seats, which was very cool. It was fun to tell him about first meeting him when The Police played the Hullabaloo. I was able to get into the back room after the gig thanks to Todd Nelson. (Stewart’s brother ran the record company that Fear of Strangers signed to). That was a memorable night; the first time that I, along with The Police, met the infamous leopard. I understand Sting was pretty freaked out about that.
RRX: I understand that you’re a Frank Zappa fan. Care to comment on the various drummers of Zappa?
MF: I saw Zappa at Smith College in ’71. It was around the “200 Motels”, “Fillmore East”, “Just Another Band from LA” era and it was simply a great concert in every way. Aynsley (Dunbar) was playing Hayman drums and got a very unique sound. He had a loose feel while nailing all of Zappa’s figures.
Of the earlier era stuff, I really liked “Burnt Weenie Sandwich” and “Uncle Meat”, and a large part of that was the writing and Ruth’s (Underwood) mallet and percussion stuff. And later with “Apostrophe”, “Roxy” and “Elsewhere” had a lot of cool songs and arrangements. The combination of Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson worked especially well. I had a chance to talk to Aynsley when he was with Journey and they did a free concert at SPAC. I could tell that he felt that Ralph (Humphrey) was able to navigate the charts and direction more to Frank’s liking. Ralph was good, but it was only when they added Chester that the groove got more interesting. Although I wouldn’t compare the styles, that’s why Butch (Trucks) and Jaimoe sounded so good together with the Allman Brothers. Instead of being heavier, it became lighter. The two drummer thing is interesting to me. A lot more interesting than the NO drummer thing which seems to be more common these days! I have done the two drummer thing several times; with Malcolm Travis and Ted Were and with Al Kash later on, all with incarnations of bands with Rick Bedrosian. I also did a fun multi-drum thing that Mike Benedict put on for a few years. The Monday night hang with Family Tree at Putnam place every Monday works so well. Chad and Steve, as well as everyone else, always sound great. Anyone who sits in immediately fits in well. They keep it open, but it never, ever descends into a bad version of open mic night.
Back to Zappa! Of course, Terry Bozio and Vinnie Colaiuta and Chad Wackerman were all incredible, but I didn’t like the music as much from that era. I saw Zappa with Vinnie at the Palace. Vinnie was set up on the side up front so you could see him at all times. It was amazing, but not really musically memorable to me.
RRX: Nice! Ok, now some fun stuff. Do you own rototoms? Concert Toms? Electronic drums, or a cocktail kit?
MF: Roto’s! I have a billion rototoms, including a set that Sarah Ayers gave me that were Sarge’s, but have never used a single one with a drum set. There’s a lot of symphonic writing where they’re used – sometimes with specific pitches and tuning within the piece. I sometimes teach tympani using a pair of larger sized pedal ones I got from Mike Demarco. So having all those sizes is useful. A few were even used this past weekend for the symphony. Concert Toms? No, and ironically more often these days double headed toms are preferred. Again, the symphony needed seven this past weekend, all double headed. Electronics, Drumkat, Malletkat, triggers and modules; never did a pad kit or Simmons. I picked up the Yamaha EAD that mounts to the kick and connects to the module. Electronics seem to be best when it supplements real stuff, and best when it’s just a few things vs. a real complicated interconnected monster. Cocktail kit? No, I’ve played them occasionally. Too many compromises with the sound. It can be a cool look, and I get that.
RRX: If you weren’t a drummer, what would you be doing? Have you had another career?
MF: I have had various summer jobs and the like. I was able to function ok whatever it was, but really not only prefer anything I’ve done with music; teaching as well as performing directly, but to me the hang with the creative community is just as important as the work itself.
RRX: What are some of your other hobbies, interests or passions?
MF: There’s so much to music, that pretty much trumps anything else. I enjoy going for walks, comedy shows or some political stuff like a good columnist or an SNL sketch. going to Mass Moca or a good restaurant. Pretty normal stuff. I was never interested in history as a subject but continue to be fascinated to learn about local history and memories from older siblings about this area and other shared experiences. I just finished a book by John O’Hern, “Not the Kennedys”, about growing up here which was great.
RRX: What are you most proud of as a performer, composer, or teacher?
MF: Any bit of happiness and/or success of any of the students I’ve had some part in assisting through the years is always nice. Most of that success is through their work and talent, but if I’ve been able to provide any general or specific guidance, that is gratifying.
Mark Foster can be seen with The Albany Symphony, or any of his multiple appearances. Do yourself a favor and watch him play. He is truly a master at work.