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But now, in an attempt redeem myself, I’ve finally edited the last installment of the Studio Interview Series: a chat with Aussie drummer Paul Mabury. Paul currently lives in Nashville and does quite a bit of session work there, but cut his teeth at Hillsong in Australia. He’s a great player and has tons of insight for the studio side of things.
And, as I conclude the SIS, I’m happy to announce a new series of interviews featuring more extensive discussions with some of the cool/influential/innovative drummers that the Twin Cities has to offer. Look for the Twin Cities Interview Series to kick off next week, but for now, enjoy Paul Mabury’s perspective…
(Me) How long have you been playing drums, and how much of that has included studio work? (PM) I am 35 years old now and I started drumming as a 13 year old. I didn’t get serious about it though until I went to the West Australian Academy of Music to study Jazz under Frank Gibson Jr. This was an amazing time of rich musical development. I quickly started getting out and playing shows in the club scene and was soon playing every night of the week. This lead to me playing on records in my early 20’s… and it hasn’t stopped, thank the Lord.
How has your career played out as far as “hired gun” vs “band member”? Do you think there is more chance for a drummer to find work in one situation over the other? I think the ultimate is to be in a band… isn’t it the reason why we wanted to play in the first place? Music needs to be shared! I have found that my session work has come from my work in bands. Just find people that make you sound good. I have been playing a ton here in Nashville with a bass player named David Labruyere (or “dela” and most people will know his work from Shawn Mullins, John Mayer). The truth is we try to get a lot of work together because we make each other sound good… yeah, it’s a selfish relationship… ha.
What’s your take on being a diverse player vs a highly specialized player? Oh, I appreciate the specialized player. But I say, “play it all man!” You will have more of a chance to get a gig if you have more than one feather in your cap.
How much practice time do you give to “chops” kinds of things vs other skills? Not much… there’s just no time… I have to little boys now and when I start to play they always hear it and sneak down stairs to come and play with me. I spend most of my time (when I do get to practice) playing a groove at a difficult tempo for as long I can handle it. It isn’t too enjoyable but I get better as a player. I think practice should sound good. We should be working on our weaknesses so that one day others will enjoy them as our strengths!
What are your thoughts on being an analytical player vs just playing by feel? I would like to be more analytical but I am just not! Music should make you feel something… I admit, great things happen when “Art & Science” meet, but I would prefer to make something great happen and then have others analyze it. A great example of this happened when I was at music school studying Jazz. We had some of the greatest musicians/lecturers in the country standing behind their instruments waiting to play while students were throwing back debates on what “improvising” was! Just when I couldn’t handle it anymore Frank (my lecturer) said, “Lets just play something.” Another lecturer said, “what?” and Frank replied, “lets just play… improvise!” They went on to show us improvisation… they did it, and think that’s how we learn.
The truth is, if you have to ask the question, “what is improvising?” then you’re probably going about it all wrong. Music is a language – it’s a way we communicate – and it’s powerful. It’s important that we learn to understand what we are doing when we play music but it’s more important that we actually do it!
Who are some of your favorite studio players, and what are some examples of why you like them? Steve Gadd… for obvious reasons! (he is one of the most “musical” drummers of all time.) Check him out on most of the contemporary music ever recorded… ha! “Chuck E’s In Love” by Rickie Lee Jones would be my favorite though. That fill into the chorus out kills me, I ran the needle over the record to learn it but no one can play it like him! He makes lazy feel so good.
Mike Clark, his tone… the way he strikes the drum is wonderful and he plays so tight. You MUST check him out on “Thrust” – Herbie Hancock.
Andy Newmark, for a lot of the same reasons I like Mike Clark. He is incredible on Sly & The Family Stone between 1973-75. His most amazing work in my opinion is on the groundbreaking record, “Fresh.” Own it! He’s playing to drum machines and he is a beast!
Man there are so many, Jon Bonham, Charlie Watts, Ringo, Mitch Mitchell… oh and I love Steve Jordan. All these guys groove. Tony Williams for his innovation, Max Roach… this guy played melodies! Bill Stewart… he is a very “hip” drummer… he implies 2&4 better than anyone! I can find great things and stuff to learn about most players I hear. Here is a great quote, “music is not about being competitive, it is about being creative and not letting the instrument get in the way of the music.” -Frank Gibson Jr.
I should shut up… I could go on and on… the truth is in the records.
What do you think of Pro Tools and the way the digital revolution has influenced recording? I love it. As a producer, I am having a ball with pro tools. I think of it like a sampler. I love taking 2 or 4 bars of what I played and then mixing up drums and brushes and sticks and then playing to what I just recorded… layers of goodness. Man, I recently played on Dave Barnes’ new record and Ed Cash was producing it. I asked him if I could take the sessions home each night to add tambourine, shaker and loops and the like… he said, “don’t edit anything… I like it just the way it is!” That was a refreshing experience… thanks Ed.
