Welcome to the second installment of ‘A Different Perspective’. This is, as I mentioned an occasional and ongoing series where I get to ask various friends in the arts (any art will do… and we’re using a very wide definition here…) about their headspace, inspirations, fixations, hang-ups, and why they do what they do with what they do it with.
This second series of questions comes courtesy of Noah Needleman. Noah and I are bandmates in the madness that is Uncle Daddy (www.gouncledaddy.com). I had mentioned this blog concept to him and he really was interested in being a part of it. Not one to waste an opportunity, I hit him with my questions (stay tuned for those) and he hit me with his. Here are those questions and my answers. I hope you enjoy. Oh, if you want to check out more things Noah Needleman-ish/esque/like, check out: www.noahneedlemanmusic.com.
1. When you listen to a song, what’s the first thing you hear?
I admit it used to be the drums when I was younger. I think you need to go through that period so you are able to learn and draw from the things you are hearing. It’s part of that formative learning process. As you grow though, one hopes that the ego isn’t so large that you only focus on your instrument. For myself, I’m keying in on the vocals (when they are there) or the melody line and what the bass is doing. I’m also seeing if I can pick up the emotional component of the song. How does it make me feel? How might the songwriter or other players be feeling? Can I tell that from the notes being played? The energy? From there I’ll start to wonder how these things made the drummer choose the ideas he/she did. What would I have done differently? Would my approach have been different? If so, why? Listening to a song often winds up being this combination of enjoyment and inquiry. I’m digging what I’m hearing but I’m sleuthing around trying to figure out what is making this song tick and why/how it’s effecting me.
2. Was there a moment in your career when you realized that you had your own voice?
I don’t know if I can say I have found it yet, to be honest. Seriously. I do hear it from other people though. Particularly with regard to my snare drum and cymbals. I also hear it from people in reference to the choices I make to accompany a song on the drums. To hear someone say “I knew it was you” is a strange, wonderful, and humbling thing to hear. I think though my goal is a certain transparency. I want someone to notice a song feels good or that there’s something that is physically and emotionally moving them… but not necessarily knowing quite what that thing is. Most of the time when I play, drums are a support instrument. I will always take my opportunities to express something on the drums when I feel like it’s the right time or to accentuate a moment, but otherwise I’m happy to stay out of the way. If anything, that’s my voice. Leaving room for others and making it feel good.
3. If you could sit in with any band or songwriter, who would it be and why?
You’ll not get just one answer… but I’ll try to keep the list short…
Joni Mitchell looms really large because her phrasing and her chordal choices are so unique. Her album “Hejeira” was one of the few things I took with me when I drove across country because it’s such an amazing travel companion. I really felt a such a range of emotions as I listened to that album and careened across the empty highways of South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. The fact that she has used some of my favorite players over the course of her career (Vinnie Coliauta, Brian Blade, John Guerin, Larry Klein, Mike Landau, Wayne Shorter, Greg Liesz, etc…) only adds to how wonderful her talent is and how moving it is to me.
Bill Frisell is also very near the top of the list. Again, it has a lot to do with his phrasing on the guitar. His is such a unique voice among a very large world of guitar. Everytime I hear him or see him perform, there’s something that is so palpable about his playing. His use of effects (particulary delay) is also really inspiring to me. He can go from this strange assemblage type of thing where he’s accessing different delays and manipulating them, and then go to these really beautiful finger picked chords that ebb and flow and swell… he’s just a great player and seems like a very humble and down to earth guy.
Trent Reznor is another one that would be amazing to work with. I was taken by his songs right from the get go with “Pretty Hate Machine” and he’s remained amazingly consistent for me. Since Nine Inch Nails there’s been ‘How To Destroy Angels’ as well as his soundtrack work for “The Network” and, most recently “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. He’s got a whole new world to explore with this more soundtrack type stuff. Which I think was always part of his sound…. very cinematic. I think it would be interesting to sit and share a meal with him and talk about his concepts and philosophies and then go and hang in the studio and make music all night. That would be an awesome experience.
Wilco. I am the first to admit that I didn’t even acknowledge the band until Nels Cline was brought in on guitar (one of my top 5 guitarists, along with Bill Frisell). But, as I dug back into the catalogue and heard so much amazing music and seen how they have developed in this current configuration, they are constantly inspiring to me as a player and as a neophyte writer. Everyone in that band is an amazing player and they seem at such peace and ease on stage even when they are thrashing it out. It’s a joy to witness.
