Sean McDaniel is currently the drummer for the new Disney show Frozen. Sean’s accolades include playing for Grammy and Tony award winning The Book of Mormon on Broadway and for American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken. On Broadway he also originated the Grammy and Tony award winning Spamalot, 9 to 5, La Cage Aux Folles, and Violet. Other shows Sean has developed include Hamilton, Newsies, and Frozen. He appears on the Frozen soundtrack plus albums by Audra McDonald, Stephanie Block, and Clay Aiken. He has been seen on The Tonight Show, Good Morning America, Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Tony awards, Celebrity Apprentice, CBS This Morning, Live At The White House, The View, and The Billboard Music Awards. He has performed with Dolly Parton, Sting, Jennifer Hudson, Idina Menzel, Jake Gyllenhall and many others. Sean plays DW Drums, Sabian Cymbals, and Vic Firth Sticks. He currently lives in New York City where he is a busy freelance and session player. I caught up with Sean after a very busy week in New York.
So you’re currently playing drums for Frozen?
And, how is that all going?
It’s going great! It’s so much fun to be a part of a big Disney production and to have a really big orchestra, which I haven’t had in a while. There’s twenty-two people in the orchestra! So it’s a lot of fun to play with them every night.
So, is that one big pit?
Yeah…but the rhythm section is all separate actually, so we’re all in different rooms by ourselves. Because, the pit isn’t big enough to have everyone, so they just decided to put the acoustic instruments in there and put everybody else in isolation rooms. So it’s kind of designed like a recording studio. The pit is divided in to three sections for woodwinds, brass and strings, and each have their own little room, and then outside of the pit there’s a drum room, percussion room, bass and guitar rooms.
How is that?
Umm…it took me a little while to get used to not seeing people while we were playing, but now I’m used to it and I really like how comfortable it is in there. The sound is really good, they really designed it well.
And the show you were with before this was The Book of Mormon?
Yeah! On The Book of Mormon I was right in the pit, and I could see everybody while we were playing, so I kind of miss that a little bit, but I don’t miss the bleeding sound that would go through the plexiglass.
Because I bet, like you said, with the isolation rooms you probably have a perfect balance of sound?
Yeah, it’s really well designed.
And are you enjoying the show?
Yeah, it’s really, really fun. There’s a variety of different grooves, and I get to play the songs from the movie, plus the new songs that I got to help create the grooves for, and we have a really great band and rhythm section and it’s so much fun to play with them every night.
That leads me nicely on to my next question with regards to the developmental process of it…I read you helped develop the music for this show and numerous others including Hamilton, Newsies and Spamalot, can you talk me through that process, what does it involve?
Yeah. So, usually musicals start with a reading, it’s called, and a reading is like maybe a week long and they’ll have a couple of actors and maybe a piano and drums and they’ll get together and just read through the script and play through the songs and they’ll usually just give the drummer the piano music or sometimes even lead sheets, and so we get to be creative and we get to come up with our parts which is my favorite thing to do, and I’ve gotten to do it for a few shows now which has been really exciting. And so, we kind of just go back and forth with the composer and musical director and the arrangers and we play it and then usually at the end of the week we do a presentation for maybe some producers or some friends and family. And then after that first reading, maybe there will be a workshop which could be anywhere from two weeks up until six weeks. So, for Mormon we did about five workshops, Frozen did three, and so you’re just kind of developing the show throughout those, because they want to make sure they get it right before they put it on a stage and spend all that money. It’s a lot cheaper to do them in these rehearsal studios with just a smaller group of people…
Yeah! And so how, as a drummer and musician…do you just intuitively come up with what you think is right for that part?
Yeah. I mean, I’m used to doing it now. So, I can see a piano part, and I usually know if the left hand is playing this rhythm, I’m going to probably play that with my bass drum, and I can tell if it’s like a floating kind of thing, or if there’s a groove happening, and sometimes there’ll be a demo. So like, with Hamilton, Lin does really detailed demos and Alex Lacamoire, so with those, we would copy a lot and maybe expand them a little bit, and Frozen sometimes there were some demos that had drums on, or sometimes just piano demos and so I got to make up stuff, which is exciting.
Yeah…every show is different. With Mormon and Frozen, I got to have a lot of input, which was very exciting…
I sat in on Mormon a few months back, and it’s crazy to think that you helped create that incredible musical score…
Oh yeah! It’s crazy. And I guess…starting with my first one, which was Spamalot, so any time Spamalot is done around the world, people are playing the parts I came up with in the room, which is so crazy.
Yeah…especially in that line of work where you’re playing music that has been created by someone else, especially over here when we have the transfers from Broadway, but is that nice feeling to know that you’ve created a lot of the hit musicals out there today?
Yeah. It’s a really nice feeling. I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to do it, it’s people like Stephen Oremus and Alex Lacamoire that have given me these opportunities, and Todd Ellison with my very first show, and Michael Kehler with Spamalot, you know, just to trust me to develop these things and just bring my knowledge of other kinds of music to it, and try to just make it have a variety of different grooves and feels and authentically sound right for that style of music that they’re trying to accomplish.
That’s incredible, I never knew that…
Yeah…sometimes you’ll get a show where the orchestrator will write the drum parts for you and you just read them down, but a lot of the way that musicals are written now is, the drummer gets a lot of input going in.
And what’s it like getting to work closely with the genius that is Alex Lacamoire and Lin-Manuel Miranda?
Oh they were amazing. Just…they’re so smart with the art form and just the styles were so fun, and they really get inside the styles and make them authentic, so you know, we did a lot of listening and we did a concert at Lincoln Centre one time where it was all the songs that inspired Lin to write Hamilton…they were like covers…so we did those songs, then we played like, a thirty minute version of Hamilton, and it was so cool to see all these Hip-Hop songs he grew up evolve in to how he writes now.
And just from an artistic process, do you find that you learn a lot from these people?
Oh yeah. Everyone I work with I get to learn so much from and with those guys it was about like…Alex is so precise and getting it so precise every night, nailing the grooves and the feels and all the notes and everything, and he’s so consistent, he never misses a note and everything is always perfectly in time so it’s such a high level of musicianship, so it really is challenging to play with it every night and so rewarding.
And so, taking it back, what major steps did you take to get where you’re at right now right now? I know you went to university and things like that…
Yeah, I went to a big drum school, the University of North Texas, so in my freshman year there were one-hundred and fifty drummers there, and you had to play in all different kinds of situations and I always knew I wanted to move to New York and I knew how competitive it would be, so it was good to be in a school where you were always being challenged in an orchestra or a big band or a musical or an opera, just all different styles. At the same time while I was studying percussion I was also an intern at the theatre where all the national tours came through in Dallas, so every summer I got to meet like six different shows worth of drummers, conductors, stage managers, actors…and you know, they were all shows from Broadway, so you were getting to meet these New York people, it was so exciting for me, and they were all so nice. When I moved to town I kept in touch with a lot of them and some of those people were the ones who gave me my first jobs on Broadway.
So you moved to New York once you finished your studies…
Yeah after the last day of school I moved the next day. I didn’t even go to my graduation ceremony, I just kind of left [Laughs].
And then how did you go about getting your first job?
Well…I was in grad school at NYU for composition, and I was starting to play some random drum gigs around town and someone who I’d met in Dallas on one of the tours knew someone who was looking for a substitute at a dinner theatre in Westchester which is north of New York City, you have to take the train there, or take the subway to the last stop and get a ride with somebody. So, I started subbing there and, you know, I thought I’d hit the big time, it was like sixty dollars a show and I was playing with Broadway actors, it was so exciting, and I started doing that, and then the same guy connected me with an Off Broadway show that was happening, so I got to play Off Broadway, and at the same time I was still in touch with some of those drummers from the tours, and one of those drummers was Gary Seligson who originated Aida and Wicked and he was the drummer for the Les Mis and Miss Saigon tour.
So, when they were in Dallas I got to hang out with them and I actually served him a meal in the buffet line [Laughs] and we kept in touch, and when he saw I was subbing at some places around town and was doing some Off Broadway stuff, he needed an extra sub at Aida, which was the show he was on at the time, which was an Elton John musical, and I went in and watched, and it was a really challenging show, there were a lot of electronics and a lot of hard hitting rock, and all kinds of dance stuff, and I was like wow, can I really do this? So I just set up in my studio the exact set up he had and I memorized the whole show and just really tried to be prepared. I spent like a whole month on it, and I went in and I subbed on the show and I was able to come back and do it again and just subbing on that show lead to subbing on a bunch of other shows. So, I subbed on a total of thirteen shows over three years, but the most at one time was eleven shows.
Then, I went onto my first full time show, which was Spamalot, because they needed a drummer at the time and they wanted someone who had a background in a bunch of different style of shows, because that show had a lot of different styles that were kind of parodies of other Broadway shows and things like that. And so, I interviewed with the conductor Todd Ellison and the choreographer Kasey Nikolai and the next day I was in rehearsal. And that was all from a recommendation from Michael Kehler who’s a contractor…I think in London you call them Fixers…and he I was subbing on a lot of his shows, so he seen my name and put my name in for that show, and that’s how I got my first one, and luckily, since then I’ve been doing my own shows, which I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to do that…
That’s absolutely incredible. And that’s all from, kind of, putting your neck out there and getting to know the drummers who came to your theatre in Dallas, and seizing the opportunities that were presented throughout that internship I guess, right?
Yeah. And this was before the internet, so it wasn’t through Facebook, I’d have to write letters and make phone calls when I was in New York and I think it was harder to stay in touch back then, and you know, I had my parents who were always pushing me to call someone and stay in touch with them, so they were really supportive in helping me doing that. And also, I had practiced a lot and got a lot of good experience in college, so that when the opportunities came up in New York, I was able to succeed, and it’s such a small community here that if you sub on a show or play a gig somewhere and don’t do well, the word will travel fast, so you really have to be prepared when the opportunities come up. That’s why I always tell people ‘Don’t move to New York until you’re ready.’
And so what kind of things would you do to stay in touch with people? I know personally it’s a lot easier said than done, and there’s quite a thin line between being keen and bothering people perhaps…
Yeah, I didn’t want to bother anyone, and I was pretty shy. So, I would run into them sometimes, or I would go and see peoples shows with their bands and just try to be supportive and sometimes people would let me go and sit in the pit with them and watch them, which I do now for people…a lot of times I’ll let someone come and watch me play the show…that’s a great way to how it really works, and get to know people, and I was just trying not to bother people, but I was trying to do enough gigs on my own where they would see hey he’s working, and maybe I can give him a chance. So, I was playing in some bands, and there was a rock gig I was doing, I was doing the Off Broadway subbing and the Westchester subbing, and any kind of gig that would come up I would do. I always tell people now…Do any gig, don’t ever say no to a gig…because everything can lead to something, and a lot of my Broadway gigs came from those other gigs, and a lot of gigs I’ve done in other styles of music have come from knowing people in Broadway pits that do other kind of music.
I think that’s some great advice, to not limit yourself to one kind of work…do you find that yourself as a musician gets pigeonholed into getting offered one kind of work because you primarily do theatre shows now?
I mean sometimes that happens, but I guess I don’t hear it to my face, but I’m sure that people might say those things behind my back, like ‘He does a lot of Broadway’, but hopefully when I do a gig that’s not Broadway I show people that I can play authentically…I was able to get a pop gig a few years ago with an American Idol singer called Clay Aiken and I got to do a few tours with him and it was like real pop and I was trying to play it authentically, so when I play a pop song in a Broadway show I try to play it authentically like it would be in a pop gig. So, I just try to stay authentic in the Broadway styles, so that it never sounds like a watered down version of something. But, I do try to do as many gigs as I can and it’s hard to not just do Broadway, but I think it’s important to do as many things as you can, and one of the best things about playing on Broadway is that we have a contract that lets us take off a lot of time to do a lot of other gigs, so we can stay fresh and do a lot of other styles and have variety in our careers…
And I think that’s a great personal attitude to have too, because I’m sure you know guys out there on shows that will get on to one show and have been there ever since. Then there’s also guys like you that are willing to jump around shows and do as many gigs as you can…I think it’s great
Yeah! You don’t want to get bored or complacent at a show.
So playing the same show night in night out, I know you move shows a lot, but I’m assuming you do have long stints on some shows, how do you keep up the motivation and energy to keep playing at your best, you know, on like a Tuesday night in the middle of the run?
Well…there’s several things. One of the things is that there’s always different actors on, you know, there’s understudies, so sometimes there’ll be a different person and you’ll hear something a totally different way or someone will sing something slightly different, so that’ll be exciting, or there could be a different conductor one night, or one of the different people in the band especially the rhythm section, it could be a different bass player or a different guitar player or even a horn player, it changes the band, so every night there’s really a different band so it keeps it really fresh. One of the other things I really try to remember…it’s hard sometimes when you’re tired and you’ve had a long day…is that there’s a kid in the audience somewhere who’s maybe wanting to do this someday and it’s like the biggest night of their life to get to be in a theatre, so I want to make sure I’m playing for that person every night.
And I guess it’s a fairly extraordinary job too right? I’m know there’s a lot worse jobs out there [Laughs]
It’s amazing yeah [Laughs]. We’re really lucky to get to do it. I also have a big screen of the stage and like, if we’re doing Let it Go I’ll watch Caissie sing Let it Go and watch the scenery change and just thinking that I’m in this huge production, even though I’m in the basement I’m still part of it and it’s a really crazy feeling.
Yeah, well I mean certainly from outside of the pit from the audience the music…if you took the music away then the show becomes nothing really.
But yeah, speaking from experience I’ve been auditioning for a few cruise liners recently, and after botching a big cruise companies audition and falling short at the sight reading stage, I was wondering how important it is in your line of work?
Well…it’s really important, but people think you have to be able to sight read to do a Broadway show, but if you’re subbing, you can take the music home and memorize the whole thing and never have to read a note, but…if you want to originate a show, you really have to know how to read piano charts and lead sheets and know chord progressions and stuff like that so you can follow along, and then also be able to read drum music because a lot of the times you’ll be reading from piano charts and making up stuff, but then sometimes you’ll just be in rehearsals for a show and they’ll be writing you songs at the last second and all of a sudden there’ll be a drum part in front of you and you have to sight read it with a click and with a band, with the dancers, following the conductor, so there’s a lot of different things, so the better you can read the more comfortable you’ll be in those situations.
…yeah! And do you have any tips to becoming a better reader or is it just through practice?
I mean…I had great teachers in college, especially Ed Soph and we did a lot of big band reading, so we would play charts where not everything was written out, but you’d see accents and you had to know how to play around the accents and then you’d play in the big band and do that kind of stuff, then we would do things in lessons where we would have to transcribe famous drummers and write down their solo’s and their grooves so I don’t remember ever sitting there and working on it, I just remember always having to do it, starting in middle school band and so all those music classes in school really paid off, because it just became a part of me and I never was thinking about practicing reading it was just something I always had to do.
It sounds like a really good drumming education…
Yeah! I got really lucky, I was in the right place at the right time [Laughs]. But the other thing with reading is that you have to be able to read so that it doesn’t sound like you’re reading, because nobody wants it to sound like you’re reading off a page, so you need to be able to know when to inject feel into it and when to ignore what’s on the page, unless someone’s specifically saying ‘Play every single note I write’. You don’t want it to sound stiff, that’s another thing you don’t want to be doing while you’re sight reading.
And you want it to sound like you too, right?
And so would you say…you’ve mentioned you’ve pretty much been continually in work since you got your first job…what would you say is your secret to that?
Umm…I don’t know…I guess I always try to be positive on the gig and be fun to hang around with, and always try to do a good job. When I was first starting out I just tried to let my playing speak for itself and not try to be cocky or anything…I don’t know…people kept calling me for things and when I was subbing I would always just try to copy exactly what the regular drummer did and try to really fit in the band, and capture their feel and their volume and their fills and everything, so that…the best compliment you can get as a sub is when someone says, ‘Oh I didn’t even know the drummer was out today’, and so that would happen on different shows and then one drummer would tell another drummer and then they would just keep asking me to sub, so I just kept doing all that subbing and it just kept piling up.
Yeah. And when you’re looking for a sub, what do you look for?
My subs are great. They’re so consistent and they’re so prepared, so as great as the drum charts are on some of these shows, you can’t write down everything, so a drummer is always going to have to transcribe a fair amount depending on the show, and my guys are always willing to write down everything I do and watch a bunch of times and record it, come in and they always have good questions and they always do a great job and they’re always dependable, I’ve never had someone not show up for a show or mess up a date, so they’re really, really great and I can count on them, and you know, we all have about five subs, and we give them work, but they’re also helping us out so we can have a night off or do another gig, so it’s a great relationship that I have with these people.
And when you’re spending time with these people…I’ve heard many quotes from musicians that say they spend more time with these people than they do their own family…what qualities in the other musicians you work with do you admire and look for?
Umm…I like the ones that always have a positive attitude and are always listening. I don’t like it when people stop listening at a show, because, just because it’s been running for a while you still want it to be spontaneous, so, the best musicians in a long running show are the ones still listening, and if I do one slightly different fill, two seconds later my phone lights up because the bass player heard it and is like ‘Oh that was cool!’ and you know, so those are the best kind of things…me and the bass player on Frozen, Michael Olatuja will go back and forth and the percussionist Dave Mancuso and the guitar player Mike Aarons…because we’re not in the same room, so if one of us plays something cool we’ll have to send a text during the next break [Laughs], and so that’s my favorite thing when someone notices if I do something slightly different and someone notices, that’s great, and then on top of all that playing stuff, when it’s intermission and when it’s time to hang out with everybody, you want to hang out with all the fun people that make you want to come to work and hang out, that’s one of the best parts about having these bands.
Yeah, in the last interview Jake Sommers mentioned that its mostly seventy percent hanging out and thirty percent playing! So I know that having people in the bands who are easy going and good people to be around, is extremely important…
Right! Yeah, no one has the patience anymore to hire someone who’s not going to be a positive vibe to hang out with. It was maybe different a while ago, but now I feel like music schools are sending so many people to these big cities around the world that there’s a ton of people willing to do the gig and have the talent, so people aren’t going to tolerate having a mean person on the gig anymore.
Or like you said, someone who’s not a good vibe or someone who brings the mood down…
Yeah…and a lot of times when there’s an audition for a gig now, they do a playing audition but then they’ll do either a skype call or a coffee meeting, because the vibe is so important…
And I think that’s a comforting thought for a lot of musicians out there who maybe get too caught up in this YouTube era of watching these guys who can shred for days, but they may not be the best person to be around, and they spend hours trying to emulate that style when maybe what is them is enough, and they are a good person…
Yeah, everybody wants to have nice guys in the band.
Absolutely. Although Frozen is relatively new, and you’ve already worked on some incredible other projects, are there more on the horizon? Or are there specific people you’d like to work with?
Yeah, I mean I’m always wanting to do more jazz gigs and more pop and rock gigs and I also write music, so I’m always hoping for time where I can work on my own stuff, and it’s hard to find the time. I also have a little son, so he takes up a lot of my time, but I’m just happy now to be making a living playing music, and just grateful that people keep asking me to do it, so if I can just keep riding this until retirement that would be amazing [Laughs]. But in terms of new things, since Frozen has been open I think I’ve done three readings and workshops of new musicals that are happening, so that’s been fun to start up again and start being creative, and you never know, it may be something you’ll be able to do when it goes to Broadway, or if it’s something I’m just goanna help develop and I’m happy to do either one because I’m happy to do the long run, and then go away for a little time to do new things and getting to put my creative stamp on new things is really exciting, and then keep my night gig which is Frozen. When I was at Mormon, through the seven years there, I probably did twenty or thirty workshops…I left to do Hamilton at the Public Theatre, and I left to do Violet on Broadway because it was a limited run I was allowed to do that, so you know, it’s nice to have the flexibility to do new things while you’re at a show.
Yeah! And with these workshops and early looks at these potential Broadway shows, do you have an instinct about how far that show will go? And the success of it?
Yeah…I mean, I remember with Hamilton I remember thinking that; This is the best thing I’ve ever played. I didn’t know it was going to turn into the huge phenomenon that it is now, but I knew that; This is something really special. And I knew it meant a lot to be in that room whilst it was being created.
Yeah I bet. I read it took him like seven to eight years to write it?
Yeah he worked on it for a long time.
But with things like Spamalot, and you’re working on a comedy and you do the jokes over and over again in the rehearsal room and you stop getting laughs and you’re just thinking; Wait, is this funny still? We didn’t know, and then when we had our first audience in Chicago and it was like one of the craziest responses I’ve ever heard, people were like going crazy for that show and screaming with laughter, and I was just like ‘Oh wow, I guess this really is going to be something!’
Yeah, I bet it was similar with Mormon right?
Yeah, Mormon was another one where I was like ‘This is amazing, and it’s one of the best things ever…’. I was worried some people would be offended by some of the language or some of the humor, but you know, that never happened and everyone loved it because it’s such a great show.
I also think because it offends everybody I don’t think anyone can be offended…
Yeah that’s right [Laughs]
I’ve seen it twice, once from the pit and once in the audience and it’s just incredible…
Yeah…I miss that one, it’s a really special one.
Is that still on Broadway?
Oh yeah! It’s still doing…it’s never not been full, it’s over seven years now and it’s sold out every night.
