Studio Sausage – Recent Sessions and Revelations

Over the past couple of months I’ve been doing a wide variety of sessions for clients including Vox Lumiere, Tyrone Wells, Nickelodeon, The Voice, Robin Grubert, Ronan Chris Murphy, Lee Ferris, David Bowick, and Michael ‘Smidi’ Smith.

I’m humbly grateful for all of these experiences.  They enrich me in a variety of ways.  There’s the obvious financial one (so I can keep the lights on), but there are plenty of others.  One of them is re-imagining what a drumkit is and can be.

These sessions got me thinking about some of my favorite players.  People like Jim Keltner, Matt Chamberlain, Butch Norton, Blair Sinta, and Glenn Kotche.  These 5 (and many others) are often called to bring weird, unusual, off kilter, or otherwise strange sounds and approaches when they get called for a session.  This is not something new to me.  I have become one of ‘those guys’ to the people that hire me.  Over time, I have developed a kind of ‘tool kit’ to tweak the sound of my kits easily, quickly, and effectively when I’m in the studio; and have procured a variety of gear I can bring and call upon when necessary to get ‘that sound’ or ‘that vibe’ when  tracking.  The nice thing about all of this: it is easy to mess with things and ‘audition’ sound options before committing to anything.  You might be bringing a few extra things to a session, but imagine how cool it will/would be to have ‘that’ sound for ‘that’ song?  There’s nothing like it!!!

This may seem like a simple concept, but I’m amazed at the number of folks that DON’T do it – even toying with the idea of experimenting when not in the studio.

It’s as if the world can be split into two camps – those that feel that the traditional drumset is perfectly fine as it is without any kind of augmentation, ornamentation, or preparations, and those that feel that these augmentations, ornamentations, and preparations are part of the natural progression of the instrument.

Why not inhabit both worlds?  You’re not always going to be called upon to fly your freak flag from behind the drumkit.  But why not use that knowledge to expand what you can do with your regular set up?

I’m going to look at some of the things you can do to create your own ‘prepared drumset’.  I hope you would allow yourself to try them out, explore what these things sound like, and see what kinds of grooves you can make with them and how the mere sound and feel of this prepared kit alters your perception of it, and your approach.

In dismissing the prepared drumset (or any prepared instrument) you are dismissing curious and unique sound options.  These options might only work 2% of the time, but they are sounds unique to you and your approach.  They may also spark your curiosity in a way that allows you to create really interesting, challenging, and fun patterns to groove to.  There are many simple things you can do to ‘prepare’ your drumkit.

Get fat by getting skinny
No, I’m not talking about a strange drummer diet, I’m talking about getting fat sounds out of your snare and toms for the price of one skinny (and only slightly used) drum head.  Simply cut the head portion of the drum head from the collar.  You can cut it to whatever diameter you like (of course), but I find that about an inch less than the size of the drum I’m putting it on gives you the best results.

When you lay this head remnant on your snare or toms, you get instant girth.  The sound is reminiscent of that ‘wet’ 70′s sound you heard on all of those classic Eagles and Steely Dan records.  Mics love it and it’s a non permanent situation.  Just take the head remnant off when you’re done.  I keep sizes cut for all of my drums in their respective cases so I always have them when I need them.

Get Jingly with it
Tambourine jingles are a great way to mess with the kit and get interesting grooves and sounds happening easily.  There are a few things you can try (yes, I own ALL of these).

Keplinger Jingle Ring
Gregg Keplinger has these wonderful rings that have either 4 or 5 sets of jingles.  They are about 6″ or so around and you can easily put them on cymbals or drums to curious effect.  On ride and crash cymbals you get that characteristic sizzle kind of effect but with a more wobbly sustain.  On drums, you get a slight muffling effect but then you get the jingles going when you hit the drum as well as the sympathetic rattle/buzz when you hit other drums on the kit.

Vater Jingle Rings
Vater came out with these jingle rings a few years ago.  They were developed by Jose Mendeles who plays with the Breeders and now has his own drum shop in Portland Oregon called Revival Drum Shop.  They are black mylar rings about 1.5″ wide with sets of jingles riveted onto them.  I use them on snares and floor toms primarily.  These give a similar effect as the Keplinger rings, but mute the drums a bit more given the larger surface area being covered.

Vater Stickmate Tambourine (and Stickmate Shaker)
Vater also just recently released two different Stickmates.  These things attach to your stick and are held in place by small rubber rings (like you’d find on a pair of rods or blastick type implements).  These allow you to have the sounds of a tambourine (or shaker) as you are using your favorite stick.  It doesn’t affect your playing because the Stickmates are light, and you get the benefit of having these additional sounds when you’re playing a groove.

Jingle Stick
Mike Balter has a cool jingle stick – basically a squat, thick stick that has 3 sets of tambourine jingles on it – use it for playing a groove on the hi-hat or ride, or play the side of a floor tom for more of a cascara type pattern (mind that you are playing the wood part of the stick and not bashing the jingles into your drumshell).  For very little money spent or space used, this is a great implement.

Pearl Jingle Clamp
I honestly don’t know what the hell this is called, but I saw it at Pro Drum about a month ago and had to have it.  It is kind of like an external muffler looking device that clamps onto the rim of a drum. Instead of a piece of felt to muffle though, it has 3 sets of jingles and a nut you can use to lower or raise the jingles with.  All the way up and you have literally no jingle sound… but the closer your move it to the head, the more the jingle react.  I’ve used this thing a lot and it’s a very small, unobtrusive bit of gear that has been a welcomed addition.

The Fabric of Thud
Old tea towels, hand/face towels, bandanas, pillow cases, etc. are great for preparing a drumset.  You can drape any of these things over drums and cymbals and get very thuddy, warm, and choked sounds that also sound very lovely under the mics.  Your kit will sound very ‘old school’ funk or R&B and it really does make you think about the drumset differently because you are hearing it differently!  It’s a simple trick that pays high dividends.