Radiohead. Enough said. I can’t think of a band that has had more of a consistent impact on me and turned my head/ears more fully than Radiohead has. I’ve been digging back into “In Rainbows” and “Amnesiac” lately. Frightening.
Rush. I can’t overstate the importance of this band on my formative development as a drummer. No, I don’t sound like Neil Peart. No, I don’t play a big drumkit like Neil Peart. But, I do have a lot of respect and love for what he did and is doing behind the kit. Not only that, but he’s also the band’s main lyricist. I love the idea of the power trio. You think about groups like The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, King’s X… what can you do with three people? Well, it turns out A LOT! That Rush has the opportunity to use technology to fill things out here and there (live) doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s still 3 guys killing it.
4. When arranging drums/percussion in the studio – what are your priorities as an artist?
Priority number one is to support the song and make sure that whatever I’m playing is feeling really good and that the vibe is happening for everyone else. In this though there is more going on than just what I’m playing. It’s the attitude and energy I’m putting out there from the get go and sometimes you have your good days and bad days. When I get to the studio, I feel like I need to get my stuff in and somewhat organized before I can start to breathe and hang. Once I know my gear is in and I’ve sussed out the situation (particulary when it’s a new studio), then I can get into it. I’ll ask a lot of questions when it’s a song I haven’t heard before. I’ll try to get in the artist’s head a bit to see what kinds of sonic landmarks I can pick out from their descriptions. My choice in gear and my ideas about parts come from those conversations a lot. Sometimes the artist has specific ideas. I dig that too because it’s often the case that they are hearing things or thinking of things quite differently than I would normally. If left to my own devices, I’ll tend to listen to the song(s) and see how they hit me on an emotional level and what kind of part I want to bring to the party. That includes suggesting that it doesn’t need drums at all. I’ve had plenty of discussions with people trying to get them to explain to me WHY it needs drums if I’m not hearing it. They usually win though (that something should have drums). A lot of times I’m happy I listened. Not always though and you kind of have to be cool with that. You are helping them arrive at their vision for a particular song or cycle of songs. So, in the end, if it’s not your music directly, you have to be cool with whatever is decided. That’s a great lesson for your ego.
5. Is there anything specific about your playing that you enjoy as being your unique voice?
Again, I think I’m still trying to find my voice on this instrument. I go back to my snare drums and my cymbals. Those voices are ones that I’ve gravitated towards over time so they are in some ways a part of me. They’ve helped define my concept of what I feel drums can and should sound like. I do enjoy a nice solid groove and I like the feel of the drums. There are aesthetic things too with my kits. My set ups are pretty ergonomic. Things are close so I can move about easily and access a lot of sounds without reaching. I think that makes my playing pretty relaxed because I’m not worrying about ‘am I going to be able to reach this or that?’ I think that is part of your sound… is it rushed or loose or tight or open. I think my sound/voice is controlled, but still open and resonant. If I can comfortably feel the drums when I’m playing them then I feel like I’m really connected and from there, the music can happen more easily. Some other things I do: I’ll throw in these little things… a highhat flourish or a snare drum thing that, within the context of whatever I’m playing, kind of gives things a little lift. I think those little moments inform my playing a lot. Hopefully in a transparent and unobtrusive way. I know the players on stage hear it at times and I’ll get a look back and a smile or what have you and I do enjoy that.
6. Name five albums that have shaped your desires as a musician.
Hmmm… limiting it to 5 is a nice exercise (read, REALLY HARD)… and I bet if you asked me in an hour it would change… but here it goes for this particular moment:
Rush – Moving Pictures
This is the first album I learned top to bottom. Every note of drumming. Every lyric. Every emotion I felt when I first listened to that album, I still feel today.
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
As a young kid just getting into jazz, this album blew my mind. Not because it was full of a ton of notes, but because of the space. It marked a change in my understanding… that you can say just as much with less. I don’t always live by that rule, but this is the album that first made me appreciate that possibility.
Bill Frisell Trio – Live
This recording from Spain features Joey Baron on drums and Kermit Driscoll on bass. The interplay between these three is just legendary and I was so awestruck at the fearlessness of this performance.
DJ Shadow – Entroducing
I listened to this album everyday for about a year and a half when I first got it. The loops that Shadow chose for this album and the way he pieced things together to create this wonderful tapestry/story was the sonic equivalent of watching an alchemist work.