It’s crazy how it’s the exact same here. It’s still impossible to get tickets now…
Yeah, it was hard to leave that, but you know, it’s the same music team on Frozen…Bobby Lopez and Steven Oremus and Michael Kelher and Mike Aarons…I kind of took a gamble by leaving, but I knew because it was Disney and because it was such a huge movie, that it wasn’t going to be a huge disaster, you know, there’s no guarantees but it seems to be doing pretty well, and we were having great audiences over the summer and it’s sold out every night, so I think I made the right move, and if it didn’t last as long as Mormon, I could try and get on another show, or I could sub on shows, so I’m not too worried about it, but it’s been really nice to have the change of pace after seven years at Mormon.
It certainly looks like Frozen is setting itself up to become the next long lasting Disney musical
Hopefully that’s going to happen. I know they’re working on a tour and hopefully they’ll be in London at one point. We actually came over for a week when we were working on the show because our director is from there. We came over and did a week long dance workshops, so I was playing there with some of our music people, and Andy McGlasson came in, do you know Andy?
He’s a West End drummer, and he came in and took over for me when I came back, there were some great musicians over there.
Who does he play for?
I think he plays for School of Rock
Oh great, I work just around the corner from there.
Yeah! Andy’s the nicest guy in the world. He took me out when I came to London, he was so great.
Did you enjoy it here?
Yeah it was great. I’d only been there to vacation so it was my first time coming there to work, and so I had a hotel and I could walk to the studio every day. It was really fun. And I also got to see Dave Weckl at Ronnie Scotts.
Yeah! And I got to go and see Aladdin which is right next to Ronnie Scotts.
Did you get to meet Dave Weckl?
Yeah, I talked to him. We had a lot of friends in common. It’s funny, because in America, after a gig like that, you wouldn’t be able to get close to the drummer at all, but for some reason there I was just able to walk right up and talk to him and he was so nice and down to earth. It was with the Buddy Rich Big Band so it was an exciting gig.
Is that the first time you’ve been to Ronnie Scotts?
Yeah! It’s beautiful. I have albums that were recorded there so it was fun to hear it live, it has its own sound. It was a cool place.
And what kind of advice do you have for musicians wanting to achieve what you have?
I think you just got to…like I said earlier…make sure you’ve done all your homework and studying, I think you have to know the artform, just like any other style of music. If you want to play in symphonies you have to know all the repertoire. If you want to play in jazz, you have to know all the tunes, and I feel like a lot of people want to play Broadway but don’t know the sound of Broadway…not necessarily the style of music but I mean like, the history of it and all the shows that have come before, I think it’s important to know all that. And a lot of the younger people don’t have that, sometimes they just want to come in and just get a gig right away. So I think it’s important to do a lot of homework, but you also have to be versatile and play a lot of other styles, so a lot of people on Broadway don’t want to hire someone who’s right out of school, they want to hire someone who’s played gigs in all different styles of music so they can bring that to Broadway and keep it authentic.
So I always tell people to do as many different gigs as you can in as many different styles as you can and maybe don’t try to get to Broadway right away, try to make a living as a musician and you’re going to end up on Broadway someday because all of the musicians that work on Broadway do other things, and everything will lead to Broadway at some point, because you’ll meet someone who’s doing a show, and they’ll say ‘Hey, you should come meet this person’, and networking starts like that, it’s more organic than trying to call all the Broadway musicians and say ‘Hey, can I come and sub for you?’.
Yeah, and I think it’s the age old thing of; if you’re in the job, it’s a lot easier to get another one as opposed to if you’re out of a job it’s hard to get one.
Of course! And I know hard it is to move to a new city and start from scratch, it’s really tough and so a lot of people get day jobs. One of my subs, who’s become a successful sub on a lot of shows, he was working at a restaurant that I used to go to and I had so much respect for him, that even though he was playing Broadway shows he still kept that restaurant job and he didn’t take anything for granted and I really appreciated that he was working really hard. And so sometimes you have to have another job if you want to make a living when you’re living in these places.
Another piece of advice I’ve heard through this series is that you have to move to the area where what you want is happening…
Yeah definitely. If you want to do theatre I think you have to be in London or New York. And if you want to play on movie scores LA is the place, and Nashville for country, and for recording probably LA or Nashville, but that’s happening in more places now too and there’s a lot more home studios, but you have to be established in the city to get called for things.
And so how is the rest of your week looking?
This week is pretty busy, I’m playing with an actress called Jane Lynch, she’s from Glee and a lot of movies and she has a kind of jazz cabaret act, so I’m doing that in the evenings, doing a concert with a friend, rehearsing today and then performing Sunday, and I’m trying to play Frozen on the matinee’s. Last week was even crazier because I had a gig with my rock band that I play with, I had five shows with Jane Lynch, Frozen matinee’s and I was developing a new musical during the day, plus it was my sons first week of school, so it was a lot of things to juggle around [Laughs]. I had my mom come up and my mom helped with a lot of the childcare duties.
You’re like, one of the busiest musicians I’ve ever spoken to [Laughs]
Oh [Laughs]. It won’t be like that the whole fall, just sometimes there’s times like that, so I want to try to appreciate those times when they come up, sometimes when I have three gigs in a day it can be a little stressful, but after the week is over I really feel like I’ve accomplished something and it’s nice to get to do a variety of things.
And so have you got any more pop gigs coming up?
Yeah, I have a gig with Clay Aiken on October 6th, which is in North Carolina and I’m playing with an actor from Dear Evan Hansen in a few weeks and I have a few other random things and I’ll try and squeeze in as many Frozen’s as I can and this new band I’m playing with is trying to book some more gigs.
And how is Ben?
He’s doing great! He’s in Denver now for the Dear Evan Hansen tour.
Oh great, is he setting it up or is he playing the tour?
Yeah, he’s the associate music supervisor, so he has to go and train the actors and train the band and make sure it sounds good and then he’s there for three weeks and then I’m goanna go down there for the opening night, and then we’re going to take the red eye flight to North Carolina because we’re both playing for Clay on October 6th [Laughs].
What’s all that goanna be like?
It’s goanna be interesting, because I’m going to leave early here, get there with the time change, watch the show, go to the party for a little bit, hop on the plane, get off, maybe sleep for a few hours, then have a rehearsal, soundcheck, do the gig and then fly home the next day, and then hopefully we have the next day off.
And what’s it like playing with your husband for Clay?
That’s one of the best things ever. If we could do every gig together we would, but it’s probably safer not to be on the same show at the same time in case it closes and you know, at the moment we still have another show’s income. But that would be a dream if we were on the same show one day.
I definitely think that could be on the cards [Laughs]
Yeah [Laughs]. I played the workshop of Dear Evan Hansen with Ben, and then Ben played the Mormon workshop with me, and we actually appeared on the same cast album for the Dolly Parton musical ‘9 to 5’, he’s playing piano on that album and I’m playing drums.
That’s amazing! 9 to 5 is actually coming here soon.
I heard! It’s the first ever West End production, that’s exciting. That’s actually one of my drum books that I originated. It’s a really fun one. They’re hiring a different orchestrator and arranger so I hope they keep some of the stuff we did here.
Well thank you so much for your time and it was great to find out all about your career and all the stuff you have going on
Yeah! Thanks so much for asking me!
A huge thanks to Sean again for a great look into to his life and career.
Thanks for reading!
Jake Sommers is the current Drummer for the Country sensation Luke Combs. Jake grew up in New York, and after completing his Jazz Studies at University of the Arts, moved to Nashville to pursue his playing career there. Being from a wider musical variety Jake has incredibly high levels of reading, and a great understanding of many styles of music. He’s endorsed by Sabian Cymbals, Evans Drumheads, and ProMark Drumsticks. I caught up with Jake from Nashville, where he was in between Luke Combs gigs.
Firstly, congrats on playing Madison Square Garden! Being from New York and growing up around that, talk me through that experience?
Oh man! Let’s see…We got there, I walked out on to the floor while they were still building the stage, with two of our guys and…I’ve never seen a concert there, I’ve only ever seen basketball games. So, I was looking around and saying ‘I remember sitting there as a kid, and sitting there, and there’ pointing each one out to the guys [Laughs]. It was just surreal. My folks got in the night before and I met up with them and it was really cool to talk to them and just reminisce about when I was a kid going to basketball games with my parents and they used to say ‘How incredible would it be one day for you to play Madison Square Garden’ [Laughs].
I saw the pictures you posted! It looked insane…
It was certainly a dream come true. I’ll say this, definitely my number one bucket list in the states, and it was cool to have checked off The o2 in London, as being my number one bucket list for overseas. To me, that’s the equivalent of Madison Square Garden. I can’t think of another place…besides Wembley Stadium, I think The o2 is it! It’s just so big. It’s not just an arena, there’s like a whole mall surrounding it. Which is crazy. Yeah…Madison Square Garden was definitely one for the books.
And, sort of starting from the beginning, I know you went to university and things like that, what major steps lead you to where you are now?
So…while I was at University of the Arts in Philadelphia studying Jazz and all the other styles, a close friend of my Dad’s told me to come and check out Nashville, and I wasn’t actually into Country Music until my Junior Year of college. I did the whole ‘oh okay, I’ll listen to whatever the top 30 songs are on the Billboard Country Charts’. I did that. Did all my homework. I charted everything out that summer, and then I came to visit Nashville. The first place I saw was where The Honkey Tonks were downtown and I just fell in love with it. It was music pretty much all day long. And all night! Which, if you love music and you want to play, like why wouldn’t you want that? So I fell in love with that and I decided I was going to move to Nashville. It’s a lot slower paced than New York, it’s getting a little more expensive, but New York and LA are still very much higher priced. So I thought ‘This’ll work’.
I made the move to Nashville, I contacted Jason Aldean’s drummer when I first moved down here, because he’s a friend of a drum teacher of mine from home, and it took us a little bit of time to actually meet up, but once we did, we had coffee and we were just talking for a while. He was very impressed with how persistent I was and all that, he was like ‘Yeah, I have a gig for you if…’ then he said ‘Do you know how to run tracks?’ and I was like ‘Nope, they don’t teach you that in college’ [Laughs]. And funnily enough, I’m sure I could learn how to run tracks now, but luckily we don’t use any, we just run click from a drum machine, which is wonderful. The director of the school of music that I went to knew an alumni down here and he put me in touch with her, and she was like ‘Hey, come to a party with me on music row’ my first week in town! I was like ‘Okay, Cool’. I just went to go meet people, wasn’t expecting anything to turn out from it. There was a drummer who was there who was playing downtown that night, and he told me to come down, I did, it was just luck, I sat in…then a really drunk bass player stumbled in [Laughs] and he was watching and then I got done, and he asked if it was my gig and I said ‘No, I literally just moved here a few days ago’ and luckily enough he said ‘Hey we’re auditioning drummers tomorrow, come and audition’, I did, I got the gig within an hour later. I didn’t start until that next week, but it really is timing, luck…you know…I moved down here August 6th 2013, I was originally going to move in October of that year, but there was nothing for me in New York, so it was really just timing.
So that’s where I got my start, at least, downtown. And then just from doing that, you meet a ton of people playing down there, and your name gets thrown around like ‘Hey do this gig’ or ‘Hey do that gig’. Then, through somebody else when first visiting Nashville, who worked at a clothing store, who now works for Sam Hunt, he got me my first touring gig. I did that for about six/seven months and the guys were older, it was just like a foot in the door type of thing and left that, because I was like…Well, that was fun, but I need something more serious. So, there’s a bar here called Tin Roof and a buddy of mine runs a night there called Revival and they do song writers rounds every Tuesday, and I was taking drum lessons from Jim Riley of Rascall Flatts, and he said, ‘Go to these writers rounds, they all need drummers and musicians’ so I went on a whim and I didn’t know that Luke was playing and walked in by myself, knew nobody there, was just blown away by his voice, his songs, went up and spoke to him. You know, if I didn’t go and do that immediate connection, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now. I took a chance on him, and he took a chance on me. He literally said ‘Hey, I have a gig next week, you want to play?’ ‘Yes please! Send me your stuff, so I did the audition the day before, if it was necessarily an audition, nailed it, and nailed the gig, and we just hung out for the next six months while he was writing and thankfully I was the only drummer in his phone [Laughs]. He called me and said ‘You still want to do this?’ and I said ‘Yeah let’s do this!’ and here we are now. I guess…three and a half years later playing Madison Square Garden, traveling the world and…gosh…just my house is filled with drum gear [Laughs]…cymbals, drum heads, snare drums…[Laughs]
As you know, they say Nashville is the hub of Country music stars. Did you ever imagine you’d be here four years later?
You know…I want to say yes. But, it could have gone any way. Say I didn’t go out that night, I wouldn’t even have met him and who knows where I’d be now, I could’ve still been hustling on the ground. You know…I was working a day job as a waiter for two years still, while playing with him until we got to the point where I didn’t have to do that anymore, but I was taking anything I could get…I was playing cajón at a writers round every Tuesday for free, getting free alcohol and food, playing for ten artists a night, playing one cover and one original I’d never heard before, just on a whim. On Monday nights they have a thing here called Whiskey Jam, and it’s really where I networked on Monday nights at least, I did that. We play the Bridgestone Arena here in town on the September 7th. Basically, I said yes to pretty much anything I could get my hands on. Especially when you’re starting out, why say no? until you get to a point where you need to be getting paid a certain amount of money for the time being, you know, I’m not going to be like ‘I want $300 to learn three songs’, but it’s like maybe $60 if it’s taking the time out of my day, even though you love playing drums, but even if you’re taking the time out to learn even three songs and rehearsing with the person, you should still get compensated in some way. But yeah…I busted my chops and really just hustled. That’s definitely what it’s all about…hustling, networking. One of my teachers from New York…Do you know who Dom Fumularo is?
So he’s been my teacher since I was 15, and then another teacher of mine who I’d study under when Dom was overseas and whatnot, his name is John Favicchia and he knows Rich, and one of the best things I learned from him was, it’s all in the tip of the tongue, it’s all about who you know, someone who’s like, I need a drummer, and then someone else is like call this guy, and they will, because they know that you’re trustworthy…and that’s definitely a big part of this town. I’ve had people come up to me in the street and say like ‘hey do you know so’ or ‘can you do the gig?’, or if not, ‘could you recommend someone for me?’ and that’s just a huge part of this town…who you know…
Yeah, and have you always been the type of person to go and just chat with anyone? I know that can be a daunting feeling for some musicians out there…
Yeah…kind of…I think if I really felt like that person stood out, or I really enjoyed their voice, I would just go over and compliment them, either on their voice or their songs… But, yeah, I just love talking to people and meeting people. You meet so many people in this town. People come up to me and they’re like ‘Hey!’ and they always know my name, and I always feel kind of crumby when I’m just like ‘Hey man how’s it going?’, because of course the only people’s names you really know are the people that you’re close with. You can’t know everybody’s name, as much as you’d want to, you know [Laughs]. I’m always thinking in the back of my mind, I hope that didn’t come off wrong.
I thought it was really interesting…I saw you went to university, how would you say that experience aided you in where you are now?
It really pushed me…I mean, I’ve been playing drums since I was six years old, and I practiced every day for hours, but, when I was there, I knew since I was fifteen years old I wanted to become a professional musician, drummer, all that stuff. So, while I was at school, I went for Jazz, was never really into Jazz either, studied everything from Jazz to Latin to Funk to different time signatures and all of that, and I really had great teachers there and whenever I had the time to practice, I would! Even if it was on the weekend and before going to a party, I would be there and my roommate and friends would call me at the time and say ‘Hey are you coming back? So we can go to this party?’ and I’d be like ‘Yeah, give me like another hour’. But yeah, it was whatever I could get my hands on. I think it was junior or senior year they would do faculty and student concerts, and one of the teachers went to the dean of the school and said ‘Who should we have play drums?’ and the school wasn’t massive, but at least in my senior year there must have been only about six drummers, but of course they could’ve chosen from the whole school, maybe there was about thirty or forty, but they had me play and I learned maybe twenty different songs from Broadway musicals to Country to Jazz to Pop, the whole gamete, pretty much in one weekend. I stuck myself in a practice room, learned all twenty songs, had the rehearsal, nailed that, then we did the show and it was just…they knew that they could count on me, and they just knew all the hard work that I’d put in to it…
I mean every time someone threw something at me and was like ‘Hey, can you learn this?’, I’d be like ‘Yes!’, and for senior year, instead of writing a thesis, thankfully, as I hate writing papers [Laughs], we had to write out the music for our recitals, and we had to plan rehearsals and get everybody together and get them the music…and it wasn’t just for our own parts, it was for everybody’s charts like sax, vocal lines, guitar parts, everything. That really was true to time management, and how to balance your schedule, because besides my own recital I was in five or six others, where I had to learn all these peoples music and get my own stuff together too, so that was a great lesson in time management and how to manage your time. And also how to read and visualize music very quickly, and memorize things quickly. So that was great. That was some of the best stuff I learned, and honestly, two or three of the best things I learned college wise, was; don’t suck [Laughs], If you mess up just continue, because no one will notice and thirty minutes is always early. And ever since then, I’ve never missed a gig, I’m always early, and if you do ever mess up, don’t worry, we’re all human and it happens here and there, you mess up a note, just continue, it’s happened to me, it happens to everyone, so…those are probably the best things I learned from college…
Yeah! And so how have you seen your own musicianship grow since graduating?
[Laughs] Oh man…well…playing Country music is definitely a lot different than playing Jazz or anything else, but it’s definitely broadened, my vocabulary has definitely gotten a lot larger. And If I was doing a recording session…I just did one this morning, I had the freedom to do some different fills that would fit more to the song and it was just like ‘cool, this could work’ it might not work, so you give it a few different tries and see which one sticks, and over time, just much more relaxed…I’m an open handed player, which most people don’t see that much, so I think that’s pretty sweet, and that separates me from a lot of the other guys here in town, but I think overall…I still practice. I still try to practice at home, or even just sitting down to play even just for an hour a day, just playing to a click or…I haven’t gone through a book in a long time, but I probably should [Laughs]. I just play when I can and see what comes out and just try to always learn more. I love watching YouTube videos of guys such as Eric Moore or Teddy Campbell, stuff like that…I’m not a big gospel guy, but I’ve always thought that stuff was cool, I don’t know if I’ll actually ever be able to get it under my hands and feet [Laughs] but I try to fake it, when the time happens. But I’m always just trying to learn new vocabulary, new fills, new grooves and all that stuff, so, I could definitely tell that my playing has gotten better…I’ve definitely grown…gosh, I’ve been out of school for five years now.
…You’re doing pretty good [Laughs]
Yeah I’d say so [Laughs]. I still practice all those other styles just in case. I would honestly love to be called to a Jazz gig, and someone to say ‘Hey, we need you to play this’…but unfortunately it’s more like ‘Oh, he’s known for Country’…so…
That’s a really interesting point actually, the whole…maybe pigeonholing is a bit of an aggressive word for it, but cast typing I guess? Do you feel that happens a lot?
I think so! Especially the Jazz genre here in town. There’s not many places to go for it, there’s a few, but I think there’s the guys here in town who are known for like these guys are killer Jazz cats, and then when most people see you play a certain genre or they just see that you can do a few different things then your name gets put around like ‘Oh he can do this and that’ but they don’t know you can do all these other styles too, so you don’t get the chance to actually do it, which is a bummer because I miss playing that type of stuff. So that’s why I try to keep up with it at home as much as possible!
I don’t know if you know him, but I interviewed Shawn Mendes’ drummer a few months ago, he’s called Mike Sleath?
No I haven’t! But I’d love to meet him…
Yeah he’s such a great person! Well he was saying that in his career he’s been able to meet some of his drumming idols, like Vinnie Colaiuta, Trey Cool, Travis Barker etc…I was wondering if you’ve met any of yours?
Yes actually! Rich Redmond who plays for Jason Aldean is a very good friend of mine now…before I moved to town I was like this guy is great. He does and has done everything I would like to accomplish as a musician and as a drummer. He does clinics, and he does teaching, he does session work, he does speaking engagements…all using the drums, and that is something I’d like to accomplish as my career continues and it’s just very cool to be on tour with him, and do things like play The Garden at the same time as him, and to be able to pick his brain is wonderful. He’s just a great guy, and a fabulous player. We joke around all the time you know…he hits really hard. Like before the show I’ll joke with him and be like ‘So…are you going to break any cymbals tonight? Because I’m sure you’ve got back ups, but if you want to borrow mine, you can’t…’ [Laughs] because we have the same crashes! So we both use two 20’’ AAX Xplosion crashes from Sabian. I actually got mine because I loved his so much, so I just got a pair, and I wanted to bring my other crashes home because they’re very expensive…but he’s a great person, a great wealth of knowledge and I’ve picked his brain about how he started out and how did he get to do clinics, and what he did, and he’s a great insight into all of that.
We’ve also done a few shows with Blake Shelton, just one offs and his drummer Tracy, he’s a friend of mine, he’s a really nice guy and just being able to talk with these guys, and hang out with them, having them watch you play and all that stuff, it’s cool. To see these older guys who’ve done it for so long watch younger guys like myself and other players coming up, appreciate what we’re doing, it’s nice. Let’s see…I’ve gotten kind of close with Darius Rucker’s drummer Jeff, he’s a super nice guys, we did a few things with them in Australia the past year and I’m hoping we do more stuff with them as time goes on. Great guy and incredible drummer. I just love watching him and picking out what he does. He also does everything so effortlessly. But so far I think that’s about it…I tell you what, if we ever do a show with The Police or The Dave Matthews Band that would be incredible [Laughs]. I also love Steve Jordan and Carter Beaufort. The way Steve Jordan is just so minimal and he just makes everything sound so great. On that latest John Mayer album where he didn’t even use a whole drum set! I think he just used Kick, Snare, Hat’s and maybe a Ride Cymbal, and it just grooved so hard. I love doing that.
