1. What is your typical schedule on the road (or in the studio) like?
I'm an avid runner and a coffee fanatic. So on the road (or at home) it's always the best coffee available first and then the longest run our day's schedule will allow. I actually write a blog that shows the best coffee I've found in every town we've toured through! Running in every town we visit gives me a deeper feeling for the town, it's people and the whole tour is not just one big sleep deprived blur. Then we usually have a radio performance and/or an interview in the morning or afternoon. That is followed by load-in to the venue and then soundcheck. Around dinner time, we all try to find something good to eat which can be rather difficult depending on what part of town the venue is in. The goal on the road is for everyone to stay healthy. Our sets are usually an hour and a half of unbridled sweat and energy. When I'm done, I'm drenched. If we have the energy and it's not too late we try to stay and meet fans and locals and hang out. Bus call is usually around 3 or 4 am to drive to the next town, and then we do it all over again!
2. What are some of the things you love about your job?
I get paid to hit things, and make people dance! It doesn't get any better than that.
3. What are some of the drawbacks?
The only drawbacks are being away from my wife and kids, and not being able to really practice my drums and work on new things.
4. What made you want to play drums, and how did you get started?
My father was a Commander in the Navy and we were lucky enough to be stationed in New Orleans, LA when I was a young child. My mother was extremely enthusiastic about music, jazz in particular. If there was music happening, my mom was there and she always had me in tow whether it was a jazz funeral, Mardi Gras, Preservation Hall, or whatever. When we were stationed in Pensacola, FL, we would hang outside of a black gospel church almost every Sunday just to hear the music. We felt like we would be looked at as impostors if we entered, until finally one Sunday, they just invited us in. It felt like we were floating a couple of feet off of the ground. All of these early experiences had a huge impact on me, and I’m so grateful to have lived in that part of the country during that time. When my dad retired from the Navy, we moved up to Bainbridge Island, WA. Even though we didn’t live in the South any longer, I always found myself unknowingly gravitating towards drummers from New Orleans. Most notably, Vernel Fournier. My mom and dad were huge fans of pianist Ahmad Jamal and had his record “Live At The Pershing” which really features Vernel. That was it. It had everything I wanted. Swing, funk, bounce, space, clarity, everything. It still blows my mind and inspires me on a daily basis. That is what I strive for, that level of groove, discipline, and musicality, no matter what style of music I’m playing.
5. Whom did you study with and how did that affect you?
My first teacher was a great drummer on Bainbridge Island, WA named Tom Svornich. I just remember being mesmerized by the way his hands looked, holding the sticks. He got me reading right away and hip to the rudiments. Then I studied with Dave Coleman Sr., in Seattle. Dave is a Seattle legend. He had played with Billie Holiday, I even found some live recordings of him playing with her. He was a true gentleman, and had the most beautiful feel. He was also a great painter. Then I did a brief stint at Berklee College of Music in Boston. I was paying for my own schooling, and that is a very expensive school so I couldn't stay as long as I would've liked. But it was worth every penny to study with Joe Hunt. Joe opened my ears and made me an incredible listener. I owe him a lot for getting me to a deeper lever of appreciation of sound and patience. I was also lucky enough to take some lessons with Alan Dawson out at his house. He was a very nice man, and really got my hands together.
6. What was your most difficult -or challenging- gig, and how did you handle that?
One of the most difficult gigs I've ever done was playing with pianist, singer/songwriter Mose Allison. I got called to do a week with him at Jazz Alley in Seattle when I was really just a kid and had no idea who this guy was. I thought he was a soul organist, not the quirky, kind of subversive songwriter he is. I get the call for the gig 2 days before the stint starts, so I called the bass player who had played with him a lot, to find out what to learn for the gig. He says "Man, just buy the last two records on Blue Note and learn them." So I run to Tower Records (RIP), and buy them and learn them down cold! On opening night, Mose shows up 30 seconds before we are to go onstage and asks me in his thick Mississippi drawl, "Are you the drummah?" I nodded. He says, "Here's what I don't want. Never play quarter notes on the ride cymbal, never close the hi hat with your foot on beats two and four, and on the latin numbers don't play anything resembling a bossa nova or a mambo." He then asked "Do you want a solo?" I said "Sure, I guess." To which he replied "Alright, you get one. Let's go." That was our introduction. We get onstage and he calls out "Your Mind Is On Vacation," and I just froze and look at the bass player like "What the Hell is that?" Turns out, Mose has been playing virtually the same set of music for the past 20 years which consisted of nothing but tunes he mostly wrote in the 60's, of which I knew none! He played absolutely nothing of off his last two records. Mose has no charts for me to read or anything, so I basically just asked "What's the feel?" and just flew by the seat of my pants. The problem is, Mose also took away any sort of security blanket I had when he demanded no quarter notes on the ride and no 2 & 4 on the hi hat. At any point if I played more than two consecutive quarter notes of time, he shot me the look of death or yelled across the stage at me, "No quarter notes!" I was sweating so much it was insane! At the set break, he wouldn't look me in the eye and he's a super quiet guy anyway so there was no conversation at all. So the second set was more of the same. Every show was sold out, and I found out that the reviewer for the Seattle Times was there that opening night. It was rough. By the end of the week though, I was nailing it pretty well and he warmed up to me a little.
7. How did you get your current gig?
Through my work with Bruno Mars and Cee Lo, I got a reputation of being able to get old school breakbeat and Motown sounds. A mutual friend of ours, pianist Tay Strathairn from the band Dawes gave Fitz my number because he felt like I could give him the sound he was looking for. Since moving to LA, I had always just been a "hired gun" player and never planned on being in a band. Before I knew it, Fitz & The Tantrums had an enormous amount of wind in it's sails and I found myself spending more time on the road than in LA!