Rain Tree Crow – Rain Tree Crow
This was Japan’s last recorded work together. They had a contractual obligation to do another record and called themselves, and the band Rain Tree Crow. Steve Jansen’s drumming and programming was a really important turning point for me. I realized that you could make a machine sound interesting and have some emotion. There was so much other stuff going on though… all of these wonderful sounds – marimbas and fretless bass and bass clarinet and synths… it was like a pop album that wasn’t. It’s an album that I would listen to late at night… gazing out a window at home or driving back from a gig or what have you.
7. What do you look for in the musicians you play with?
There’s a certain basic level of professionalism that I just expect. Maybe that’s unfair, but there you have it. Your gear should be in proper working order (pedal boards, amps, instruments). You should have extra strings, picks, capos, batteries, reeds, cables, sticks, whatever it is you need extras of, you should have them. I’ve got a spare snare drum and bass drum pedal in my car at all times. I’ve got a ton of sticks and what not in my stick bag. I’ve extra snare strings if one of them bust… I’ve got the extras I need to ensure I have a good gig even if something goes down on me. I expect everyone else has that same level of care about their own gear. Need some of those small things and don’t have the bread? Call me. Tell me what you need and I’ll get it so you have something. Pay me back after the gig. Whatever. Just show up in every facet of the word.
I expect that someone I’m on a gig with has a certain level of confidence and competence actually playing their instrument. I want to be able to have a meaningful musical conversation with someone. It’s about connecting with another player and knowing that they have enough ability to push you AND to keep up when you push back. If I know a player hasn’t been playing for too long, then I’ll want to make sure I create an environment where they don’t feel intimidated or freaked out beyond what they already feel. I’m not going to ‘chops out’ on a poor kid who is playing their first gig with a band or whatever. I’m not going to be a dick. But, I do expect that when you come to the table, you bring your A-game – whatever that happens to be. I think you can tell when someone is putting their all into it and when someone is really phoning it in and doesn’t care. I have a saying ‘the red light is always on’. That means you have to be prepared at all times. You have to think of everything as a performance – rehearsals, jams, whatever it is. This is a way to train yourself to be in the moment. It’s important work. It helps you focus and hone. It helps you become the artist you want to be.
Do they groove? Can they feel my groove? Can we groove together? Music shouldn’t be a 15 round heavyweight fight. If you need me to go somewhere different, let me know (nicely, please). We’ll get there together and we and the audience will have a better time for it.
The mechanics of actually playing your instrument, having the best gear you can afford, and really caring about what you are doing is critical. Other factors? Are they on time or are they consistently late? My dad taught me something early on about that: if you’re early you’re on time; if you’re on time you’re late; if you’re late, you lose the gig. I take that adage really seriously and I hate it when I’m late. I get tweaked if others are late because if it happens consistently (I mean, every single time) then that just tells me that they don’t care and aren’t taking it seriously. There’s a point where you run out of excuses. For us, we live in LA. So, you can’t use traffic. Sorry, but there’s a point where that just doesn’t jive anymore.
I also want to know that I can hang with the person on some level off the stage. If they’re a great player, but they’re an asshole… it’s a no-win situation for me.
In the end, if someone invests in their craft and their instrument and generally takes this gift they have seriously, and don’t throw too much ego around… the less likely it is that issues will come up. They’re going to be there for the same reason you are… to make music and have fun doing it.
8. Best concert you’ve ever attended.
Again, you’ll not get just one answer…
Rush – Signals Tour – Carrier Dome, Syracuse, NY
This was my first concert and my favorite band at the time. The thrill of walking into such a massive space and still being blasted by that music was such a thrill I thought I was going to cry. There was nothing about that evening that I recall being bad. I was bouncing off the walls excited and everything was new and fresh and the most amazing thing I’d ever experienced.
Lollapalooza #1 – Saratoga Springs Performing Art Center, Saratoga Springs, NY
With a line up that included Henry Rollins, Butthole Surfers, Nine Inch Nails, Living Colour, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Jane’s Addiction… this was an alternative rock fan’s wet dream x10 and there was no way I was going to miss it. It was simply amazing. The emotions I felt as Siouxsie took the stage (the first concert she’d done in 3 or 4 due to throat problems)… the way Living Colour destroyed the audience… Trent Reznor’s cornstarched face and black combat pants… Henry Rollins’ nuclear bomb energy has he menaced the stage with one of the best bands I’d ever heard, ever…, and the feeling as Jane’s Addiction began the arpeggiated guitar line of “Ocean Size”… epic on every level.
