Just Like Butter: An Interview With Cecil Daniels
Cecil "Peanut" Daniels is a special kind of musician. His unique attributes go far beyond the fact that he plays multiple instruments or has lived in various parts of the U.S. throughout his life. Peanut is a musical diplomat who carries a positive attitude and lust for new experiences into any musical situation he encounters. Though his isn’t a household name in many circles, those who are familiar with Widespread Panic’s performances in San Francisco know his midi-saxophone well. His friendship with Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz led to those guest appearances, and has served as a springboard for Peanut’s other musical pursuits as well.
While he is working with his own group, the Apocalypse, on a full-time basis in the bay area, Peanut still finds plenty of time to sit in and jam with other musicians of many genres. His midi-horn lends itself to quite a bit of modern jazz interpretations, but his passion for drumming allows him to sit in with just about anyone who is willing to stir up a tune. Peanut pours his soul into everything he does, and has even written a song about medicinal marijuana called "Leave Us Alone." As a climax to his spring, he played at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for the first time.
I had a chance to chat with Cecil Daniels before his eastward travels. He gave me plenty of insight as to his past and current influences. Excerpts from that interview follow.
C: You grew up Texas in Waco and lived in Austin for a little while, right?
C: Did your musical career begin in Austin or was it further back than that?
D: I started my musical career further back than Austin. It was actually in my hometown of Temple, which is between Waco and Austin.
C: What got you started?
D: I was always a closet drummer. When I decided to take up music, I had the choice of playing the trumpet that was in our family that was eventually passed down. I played the trumped for many years from 5th grade until my junior year in college.
C: Did your father play the trumpet?
D: No, no one in my family, really. It was always my uncle, my father’s younger brother. He was an athlete who ended up being a great educator. Music was never really a priority, except with me. I was the one who wanted to be a musician, so I had to play the horn.
C: You say you’re a "closet drummer." What do you mean by that?
D: When I first started playing music, I thought I was going to be playing drums. My parents had bought me this old Sears drums set. They were really made out of paper. I think they lasted maybe two days. Before then, when I was as younger kid I spent a lot of time in front of the radio. I would sit on the edge of the bed with one of those little metal TV trays. I would put a bunch of dimes stack up on there and a bunch of glasses of water filled to different levels. For bells and cymbals, I would get away with as many pots as my mom would let me, to make them crash. I would take those big pencils that you used when you learned how to write and I turned them over on the eraser side and it was like a little stick bounce. It was pretty neat. I found a little hollow spot on the floor for my bass drum and I would go to town.
C: You grew up with Domingo Ortiz in Texas, right?
D: I actually met Domingo when I was a junior in high school. He was in the premier rock band in our area. They played a variety of stuff, but they were really a hard-hitting soulful rock group. I was in the R&B showcase, Motown-type band. When our paths really crossed was at my high school prom. When it came down to who was going to play the prom, there was a big vote between the Texas Electric and my band, The Brothers Seven. It varied from eleven to five people sometimes. I lived close to a military base, so there were a lot of great musicians who came through. Well, Sunny [Ortiz] and them, their band won, and I wanted to play because I wanted to show all the other kids at school what I really do, and what I really love. Something happened and their band couldn’t do it. I can’t remember what the circumstances were. But we ended up playing my high school prom and that was a really big gig for me. Sunny’s been involved with most of my big gigs, it seems [laughs.]
C: How did the two of you originally become acquainted.
D: Probably just through musical association. When I really got to know him was probably the circle of 1975-76. I ended up joining Texas Electric, as the drummer. He’s one of the hardest working people I know, and I’m not just saying that because I know him. But it’s a fact. He’s a very hard working man.
C: Whenever Widespread Panic plays, he’s the only one that never leaves the stage.
D: If there’s anybody who’s ever earned whatever you want to call what they earn, it’s him. He deserves every bit of it. His work ethic is to be desired.
C: What was the music scene like in Austin around that time?
