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.
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.’”
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.
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.”