Bill Frisell – Gone Just Like A Train Tour – McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Los Angeles, CA
This was one of the first concerts that I saw when I moved out here and the chance to see Frisell in such an intimate space… with Jim Keltner on drums, Victor Krauss on bass, and Greg Liesz on lap steel and assorted stringed instruments… it was a near religious experience. I was no more than 6 feet away from Keltner’s drums. The rigs everyone used were so small but they sounded huge and it was a wonderful night of music that was seriously breathtaking. This same feeling got repeated a couple of years later when he came back through town with the same ensemble (save for the drummer… the incomparable Kenny Wolleson). I most recently saw Frisell in a special duo concert with Joey Baron at the Jazz Bakery a couple of years ago. I was giggling like a 10 year. My wife thought it was one of the cutest things she ever saw.
Radiohead – Kid A Tour, Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA
Simply put, I think this still might be number one. The power and emotion coming off of that stage… the light show… the vibe of the crowd… this was a freight train. A juggernaut. I was gripped from the first moment the band came on stage. Simply staggering performance.
Steely Dan – Shuffle Diplomacy Tour, Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, CA
This concert experience is only a month old so it’s still fresh in my mind. This was the first time seeing Steely Dan and it was a great experience. 18 tunes and not a clunker in the bunch. At one point my wife leaned over to me, gave me a kiss and said ‘you could TOTALLY do this gig!’ I chuckled at the mere thought because Keith Carlock so deftly handled all of those songs and put his own wonderful spin on them that I felt a bit of a scarecrow at the mere thought of getting behind a set of drums for a couple of days afterward. Contrary to what people might think when they hear the name Steely Dan uttered, this show grooved its ass off and was still tight. Everyone had their moments to shine and it was all about the music. I walked away incredibly humbled and incredibly inspired. That’s when you know you’ve seen a great show.
9. Describe the role of the drummer in popular music.
At the most basic level, the drums (I say drums because it’s not always a drummer) convey the groove and pulse of the song. The drums move the song from point to point. The drums make things feel good. The drums get your ass moving. As a drummer, you are propelling the song along. You’re the engine. I don’t think that has changed over the years. I think what has changed are the techniques and the sounds used to achieve the propulsion in a given track. But, to me it still all boils down to bass drum, snare drum, and hi-hat. If you can’t make it happen with those three elements… then no amount of toms or cymbals or loops is going to make it feel that good or sound any better. I’m not too keen on drums being static (which is something you hear in a lot of modern music). You can Beat Detective something to the point where it ceases to be anything but points on a grid. I like things to breathe a little bit. As a drummer, you should be able to play to a click and to loops. You should be able to make your statement (sometimes that simply means making something feel good) within whatever context. Are you replacing a loop or adding to it? Fine. Do that. Do it well. If you know you’re going to get chopped up and recombined in an editing bay you should still play the whole thing with the intention that it’s a full keeper take.
In modern music the drums are the glue, the engine, the foundation, the wind that fills the sails of the ship, and the groove that gets the whitest ass in the club moving. They propel the song and they lift the rest of the musicians with an energy that only a drummer can give. That doesn’t always mean volume… that simply means, the drums are in the back giving everyone a good thump in the butt and putting a smile on people’s faces. It’s a primal thing. It’s the second oldest instrument after the human voice. The drums connect all of us on a fundamental level.
10. Five songs that represent the things you love in music.
Another impossibly hard one… to narrow it down… this too would probably change if I got asked tomorrow… but for now…
Babylon Sisters – Steely Dan (off of ’Guacho’)
This song not only tells a great story, but it evokes such images… ‘Drive west down Sunset to the sea…’ I’ve DONE that. The groove is so undeniable and there’s so much space… it doesn’t get you there fast… you get to settle in this wonderful groove… it takes its time. I love that. it’s sexy.
All I Need – Radiohead (off of ‘In Rainbows’)
There’s something about the way this song builds. I get goose bumps. That slow ambient guitar part with the rhodes at the top… to the way the drums come in with that hypnotic groove…all the way to the end when the bass walks down to play the main riff at the lower octave and things just thump. It’s a wonderful emotional arc.
Sky Blue Sky – Wilco (off of ‘Sky Blue Sky’)
It’s such a wonderful story. You can feel yourself in this car as it starts raining and this parade is going by. It’s a wonderful, quiet song. It takes you on a journey and everyone is playing the perfect part for it. The swirl of the brushes on the drums sounds like a soft rain… the sparseness of the guitar solo… the longing lap steel sounds… just magical.
