As anyone who’s seen the excellent 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker knows, the wildman Cream drummer isn’t the easiest person to get along with. He’s moody, easy to anger, extremely opinionated and prone to sudden flashes of violence. It’s therefore not very surprising that his son Kofi doesn’t hold a very high opinion of the man, even though he’s a drummer who’s spent much of his career trying to emulate his father’s unique playing style. He’s even teamed up with Jack Bruce’s son Malcolm and Eric Clapton’s nephew Will Johns for the Music of Cream tour, an upcoming fall run devoted to the work of the legendary power trio.
Kofi phoned up Rolling Stone to talk about the tour, his turbulent upbringing and his barely existent relationship with his father.
How old where you when you first started to play drums?
Not sure. Can’t remember. Always really played drums. I remember I had a little plastic drum kit when I was three or something and I smashed it to pieces. That was my first kit. My dad taught me rudiments when I was really young, but then he left, obviously, and wasn’t around much. I really only got lessons from him until I was seven, which is when he left, so I was really on my own for a while. I found a bass drum and a snare drum and a hi-hat that he had left behind and made that into my drum kit. I just played that for five or six years until I went to see him again in Italy. Then I started taking a few more lessons from him. Taking lessons from my dad wasn’t the easiest thing. You’ve probably seen the documentary, right?
Well, that explains my dad. If I didn’t get something right immediately he’d shout and swear at me and smack me around a little bit. I was only there for about three months, so I had to get a crash course.
Was there any sort of psychological stress in learning to play drums when your dad is considered one of the great drummers of all time?
I didn’t know that. When I was learning to play drums I didn’t know who my dad was. I didn’t get into Cream until 2005 when I went to that reunion. I played jazz and fusion. I was into Frank Zappa and all that kind of stuff. It wasn’t really a big deal because, for me, I was doing a completely different genre of music. I was doing originals. I didn’t really care. It’s never really bothered me because my dad is such an asshole anyway that it’s not like I was stressed about making him proud or anything. So, no, it wasn’t really stressful.
Do you find that people have weird assumptions about you? That they hear your dad is this famous rock star and they think you grew up rich?
Oh, yeah. I’ve had that all the time. That’s why at some point I’m going to put out a book and explain exactly how it was. People always think, “Kofi Baker, he’s had everything given to him.” Little do they know that I lived on the streets when I was 15. Basically, I lived hand-to-mouth my whole life and played music because I was enjoying it. When I was a kid, I had to do glass collection, milk rounds, paper rounds, all that kind of stuff to have money.
We had the electricity cut off when I was 13. The gas cut off when I was 14. Then we got evicted when I was 14 and I broke back into the house and we squatted in our own house for like six months before they came and threw everything out the windows and smashed all our stuff up and bolted all the doors and we couldn’t back in again. I actually slept in a park for a few weeks and I actually tied my drums to myself so nobody would steal anything because all I had were my drums and a few clothes. I used to keep the clothes in my kick-drum case. I didn’t have any school. I was 15 years old. Nobody was telling me what to do. All I did was play music. I didn’t really know any different. My main focus was finding my next meal and going to someone’s house so I could take a shower. You don’t really think about, “Why am I here?” You just cope with it.
“My dad is such an asshole that it’s not like I was stressed about making him proud or anything.”
How did you feel about your father in that time period?
Well, I didn’t really know him. It wasn’t an issue. I just played drums and stayed alive. It didn’t really dawn on me until I was a bit older what an asshole [he was] and what he’d done. I’d think, “He had all this money!” Once he did that 2005 reunion and made a whole bunch of money again I was like, “Wow, he’s made 5 million dollars. Things are going to change now.” I said, “Dad, why don’t you buy property with this money? The best thing you can do is buy real estate and I’ll rent it from you. That way I’ll pay money to you rather than someone I don’t know.” And he was like, [Perfect Ginger imitation] “Fuck off, no. I’m buying my horses.”
That’s when I realized this guy doesn’t give a shit. That was when I realized he doesn’t really care. None of us are speaking to him, me or [my sisters] Nettie and Leda. It’s kind of a shame. I emailed him a couple of days ago to just say, “Dad, what the hell? Why don’t you support me or say something nice?” No response. I just thought I’d try one more time. He’s getting old.
When is the last time you saw him or spoke to him?