I love playing along to the John Mayer records, because it really does help your pocket. I just love playing along to stuff too. I think that’s some of the best practice someone can do if you want to really get into that feel. Like, if you’re a huge fan of Stewart Copeland, play along to The Police records, just chart out some of the songs, or if you can’t chart out songs, do it by ear! His Hi-Hat work is incredible, as is Carter’s, that’s some of the best Hi-Hat, Double Pedal work I’ve heard in a long time, you know, outside of Metal and all those type of genres. But those three guys are just incredible. So, if we were to do a show with them, I’ll definitely let you know [Laughs]. But I don’t see that happening any time soon. It’s cool at the moment to be doing gigs with, and alongside friends, and go to festivals and see a bunch of friends there.
I bet! So in the same thread as touring, one thing that never really gets covered in magazines and interviews, is the sheer magnitude of actually touring! Things like how you stay fit and healthy, how you defeat the monotony of constant travel…so, how do you combat all of that?
Oh man! So for me, I wake up at around 9.30am to 10.00am every morning, just like an alarm clock goes off in my head, and then I usually go an eat a small breakfast, I always need a cup of coffee to wake me up. Sometimes we’ll go and play golf, just to get away if we have time, I don’t have a tech yet, so I still set myself up and break it down, which I don’t mind, because I like it to be perfect. I have local hands help me, but they basically just carry the snare and stuff like that to the spot, but I piece it all together. I don’t mind, you know. When you love it that much, you’re not going to care. Then, if we don’t get to play golf, because there is a lot of time during the day to sit around and do nothing. I actually stay off the bus as much as possible. So, once we get to the venue, I pretty much stay off the bus, unless I need to grab something from there. I’m off the bus until we leave. So, if we’re not golfing and I’m done setting up…I’m probably done setting up around 12.30pm to 1.00pm and, at least on the Jason Aldean tour, we only play 45 minutes as direct support…we usually carry some free weights and stuff like that, so I’ll usually go for a run or I’ll do a workout, and just do whatever I can to eat healthy.
I’m not a huge soda drinker, I’m trying to stay away from bread [Laughs], I’d say pizza is usually the death of me, but thankfully they don’t have that in the pre-show catering, but sometimes for post-show they do, but I tell you what…if you are able to stay away from the post-show food, because that usually happens around 11pm then you’re good. If you eat healthy during the day…you know…you walk around a lot more than people think…when you’re just kind of hanging out and just walking around and adventuring the property or, if it’s a shed and you have the whole lawn area, I’ll typically go for a run and jog up the massive set of stairs that they have, which is great cardio, but yeah, I definitely think it’s a lot about what you eat, and a lot of…even if there are a lot of things you want to eat, I’d say small portions or, a little bit of everything won’t hurt you…and stay away from desert…like if there’s apple pie, I’m going for it [Laughs]. But typically if we’re not golfing, I always try and bring exercise clothes, so I always try and find a time in the day to go for a run, or to lift weights or something like that, and then of course playing drums, even if it’s for forty-five minutes, you’re going to give it you’re A game, you’re going to give it one hundred and ten percent, so that’s a workout in itself. That’s pretty much what I do to stay healthy on the road.
Yeah! And so with shows like Madison Square Garden and things like that…you touched upon it earlier that it’s like a childhood dream to play there, do you have any pre show rituals or anything? Do you just get out there and go for it? Or do you do the same routine before every show, no matter the scale?
So, I don’t know if it’s necessarily a ritual…the guys thought it was really funny, because a few of the guys did a Facebook live thing and someone asked about pre-show rituals and they said that I did…I don’t think it’s a ritual…I just warm up. I stretch, I warm up…I think it’s just being a smart musician. I don’t want to go on stage cold. If you’re a guitar player, or a bass player or even if you’re the vocalist, you should still warm up doing something…stretch, get your fingers going if you’re playing guitar or bass. For me, I do eight on each hand, then seven, then six, five, four, to one, then back to eight, then I’ll do full strokes, I’ll do paradiddles, double paradiddles, triples, paradiddlediddles, some cheeses, even though I don’t use it in the set, I’ll do it just to get my hands really going. Then I’ll do the stretch where you do one arm over your head, then the other. I’ll also stretch my legs and stuff like that, because you’re still using that part of your body as well…so that’s pretty much my ritual. I’ll do that for about thirty to forty minutes before we go on. It’s never good to go on cold.
And what’s that like, walking out into a sold out Madison Square Garden? And can you really prepare for that?
You know…I try to. I had a lot of friends and family there, and a lot of them are huge fans, and asked if I was nervous and honestly I was like ‘No’…I get up and play Madison Square Garden but I’m looking at it and playing it like it’s just another show. I found out that ninety-three percent of the venue was full when we went on, which was pretty incredible…it’s kind of dark in there so I really couldn’t see much until they put the lights on the people…but, it’s just a massive adrenaline rush, you go out there and…I count off the songs, and the first count off right when you’re in, you’re like ‘Let’s do this thing!’, like, ‘This is my hometown and this is the part of my life I’ve been waiting for, for a long time.’ So that was a lot of fun. And actually a few weeks ago we played the new SunTrust park where The Braves play for forty-thousand people. That was part of this tour, but we were moved to second on the bill instead of third, and they actually had Hootie and the Blowfish as direct support, and they haven’t played together like that in a long time, so that was a really cool experience to see, and that was also definitely a bucket list to check off too, to do our first stadium show besides playing Nissan Stadium for CMA fest, so this was a little bit of a different animal, but just as exhilarating. To walk out and see that many people there at a baseball stadium, was just like, ‘Wow, this is incredible’. So those two so far have been my favourite shows…currently.
One thing that Mike Sleath touched upon, was that when you’re the one with the click, as the drummer, and when there are sections where the crowd have to clap in time or sing in time, it can become difficult to stay with the click, as the sheer noise of the crowd can hinder that…have you found anything similar?
So for us…we all have the click in our ears, so it’s not just me, so it’s nice to know that everybody else has it. The bass player will have it here or there, depending on whether he wants it or not, but he just follows me. But there have been times where, for instance, in Hurricane, we have them sing Acapella and they’ll either get a little ahead…typically ahead, not as much behind…you know…I’m really paying attention to the click, they may be a few seconds ahead but I’m like ‘okay, well here’s the 1’ and I always come back in and have to que everybody else…but it definitely happens…but I just like to hear the crowd do it, as they’re always seconds out [Laughs]. But yeah, it happens! It’s just exhilarating to hear the crowd sing…not only that song, but they sing every single word back to every song. It’s amazing. Even songs that aren’t even out yet. It’s just like wow. It’s truly amazing how die hard his fans are and how much they love his music.
We did two shows at The Ryman on the second half of our headlining tour in…this must have been February, I think…and it was the second and third show back, and we headlined The Ryman and my parents were there the first night and my dad was saying that he’s never been to a show where the crowd was on the feet the whole night singing every single word to every single song and didn’t stop, and he’s a huge music guy, he loves Springsteen and he loves The Beatles and all that classic rock, which I grew up on, and he’s never been to a show like that, he thought it was really cool that his son was playing drums for an artist where something like that was happening. That was two very fun nights…for your kid to be up on stage at The Ryman two nights in a row. Like, most people don’t get to say that. So those are two shows I’ll never forget.
And so, when it comes to tours, and things like that, with Luke was it the kind of thing where you learnt as you went along or did he just throw a lot of songs at you before you went, how do you personally go about learning new material?
So he’ll typically send us the new songs at least a few months in advance, at least a good like month or two in advance…
Oh yeah! It’s not like ‘Oh, you have a week to prepare..’. It’s usually you have a few months to learn them and so when it was time to learn a few of these new songs off the deluxe album I was like, I’m not going to chart them out when I’m at home, we’re on the road, we have plenty of time to kill, so I did my homework on the road. I charted them out, took them home, practiced them, and then when we had rehearsal I would still bring my charts because it takes some time to memorise the song, even maybe the first few shows I’d have my charts next to me, nobody else could see it, it’s like…as long as you’re playing the part well, that’s what matters. If I want to really get them down quickly, I’ll chart all five of them in one day, there’s been times…going back, back…when I first moved to town, where playing on Broadway, I charted twenty songs in one day! So, that was probably a little overkill [Laughs]…
…And so what’s your charting process? Like, would you do it note for note, or write it in shorthand?
So…what I do is I’ll chart out pretty much note for note…and I like to have every signature moment of what needs to be played on the chart. So, it’s like…if this fill is something everybody’s going to know and it’s going to stand out, you want the people to hear that. Sometimes there’s a few fills where they’re slightly different, but they’re close enough to the record where they don’t really know.
So, because you don’t play on the records in the studio, do you try and keep the fills the same for continuity sake?
Oh definitely! If there’s something that has to be there I’m not going to change it, at all. But yeah, I definitely try to be as close to the record as possible, I think that’s important. I don’t think you should be away from what the person played on the song to make it your own. You playing it already as yourself, you’re making it your own because you’re not the same player they are. You’re going to play it with your own feel and groove and all that stuff.
And do you know the drummer on the record?
I met him a few times. He’s really, really nice. And when I met him I thanked him for playing such cool parts [Laughs]. Because there’s some pretty sweet fills on the record. There’s some thirty-second note fills…
The fill in One Number Away always kills me…
The drummer that played on that track is actually a good friend of mine. The guy that played on that is just out of this world!
He’s great!...and now only two more. What kind of aspirations for yourself do you have from this point forward?
Oh man…So my next musical goal or chapter, is to slowly start doing studio work, even if it’s from my own house…also teaching, starting off with one student. I just want to help whoever loves drumming become a better musician, become a better drummer. Or if it’s a kid and they’re really serious about it and they want to pursue it like I did, then I want to help them get to their goals and tell them how to go about it and how to do it. And kind of teach them how I did it. I think it’s definitely helpful to know someone who’s…even still on their way to pursuing more goals of theirs. I also want to do clinics, and I know that will take time. The session stuff will take time too, even if I start doing it from home, it’s a foot in the door. Like, I did a session this morning and hopefully more will come from that, and I know another buddy who has a studio who wants me to do some stuff for him at some point. So, once again, it all goes back to who you know and all that stuff.
It’s definitely worth knowing a lot of the people in town, regardless of the guys you play with every weekend, and they’re like your family, it’s definitely important to know as many people as possible, especially if you want to pursue things like studio stuff…you know…if you know a guy who has a studio and he needs drums…he’ll just be like ‘oh okay I’ll just call my buddy and he’ll deliver’. So that’s probably next on my list. That and teaching. Maybe next year I’ll start to do clinics and hopefully will have room for me to bring a second kit out, or I guess I’ll be calling Guitar Centre or Sam Ash to supply a second kit and I can do clinics wherever we are then. So that’s kind of next on my musical journey.
Any artists you’d particularly like to play with?
That I haven’t played with yet?
…Like do you mean just touring wise?
In any capacity…
You know…not gonna lie…I’m pretty content with playing with Luke…currently he just puts on a great show, and it’s cool I get to be the guy behind him and be the one in the drivers seat. I’ve had people ask me, you know, ‘Hey, isn’t it getting kind of old to be playing Hurricane?’ or ‘How do you feel playing this song for the thousandth time?’ and I say honestly, I still love it! Because every crowd is different. They bring the energy, you bring the energy, you do it for them, and you do it because you love it, and if you didn’t love it, you wouldn’t do it anymore. I hope to be playing these songs for years to come, it’s always going to be fun, and the crowds are hopefully going to be getting better and better. So, I always find it funny when they ask if I’m sick of playing stuff, and I’m always like ‘No I’m not, do you get to see who we play it for?’. But yeah, so I guess if there was any other group…I guess, even sitting in with I would love, for just one song…The Foo Fighters. I love them so much. I love those guys. I love their music. I grew up on Rock and Roll. I listen to them every day, so. Them.
And lastly! What advice would you give to other musicians? And persons wanting to achieve the successes you have now and will undoubtedly continue to have the rest of your career?
Well…if you truly want to make it in the industry, you have to, I would say first off…live where it’s happening, because I think if you aren’t and you’re just going to audition, and you don’t live in that state or town, you have to travel, they’re going to give it to the guy of course who lives in town, it’s easier for them. Definitely network. Meet as many people as you can, because you never know what opportunity will come knocking on your door. Hustling. You definitely have to hustle, especially when you’re first starting out, don’t say no, because I think it’s important that the more people see you play, the more your name gets out. I think even now, even the level I’m at, don’t take it for granted. I think it’s important not to have ego. You can be the best player in the world, but if you have a bad attitude, no one’s going to want to play with you, but if you have a really good attitude, even if you’re just an average to moderate player, as long as you can play the song, that’s what matters. I think now, it’s seventy percent hang, thirty percent playing.
I’m really glad you’ve touched upon that last point, as it’s something I’ve been told time and time again…time and time again I’ve been told that you spend more time with the people you play with than your own family, so it has to work, and you have to be able to get along with that person…and that just genuinely being a nice person goes a long way...
Yes…and also, you could riff on guitar and do the coolest fills on drums, but it doesn’t mean you can necessarily play that song, or whatever you need to play for that record the way it needs to feel. I mean…especially when you have to live on a bus. If there’s ten of you guys on a bus, you just all need to get along. If there’s one bad egg, it just ruins the mood. Like, what’s the point? Then you’re just not having fun…you know…you did it because you love it, want to have fun, yes it’s still a business and you take it seriously, but it’s work. I think sometimes people think, ‘Oh you get to do what you love every weekend’, yes that’s true, but it’s still considered a job! You know…something could happen tomorrow and boom you’re out of a job. So, you should never take it for granted. Hopefully that sums it up [Laughs].
[Laughs] That’s some real solid advice! Thank you so much for a great, great interview.
Thanks again to Jake for an amazing interview.
Thanks for reading!
© Dan Lewis 2018
William Bowerman is a Musical Director and Drummer whose current gig is with Dua Lipa, the up and coming pop sensation from London. His major past project was with electronic pop star La Roux, where he stayed for 7 years. Other projects include Klangkarussell and Mikky Ekko. William has played almost every major television show, festival and stadium throughout his career which include, but isn’t limited to, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, Top Of The Pops, Glastonbury Sessions, The Brit awards, The O2 Arena, London, The Greek, Los Angeles and Times Square, New York. William is endorsed by Yamaha Drums, Paiste Cymbals, Vic Firth Drum Sticks and is an Ableton Live artist. I caught up with William from Moscow where he is on a current short press tour with Dua Lipa.
So, how are you?
I’m not bad, I’m in Moscow. I’m quite impressed as we’re in the same hotel that Donald Trump got pissed on, which is quite exciting…that whole shower gate…that was in room 1110 which is just up there [Laughs].
How is the Dua Lipa gig going?
Dua Lipa gig is going very well. Her debut record just came out and it’s been received really well around the world. Yeah…it’s a great record and we're in the position at the moment where she’s really in demand, so we’re kind of playing catch up and trying to jet around and get wherever we can…but going really, really well, and she’s just an absolute pleasure and her music is amazing, so it hardly feels like work.
Yeah! She seems like a cool person.
She’s great! She’s really great. You know, one of my closest friends now, she’s amazing.
So, is that who you’re with now?
Yep! I’m out here with Dua Lipa, yeah, we’ve got a label showcase tomorrow and a festival the day after for some radio station.
That’s great! So, you’re about to embark on tour as the supporting act for Bruno Mars in September, how is the prep going for that?
Yeah! It’s good, we were just having a meeting getting everything together for rehearsals and everything. So, I’m Dua Lipa’s Musical Director as well so just trying to get everything prepared for that. Yeah, it’s a big tour! There’s a couple nights in Maddison Square Gardens in there…and it’s my 30th birthday on the tour so, really important tour [Laughs]. Yeah, prep is going good, basically we’ll just be doing a 30/40 minute singles set, bosh the singles out and they’re always really fun to do, no filler, just pop songs. So yeah, getting there.
So, have you met Bruno before?
Not yet no! So, we’ve got September with Bruno in America, then next march we’ve got a month in Australia with him too, so I think we’ll be seeing a lot of him in those gigs!
And in between you’ve got a UK tour with Dua too right?
Yeah! We go Bruno Mars in America and then we start our UK and European run a few days after that and then we go straight to South America, we’ve just announced the Coldplay support in South America, and then that goes straight into the US tour, and that goes straight into the radio dates, and then it’s Christmas! Busy end to the year. So yeah really, really busy.
So how did you go about getting the Dua Lipa gig?
Dua Lipa gig came about…I worked with another band on her management, a band called Klangkarrussel as their Music Director, and basically I went to the management offices to pick up the show laptops for Klang and Dua’s manager went ‘oh actually I need an MD give me a call tomorrow’, so I was like ‘cool alright’ [Laughs] and then I met with Dua the week after and we got on really well and just kind of from there really, it was through the manager being a friend of mine. That was about two years ago.
She’s blown up now too!
Yeah! This year especially in the UK, like, last year she started doing really well in Europe, she’s very big in Europe, and the UK took a very long time to catch up and then the start of this year, 3 songs were in the top 15 at the same time and it just really kicked off this year and she’s taken it in her stride and being a pro, and yeah, it’s been a real adventure just kind of trying to see if we can knock it up for her each time you know.
Yeah! So, before that, you mentioned you’ve played with another band and I read you’ve played with a host of other artists for shows including with La Roux at Glastonbury. Up to this point in your career what major steps lead you to get here?
Well I mean…I started with La Roux when I was 20 I think. I was with her for 7 years, you know, most of my professional career has been with Ellie. And then basically in the gaps between records kind of playing for a few different people, but yeah, La Roux’s always been my main project. It came about really, I was in a band when I was 18 and we got a record deal, we got signed and we started touring…I hate the word, but ‘professionally’ when I was about 18. That was what it was and we had very moderate success, but I met a few people who ended up pointing me in the right direction and you know, again, a friend of mine worked with La Roux’s manager, and when they were looking for a drummer they were like ‘oh’… I got him to put in a good word and I got someone else I knew to put in a good word so the manager was getting attacked at all sides, and in the end, went for me which is good. So, it was yeah, it all kind of leads back to my old teenage band, strangely. We were kind of like electronic pop emo with kind of hardcore drumming, because I liked hardcore and didn’t know what to do in a pop gig firstly. Yeah it all leads back to being 18 and angry. [Laughs]
So, is that career path what you saw for yourself? Did you train anywhere in music?
No…I tried. I did a week at BIMM in Brighton…but we…I got my place in February, I started my band in March and we got signed in August. So, by the time I started BIMM we kind of got a record deal already and it was a matter of…I sat down with my parents and I was like ‘look I can either learn about how to do it, or I can just give it a go and see how that works out’, and my dad had a similar thing, he’s an actor, and he had a similar thing where he dropped out of university to become an actor to pursue his career and he’s been professional for 50 years. So, it would have been a bit rich for him to go ‘no stay in school’ [Laughs]. So, I had lessons when I was a kid, and my technique is terrible, and I can’t do any chops and I can’t do any of that. I come from punk and I come from hardcore where it was just all about passion and it was about hitting it hard, hitting it fast and all this kind of stuff. And, as frustrating as it can be sometimes when it just needs a very simple groove, I’ve tried to make my awful playing into my USP.
Yeah, no training, and just…I think I have, you know, a relatively tasteful ear to music and I think, kind of knowing when to play, when to be busy, that’s helped me well and I’ve managed to get on with people enough for them to not realize I’m not very good at the drums, so it’s all good. [Laughs]
I mean, you’ve done incredibly well from being authentic and being true to yourself though! That’s a really cool message, and it’s something that’s been said to me before. It simply comes down to being brave enough to play what you want to play and be authentic in that way…
Yeah, I think there’s been a few points in my career where it’s been, you know, certain people have said stuff which for them would have been throwaway comments but for me it’s really stuck. La Roux I learned so much from and the way she wrote her music…she’d effectively get a drum loop, loop it and write a song over it, and the drum loop in the end would just be the song, that’s what they do. So, you know, I spent the first 4 years with La Roux on an electronic drum kit and then we moved across to a kind of hybrid electronic/acoustic type thing, and I came in doing some fills, hitting cymbals and whatever and she was like ‘no, just play the groove’ and it took me a minute and then I actually just realized her songs…every time I hit a cymbal it sounded out of place, so there would be songs where I didn’t hit a cymbal and I just kind of…Kick Snare Hats, hold it for three minutes and that’s all it needed. And I kind of made a rule for myself of if her mouth is open and something is coming out, don’t hit a cymbal, but if she stops and a cymbal is needed, hit it then, or the same with fills as well, if she’s singing, never do a fill, but if she stops and it needs a gap filling, do a little fill and only if it’s on the record.
I kind of started working in this very regimented, very programmed way of playing, which has stuck with me massively. And now, I pride myself in trying to play exactly what’s on the album and play the same thing every night.
Which must be very difficult in live situations right?
It’s difficult! And I actually think it’s more exciting than playing everything all the time, you know. There’s a lot of amazing drummers I know who can just fall over a drum kit and make it sound wonderful. But for me, I go into rehearsals like that, the same way I speak to the musicians and we work out the parts and that’s the same thing they’ll do every night. I do it to myself too, and it’s like ‘this is the fill I will play for the next two years and I will do it at the same point every night’ because then, you know, take Dua for example, she won’t ever notice it because it’s the same every night and she will never get distracted and she will always be able to sing. We’re just a blanket underneath and nothing should ever stick out. She should never notice me anymore than she needs to, to do her thing. We joke about it saying ‘strictly business’, is what we call it, and some people would find that very boring, but I find it really quite thrilling.