Tomorrow Never Knows – The Beatles (off of ‘Revolver’)
Ever hear something that felt like ‘this is the first time this ever happened’? That’s what this track feels like to me. The inventiveness, the way the drums propel you through this track is like a speeding train. And as you move along these seagull sounds and backwards guitars seem to doppler past you and the voice… somehow distant but right in the center of your head. It’s just mind blowing.
Stop This Train – John Mayer (off of ‘Continuum’)
I cried the first time I heard this song because it’s such a universal subject. “I don’t know how else to say it, I don’t want to see my parents go. One generation’s length away from finding life out on my own.” It’s something I think about a lot because I’m so tight with my parents. It reminds me of those that I still hold close that are no longer here and how their memories inform who I am. This song hits you on a deep personal level. It’s like you’re having a conversation with the writer over a drink at a bar and just trying to figure it all out. When a song can evoke that depth of emotion, that’s something special.
11. Describe your physical approach the playing your instrument.
Hmmm… I look at it as a dance. I’m not really laying into the drums near to the degree it must look like even when I’m playing hard. There’s still a bounce… a certain rebound… a spring that I think is akin to dance. A ballet dancer may leap in the air to do a twirl or pirouet but their landing is graceful. T’ai Chi as well… slow movements that have a lot of intention… but are not forced or stunted or choppy. The follow through isn’t hard. It’s graceful… a continuous movement. I think of my drumming like that. You’re utilizing the rebound of your hands and feet to move you to the next part of the pattern. My drumming comes a lot from the wrists and fingers… when I need absolute power, I’ll bring the arms into it. Even then though, the rebound is very controlled and coming from a point not that far off of the drumhead. The more tense you are when you play, the less effective you’ll be. It’s like if you tense before you have an accident. You do more damage that way because you’re body has nowhere to go. Not to be graphic by using a car crash as an example… but there are a lot of forces involved when you play drums. It’s a physical instrument. But, consider a guy like Buddy Rich who played into his 70′s or Tony Williams or Vinnie Coliauta or Keith Carlock… they had/have amazing technique that allow(ed) them to play well regardless of age.
Most of the time my movements are pretty controlled. A high stick movement or things like that are often an emotional response to what’s happening within the music. Otherwise, things are within a box that is maybe 12-14 inches square. That allows for a few things. I don’t burn out or get tired. I don’t beat up on my equipment unnecessarily. I can maintain control and gauge what else is happening on stage and react accordingly. Most importantly, it just feels better when you can relax and slide into a nice groove and keep it there.
12. What is your beverage of choice at gigs?
Heh. That depends on the gig I guess. If I’m feeling really good and kind of cheeky, I’ll have a scotch. Most of the time though it’s soda water with bitters or iced tea (if it’s unsweetened). I’ve always got a bottle or two of water as well. The idea of playing tipsy has no appeal to me at all (I’ve done it before and I felt like a worthless hack). But, I know what my limits are so if I feel like having a scotch, I’ll tip one back.
13. What was the most validating moment in your career so far?
The fact that I’m still in LA and have created a niche for myself and am well respected for what I do… that is a continuous set of moments that is not only validating and heartwarming, but it also gets me out of bed each morning. To get called for a gig or session because they want ‘your sound’ and ‘your energy’ and ‘your experience’ – that’s incredibly humbling.
Certain things happen from time to time that really get me going. Nailing a song in one take in the studio… to have the producer say ‘Next!’ is an amazing feeling! Or when someone comes up to you after a show to tell you how appreciative they are of what you did, and they tell you how it made them feel… that’s awe inspiring to have that ability to lift someone up like that.
Another thing that has been really validating has been the professional relationships I’ve developed with a lot of companies. I endorse Ludwig Drums, DW Pedals and Hardware, Istanbul Agop Cymbals, Vater Sticks, Attack Drumheads, POPercussion Cajons, BBand electronics and I have a great relationships with a lot of smaller builders like Tempus Drums and Dunnett Classic Drums. These companies believe in my talent enough to give me a deal on gear and support me with the chance to do ads, have me on their websites, etc. That is incredibly validating because they get pummeled with requests all the time. Maybe it’s because I didn’t approach it like I was owed something from them, or maybe it’s because they heard something in my playing that made them go ‘hey, this is legit.’ Whatever the case, my relationship with these companies fills me with a lot of pride and I’m happy to be a part of those families of artists.
14. Are you an artist or a technician?
To be a good artist you need a certain amount of technique to accomplish the ideas you want to convey. So, I would consider myself both. I think you HAVE to be both. I want to use the technique I’ve developed to be the best artist I can. I don’t want the music to suffer from a lack of technical ability and I’ve seen far too many times when the music has suffered precisely because of an overuse of technical ability. It’s a balance you have to define for yourself, the people you are playing with, and music you are actually playing.