D: I really didn’t actually live in Austin until around 1980. I moved in with Sunny. We got in a band together there. The scene there was always really happening. Even when I didn’t live there and I was growing up in the area, it was always happening. We were there right before the time when Stevie Ray Vaughn made his big leap. All those guys used to be out. They were our favorite guys to go out and see all the time, you know. The Thunderbirds: I used to hang out with Kim Wilson for a little while there. I would just go to different places and jam sessions, like to see Stevie Ray. He used to play one of those [clubs] over on Commerce Avenue called the Continental Club, a white blues club. Great musicians played at places like the Liberty Launch and Steamboat Springs. There was a lot of great stuff going on at that time and probably still is. I haven’t really been to Austin since ’85 or something like that.
C: Did you ever get a chance to play with Stevie Ray?
D: You know I don’t think I ever played with Stevie. I used to hang out with him and go see him play a lot, but I don’t think I actually played with Stevie. Of course back then I was primarily a drummer. Not that I couldn’t have played drums with him, but I imagine if I was playing my horn back then, I might have. It was just fun hanging around. Back then Christopher Cross was making it big in Austin. Eric Johnson, I have played with him.
C: What was your inspiration to move to California?
D: It was kind of a calling for some reason. It’s hard to explain. I went to Las Vegas to visit another friend of ours Enrique Cora who actually was in the band with Sunny and Kyle Pilgrim who runs the Georgia Theater. He was in the band with us in Texas Electric as the bass player. In fact, one of the main reasons I’m going to Georgia soon is to go down to Athens to play with Kyle again. We’re going to do a benefit to play with the Make A Wish Foundation. He was a big part of my life during those young growing stages. I can’t wait to do that. That’s like a reunion for me.
Back to how I got out here: I had left Austin, where I was living with Sunny. I felt like I was spinning my wheels for a little while, growing, kind of coming into my own. I ended up in Las Vegas with Enrique. My sister was living in Los Angeles at the time, and so I just went down there to see her. I was in this relationship, and I ended up getting married. I was in San Diego for a while and felt like I had a calling in San Francisco. I couldn’t explain it. The story that made me feel I really needed to be here was told around some friends of ours back in Austin when Sunny and I were living together. The bass player who’s in the band I’m in right now, the Apocalypse, is originally from Austin. They used to tell me stories about him when I was in Austin, but I never new him. He was in the first band I was in after I moved to San Francisco! It was a trip. That was back in 1987. His name was Carlton Lowe. He’s been my best friend and my biggest inspiration. I owe a lot to him. He’s very talented. I’m blessed to be in the same band with him.
C: How did the Apocalypse come together?
D: We’ve played around in different incarnations over the years. I’ve had some liver problems and was very sick there for a while. I thought I was going to perish, in fact. I had been active musically, but not that much, because I wanted to be close to my daughters, Tamera and Cecilia (they’re 11 and 9 now,) because I was going through a divorce. After all those changes, one day I said "man, if I’m gonna do this, I might as well do what I love doing, and that’s onstage." I’m devoting a lot of my time to doing this now, as opposed to a little of my time. They guys in the band have been around in different incarnations, and they’re my best friends, too, so that makes it easy.
C: Tell me about your Casio midi-horn. How does that differ from a traditional saxophone?
D: I have the utmost respect for sax players. My horn is virtually easier to blow into to get sound. You don't have any aperture or vibrations or lipping. It’s a horn that Casio doesn’t even make anymore. I’ve been in contact with one of the gentlemen there, trying to convince him to pull the mold out again because he had the horn of the future locked up. I saw it at a Macy’s store once when I was on a lunch break from work. This was in 1989. I remember this vividly. It was on the 15th of August. My daughter was born on the 20th of August. I thought it would be nice for her to grow up and have something to play. Maybe she would want to be a horn player, I didn’t know. I didn’t know if it was a boy or girl at that point. I saw it had a midi out. I had just recently gotten into sequencing a lot. So, I bought it and took it home. I plugged it up into my module and the rest is history. I got a chance to really hone into it. By the time she grew up, I was gigging with it hard.