I think there’s a definite art to it, at the end of the day you’re there to support whoever you’re playing for...
Yeah! She pays our bills, no one is there to see us. I think once you get that in your head…and I’m sure at 21 I didn’t have it in my head, I don’t think anyone does at that point, but coming up to 30 it’s actually quite a thrilling thing of, you do your job, you do your bit professionally and you do it well, and you watch the crowd clap the singer and she is loving it, and they’re loving it and it’s like I did my little bit to support her to perform and do that, and it’s a very selfless way of doing it, and much more thrilling than getting applause for yourself I strangely find.
And I think as far as MD’ing shows, if I go in to rehearsals and the drummer has been sent a part and they come and they change it, you go ‘what are you doing? Why aren’t you just playing what you were asked to play?’. Because it might seem to them when they’re practicing, it might seem really boring, so they put loads if stuff in, but actually once you put them as a piece of the puzzle together, and they’re doing all that, it’s not going to fit. So, I think it’s a very important thing, not just for drummers, but I think for any musician to kind of play less. Do exactly what you’re supposed to, and not in a strict harsh way, but you do what you’re supposed to and you play less and you’ll fit into the puzzle better and ultimately, you’ll sound better, because everyone will be together. It’s working as a team and not as an individual, that’s the thing I hate most about a lot of pop musicians…is they don’t think about…they think as an individual and not as a team.
Yeah! So, in your role as an MD, obviously, you were MD for La Roux for all those years, and now Dua Lipa, that involves a lot more than just a drumming position I assume? And what other things would be involved with MD’ing?
Yeah. So, the role with La Roux was very different. It was Ellie who called the shots. She did everything. She told us what she wanted and we made it happen, and that was fun. Dua is different, she’s so busy constantly that there just has to be someone full time to make the live show happen basically, and that’s my role. With Dua I will be sent…to take a new song for example, I’ll be sent the individual parts to a song by the producer or the mixer or engineer, I’ll go through the parts, learn the song, listen to the song a few times, mix it, so that if I have the MP3 of the song and have all the individual parts I will solo the MP3 and then unmute it and balance it to as close as I can get it. Then, I’ll listen to the most prominent thing and see what you can hear. Usually, rule of thumb for me is that, if there is a piano part playing all the way through it then the keyboard player gets the piano part. If there’s a full bass line through it, give it to the bass player, and it’s different for different bands, but you’ll kind of go through all the parts individually and work out what you think you would want to see…or how I do it, is what you would want to see live. Who would you want to see playing that? Often there’s decisions to be made. The lead part of the song may be such a particular sound or a sample or something that you know it could never be recreated properly and do it justice live, so that’s where for example, you go, ‘right that will be your backing track and maybe the keyboard player will play the supporting role’, and song to song that changes.
I’ll then work out who plays what, send the musicians their parts with some notes about how I want it played, this kind of thing, obviously bounce my own drum part out…I play drums in Dua as well, so I do the drum role, make sure every one’s okay then get into rehearsals and we usually…for Dua for example, I’ll do one musician at a time, start with Matty the bass player and we’ll go through and be like, ‘right are you happy?’, and he usually…he’s such professional that he’ll have gone ‘right, I’ve learned this on bass like you asked, or keys like you asked, but I’ve also learned it on the opposites’. So, it’s like cool we’ve got A and B and see what sounds best. Because often, you know, things change in rehearsal. So, we’ll go through that, then I’ll work with Ed, and Ed has a very particular sound, and it’s fantastic so I’ll often say to Ed, ‘right, this is the part you’ve got, this is the part I’ve sent you, what do you have that you can add on to that?’ and he’ll go, ‘well actually I’ve got this, or I could do that’ and he’s a much more competent guitar player than me…well I mean that he’s a guitar player. Sometimes he’ll come up with something and it’s like ‘that’s amazing do that!’, and then I’ll do the drums and we’ll play along together and we’ll work…you know, often it needs 5/10 goes through to really sit into it.
And then once we’re playing well we’ll work with our front of house engineer who might say ‘that’s working/that’s not working, I need more level from the backing vocals off the backing track’ or whatever, and then I’ll work with our programmer on making sure we’re all balanced and it all sits together nicely. Then, when that’s done it will be a matter of…I’ll usually send a live recording to Dua if she’s not able to make rehearsals, and if she is in rehearsals we’ll quickly go through the backing vocals…we’ll work out a good lead vocal part for her to sing, sometimes it will be part of the backing vocals, sometimes it will be some sort of call and response thing where she’ll back off and the backing vocals will take care of it to give her more room to breathe. We’ll go through that just me and her, give the band a bit of time off, and then we’ll all come back in together and hopefully on a good day it just fits together and it works. On a bad day, it takes a bit of time, but…it’s kind of just overseeing…overseeing everything. I’m a big believer in delegating and using every one’s strengths. Like our bass player is…I personally think on this gig is our hidden weapon. He has such a particular sound and he’s so solid that I just know exactly what that’s going to sound like on a song, and I can go ‘Matty, you can take care of that, you know exactly what to do’, and it’s just kind of overseeing and making sure everything is sitting in place.
And going back in time was picking the band and the suitable musicians for Dua…
…I was literally just about to ask that [Laughs]
Yeah! Picking a band. And I picked two of the La Roux band, who I really get on with, and I knew Dua would get on with too, who also share a similar view on playing less. We all learned that together with La Roux I think, so they kind of came in knowing that it wasn’t a gospel type thing and it wasn’t a chops show. And yeah just overseeing, but trusting I think is a very important thing, trusting that everyone is on the same page.
So obviously, you chose Matty and Ed based on similar musical beliefs and experience as yourself, is that something you would also look for if you had to select musicians for a new band?
Yeah it would. I’m very…my taste is not…like I can’t stand chops, and I can’t stand gospel stuff and I can’t stand showing off, it’s just not my cup of tea. I’m sure it’s useful for some people. But obviously, it matters what style of music, I’m picking musicians around what style of music…I just got an email about a new project and as soon as I heard I was like ‘I know the drummer for that, so you can kind of hear people’s playing sometimes. And most importantly is personality’. Yeah, It’s the most important thing if you know someone’s going to get on with someone. It’s 10% playing music together and its 90% hanging out in a splitter van driving from the airport to the hotel, that kind of thing. So, that’s the most important thing I think. And if possible…people with a bit of experience is good, often sometimes it’s getting younger people in with less experience which also has its benefits, but also I like getting people…you know, on this tour I deliberately picked a team who are a little older, you know, our band are all nearly 30, or just over 30, Dua is 21, but all the crew are in their 30’s, and it’s people who have done it before, so she got thrown into this position of being quite successful quite early on in her career, but we could all be like ‘do you know what, don’t worry, we’ve done this festival before and this is how it was for us’, and she goes ‘okay’ and she relaxes and it was a very deliberate choice and I think personality is such an important thing on the road definitely.
It probably takes a weight off her shoulders knowing that she’s got those types of people with her…
Hugely, yeah! She’s even said that it absolutely does.
That’s great. So, what would be your advice to people wanting to break that line between not professional yet and then obviously being picked for tours and things like that?
I think that it’s important to not be too snobby about what you take in the beginning. It is the dream and you know, only working for people you love, but it’s very rare, I feel very, very lucky that I’ve accidentally found myself in at times. But at the beginning you do have to do stuff that maybe is not what you’d listen to, maybe it’s not what you want to do, but you will always meet someone which will lead to another gig, which will lead to another gig, which will lead to the gig you want, you know, it works like that. So, I think take everything, take everything you can, don’t have a social life, just work, work, work, work, work and take everything, get on with people…is very important. And…you know, do as you’re told as well, if you are told to do certain things…if a management say’s ‘I need you to wear all pink for a show’ don’t fight back, because they’ll just find someone else, you just buy a pink shirt and get on with it. It is ultimately a job, you will ultimately do things you don’t want to do, but just take all the gigs you can. Make sure your stuff works, make sure it’s suitable for what you need…like don’t turn up with a double kick, 26inch metal bass drum or whatever, if you’re going for a folk job, you know, just get something really suitable and stable and that you know is going to work. Do what you’re told, be friendly, be professional, be there early. And if you do it alright you will…I genuinely think that if you want it enough and you do it right you will fall into it. I really feel strongly about that. I think, you will be found if you’re good enough and you’re the right person to do things. And just have fun as well, yes, it’s work, but it’s brilliant. It’s good work. So, have fun, and be professional.
That’s great advice! As you mentioned, a lot of the music you play and have played, is based on electronic music, and has pushed you to learn how to program and get very used to programs and equipment like Ableton and the use of electronic drum pads. How much would you say this has helped in getting you to where you are now and how has it helped?
I would say…if I couldn’t use Ableton, I wouldn’t have had any work for the past 5 years. Genuinely. Like, I think, I get all my work as a drummer through being an MD now. It’ll be like ‘oh you’re an MD, fantastic, come and do this, oh you also play the drums too, you can do that’, it’s just kind of like an added afterthought. I very much realized…my first band was electronic, then I started with La Roux and she’s completely electronic, it brought me into a world I didn’t know, after growing up in hardcore and in punk and things, it wasn’t really anything I knew about, I enjoyed the Postal Service and some electronic bands like that, but I didn’t know much about it. I then realized very early on that just as an acoustic drummer I wouldn’t find any work, because that’s just not what people were looking for and all records are just completely electronic drums. So, I got myself a copy of Ableton live when I was about 22/23, and I had a bit of time off with La Roux, and I locked myself in my house for 2 or 3 months and I made some shit songs, I just made some crap songs but in the process worked out how to do that and learn the software.
Then, when we started back with La Roux for the second album we brought in a programmer called Ali Staton who was Madonna’s old programmer and a very good producer and he showed me how the software could be used in a way for live music. And then I worked out a way that you could use it in backing tracks and also for keys sounds and now I use my drum triggers through it and just through playing and experimenting and whatever I realized that for me personally, Ableton is the software I use. You could make whole shows and get quite creative stuff out of the technical side of things, and I’m a drummer….my theory isn’t what it should be, but I’ve worked this software out enough that you can still be very creative…in almost like a DJ producer sense and turn it into a musical show. It’s probably the most important part of what I do, being able to do electronics now…and also the most fun, in the sense of, ‘right this sounds like this on record, it’s 808 and it’s claps and it’s clicks, but if I do that live it’s going to sound flat, how can I tie this with this, and how can we make that work together?’ and it’s the bane of my life and also the most fun part of my job, you know, it’s really, really fun to do.
Like with Dua I play…there’s only three of us in the band, so sometimes I play melodies on my pads, and then I have a kit in one of the songs where every time I hit the snare it triggers a little guitar loop that’s on the record, so it’s not just on backing track, and it will always be completely in time, so I play the melody with one hand and snare trigger will play the little loop with the other, and I send them a little stereo channel out front, which is effectively my keyboard line. And it’s fun! It doesn’t need to be like that, it could just be on track, but it’s a bit of fun, you know, in all this.
Like you’ve mentioned, you use a lot of trigger pads to emulate studio sounds in a live context…so, what would be your process for thinking ‘how can I make that sound like it does in the studio, on stage?’
I think for me…I’m a very, very big fan of electronic music and live, I prefer hearing electronic sounds than I do to acoustic sounds. So, me and will our front of house on Dua, we mix our triggers much louder than the drums and we work out a blend that we like for everything else. Like my kick, I always have a kick trigger on…so I have the acoustic kick, I have one electronic kick, which is on every single song, so you’ve got consistent acoustic, consistent electric and then a blend of that songs sample. So, say I have electronic kick 101 who’s playing through the whole set, and then…take a song, ‘Be The One’ for example, the ‘Be The One’ kick sound would be blended in there, so you get a bit of the characteristics, but you still get the consistency of the same sound, but you get an electronic smack in the face, like a dance kick. Same with the snares, you know. I just have my snare and then I layer my claps and snaps or whatever on top of that. I’ll always try and make it sound as close to that as possible and just by having a live kit underneath it will make it sound a bit different, and it will make it sound a bit more live, having overheads and live hats and stuff…if it’s a super electronic song I will back off the acoustic kit a lot.
I’m a huge fan of doing…like the verse is electronic and then kicking in the chorus acoustic, that triggers worked a lot with Dua as well. That seems to work, and it always kicks in enough. It’s working out tricks that work, you know, I know a lot of MD’s who that doesn’t work for, but for me I’ve found it does. So, it’s working out little tricks that, you know, ‘Ahh that works, that’ll work with this etc., but not forgetting the consistency, that’s something we’ve learned on this gig of…people still want the drums to sound like drums every song. They don’t want it to suddenly be whatever and suddenly whatever, there needs to be some form of consistency. Just layering…layering things up with triggers. If it’s super electronic just using the pads, but maybe I do for example…she has a song called ‘Scared To Be Lonely’ with Martin Garrix she did, and its 808 hats and claps in the verse, so I do that, chorus I go live, second verse I do the same but instead of hitting the snare pad, I hit the snare with a trigger on, because you’ve already had the snare in the chorus, then the next chorus I do it completely live, so it’s building in its own way…because electronic songs often are this like no dynamic, so it’s building it with dynamics like that live.
And that just comes from experience of playing a host of shows and in different situations?
Yeah, I would say so…watching a lot of other bands…‘How do you do that? How did they do that’ this kind of thing…that’s very helpful. And…YouTube, that kind of thing, seeing what people do. There was a guy, my first experience in to triggering was this guy called ‘Duracell’, he was this French, super pretentious French drummer, who played video game soundtracks on his drum kit, and it was like, you know, I played a gig with him when I was 17 and I watched it and I was like ‘how are you doing this? And how are your drums going through a computer? What’s going on?’ And taking a bit of that, like I said with the melody for this new stuff, I thought about this super pretentious French drummer and tied it in with what we learned with La Roux about making things super electronic, and then where’s the middle ground for that? And just bits of experience and playing and mistakes! I’ve done it before where it’s just not worked and you learn from that and you don’t do it next time, so.
Absolutely! So, you’ve now played numerous big shows with Dua and obviously with La Roux for 7 years, but with the current Dua Lipa gig, did any of you in the band including Dua see this level of success coming?
…I personally did, yeah! I got played ‘Hotter Than Hell’ when I went in for that first meeting and I was like ‘this is a smash! It’s amazing!’. The first rehearsals we did with her, like she came in and I was like ‘look, give it a go, see how it goes’…she came in and pranced around like the biggest pop star you’d ever seen…she just has it, she has something. So, I would’ve been…the position we’ve been in… like this next tour we’re doing academies, we’re doing Brixton Academy and we’re doing some arenas in Europe and it’s genuinely felt for all of the crew and for us and for Dua and everything, it’s like ‘right, finally, this is where we’re supposed to be, right, let’s go!’. And it’s almost just been waiting to get to the point she is now…it’s very strange. Buy yeah! Absolutely, I completely 100% knew that it was going to be as big as it is.
Did she see it? You mentioned she’s 21, right?
Yeah…she’s very modest. She’s very modest. I think she knew the songs were strong, and she’s very switched on professionally. Like, she knows exactly what she’s doing, she’s got the whole of her career in her hands, you know, she’s in charge of all of it, it’s wonderful! She’s modest and I don’t think she’ll have assumed…because it’s not been easy, she’s worked so hard, so she probably sees a natural progression for her work to how big she’s getting. But I saw it yeah. [Laughs]
[Laughs] So, on topic of the upcoming tours. With the tour prep you can completely control. You can rehearse and get ready in that way, but how do you mentally prepare for tours opening for Bruno Mars and Coldplay, and other shows of that magnitude?
Umm…you rehearse, and you do…it’s really strange…genuinely, the big shows like that don’t feel much different to the little shows. Once you’re on stage, there’s the three of us across the back and Dua in front, wherever we are, whatever size room changes, we’re always the same formation, whether we are playing Weatherspoon’s tomorrow, we’ll still be three across the back and one at the front. For Maddison Square Gardens it will be the same thing, the same show, the same people, the same…monitors will be there, front of house will be there…it actually doesn’t make much difference.
Do you find comfort in that kind of set up? Is that why you do it the way it is?
Yeah! And we have amazing crew around us who are just…. the show feels so safe and for Bruno and Coldplay we’re goanna be just changing a bit of the set that we’ve done before…some of it we’ve been playing for two years now and that just feels very comforting and very second nature. I think we’re confident in the live shows, so we’re not going over there going ‘oh god I hope we can do it’, we’re like ‘right! Let’s show them what we’ve got’, which is a nice feeling! A lot of singers don’t have that, and Dua has that. Just before she goes on she gets super pumped and she’s confident, it’s amazing!
Yeah! I’ve seen a few of your live videos online and she owns it!
She does! She really does. And its, you know, I think because of how strong she is live, her shows are getting bigger and bigger because people want to keep going back and seeing her. But yeah, mentally preparing, we always hang out, we listen to Katy Perry, we put pop music on before we go on for like half an hour, we get in a really good place and whatever happens, an hour before, me and her go off and do our warm ups together, half an hour before we all hang out, listen to pop music, have a laugh. Then we hang out on the side of the stage, we do our huddle that we do at every gig and then we go on. So, the whole routine before stays exactly the same, so it feels like, in the best way possible, going to the office, delivering, and then leaving.
Again, there’s probably a lot of comfort from that routine before each show?
A lot yeah. There really is.
So, what is your individual warm up before you go on?
It’s terrible…it’s terrible [Laughs]. I mean, I’ve never been taught how to warm up, I don’t know what you’re supposed to do, and there’s probably people who spend hours doing it, I’m just so bad at it [Laughs]. I have a very bad back from my years of BMXing and hunching over a bike, so I have to do my back stretches that my physio gives me. I used to have wrist problems when my first record with La Roux…it was electronic pads, so the vibrations were just going straight into my forearms and I was getting really bad RSI, so I do my stretches there and my arms and all this. And then…embarrassingly, my warm up really…I do a bit of singles and doubles and paradiddles because that’s what I learned when I was 7 [Laughs]. There’s an album by a hardcore band called The Bled called ‘Pass The Flask’, which I’ve listened to on my headphones for years, and I just air drum for about half an hour and I pretend I’m in a hardcore band…and then by the time it gets to playing pop music, it’s like ‘oh this is easy’. I use heavier sticks when I’m warming up too, so when I get onto my kit it feels a little lighter.
Stretches is mainly my thing, and me and Dua do it together when we can, just kind of, neither of us like warming up, but we’ve both got to do it, so it’s like ‘right come on let’s do it’ [Laughs]. So, just some stretches, some paradiddles and some air drumming pretending I’m in a hardcore band…that’s my warm up technique. It’s embarrassing to hear this [Laughs] I’m a professional right I should be doing this properly…
I think it’s great! I think your relationships with the people you work with is amazing.
Yeah. There are some gigs that are very…the singer turns up two minutes before stage time, leaves, doesn’t even know the band’s name. That exists. That for me isn’t personally why I’m in the job. Like, for me it’s all about personal relationships and genuinely meeting people who have a goal in life. Like, Dua’s goal was to become very successful, be a pop star, be a songwriter, do this, and I wanted to help her. It’s a personal relationship. My mums a psychotherapist and has probably drilled it into me [Laughs]. But it’s like, that for me is the most rewarding thing, and in my role as an MD as well of…just making sure she’s alright, making sure she’s happy, and making sure that this what she sees in front of her is what she’s got in her mind…a bit of mothering in that way, and that’s actually really enjoyable.
Well I think it’s amazing that your job is to help facilitate that!
And I also think that it was great how you spoke about your decision making for picking her band for this gig, and how you took how she would get on with them into huge consideration…
There is a thing about...the older you get as a musician, you see a lot less of the idiots. They kind of get weened out I think. There’s a lot of people, especially the egos, the egos start disappearing a bit, and you start seeing people who have managed to maintain relationships with people on the road, and ultimately, MD’s are always going to hire their friends, because they want to work with people they like. Like any job, I think it’s the same with any job in the creative field. I can’t remember where I was going with that [Laughs]...
[Laughs] So, obviously, you’ve already done a lot up to this point in your career, you’ve played a lot of big shows and are about to embark on more, do you have a goal for further down the line? what’s next for you?
Yeah, I do. I’ve still not done Jools Holland…all my friends have done Jools Holland [Laughs]. It nearly happened with La Roux and didn’t happen last minute, it nearly happened with Dua a while ago but it didn’t last minute, I know it’ll happen, but all my friends have done it and that’s kind of when my dad will go ‘yeah he’s on Jools Holland, cool’ [Laughs]. I think ultimately, I’m going to be MD’ing more, I’m going to be drumming a bit less, and you know, I got married last year and I want to be a dad, and I want to be at home a bit more. So, I think it will be a natural progression of taking more MD work and less drumming work, but that reflects on my personal life not as a professional thing, that’s just to make that more enjoyable. Because, ultimately, there is a hard point of being a musician that goes on a world tour from September to Christmas, you know, it is what it is. There’s that. I want to take Dua up to Arenas. I know she could do that on her own…well we’ve got some this year on this next tour, there’s a few arenas, but I want to do the o2 with Dua, you know, we’ve done it as far as like a radio show, but not a headline show.
