BY DAVE CONSTANTIN
Ever notice how when you look back over the course of your life and try to isolate certain events from their surroundings, the outlines inevitably grow fuzzy? What may have seemed such a stark, black-and-white turning point (“If only I hadn’t dropped out of Berklee to join the circus …”) becomes oddly ambiguous, dissolving back into the frame and leaving you scratching your head trying to imagine exactly where that piece fits into the puzzle (“… On the other hand, who knew the bearded lady had so many contacts in the music biz?”).
Call it the John Muir paradox – you know, pioneer dude who single-handedly kept California from becoming a giant parking lot? Had his beard declared a national forest? – Anyway, Muir said it best: “Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.” By which he either meant his beard (seriously, that thing was epic) or the interconnectedness of nature and whatnot. Point is, the analogy works for just about anything, including (you guessed it) drumming careers.
It was exactly this paradox Gavin Harrison faced when we saddled him with the Herculean task of dissecting his own extensive drumming career to try and compile a tidy list of lessons, tips, dire warnings, and/or crippling regrets that you, the striving professional, could use in your own pursuits.
Harrison had a lot of ground to cover – beginning as a precocious 6-year-old learning the ropes in his dad’s jazz ensembles, through a non-stop jungle of studio, session, and band gigs, culminating in his work with Porcupine Tree and his having recently replaced Bill Bruford in a double-drummer format with Pat Mastelotto as part of King Crimson’s notorious “double trio” configuration.
As Harrison probed the murky ether between what is and what might have been, he managed to tease out a few rock-solid universal truths. Make no mistake – you’ve heard them all before. But this time they come with the sterling endorsement of a guy who’s been road-testing them his whole life. And the results speak for themselves.
1. LUCK IS EVERYTHING. MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK
Control freaks rejoice: Luck is not some random blessing bestowed on a chosen few – or maybe it is, but it’s also sort of magnetic, drawn to talent like a compass needle is drawn north. Take, for example, Harrison’s recent invite to join the venerable King Crimson. “Now, I don’t think Robert Fripp would have called me up and asked me to join King Crimson if he hadn’t have been supporting Porcupine Tree and seeing me play every night,” Harrison says. But while it may have been a bit of luck that put Harrison on Fripp’s radar at the right time, it would have all been for naught if Harrison wasn’t sealing the deal on stage every night.
“You know, it’s true of all nearly every job I’ve ever got – it’s been somewhat to do with luck and somewhat to do with at least having the facility or a reputation or a certain level of proficiency that might suit that artist. I remember when I first worked with [King Crimson bassist] Tony Levin, he said, ’It’s all down to luck, but the more I practice the luckier I get.’”
2. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
What, you were hoping for a shortcut? Sorry, Levin wasn’t kidding. In fact, the gig where Harrison first received that advice from the prolific bassist served as a perfect example of the axiom at work, coming as it did after a particularly vexing dry spell for Harrison in the early ’90s, when months went by as the phone remained silent. But rather than “sit in my apartment with my feet up,” Harrison decided to invest in his drumming. He found a local rehearsal room where he sequestered himself for eight hours a day, five days a week, literally for months on end, shedding until his hands were raw.
“And it’s weird, but at the end of that, mystically, what appeared to be from the middle of nowhere, I got a really good break with an Italian singer called Claudio Baglioni. He’s arguably one of the biggest Italian stars there is.” (Don’t worry, Harrison hadn’t heard of him either.) “I didn’t know if this guy was like a wine-bar singer or a megastar. It turned out he was a megastar.” After a few stadium gigs in Italy playing to nearly 100,000 people a night, Harrison knew his luck had turned. But it wasn’t just a lesson on luck Harrison would take away from the Baglioni gig. More on that shortly.
3. TREAT EVERY GIG LIKE IT’S AN AUDITION
Whether it’s a Klezmer set at your cousin’s bar mitzvah or Sunday-afternoon bossa novas for a geezer reunion, play it like your career depends on it. It just might. “You don’t know if one of the other guys in the band might have another band, he might be a producer, he might talk about you to someone else. And that happened, all those things happened,” Harrison says emphatically. “And the most unlikely kind of gigs that I did led to strange things that became really good.”
Back to that Baglioni gig – that “mystical” phone call from the middle of nowhere actually came as a result of an earlier gig Harrison had done in Italy that he’d written off as a “disaster.” “The producer busted my balls for three days,” Harrison remembers. “He started off by saying, ’Look. I don’t want you to play like my demos. Do your thing.’ So I went out and did my thing. He said, ’That’s great. I love it, except there’s just a couple of things that I want to pick up off the demo.’ To cut a long story short, by the end of three days, I’m playing exactly note for note everything in his demo.
“After I went home, he had a session guitarist come and play. And again, he kind of broke his balls for three days. And when the producer was out of the room, the engineer said, ’Listen. This English drummer that you’re playing to, you should have heard how he played right in the beginning. Let me play you his first take.’ So he played it to this guitarist, and this guitarist was the musical director of Claudio Baglioni.”