How do you go about choosing snares for a track? Does that normally take a lot of time or is it immediately clear which drum to use? Picking a snare for a track usually happens very quickly. I am usually on sessions where the producer (if it isn’t me) wants that “dry crack” with little ring, if any. I love older snares that have in-built muffles so I can use them to get the desired sound. I mostly tune snares low. If it’s a really live sound that is desired I will tune up accordingly to a pitch that compliments the track and for this sound it will usually be a Black Beauty. For the dry pop sounding songs I use mostly an old Ludwig Superphonic School Studio Standard. I think mine is a 1975? I got it for $100 on ebay and so far I’ve used it on every session I rock up to… funny. This is the Superphonic being recorded at dela’s… (with a book on it). If the track is needing something a little left of center then I will start pulling out some snare drums with a more unique character. Like my 80’s Yamaha 8″x14″. This snare has a lot of body with a long note. But hey, I still put a muffle in it and if I drop the snare tuning right down and put my wallet on the top head I can get that old school funk thing going. Here is a good example me playing this snare on a Dave Barnes track at the Smoakstack. Oh and one last thing: if you’re ever having trouble making a snare sound right then once you have it tuned evenly all the way around (with the bottom head tight) loosen the 2 lugs closest to you… all the way, this seems to always work for me. I do it time and time again saying, “how about now?” and the engineer has always replied, “yeah, yeah… that’s it!” (or words to that effect!)
Tell me about your cymbals… why do you choose them and how often do you mix it up? I use all Zildjians… dark cymbals. I love the K’s and the Constantinople’s. I use big cymbals mostly in that you always loose a few inches of sound in the studio. So it’s 22″ 20″ and I usually match 16″ crash cymbals for Hi Hats. I have been using an A Custom Projection Crash on the bottom and a K Dark Crash on the top. I will very rarely use 14″ Hi Hats. I never have many cymbals set up… no need. Here is what I am using at the moment, and here is the typical rig. It’s a bit like a Bonham set up.
If you could have any piece of gear besides what you already have and use, what would it be? Gretsch round badge drum kit… one day you will be mine!
The SIS is back this week, and I’m changing things up a little bit in featuring a jazz player, or at least a guy who is most known for his jazz playing. JT Bates is a Minneapolis native, playing constantly around town in every environment, but really making a name for himself in his trio, Fat Kid Wednesday. JT also hosts the 8-year-running Clown Lounge at the Turf Club in St. Paul, a weekly experimental music series that serves as a cornerstone for the Twin Cities’ underground scene.
(Me) How do you approach playing jazz in the studio vs. live? Are there any distinct differences? (JT) I try to not separate recording jazz and performing jazz. That music is so emotion-based for me – it really boils down to how I’m feeling that day, whether gigging or recording. One small difference, though… I love the peace and quiet of the studio and I can really live in the quiet moments.
What about non-jazz studio work… are you the same player just in a different genre or are you using intentionally different sides of your personality? I’d say a little of both, on some sort of sliding scale. I want to provide what the people are looking for, and hopefully I have enough taste to know how much of my own thing I should put on something, and if it doesn’t call for it then I can definitely just become a different player.
What’s your take on precision vs. emotion/magic. Do you value one over the other or do you wait for a take that has both? I definitely go for a take that has both, although in a jazz session I will opt for emotion over perfection almost every time… if I have to choose. Too much jazz now sounds perfect and it drives me crazy. Isn’t the idea that we’re supposed to be pushing all the time? If so, then I should probably be getting myself into things that I can’t really pull off…
What’s your pet peeve in a studio environment? My pet peeve(s): self-doubt, big egos, bad reading chops (if there are charts), general unpreparedness. If everyone is coming together to accomplish something, you have to be 100% there. If you aren’t, then you’re wasting a lot of people’s time, someone’s money, and chipping away at the cool positivity that comes from a group of people creating something. Also, slow Protools work drives me crazy. It can really get in the way of the flow of the session.
What, in your opinion, is the most effective way to prepare for a session? How can a drummer improve on his “studio chops”? For me personally, the best way to prepare is to get the songs as far ahead of time as I can, so I can play along with them… which, besides the obvious things, should also help me figure out what gear I should bring to the session (bright or dark cymbals, wood/acrylic drums, etc). Hearing the songs in advance also helps me determine what kind of style should come across for those songs. I also like to ask people what records they enjoy, and more specifically, what drummers they enjoy. I make my own click tracks (with a feel – rarely just quarter notes) in Ableton Live. I bounce those down and throw them into Protools or Logic etc, and they help me get to the feel I’m looking for without spending too much time on it. I also make charts on my own if I feel I need them.
Talk about your relationship with the bass player. How do you factor that into session where the tracking is soloed? Most of my best friends are bass players, my brother is a bass player – the bass player absolutely defines the sound of the band. Their feel, their harmony… I just try and connect with them constantly, and if I’m not, then I talk with them about it. I much prefer tracking with a bass so that the pocket is a real time, real life event. If that’s not possible and I’m tracking drums alone, I try and hear what the bass might do in my head so hopefully what I play has some relevance to them.
What’s your favorite piece of gear for studio stuff? My new headphones! I got these Ultrasone headphones – they have 5 small speakers for each ear which are positioned around the eardrum, so that no speaker is going straight into the ear. They’re amazing for me, because my ears don’t get anywhere near as tired as they used to w/ many of the usual headphones. Also, I love my Ludwig Supraphonic. Whenever I can’t find the right snare sound, that drum is almost always the answer, both for high and low tunings.
Vintage drums: over-hyped or everything they’re made out to be? Vintage drums are kick ass. New drums are kick ass. I like em both. I own both, and I just try and pick the right thing for each session. There’s nothing like an old, dried out set of Gretsch or Ludwigs. If I’m playing new drums, I will say that I much prefer custom drums to a lot of the hyper-engineered drums that are in all the magazines, that, to my ears, don’t have a lot of character. I have few Ellis kits that I love.