I just want her to just be as happy at a live show as possible and then ultimately when she takes some time off, which I’m sure she will do at some point, do the same again for someone else. I want to keep helping in that way. And…just still not having to get a job [Laughs]. I’m still a musician, I’ve been doing this for 10 years now and I reckon I’ve got another 10 in me to do that, so, continue to have fun, still find challenges…because I don’t find my job easy, I find it hard, and I want to still be challenged in that way, I never want to just get back on autopilot. But just keep working hard, keep being happy, keep making music, keep progressing in whatever that may be.
And then lastly, I know we touched upon this earlier, but what advice do you have for musicians wanting to go into similar or the same style profession you have and achieve what you have and continue to?
Taking whatever they can, you know, online is very important now I think, you know, finding something…actually, you know what, let’s take that back…let’s start with, do what you do stylistically and obviously, you get the job done and you learn the parts, but don’t be afraid of what you do. I did a good few auditions in my early 20’s after the first La Roux record, where I tried to be a pop drummer, I didn’t get any of them, and I was like ‘you know what, screw this, I can’t do that, I’m not very good at that, I’m going to do what I do, which is a slightly heavier way of playing pop music and if someone likes it then I’m the right guy for the job’. Do what you do. Work hard. Don’t be afraid to get knocked down because it will happen, and you will make some ridiculous mistakes, and you will laugh at them one day, but it’s okay. Work hard. Keep going. Listen to your MD. And just enjoy yourself! Because if you’re not enjoying yourself, there’s literally no point. This job can be quite mentally challenging, and if you’re not getting enough enjoyment out of it as you should be, then it’s not worth going through the turmoil to be there. Have fun. Work hard and be yourself. Be nice to people and you’ll be just fine.
I think that’s incredibly sound advice! Thank you so much for doing this and giving me your time, I know you’re obviously here there and everywhere!
No, not at all! Like, I emailed so many drummers when I was, you know, before I got my La Roux job, being like ‘can you offer advice?’, exactly what you were just saying, a few of them replied and it was lovely, not even big people, but some people just replied and was like ‘yeah this will help, this will help’, and it does, it really helps. I think there was a quote I saw earlier and it said, ‘Be who you needed when you were younger’ and I think if just one person takes anything from this, even though it’s just me, and who am I to offer advice, then it’s worth a chat. Absolutely.
Thank you again to William for an incredible interview and for being so humble and for the great advice!
You can find his website Here.
Thank you for reading!
© Dan Lewis 2017
Mike Sleath is one of the most talented drummers to come out of Canada who is currently about to embark on a yearlong world tour with artist Shawn Mendes. Other notable names Mike has worked with include Cody Simpson, Francesco Yates, Conor Maynard, Jessie McCartney and more. During his time with Shawn, there is little Mike hasn’t done. Shows in the United States like The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, The Ellen Degenerous Show, The American Music Awards, Saturday Night Live, The Late Late show with James Corden to name but a few. In the United Kingdom his list of shows played which include Wembley Stadium, The Voice UK, The Jonathan Ross show and returns for the final gig of his European tour. In this incredibly humble and unique look into Mike’s life and career we discuss how he got where he is, his advice and aspirations and the people he’s met along the way. Mike is also endorsed by some of the biggest names in drums – Yamaha Drum Makers, Sabian Cymbals and Remo Drum heads. We caught up just before he leaves for rehearsals for The Shawn Mendes Illuminate World Tour.
So you’ve just been on tour with Shawn Mendes, which included not only arena shows, but numerous talk and awards shows around the world. How did all that go?
It was really good. Yeah we kind of just finished a big promo run, I guess it was maybe at the end of last year. And we went all through Europe, and we did like you said, all those talk shows and stuff. It was really cool. And next week we’re going to be going to Japan and do the same thing. So we do a bit of promo in Japan and then we start his next world tour next month.
How long is that tour?
That goes...they’re still adding dates, but it’s going right into February of 2018. Yeah, it’s a very aggressive tour. [Laughs]
That’s a long time!
Yeah…we do pretty much the whole world, I mean minus, we don’t go to Africa, unfortunately, I’d love to do Africa. So other than that, we do like everything.
Amongst the shows you’ve now played in the UK, you’ve also played The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, The Late Late Show with James Corden, The Ellen Degenerous Show, The Teen Choice Awards, American Music Awards and also shared the stage with some of the greatest artists of this generation. Did any of you in the band, including Shawn, see him gaining the mass success he’s having around the world?
Yeah, he for sure. I’ve been working with him for about two years now and when we started, it was kind of, we’d do these shows and he’d be the opener, you know, or like a smaller kind of act, but they’re obviously large shows. And now it’s kind of, when we come through he’s one of the bigger artists. So we’ve noticed that. It’s gotten really cool. Also the amount of girls waiting outside hotels. [Laughs] It started off you get a couple, and now it’s like into the hundreds, to the point where he can’t leave the hotel.
I bet it’s quite a surreal life then right?
Yeah! It’s very cool just being kind of an outsider seeing what he goes through, the trials and stuff. It’s pretty interesting.
He just seems and comes across as a very normal kind of person…
Yeah, he’s extremely just normal down to earth. Almost like he thinks it’s normal. Almost like it’s just another day, kind of thing. Yeah it’s really interesting.
Leading on from the last questions - what were some of the major steps you took to get you to this point in your life?
Like as far as for myself to be able to do those?
Yeah? like there is never really a blueprint to things like that, but is there a kind of, this thing lead to that thing, and here you are?
Yeah! Like for me, I tried to get into school. We have a pretty good music program here in Toronto, it’s at a school called Humber. And right out of high school I auditioned. I didn’t get in that year. I worked so hard, so hard on everything I thought I should know – couldn’t get in, so I was heartbroken and was like, this is crazy. [Laughs] But I was touring with a band at the time and we were doing pretty well in Canada, so then I auditioned again the following year – still didn’t get in – like who was auditioning, like Neil Pert was on the panel [Laughs]. So I still didn’t get in, and I’m telling you, I worked like crazy. And then I auditioned a third year in a row and they denied me again. And so I was like you know, I can’t, I can’t do that.
So I was touring with this band, and the biggest kind of shows we were doing were maybe at most like 1000 people a night or something – 500 a night, in that kind of range. So I was very comfortable in that kind of world and then I randomly got a call from this larger Canadian artist called Jessie Labelle, and so then I went and did a gig with him, to like 2000-3000 people and it was like oh my god, I was so frightened. So each different step it’s kind of been like a stepping stone, there’s been stepping stones every single kind of way. There’s never been anything that necessarily totally prepared me, it’s just the previous thing I’d done had I guess prepared me for the…but there’s no good way to prepare for Saturday Night Live or like Jimmy Fallon. You just have to do it, that’s what I found at least.
Like, Jimmy Fallon is the scariest because you’ve got Questlove watching you play [Laughs]. So we go and we sit down and we kind of rehearsed and Quest and everybody was in the building the whole day and I got to say hi to him and stuff, so my nerves were a little bit better. But then you sit down and you’re getting ready to play and The Roots play you out, so you’re sitting there, Jimmy Fallon’s on one side and then The Roots are on the other side and they’re playing you out and Jimmy Fallon says ‘Here’s Shawn Mendes’…and then Questlove like stares over at the drums and I’m like oh god [Laughs]. But then after doing that, now I feel like, that was like one of the most-high pressured things you could do.
I can imagine [Laughs]. So is it quite surreal for you as a musician too doing these type of gigs?
Absolutely! Yeah, it doesn’t get normal really. Like we did the European Music Awards and I was introduced to Trey Cool from Green Day, and I grew up listening to Green Day. And then so we started talking and we talked for maybe ten minutes or something and I left him and did some other stuff, and then I see him again, and he’s like ‘Mike, what’s happening?!’ and I’m like ‘Hey Trey Cool how are you?!’ [Laughs]. And then we went to this after party and I was just partying with him. And it’s like, you could never have told me that that would have happened when I was 14.
Was there always a desire to become a professional musician, and how did you plan on going about that journey?
From quite a young age?
Yeah, it was always like, I was always in bands because I think, when you’re just starting you can’t really get on these huge gigs right away, and I see it happening where like someone will come and get lucky, or not lucky, you know have the right chops and in the right place right time and you get on this huge gig. But it didn’t happen like that for me, I had to go from one gig to another gig and in Canada there’s not as much touring as there is elsewhere I find. You know like, we worked with a lot of people from the UK and I guess you’d know better than anybody but like there’s acts that like just tour in the UK. There’s maybe like 2 acts like that in Canada like right now and if you don’t get on one of those tours you’re screwed. So there’s literally two tours to get on, there’s not a lot of options. Where was I going with that…[Laughs]
So did you have a plan, or was it kind of one band to another?
Yeah, so I always just played in these bands, and my whole thing was I can’t make the band bigger, but all I can do, like personally I’m not much of a songwriter, so all I can do is build up my chops and make myself better. And in the back of my head ‘if I get really good then the bands goanna get really good’ but that’s clearly not the case. But I did all of the things that I could do to do that. So I just practiced constantly and then from playing loads you get these different opportunities and you either do a good job or a bad job, and luckily I was able to do an okay job and then get more and more opportunities.
So were you taught for any of those years?
Yeah! I studied privately with a lot of different people out here. And yeah they gave me the fundamentals, as far as playing. But I was touring a lot, so I got to, it was cool because I got to see a lot of these big acts up close and personal, and see what the drummers were doing, and then I would try to do exactly what they were doing. Like one day I would want to be this drummer [Laughs] you know, this was when I was like at 17,18,19 and then one day I would want to be this drummer so I would do everything that he would do, and would realize that’s not really right for me, and then I would be another drummer, and then yeah I kind of gave up on all that and just decided to be myself [Laughs].
So you get to see these guys up close, like you’ve just mentioned about Trey Cool. What have they all been like?
Like the other drummers?
They’ve been really cool! Like I was really into Blink 182 when I was growing up, I was like a Pop Punk kind of guy [Laughs]. So Shawn’s security guard used to be Travis Barkers security guard, and we played the American Music Awards with Shawn, and Travis was there playing with The Chainsmokers and so all along I kept on saying to his security guard ‘you have to introduce me to Travis Barker, this is so important to me’ [Laughs] so then, yeah I waited, not outside Travis’s trailer, but I kind of waited around the area, he’s like ‘if you’re around here, when the time is right, I’ll take you in to meet him’ to see Travis. So I just hung around, and then he’s like ‘alright let’s go’. But I went in and then, he brought me into Travis’s trailer and he’s like ‘oh I’ve got to go, I’ll be back’ and then so me and Travis are just in his trailer alone, and he had his practice set up, like in the trailer. You know those like practice pad drum sets with the Zildjian Z Gen quiet practice cymbals? And so he was just sat there practicing, and so I was like ‘just out of curiosity, like, what do you do to warm up?’ and he started showing me some different things, and I was like ‘This. Is. Unreal’ [Laughs]. But yeah, he was so nice so just down to show me stuff.
But then the craziest thing, after that I was on a high, I was like ‘I’ve met my absolute idol, I could talk to anybody’ and Vinnie Colaiuta was there. He was with Sting, so he was just like hanging outside the backstage area, and just kind of standing there waiting, like we sound checked before Sting and then Sting was getting ready to sound check, and there was nobody around him and I was like ‘fuck it, I met Travis Barker, I’m not not going to meet this guy’ [Laughs]. So I went up and I was like ‘Hey, I’m goanna hate myself if I don’t at least say hi, my names Mike’ and introduced myself and we stood there and talked for like a good 20 minutes, it was unreal [Laughs]. Like Vinnie Colaiuta, he’s a Legend, like who hasn’t he played with? Yeah but even like shaking his hand I was like God. Yeah like literally in the course of two months I’ve met all of my idols, not all of my idols, but a good portion of them [Laughs].
Well I’m sure on the next world tour, if you haven’t, you will meet the rest at some point
This is a fairly difficult question, as you’re on the move a lot. But can you talk a bit about your average day, if there is an average one?
Like average day on the road?
Yeah, or like when you’re at home, it varies a lot depending on where you are right?
Yeah! So like, when I’m on the road I’m able to get a bit better of a routine happening than when I’m at home. So when I’m on the road, every single morning I try to wake up early, got to hit the gym, because all these other guys hit the gym too, so if I wasn’t to hit the gym, you don’t want a fat drummer [Laughs]. So I’ll hit the gym, and then practice for like as long as I can. I like to allot two hours in a hotel and I sort of put together like a mock drum set, like I take around a practice pad and stuff and I like to practice with big heavy sticks, at least to warm up. Then I put on a click, and sometimes bring around books and work through books, or at least to get an idea. There’s this one I’ve been working on, it’s called New Breed by Gary Chester, it’s cool, it’s great for independence! It just gives you great ideas as far as like what to do with your limbs. So I kind of put together that and do that for a couple of hours.
On show days, we don’t have to go in until like 3 or 4 usually, because they set everything up and that kind of thing, so it gives us a lot of time to just focus on your craft. It’s a lot more work if you’re touring with a smaller artist I would say, where you have to do a lot of your own setting up. But yeah so then we go to sound check, and then right after sound check I always just kind of have sticks just chilling in the green room and try to just stay warmed up you know. Sometimes we go sightsee a bit.
Do you get a lot of time to do that sort of thing?
Can Shawn do that too? I saw on your Instagram you posted a video of you all on a boat tour around Sydney Harbour.
Yeah, for the most part! He likes to snapchat, and do stuff like that so I notice a lot of the times, he’ll snapchat like he’s somewhere and then we’ll just be walking through the city and you’ll just see girls running around looking for all these different things they saw [Laughs]. We were rehearsing somewhere in the UK - we did all of our European tour production rehearsals in the UK last year - and I think the front of house guy was messing around with something and Shawn was filming him and right behind there was the sign for the rehearsal place and Shawn laughed and it was at the end of the day and we were packing up getting ready to move on, and about 10 girls run through the back of this place. They run in and are like ‘Is Shawn here?!’ I was like ‘how did you know we were here?’ and then I looked at his snapchat [Laughs]. So yeah to answer your question you can do that stuff.
So with routine, when you’re at home are you a bit less disciplined?
I would say like I practice…like I’m in front of my…these are my drums right here [Turns Camera Around] So like I’m getting ready for…I play with a bunch of different artists as well…
…Is that in your house? [Laughs]
Yeah [Laughs] I’ve got electronic drums here too! [Turns Camera Around] Dude those ones are crazy.
What a set up!
Yeah! Those are the… I did this US tour…you know Jessie McCartney? Yeah, so I did a tour with him maybe a year and a half ago, maybe it’s like two years, and they wanted me to play all electronics, so I had to get this ridiculous…I wasn’t going to go out and play kind of a lesser kind of electronic kit, so I had to get… I figured if I’m going to do this I need the best that Yamaha make.
And you’re endorsed with Yamaha right? Did they help you with that?
They helped yeah, like you don’t get anything for free. I mean maybe some people do [Laughs]
Do you have to pay for it?
Yeah, like I mean you don’t pay the full price, they definitely help you a lot. This thing retails for like 7 grand or something, it’s ridiculous [Laughs] it’s very good!
You’ve also played with other notable names such as Connor Maynard, Cody Simpson, Alyssa Reid and now Shawn Mendes to name a few, how did you go about getting those gigs?
With each one, it was just sort of… like to be honest, I haven’t done that many auditions, it’s all just been word of mouth and I’m pretty personable, I like to go out and talk to people. I love people in general, so I’m always friends with all of the stage hands and all of the techs, all of the management, you know like I just kind of like to talk to everybody. And yeah so through that I’ve been able to connect with a lot of people, and yeah like it’s just kind of been one gig leads to another gig. But I auditioned for Shawn. I used to work a lot with this guy called Francesco Yates, he’s got this song with Robert Shulz, I think it went number one in the UK, it’s called ‘Sugar’, it’s very dance’y, but I auditioned for him and then through that it was like we did The American Music Award’s last year and I was kind of playing with him and Shawn at the same time then Shawn kind of got very very busy so Shawn kind of took over everything. But yeah, it’s just literally been like one gig leads to another gig which leads to another gig you know. But hopefully you don’t burn any bridges.
Definitely! And its advice other musicians have given me the past…that you can be as good as you want, but if you’re completely un-personable, you’re going to struggle to get work. Also in correlation to the amount of time you spend actually playing music and how much time you spend with other people.
Absolutely! Yeah that’s the thing, like Nate, he plays on The Voice right? So he would probably play a lot more because he’s playing with all the contestants and everyone right? With us, we go and do, we maybe have an hour, hour and a half sound check. Like in the course of your average show day, we might have like an hour and a half sound check and the gig is only like 90 minutes or something like that, like an hour and a half as well. Everything outside of that is sitting. You’re on a bus, or you’re on a plane, in a green room, so you can’t be obnoxious, you just have to be like a normal person. And I’ve noticed that, like when I first started out there were so many dicks. People that I was just like ‘man I don’t want to have to gig with this guy’ and I thought that was just like normal. But then as I started to work a lot more and stuff like that, everybody just became so nice [Laughs]. I think it’s just because the nicer people are the ones that get more work and move on, and like, not to say everybody when I started out was a dick but there was definitely a lot.
Maybe there’s a correlation between attitudes of the lower level and higher level musicians…
Yeah! Like a good friend of mine Gerry Morgan, he plays with James Bay - Coolest guy man. That guy is an incredible player. Like what impresses me most about him, I don’t know if you watch any James Bay videos, have you seen him live?
Only what he’s done on AMA’s EMA’s where he probably has to be a bit more reserved...
Yeah! But that’s what’s so beautiful about his playing. And the way he tunes his kit, oh my god he’s got this snare and you know I’m pretty sure, he got this snare…he told me about this drum shop in Toronto I didn’t even know about, I was liked ‘I’ve lived in Toronto my entire life how do I not know about this drum shop’ [Laughs] But we mostly just did like award shows together and stuff like that with James Bay, so I only really got to see them do Let It Go, but he’s got this snare and he’s got it tuned so low it’s got that like… and he’s got such a nice gentle touch. I’ve tried picking his brain a bunch of times, we just ended up getting drinks.
What’s also amazing, is how enthusiastic you still are with these things too, and you take full advantage of every opportunity you have to talk with people…
Well I always think there’s so much to learn! I think like because I never went to school I kind of I was never given a piece of paper or I was never given something to say ‘now you’re a professional drummer’ or you know ‘now you’re qualified to do this’ so it’s always been a plight to get better and to do that kind of thing. Not to say that you lose that after you leave school, which I definitely don’t think is the case, but I’ve never had that validation. Like I woke up, I’ve already practiced for two hours today and it’s 11 o’clock. So like I try to really really practice a lot. Yeah and then you look at all these other guys, man I got stuck on Instagram watching videos of Eric Moore, like how could you ever be that good!? It doesn’t make any sense [Laughs]. So if you’ve got people like that out there you can’t afford to stop practicing. [Laughs]
One of my all-time idols has to be Steve Jordan…
Oh god. I’ve never met him. Shawn has though, Shawn and John Mayer are tight.
Have you met him?
I sort of kind of walked passed him, no like I shook hands with him, so yeah I did meet him. But like when we were in LA, I forgot what we were doing there, like a couple of months ago. I sort of work with this electronic company called Dauz Pads like sort of triggers, it just like triggers from a Roland pad. So I was in the lobby of this hotel waiting for the rep to come pick me up and then I was talking with Shawn’s tour manager, and then Shawn walks down all dressed up and stuff and I was like ‘where are you going?’ [Laughs] and he’s like ‘oh John Mayer’s coming to pick me up’ and I look out and John Mayer’s sitting there in this nice Beemer. I was like ‘what’ [Laughs]. Then Shawn went by the studio and he told me…like John Mayer’s studio… and then Steve Jordan was just there hanging out in the studio. He’s another one, his drum sounds are just unreal. I tried to rip him off a lot on this kit here. I’ve got 16inch Hi- Hats but he uses 17inch Hi-Hats. At first I put together two 17inch crash cymbals, and I tried a rehearsal like that, but it was a little bit too much, so I got Sabian to put together some 16inch Hi-Hats, and it’s like almost that Steve Jordan vibe but like not as much of it. But I can’t play anywhere near like him so [Laughs] I’ll never be there. I’d love to meet Steve Jordan.
So when you’re on these gigs like Maddison Square Garden in NYC and The Greek Theatre in LA, would you prepare differently for each gig? Is there a different mindset going into these gigs, or is it you treat them the same?
I would say, for the most part, yeah pretty much the same. I mean like, obviously the scale is a lot larger on something like Maddison Square Garden, so I’m definitely a lot more aware of what I need in my in-ear mix and stuff. Like a big learning curve for me when I started playing with Shawn, I’ve played with a lot of pop artist and stuff, so I’m used to loud audiences but Shawn is a next level kind of loud, like, they’re crazy loud. And Shawn does a lot of things where he’ll hold out his mic and get the crowd to sing different parts and stuff. So if you’re in an arena or like a stadium or something like that and you hear it, you hear the crowd coming back, they can actually be like a beat behind where you actually are. So, Shawn’s got this song called Treat You Better and in the bridge there’s like a breakdown chorus, and in that part he always holds out the mic and lets the crowd hear it, and so literally every single time this happens when we’re in a big arena I sit there, and I’m like ‘1,2,3,4’ and I just tune out the crowd [Laughs]. But even so I have to get so little of his mic in my ears because they’re so loud. So I made the mistake the first gig. It was in production rehearsals, I got like a nice mix of his vocal and I was all happy going into the gig and then the crowd started screaming and I get on my talkback and it’s like ‘turn down his mic I can’t hear anything!’ [Laughs] and it like drowns out the click and so you have to be really aware of that kind of thing. So I guess yeah, that changes.