15. If you had to choose a single style of music to play for the rest of your career, what would it be and why?
I’m going to have to say jazz because it’s such a wide art form and I feel most at home bringing some level of ’jazz’ to any situation I’m playing in. There’s a certain aesthetic to the form that appeals to me. I like traditional grip… it feels good to me, but it’s more associated with jazz drumming. I like smaller drums (bass drums in particular) which is also indicative of a jazz sound and approach. I also like darker sounding cymbals. Again, there’s that jazz approach. If I look at my music collection jazz is probably neck and neck with more rock type artists and cd’s I have. Jazz isn’t just ‘spang-spang-a-lang’ though as it once used to be. So, there’s a scope of music I consider jazz that is probably more broad than most purists. So be it. Jazz is just a cool idiom and it’s one of the corner stones of all popular American music. From slave music came the blues and bluegrass, then jazz, then R&B, then rock and roll. It’s a uniquely American form and probably one of our most famous artistic exports.
16. Tell me about your groove. (is it a pocket? Is it soulful? What are the attributes of groove that you strive for? And other drummers you wanna emulate? Etc…)
There is something about a good groove that just goes beyond anything else. It draws you in and you feel it at your core. That’s the feeling I strive for when I’m playing. That’s what I want someone listening to feel. When I think about some of my favorite drummers like Vinnie Coliauta, Elvin Jones, Jim Keltner, Jeff Porcaro, Keith Carlock, Zach Danzinger, Russ Kunkel, (the list goes on and on) they have/had a certain approach that attracted me to their playing. Their approach was soulful and it grooved when it needed to and exploded when it was the right thing to do. I think people respond to any variety of grooves as long as it feels good and all of these guys (and a host of others) make things feel good all of the time.
I do think of my natural feel as a pocket. Obviously when I sit down and start playing a groove on my own I can dictate things and I’ll work on a lot of different tempos to see how slow I can play something and make it feel good and then turn around and see how fast I can play it and still have it feel good. It’s hard to do, but it’s worthwhile work. When I’m playing a track or working with a band it’s slightly different because you’re interacting with other people that feel the pulse differently than you do. I can feel where I need to put things so it feels natural and has a nice bounce to it. Sometimes I have to adjust what I’m doing and play a little on top of things or behind things depending on who I’m working with. That’s not so much the case in the studio because you are often playing along with a click so people HAVE to follow you. Live energy is a little different so I will think about where a track was recorded at and try to keep things close to that. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.
It’s really hard to put a specific definition to what a groove is. It’s something you and everyone around you feels. But, everyone feels it slightly differently. Everyone knows if it’s not grooving though, regardless of where you feel something. It’s the heartbeat of a track and as long as I don’t need a pacemaker or a defibrallator, then I’m good.
17. In the studio or on stage, what are the things that get you in the moment? What are the things that ruin the moment?
I mentioned in another answer the idea that ‘the red light is always on.’ The beauty of being an artist is being able to transcend the crap you’re going through on a given day and put that energy and emotion into the art. It’s much harder than I make it out to be. Trust me. But, I WANT to show up ready for that emotional release. Sure, traffic sucked, or your dog died and you’ve got a headache, or you had a fight with your partner… whatever it happens to be, to take that all and put it aside so you can serve the music… that’s an amazing thing to achieve. You channel those emotions into the music and there’s an amazing experience that happens when you can do that. People can feel it. It’s cathartic.
I love what I do. I want to be ready and do a good job and enjoy myself and create something that affects people. So, what gets me in the moment in the studio or on stage is the knowledge that I get to use my gifts in a tangible way for a purpose beyond me. We are creating something that will only happen that particular way once. Every performance is different, which is why I view everything as a performance that I can learn and grow from.
That’s not to say I don’t care about those on the band stand or in an iso booth. I will empathize with you if you’re having a bad day, but ultimately we both have a job to do – we have art to create – so, I want to see if I can’t help you channel that energy into making the best art you can at that time.
The things that ruin the moment are egos and people not wanting to be present for what is about to happen. Bad vibes and bad juju can take me out of the moment if I don’t shield myself.
18. Do you prefer studio or stage?
I prefer both, but for different reasons. The studio allows you to match wits with yourself. You have to come up with a consistent part that fits the song in question and is memorable on some level. You are under a microscope and that level of scrutiny is hard sometimes. You have other people listening to you and you need to make it happen right then. Not tomorrow, not next week… now. Can you do it? That kind of pressure makes one of two things happen: you either crack and can’t cut it, or you go inward and get to a place where you are just there and things just come out that make the track.