Brass In Pocket
It’s not only a great Pretenders song, it also is how I reference the small splashes and gongs I sometimes put on my snare drum and toms to get strange metallic/wobbly sounds.  I’m talking about 4-6″ cymbals or gongs typically… though I have gone as big as 10-12″ for certain things.  Played with mallets in particular, you get very long and curious sounds – having the brass or bronze resting on the head inhibits the vibrations – so what you have are very high sounds (harmonics) as well as the low end sound of the drums.  On snare drums, you get a white noise type sound that works lovely for more modern sounding rock music as well as d&b, hip-hop, and experimental.

O-kay, so we have discussed some of the ways you can ‘prepare’ your drumkit for various sonic explorations.  I would like to now consider the person who doesn’t want to do that, and instead is comfortable with their regular drum kit ‘as is’.

The traditional drumset (unprepared) is a truly beautiful thing and often times is enough to get the job done for any gig you may come up against.  If you don’t feel the need to have the various items I listed above as part of your regular arsenal, that’s fine.  However, I would suggest that, even for the person who doesn’t want to ‘prepare’ their drumset (beyond setting it up, of course), there are still things you can do to keep the drumset, and your relationship to it exciting! The last thing I want is:

a) someone feeling stuck in a rut and that the drumkit has nothing new or interesting to offer, or

b) someone being bored with the drums and, as a consequence, sound bored when they are behind the kit playing (gasp!!!!)

For this reason, I humbly offer these suggestions as a starting off point:

Set up backwards
What?  Are you crazy?!?!?!?!  Maybe, but hear me out for a moment!

I set up the traditional, right handed way because that’s the way my dad sets up and that’s how I learned.  But I’m left handed playing a right handed kit (like Ringo Starr).  There have been many times in my playing life where I’ve set things up contrary to what I knew just because it seemed like fun.  No, I can’t execute everything I do when the kit is set up “regular”, but there is a lot of fun and learning to be had.

There are three things I’ve done in the past that I’d like to share:

  • asymmetrical (aka flip flopped) tom arrangements
  • put the ride and hi-hat on the same side
  • set up completely ‘south paw’

In each instance, it has altered my playing in surprising ways.  Not all experiments were that fruitful in the short term.  But what I took away in the long term was pretty profound.  Why?  Because each of the changes identified above added a layer of additional thinking to my playing concept.  I needed to figure out how to get through the strangeness of each set up so I could allow the music to happen.  In that regard, it opened me up to some of the possibilities that the drumset can have to a player.

Let’s look at the asymmetrical tom set up (a la Billy Cobham or (much later on) Jimmy Chamberlain).  When playing with a flip flopped tom arrangement, your fills are naturally going to sound different because you are used to going around the kit in a more symmetrical tom set up (highest to lowest).  Flip things around and you’ve got something different going on.  I enjoy using this kind of set up but the simple act of doing a ‘regular’ fill with it isn’t enough for me.  What I want to figure out is ‘how can I make this arrangement as musical as I can?’  I don’t just want to ‘go around’ the toms.  I want to see how I can make this altered set up something that allows as great a level of expression I can find.  Asymmetrical toms set ups keep you on your toes (finger tips?) by taking your ear out of its natural comfort zone.  It also allows for different rhythmic combinations in your fills.  When you switch back to your regular set up, you can keep those rhythmic figures tucked away for future use.  If you’re saying you only play a two tom set up, fear not… put the floor tom where the rack would be (the legs will almost always be long enough to accommodate a comfortable playing angle), and then put the rack, you guessed it, where the floor tom would be.  OR, keep the rack tom in the normal position and put the floor tom next to your hi-hat instead.  That empty space where you’re used to having your floor tom WILL freak you out initially.  It’s cool though.

With the ride and hat on the same side (a la Simon Phillips, Rayford Griffin, and Billy Cobham (again)); how does this alter the way I play certain grooves?  Obviously you’re going to have to lower your hi-hat a little bit to get the ride where you need it without growing an extra 10″ onto your arm.  This is also called playing ‘open handed’.  By dropping your hi-hat down to accommodate the ride cymbal you just moved, you have a lot of interesting options available to you.  You will be, essentially, working on your ‘weak time keeping hand’.  If you play open handed, then your left hand will be marking time – up to this point it probably was only used to playing the snare drum and taking part in various fills and cymbal crashes.  Now, you are making use of it as a time keeper.  Here are some questions to consider when you make this kind of a switch.

  • How does it affect your groove?
  • Is it hard to play open handed with the hi-hat being played with the left hand (for righty drummers)?  How about if you had an auxiliary hat on the right side?  Is it harder or easier to play that way?  Why would that be?  Think about it and see if you can come up with answers that will help you crack the puzzle of how you play and why you play the way you do.

How about completely setting up backwards (a la the late Ian Wallace, or the present Rod Morgenstein)?  Often in this scenario, you are going to have a challenging time playing what you would normally on your regular drumset.  You may have to play very simple grooves just to get your brain to wrap around the idea of what you are doing!   Maybe all of your fills are backwards or herky-jerky (one of the things that makes Ringo, well… RINGO).  Your balance is different as well.  How do you alleviate stress from your body when you’re set up like this so you can play?  How can you take that knowledge and apply it to when you’re playing on your regular kit?

Would I suggest you do these types of things at a session or gig?  Probably not, but then again, who knows?  Ultimately it’s up to you to decide how you want to experiment and what the best venue for those journeys will be.

What I will say is, in adjusting the way you frame the drumset and your approach to it, you can explore interesting new sonic worlds and groove ideas so that, when you do set back up to your ‘home base’ kit arrangement, you have a new world of options available to draw from.  All from the simple experiments you did with altering your kit set up.