Last time I saw him was in Chicago about two years ago for about two days. He came to one of my shows. I was playing on a Saturday and he was playing on a Sunday. He came to one of my shows and sat in the back of the dressing room for about half an hour. He said a few words to me and then left. I went to to see him at his show and went backstage and he basically told me to fuck off and leave him alone, so I went out and watched the show and said bye to him. That was about it. Last time I really saw him was in Colorado in 1999. I was living there for a while. That was the last time I spoke to him a little bit. He’s just not the easiest person to speak to and now he’s deaf, so there’s no point in calling him on the phone.
Where did you see Cream play in 2005? MSG or the Royal Albert Hall?
Madison Square Garden. I went to the last two shows. I went there and I saw whole bunch of people supporting it and it was a whole big thing. I didn’t really know. I was playing fusion. I was with Chris Poland from Megadeth. I did the Jonas Hellborg Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff with Shawn Lane. I was playing with all the top fusion guys, and then when I saw that, I was like, “Wow, this is actually music where people are actually dancing around and getting into it. It’s really good music. I kind of like it.”
I felt like [Cream] weren’t going to play ever again. It was their last thing. Malcolm was there, Jack Bruce’s son, and I sort of felt like someone should carry this on. When I started listening to it and realizing I was like, “This is the perfect kind of thing. It’s pop songs people like, but it’s also improvisation and jamming.” That’s really where I’m at. I like to play things different every night.
Then I thought, “If they’re never going to do it again …” and I saw some Cream tribute bands that really sucked. You have to get really good musicians that can really improvise and really make stuff up on the spur of the moment and be good. Luckily, I was playing with really good people at the time. Ric Fierabracci was the bass player I was working with. He was with the Chick Corea Elektric Band. He did all the Tom Jones and Yanni stuff. He was really good. [Guitarist] Fran Banish, who I was playing with, was a nice session guy. Those guys can jam, so I got together with those guys and started calling it Kofi Baker’s Cream Experience. Jason Bonham had the Led Zeppelin Experience and I thought, “Why not?” I started playing that kind of stuff and really never looked back from there.
How did Jack Bruce’s son Malcolm join the group?
Malcolm was always reluctant. I’d been doing it since 2005. He was always like, “No, I want to do original music.” I was like, “No one else is doing this the way we can do it.” He’s a really great bass player, classically trained. People don’t realize that my dad could read treble clef bass music and could write out parts. These guys were schooled musicians. Malcolm is the same, but he didn’t really want to do it. He wanted to stay doing his original stuff. It wasn’t until recently that [guitarist] Godfrey Townsend actually put us together. We did a few gigs around America and it was good. We never really took it to what we’re doing now, which is really seriously getting into it. Malcolm has only been doing it for a few years, maybe five.
How did Will enter the picture?
We were playing a gig in London. This was Godfrey Townsend, Malcolm and me. Will Johns came in and sat in with us. I didn’t know who he was or anything. I just knew he was a guy that played some good blues riffs. It wasn’t until later that he told us he was Eric Clapton’s nephew by marriage. He grew up with Eric and has that kind of same style. It was like, “Why don’t we put a band together and fly the flag of Cream?” I just thought it was a great idea. No one else was really doing it. I play like my dad, not on purpose, but I obviously have my dad’s style in me. Malcolm plays like his dad and Will sounds a bit like Eric. It just seemed like a good thing to do. We haven’t really played that much. We did seven dates in Australia and that’s about it, and we have Robben Ford and Glenn Hughes in the mix so it wasn’t really just the three of us getting down. This is really the first tour where all three of us will be seriously onstage playing this stuff. It’s all really new, basically the beginning of this whole thing.
Do you know how your dad or Eric feels about this?
Eric’s behind it from talking to Will. Jack would be behind it because Jack was always very supportive of Malcolm. But my dad, who knows? He’s just a weird guy. I just don’t think he cares about anything but himself.
Does he have any redeeming qualities?
No. [Soft, sad laugh] He’s a great drummer. Great drummer. I really love his playing. His feel was fantastic. He could definitely swing his ass off. Great musician. But as a person? I’ve never really got a chance to know him because he’s never given me that opportunity.
What exactly do you think has been wrong with him all his life?