C: Do you ever have trouble getting parts for it since it’s discontinued?
D: Yes and no. Yes being that eventually if nothing happens, the parts will run out. I have a company called CMOS that’s out of Pennsylvania that does horn repairs for me. They’ve been a lifesaver. I have about 5 [horns.] Before they went out, I thought I should have a few going. The diaphragm doesn’t seem to hold up. After a lot of use it causes the midi notes to stick. I have some other peripherals that I can use to bypass that, but it’s distracting when you’re really on some spiritual run. You don’t want to have those distractions. It’s been holding up really well the past few dates. Maybe it differs from horn to horn. I’ve had maybe 8 or 10 of them over the past 10 years.
C: You have just worn them out, huh?
D: Some times in those past 10 years, I was playing more drums than horn. Then some times I play more horn than drums. Drums are my passion. This gives me a chance to fuse the drum knowledge I have with my horn knowledge. It’s all drums, really.
C: You have a DJ that plays with the Apocalypse, right?
D: DJ Motion Potion
C: How does he fit into the mix?
D: DJ Motion Potion fits in more ways than one. First of all, his attitude as a person: I admire his respect for the music he loves. His biggest influence was Rebirth Brass Band. They opened his eyes. Peter Couhig was telling me about those guys. They were out here and we hooked up. They literally adopted me. They’re like my brothers. It was nice to see them come along. DJ Motion Potion was playing on the gig with them. The last show that I had, he was there. He started playing with us, and the things that he did were very tasty. You can hear on the MP3s on out web site, [http://www.peanutandtheapocalypse.com] he’s doing the background stuff. He’s doing the background singers or whatever. We did that on the fly with him. I only opened for Rebirth. They’re like a younger version of the Dirty Dozen, to me. They’re from that tree, so to speak. They’re like the rap version of jazz, you know, younger blood.
C: What are some of your biggest musical influences?
D: One of the biggest musical influences of all time was a drummer by the name of Billy Cobham. It was back when I was in college when I was really exposed to him, around 1974 or 1975. He was playing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin. I liked the technicality of the music, but the sprit of the drums was what got me. When he came up with his soul stuff, I could really relate to it. It really changed my musical life as far as my expression of music goes and what I was like at that time. It was challenging, too.
When I was coming up in school, my music instructor was also a trumpet player. I was kind of like his protege. Every time I would gravitate to the drums, we could be like, "Hey, hey, I’m grooming you for the horn thing." He could play any instrument, but he was in bands, too. The year I had left his tutelage and gone to another school, that summer the guys that were playing with him said "Man, why don’t you go down there and get Peanut?" He didn’t want me flirting with the drums. It came down to him being desperate because he couldn’t find anybody to fill that bill. I ended up getting to gig with him, and that was another highlight of my life.
I met Billy Cobham years later, probably six years later in 1979. He was playing a concert at Baylor University in Waco. I got to meet him and play his drums while he went out and listened. I felt like a big kid. All the stuff I thought I knew went right out the window when you’re playing the master’s drums. That was a big thing for me. Right there in the concert, while he was playing. I nursed that for a long time. [laughs]
C: Do you feel that New Orleans funk and jazz have influenced your playing in general?
D: You listen to all kinds of music all the time, but if you never experience the people, you never get it. For me New Orleans is the closest thing to African-American roots. It’s so much like Africa to me. It’s the closest thing we have here. You can really hear the way it comes out in the music. The way they fuse the jazz and funk just blew my mind. I eat it up as a horn player, but as a drummer it was really inspiring. Terrance Higgins with the Dirty Dozen is one of my favorite drummers. I had heard of them for sure, but I wasn’t familiar with them until I was introduced through Widespread.
I did get the chance to jam with the Dirty Dozen. Those guys were very inspiring for me. The fact that they even would ask me to play as a midi-horn player was lord. There’s more to the plan than being able to just play, too. It’s all about the vibe. I’m a people person first. Music is just a great vehicle for me to make these connections.