So, take some time, experiment and enjoy!  Let me know what you did, what you think, and how you went about doing it!

The Healing Power of Music

Greetings all.

I wanted to spend a little time in these pages talking about something I think we often (I know I have in the past) take for granted.  The power of music to heal.

I’m talking more in the framework of emotional catharsis here; but it also extends into some amazing work being done with music for everyone regardless of age:  from infants and children with mental and emotional disorders to elderly with dementia, Alzheimers, and Parkinsons.

You see, the last few months have seen some rather wild and challenging things happening in my world – dealing with the realities of health, welfare, and support.  Getting into specifics isn’t important.  What is important is this:  when you are faced with life changing/challenging situations, you naturally gravitate toward those things that offer comfort, solace, and strength.

For me, music is that.

Catharsis has always been a big thing that music offered me.  In playing the drums, you have full range of physical movements to match the emotions you’re feeling at any given time.  How many drummers have heard this before:  “It must be great to just beat on things.  You must feel really good when you do that.”  How many musicians have gotten to a gig in a bad mood, and by the end of the gig feel like a huge weight has been lifted off of their shoulders?  This is what music does.

We do feel good after putting some time in behind our respective instruments.

However, it’s not just the physical exertion aspect that is important here.  Music is something that trumps language.  It reaches (unless you are, in my humble opinion, dead inside) aspects of a person that transcend everything else.  To feel the pulse of a drum: primal, tribal, intimate… or the rumble of the bass, or jangle of a guitar, or any other instrument… music offers an emotional release and escape.

So, as a result of what has been going on in my world of late, I’ve been finding myself listening differently:

  • I’m listening to even more diverse music than I normally do
  • I’m having even deeper emotional reactions to said music

I have dropped down and connected on an even deeper level with this thing I was put on the planet to do.  That was a wild concept to even consider until I thought of this:  they say that music soothes the savage beast.  How appropriate.  In that statement the savage beast can be anything – emotional, physical, or otherwise.

As I’ve played over the last few months I have felt something different.  I feel more open.  I feel more connected.  I feel more like a vessel for the music and less about ‘dig these licks I’m playing’.

In the end, this makes me a better player.  Don’t get me wrong, that’s great.  But, even more importantly this also makes me a much better person.  I get to process this energy in me – energy that might have manifested itself as fretting, anger, fear, frustration… into this channel of groove and a wash of tones and colors.  All of which help to make a series of small ripples that (as naive and idealistic as it might be to consider) make the world a slightly better place.  Even if for a moment.

From pain and fear can come catharsis.  From frustration and anger can come a connection to something deeper.  Music is that bridge.  Drums are my vehicle.

What’s yours?

What’s Spinning Lately?

Greetings and welcome to another installment of what I’ve been listening to lately.  This tends to run the gamut – it’s truly a hodge podge.  But, I really love the fact that there’s just so much good stuff to check out and, of late, rediscover as well!

As always, this is subjective (as I think most art is).  This might not be a typical music review post… and that’s fine.  I don’t want to tell you everything… I’d rather just give a glimpse to start and then have you go on your way to check things out and see for yourself.  But, I’ve been really inspired lately by some great stuff.  So, here we go.

 

Life and Times – No One Loves You Like I Do

http://thelifeandtimes.com/

My buddy, David Elitch, turned me onto a band called Shiner.  This was a band out of Kansas City in the late 90′s early 2000′s and I absolutely adored everything I got to hear from them.  After that group disbanded, Allen Epley (singer/guitarist/songwriter) formed a new trio with Chris Metcalf (drums/keyboards), and Eric Abert (bass/guitar/keys).  This is ‘The Life and Times’.  They have several albums and EP’s out and, for me, it doesn’t get much better as far as modern rock goes.  Lush and floating one moment; scorching and crushing the next.  They pull it off live too… it’s frightening how good they are live.  I’d say start with this most recent album (No One Loves You…) and then go to Tragic Boogie or Suburban Hymns.  For EP’s, I’d start with The Magician and then go to The Flat End of the Earth.  No matter how you start, I think you’ll enjoy the ride.

 

Low – C’mon

http://chairkickers.com/

Originally a duo composed of husband and wife Alan Sparhawk (guitar/vox) and Mimi Parker (drums/vox), they are now a trio with Steve Garrington (bass).   I’ve also seen footage of them on the tour for this album with a keyboardist as well.  Whether they are a member of the band officially or not, I’ve not checked.

C’mon is a much more playful album than previous albums like ‘The Great Destroyer’ or ‘Drums and Guns’, but the same ethos exists – wonderful vocal harmonies, sparse arrangements, and spare instrumentation:  all adding up some wonderfully chilling music.

I remember driving across country when I moved to LA and I didn’t think that I could find a better driving album than Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hijera’.  With Low, I’ve found several that make that list.  Be on the look out for their new album ‘The Invisible Way’ which is schedule for release on 3/19/13.

 

Radiohead – King of Limbs (original release and ‘From the Basement’)

http://www.radiohead.com/

Anyone that knows me, knows I’ve been a fan of Radiohead ever since ‘The Bends’ came out.  With ‘The King of Limbs’ available the original studio album, and the live ‘From the Basement’ video sessions, you have two ways to enjoy one of my favorite albums in recent memory.

What I love about this album is the marriage between a very hurky-jerky electronic pulse with these rich effected vocals and layer upon layer of guitars.  The live videos also get the added goodness of horns being added to the mix.  With the addition of Clive Deamer on drums (Portis Head and Robert Plant) working alongside Phil Selway, the rhythmic element is so much more interesting to me.  It’s like a drum version of Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft:  Rhythm nestled inside rhythms that percolate and weave in and out of each other but never getting in the way.

All of the performances are top notch whether you’re watching them do it live, or listening to the album.  I just can’t say enough good things.

