Thin Blue Line
For the next chapter in his story, Hernandez was a police officer, fighting crime, keeping the peace, rescuing cats from trees. He was, he says, a good cop, and he liked being one — and he was paying his bills on time.
"I think music was always in me, but I didn't have the time or place for it. I bought a condo, so I couldn't set up my drums without disturbing people. So the drums got tucked away in my garage with boxes piled over them. And I said to myself, 'All right, I'm a cop.'"
Yet something inside Hernandez was smoldering; call it a need to express himself. And it took the arrival of younger brother Bruno to fan that desire into flame. Bruno, too, had come to Los Angeles to pursue his music, and needed a place to stay, so he moved in with Eric. Bruno had never stopped writing and performing music, and was itching to play.
Says Hernandez, "Bruno's like, 'We need a drum set here.' I'm like, 'I can't play my drums here.' He said, 'Well, let's get an electronic set,'" and he bought a Roland TD 7 kit. Bruno also bought himself a keyboard, an amp and guitar, and the brothers set up a little stage in Eric's living room. "And that put that fire back in me," he says. "Once I sat down behind that Roland TD 7, I said, 'Man, what am I doing? Why haven't I been playing?'"
The pair jammed nightly, and invited friends over to watch. "We'd put on a show like we used to when we were kids," he says. Then one day a friend who had just bought a house asked Eric and Bruno to play at their housewarming party. Bruno hired a keyboardist friend to join him (playing guitar) and Eric at the party. It was the band's first gig, and Eric's first public performance in eight-and-a-half years. He had a blast. "I was like, yeah, I need to do this." Eric went to a local pub in the San Fernando Valley and said, "Hey, I got this band, it's a three-piece, pay us a couple hundred bucks and I guarantee we'll bring in people. And they said, 'We'll give you guys a shot.'"
Thus was born the heavy pop-rock combo known as Sex Panther. The band held court at the pub every Wednesday night, and it became a regular gig for Eric and Bruno. "We had a great time, and not even thinking that one day we'd be playing the Super Bowl. I had just realized, hey, playing music, this is it, just like when I was in Hawaii, playing a little bar — I'm behind the kit, I got sticks in my hand. I'm happy."
Meanwhile, things were starting to take off for brother Bruno. He signed with Elektra in 2009, and jump-started his career with his vocals, production, and co-writing on BoB's "Nothin' On You" and Travie McCoy's "Billionaire," worldwide smashes that set the stage for Bruno's 2010 debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans. The album spawned several No. 1 singles and was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, winning Best Pop Vocal Performance for "Just The Way You Are."
When it came time to do a promo run for the single and album, Bruno asked Eric to be his drummer for the tour. All good, but ... "Of course, I'm not going to say no to my brother," he says. "But I had to take time off of work, and I had my son to take care of. So I took a leave of absence, and we went straight to Europe and started playing."
Bruno's skyrocketing success meant that he would need a full-time touring and recording drummer. Subsequent tours required Eric to take all the remaining leave of absence he could get, and ultimately he had to make a decision.
"My LAPD captain is like, 'Are you a rock star or are you a cop? Make up your mind.'" He resigned from the police department, after ten years of service — and he hasn't looked back since.
Hernandez's concise, sturdy beats on Bruno's hit songs and live shows have their roots in Eric's philosophy about what being a drummer is all about, which is, he says, a matter of dealing with one's ego needs. While a drummer wants to hold himself to a high standard and truly excel as a player, that same drummer has to blend in with the other musicians — even disappear, in a way.
"I take pride in playing a show, and laying the groove, the foundation. I don't feel that I need to be flashy. It's like, when you watch someone and they're solid, and then they slip something in real quick, you're like, 'Whew! How'd he do that?' It's like, check this out, I can do this, but I'm going to go back to my task at hand, which is laying down the foundations."
Yes, Hernandez is well aware that he's occupying this highest of pop platforms because of his brother's music. Unless Bruno's in the mood to flip a song around a bit in live performance, Hernandez plays the drum parts verbatim. "Fans don't want to hear me do drum solos," he says. "They pay for tickets for the shows because they want to hear what they heard on the CD or the radio, the songs they love. So I get a lot of gratification out of reproducing what they want to hear. The reality is, those people, the fans, are keeping me employed."
Onstage, the brotherly connection between Eric and Bruno plays a vital role in the pumping flow of the show. Eric makes sure to get a lot of Bruno's vocal in his in-ear monitors. "I like very low drums, and a nice blend, almost like a CD mix but with the drums dropped. Bruno's like a Prince or James Brown, he'll call out cues on the spot — he might say, 'Back to the bridge!' or something like that. He can be spontaneous, which is the fun part. It keeps me on my toes."
Hernandez' setup varies as needed in particular studio settings or song arrangements. "At Bruno's studio he has a kit there that he likes for sound purposes. The session I did with him for Travie McCoy's 'I Wanna Be A Billionaire' was my old DW kit, my standard setup; the song had a kind of reggae feel to it, so I used smaller toms and smaller cymbals. Whatever the vibe they're trying to get, I want to draw from that and approach the kit a certain way. If I have my full setup, I might overplay."
For his first album, Bruno wanted a heavy rock sound for the live shows, so Eric chose one 12" tom and two floor toms. The 2012 Unorthodox Jukebox album had a lot more pop/R&B and reggae-like songs, so he added a couple of toms and changed his cymbal configuration. For Bruno's live shows, Hernandez augments his kit with an array of electronic triggers.
"Right now we use the Roland SPD-SX for sounds sampled off of the album. These are key sounds that make the song what it is. I'll trigger them on the SPD-SX or we'll run V-Drum pads around my kit." His kick drum is triggered sparingly live, and gets the beat down via the DW 9000 pedal, with the plastic side of the beater against the head for a tad more attack.
Never Say Never
Eric Hernandez is sitting pretty again, and you get the feeling that this generous-spirited fellow totally deserves it. He likes to point out, too, that his achievements come partly on behalf of all those who may have had to turn their backs on their dreams, because they had to take care of their families or themselves or whatever the case may be. One can, Hernandez firmly believes, make it from one side of the spectrum to another — even if you have to serve time as a cop.
"Though I had to shelve the drums for a while, I didn't give up — it was always in me. And here I am living this dream. To be able to say I did the Grammys three times and now the Super Bowl? It's pretty cool. I just want to keep climbing that ladder. Now I know that I'm back on my path."