What are some records that have influenced who you are as a player the MOST?
Records that have influenced me the most non-jazz-wise:
– Tom Petty, Wildflower
– Traveling Wilburys, Vol 1
– Death Cab for Cutie, We Have the Facts
– Daniel Lanois, Shine
– Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball
– Neil Young, Harvest Moon
– Keith Richards,Talk Is Cheap
– Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland
– Bob Dylan, Desire.
Records that have influenced me the most as a jazzer:
– Dexter Gordon, Go
– Thelonius Monk, Criss-Cross
– Joe Lovano, Sounds of Joy
– Paul Motian Trio… any
– Ornette Coleman… any (w/ Ed Blackwell)
– John Mclaughlin, Live at Royal Festival Hall
– Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, Bitches Brew, Kind of Blue
– Pat Metheny, Rejoicing
– Tim Berne, Bloodcount, Science Friction
…and a bazillion more…
Many thanks to JT for his interview, and be sure to check his myspace calendar (click the link on his name at the top of the post) and find a time to go see him live. (Editor’s note: The “Ellis” drums that JT mentioned are custom drums available through Ellis drum shop in St. Paul. Keith from Risen Drums was Ellis’ initial craftsman, and he designed/built all Ellis drums prior to 2007, including JT’s kits.)
The SIS for this week features a juggernaut LA drummer. Brian MacLeod has played on numerous chart-topping records from artists like Sheryl Crow, James Blunt, Tears For Fears, Jewel, John Hiatt, Seal, Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Ziggy Marley, Chris Isaak, Melissa Etheridge, Sara Bareilles, and MANY more. Actually, for those of you who are fans of NBC’s The Office, Brian even played the drums on that theme song.
A quick story before the interview: Brian has a very distinct feel and sound to his playing. I was recently listening to a Michelle Branch record called Hotel Paper, and I read in the liner notes that Kenny Aronoff played drums on the album. I didn’t read close enough though, because toward the end of the record this track came on and I was amazed at how similar Aronoff was sounding to a player like Brian MacLeod. It was so similar that I checked the liner notes… sure enough, it was MacLeod – on that track only.
Anyway, I’m excited to share all the wisdom that I picked up from my interview with Brian. He is a genuinely nice dude and a KILLING player. Enjoy…
(Me) What’s your favorite snare for a wide-open rock sound? (MacLeod) It took me forever to find this snare… Its a Valley Drum shop custom. That shop closed in the early 80’s, but Bill Bottrell had one and I used it on all the Sheryl Crow records. Bill offered to give it to me but I refused. Its got that fat 70’s sound. I finally found one on eBay recently… its the bomb! Also, I have a couple of 1920’s Ludwig two-piece snares… an 8 lug and a 10 lug. They sound great… fat with a crack!
I would REALLY like to know how you got the sounds on that Vegas track from the Sara Bareilles record . Unbelievable. On Vegas I just had loads of tape on the snare, and the engineer used tons of compression. Compression is a drummers best friend. And, I think that was my 26″ kick wide open. cool right?? Hey, also check out Ziggy Marley “True to Myself”… I played a toy drum kit it sounds rad! 18″ kick wide open.. 12” snare!
Vintage drums… are they over-hyped or everything they’re made out to be? Vintage drums rule. Nothing beats a “keystone badge” Ludwig kit. Those drums are on all your favorite records!
How do you choose grooves for verses/choruses? Do you have a system or anything? Because I’m also a songwriter, I like to play lyrically. Drums are important, but the lyrics come first!
What’s your approach to fills? Are you strategically planning what you play or do you just “feel it” in the moment? All my fills are spontaneous. It’s kinda like falling down a staircase. I like it that why… on the edge!
How do you relate to the producer? Do you just wait for him to tell you what to play, or are you proactive in lobbying for your own ideas? I always work with the producer – we are a team! I never lobby for my ideas. I’ll make suggestions, but the producers make the final call, and I always trust them!
Are Protools and the world of digital editing a good or bad thing for the art of recording? I can’t say I’m a pro tools fan. 16 inch tape still sounds the best for drums. Just fat. Also, all the editing gets to be too much and sometimes it ruins the feel. I mean, can you imagine “fixing” John Bonham’s feel?
What’s the best way for an aspiring studio drummer to “practice” session work? I think if you want to be a session player, you need to practice to a click track a TON. Just get comfortable and groove to it, and don’t let it lock you in!
Your feel… it reminds me a lot of Matt Chamberlain. Do you know Matt? Yeah, me and Matt are pals. I love that guy! Both of us are also buddies with Jim Keltner. (Jim and I have the same birthday even!)
Many thanks to Brian for taking the time to participate in the SIS. Stay tuned for next week’s interview, which will take a turn toward the jazz side of the studio scene.
This week I’ve got another RD player on the hot seat. Matthew Tobias is the owner/operator of Emtpy House Studio in Omaha, NE where he plays on AND engineers/produces records for artists all over the country. Matt also currently plays with Nashville CCM artist Geoff Moore. He brings some cool insight to the SIS because of his combo player/engineer perspective.
What kind of heads do you normally use in the studio? Do you use different heads for live playing? I always play 2-ply coated heads on snares – both live and for sessions. A little 10” or 12” aux snare might get a single-ply coated. Toms will vary based on the amount of cut and point I need from them. Obviously, a clear head has a bit more point than a coated. On any given day, my preference is probably coated 2-ply all the way around.
