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
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