I think it stems back to becoming a heroin addict. He always had a bit of an ego. My mom said that before he became a huge heroin addict he was a nicer person. But he became a junkie for like 25 years. He was a very heavy user. Then the fame of people coming up to him and saying, “Ginger, you’re the best drummer in the world! We love you!” He’d be smacked out of his head. Heroin takes away your feelings from what I understand. I think that combination of the two made him just not give a shit. My mom used to say, “Can you just drop the egotistical stuff when you come home and just be normal?” And he couldn’t seem to do it. He was just egotistical: “I am the greatest!”
How is he still alive? I feel like a lot of people just wrongly assume that he died years ago.
Isn’t that [the] saying, “Only the good die young?” [Laughs] I don’t know how he does it. He’s been constantly chain-smoking cigarettes for as long as I can remember, since I was a kid. I don’t know how how he’s alive after all the drugs he’s done. My mom died four or five years ago. She was nowhere near, nothing like my dad. I suppose it’s diet. He had a good diet. He ate fish and exercised. I suppose a good diet and exercise is really going to prolong your life longer than my mom who sat around doing nothing and had a bad diet.
How will you feel when he dies?
Again, I don’t really know him. It’s not going to be like I’ve lost someone that I know. He’s not really been in my life. He’s been in my life very small amounts. I don’t know how I’ll feel, but I can’t see me being devastated like a parent that’s been here for me. He’s not in my life. He’s not in my thoughts. I don’t think about him. The only time I think about him is when people bring him up. I really only think about the musical side of it. I don’t think about the personality side. The only time I’ve spent with my dad is forcing him to give me lessons. It’s really only the drumming thing I really got from him. I think I’ve got everything from [him] I need drumming-wise. Technically, I’ve probably passed him because drumming has gone a long way since my dad’s era. I don’t know. Who knows? I doubt I’ll be that sad. It’s kind of like he’s already dead. He’s disowned me so many times in my life. It’s like he’s been dead to me for a long time anyway.
Imagine the money he could have made if Cream went on a real long tour in 2005.
They got offered a million dollars each per show to go to Japan. At that time I was talking to my dad. I said, “Why don’t you do it? Think of all the good you could do with the money. Having all that money you could have animal rescue sites. You could do environmental stuff. You could educate people. You could do so much good.” All he could think about was, “I’ve got enough money to do my polo. I’m fine.” Wow. It was a real shame. I don’t think Eric really wanted to deal with my dad.
How are you making the set list for this tour?
This show is all the music of Cream. When I do it with my band I have Blind Faith in there and I do Beatles and all kinds of stuff. I merge the drum solo from [Blind Faith’s] “Do What You Like” into [Cream’s] “Toad.” Obviously, with this band, it’s going to be “Toad” how Cream did it. I obviously do a 20-minute drum solo. My drum solos are on the same theme as my dad. It’s all about doing melodies rather than, “Look what I can do!” It’s the same kind of concepts of my dad’s solos. It’s all about the African tribal stuff.
It’s interesting that Jason Bonham is doing a Led Zeppelin tour and Ben Haggard is doing Merle Haggard. Do you think these kind of tours are going to become more common as the 1960s generation of rock stars retires from the road?
I hope so. That’s what the human species is about, isn’t it? That’s how we got where we got to from learning and keeping the traditions going from our parents. Einstein didn’t come up with the Theory of Relativity himself. He took from other people and put it together. Most of the times if the kids are musicians, they’re the ones that have been around their parents. For some reason, my mom used to say, “You’re so much like your dad” even though I never spent much time with him. I think you get a little bit of that in your DNA. You get that attitude through your blood. I think it’s the best thing for these kids of music to keep it going. I’m hoping it inspires [people]. Back then music wasn’t in a box. Record companies took risks on different music. People were experimenting and coming up with stuff. Nowadays you’re told that you’ve got to sound commercial or it’s not going to sell. Everybody is put into a box now and it’s really stagnating music.
To wrap up here, do you hope to make peace with your dad before he dies?
I’m trying. It’s hard right now because he’s lot … I don’t know if he’s all there right now, so it’s really hard. I’m trying. I’m sending the emails and trying to say, “We should talk and at least be kind of civil at this point.” I have a feeling that it’s too late. I can only try. That’s all I can do. I can keep the best part of him alive, which is the drumming and the music. That’s what he gave to the human race. I’m going to keep the best positive side of my dad alive. That’s the best I can do.