It’s pretty common knowlege that a different snare can bring a different vibe from one track to another, but how often do you switch out your kick/toms in a session? If I am doing a full-length record, I will listen through and try to group the songs into similar “vibes.” That way, I can maybe knock out 2 or 3 songs with the same kick and toms if it’s appropriate. But, I am totally OK with tearing everything down after each song as well. Not only can different drums sound more appropriate for a given tune, but they will also really impact how I play. I guarantee you I will play fewer notes on 26” kick with 13” and 16” toms, vs. a 20” kick with 10” and 14” toms.
Have you found different woods to have much effect in creating a snare sound? Mahogany vs. Birch vs. Maple vs. “exotic brazilian black bubinga whatever”… does it really matter? For kicks and toms, yes. For snare drums, it’s probably a bit harder to get a handle on a real difference. Colors and amount/type of overtone can vary, but the snares underneath seem to level the playing field a bit. In the same wood, obviously, depth and diameter will help determine a shell’s inherent sound, but what I have found to be big factors are the number of plies and the bearing edges. Shell thickness and what type of edge the head is resting on are major influences on a snare’s sound.
How many snare sounds are there? Do they fall into predictable categories, or does EVERY drum bring something different that’s maybe worth having at some point? I’ve got to go with every drum having something unique to say. I have an 8×15” Ludwig snare from the 40’s that gets mic’d up maybe once a year, but man, when it does…
Can you weigh in on the kick drum depth issue? What has been your experience with kick/tom dimensions… what works best? I read your post on that topic and couldn’t agree more. I have kicks ranging in diameter from 18” to 26”- all of which are 14” deep (except one that’s 15” deep). The front head can’t resonate and give any tone if it’s a mile away, or if the kick is too stuffed with stuff. I also like that, at least on a larger diameter drum, the shallower depth seems to improve the action of the beater a bit. On any given day, I might be jumping quickly from a 20” to a 26″ kick. One feels like a brick and the other a pillow, so I’ll take any “feel” help I can get. Same principles apply to tom depth. Having said that, I do love taking the front/bottom heads off the drums when it’s appropriate.
Do you have a formula or system for determining which drums to use for which tracks, or do you just know your own personal gear really well? I look for the tuning where each of my drums (particularly snares) want to “live” and then leave them there. Since none of my stuff gets tuned too far away from that zone, I tend to know pretty quickly which drums to grab for. Songs are really great about telling you which colors and textures to pick. For instance, what’s the primary instrument… a bright acoustic playing very rhythmically, or a vibey, laid-back Rhodes part? Is the bass throbbing big eighth notes or playing a tight, syncopated pattern? Stuff like that will determine the textures I go for.
What’s your perspective on Protools and the advent of digital recording? Is it a good thing or a bad thing for the art form? I record to Protools because all the projects I do seem to come in on that platform, but I don’t even know how to open up Beat Detective. If it’s not in time (or in tune) or played up to someone’s potential, my go-to editing tool is the “punch in”. Just do it again. Music is art, not science, so I’m not looking for calculated perfection. I certainly do my fair share of “cleaning up” sessions, but I won’t fix something that I could just replay, nor will I create a part on the screen that I couldn’t play in the room. You won’t get less than my best, but you won’t get a massively edited misrepresentation of what that is either.
What can a drummer do to practice being a better studio player? Any specific exercises or concepts that you can share? Time, time, time! Have your time/groove together. Play to a click as often as you can. I’ve tried to come up with a time concept that is not attached to the notes I’m playing. To help with this, when practicing I like to listen to a 16th note click (for a normal 4/4 groove) so that I am hearing all (or at least most) of the moments in time that are related to the tempo I am playing at. I try to think of the notes I am playing then as simply marking some of those moments rather than those notes being the entirety of my time awareness. That way, if the chorus groove I’m playing is a really busy syncopated thing, then to signal the fact that the bridge is about to bail, I can play that measure-long fill with only 5 notes in it without going off the rails. My awareness of the space between my notes is as important to that fill as the notes I choose to play. I really feel like this will help so many of the typical issues drummers deal with. I think the next thing is just learning how to “get” a song. Songs are journeys – they start somewhere and end up somewhere having been a few places along the way. If we can figure out how to get the band (and listener) to those places, then we’re playing MUSIC, not just drums. The color/texture/width of our parts are just as important as rhythm.
Who are your favorite studio guys? What are the best records to hear them on? Anything with Steve Jordan, Abe Laboriel, Jr. and Shawn Pelton. I really like Matt Chamberlain – his playing on the new Missy Higgins record “On A Clear Night” is fantastic… just perfect. He plays with an interesting band called Critters Buggin – their first 2 CD’s (“Guest” and “Host”) are pretty great… he stretches WAY out on those. Josh Freese makes the “this all sounds the same” radio rock pretty great when he’s on it. Poe’s “Haunted” and Abandoned Pools’ “Humanistic” are great records that he played on. Jay Bellerose, Jim Keltner, Charley Drayton, JJ Johnson… man, there are so many great players!
Tell me some more about your upcoming video series. What can we expect from that? Later this Spring I’m doing a series for Risen Drums that will focus on the various factors in a shell’s sound (all the stuff we talked about… plies, depth, edges, etc). We want to help guys pick out just the right drums for the music they’re playing, and help them realize they can order more than just “a drumset” from Risen. The guys at Risen have been really cool in helping me find some great sounds – some of which have been a little off the beaten path, so we just want to let people know about the options they provide. The format will be in a studio with different artists I play with- playing through tunes and talking not only about what drums I chose for a particular song and why, but also about the parts I chose to play. I would love to see players considering the music they’re involved in when they are deciding what drums to play and how to play them.