4. STAY ON OTHER MUSICIANS’ RADAR
Sometimes, oddly enough, it’s those screamingly successful gigs, once ended, that can lead to a dry spell of a different sort. “As is always the case when you play with someone for a long time, when you stop playing with them, your work dries up,” Harrison says. “Nobody calls you. They all think that you’ve moved to Mars or something.”
But he also concedes that this is the time you just have to start knocking on doors. “I’ve never been that kind of person who kind of cold-calls people or networks people, or goes to the right kind of bar, or where musicians hang out. I’ve always been very shy at doing that kind of thing, and probably that could have been to my detriment. I don’t know. You never know.”
But even the shyest among us has no excuses with the networking capabilities of that flashy new invention known as the Internet. When Harrison was coming up, it was about getting in with the local cliques. “You know, there’s the guys that do the pop gigs. There’s the guys who do the theater and the radio and TV gigs, and you’ve really got to get in with them to even have a chance of getting a break with those kinds of guys.”
And if you want to get to Harrison’s level, where you’re only choosing the gigs that turn your crank artistically, be aware there are always dues to be paid first. “I used to sub on some show in the theater in London,” Harrison remembers. “And coupled with the idea that you might not want to do it is the idea it’ll pay your rent. So I would never look down at guys doing those kind of bread-and-butter jobs where you’re working in the theater or the cruise ships, or you’re working at a holiday camp, because I’ve done a lot of that stuff. It’s really hard work, not particularly well paid. But, you know, you might have commitments. You might be married and have five kids and you don’t want to go on tour. You want to be at home every day. Which is exactly what my dad did. He worked a nightclub gig in London. He was a trumpet player. He had a wife and three kids and a mortgage. He was actually a really good jazz player, but probably he didn’t get enough of the breaks in the jazz world because he focused more on, you know, making a living.”
5. LEARN TO READ CHARTS, COLD
Fine, you want to be a rock drummer. We get it. But at some point, usually around the first of the month, when you’re sifting through your jar of pennies and belly-button lint for the third time hoping for some missed quarters, and you’ve had to turn down another of those “bread-and-butter” gigs Harrison mentions because you can’t read the charts, you might feel differently. Besides, no matter the gig, reading charts is just a great way to make a solid first impression.
“If you get on a session where the producer’s getting quite picky at things and saying, ’Can you do this, can you do that, can you play this accent here?’ You’d never be able to remember all these things, because three or four takes down the road, he might’ve told you, ’Oh, don’t do what I told you to do in the second verse, do this,’ and, you know, ’Now, add this to the chorus.’ You’re going to be really struggling if you can’t write that sort of thing down.
“I mean, people are impressed when you’re efficient in a studio. I’ve seen guys walk in with a bass in their hands and spend eight hours trying to learn one simple song. And likewise, I’ve seen guys walk in with a bass in their hands, listen to the song once, and play it perfectly. Everyone’s really impressed, and they walk out again.”
Case in point, in the mid-’80s Harrison scored a few commercial jingle sessions. Lighthearted fare aside, anyone who’s been there knows those gigs are pressure-cookers of the first order. “It’s like, ’We’re going to record 20 seconds of music, and then in a half an hour’s time there’s going to be a brass section, and then half an hour later there’s going to be the singers, and then we’ve got to mix it by lunchtime, and it’s got to be on the TV tonight,’” Harrison laughs. “So you can’t have guys who turn up kind of late, with instruments that don’t work properly, and with a kind of arty attitude – guys who turn up fashionably late, kind of, ’Yeah, man, it’s all about a feel. Let me just go outside and have a smoke, and then I’ll play it.’ You know, they think they’re Jaco Pastorius or something. But the truth is, in a very high-pressure situation where we’ve got clients sitting there, we’ve got producers, we’ve got the advertising agency – everything’s got to go as fast as possible, and that’s when they appreciate that you can just stand there, write a chart out in 20 seconds, and play it.”
6. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Even if your chart-reading skills are up to par, this is another foolproof way to get in good with a potential employer. “There’s nothing more impressive than turning up in a studio or rehearsal room and you count the first song off and play it perfectly,” Harrison says. “Everyone’s impressed.
“You’re going to do an audition or you’re going to rehearse with someone new, go get all their tracks and transcribe everything and practice it at home. When you turn up for that first rehearsal, they don’t know if you’ve just kind of wandered in and you’re going to start working on the songs from then, or if you’ve rehearsed it for six weeks. It produces two completely different results.”
Another way to say this is simply “be prepared,” and that involves having good, reliable gear as well. “You don’t want squeaky bass-drum pedals and drums that are out of tune, and the heads on them have really seen better days,” Harrison says. “You know, go buy a set of new skins, put them on the drums, tune them up at home, play them, get the drum kit sounding as good as possible, because you’re going to impress people when you get in the studio, and it’s like, ’Wow, this is the best-sounding drum kit we’ve ever had in here.’ And you seem to know all the songs, so suddenly you’re a good guy.”