 

How To Destroy Angels – ‘Self Titled’ EP and The Omen EP

http://www.howtodestroyangels.com/

I, for one, am very happy that Trent Reznor has a new group in this NIN hiatus period and HTDA is a great foil for him with collaborators Atticus Ross, Mariqueen Maandig, and Rob Sheridan.

With a full length album in the works for 2013 (‘Welcome Oblivion’) the two EP’s released so far are a great way to get you started.  Both EP’s have 6 songs each (I hope the full album is all new material) and from the first sounds of the groove on “The Space Between” (on the self titled EP) to the cinematic closer “Speaking In Tongues” (on the Omen EP), you are in for a treat that only someone like Trent Reznor can give you.  I hear bits and pieces of NIN era ‘Ghosts’ all over the most recent EP and Mariqueen Maandig’s voice is pure and haunting throughout all of the songs.  This stuff is spooky, but in the best way possible.

I’m looking forward to checking out the full length album when it becomes available.  For the mean time, these two EP’s are wonderful tastes of things to come.

 

Blonde Redhead – any and every album

http://www.blonde-redhead.com/

Where in the hell have I been?  I ask myself that whenever I listen to this group.  Formed in 1993 (WTF?!?!) this (now) trio has been churning out some of the most unique rock music for 20 years and I just got into them in 2012.  I feel a bit silly to admit that, but at least I got on the train (albeit, the caboose).

Their music feels really cosmopolitan to me.  That might sound pretentious but, it feels to me like the sound of a city in motion.  These surging, droning guitars and the relentless rhythms coming from all 3 members, combines with additional keyboards, samples, and noise (particularly the latter) makes them every bit a part of the noise scene coming out of New York as groups like Sonic Youth, composer Glenn Branca, or Helmet.

I started with ‘Fake Can Be Just as Good’ (from 1997) and slowly bounced around all of the albums and EP’s until my last purchase, ‘Penny Sparkle’ (from 2010) just a few months ago.

I’m telling you, I feel totally foolish to come to this group so late but I’m so pleased I did because everything they do makes me smile.

 

Bill Frisell – All We Are Saying

http://www.billfrisell.com/

If you know me at all, you know how much I love Bill Frisell.  I’ve got everything he has released.  From his classic trio with Joey Baron and Kermit Driscoll, to his 858 Quartet, to the Intercontinentals, to Floratone (with Matt Chamberlain, Lee Townsend, and Tucker Martine), Frisell’s tone, touch, and unique approach to the guitar has made me a true fan.

However, how do you tackle a sacred cow like John Lennon and his music?  Well, if you’re Frisell, you do it with joy, playfulness, honesty, humility, and a typical Frisell adventurousness that often skirts around the melodies while still easily giving you enough to recognize the song and join along for the ride he takes you on.

Clocking in at 16 tracks total (8 Lennon songs and 8 Lennon/McCartney co-writes) you get everything from early gems like “Please Please Me” to later joys like “Mother” and “Give Peace a Chance”.

Hearing Lennon’s music in this way – no lyrics but yet you still hear every word; performed by a band that includes violin and pedal steel – gives a sense that there’s nothing Frisell can’t do that isn’t graceful, honest, and honors the music while still having his unmistakeable stamp on it.

Notes from the road…

I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last 16 months touring with artists like Vox Lumiere and Uncle Daddy, going from one side of Colorado to the other and back, through swaths of the Midwest and down south to Baton Rouge, LA and Austin, TX, east to Wilmington, DE, Providence, RI, Schenectady, NY and Reading, PA and overseas for two weeks in Lisbon, Portugal.

What exactly does the life of an itinerant musician look like?  Here are some of my experiences and perspectives.  Keep in mind, Individual results may vary.

The tour starts where?

When a tour comes down, trying to pack things last minute adds so much stress to an already stressful situation.  You can easily get derailed and forget the basics because you’re rushing from one side of town to the other before you have to leave.  As with any travel situation, every bit of information you have makes things easier and that leads to a little less stress on your journey.

So, trust me when I say the first rule of touring (or any travel)… make a PACK LIST.

Just like your mom or dad would help get you ready to go to camp, it makes sense to do the same thing, even here.  If you’re going out for 3 weeks and you don’t know specifically about things like laundry facilities (if you’re playing theatre venues), accommodations, packing can become a bit of a nightmare.  You CAN’T pack everything, but you have to pack enough.  How to gauge?  Make a check list!  This is what I typically pack from a clothing perspective:

  • Climate specific outerware (could be an unstructured suit jacket, a heavy coat, etc.)
  • Footware (dress and casual)
  • Pants/Jeans/Shorts (several pair as needed in whatever colors you dig, for me… black)
  • Any gig specific clothes you might need
  • T-shirts (for me, mostly black and typically plenty of music related ones)
  • Shirts (button up, polo, or whatever you dig)
  • Socks and boxers (under garment choice is totally up to you)
  • Toiletry case (shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and brush, hair stuff, Breathe Right Strips, Electric Razor, vitamins, hand lotion, talcum powder, Listerine, lip balm, etc. etc. etc…)
  • Work out clothing (shorts, t-shirt, sneakers)
  • Exercise bands (those long heavy duty rubber bands means you can workout in your room or at the club – no gym required!)

This is a good basic list.  Don’t forget, you’ve got a 50 lb. limit for bags on the airlines now.  And, you typically have to PAY for bags.  Maybe, if you’re lucky, you get one for free.  Keep that in mind.  Packing heavy can cost you on both ends.  You have to pay AND you have to carry the stuff around. Plan accordingly.

How long is the flight?

