Professional drummer Chuck D. Keeping of Big Wreck has plenty of fond memories of his small town Newfoundland roots to share.
The versatile musician has over 28 years of experience, has toured internationally and has recorded with an impressive list of award winning artists like Suzie McNeil and Jeff Healey. He’s jammed with Prince, worked with members of the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, and Bon Jovi among countless other high profile musicians. He’s opened for too many others to count, including Aerosmith, Motley Crue and Alan Jackson.
He’s been nominated for five Junos and three Maple Blues awards, and won Road Gold and CMW Indie awards. He’s gotten used to big names, big cities and bright lights.
Despite that, the affable musician is more than happy to chat about growing up in Port aux Basques in a family gifted with love and talent for music.
“Our whole family is fairly musical, especially on my Mom’s side, so it was always guitars kicking around the house, and my Dad used to play in local bands and whatnot,” shares Keeping via telephone from his home in Toronto.
As the bands rehearsed in his parents’ basement, it was only natural for a young Keeping to pick up a guitar. He had peers and classmates who played pool halls on weekends or at teenage dances, so he grew up surrounded by music seemingly everywhere.
“I don’t know why I stuck with drums. I actually started on guitar, but it seemed like everybody was playing guitar so I thought hey, if I play drums maybe I could actually play more,” says Keeping, who picks AC/DC as one of top his musical influences.
When his father noticed that he was getting serious about it, the two formed their own band called 21 LeGrow, which was actually their street address at the time. They began playing pubs up and down the Southwest coast, in Corner Brook or all the way up to St. Anthony or down to Burgeo, and even as far east as Clarenville.
Keeping had no formal training in music but he had a musical ear and would learn songs through trial and error, listening repeatedly to a piece until he learned to replicate it. Local drummer Max Piercey gave him his first real lesson one day at the Port Club before a practice session.
“One of the bands my Dad was in, Max was drumming at the time,” remembers Keeping. “He basically just made sure that I understood what I was doing. I was playing but I didn’t know what I was doing, so he just kind of put everything into perspective and gave me a goal.”
It was the only lesson Piercey ever gave him, but it was enough to help grow Keeping’s confidence and reveal he was on the right track. Keeping says Piercey’s single lesson, which included tips on what to do and what not to do, was enough to give him a solid head start.
“He was the first guy to sit down and actually show me some things,” says Keeping.
After high school, Keeping decided to relocate to see if he could actually make a career out of music. He was 17 when he moved to London, Ontario, where he took a year long course in music production and engineering. That allowed him to network, play in open-stage jams and become familiar with the music scene and the industry.
One his studies were completed, he started playing gigs with some of the musicians he had met. He was still young, only 18, and seasoned musicians took him under their wing. He found himself filling in when more seasoned drummers were unavailable to play, and eventually he became the first drummer that artists would turn to if they needed a freelance to fill in.
“I’ve only ever been in two bands my whole life outside of high school. Everything I’ve done over these last 30-something years has been for hire,” says Keeping.
Artists like Ron Hynes, for example, might have different musicians played each tour, or at least in different countries to avoid visa hassles or exorbitant work permit fees. Keeping has spent much of his drumming career rotating through musical gigs, and even as a member of Big Wreck he still freelances when he can.
The first band he was in was Fathead, an R&B/Blues/Soul band based out of Toronto that had won Junos and toured with B.B. King. Keeping was in his early 20s then, and he joined Fathead when they were auditioning for new drummers. He got the gig largely because he was the only drummer who came to the audition fully prepared.
“I thought there’s no way they’re going to hire me. I’m too young. It’s not going to fit,” recalls Keeping.
A few days later he got the call.
“I found out later that the reason why I got the gig was because I was the only guy that actually showed up who knew the songs.”
That meant moving from London to Toronto so he could make the weekly practice schedule. That presented more problems. Toronto is an expensive city to live in, so Keeping sold his primary drum kit and kept his backup so he could make his first and last month’s rent.
After joining the band he toured North America and in the company of legendary performers like James Brown. He played drums on one of Fathead’s Juno-nominated albums.
“They really taught me a lot,” notes Keeping.
He parted ways with Fathead when producers with Sony Records kept calling from the Toronto office. Freelancing for Sony conflicted with the band’s schedule, but Keeping’s bandmates gave him plenty of support, and told him he was still young and needed to seize these opportunities.
“I freelanced again for another 10, 12, 14 years –whatever it was – playing with all kinds of different people and then Big Wreck.”
Big Wreck was auditioning for a new drummer and Keeping tried out but didn’t land the gig initially. He was one of two called back for a second audition but the band initially chose the other drummer.
“When I was in high school they were one of my favourite bands, because they started in the mid-90s,” shares Keeping. “I get a call. I think it was 11 o’clock at night on a weekday in the middle of winter.”
The band’s road manager asked Keeping to drop everything and head out on a six a.m. flight to play the next evening’s sold out show and then go on to finish the tour. At the time, Keeping was doing some television work that he had lined up for the next couple of weeks.
“When I auditioned I only had to learn five songs, only had to play five songs, but now all of a sudden I’ve got to do a two hour show with these guys,” he recalls thinking. “The music is fairly detailed, so I basically stayed up all night and just learned just as much I could. I got no sleep. I had no clothes. I wasn’t prepared. It was winter, just pack a suitcase and go for two or three weeks, whatever it was.”
Even on the plane he kept trying to learn, and the band received permission to have extra time during the sound check to run through each song once. That’s as much preparation as Keeping got before going on stage that evening with Big Wreck.
After the tour, Keeping arrived home shortly before Christmas and didn’t hear anything more for a couple of months until he got an e-mail telling him about a band photo shoot.
“I remember thinking, ‘Do I show up?’ Nobody told me I’m in the band. I don’t want to be that guy that shows up and then there’s another guy there. What do I do? And I didn’t feel like asking, ‘Should I show up?’ So I decided to show up anyway and we did this photo shoot and two or three days later I got an e-mail that we’re not using any of those photos. I thought ‘Oh no! I wasn’t supposed to be there’,” shares Keeping.
He kept getting e-mails though so he kept showing up to places until finally his band mates asked if he was even happy to have the gig because he was so quiet and kept to himself so much. That’s when he finally realized he was officially a member of Big Wreck.
“We decided like three shows in that you were going to be the new guy,” Keeping recalls them telling him. “I guess the manager was supposed to make the call but he thought somebody else in the band was. The call never got made.”
Nine or ten years later Big Wreck is still going strong and Keeping still finds the music fresh and challenging as they record new music. Although touring is impossible because of COVID-19, the band has found a way to perform live in front of fans by using an airfield to host drive in concerts. Eventually when the pandemic ends, he hopes to tour North America and even Europe.
Their fans remain in cars to enjoy the live music, and like to honk and flash their headlights after songs to show their appreciation. It was a little strange at first, admits Keeping, but it has nonetheless proven popular and gotten rave reviews. Despite the cold winter, there’s even some chatter about the possibility of a New Year’s show.
When his Big Wreck schedule permits, Keeping likes to keep busy freelancing. He also offers private, individual drumming lessons online. He likes his students to stay focused, regardless of whether they are children or adults. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Keeping had intended to visit friends and family for Port aux Basques Come Home Year 2020. He has a two and a half year old son who has visited twice before the pandemic shut everything down. They didn’t make it home this year and the celebration, which was postponed, may not even happen in 2021 as long as COVID-19 continues to pose a risk.
“Once a year I usually try to get home for about a week,” says Keeping. “It’s gonna be a while. It’s still getting worse. We’re not headed in the right direction.”
The good news is that Chuck Keeping and Big Wreck most definitely are.