But then just the scale of things. Like playing Maddison Square Garden, we did a Jingle Ball there and we only did like a couple of tunes, but then doing his full show there, it was, yeah a little nerve-racking, because, it was also the first time we’d ever done that show, like that particular production with, and it was a very aggressive show. Like there was huge video walls and like all this crazy stuff that happened. So the production was really heavy, so that was very stressful. Right when we were sound checking, sound check was already late as it is because it took so long to set all this stuff up. And then things weren’t working when we were sound checking, so like I was stressing out but trying to keep my cool [Laughs] and then Shawn was like definitely feeling the pressure, but then the gig turned out awesome.
So nerves wise, you’ll still get nervous before these gigs right?
Oh yeah…yeah I find…you know what’s crazy, I find like, I never realized it before, but in the last couple of years like how powerful your brain is, and how powerful thought can be. And if I get really nervous it usually happens if I don’t feel prepared or something. But no matter how prepared you are you still obviously get nervous because there’s several thousands of people staring at you and they’ll know if you mess up [Laughs]. But I literally just kind of go to this spot where like I can see…I see everything going, and I play through every hit and I don’t even need sticks, you can just sort of envision…like meditation almost. You just kind of envision everything happening and I hear that’s what athletes do too.
It’s crazy how effective it can actually be to do that yeah. So talking drums, what’s your warm up routine? I know you were speaking earlier about how Travis Barker was giving you some tips...
I do the old classic stretches, you know, or kind of like stretch out your wrists. Then I just get on a pad and do like a bunch of different stuff. On the road I have a couple of different kick pedals, so usually I’ll just grab a pedal from stage and then bring it back in the green room and set up like a suitcase or a table or something, any surface, and then kind of work on my feet. And yeah, usually just toss on a click and do like a bunch of different rudiment stuff. I find I do a lot of different Flam exercises. You need to be warmed up to be able to like really Flam it. Like Patti-Fla-Fla’s that’s a difficult rudiment. [Laughs]
So do you get to exercise these rudiments when you’re playing with Shawn? Because I’ve seen a lot of your live stuff and in some songs you do actually get some space to let loose a bit.
Yeah whenever we’re in rehearsals, like as long as I feel it in the music but I always try to push a little bit further, so if there’s a shot coming up or something like that ‘aright let’s do a fill leading up to It’. I’m also a really big fan of accenting vocal lines. I feel like that’s really big and that not a lot of people necessarily talk about it. I’ve noticed with Pop artists they really really like this, but they don’t necessarily know it’s happening, but you know, if they’re saying something you can kind of like meet them somewhere with something. So if you’re kind of playing along amongst the groove and you know, it’s like little embellishments to make their vocal step up a little bit higher. Whether it’s like…I’m a big fan of Splashes, you know…
…Like Bruno Mars ‘24K Magic’ where his drummer will do that a lot. That’s why it’s cool to see the studio version in comparison to live, where the stabs are accented way more.
Yeah! Or they have like dance moves where they hit one of their dance moves with the stabs. Yeah the Francesco Yates guy that I used to play with, like he was more R&B kind of Pop so you can get away with a lot more of that kind of stuff, and he used to do things where he was like, he would do like, I don’t know I can’t dance [Laughs] but like a little dance move kind of thing and I would knock it with a couple splashes. And for the audience it becomes a huge moment.
That’s like Bruno Mars all the time [Laughs]
Yeah! Did you watch the Grammy’s?
They were crazy on there. I got to check out Eric Panda’s drum set at…we did a couple of workshops and he kind of had the same one. Beautiful, all gold hardware. Like when nobody was looking I jumped up on his drum stool and looked all around on it. I want gold hardware on my kit [Laughs] They won’t give them to me [Laughs] I’ve played them, because I usually use Maple Custom, the Maple Absolute Hybrid, it’s an awesome drum kit.
It’s really cool that you’re with a company like Yamaha, they’ve got so many incredible artists. Dave Weckl and also one of my favorite of all time Larnell Lewis is with them...
Dude! You know Larnell Lewis?!
He’s a friend of mine! He lives really close to me! We go to the same grocery store. I swear to god. [Laughs] He lives like maybe two major two intersections away. He went to the school I couldn’t get into.
He’s absolutely incredible…
Yeah, he’s insane. He plays at Jazz clubs here all the time. Did you see the Instagram video he posted the other day? and he was practicing tambourine and he’s doing a groove with his Bass Drum. It’s like mann I couldn’t do anything you’re doing. [Laughs] Like did you see all of those Snarky Puppy live videos when they were recording that record maybe last year?
The ‘We Like It Here’ album where the crowd all had headphones on?
Yeah! But the one where he has like kind of a long solo, like that weird thing where he’s got his snare on his right side and it’s like how does your mind go to that spot [Laughs]. Yeah you know, I did my first drum clinic at the end of January and I was so nervous leading up to it. Like you know, you never think you have anything to offer because there’s so many other people with all these amazing ideas and all this stuff. And it’s like ‘man I have no amazing ideas, all my ideas I’ve taken from other people’ and that kind of thing, and then…man who told me this…I think it was like Shawn’s MD or something, he’s like ‘you know what, you can try and be so many different people, they obviously want you for a reason, just go in and do exactly what you know how to do and that kind of thing, and they’ll love it!’ and it’s like you know, that’s true! Why the hell am I trying to like impress these people. I’ll just do exactly what I know.
Yeah! There’s a reason you’re on that gig, so if you went in there and did something other than what you do, I think people would be like what?
Yeah! I feel like that’s so important in music, you just have to like be yourself.
For sure. So with Shawn’s music, it’s a kind of heavier Pop than most stuff around at the moment. You spend a lot of songs just using the lower tones of the drums on the Floor Toms for example…
Yeah! On the road I blow through heads like all the time, it’s unreal [Laughs]
Especially because there is such a huge performance aspect in live shows of the magnitude you’ve been doing right? Larger movements for example.
Yeah, that’s the whole thing like, you’ve got to play to the person in the back. Like the person all the way out back, that kind of thing. So it’s not as if you’re playing in a club, like if I were playing these songs in a club, or whenever we have done like smaller TV things, you definitely hold back at times, well, not hold back, but just not giving it as much. We don’t do a lot of little shows, but every now and again there’s like a smaller one and it would be weird if the guitar player is way over-performing and so are you.[Laughs]
But yeah it’s kind of interesting, like with those Shawn songs, because there’s so many things happening, there’s no real live drums on any of it, it’s all just programmed stuff so like we had to come up with all these weird ways to kind of like perform the song and keep the integrity but then still make it feel a bit more live and stuff. But there’s so many things…like in ‘Stiches’ there’s like a clap trick going the whole time, and then all these Tom kind of things, but there’s so many different ways to interpret the song. Like we started playing it more Pop Punk’y and then Shawn went and did it on Jimmy Fallon with The Roots and Questlove took this way more Tribal kind of way. And then everybody was like ‘you need to go and rework it to play it more like The Roots’. So we went back and reworked the song and I just pretty much just watched the Fallon video, you know, Questlove probably listened to the song like twice and was like ‘alright let’s go’ and played it incredibly [Laughs] but I had to like study what Quest was doing. So then we reworked the song like that. And then when we started working on ‘Treat You Better’ we played it, and then he played it with The Roots again on Fallon and then they were like ‘yeah we like your version better that The Roots, you guys play your version’ I was like sick [Laughs]. I stole things off Questlove to be better than him [Laughs]
[Laughs] That’s quite the achievement! So on topic of the future, obviously with the next world tour you’re going to be pretty busy, but where you can see yourself further down the line?
I’m definitely trying to do a lot more clinic stuff!
Did you enjoy it?
Man, I loved it. I have another one coming up at the top of April and I’m starting to do like masterclass kind of stuff. So I’m doing a masterclass here in Toronto at this high school next week. I want to be deeper in the drumming community. I’m so about drums, I have this really…I mean this pretty aggressive goal, but I want everyone to play the drums [Laughs]. Because it’s done so much for me as far as like…it’s the same thing with you, you know, what are you right now? You’re a musician, you’re a drummer, that’s your identity. It’s such a fulfilling experience, it’s not like ’oh what do you do?’ ‘oh I do IT relations at like this thing’ you know and you just kind of work then you come home. Like everything about you, you’re a musician, that’s how you approach life, that’s how you approach business, that’s how you approach all this stuff. So like I would love to really help show kids that, show everybody how it can change your life. So yeah that’s a big focus for me coming up. I want to do that and be…yeah try and grow the drumming community.
Well I think you’re definitely going in to it with the best standings. Your experience is only going to grow, so you have substance to back up what you’re talking about.
Yeah! A big drummer that I really idolize is Rich Redman! He’s like…it’s like a Country kind of thing, I’m not so into Country music but it’s his…well he plays with this Jason Aldean guy, I don’t know what he does in Europe but in the states he does stadiums all summer, you know, he’s huge. But this guy, he always pushes to work more. So he plays with this artist but he’s also like an actor, and he also has a DVD out for like drumming for kids and like, you know, there’s always something. He does everything. I definitely want to be more on that end. Like even though you’re on tour doing really big shows, also have other things on the go. There’s so much down time. And these things all help each other. You know like this is, you probably get to meet…like I’m in a different continent right now [Laughs] and we’re just talking. That’s really special.
It definitely is! Lastly…What advice would you have for musicians aspiring to the same heights you’re achieving and have achieved and no doubt will continue to do?
I’ve always heard that there’s like two schools of thought on this. I always go for the side of, you have to work with absolutely everybody, especially when you’re starting out, you have to work with absolutely everybody that will have you, whether it pays a lot, whether it’s fun, even if you don’t like the music, even if you don’t like anything about it, you need to do all of those kind of things. Like I have some friends who say ‘I’ve just got out of school’ and a teacher was telling them this… that ‘they should be getting paid $350 a show or something like that’s bare minimum, like that’s entry level’. You just went through school, like nobody’s going to pay you $350 unless you’ve done all these things, and you can show up at the gig and you can troubleshoot. Like things often don’t go right and it’s how you handle these situations. So yeah, the way I was able to get things happening was to work with all these random people.
I used to search Cragislist for ‘Drummer Wanted’ ads and from all…like I can’t tell you how many times I’ve searched looking for drummers. I maybe got like one good gig out of it, and it wasn’t even that good of a gig, but I was able to meet all of these different people and then when I met those people, who knew these people, then they know me because I work with this guy, and it’s like ‘oh he’s good’, you’ve worked with that guy even though it was a shitty gig and I hated it [Laughs]. Then you start getting the better gigs because it leads to that that leads to this and then you don’t have to do as many of those other ones. But I still do. [Laughs] I still would. It’s better to work than not work I think. And take the opportunities, take chances, because like we were talking about, if you don’t take this chance, it could seem like a horrible opportunity and it ends up incredible. But you don’t know. You don’t know what’s goanna pop and what’s not going to.
And even if you’re just nice. Like these people can smell right away if you’re trying to get something from them. I stopped asking people that I liked for pictures [Laughs] and if you just talk to somebody and then say bye to them, and don’t ask them for a picture then right away they’re like ‘oh he just wanted to talk to me’. Like I met Tony Royster Jr. not too long ago, I posted it on my Instagram [Laughs] and I was just hanging out with him, and said bye, and then we were getting ready to go on stage and he was playing with Charlie Puth and he walks away and Shawn’s photographer taps me and he’s like ‘oh some guy’s yelling your name’ and I looked over and Tony Royster Jr. was there and he was like ‘Mike! Good luck bro, I’ll be watching’ and I was like ‘what, holy shit’ [Laughs]. I got off stage and went right up and talked to him and he was like ‘yo call me next time you’re in LA’ and he gives me his number and then he’s like ‘let’s take a picture together’ and then he asked me, and so I was like sick I didn’t even have to ask him for a picture, but I obviously wanted one [Laughs]. He was so cool. Then I got to watch him as Charlie Puth was playing right before us. I’ve got all these videos on my phone of just filming his playing. But yeah he’s almost like so good that it looks weird. It’s not like he’s playing anything crazy. Those level of guys can just be gentle but aggressive. I guess it just comes from time. I wonder how many hours behind the drums these guys have you know.
Yeah, in some cases it could be up to 10 years more practice than you. That’s definitely a mentality I’ve tried to push for is that everyone is at different stages. Like some players get these stadium tours at 23 and I was like I want that, I want to be young playing these gigs, but it doesn’t work like that. You have to realise it will come when it’s right.
Yeah but I wish I was 19 and doing this. I thought at 19 I could be like ‘I’m probably not going to finish high school because I’m going to be touring so much and doing all these TV shows and don’t have time to finish’ I was all prepared when I started high school, and then it didn’t happen. Not that I was sad, I was still living life [Laughs]. All in good time. Like it will happen sometime.
Definitely. That’s all my questions thank you so much. We’ll have to meet up when you’re over on tour
Yeah! We’re there for a while. I think we finish the tour in London. Like the European leg in London. We’re doing like Wembley stadium for the Summer Ball, and I’m also planning on jumping over to Ireland as I have family over there.
Thank you so much again for one of the best most down to earth conversations I’ve had about your career and aspirations.
Great talking to you man
A huge thank you to Mike for his insights and cooperation throughout the process of this interview! You can find Mikes website Here
Thanks for reading!
© Dan Lewis 2017
Pianist, Keyboardist, Musical Director, Producer and Songwriter are to name but a few of the skills Miles Robertson possesses. Most famed for his time as the Musical Director and keyboardist for Adele throughout the sensational record breaking albums, ’19’ and ‘21’, Miles has played TV and concerts that most aspiring and professional musicians dream of. To name a few...The Late Show with Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Late Night with David Letterman, The Grammy Awards, The Royal Albert Hall and The Brit Awards. His other accomplishments led him to work with artists such as Sean Kingston, One Republic, Najee, Fabulous, Take 6 and many more. In this incredibly humbling and inspiring interview we discuss his life, career and background. And then lead on to his life growing up, the balances that need to be sought to lead successful career in music, a healthy life, and the music business.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that your mother taught you Piano and Violin at the age of four and your father was a jazz pianist, how important a role would you say they played in your development and drive to become an artist?
‘Well actually that was in my Bio. It’s interesting you should say that because my father recently passed away and my mother passed some years ago, so I’m kind of redefining my inspiration with regards to those feelings. I had very early exposure to music, which definitely put me on that path I think. My mother went to The Royal Academy (of Music) in London to study piano and violin there and then moved back to Barbados and become a music teacher at a secondary school there. She was very big on education and was an ethnomusicologist, so from her I got my formal training - I’m formal classically trained as a pianist and violin only for a couple of years because I didn’t really take to that. So it’s interesting when I look at it from that perspective. I get from her the technical side of things; from my father it’s kind of visceral, spiritual side of the influence of music. So it’s an interesting balance.'
So you were classically trained in piano, when did you decide you wanted to go down the pop and jazz route?
‘Yeah...I started out playing by ear and obviously having a piano in the house, being around music, my father performing and my mother would be practicing around the house - so we kind of grew up around that and then we just started banging on the piano and started exploring. I was very curious. Then maybe around eight or nine - because my mother also had a private studio as she was head of the music department secondary school in Barbados and then she also had a private practice at the house, and she would teach on afternoons and on weekend and all these kids would come. And there was this one guy that was into Jazz and he was into Rap, and he was a little older than me and he would be playing like Take Five and stuff and I was so amazed by that, I think that was the first time I was like “Wow I really want to learn how to do that”…so yeah around like eight or nine.’
When was the realization that you wanted to become a professional musician?
‘...I was around music all the time, so I never really knew if I made that decision in my head or if I kind of was always like “this is the only thing that I know how to do”. There was a point there when I was like 14 or 15 and my mother would ask me “is this what you would like to do? Are you sure? Is there anything else?” I had kind of flirted with Physiotherapy for like a summer, but other than that it was nothing else for me, it was second nature, I’m not sure if I made a decision. When I think now, I don’t think it was a particular moment where I sat down and said; “This is what I want”…It was very natural.’
You said your mother spent up to 6 months preparing for a gig when talking about her determination to play and discipline to practice, what is your prep for when your going on tour or any other gigs that come your way?
‘It depends on the artist. But generally…in preparing for touring specifically, you would start with promo. So you do a promo tour and the artist might have a single out and maybe one or two other singles in the pipeline or potential songs that they have released as singles. So you may start there as far as preparing. Usually, I would get the music, and just play it over and over again, just listen to it, I won’t even try to learn it or transcribe it or anything, I just put it on. If it's an artist I have not worked with in the past, I just do research on them - I just go online and find out as much as I can about who they are and try to get an understanding of where they’re coming from as best I can. So for me, prep doesn’t even start with actual music. And sometimes maybe I’ll even do all of that whilst playing the music, or while listening to the music.
‘Then from there, then I’ll just make my notes. Maybe I’ll get the form of the song and jot the lyrics. I’ve done the latter as I got more mature. Because, sometimes, musicians have a tendency to not really think about lyrics as much and mostly focus on the music. But I see the connectivity with the lyric and the music, melody, the harmony etc. So I tend to transcribe lyrics as well, to get a sense of what they’re saying, how they connect the melody and how it connects with the harmonic pallets and instrumentation and all these different things. And then from there, then I’ll probably get on the keyboard or piano and just start to play around with it. And then from there - with rehearsals, you go in with drums, bass, guitar and then we kind of rehearse from there. But I have my own; I guess unique way of preparing music. For me, it's to get it embedded in my core and not to think about it at all, you just want it to kind of come through you - it's your interpretation of it, what the music lends to. It’s interesting to find out about, and understand the artist, and where they’re coming from and what they’re trying to purvey.’
…And for the physical preparation of the tour?
‘Physically…well that’s evolved over the years. It’s just about building up stamina. It’s about a good diet and exercise. I don’t do a lot of weight training at all, I do push ups, planks, I do a lot of stretching - of late I’ve been doing a lot of bike riding - just stuff to build a strong core. And to be honest when I’m not touring I’m performing in this other venue in New York, so I’m performing in the city, and the gigs that I do are usually like three sets - maybe an hour fifteen/hour-and-a-half apiece and that builds my mental and physical stamina, as far as playing. Because usually when you tour and you’re playing the same set every night you may do an hour and fifteen/hour-and-a-half maybe pushing it. But usually, the gigs that I do and tours that I do - they aren’t as physically demanding.
'Where you have to kind of build your strong core is for all the travelling and just the long hours and the just mental energy to come up to that level every night and execute. Meditation as well - because when you think, the pressure to execute - a lot of people think it looks easy to kind of go up on a stage and just perform, but when you know every night that you’re expected to execute at a very high level, and you still factor in that you’re still a human being and that you can get nervous and anxious - just finding ways to build that inner strength, that inner confidence. So meditation and stuff of that nature as well.’
You’ve played gigs with some of the biggest names in pop, most notably with the incredible pop star sensation, Adele. What were some of the major steps to lead you to that moment?
‘…I mean if I look back at it now, you could say that this happened and then this happened - but in general it was a lot of luck. I can’t tell you there was a blueprint, per say. Well, I moved to New York in 2006 with the view to pursue music at a very high level and work with the biggest artists, biggest names and the best musicians. I started out in a small club in a village, and I used to play there four or five nights a week with different types of bands - Funk bands, R&B bands, Pop bands. So I built my chops, I learned how to play in a live setting and to perform, in those clubs. Then, I met my manager later on in time when I moved here and he’s also from Barbados, so we had that commonality, and he’d lived here for many years so he had vast understandings of the music business. But also, for someone coming from a foreign country into a metropolis and a very intimidating city like New York - he was really able to help me, guide me and mentor me - so I didn’t really have to make the mistakes that maybe other people that didn’t have guidance would. I think that helped me a lot.
‘So I did that for a year, just playing in the clubs and things like that. Then I got an opportunity, because I had been visible and networking, I started to get calls outside and I started doing spots and started working with different artists outside of that. Then I happened to be in Detroit and I was working with an artist called Najee, and at that concert, a guy by the name of Valdez Brantley, who at the time was music director for Usher - he’s from Detroit so he came and stayed after the show and was just complimenting me on my playing and how good the show was, and then he told me “I’m about to hold some auditions in New York in a couple of weeks for a new artist called Sean Kingston” and Sean Kingston had a song called “Beautiful Girls”, right. So I ended up doing those auditions and ended up ultimately getting that gig. I had set certain goals when I came here. I wanted to play on David Letterman, The Late Show with Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live, Grammys things like that as I saw them growing up. So, when I got that gig, it was the first time I was able to play on TV; I did The Today Show and stuff like that, and that kind of got me in the game, in a way - working with Valdez and a bunch of other young musicians.
‘So from that, and working with Sean for that very short promo stint, Valdez and his brother would call me for other stuff, and then they called me for Fabulous. And then from there, just knowing people in the game. So I was just doing other things like networking and things, and that’s when I got the Adele call. And I got the Adele call to do promo here in the US - and I think that was set up because her keyboardist could not do it for some reason, so they just decided just to see if they could should hire someone state side for the promo run - and that how I got involved. They obviously took a liking to me and I kind of stuck with them, and then all that other stuff was just luck. It was luck that, the Saturday Night Live show we did just happened to have Sarah Palin as the guest, and there happened to be huge viewership. That kind of snowballed everything. I would never tell anyone that there was a blueprint or there were steps that I methodically took to working with artists or making it. It doesn’t work that way.