Alright.  You’ve got your clothes and essentials packed and out of the way. You do know that’s only half of the pack, right?  The modern touring musician usually travels with A LOT of technology.  This may or may not be gig related, but you can guarantee that you’re packing plenty of electronic stuff.  Maybe that’s going into your carry on.  Maybe that’s in a second suitcase.  Here’s a typical list of stuff that could get packed:

  • Laptop/tablet computer/E-reader with power supplies (if you are traveling out of the good ‘ole US of A, have the proper power adapters!!!)
  • MP3 player with headphones (I suggest bringing two sets because… you never know)
  • Journal and pens (because you never know when inspiration will strike or you’ll need to vent about your roommate, etc.)
  • Gum, lip balm, hand lotion
  • Any other diversions you might need/want as you travel (games, cards, etc…) because you WILL have time to kill.

Wait, we aren’t flying!?

Right.  You find out that the whole flying thing wasn’t cost effective and you just got a Sprinter van that’s going to be your home on wheels for the next 4 weeks.  Here’s the facts: you will find yourself in a situation where there are no flights.  It’s ‘get in the van’ and put in some miles. As the dashes on the highway fall away like grains of sand through an hour glass, the same stuff you pack for distractions on a flight will still work when driving.  You may very well share driving duties  (more on this later).  Having distractions isn’t travel-mode specific and it’s not about ignoring the others in your touring group.  It’s about having some pleasant distractions as the miles fly (or wheel) by and the conversation has lagged or people are asleep in the back or you just want to tune out.

One last important suggestion about travelling:  have lots of water with you. Oh, and if you’re driving, DEFINITELY have a trash bag and make sure people put their detritus IN said trash bag.

It’s not Frank’s world… Do you think it’s yours?

Cool.  You got the gig!  Congratulations.  So you get prepped, rehearsed, packed and ready to go.  You’re on your way.  This is a good time to talk about control.  Not of yourself at the bar or after the show hanging out with fans; nor in the hotel room wanting to throw that Vizio flat screen out of the window because you’re in a B-rate hotel with 5 channels to choose from.  I will assume a certain amount of maturity and decorum regarding such things (so, don’t prove me wrong, okay?)

What I’m talking about is control over your environment and your time.

What do I mean?  Well, think about it.  When you’re on tour, you are part of a larger organization; you’re a single component of a multi-cellular being.  A bit of a dance is in store to maintain civility, order, and pleasantness throughout the run of your thing (be it two weeks or 10 months).  You may or may not be in charge of said organization.  If you aren’t, your schedule is going to be dictated to you to a large degree and that – even if it’s a posh tour – takes some getting used to.  Lobby call times, sound checks, meet-and-greets, tear-downs, set-ups, travel days… all of these activities are often highly scripted and necessary.

Mob rule doesn’t work on a tour.  It’s more like benevolent dictatorship. He/she who signs the checks, makes the rules.

You have two options in this case:  you roll with it as best you can and make suggestions to the benevolent leader(s) in a private, discreet way, or you try impose your thoughts, will, rule onto the situation in a more vocal and communal way.

You will lose on the latter path.  You may gain short-term concessions, but at what cost?  You do damage to yourself and to the functionality of the unit as a whole.  If one domino starts to lean, the others may not be too far behind.  It also puts any further (warranted) issues you might have in a slightly different light because of previous experiences.  It’s the ‘cry wolf’ thing.   When something really DOES need to be addressed, how does that get received when you’ve been a very squeaky wheel for the past week and a half?

If you are a travel-seasoned performer, you may hear something referenced as ‘the book of lies’.  This is what we call the tour itinerary.  I mentioned things like lobby call times, soundchecks, meet-and-greets, tear-downs, travel days earlier.  Your itinerary might even include local things of interest, telephone numbers, addresses, etc.  Some of it (alright, a fair bit of it) is accurate.  HOWEVER, it’s guaranteed that, no matter how smooth things go, there will be changes.  PARTICULARLY when it comes to lobby call times, soundchecks, tear-downs, and travel day stuff.  That’s why we call it ‘the book of lies.’  It’s a term of endearment.  Get used to changes.  That’s the one constant.

What gear are they providing?  

Gear is something that most musicians kind of freak out/geek out about. On tour, this is heightened for a variety of reasons.  You may not be in a position to bring your own stuff.  Maybe it’s a ‘kit du jour’ or a ‘kit du tour’ that has been rented for you.  Maybe you had a hand in writing up the tech rider for your group.  If you did, don’t assume that you’re going to get your first or second choice.  You might not even get your third choice.

How do you cope?

I have extra stuff I bring with me that I know is most crucial:  whether I’m on tour or doing a gig across town:

  • Cymbals (full set with an option of hats and crashes)
  • 2 snare drums
  • 2 bass drum pedals
  • 2 hi-hat clutches
  • 2 sets of snares
  • 2-6 strands of snare mounting cable (or tape, etc… your choice)
  • Drum keys
  • small cordless screwdriver with drum key bit
  • cymbal felts and sleeves
  • heads (particularly coated heads for snare…).
  • Stick bag (FULL of sticks, mallets, and brushes as needed)
  • Moongels (several containers)
  • Gaffers Tape (black and/or white)
  • Stand lights
  • batteries (various, depending on need)

This is probably the most important stuff.  A lot of it can fit in a fairly small case (a spare snare drum case is great for everything other than the bass drum pedal and cymbals).  Speaking of cases, if you don’t have high quality hard cases, get some.  Before you head out on tour.  Seriously.  I don’t want your favorite set of cymbals to get bent and turned inside out because you only had a soft case and the ‘friendly skies’ made you check it only to have the bruiser on the ground decide to put someone’s 80 lb. suitcase on top of them. You’ll figure out the best way to pack this stuff when it’s all in front of you.  It’s like 3D Tetris with stuff you actually care about.

Sound like overkill?  Maybe it is.  But, I can guarantee that you will feel better knowing you’ve got your gear and sundries together so you can get your sound (or close to it).  Keeping what you need close to you so you can have control of your instrument and your space when it’s show time is BIG. Having these little extras goes along way, especially on tour.  Just like on a local gig, having your musical instrument universe dialed in is absolutely essential.

