Meet Your Creator: Tal Bergman
By Sam Freeman
After moving to the US in the 1980s, Tal Bergman eventually found success as a drummer in New York. He played with seminal acts like Chaka Khan and Billy Idol, composing movie soundtracks, and eventually set up Tal Bergman Music, a library label distributed by APM.
Tal was kind enough to speak with us about his long-standing career as a drummer, producer and label head, covering his early days in Israel, his work with acts like Rod Stewart, and Joe Bonamassa, as well as how he runs his label.
Hi Tal. It’s a pleasure to speak with you about your work in the music business. Let’s start with your early career. You came up studying classical percussion in Israel with musicians like Alon Bor. Is that correct?
Tal: Yes, I did. Alon was the percussionist in the Israeli Philharmonic, and I studied with him for seven years as a child–mostly on snare and xylophone. But to be honest, I was more into drums than I was classical percussion, even though I’d never studied them. I taught myself how to play drums based on knowing about percussion, and I later took private lessons from different great drummers. I also try to play with better musicians than me, which is the best way to learn in my opinion.
Is it true that you also studied with members from the Canadian percussion ensemble Nexus?
Yes, it is. I went to Toronto at sixteen to study with guys like Russel Hartenberger, who is a master in world music. I don’t think I’ve met any others who knew more about it. So, I studied a lot of African and Latin music with them, and I incorporate all of it into what I do today.
How were things when you moved from Israel to New York in the 1980s? Was it hard to keep up with the musicians there?
Tal: Not really. I began playing professionally when I was ten years old, and I started off with Jazz, Bebop, Funk and Fusion. As a result, I had a lot of experience doing session work before I moved to New York, so even though I was twenty, my experience was on par with some forty-year-olds. I already knew how to play a metronome, sight read, do drum programming, and record percussion.
Were you mostly sustaining yourself through touring during that time?
Tal: Initially, it wasn’t touring. I started doing club dates, but I stopped because I didn’t like playing when people were eating in front of me. So, I began playing in bands around town and doing session work. Most of the sessions were demo recordings at that time, and it was only when I moved to LA that most of my work ended up on real records.
In terms of touring, I was finally able to land my first one with Blood, Sweat and Tears, six years after coming to New York, but my first big one was with Billy Idol. I went on two world tours with him starting in 1991, and I continued playing with him throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Once you became a successful touring drummer, were you always in demand?
Tal: Not exactly. I always needed to balance my workload between touring and session work because touring would be great for a few years, followed by a down period of nothing. As a result, most of my bookings ended up being for session work.
It’s easy to get put in a box if you play rock music, in which case people consider you to be a rock drummer only, but I play everything. I made sure that when I got the Billy Idol gig, I went after diverse types of sessions, which led me to record with Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross, Joe Zawinul, among others.
Now that you’re living in LA, you’re known for having your own studio space, Tal Bergman Studios. How’re things going with that?
Tal: I lost my big studio space during the pandemic. The rent was thousands of dollars a month, but I couldn’t book any sessions or even hire an engineer due to the lockdowns. Luckily, I live in a nice house that I managed to buy from years of music work, so I built a room in my detached garage which has high ceilings. All my gear is here now, and most of my work is either drumming, pre-production, or post-production. I get great sound here and it’s set up, so I don’t need an engineer. I can also wake up every morning and practice for 2-3 hours. So, I still have Tal Bergman studios, but it’s based out of my house now.
You also have your own band called Rock Candy Funk Party. How did that come about?
Tal: Rock Candy Funk Party is a band that started with my friend Ron DeJesus, who’s a great guitarist. He’s a New York guy who moved to LA, and we played together for years. On keyboards we have Renato Neto, who played with Prince for a long time. Mike Merritt from the Conan Show is on bass and Joe Bonamassa is on guitar. We all go into the studio for ten days and the goal is to record a new track from scratch each day, even if overdubs are done later. You take a lot of risks that way but that’s the magic of the band. We’ve released four albums to date.
