Berklee Beat: The Dregs, MTV, and Berklee
Every student wants to study with a teacher who has "been there" in the music business. Having seen the view from the top at two very different ends of the musical spectrum, Associate Professor of Drums Rod Morgenstein brings a lot to the table for his students. He became a poll-winning drummer as a result of his work with the legendary progressive rock instrumental group the Dixie Dregs (a.k.a. the Dregs), and later became known to teenage fans and millions of MTV viewers for his membership in the platinum-selling metal band Winger.
Among musicians, Morgenstein is widely known for his work with the Dregs. The band, led by guitarist Steve Morse, formed in the middle 1970s while Morgenstein and the rest of the band were students at the University of Miami. With virtually no radio support, but a great word-of-mouth reputation, the band became a force to be reckoned with. The Dregs received Grammy nominations for each of their last six recordings and much coverage in music trade magazines throughout the 1980s. Modern Drummer magazine named Morgenstein Best Progressive Rock Drummer for five consecutive years. He was recently voted Best All-Around Drummer in their 1999 reader's poll.
He has warm feelings for that era in his career and for the people that he met in the early days. "I have this incredible feeling for Dregs fans," Morgenstein said. "Some 25 years later, I still run into people who were behind us before we even had a record out. When we started out, we were in a car pulling a trailer and setting up our own gear after driving several hundred miles to a club. There would be 10 people in the audience, and five would leave screaming after the first song because they hated it. The other five would become fanatical fans for life who would invite us to stay at their homes--many times giving up their own beds so we could sleep in them. We established those types of relationships all around the country. Playing the Dregs reunion tour this past summer and running into longtime fans again reminded me of the influence that band had on some people."
After the Dregs disbanded, Morgenstein continued touring and recording with the three-piece Steve Morse Band until 1986, when Morse took a gig with the group Kansas. Out of work for the first time since college, Morgenstein struggled a bit before surfacing as a member of the soon-to-be platinum-selling pop metal band Winger. Some progressive rock fans and critics were horrified. They claimed Morgenstein had sold out and joined a corporate rock band.
"I found that fascinating," said Morgenstein. "How can you sell out in the music business? Nothing is a given. As hard as it was for the Dregs to get the message out playing instrumental music, for every band like that, there are probably a thousand rock bands. How many rock bands are lucky enough to even get signed--never mind sell some records?
"I didn't join Winger for the money, because when I started, we were only making about two hundred bucks a week. I went out with the band because my heart was in the music, and I was willing to give it a shot."
Winger's success came after lead man Kip Winger and guitarist Reb Beach had struggled for years to get signed. As a favor, a producer helped them to get a small budget from Atlantic Records. The company pressed 13,000 copies of the first record. "That's not the sign of a label getting behind a band expecting to make them huge," Morgenstein noted.
After MTV started playing Winger's first video, the initial 13,000 records sold immediately. Within the year, the band's eponymous debut disc had sold nearly two million copies. Unfortunately, as the band became more popular, they started to become the butt of jokes as the heavy metal movement waned. Even the writers for the television series Beavis and Butthead took shots at the band.
"I don't want to name other bands and say why was it us and not them," said Morgenstein, "but I consider myself to be a decent drummer, Reb Beach is a phenomenal guitar player, and Kip Winger is a serious musician who studied classical composition with teachers from Juilliard. If people would just listen to the songs on the record, I feel they would find some depth there."
Since Winger, Morgenstein has worked with progressive rock groups like Platypus, featuring John Myung and Derek Sherinian of Dream Theater fame, and Ty Tabor, the guitarist for King's X. He is also part of Jazz Is Dead with bassist Alfonso Johnson, keyboard player T. Lavitz, and guitarist Jimmy Herring. The latter is an instrumental jam band that uses the music of the Grateful Dead as a launching pad for its exploratory improvisations. The project that is presently closest to Morgenstein's heart is the Rudess Morgenstein Project, a keyboard/drums power duo for which he has written half of the music. "I have never written 50 percent of the material for any group," he said. "This is new to me and is my proudest achievement."
As a teacher at Berklee, Morgenstein's reputation precedes him. "A lot of the students who come to me are fans of the groups I've been in," he said. "Some want to study the heavy metal style I played with Winger and others are interested in the fusion style that I played with the Dregs. I have written over 200 columns for drum magazines, and will soon have a book of drum set warm-ups published by Berklee Press, so there is always plenty to work on.
"Playing with Jazz Is Dead has brought a period of self-discovery. I have been pushed to find new sounds, new ways to hit the drums, and new grooves and fills. I pass that stuff on to my students. I like variety in life and in music. Doing all of these different things is keeping me young."