‘The music industry is a very volatile industry, and a very chaotic industry and it's kind of like you're never really in it, per say. Fine you can do a tour, do spot dates, but there is nothing concrete about it, you know. You can be here today, gone tomorrow. It’s just one of those things where you have to carry a certain psychology and not look at it as…”this step leads to this step, leads to this step” [Laughs] you know? It doesn’t really work that way. And it’s ever evolving. How the industry is now in 2016 isn’t how it was in 2014 or 2013 or. You just have to keep evolving, and keep evolving.’
How do you manage with the psychological aspect of the ever evolving and non-concrete music industry?
‘By not pigeonholing myself, and not just focusing on what it is that I do - for instance, I could say that I’m a keyboardist, I’m a musical director, I’m a producer, I’m a songwriter so I could fool myself and only focus on those things. By that I mean; any prep or research or practicing is done with a view just for that. And from being around my manager I think I’ve started to take a more holistic view and approach of the music industry, and to life. So I think that, to bring balance, I’ve had to open up and not just look at myself as a musician or think like a musician. So I’m reading far and wide, I’m watching stuff that you would think might be outside of my realm, to give me some type of balance. Being a musician and feeling like the creativity only comes from music could be a pitfall. So I’m looking outside of music for inspiration and creativity. That way I don’t get as frustrated because I know that, you can pigeonhole yourself by just thinking because I’m a musician music is the only thing that’s going to inspire me - that music is the only thing that’s going to help me grow musically. Because, I could read books about psychology, I could read books about spirituality, I could read books about religion, I could read books about science, about technology. There might be something in there - even though I might not be consciously looking for it - that’s going to give me a spark that can bring something back to what my core is, my core is always music so I’m not going to move away from that. But I think that to bring some type of balance you have to kind of step away and not just think in a musical vein.’
That’s a great standpoint to have on the matter…
‘Yeah, because you could get frustrated. Because, at some point you're going to hit a wall. If you’re a player, a musician, an instrumentalist, you’re a performer, you’re a producer - whatever facet of music you’re involved in, there’s going to be some point where you're going to get frustrated, right? Some people have a school of thought where they’re like “I have to practice, practice, practice and practice”, and I agree, I’ve done a lot of practice over the years, but my practices have only been physically on my instrument - and I think a lot of people make that mistake. When I’ve done live gigs as well, that’s practice; learning how to perform live. There are people who practice a bunch of times but they never go out and perform, so they never build those chops. It’s all about balance and I think it’s about compartmentalising in a way…and saying, “okay, music is my core, but because it’s my core I can’t allow it to define me and me shut myself off from all the other influences that can present themselves” - and I think a lot of musicians suffer from that, because they are looking for everything to come through the musical conduit. So yeah, it’s about finding balance.
‘There’s been times where I haven’t touched the piano…but I’m learning. So you can look at it like “man this is neglect” and yeah you could say that but I think once you’ve done a certain amount of practice, you could take a week off or two weeks off, and it's not going to hurt you because you develop another angle, another facet, you know.’
The topic of pigeonholing is such an interesting one, and what you’re saying definitely rings true - about not allowing yourself to be pigeonholed by yourself really…
‘Right. I mean, when you think about the arts, and creativity…how do you pigeonhole creativity when being artistic? So it’s that conundrum in a way where; we live in an age where people talk about creativity and talk about innovation - we talk about the arts; the importance of arts but if you’re pigeonholing yourself, your outlet is just very monolithic, if you will. Where’s the give and take, where’s the balance? So I think that’s very, very, very important. And I also feel like, as musicians - I don’t want to say our job, I don’t think that’s fair, but I feel like the duty of being a musician is being able to look at everything, create a perspective and question and challenge it. It doesn’t have to be verbal - I’m just saying for yourself, and that’s one of those things that I do. And I don’t do it with the view that it will come through the music, but I feel like if I’m being honest - that it’s going to come through in some way. Because, if I’m being honest and I’m imbibing all of these different things and I’m questioning them internally, or however I feel like I’m questioning or challenging these things, they are going to come through.’
So you were the Musical Director for Adele’s band also, did part of your job in being the MD mean that you picked the musicians for the band?
‘For that band no, but that can be.’
Have you previously chosen musicians in your role as a Musical Director before?
‘I have, yeah.’
So what kind of qualities in the musicians were you looking for when selecting the musicians for those bands?
‘Well…it depends. Usually I’m hired by management or by the artist, and that means they might have a vision already in their head for what they want. So we usually have a conversation - we have a meet and they’ll discuss with me what they’re looking for. We’re in the day and age now where it’s - or maybe looks, appearance and image have always been a thing, but a lot of people now kind of have to have this look, or this look and less about, can they really play? But I still come from the school of, “yeah can they play” but chemistry. But it’s usually a balance - sometimes - because I’m hired; the management and the artist will trust my opinion so I can bring in musicians. Or maybe they’re looking for young, fresh, new faces so we’ll do auditions, and then through the audition process, we’ll delineate and see who we like, so it’s kind of a collective decision, but they’ll follow my lead - but it really depends on the artist. A newer artist might not have the same chops as a more established artist to say, “okay this is the type of band I want, these are the musicians I want” Newer artist might ask me “Can you help, what do you think?” or it could be an established artist who’s looking for fresh new energy, new blood. It really just depends, from situation to situation - it’s very different.
‘That’s the thing with the music industry; there’s nothing set in stone, so never go into any situation with any precepts or notions of “this is how it works”- you have to be super flexible and super malleable. Things change at the drop of the hat. But most of the time I’m hired, I’m hired because of my previous work or a recommendation, so there’s a level of trust there and understanding already that “we hired you because we believe you are the person to curate the music, the band etc etc”. But what I look for with musicians - obviously it depends on the gig, but attitude first. Attitude, approach and then I look at chemistry.
‘There are a lot of great musicians, but chemistry is one of those intangible things that can make and break a band, a group, an artist, so I’m big on chemistry as well. A lot of times chemistry is something that you have to build, but you have to be able to have the eyes to see “okay this will work and this will work”. It’s a puzzle. And a lot of the time you don’t have the luxury of time to figure things out. Then you have to factor in maybe pressure from the label down to management down to the artist, there’s chaos and there’s like “we’re going to roll out now” and “there’s this video coming out now” or “we’re releasing a new single” then there’s this TV show, we need this done, we need that done. So it’s about being able to execute under very high pressure, high pressure circumstances and get the best out of the musicians and the artists and give the artist that comfort ability. I would say my main role as an MD is to make sure the artist feels comfortable.’
And then you choose musicians based on whether you think that they will make the artist comfortable as well?
‘Well…not directly, but yeah it’s all under that umbrella. When choosing musicians, I really look at attitude and approach. That could be approach or attitude to the music, what sensibilities or sensitivities you have, your musicality and just your general domineer to be honest - because if you think, when you go on tour you’re spending time with these people and you don’t want an asshole. There are a lot of intangibles involved, it’s hard to say that I have a set of things that I look for. I don’t lock myself off like that. I kind of live in the moment and I go off my instincts as well with people, just as in life. It’s just that it can be high stress and chaotic sometimes, and it’s just about managing that. Because when you think, you’re working with artists and they’re about to release music, they could be anxious, they don’t know how it’s going to be received, maybe if it’s a sophomore album they’re worrying about “Is it going to do as well as my first album” and with all those pressures already, that the artist has, and then you're not factoring the artist's personal life, and then maybe the distraction of celebrity and tabloids - I don’t get involved in that but I am aware of those things.
‘So when this artist comes to rehearsal or when this artist is on stage I want to make sure that he or she is comfortable, so they don’t have to worry about music, they don’t have to worry about the band - and that can take a long time as well. But then again you don’t have that much time - it's just one of those things. Every artist is different and every artist’s personality is different. Some artists are more hands on than other artists. But as far as musicians, I don’t have a checklist, it’s just a vibe thing.’
You were with Adele from the first album, a relatively early stage before she had truly broken the American market. Did you ever expect it all to blow up as big as it did?
‘No. Because, before I started working with her and they had reached out, we were supposed to do some promo in the US, and they ended up cancelling it. At this point I had been used to that so…when you’re in this business for a certain amount of time, you get that there is nothing set in stone and that it could change and it could be cancelled. You learn how not to get disappointed, and even if you do get disappointed, you learn how to bounce back quickly and understand that, “you know what, that’s how it goes”. Then they happened to reach back out to me and I guess they decided to do maybe two or three of the dates and one of them was Webster Hall here in New York, and The View - and we ended up doing them. Then they called me back to do Saturday Night Live (SNL). So its pretty much after SNL where her popularity started to grow and chasing pavements, the single at that time was doing really well, and then we did the Grammy’s the following year, and then after that we went on tour. So none of that was expected, it was kind of out of the blue, in a way.
‘And then “21”, when we did the promo cycle for that I remember I went over to London and we did a rehearsal and she played me some of the music, and I thought it was incredible. But when we did The Brit Awards it pretty much changed the direction of the album. It kind of snowballed after that and everyone took an interest and it just went from there. So yeah, I didn’t think [Laughs] - because she did really well on her first album, so, you just go into these things and try to do the best you can, for what you can control. But no I never thought it would snowball in that way, and be as successful as it was.’
So what were your thoughts during in that time?
‘I didn’t have time to think…a lot of stuff is in hindsight now. Plus I’m not really drawn to that side of things as far as - not necessarily success, but as far as with the media and keeping up with stuff like that; I kind of just focus and go in and do my job, and try to do my job to the best of my ability and like I said, to make the artist feel as comfortable as possible. And then with Adele at the time, she was one of these artists with all the trappings of success and celebrity and she was just a normal person - at least that’s how I perceived it. She didn’t create that energy around the camp. I mean fine, you’re getting ready for the show, and there’s fans outside, and there’s all of that. But it just felt pretty normal, it just felt like “This is what we do”. But that’s just me. I’m very anti-spotlight [Laughs]. I just love music and I love being able to perform and create and it just so happens there’s visibility there so, there’s nothing you can do about that, but yeah I was never drawn to that.
‘And like I said, it was in the moment - so yeah, you hear the numbers and you hear the album is doing this and we’re travelling all over and we’re performing here and there, and you get the feedback but nah I never thought about it like that. It’s probably only many years after when I was able to process it and say “okay”, it just feels normal to me. I never look back and be like “wow”. You’re thankful - I don’t mean I’m ungrateful at all, it’s just when you’re in it, it's different. I can't seem to get my head to make it a big deal.[Laughs]
‘Plus, you have to think; all the artists that I have worked with - their success isn’t my success. I just happen to share in it and be a part of it. I think a lot of musicians and people around can get so caught up. You get so caught up, and you’re in the moment and the energy is around the artist and you get some residual to kind of believe your own hype. But early on I thought, “this success is not mine” I just happen to be in proximity to it, which is awesome and not everyone gets to see things from this side. I know this world has a preoccupation with celebrity, but yeah, I’ve always tried to keep a balanced mind and equilibrium - because you don’t want to go too up or down, because there are times where that’s not going to be the case, because it doesn’t last. And when it doesn’t last, what do you do? How do you define yourself and what to do? So as for me I try to - I try to be humble - but for me I’ve just created a personal philosophy about how I carry myself and how I live my life, and music is a part of my live, so that’s then that’s affected by that.
‘That’s why I would say - I started out by playing in clubs here in New York, and that was my first break, if you will. And I still play in clubs in New York, so that’s kept me humble - and I approach and prepare for those gigs the same way as I would for The Royal Albert Hall, because it’s music… like, I always say “what’s the difference between playing in front of 50,000 people and playing in front of 5,000 people?” you're still playing music - the environment changes but you’re still playing music. So that’s allowed me to keep a very balanced outlook. But it could be easy for me to say that because I’ve done both, and I know most musicians would want to play music at the highest level and on the biggest of platforms - but because I’ve done both, it’s given me balance. So I would tell anyone who is aspiring, to aspire to any and everything that you would want to do, but just know to keep a balance - and I don’t put one above the other, one is better than the other.’
So obviously you’ve played The Royal Albert Hall with Adele and a number of monumental gigs all around the world with various artists. What was the key to remaining the Musical Director and Pianist for those years do you think?
‘…I don’t know. With artists and working in this business - one, you can’t take anything personally, right? I don’t know if I ever thought about it from that perspective. Yes it’s about execution, but I never thought about it like “if I don’t do that then they are going to fire me or get somebody else”, because artists can be very material in certain ways. They might wake up one day and feel a particular way. So as a musician and MD and producer you can’t really hang your hat on how an artist is feeling on a particular day. An artist can do an album like John Mayer and you look at John Mayer and you look at the albums that he’s done. He’s shifted his focus and he’s not using the same musicians, does that mean previous musicians weren’t any good any more? Or they didn’t do their job...I don’t think so. It’s just that you shift and you go in a different direction and you want to try different things. So because I know that’s how artists are - yes there are people who have messed up and got fired, or are incompetent, yes that’s a given, but generally I just do my job. And I can tell you, my job is to come in there - if I’m an MD, obviously that job is a little more magnified - but do my job the best of my ability, be as truthful and as honest as I can to the music and to make the artist feel as comfortable as possible - anything else, I can’t control. Obviously you want to have a great attitude, that’s important - but I’ve never seen it from that perspective of losing or being kept. You can’t worry about that.
‘There are so many different factors and politics that can go into the hiring and firing of people within a setting - you can’t worry about that. You just have to let your work speak for yourself. It’s a competitive business, so there’s always someone who’s vying for your spot but that’s never really bothered me, because I’m always being honest and true and putting in the work, so that’s all I can ask of myself. Some people are motivated by other things; whether it be money or, whether it be opportunity and think, “okay this is a stepping stone to something else”. Music has been and still is my main motivation. I haven’t wavered from that. So when I’m called for gigs - if it’s a tour or whether it’s a local gig, or whatever - it’s about learning the music and interpreting the music, and executing the music the best that I can. I feel like the music is the be all and end all. I think it’s about the music and it’s about connectivity; everything else will fall into place, but I think other than that there’s nothing. That’s what I focus on, because that’s what I can control.’
You said earlier on, you set goals when leaving Barbados for New York and some of those were playing on TV and working with some of the world’s biggest artists, has the journey so far been different than you what expected?
’Very different…very, very different. Because, when you’re young and you're naive and your perspective is from that of the media - it’s an outsider’s perspective. I’ve been fortunate that - how things worked out, I was able to accomplish a lot of goals that I set. In accomplishing those goals, the funny thing was, the actual accomplishment was like “okay cool, you did that” but it was when I looked back at the journey to those accomplishments that I’m like “wow, look at all the stuff that you were able to learn”. So that’s what I more revel in; the journey, and my understanding of - I would never say I understand how the music industry works because it’s ever changing. Anyone that tells you they understand the music industry is lying. None of us have it figured out, and that’s whether you’re in it or you’re outside of it. I guess that when you’re inside of it, you might be privy to certain things and you’ve seen certain things, but none of us have it figured out. But yeah, if I look back - and I’ve been doing that recently, like I said my dad passed and so, I look back and I’m amazed. The accomplishments yes, but more so the journey, and while coming from where you came from, coming from a small island, and being able to work with some of the best in the world. Yeah you go through your ups and your downs but that’s life. But to still be here and still in your right mind, you’re still hungry and you’re still curious. I always feel like, if you don’t have curiosity, then you don’t have anything, because you’re not curious; you don’t want to know more, improve, then what are you doing? you know.
‘I’ve seen people get jaded, because it’s easy to get jaded by the business. As I was saying to you earlier, it’s finding a balance and looking outside of the music for inspiration to bring back to the music; to bring something back, to live a little. It’s been very difficult though. It’s been hard to reconcile the accomplishments with where I had come from. So in a way - not ignored it, but it’s just been one of those things where I’ve been like “okay cool, I did those things…what’s next?” So I never stopped to revel in it and it was never really a big deal, because when I looked back and realized, it was more so the journey and all the things it took to get there that made me who I am now. Because its easy to get stuck and think “I did this already…” but I don’t think like that, because that’s a recipe for disaster - because you don’t want to stay in the same space, and that’s the beauty of life. Your perspectives change, you change, you grow, you’re not holding on to what you did in the past, you’re thankful and you’re happy, but you’re not holding on to it - you want to leave some room in your mental and your spiritual for something new.’
Moving forward, what has the future got in store for you?
‘That’s interesting…I do not know. I’m just living. What’s happened now, because my dad’s just passed, and my dad was a musician as well, and going down to Trinidad for his funeral, I connected again with that part of my DNA and my lineage - like I said my Mom was big Barbadian and my Dad was Trinidadian, and I haven’t been in Trinidad in 14/15 years. So within the few days that I was there, I was able to reconnect, and it made me think when I came back home to New York, about what I want to do next. So I’m still figuring that out. The goal has always been though, that; I love performing, I love the MD’ing, but also I always wanted to get into production and songwriting and in the studio. So that’s been an uphill battle. One of the things that people think is because you get success in one arena that it’s transferrable, and it’s not. So I had to work my way up in terms of live performance, touring, music directing; same way I have to do it in production and songwriting and studio work. So I’ve been actively doing that. I’ve been doing it whilst I was doing the other things as far as touring and stuff, but I’ve been actively doing that in the last 3 or 4 years. So when I went down, it made me really have to ask myself “What do you really want to do next?”
Is there a certain artist you would like to work with?
‘…Not particularly, no. I’m influenced by a lot of the - I don’t want to say older, but the established artists, artists that aren’t here anymore, from Nat King Cole to Miles Davis to Marvin Gaye to Donny Hathaway - people like that - Bob Marley, Hendrix - people who I feel have made musical statements that live on, that are influencing people who weren’t even born when they were alive - that fascinates me. So I’m more inspired by that, those eras of the musicians and their contribution to the universe. And figuring out how, with the world is right now, how we can begin to take or borrow from those artists and begin to create music like that again. So that’s where I’m at today.’
You’ve also mentioned earlier on that, in order to survive as a musician and excel it’s about balance and attitude. Have you got any other tips for artists or aspiring persons for doing what you’re doing?
‘Yeah. Not everyone is going to do this to a professional level, so the meaning of music for me is that; everyone can be involved in music, music is a beautiful thing - whether you’re a listener or you’re a practitioner, it doesn’t matter, everyone can be involved with music. But my thing is, to the people out there who are serious about music and pursuing music as a profession, is, really ask yourself the question “Why am I doing this? What do I want out of this? What is my motivation for doing this?” and the reason I say to ask yourself those questions, is because - if your motivation is to get money out of this, I mean as far as for me to say, you can’t, but I just know from my experience that if you’re getting into music for money, you’re getting into the wrong business. That’s not to say you cannot make money and you can’t earn a living, but I’m saying if money is your main reason for getting into music, you may want to look at reevaluating that decision.
‘When you think about people who get into this for celebrity and fame and you look at - if you’re watching an Amy Winehouse documentary, you see the demons of the actual celebrity part and what it can be, of the music industry, you may want to reevaluate again. So for whatever reasons the motivation, I’m saying, just ask yourself that question. Ask yourself that question - “Why am I doing this? What is my motivation for doing this? What do I want out of this?” The other thing is - yes focus on being the best you can be, putting in those practice hours - whether that be doing your scales or your sight reading, your theory, your ear training - if you’re in to Jazz; your transcriptions and all those things - put in those hours. There’s no getting around that. To be the best musician you can be, you want to put inasmuch hours as you can as far as getting the fundamentals together.
‘But also, beyond that, do a lot of listening - not with a view to improving, but just do a lot of listening. Listen to music, listen to lectures, listen to whatever, just do a lot of listening. Do a lot of reading, do a lot of watching and do a lot of observing. And you’re not doing that with a view to it benefiting you as a musician, you’re doing that because, by Osmosis, it’s going to - at least I believe, by Osmosis - it’s going to pour through, it’s going to come through. It might not come through in a way that you expect - but you want to have a character, you’re building character. If you don’t have a pallet to draw from, when you go on that stage, or you go in that studio, what are you going to have to offer? So, those things are important.
‘Another important thing is to learn in business. Now, as an outsider, you’re not going to learn - I mean yeah okay I could have read a magazine, “oh okay somebody signed this contract for how many millions” but that’s not knowing the business. You’re not going to really know the business - like I was telling you - no one really knows the music business, but, you can have experience, like hands on experience in knowing how the business works - and that can be - as far as like, just doing a little gig at a pub, and the promoter paying you $2. It’s just that understanding, so it’s beginning to learn in business. Now, you could read Donald Passman’s “All You Need to Know About the Music Business” - that’s a good theoretical text, so that’s important, but I think also watching videos, you’ve got YouTube, listening to artists; reading about artists biographies, maybe if you could get around a musician that’s’ a little more established; just hearing stories. So, just finding ways to hear about people who are practitioners in the business and their experiences.
‘The more you understand about the business that you’re in, the better the musician you can be as well. Some people feel like, “oh because I’m a musician I only have to know music”, I disagree with that. I think that you can have a healthy balance, and I think one informs the other. So knowing about copyright laws, intellectual property is not a bad thing. Knowing about song royalties and recording rights - those are things that are important as well. So like I said - asking yourself those question about why you’re motivated to and what’s motivating you to do this. Listening, learning, watching, observing - learning the business, all aspects from magazines to books, biographies, theoretical texts - reaching out to people in the business, you know. Organically. Those are the main things, you know. And in that first question, as far as asking yourself “Why are your motivated to do this?” and having a really strong sense of self and belief in self, or if you don’t have that, figuring out how to develop that - because as much as I love music, and music has brought so many beautiful things to my life, I’m still a person away from the music and apart from the music - and if I didn’t develop me, apart, from the music, I wouldn’t still be here, because if I don’t tour, or I don’t work with a big artist all the time, then who am I? So I think for a lot of people, they look for validation externally, and I’m saying, “Validate yourself first, and focus on that, and building a strong sense of self” and then you’re thankful if the opportunities present themselves - you’re thankful for them, but they don’t validate you.