Let’s talk about a few names that you’ve recorded with, and you can share some trivia about the experience:
I did the drumming on “Love You All My Lifetime”, which I think went number one on the RnB charts. I also joined her for some TV appearances around that time. The band consisted of guys like Abe Laboriel Jr on bass and Wah Wah Watson on guitar. It was an amazing experience, especially when Chaka herself can play drums too. But when I ran into her three weeks later, she had no memory of who I was (laughs). Stuff like that happens sometimes in this industry.
Their producer, Keith Forsey, was one of my all-time favorites, and he used to be a drummer who wrote and produced for Billy Idol, Donna Summer, and others. He called me in to do a session, so I played some of their tunes. I remember recording for an entire day on a track called “Seven Deadly Sins,” but they couldn’t decide if the drum pattern should be four-on-the-floor or a one-and-three. They ended up calling me the next day and said: “The playing was great, but we want to experiment with different drum sounds. Could you bring another drum set to play it again?” Those were the days when people spent one million dollars on an album and could afford to re-track things multiple times.
I was an associate producer on the “The Great American Songbook” album. It started with me doing a session for Richard Perry. He liked what I did and said: “Can you come to my house? I'd like to play you something I’m doing for Rod Stewart?” So, I went over, and he played the standards they’d done. He asked me what I thought, and I said: “It sounds like a cover band from Vegas.” I had to be honest with my opinion. Afterwards, I called Renato Neto and said: “Let’s pick a popular ballad, simplify the chords, and make it sound like Portishead meets Sade”. I called Richard afterwards and asked him to set up a meeting with Rod, so he suggested I meet them and Nastassja Kinski prior to their dinner. He didn’t know I was bringing a CD, but when I played it, Nastassja really liked it. That’s when Rod said: “When do we start? Do you have a studio?” I said of course! We can start a week from now, even though we didn’t have one (laughs). Renato and I eventually found a good space, filled it with our gear and worked on the album for a year and a half.
He’d seen me play with Carmine Rojas who was his bassist at the time, so when he needed a drummer for a TV appearance, he asked me and Carmine to play. Some months later, he invited me to tour with him and I accepted. Two weeks of touring turned into four and half years of shows with 300 dates a year. It was a lot of fun, but all the touring meant people got used to me being out of town, which reduced my session work. Even if you earn money touring, you still have expenses at home with rent and other things, so I needed that session work and decided to refocus on that.
So, after years of success as a session player and touring drummer, how did you meet APM and start working with production music?
Tal: APM used to share my studio for a while and I’d also played on library albums before, either as a composer or session drummer. One of the CDs did well for Bruton, so I was offered the chance to create my own library. Tal Bergman Library is now a few years old and has about thirty albums in its catalog. The genres are quite diverse, and I release everything from Bebop to flamenco guitars and anything in between.
What kinds of sync placements have APM been able to secure with your library?
Tal: There's been hundreds of placements. Some that come to my mind are one of Ron De Jesus’ blues songs that was used in Welcome 2 America. He called me one day from Vegas to say: “Tal, you won’t believe it. I’m watching TV and I heard my stuff in this Netflix movie! And I’m in the credits! “ He was quite happy about that. Another track was used in Better Call Saul, and one of our Sinaloa tracks was used in an episode of Cobra Kai. The composer, Guillermo Pascual, flew to Sinaloa and recorded with guys who make music in that region, so it’s as authentic as can be. I also have an album called Cinematic Trailers of the Epic Kind that was composed by Tal Rom and is doing good.
Given the thirty plus albums in your catalog and all your media placements, is the revenue from production music able to contribute to your living?
Tal: Because of the quantity of albums we've released, I’m now starting to see some income from it, though it’s not enough to live on in LA. So, I'm thankful for what APM does.
Many thanks for the interview, Tal. It’s been great to learn about your career. What kinds of things will you be doing in 2023?
Tal: I'll be writing and producing more stuff for the library. There is a band that I'm working on that hasn’t been released yet, but it has Ty Taylor from Vintage Trouble on vocals. Michael Bearden is on keyboards, who was a Music Director for Michael Jackson, Madonna, and now Lady Gaga. Oz Noy is playing guitar, and Mononeon is on bass. We’ve finished recording the album, so we're looking at how to approach the release and marketing. Everything was recorded live, and it sounds great.