If you are in the enviable position of having your gear travel with you, there are still the same kinds of issues to deal with.  Stuff breaks down.  But, if you are dealing with the ‘kit du jour’ for each venue, then you have to hope that it will get the job done and is in good shape.  This is where your own travel gear makes things easier to deal with.  It’s not ideal.  But at least you know your snare drum and cymbals are going to sound like you; your bass drum pedal is going to feel like you like it, and you have enough odds and ends to make things work.  I’ve had everything from DW Collectors Maple kits, to a Taye Studio Maple, to an older Yamaha Recording Custom kit, and a Gretsch Renown kit.  It’s all over the map. Whatever you can do to mitigate these variations, the happier you will be.

I typically run a 4-piece kit with 4-6 cymbals and a set (or 2) of hi hats.   Mics could be my own or supplied by the venue/theatre.  Again, this depends on space and if you’re traveling with a dedicated sound guy.  For myself, sound is VERY important to me.  It probably is for you too.  I know what I want the drums to sound like in my ears and how I would prefer to have them translate out in the house.  Whether it’s a small club or a large theatre, I know what I want the audience to experience and I often know how to get it.  But, many times all I can do is tune them up and play them well.  I need to work with the FOH (front of house) sound guy to give him the idea of what I’m looking for and seeing if/how he can help me achieve that goal.  Often they are working within the limitations of the acoustics of the hall/club and the sound system provided.  As with any other human interaction; be kind, not demanding.  Being demanding is a sure shot way to not make friends.  Discuss what you need clearly, diplomatically, and politely.  It works.  Trust me.

If you are traveling with your mics MAKE SURE you invest in a good case for all of them.  I had the situation recently where I brought out my mics for a tour run and a capsule for one of my overhead mics (a Rode NT5) got mangled.  I didn’t know about it until after the tour and while the offer to make things right was generously given, nothing every happened.  So, I replaced the capsule myself.  Now my stuff travels in a small hard shell mic case and I make sure that there’s something in writing that if anything is broken, it is replaced by the artist or touring group.

These are just some examples of things I (personally) have to remind myself I may have no control over: Gear (in many touring situations I find myself in) and the acoustics of the hall we are in (and the resulting sound the audience hears).  There are others that may be specific to the individual, but these are two big ones where you need to be flexible.

Time is on my side, yes it is (?)

Another instance where lack of control comes up (and were flexibility is tantamount) is on the most fundamental of levels: in regard to time. The very notion of time is somewhat ambiguous on tour… you roll by a different clock out of necessity and it’s almost always likely to change in some profound way.  If you’re flying and have a connection to catch, if you miss that connection, it pushes things and you need to deal with a whole host of changes and frustrations that you NEED to be able to roll with.  If you are bussing it (or vanning it) then any minor break down can create immense havoc.  Even stopping for gas can be a frustrating situation if you’re trying to keep things on a tight time frame and you’ve got to corral 15 people from the mini-mart back into the van (or bus) and get back out on the road. Carrying a trailer full of gear?  That’s going to add time because you can’t book it quite as fast.  How are you going to roll with that?

People respond to this stuff in various ways.   Some offer to drive.  That is the one instance where someone is able to maintain a certain level of control because they are responsible for getting the group from point A to point B.  This doesn’t make them the boss.  What it does is give them enough control over things so that they feel comfortable.  It may seem small if you read this, but think about it — would you rather drive or be driven? How about for 3 weeks with 14 other people (band/cast/crew)?  See what I mean?  If you like to be in control, driving is a great way to “feel like you’re in control” and function within the framework of the touring group.  Something else someone may offer to do is set-up merch, or be tour navigator (I typically do that) and guide (i.e. Julie the cruise director), etc… you get the idea.

To say there is downtime on tour is like saying water is wet.  Again, assessing your situation and being able to roll with the punches is going to be your best tactic to not blow a gasket and take yourself out of your zone to be the best musician you can be.

I’ve spent downtime on tour in every conceivable way – from meandering through the cobble stoned streets of Lisbon, Portugal or hanging at local drum shops, to being at the evening’s venue all day (where downtime was spent writing, practicing rudiments and transcribing drum music, etc.).  You might be arriving the same day you have to play so load in, soundcheck, food, etc. may all be happening before you can even get to your hotel room (if you are fortunate to HAVE hotel accommodations on your jaunt across the wild land and aren’t relying on the hospitality of friends or fans while on tour).  If you had any of those previously mentioned mechanical issues with the van or bus, or your flight got messed up… that adds to the stress.  You may be close or far away from any services, coffee shops, music stores, book stores… you may want to desperately get out of the theatre for a coffee, or to check out a new book, or even to get some fresh air and see what Skokie, IL is really like.  That may or may not be able to happen.

Routines help in these situations.  Like what?  Well, working out (remember those exercise bands I mentioned in the pack list?  These things are GREAT  – they take up very little room and are very functional), a cup of tea and some meditation, practicing (ticky tack on the drum pad… usually far away from everyone else), crosswords or Sudoku (I have NO idea how to play the latter, by the way) can be beneficial.  Should you be the sort; you can also take advantage of a VAST array of apps for your ‘smartphone’ to stay connected to friends, family, etc. with any number of diversions, games, etc.

Other discretionary or alone time may be harder to come by.  You may find it difficult (or, impossible) to maintain your normal in-town routine.  There’s that control thing again.  If you can’t roll with it, you’re going to find yourself in a certain level of duress.  If that makes you hugely uncomfortable, then you may need to consider whether said tour is worth it or not.  If it is, then you need to figure out how to work it out for yourself.  Remember, the decisions made 3 months before a tour starts are not made to single you out or put you in duress. They are made based on the experiences of the one scheduling the dates, the limitations and expectations presented by each venue, and what makes the most economical and tactical sense to create the best situation for everyone.  A friend recently said ‘you can’t take tour logistic stuff too personally because you weren’t considered personally’.  I take that to mean the following:  tours are not created around one person.  They are created around the art itself and what is required to get that art across in the most professional (and, admittedly, cost efficient) way possible so you wind up seeing your artistic vision through.  Economically, it’s about being able to come out ahead and all parties involved being happy with the art and commerce of things so the venue WANTS you back.