‘And that’s no disrespect to anyone by saying, “validate yourself”. A lot of people like to say, “oh you worked with this person” and that’s fine and that’s good on paper, but you are an individual, and you got to develop you - especially when being in the arts and creativity, and being a musician - I think it’s important to develop that individuality and understanding. So I can have individuality but I know where to place it. So if I work with an artist, and I can tell you my job is to make sure that artist is comfortable - I can do that but still be an individual and not impede or overshadow or have an ego about that - and my individuality can shine through. I’m saying that for you, it’s not as methodical as that [Laughs] none of this stuff that I’m telling you is like I’ve thought about it in the way I’m telling you and then I just went after it - it just comes from years of development and growth. And to be honest, sometimes we have a tendency that we do something and we want to see the result right away, and for me, a lot of times, when I did stuff and I did not look for the result - it came in such an interesting way to me that it surprised me, because I was like “Oh wow, you did grow and you didn’t even realize because look how this presented itself and how you dealt with it, or how you were able to handle this” and it was because, like I told you, I had been looking outside of my core, and observing and watching and listening and learning and, it just presented itself or came out in a different way. I think it’s important.’
I’d like to thank you for a very inspirational and humble interview. I’m extremely grateful for you taking the time to talk with me…
‘I appreciate it. It’s good because, when I was now starting out and aspiring, I always wanted to know how those people that were already established or working within the music industry like, “Wow, how did you do that? How did you get there? What was it like? How does this work, how does that work…” and you didn’t really have that kind of hands on ability to speak directly to these people. So I always think like that - as far as, when I was - not that I’m old, but when I was younger I wanted to know, so, I try to do the same. Anyone that’s interested in knowing my experiences are or were, I definitely want to share because you never know. You never know who is watching and who’s listening and what it might do for them. That’s all it is. We’re no different, you know?
‘Like I said, all that stuff I’m telling you is cool, obviously your experience is going to be your experience, and as far as the business of music and as far as operating within the music industry, it’s one of those things where, I don’t know if somebody can tell you really how.’
Because everyone has his or her own path, right? There's no direct path for everyone.
‘Yeah. All you can do is share your experiences and hope somebody can get something from it. It’s just one of those things. Like I said, for me, it was a lot of luck involved too, because as far as Adele, and her success, and the way certain things happened, we’re not in control of that, per say. So yeah, It’s just one of those weird things where you’re just thankful things work out a particular way, and you made the most of it, but yeah I don’t know if anyone can tell you, “Yeah I set out to do this and it happened this way, and a whole list”. And that’s why I say “Ask yourself that question” because it’s - especially now - there’s a lot less opportunities for musicians, so really ask yourself “Are you able to stay the course?” because it’s a lot of ups and downs and there can be a lot of disappointments and frustrations. So finding out a kind of psychological mental balance - that you can still keep your sanity and still remain focused, motivated and passionate about the music - because a lot of stuff doesn’t have anything to do with the music, or your ability - a lot of times that doesn’t have anything to do with it. You could be the best drummer and it still doesn’t have anything to do with the actual business and manoeuvring and sustaining, and that’s the thing at school; they don’t teach you how to sustain and manoeuvre - those things aren’t really taught, and I don’t know if they can be taught. So that’s why it’s such a difficult journey, but one that can be very beautiful. So as I said, those who are really up for it.’
Thank you once again to Miles for your cooperation and insightful thoughts throughout this interview. And also to Peter for helping set up the whole thing.
You can find Miles' Page Here
Thank you for reading!
© Dan Lewis 2016
Nate Morton is most well known for his current and long-term success as the drummer on the American hit TV series The Voice. A proud graduate of the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, Nate’s abilities have excelled him in to tours with Grammy Award nominated artist Vanessa Carlton, American Idol, Chaka Kahn and Jazz giant Natalie Cole. Also playing a show with Madonna in 2002, Nate’s musical CV is incredibly diverse. Nate is endorsed by drum giants - Pearl Drums, Zildjian Cymbals and Roland electronic drum makers. I caught up with Nate on his way to Universal Studios Los Angeles about his background, career and current job working on The Voice series 10.
You started playing drums at the age of four, what were some of the next major steps you took to lead you where you’re at right now?
‘…There were two huge things in my life that I credit with the majority of my quote-unquote “success”, or wherever I am right now. The first thing was going to Berklee College of Music. I’ve talked about this with a lot of my friends - some of them were initially self taught, some of them took lessons in high school but pretty much all of my friends at some point, studied and had private lessons on their instrument. Now, there are obviously guys who are in bands and they just picked up a guitar and they learned five chords and started singing pop songs and they’re huge now and they never took lessons. But with my friends - talking like working side musicians and so on, pretty much across the board at some point took lessons. So for me, going to Berklee was a huge deal. Because, not only was I exposed to a tremendous number of great instructors, but also great facilities and I also met a large number of musicians that I continue to keep in touch with and work with today. And a lot of what we do is about networking. So number one - going to Berklee.’
‘Number two, moving to Los Angeles. Because, once you have the skills it’s important to go to where those skills can be best applied. Much the same way as I’m saying like, you don’t have to go to Berklee - but in my life that was a big deal, you don’t have to move to LA but in my life that was a big deal. There are people who are born and grow up in a small town and find their way on the big gigs - I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t happen, but for me, I know that it was a crucial point making the decision to move to Los Angeles.’
So when did you realize that you wanted to make a career out of music?
‘When I was about 10 years old, well, maybe earlier than that. I used to have a piano because I was taking piano lessons - and at one point we got rid of the piano because we were moving or something. And the piano movers came and they took the piano and I was about…7 at the time, and my grandmother told me that she remembered me lying on the floor crying screaming "there goes my career" [Laughs]…at 7 years old. Well I don’t remember that but she tells me that’s what happened. Then at about 11 years old I remember having a conversation with my father, and the gist of that conversation was that - I was coming to realize that - basically he worked every day, 8-10 hours a day. He was a college administrator and he wore a suit and tie every day to work and I remember, sort of realizing like, wow, you're going to do that for like 40 years of your life, and I just remember thinking at the time that I would do anything to avoid that. With all due respect to anyone who has a straight job like a 9 to 5 or any of that, I just knew that for me…it would make my life very miserable if I had to do that. I didn’t like having to get up early in the morning to go to school, so I sort of was already thinking about like “what can I do, so that I can stay up later, because I would much rather stay up late than get up early” and so all of those things started to happen around 10 years old, and then they carried on - and then when I got into highschool, I started to play in a band.’
‘And that was a major turning point as well because I really was like, wow, this is the most fun I could possibly imagine having playing music. And it was also in high school that one of my - my private drum instructor was a guy named Grant Menfee - it was during high school that Grant basically said to me “you know” - I remember this very well - he said “you know, I don’t say this to a lot of my guys, but I have to let you know, if you really wanted to work hard at this, you might be able to make a living playing drums” and that was a huge turning point because up to that point I didn’t really know that you could have a job playing drums. Up to that point no one had actually really said, “you could make a living doing this”. And to this day I look around at the gigs that I’m doing and the people I’m working with and all that -and it’s still…to be quite honest, it’s still bizarre to me, it's bizarre. I look around and I go “I can’t believe this is my job” but yeah it’s very exciting.’
So at what age did Grant Manfee mention that he believed you had a career in music ahead of you?
‘I was in high school, so I probably would have been about 16 or 17?’
What would you say are some important factors to keeping a career alive, and go from strength to strength like you have?
‘Well one of the biggest things in being a musician is networking. I mean, you don’t want to do it to the point where you’re a pain in the ass [Laughs] but it’s always good to stay in touch with people. It’s always good to foster positive relationships and maintain relationships because the way that you go from one gig to the next gig is by someone calling you because they worked with you somewhere else or someone heard your name, or someone saw you playing at a club, it’s all about those types of things. And you know, I wouldn’t be so tripe as to say ‘it’s more who you know, than what you know’ like I wouldn’t say that, because at the end of the day you still have to deliver the goods. At the end of the day you still have to play. But beyond the ability to play, it’s the ability to be a positive energy and to be an easy person to work with and all that, because frankly, everyone can play - there’s a lot of people who can play. The ability to play, having a good time, being versatile - all those things are a given. Like, you have to have that as a starting point. So then beyond that it becomes more about - “okay can I hang out with this person? Is this person a cool vibe?” So that has a lot to do with it. Networking and making sure that your network of people that you know is as wide as it can be.’
So you’ve played in a lot of bands that I assume have musical directors, what would you say musical directors look for when selecting musicians?
‘That’s a very good question. I guess it all depends on the type of project. I can speak from my own personal experience and I can say that for example my musical director on the show, on The Voice, is a guy named Paul Mirkovich, and Paul and I have worked together, I mean almost exclusively for the last…10 years or more - since 2005, most of the gigs that he and I have done have been with one-another. And I think I can say that one of the things that Paul values about me, is that I’m a versatile player which is especially crucial when it having to play on a show like The Voice - as we’re playing through so many styles and so on. And I think that he likes the fact that I’m fast, I’m a quick study. You don’t really have to tell me things a bunch of times for me to get it, once I hear it and put it in my brain, it’s usually there.’
‘Those are the things that musical directors like - the less you have to worry about a member of your team, the better. So if you’re someone who shows up unprepared, doesn’t know the song, shows up late, or is very argumentative or doesn’t take direction well - all those sorts of things. Those are things that some one’s going to go away from. They aren’t going to want that in their organization. But it’s kind of the same in life. It’s the same if you were working at Taco Bell - you want someone who’s going to show up on time, knows how to make a chicken burrito supreme correctly every time [Laughs] you know what I mean? Be friendly, easy to work with, when you ask them to sweep the floor they do not argue with you about sweeping the floor. Kind of the same way in any occupation I think.’
On topic of The Voice…how did you get approached for the job?
‘Well…it’s kind of the nice bow on top for everything we’ve been talking about because like I said, I’ve worked with Paul since 2005. And so with The Voice band, Sasha [Krivtsov] is the Bass player and we’ve played together since 2002, and Paul and I have played together 2005. So it wasn’t exactly an audition that I did and I got the gig. The Voice was more like knowing Paul, and Paul knowing the people that he knew. Paul was basically called to be the musical director for the show and when Paul was called, he was literally like “okay I’m calling my guys”. His rhythm section was Sasha and I, and so that’s how Sasha and I wound up there. So, if you really want a true answer to that story - it’s almost like I got the gig playing on The Voice back in 2005 when Paul and I first met. It’s literally like that.’
Remaining on topic of The Voice, the genre switches between songs are not only vast, but also immediate. How do you prepare for that?
‘…I don’t know if you can prepare for it other than just doing it. But way back when - I was at the point where I was saying "well how do I?" It’s something I’ve done my entire life. Like for example, if Grant Menfee (my instructor) says to me “you know you could actually make a living out of this”, my next question is “okay, how? Tell me what to do, what do I have to do?” So either Grant or someone along my educational path basically said “Listen to as much music as you possibly can, all the time - across as many genres as you can, as many feels and tempos, everything. Just listen to as much as you possibly can - and hand in hand with that, play, as much music as you possibly can. Whatever it is, take everything”.’
‘So I think that, for example, I’ve played in cover bands since college and so when you play in a cover band - depending on what kind of cover band - you may have 30/40/50/60 tunes that you’ve got to know. The tunes change and they rotate - and there’s a new single on the radio, maybe you got to learn that song so that you can incorporate that into the set, other songs fall out - So I think, in terms of preparation for what I’m doing on The Voice now, it’s almost been like a lifelong preparation. I’ve answered the question a few times in different interviews - it’s interesting because even being at Berklee I studied with Jazz instructors because I wanted to improve my Jazz playing. I studied with Latin guys who specialized in that genre. One of my instructors at Berklee just passed away recently unfortunately, a guy named Edgar, and he was like the guy for Latin stuff, I mean I loved it - I just knew that I wanted to be able to be comfortable whatever the musical circumstance was. So it’s funny because I find myself saying to people “almost like I was preparing for The Voice gig before I even knew that it existed” [Laughs]. Because, at the time, there wasn’t a gig like this - one that encompassed so many so many genres, so many styles - and let's not forget to mention the fact we actually go and record all of these songs full-length to release on iTunes every week as well. So there’s a recording element involved as well. So yeah I would say it’s a been a kind of life long preparation, and if anyone is thinking like “I want a gig like that” or “I want to be doing that gig one day” then it’s essential it starts now and it starts with; how many different types of music can you listen to? And how many different genres and situations can you put yourself in that require you to switch between styles like that?’
‘Even in Latin studying with Edgar - I’m not playing a Latin/Jazz gig on The Voice, obviously I’m not playing for Michelle Camilo, but at the same time - even on the show - if we do a Marc Anthony song or an Enrique Iglesias song, it’s cool to have that geared to be able to go “oh you know what? I’m actually going to play this national-bonafide Latin groove over this Pop song, because I know that that’s the basis of it” you know what I mean? I have that in my bag to go there. Whereas, if all my life I’ve only played Pop and Rock, that wouldn’t be anything I that I could go to. That wouldn’t be part of my bag of tricks if you will.’
So could you talk a little bit about your average day on The Voice?
‘…It really varies. Some days we have our iTunes recording days so we’ll go in and we’ll be in the studio all day recording 12 tracks. Then we have our first rehearsal day where we do a rehearsal and shoot reality with the contestant - so the contestant will be there, sing a song once or twice - and are coached along and get feedback, have their input and then we’ll sort of craft the arrangement and then we run it a couple more times, that would be one of our reality days. Other days - like right now I’m driving to the studio, so right now I’m driving to Universal and today our day will consist of doing our on stage rehearsal for each performance that’s going to happen in the Monday show that we have coming up. So today will be like 10 hours with the contestants and each contestant gets around half-an-hour/45 minutes for their song and we’ll work on that.’
‘And then you have show days, and on show days we show up in the morning at the studio and we do a dress rehearsal where we play through the entire show as if it was the actual show, and then sometimes we’ll have a little break, or sometimes we’ll have to record something that’s going to appear in the show, and then we’ll do the show - we do the live show, and often, after that we’re finished after the live show, but sometimes after a live show day we’ll actually come back an hour later and begin shooting reality for next week's show. So it’s really varied, it’s not at all the same day every day. It’s very cool, it keeps me very fresh and it definitely keeps you on your toes. This is not the gig that you can become very complacent while doing. You definitely always have to adjust and grow as player and learn as a player. Yeah it’s really good.’
So, how do the live shows work differently to the pre-recorded shows?
‘The pre recorded shows, like the blind auditions for example, we may have a day where we shoot - like today for example - 25 blind auditions. So 25 blind auditions being shot, with 25 either chair turns or no chair turns, so we have dialogue, we say “that was really good but you know I just wasn’t a fan of the song” or they say “that was the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life, your incredible” [Laughs] and then they go back and they choose from those - let's say 25 performances - and they’ll say alright let's take these 10 and these 10 performances are going to be the ones that we’re going to put together for episode 1. Then let's take these for episode 2, then episode 3. So that’s how that happens, it’s a much more compacted schedule. Whereas the live shows are literally week-to-week live shows. So each week you have however many contestants you have remaining, those contestants go into the room - you rehearse with them, you have another rehearsal with them, you do the stage rehearsal with them, dress rehearsal and then you do the live show that week and it goes week-to-week with the live shows.’
‘The Live show is a different energy as well. It’s funny, because in the blind auditions, I actually get, I wouldn’t say nervous, but it’s definitely a different energy when you're playing with someone and you know that they’re singing to get on the show. If they’re singing and there is no chair turn, you know it’s going to be a very sad time, because they’re going to be like “ahh…I sang and nobody turned and I didn’t make it” and so you know when I play sometimes I do like stick spins or whatever and act goofy when I’m playing - and it’s funny because I have to literally wait until a chair turn before I’ll do any of that stuff. Because, if a chair doesn’t turn and I’m back there like spinning sticks and going berserk then it’s like “ahh” [Laughs]. So yeah, with the live shows it’s a different energy just because it’s that live energy - there’s not even a way to explain it - and it’s best for me if I not think about it - it’s best for me if I don’t think about the fact that if I drop a stick or miss a fill or miss the end of the song, it will be heard by millions of people and there’s nothing I can do about it [Laughs]. It’s better if I not think about that.’ [Laughs]
You’ve already played with some of America’s biggest artists, so what’s next for you? Would you like to continue with what you’re doing now?
‘That’s a wonderful question. I don’t really know the answer. I suppose, I have to admit that playing on television definitely has its advantages in terms of being able to be at home, seeing your family every day - going to your favorite restaurants everyday. But, I also have to admit there is a certain thing about touring, and that maybe something that I may do again one day, probably will be at some point. But yeah, I honestly don’t know because right now The Voice is such an all-encompassing situation that it’s hard to even think about doing anything else, you know.’
Would you say there is a certain artist that you would like to work with one day?
‘…You know I have to say, I have bands that I like, so I mean, if I was called to take over the drummer of Coldplay for example, I suppose that wouldn’t be a bad situation.’ [Laughs]
I would like to know what inspires you as an artist?
‘What inspires me...What does inspire me? Umm I’m not even sure. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that question. When I was a kid I was inspired by Animal from The Muppet Show, that was awesome. I used to think like "look Animal can go crazy and it’s really cool, I want to do that” so that kind of inspired me. It’s interesting now, sometimes I will receive the odd text or email saying “I really loved how you played so and so, it really inspired me…” or “I enjoy watching you play” and I think that the gratitude from being able to be something positive in someone’s life - it sort of inspires me to want to continue to be positive or to continue to (hopefully) do things that are fun and good musically. So when someone says “you inspired me to learn such and such a song”. Well my response to that is “okay well that inspires me to want to keep inspiring you”. So to do that it means me learning more songs and me playing with more energy or continuing to try to learn and grow as a player and I just think it just goes around in a circle like that for me.’
‘And I’m very fortunate too in the fact that…generally speaking, everyday (today included) I think to myself “I’m driving in to a TV studio to play drums on a television show with my friends” and that alone is enough to keep me positive and upbeat and inspired and want to continue doing what I’m doing. My worst day playing music is still a day that I get to spend playing music. So yeah it’s kind of that.’
Lastly, what two pieces of advice would you have for musicians wanting to do what you do?
‘I don’t know if I can narrow it down to two.’
[Laughs] You can use as many as you want.
‘Well, I’m going to be repeating myself a little bit, but like I said, I can only say the things thing’s that were most influential for me and they were listen to as much as possible play as much as possible, gain as much education as you can and then move to where the gigs are. Now, I realize that not everyone can do those things. I realize that not everyone can go to Berklee College of Music but whatever the highest level of musical insight and education that you can gain is, I recommend doing that. And not everyone can move to LA. I get that that can be pretty strong in some situations. But wherever the closest place is that you can physically be to where the gigs are, then that’s where to go. If you live in Pennsylvania and the closest place you can get to where there’s gigs is Philadelphia, then you have to consider moving to Philadelphia. If you live in the UK you have to consider moving to London. So that would be it. Listen to as much as you can, play as much as you can, gain as much education as you can and then take all of that experience and knowledge to the place where it can be the best applied.’
I would just like to thank you immensely for agreeing to do the interview. It’s incredible you took the time to speak to an aspiring drummer about your career and what you're doing now.
‘Sure. Well...I’ll tell you this. This is something we didn’t exactly finish on, but I’ll share with you. When I was…how old are you?’
‘Right, 22, when I was 22, and younger, and actually older. Around that date, when I was 22 the one thing that I struggled with was gaining access to people doing what I wanted to do. I studied with some great instructors, I was playing in some cool bands, but it wasn’t like I could just call up Dennis Chambers on the phone and have a conversation with him or call up my heroes like Vinnie Colaiuta or Steve Gadd. And so for me, one of the things I try to do is - I try to give as much back as I possibly can and in my little world “giving back” basically means to me - making myself as available as I can to be a mentor to people, to share knowledge with people, to hopefully pass on some of whatever I have gained, so yeah that’s a big deal to me I try to do it. So Thank You. You’re thanking me for doing it; I’m thanking you for giving me the opportunity to do it.’
Thank you so much again for some amazing advice and insight in to your world.
‘Like I said, it’s an honor. I’m always very flattered and gratified quite frankly that anyone even cares what I do [Laughs]. If someone cares what I do and they care enough to want to ask me questions or gain knowledge or insight about it, it’s kind of like, I would feel like a jerk if I didn’t reciprocate that if I didn’t return that. Like I don’t get asked to do a lot of autographs, but when someone asks for your autograph, to me, all you got to do to make that person happy at that particular time, is sign your name. I feel like I would be a jerk if I didn’t do that. It’s the simplest world. It’s like with this, all you have to do is take the time to answer a couple of questions and share some knowledge and share some insight and that’s going to (hopefully) help or inspire, or share and give insights to someone who is trying to get to where you are or what your doing. So, I’m only where I am because once upon a time I was able to learn and ask people things and gain knowledge, so I would be a jerk not to return it.’
[You can find Nate's YouTube Channel Here]
Thank you for reading!
© Dan Lewis 2016