What One Photographer Learned On His Most Awesome Shoots

Robert Downs started shooting covers for DRUM! a dozen years ago. In that time, he’s contributed beautiful images of drummers from Matt Byrne and Jose Pasillas to Travis Barker, Steve Jordan, and Gil Sharone. And though you may not know it, you’ve also seen his work in ads from some of the top companies in the drum business and on magazine covers around the world.

As a Gretsch player himself, photographing musicians — and especially drummers — is a passion.

I called Robert with a simple question: What was your most awesome shoot?

He said there were many but he immediately thought of Steve Jordan. What made it special is that Steve is not just a drummer, he’s a major producer. Robert photographed him among stacks of cars at a car lot in Hollywood for the January 2010 cover. When they were done with the shoot, Steve crawled into the back seat of a limo to leave. But before pulling away he stuck his head out the window to ask, “Do you want to come by Studio 1 tonight and shoot some more?” As they say, photographers aren’t sloths, so Robert quickly said, “Sure.”

But first he had to learn where Studio 1 was. His helper informed him that was shorthand for Capitol Studio A, one of four subterranean dens in the famous round Capitol building in Hollywood, where everyone from the Beach Boys to Mariah Carey to Imagine Dragons have laid down platinum tracks.

Capitol Records Building

Robert approached the ominous gates of the studio and then was led into a waiting room filled with pics of The Beatles, Sinatra, and mementos of all the incredible things that have happened there.

“They took me into the control room to watch as Steve set up and tuned, and got the mikes right. Just watching that was pretty amazing,” Robert says. “The room can hold an orchestra. And then in walks Rod Stewart. I’m thinking, ‘This is incredible.’ I asked Rod if it is okay to take pictures. I had brought a small Leica that is very quiet just for the studio. And he said ‘I would hate it if you didn’t.’ He was very rock-star flamboyant and awesome in every way. Watching that session was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had.”

Steve and Rod. Photo By Robert Downs.

When Steve’s work was done, and Rod had regaled him with some choice tales from his 45 years on the road, Robert followed Steve to Studio B next door. He was playing on a John Mayer recording later that night.

Steve Jordan in Capitol Studio A. Photo By Robert Downs.

“At this point, I’m really in a daze,” Robert says recalling watching Mayer in the studio.  “And, then I decided I was going home. I literally left early. I figured I was ahead of the game. It was like The Price Is Right, when you have a choice of $15,000 or the sure thing. I’d already had the most amazing day shooting so I took the sure thing and went home.”

Learning The Most From Mr. Barker

Rob has shot three Travis Barker covers, and he says he learned more from Travis than any other subject.  “A lot of times people will ask me, ‘What are these stars like? What’s Travis like? What’s Abe Cunningham like?’ And what I’ve come to see is, these people have a lot to deal with. They have a demanding life. They have families and spouses and kids and mortgages and parent-teacher meetings. And then they go out and be rock stars.

“Travis is busy. But he and I have sort of a thing going on. I know when I shoot him to show up at least an hour early. His kit is already set up and I get everything ready. When he walks in he always says, ‘Hey man, you ready?’ And I say right back, ‘Hey man, yeah.’ We get to work. I shoot him at the kit and then he’ll move to another location and I’ll shoot some options for the cover. He gives me 30 minutes tops. But it’s clear he demands a certain level of professionalism from me and shows me the respect needed to get a good shot. I really appreciate him.”

Thank You Readers

I want to thank some readers for their story contributions recently. By the way, notes and questions about Rogers Drums are pouring in. I’ll go behind the scenes to share some more info next week.

Wingnut Wizard and Page Drums

In response to a post on favorite inventions: RWDBest wrote to say his favorite invention was one of his own design, a wrench designed for wing nuts. He says “It gives just enough grip and leverage to tighten or loosen a wing-nut without deforming and, hopefully, not breaking or stripping it.” He dreamed it up because he manages a house kit and finds that guest drummers are always tightening them too much.

Jason Lewis of Hollywood wrote to me about his Page Drums. They were built in the 1990s and featured a unique rope-tuned-style system using steel cables. He says. “The thing that sets Page drum set hardware design apart is that it’s a free-floating drum set. Page improved not just the overall sound of a drum set but increased the instruments’ natural volume and made them the most user-friendly drum sets, when it comes to tuning. You only need one tuning screw to tune the entire drum. It tunes both the top head and bottom head evenly [and] so as long as that’s acceptable, the tuning process is incredibly easy and fast. A whole Page kit can be tuned in less than thirty seconds.”

Thanks for contributing, Jason.

Page Facts

David Page of Page Drums was no slouch building or playing. He was also Tom Jones’ original drummer. After he started building drums he brought in Jeffrey Hudson as a partner in the company. If you like the cable-tuned concept you should check out Jeffrey’s Hudson Custom Drums. You’ll find them on Facebook.

See you next time.