Big thanks to Matt for sharing all this wisdom, and his artist profile at risendrums.com has more good info to check out.
Another week, another installment in the Studio Interview Series. This week I’ve got a fellow Risen Drums player on tap… a ripping Kansas City drummer named Lester Estelle Jr. Lester built his rep playing with KC rock band Pillar, and now he’s freelancing all over the US doing everything from hip-hop to country. He’s most known for his chops, so before you read the interview, check out this video and you’ll get a feel for this guy’s relationship with the drumset…
(Me) Protools and digital recording… is it a good or bad thing for music? (Lester) There are pros and cons depending on who you talk to. Lots of different issues with this subject. To me, Protools or any other DAW is just a tool. Some people over do it, which may be understandable depending on the music. Tons of editing allows bad players to sound good which sucks for the guys who practice on getting better. The cool thing is, it’s allowed me to track from my home and email waves or session files to artists/producers, which is great. On the other hand, album budgets are down, studios are closing… people can’t afford to go to a “real” studio anymore. So the magic that happens when tracking together with other players doesn’t happen. It’s a tough subject!
How do you handle producers/artists who have bad attitudes and are hard to work with? If you’re are hired for a session, your job is to give the artist/producer what they want (for ANY instrument). Do your best to find out what they’re after, ask for a reference tune, and have the gear to make that happen. That’s all you can do. If none of that is working I guess you can just leave and not get paid! LOL. You gotta be cool with producers especially, because that’s how you get called back for more sessions. People talk… word will get around about your attitude and your playing.
When is it ok to just cop somebody else’s ideas or go with the obvious stock option, and when do you push yourself to break new ground creatively? I’m sure this is different for everybody. Most of the sessions I get are to replace a drum loop or re-do a poor performance, so stock option is the key for that. It’s different when I’m tracking with other players, because you can create more… so if the artist/producer is cool with it, you can throw more of yourself and YOUR sound into their tunes.
What’s your opinion on being a renaissance man in your abilities and therefore risk being mediocre at lots of things, vs being real good at one thing and risk pigeon-holing yourself? If you’re wanting to be a session guy, you have got to be able to play all styles fairly well, because you want to be the go-to guy! All the “A-list” guys play every style. I saw Eddie Bayers (well-known country drummer in Nashville) the other day playing jazz and he was killing! Vinnie Colaiuta can go from Frank Zappa to Sting to Faith Hill etc… I could go on forever with him. There is a reason why guys like that stay busy!
How do you come up with grooves for a track? Do you have a method or system? This is where a reference tune is handy, especially if you’re tracking by yourself. Or, if you’re tracking with other players, your bass player may have a good idea or something like that. There’s a certain magic that happens when you’re creating alongside good players. Drum loops can also help you come up with some cool stuff too.
How do you approach fills… strategically planned or just “feeling it” in the moment? Depends on the style of music. In most sessions, for me, the fills are for taking everybody to the next part of the song (i.e., verse to the chorus or chorus to the bridge).
What’s your favorite snare for a wide-open rock sound? Any metal drum (brass, steel, bronze, etc…), OR any deep snare that can get loud!
Have you discovered any strange/unorthodox methods in getting cool tones? For me, some cool tones have come when I’m playing quiet. I wasn’t expecting it. It’s amazing how huge the drums can sound when you play quiet. I’ve only done it on blues, some hip-hop, and some singer/songwriter stuff.
What are some of your favorite records that have influenced you a lot? These records changed the way I play…
DMB – Crash & Before These Crowed Streets (Carter Beauford)
D’Angelo – Voodoo (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson)
Sting – Ten Summoners Tales & Mercury Falling (Vinnie Colaiuta)
Stevie Wonder – anything he played drums on!
John Mayer – Continuum (Steve Jordan)
James Brown – Anything! (Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks, Melvin Parker)
Christian Scott – Rewind That (Thomas Pridgen)
Sevendust – Seasons (Morgan Rose)
Fred Hammond – anything (Marvin Mcquitty, Calvin Rodgers)
Israel Houghton – anything (Big Mike Clemons, Chris Coleman, Cledell King)
Incubus – Morning View (Jose Pasillas)
This week’s SIS installment features another Billy – a West Coast player named Billy Hawn. Hawn is an in-demand drummer in the Los Angeles area, and although he’s somewhat of an up-and-coming name, he’s already got a solid reputation and an impressive resume. In addition to maintaining a busy studio schedule doing sessions for artists like Mandy Moore, David Crosby, and the recently surging Joe Purdy, Hawn has also performed live with The Indigo Girls, Jackson Browne, Damien Rice, Glen Phillips, Colbie Caillat, Nickel Creek, and many others.
(Me)Who are some of your favorite drummers that have influenced you the most?
(Billy Hawn) Wow. So many. This is an ever changing list as I continue to grow as an artist. I’m a huge Jason McGerr fan. I think he is very innovative and musical when it comes to supporting a song. That’s what’s it’s all about, unless you’re doing solo project.
In your opinion, who’s the best session player alive right now?
Wow. Again, there are so many. I think I would have to pick Vinnie Colaiuta as an all-around player. He’s amazingly versatile. A close tie though would be Matt Chamberlain or Kenny Aronoff. Whether you like these drummers or not, if you listen to mainstream music then you’re hearing these 3 guys everyday.