The stage is a slightly different form of the studio for me. It’s a studio with an audience. There are less things you have control over though (sound for example, or certain elements of the audience, or the gear you are playing on if it’s house equipment). But, you still need to get the job done and you have one shot to do it. You can start again half way through a song. If you blow it, you blow it and it’s there for what feels like an eternity until the gig ends and you’re off-stage. Then, that moment (or those moments) can stay with you and you can really do yourself damage if you aren’t careful. You need to understand that you aren’t perfect and that if you mess up, there aren’t many people that are going to truly notice unless it’s a massive blow up. You know? You have to accept that there will be a next time and move on from there.
I know for myself, there came a certain point where I realized I had enough capability as a professional musician to be able to hide things or mask them in a way where someone listening will say ‘WOW that sounded exciting! I wonder what was going on up there?!’ The real beauty of that knowledge though is that you know what you can and can’t get away with far before you go for something on the band stand. Sweat on the brow is fine. Egg on the face, not so much.
19. As a drummer, what are your significant contributions in the songwriting process with artists/bands you’ve worked with?
I don’t know if any of the contributions are that significant. The thing is, in most band settings I’ve been in, there have been at least two people that do the bulk of the writing. Sometimes you’re brought in and sometimes not. When given the chance, I think what I tend to bring to the table in the songwriting process is a slightly left of center perspective. I don’t even consider myself a drummer at that point and simply another person in the room. I’m not thinking about the drums most of the time when a song is being written. I’m more interested in the rest of what’s going on. “Why do that?” is a question I’ll ask a lot. Not to be contrarian necessarily, but to ask what the writer’s rationale is. If it’s being done because ‘that’s what you do’ then I tend to be leery of those arguments. That to me seems a reason NOT to do something; because it’s expected. What will grab the listener’s ear? Maybe we should try that instead?
I tend to hear a whole track produced in my head as it’s being written. I can call up different versions pretty quickly once I have the form down and understand the arc. I don’t know if that’s normal or not… but that’s how it works for me. If I hear a song a couple of times, I’ve usually got around 2 or 3 different mixes or instrumentations going in my head. So, there are times in the process where I’ll say ‘let’s add a bar of 2 here’ or ‘let’s switch those two chords around’ or ‘let’s add another tag here’. In that regard I guess I think like a producer during the songwriting process. Perhaps that means things cut to the chase a bit quicker? I’m not totally sure. I don’t often get shut down during the songwriting process when I’m there and I tend to get asked back a lot so I guess what I offer is good enough to be able to sit at the table.
20. You are famous among your colleagues for your “zen;” it’s a large part of your persona as a musician. And that mellow is contagious: you make the musicians around you calm and comfortable. But I’ve seen that zen busted and broken on stage and in studio- what are the things that drive you out of your happy place?
That’s an interesting question. Those moments used to happen a lot over the last couple of years due to things like being so far in my own head that I would spin myself out of control and shut down. There were also some relationships that have since been jettisoned because they weren’t healthy for me to be in…that kept me in my head way too much and detracted from my abilities to perform and have fun doing this art that I love. I have changed and grown over the past few years in ways that I never thought I could. I still get upset, but I’ve read about great people like the Dalai Lama and Pema Chodron that still get bent out of shape and have to breathe through the things that tweak them from time to time. Why? We’re human. We get effected by things. What you do after you’ve gotten hooked is the real question. I used to allow myself to get hooked and then dragged around like a fish. Now, my focus is on breathing through whatever it is that I’m dealing with and being at peace with where I am, who I am, and what I’m bringing to the table.
I used to let what other people were doing get me hooked and upset. Like I’ve talked about before, show up and be ready. Don’t lollygag if you need to tune. Tune and let’s go. Don’t tell me your pedal doesn’t work and spent 5 minutes of set time screwing with it. Take it out of the chain, plug back in and let’s go. Now, I’ve kind of gotten to a place where, by and large, I realize I can only worry about me and I can only control what I do and what my reactions to things are. I can’t worry about other people. Those that have ears to hear and eyes to see are going to know who is blowing it and who is stepping up. If I’m true to myself and honor who I am as a person and as a professional musician, then I know I’m going to be fine in pretty much any given situation.
Know yourself and what you can and can’t control. Don’t try to control others. And, don’t let others dictate your happiness or your worth. If you can do that, you’re well on your way.