So, if you are in the camp of folks that, on some level, are control freaks, allow me to offer some suggestions to alleviate some of your duress:

  • Take on the role of the person who’s making the decisions (tour manager) if your organizational skills are top notch and you’re good with people
  • Be an assistant to the tour manager or whoever else is calling the shots.

If you aren’t in one of those positions and ARE a person that needs that level of control, figure out what you need to do to be mellow and chill (as you can) and roll with things so you have a successful and fun tour.  Here are some things you can consider:

  • Be a designated driver or navigator
  • Be ‘Julie the cruise director’ – a diversion researcher that can give ideas for things to do if you have down time to kill
  • Pack a lot of books to read so you can leave the world you are in for a while and escape in a good story.
  • Interested in blogging, journalling, or photography?  Now’s your chance to start.
  • Get physical.  Whether it’s weights, bands, yoga, Tai Chi, etc… you’ve got options to stay calm and carry on.

Of course, there will be blow ups.  You WILL lose your cool once in a while.  You will be annoyed with a bandmate for something.  It will happen.  So, be prepared for it and let it (to the best of your ability) roll off your back.  It’s typically not going to be about you, but rather the situation they find themselves in with you.  You are ALL on tour.  You are ALL going to have to deal with the same stuff.  You are ALL going to have to help each other out.  You ALL need to remember what you’re out there for.

The Final Analysis (well, for now, anyway)

Of late I’ve had so many epiphany type moments where, no matter where I wind up, I’m struck at how lucky I truly am.  I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been on really nice tours by most standards… with decent hotel rooms, good meals, excellent company, and super talented people.  You’re plying your craft and art to people that may not have ever heard of you before that night, but they will remember you.  They will be appreciative of your efforts.  They may even want to buy you a drink.  Be kind.  This is a BIG thing for a lot of people that go out to see shows.  Think about how much you love music as a musician.  That same level of enthusiasm, zeal, love, passion, and desire is also within a concert goer.  If they are already a fan of your music, that’s doubled because now they get to see ‘their band’ playing in their home town.  This is amazing when you think about it.

Why?  Simple.  You have the opportunity to make someone’s week, or month, or year by your visit.  Ultimately that is what music is all about.  Connecting.  Bringing joy to others through the gifts you have fostered, tweaked, and nurtured through your journey on this planet.  So, again, be kind (even if you’ve had a crap day – they still paid their hard earned to see you and, as such, they are going to want a piece of you.  Whether that’s an autograph, a drink, a picture, or just to talk to you at the merch table).  This is just as much a part of the gig as the actual playing of the music.

What do you get?  Well, at the very least you get the experience of being on tour and playing to new audiences, in places you may never have known existed prior.  You get exposure for your music.  You (hopefully) grow and understand new things about yourself.  Yes, touring exposes things we need to work on with our instruments and with ourselves.  These are great lessons if you are willing to listen and learn from them.  Hopefully you also return home with enough bread to keep the lights on until the next trip out. In the final analysis, I consider that a great success and a true honor.  I’ve often said that I didn’t pick music, it picked me.  What a wonderful set of experiences then that I’ve been able to accrue as a result. Whether I’m out with Vox Lumiere, Uncle Daddy, Circe Link, or any one of the many other artists I work with; it all only adds to the rich stew that is my life as a professional musician.

Pack well.  Play well.  Experience well.  See you out there.  Dig?

 

 

Session Notes Archive – Freddy and Francine

Here’s an oldy but goodie from my journals and notes.  Freddy and Francine was a wonderful project that was fronted by Lee Ferris and Bianca Caruso.  Their songs were wonderful slices of pop goodness that also had the ability to make your heart ache and pull on your emotions in a wonderful way.  I miss that band, but am so glad that I can call them friends to this day.  These sessions would become what turned out to be our second and last album – The Forest and the Sea.

 

Session – Freddy & Francine

Dates – 5/27-29/10

Studio – Big Fish Studios, Encinitas, CA

Out of town for this one.  Lovely Encinitas, CA – right on the ocean.  From our vantage point high upon a hill looking down at the blue Pacific, the peace and quiet we were able to enjoy (when not making noise in the studio) helped to focus intentions and attentions I think.  My drive down was the night before and the full moon – a pale gelatin yellow and as big as a dinner plate, was a welcome companion as I careened southbound down the highway.

As with Circe Link’s sessions for “California Kid”, we were familiar with most of these songs already.  We had been playing well over half of them for the better part of a year and the other songs we hadn’t been playing got sussed out in necessary pre-production rehearsals.

This was my first time working with producer Mike Butler and my conversations with him before heading into the studio put me at ease immensely.  He’s all about solid keeper takes and very little editing: “play it live or don’t play it.”  Suits me fine!