How do you choose grooves for a track? Do you have a formula or system?
No real formula. All songs are different to a point. I usually listen to and feed off of whatever the “key” instrument is that is that driving that particular song. Example: Listen to any Jack Johnson and listen to how great Adam Topol supports what’s going on with Jack’s acoustic guitar.
What’s your approach to fills? Strategically planned or “feeling it” in the moment?
I’m definitely a “feeling it” in the moment player… unless I’m learning a gig for a showcase or a tour and the song needs some signature fill that is on the recording. Then it’s planned.
What’s your favorite snare for a wide-open rock sound?
That’s a great question. I don’t play a lot of wide-open rock stuff but if I did it would have to be my 1968 Ludwig Supraphonic (5×14) out of my collection. Other great choices would be anything Brady, a Ludwig Black Beauty or a Ludwig Bronze (6.5×14)
What’s your method of choice for the dampened, thuddy snare sound?
Hahaha, that sound is usually my only sound and I get A LOT of compliments on my snare sound, both in the studio and live. I simply cut out an old snare batter head from its hoop and lay that on my snare. Presto: deep thud!
Have you discovered any other cool/unorthodox tricks in getting unique tones that you’d be willing to share? Yeah… In 2008 I put out a percussion album that is 80% homemade sounds from around the house and studio. I like to think that those sounds are very unique. Shower dripping on a cymbal, mason jars filled with different amounts of water, coco pods thrown into an aluminum paint roller tray, etc.
What are your preferred heads for studio playing?
It really depends on the song, artist or session, though I usually prefer coated heads.
How do you deal with hihat bleed and other cymbal-related issues?
Honestly, I don’t really have a lot of bleed or cymbal issues. I play Paiste and they are very musical and they blend well in every situation that I am in and they sit right where cymbals are suppose to in the mix, both live and in the studio. I always have a great cymbal sound.
What’s your all-time favorite piece of gear for session stuff?
Well, judging on the one that gets the most compliments, it would have to be “Woody”. Woody is my 1960 Mahogany Ludwig snare drum (6.5×14).
For more info on Billy, check out his myspace page. Also, Billy released a very cool solo percussion record last year, and he runs his own studio in LA. By the way, did you notice he uses the cut-out-drum-head-on-your-snare trick too?
This week it’s all about super commercial pop music, and when it comes to that, it’s all about Billy Ashbaugh. Billy is a Miami guy, and aside from his widely-recognized work with superstar boy band N’SYNC, Billy has performed and recorded for many other pop icons including Pat Benetar, Britney Spears, and Jordan Knight. Billy’s also got a great instructional DVD and is an active clinician, and he played a big part in the launching of a new online drum community called drummerconnection.com. I am grateful for his participation in the series!
Quick editorial comment: As we get deeper into the series, I’m sure you’re noticing that I asked many of the same questions to the different players that I interviewed. It’s obviously interesting to see how these players differ in their views on things, but what’s more interesting to me is how many of these very different musicians have the same outlook on certain issues. Probably something worth paying attention to!
(Me) When is it okay to go with the obvious “stock” groove/idea, and when do you push yourself creatively to come up with something unique? (Billy) When the music or producer calls for a “stock” type groove then that’s what I try to play. I’ll admit that it’s much more interesting when I’m given a chance to create something unique.
How do you relate to producers? Do you just wait for them to tell you what to play or are you making a case for your own ideas? Unless they tell me otherwise, I like to try and come up with my own twist and ideas for parts. I’ve found that usually the producers like the idea of me bringing a bit of my own style to the track.
What’s your approach to fills… are you playing pre-planned stuff or are you just “feeling it” in the moment? It depends… I usually try to just feel the moment and hope something good comes out. Although, there are times when I’m asked to play something specific.
What’s your favorite snare for a wide-open rock sound? Hands down my 14′ DW Edge snare…..awesome drum.
What’s your preferred method for getting the “dead” muffled snare sound? Instead of running to the drum w/ duct tape, I prefer to use an Evans Genera Dry head along with a mini mad for additional muffling.
How do you deal with hihat bleed and other cymbal issues? Actually, lately I haven’t been using a hi-hat mic for a lot of my sessions. I really don’t miss it. My friend Bob Gatzen turned me on to this concept. He gets a great drum sound!!
What’s your stance on the “renaissance man” issue… is it better to be as diverse as possible and risk being mediocre at everything, or should a drummer focus on just one “thing” (sound) and risk being pigeon-holed in the industry? That’s a tough one. I think it’s very important for a drummer to be as well rounded as possible. But instead of going out and trying to tackle several different styles/ideas or concepts all at once, I would recommend that you first get a very good foundation for groove and timekeeping. This is the one thing that you MUST have as a drummer on any level. After that is under your belt, I would suggest exploring as many different avenues as possible.
What are some of your favorite records that have had a big influence on your playing? Wow…too many records to mention. Here are a few artist that have been an influence. Led Zeppelin, The Police, Level 42, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Toto, Frank Zappa.