21. If you were a character in a movie, what actor would you cast as you and why?
This question is funny because I so rarely go to see films. I think of guys like Kyle McLachlan because I loved him in “Blue Velvet”. Probably because it was such a weird role and I like weird. But, honestly that’s not a great fit in the end. The two that make the most sense are John Cusack and Matthew Broderick. I’ve been told by a lot of people that I remind them of those two actors. Why? They are both quirky, have a weird sense of humor (in the roles they’ve played), and they both have an intelligence they bring to those parts… you can tell they both care about their craft and they both have great timing. I’ll admit I asked my wife this question because after Cusack and Broderick, I had no earthly idea at all. She added Steven Colbert and Paul Rudd. Not so much for the looks, but a certain intelligence that they exhibit in the roles they play. She also mentioned Ben Affleck. I thought that one was a bit strange. When I asked her why she said ‘just because he’s smart and has a certain way of interpreting a character that I like and he would be able to do you justice because you’re not a flat personality.’ She also mentioned Robert Sean Leonard (remember him from “Dead Poet’s Society”? He’s the one who killed himself… dark, n’est pas?). I always remember his performance in that film. I guess he’s been on House lately as well. That’s a pretty decent list I’d say. I’d be honored to have any of those guys play me in a movie.
22. Are there any literary/fictional characters that you truly identify with?
That’s an even harder question than the actor question. Most of my reading is of a non-fiction origin. But, a few things came to mind as I pondered this one.
Steven Dedalus – James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’
This character always struck me. Here is someone who’s artistic talent is still unrealized and that pains him. He’s still searching for himself and trying to find his identity. He distances himself from all of the other actions and characters as it progresses. As the story unreels itself, he fades in and out of the text and at the end, in a stupor, we see for the first time him accepting something of a helping hand. I guess I identify with this because on some level we are all on that journey at some point or another. Sometimes it happens when you are younger, sometimes older… but we all have our walk through the wilderness and how we come out of that (and whether we return at a later time) is something I have been thinking about a lot over the last couple of years. It’s been an extraordinary period and I feel like I’m only now starting to get in tune with what my capabilities are. As the book ends, perhaps Dedalus is in that same position.
Xeones – Steven Pressfield’s ‘Gates of Fire’
I couldn’t help but pick a “Spartan”. My father’s family was from Sparta and I’ve always felt a pull to this culture. It is part of who I am, if only obliquely. Strange because I’m not a fighter and I’ve never desired to actively be in the military. Who knows if I would even survive the Spartan training grounds (agage) that Spartan boys were placed in at 5 years of age. Xeones’ story, told to King Xeres of Persia after the Battle of Thermopylae, spells out the life of a boy who grew to become an archer and foot soldier in Leonides’s brigade of 300 that fought off the might of Persia for three days before succumbing to the sheer numbers being hurled at them. What I identify with is his courage, his honor to family and country, his agape (love) for his fellow comrades in arms, and his tenacity. He forged true friendships with those he fought along side of. There’s something really touching about his story and I was deeply effected by it when I read it.
Christopher Robin – A.A. Milne’s ‘Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’
A wide open imagination. He, in essence, created this whole world full of these quirky and wise and crazy characters. A childhood playground of whim and whimsy and a mind to create these elaborate stories that carried him through these youthful days when there was seemingly nothing to worry about. I long for those days sometimes until I realize that we all have intact imaginations. We just choose not to use them anymore or get told that we shouldn’t daydream or have flights of fancy. But why not? Isn’t that part of what being an artist is? To tap into that childlike realm and get lost in the wonder that is the art you create? It seems to be.
Arthur Dent – Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’
Arthur Dent is an ordinary man: no special powers, no ‘clairvoyance to locate the hidden rebel base’, he’s just a guy who wakes up with a hang over to discover his best friend is an alien, escapes his planet moments before it is destroyed for an intergalactic bypass with not much more than a bathrobe and a towel, and is incapable of getting a decent cup of tea anywhere in the known (and unknown) universe. He hangs around with aliens, time travelers, wizards, and assorted other weirdos. Unlike most people for whom such oddbods are invisible (or couldn’t exist), Dent has a great capacity to cope with and accept the incomprehensible wackiness that surrounds him; at times even with a wise and rational demeanor. For that reason, I really identify with Arthur Dent. So much of what I do is observe – visually, sonically, etc… and react to what I’m seeing. I don’t consider myself a hapless bystander or a person that has things happen to him necessarily, but there is a certain ‘zen’ about Arthur Dent that I really appreciate.