8. Are there certain shows that stick out in your mind above others?
There are certain cities that have been on board with this band since the very beginning. Columbus, OH, New York City and Buffalo, NY, Seattle, WA, and Chicago. A couple of shows that stick out are playing Key Arena in Seattle with Hall & Oats. I used to live across the street from Key Arena, and would go watch the Sonics (RIP) play there. So to actually get to go back to my hometown and crush it was especially gratifying. I loved play Lollapalooza in Chicago as well, it gave me the feeling that we had "arrived!"
9. What was the strangest thing that has happened (or that you have seen,) during a tour?
I've gotten a little more accustomed to this now, but seeing the affect of celebrity on people is quite astonishing. My first gig after moving to LA was with actress Minnie Driver, who is also a wonderful singer/songwriter. Watching fans watch her and try to talk to her, and some spooky folks getting angry waiting for her after show for autographs was an education for me. I'm lucky being in the background. I can walk through airports and nobody knows who the heck I am. I'd like to keep it that way.
10. What do you do to maintain your versatility as a drummer?
One of my main goals as a musician has always been to “speak without an accent” in as many styles of music as possible. I really think it's required of drummers nowadays. There are so many technically great drummers out there, but the guys that work are the ones who have done their listening homework. I'm a tireless listener and researcher. I always make special notes if I hear someone mention a record I've never checked out and immediately seek it out. I'm a sponge. I’ve been very blessed that these artists and/or the producers I worked with on their records trusted me enough to be a part of their music. Honestly though, it's because I've done my listening.
11. What’s your current set-up, and what are you digging about it?
I'm using my dream set-up. The Legacy Classic Series. 24" kick with a variety of tom options, 13, 14, 16, and 18 inches with Supraphonic and Acrolite snares. I'm thinking of trying out the Carl Palmer snare next. It looks fantastic.
12. How important to you are the drums you play and how do you feel it affects your playing?
I used to think it was not that important. Regardless of what I'm playing I'm still going to sound like John Wicks. But through the experience of touring constantly over the last 16 months, and playing countless "Throw & Go" festivals where I'm having to use random backline drums I began to notice that in order to achieve the sound we are looking for in the band, some drums can do it and quite frankly, others can't. Ludwig has been in the pantheon of drums for so long that the sound of the drums is in all of our collective sub conscious. When the music does not have that tone, it's noticeable, isn't as happening. Not to mention the construction and quality is very important when it's getting beat up every day on tour. Have you seen the Legacy Classics?! I mean, dayuuhm! The are so solid. Love 'em.
13. What drew you to Ludwig?
Believe it or not, it was NOT Ringo or John Bonham!! I saw pictures of Vernel Fournier playing Ludwig, along with Max Roach, my teacher Alan Dawson, and countless others. In the soul realm, there are no drums used more than the Ludwig Supraphonic and Acrolite's, I've always been drawn to that sound. The clincher, I will say though was when Fitz & The Tantrums opened for Maroon 5 on a college tour, and I got to hear my buddy Matt Flynn playing them every night. He always sounds so great. So I spoke to Matt and his awesome drum tech about them, and through them was able to get connected with Ludwig.
14. Can you describe how you tweak your drums to get your personal sound?
Michael Shrieve came up to me after a gig at The Sunset Tavern in Seattle and said, “John, you sound great, but your drums sound like s**t!” It angered me and hurt my ego a bit, but he was right. The next day, I called Seattle’s “Obi Wan Kenobi” of drums, Gregg Keplinger and asked for a lesson in tuning. As I began to do more studio work, I really began to realize the importance of being able to tune my own drums quickly and appropriately for whatever style of music I was recording. Eventually, I got so adept at emulating drum sounds, my tuning prowess became a big reason my phone would ring for sessions. I think tuning for what your ears prefer is very important, but also trying to imitate drum sounds from records is time well spent. Copy everything from 60’s Motown and 70’s funk, to 80’s metal, 90’s Grunge, and programmed drums. Listen for pitch, resonance, and any characteristics that define a specific drum sound. Assign adjectives (descriptive terms) to the drum sounds you are listening to. Words like dry, wet, gushy, beefy, piercing, dirty, clean or trashy. Producer Sam Spiegel asked me to make my drums sound “dusty” on the NASA record “Spirit Of Apollo.” He played me old drum breaks from 60’s and 70’s Brazilian funk records that he would love to have used but did not have the budget to clear the samples. A light bulb went off in my head and I realized that I had found my niche market.
15. Are there any upcoming projects that you are particularly excited about?
Well Fitz & The Tantrums' next record comes out October 9th, 2012! We're working with producer Tony Hoffer and engineer Todd Burke, and I cannot express how stoked I am about this record. I'm also working with Cee Lo some more on his next record. Other than that, I'm just trying to write more for a side project of mine and for other artists.
16. Who are you major drumming influences?
Vernel Fournier, Donald Bailey, Grady Tate, Idris Muhammad, James Gadson, Jim Keltner, Earl Palmer, Charley Drayton, Carlton Barrett, Steve Gadd, Billy Cobham, Levon Helm, Paul Motian. Within my generation of drummers I enjoy Deantoni Parks, Chris Dave, Barbara Gruska, Aaron Sterling, Matt Flynn, Carla Azar, Daru Jones, and many more.
17. What are your four favorite albums (drumming or otherwise)?
1. Ahmad Jamal - "Live At The Pershing"