SIS #3… nice. So far I’ve featured a New York player and Nashville player, and this week it’s all about keeping it local. The Twin Cities has an incredibly large and diverse music scene for it’s size, and one of the top dogs around here is Michael Bland. Michael’s playing was highlighted in AOTW #14, and you can of course hear him on hundreds of other recordings over the last two decades. If you live in the Twin Cities, then you can see Michael every Monday night at Bunkers! At the very least, do yourself a favor and google him… but first check out his direct and insightful answers in this exclusive interview…
(Me) What are some of your favorite records that have had a big influence on your playing? (Bland) “Fresh”- Sly and the Family Stone. “Sgt. Pepper’s”- the Beatles. “Greatest Hits”- Al Green. “Genius + Soul = Jazz”- Ray Charles. “Physical Graffiti”- Led Zeppelin. “What ‘cha Gonna Do For Me”- Chaka Khan. “Live”- Donny Hathaway.
What’s your favorite snare for a wide-open rock sound? I use a Yamaha 5.5×14 Paul Leim Signature snare.
Do you go tip-side or butt-side with the snare stick… and why? I play butt end, mostly, because it works for me, somehow. Also, if I want to play a cross stick, then it’s more pronounced, and easier to get a good crack.
How do you go about “doctoring” the drums with muffling and such? I tend to deaden the toms with duct tape till there’s no sympathetic ring. On the snare, I’ve taken to cutting moon gels in half, and placing three in a triangular pattern. It controls the ring, but doesn’t choke the drum.
Vintage Ludwigs… are they over-hyped or are they everything they’re made out to be? Over-hyped.
Fills… are you playing pre-planned stuff strategically, or are you just feeling the moment? Somewhere in between. I have my devices, but my best takes are always where I’m just channeling… just doing what the music says.
How do you approach your relationship with the producer? Are you just waiting for him to tell you what to play or are you pushing to make a case for your ideas? I don’t wait. I initiate and stay proactive. I ask what he’s after first. Next, I cite examples or players that we both might be familiar with. From there, I satisfy his requirements. And, I’ll usually do one or 2 additional passes after that, which exemplify what could be done, just so he can see.
How do you handle an artist who wants you to play lame parts/ideas? If he’s also the producer, then I just give him what he wants. The sooner I do that, the sooner I can leave and forget the session ever happened. If there’s another person to reason with, like a producer, then I make an appeal to them. If that doesn’t work, all I can do is satisfy the need, and move on.
What’s your perspective on the “renaissance man” issue… do you prefer to be very diverse but perhaps mediocre at everything, or do you focus on just one thing and risk being pigeon-holed as a player? My perspective, in general, is that I want to be good at playing MUSIC. There’s no such thing as a pigeonhole for someone who simply plays music. I don’t worry about genres, strong suits, and whatnot. Music is music… what kind is irrelevant. Either you know how to listen and play appropriately, or you don’t.
The SIS is back. Last week was New York’s Aaron Comess, and this week is Nashville’s Steve Brewster. Brewster has been apart of the A-list session player circuit down in Nashville for decades, playing on hundreds of CCM and Country records (including the Michael Olson record featured in AOTW #13). There’s not much to be found about Steve on the web, so I’ve got nothing I can link to for more info on him… which I guess makes this already cool interview that much cooler…
(Me) What are some of your favorite records that have influenced your playing a lot? (Steve) Anything Pat Metheny has ever done… anything Gino Vanelli has done (for instance, check out Nightwalker with Vinnie Colaiuta on drums)… 70’s pop and rock… Chick Corea three quartets… Earth, Wind and Fire… Jonatha Brooke… any of Jim Keltner’s stuff…. PETER GABRIEL with Manu Katche on drums… Sting… Jellyfish… Elvin Jones… Jack Dejohnette… Joni Mitchell… Shawn Colvin… Tori Amos… Fionna Apple… English rock… Radiohead… Keane… Coldplay… Death Cab… DANIEL LANOIS… Abe Laboriel Jr… Matt Chamberlain… Steve Jordan…. ok, I gotta move on or I’ll never stop. There is so much more…
How do you approach the working relationship with the producer? Are you waiting for him to tell you what to do or do you try to make your case with your own ideas? Listen to everything that the producer says. Everything. Even when he is giving ideas and direction to other players – it will help you get the vibe for what he wants. If he doesn’t tell me what to do then I’m gonna fly with my instinct. He’ll direct you when he needs to.
How do you handle an artist who insists on having you play lame parts? Hey… BE TEACHABLE AND APPROACHABLE. Sometimes a lame idea is a lame idea. Too bad. But then again, some cool things can come out of a suggestion that doesn’t resonate with me immediately. Turn it into music. Just go for the music, man.
How do you approach fills? Are they pre-meditated or are you just feeling the moment? Fills: WATCH OUT FOR THE VOCAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I have screwed that up so many times. When you listen to the demo, make note of the phrasing of the vocal going into choruses, out of choruses, anywhere that you might fill. Is there a guitar hook happening at that moment? Phrase with it. And yes, always feel the moment – but have your ears open to what’s going on around you. Sometimes a fill can be a hook and repeating it is the vibe. And then sometimes you just shut your eyes and fling…
What’s your favorite snare for a wide-open rock sound? Anything goes, man. I love Black Beauties, of course. I have a new 6.5×14 Joyful Noise snare that also rocks. I have two Craviottos (a 5×14 and 6.5×14) that kill for the warmer thing. It just depends on the day, how the drum is translating through the speakers on that song, in that room, with that engineer, with that guitar tone, etc… you get it.
How often do you use a clean head on a snare at all, as opposed to lots of muffling? Well, yes and no. It just depends on the music. I am not afraid of a wide-open Ambassador, or a billfold duck-taped to the head, or anything in between.