7. STAY HUNGRY
Really, it’s amazing how far a little determination can get you. But a lot is better. As far as inviting luck, sometimes determination even trumps skill. “Just because you’ve had 100 lessons with Steve Gadd doesn’t mean you’re any good,” Harrison laughs. “I mean, that isn’t the qualification. Likewise, you could be someone totally unheard of, no CV, but you’re a very determined character. I think I was that way. I would get a break from someone and I was determined that it was going to go well. You know, it was my life. It was my career. I wanted it to go as well as possible. I really wanted to be a professional musician from when I was age six and I was determined to do it. There wasn’t any question in my mind that I was going to do anything else.
“I was kind of shy, but determined. And I thought, ’I’m going to prove myself. I’m going to prove to people that I can really play the drums.’ And I think that kind of personality drive is probably the thing that made me succeed as far as I have succeeded.”
8. LEARN TO APPRECIATE A GOOD ASS WHUPPIN’
Because who doesn’t need to get knocked down a peg now and again? Harrison was 13 when his dad took him to something called the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. “That is all the unbelievable prodigy kids from across the country playing really hard big-band music.” Sounds cool, right? Not so much.
“I was just way too young for that,” Harrison says. “I was so intimidated. I was probably the best drummer at school. I was probably the best drummer in my local area. But then when you hit the national level … I sat behind this kid named Graham Ward and he was unbelievable. I just sat there with my chin on the floor like, ’Christ, I didn’t even know you could play the drums like that.’ And then he sight-read a piece in 11/8. I didn’t even know what 11/8 was! I used to get lost playing in 3/4.”
The trauma of that experience has never really left him. “Even now, when I hear brass players warming up, it makes me nervous. It puts butterflies in my stomach because it makes me feel like I’m back at National Youth Jazz Orchestra rehearsal.”
But there’s a caveat. “Maybe it was good that my ass got kicked when I was 13,” Harrison says. “I mean, it terrified me. It gave me nightmares, really.” But he also looks back with the same mix of dread and gratitude on his first lesson with a Berklee hotshot named Dave Cutler. “I went along at 18. I thought I was pretty good, and he showed me some things I couldn’t play at all – at all. And that was another great ass-kicking moment. And I’ve kind of looked forward to those things.”
9. REMEMBER KIDS, DRUMS ARE A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT
“In terms of advice for young kids, if you follow the technique path, if you go down that Olympic-event route, it’s very unattractive to other musicians,” Harrison warns. “I’m completely unamazed by people who can play fast. You might think it’s fantastic that you can play 280 beats per minute on a double bass drum, but there are going to be so few musicians who are going to want to hear it.”
The real challenge, he says, is playing musically. “When you listen to the recordings of Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro playing straight pop songs, there’s so much going on at a subtle level. There are so many clever, nice things going on in the drums: the way they build the song, their choice of cymbal, their choice of drum tuning, the way they place the beats, the way they lay back with the snare drum, or the hi-hat sounds, or the things they chose to pick out in the song. There’s a whole lesson right there just listening to one of those guys play a pop song.”
Harrison learned that lesson early playing in his dad’s quartet. “The moment I would step out of line, I knew I’d stepped out of line,” he says. “The people in my dad’s band, they were all old guys – 40 or something,” he laughs (he’s 46). “But when you’re 15, guys over about 25 seem ancient. They would guide me. They would kind of nudge me, and poke me, and say, ’Maybe don’t do that. That doesn’t really work. You see the way you’re splashing the hi-hats there? That’s going right over the singer. Can you hear that? Can you hear that you’ll play the fill just as she starts to sing?’
“I’d say, ’Oh, I didn’t know. I was just trying to fit this fill in.’”
Harrison got the message quick. “The way to impress people was to play musically. All you’re going to impress is drummers if you play something really fast – and the minority of drummers at that.”
10. SUFFER NO REGRETS
Because who’s to say, really, what’s good and bad in the grand scheme of things? Harrison may have spent his childhood regretting that National Youth Jazz Orchestra fiasco, or hoped to forget the gig with the overbearing Italian producer, but then, those things happened, and here he is.
“You know, I made a decent living out of music,” he says. “But you can’t tell. If I had accepted some other job, it might have led up to something else that was much bigger than where I ended up now. That much is fate. I don’t know. You can’t really judge – what you turn down, how it may have turned out. Of course, I haven’t been in a Pete Best situation where I’ve left The Beatles saying a lot of rubbish, and the next thing they’re the world’s biggest band. Luckily, I suppose, I haven’t been in that position.
“All the work I’ve accepted, it’s usually been the consequence of something I’ve done before or from a musician. I haven’t found a really good, sure-fire way to propel yourself to stardom. I don’t know what most people’s fantasies are. Maybe they sit in their bedroom and think, ’Maybe if I practice these double bass drums long enough, Geddy Lee’s going to ring me up and I’m going to be in Rush.’ I don’t know. It’s kind of a mystery to me. As work has arrived, I’ve always thought, ’That was a mystery how that turned out. That’s pure luck*.’”
*(Refer back to Tip #1)