Given the above ethos, it’s not surprising that the sounds we went for were live, open, and full.  We close mic’d everything on the kit and then also had various room mics happening which wound up getting used in various combinations.  For this session I went with a somewhat unorthodox set up.  I had two bass drums but the configuration was like you’d see Stanton Moore, Matt Chamberlain, or Dave Weckl use.  Main bass drum and then a secondary bass drum to the RIGHT of it… not the left in the traditional double bass configuration.  I played it with a remote pedal (of course).  The 20″ bass drum had a small hole in the front and was a big sound that was still tight and thumpy.  The 18″ bass drum had both head intact with a little muffling.  It was tuned up a little higher – not quite jazz high, but up there.  Soloed in the control room it sounded like an 808.  It sits nice in the mix and is used here or there throughout the album.  Here’s the run down of the rest of the gear and the mics:

The drum kit was a Drum Workshop collectors (they also had a killer old Camco kit as well, but we stayed with the DW’s).  The drum sizes and mics used were:

Bass Drum – 20×18 AKG D112 (inside) and Sound Delux U195 (outside)

Bass Drum – 18×16 Sennheiser 421 (outside)

Tom Tom – 12×8 Electro-Voice ATM 25

Floor Tom – 14×16 Electro-Voice ATM 25

Snare Drum – Shure SM57 (top) and Sennheiser:  441 (bottom)

Hi-Hat – AKG C451 EB

Overheads – Neumann U67′s

Center Overhead – Sound Delux 251

Rooms – Cole 300′s

The snare drum list included:

Tempus 6.5×15 Carbon Fibre

Tempus 8×14 Carbon Fibre

Tempus 5×14 Fibre Glass

Ludwig 5×14 Black Beauty

These 4 gave me a nice combination of sounds.

 

Cymbals were all Istanbul Agop (always) and included:

22″ Traditional Dark Ride

22″ Limited Edition ’06 Ride

21″ Traditional Original Ride

21″ Special Edition Ride

20″ Azure Ride

19″ Traditional Dark Crash

18″ Traditional Dark Crash

18″ Azure Crash

18″ Agop Signature Crash

22″ Trash Hit

18″ Trash Hit

16″ Trash Hit

16″ Hi hats (Traditional Thin Top and Alchemy Sweet Bottom)

15″ Traditional Medium Hi Hats

Sticks?  What else?  VATER!  I used their Recording model primarily.  A couple of times I picked up a pair of 5A’s (primarily if I wanted a different kind of sound on the cymbals – the Recording and 5A are similar in weight).  I also used their Wire Tap brush, the Monster Brush, and the T4 mallet.  I had a full quiver to choose from.

Now, I admit I’ve got a lot of gear listed here and I’ve spent a fair bit of time collecting these (and other) pieces.  I don’t want someone just starting out to get discouraged though if they don’t have a rolling drum case like Matt Chamberlain or Jim Keltner.  The key in any session it to make whatever you have sound good and to get great performances.  I’m reminded of a story The Edge (U2) told when recording their first album, when the producer (Steve Lillywhite) said “O-kay, let’s use a different guitar to get some different sound options.”  The Edge was famously to have said “We only HAVE one guitar among the whole band!”

If you only have one snare drum and one set of cymbals; well, you can still get an amazing amount of sounds out of those instruments.  Remember, the goals is to make what you have sound as good as it can and to get keeper takes that inspire you and make you happy.  There’s also a hell of a lot of experimenting you can do to get really different creative sounds from a minimal amount of gear.  This is a topic I’ll tackle in a future blog post.

Most of the first day there (5/27) was dedicated to set up and mic placement.  We got most of the drums happening first so, once I was done… it was kind of forced relaxation as everyone else did their thing.  After I was set up and cozy, it took about a hour or so to get the sounds where we wanted them.  I didn’t mind spending more time.  Afterall, this was a new environment for all of us and we wanted it to be right.  Plus, we were ALL rolling in with a lot of gear.  Electric and upright bass, electric and acoustic guitars, piano, Rhodes, B3, and Nord keyboards… we had a lot of stuff happening and that means a lot of mics, a lot of wires, and a lot of potential troubleshooting.

Big Fish Studios is a lovely place.  They’ve got a great old API board so we used those pre-amps.  I love API pre-amps and I had a whole slew of them for all of my gear this time around.  The live room at Big Fish is a big wood paneled space.    Similar to Stagg Street Studios (Circe Link sessions for “California Kid”), it was probably about 20-25 feet wide and we were working with around 15-20 foot ceilings.  The drums had serious room to bloom in a space like that and the extra room mics we were using captured those sounds wonderfully.  John Classick (basses) and Michael Feldman (keyboards) were in the live room with me; while Lee Ferris (guitar, vox) and Bianca Caruso (vox) were in a smaller iso booth just to my left.  Like I said, we were going for a nice warm, open sound.

After a long first day of getting sounds, we tried to get a song happening before we called it – but everyone was so burnt from the day and from the drive the night before, we decided to wait until the next morning when we were fresh and focused.

Once we settled in that second day though, we were good.  We tracked 7 the first day and 6 the second day I believe (it’s a bit of a blur).  We had a nice balance of really popping songs and more moody, brooding ones.  Selecting song order to record is a lot to do with overall group energy, and where things are tuned, and what instruments are being used.  We don’t want to bounce back and forth between acoustic and electric guitar for example… or electric and upright bass.

I will freely admit, I was not happy about the schlep down before hand.  It had been a rough couple of months on my end and being away over a holiday weekend  was a bit of a bummer to consider.  But, I couldn’t have been happier with the comraderie, the hang time, the alone time, the goofiness, or the musical results.  Sometimes you learn something about yourself on trips like this.  How to be – in a new space, a new vibe… My goal initially was to get the work done… and what wound up happening is that I enjoyed myself and got to feel a bit like a kid again and tap back into the energy that made me want to pick up sticks in the first place.  For that I am extremely grateful.  I have a new appreciation for what it is to ‘be’.

The big thing is to have fun.  Yes, music can be very serious when you consider the marketing, the promotion, the egos involved, etc.; but in the end what you are doing is creating something that hits someone in their heart, their head, and their soul.  Don’t lose sight of that fact.  This is still ART.  Even if there is the reality of commerce being involved in order to get your stuff ‘out there’ to the masses.

I often use this quote by Frank Zappa – “Music is the best.”  I can think of no better way to sum it up than that.

Thanks for reading and keep listening!