What kind of muffling on the snare is your favorite? Moon Gells are great. Try cutting one in half when it’s too much dampening.
How do you deal with hihat bleed and other cymbal issues? OOOHHH!!!! The infamous hihat bleed. That’s a tough one. There is no way to totally get rid of this problem, so here’s the deal: just play the hats softer and use darker cymbals. There is a way to rock without overly bashing. Sometimes you just have to bash, but controlling your dynamics on the cymbals will give you a better drum sound and help make the mix bigger and fatter. Also, sometimes I put a dishtowel over the hat (I poke a hole in the middle of the towel and put it over the rod down onto the hat). If the snare has a lot of compression on it this will help, like when doing weird mono loops with tons of compression. The towel will help that situation for sure.
Are vintage Ludwigs overly-hyped or are they everything their made out to be? I have a set of 60’s Ludwigs in my studio, as well as a custom kit. They’re great. Are they a “must-have” for everybody? I don’t think so. Just stay true to your thing. I mean, give me 5 minutes with any kit and I’ll make it sound retro. Well, maybe 10 minutes. I’m not boasting… just saying it can happen many different ways. A vintage kit is a great idea though, as an alternate sound. And, it makes you play differently.
So, what’s your opinion on the “renaissance man” issue? Do you try to be as diverse as possible and risk being mediocre at everything, or do you focus on just one area and risk being pigeon-holed as a player? To me, diversity is an essential makeup of any studio player. An expansive vocabulary will NEVER hurt you if you know how and when to use it. As an artist, there is a certain amount of my personality that is going to be there, but I can turn it up or down. Don’t think of diversity as spreading yourself thin. but as a way of building your strength/depth/ability, so you can go deep in a lot of different situations.
And now, the Studio Interview Series. Here we go.
Ok, the first interview is with the legendary Spin Doctors drummer, Aaron Comess. C’mon… everybody loves the uber-funky drum sound on the big hit “Two Princes.” In addition to the Spin Doctors, Aaron has maintained a very in-demand session player reputation, working with Marc Cohn, Isaac Hayes, Aaron Neville, Roy Hargrove, Blues Traveler, and many others. He’s currently living in New York, touring with Joan Osbourne, and recently released a solo record. Aaron was super gracious and humble in responding to the interview questions – a genuinely nice guy. Enjoy!
(Me) Is the Protools software and the whole digital editing world a positive or negative for the art of recording? (Aaron) It really depends on how it is used. It can be a very creative thing for sure and I like working with it. But also it’s a bit scary to know that once you play your track and leave the producer could do whatever they want to it later. I’m not a fan of beat detective at all. I don’t think music is meant to perfect. All drummers have a different feel and that’s what makes us all unique. We’re not meant to be perfect with the grid. It’s a double-edged sword for sure. Over all you can’t beat tape but it’s not practical to use it all the time so we’re stuck with Protools…
What’s a unique snare that you’ve got that you like for an unorthodox sound? Even more than a certain drum I like to try different tunings to make things sound unorthodox. For instance, tuning the snare so its super loose and making the snares on the bottom loose is a cool sound. Putting a towel on top of the drum can make for a great dry sound that I love to use in the right situation. Also, using different mic techniques and compression can be a great way to get unorthodox sounds .
How do you handle hihat bleed and other cymbal issues? It’s important to learn how to “mix yourself” when playing in the studio. What I mean by that is you should be able to react to how the mics are placed and if you are recording with much compression. If you have a lot of compression going to tape, which can be a great sound, it is better not to hit the cymbals too hard. I have learned over the years that sometimes you can get a bigger sound out of your drums and cymbals by not totally bashing while recording…
Are vintage Ludwig’s everything they’re made out to be, or is it just hype? The vintage Gretch, Ludwig, Slingerland and Rogers are all great drums. Somewhere along the way though they were not made as well. Anything from the 50’s and 60’s are probably going to be pretty good.
How do you go about choosing a groove for a given track? Is there a formula or system that you use? I usually go with my first instinct when I hear a new song. But if the artist or producer hears something different then I’m all ears and will go down that path. I love it when they hear something different and push me in a new direction… as long as it works and helps bring the best out in the song, which is always the goal. I’m never looking for a way to showcase myself…
How do you approach fills in the studio… strategically planned or “feeling it” in the moment? It really depends on the music. It’s all about making the right choice to complement the song and not get in the way of the vocals. Sometimes I find something that works and stick with it even if we’re doing quite a few takes. But sometimes it’s appropriate to feel it in the moment, especially if you are trying to come up with something quirky.
When is it appropriate to go with the obvious “stock” choice in your playing, and when do you try to stretch yourself and push for something unique and different? Once again I think it depends on the music. I’m always trying to push myself, even if it’s just playing the simplest thing. Even a simple groove is a very complex thing to make feel great.
How do you deal with producers who are difficult to work with? If I’m in a situation where I don’t agree with the producer I may make a suggestion… but ultimately I am there because the producer/artist hired me, so I just try to stay mellow and do the best I can do to make things sound good.
What are some of your favorite records that have influenced you the most? I love all the Aretha Franklin records with Bernard Purdie. His groove is unreal. All the Zeppelin records are amazing – Bonham rules. The Miles Davis period with Tony Williams is some of the best drumming ever, as well as John Coltrane with Elvin Jones. Also, anything Steve Gadd or Jim keltner played on is huge inspiration. I could go on and on.
You can find more info and pictures of Aaron at his drummerworld.com site…