In Conversation With Peter Erskine
Peter Erskine is one of the busiest drummers in the world. The Grammy-winning and poll-topping drummer has appeared on some 500 projects since his debut with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1972, and has been a bellwether of the drums for the last 35 years. Since his influential tenure with Weather Report (1978—’82), Erskine has performed with major jazz and pop artists, while keeping an open mind into the kinds of styles that came his way, or that he himself created. Within the last year, Erskine released two vastly different recordings on his own Fuzzy Music label: Standards, an acoustic trio recording with pianist Alan Pasqua and bassist Dave Carpenter; and Worth The Wait, a big band recording of all original material, co-led by Peter and trumpeter Tim Hagans, with Sweden’s Norrbotten Big Band. Erskine spoke to TRAPS about his two recent projects, and much, much more.
You’ve just released two albums on your label, Fuzzy Music, which seem to be opposites. Was this planned, and how did you approach the two projects, both from a recording aspect and from an artistic aspect?
Well, we’ve never done much in the way of a business plan, meaning my wife and I, for the record label. It was kind of just a serendipitous thing. The two projects were coming together at the same time, so I guess it was more of an after-the-fact realization that, “Wow, here are opposite ends of the spectrum.” In a sense, a lot of the musical choices I’ve made over the years have kind of swung back and forth, whether it’s loud or soft, large group to small group, classical to jazz, or even when I ended up doing a Steely Dan tour one summer. My roots, at least professionally, are in big band playing. But all of the while, my longing was, “Geez, I wish I could be lighter on my feet and with my hands. I wish I could improvise like the guys I love to listen to.” So I always wanted to do the small group thing. In the last several years I had to travel to Europe to do it, and so it was really a blessing to find players like Alan Pasqua and Dave Carpenter. Alan and I have known each other for years, and finding each other here in Los Angeles and starting to play on a regular basis meant that I could at least play in that [trio] setting, and not have to spend a couple of days on a plane to do it. Meanwhile, the big band gig with Tim Hagans — we had both worked with a terrific Swedish tenor saxophonist, Lennart Åberg. He worked quite a bit with Don Cherry. So this was really cool to get to play a more open kind of music. And Tim just blew me away, because I haven’t heard him in years. Meanwhile, he was also the director of this band way in the far north of Sweden. So we did a live album. I pitched it to the big band and Swedish radio, “Would it be possible to get a hold of the tapes or the hard drives that this stuff is still on? I’d like to remix it, and put it out.” So they were very agreeable to that. Long answer short: plain good luck. We were able to put out the two albums at the same time. But there was a little bit of conceit, knowing that there were kind of two sides of the coin.
What was the inspiration behind some of the big band songs you wrote?
Well, some of the material came from an earlier project that was part of a BBC commission, Music For Brass And Percussion. Most of my music is usually a result of something that I’ve written for some theatrical thing, and those melodies often can find a second life in my jazz world. So the “Scotland, Africa” theme [from Worth The Wait] came from this guy who was working on a one-man show, and nothing ever happened with it, but I liked the theme. And then I just started to experiment with that rhythm [nanigo], which I had first become aware of on an old Stan Kenton album called Cuban Fire. It’s 6/8 or 12/8. I think I wrote it in 12. It goes back and forth. So it was just a cute moment when I took this sort of bouncy Scottish theme and just applied this African rhythm to it. That’s why I called it “Scotland, Africa.”
Do you use one type of vocabulary when you play original compositions and another for playing Standards?
I think the vocabulary is pretty much the same. I mean, drumming has become a reductive process for me. Not quite so much like trying to atone for past sins, but I’m just more interested in the clarity of rhythmic ideas when there is more space around them. Interesting thing, my wife and I went to a club last night, and we heard Joey Heredia play. Wow. It was just some of the best drumming I’d heard in years. It was powerful, and it was fun. And my wife was exuding all this enthusiasm in the car, and she said, “It was really exciting hearing Joey play. You used to play that way!” [laughs] And I used to wear size 32 pants. And every once in a while, it’ll still happen, particularly where it’s a setting where you can get the volume and emotional intensity that would fit within the music. When we did this thing with Mike and Randy Brecker and Vince Mendosa, Some Skunk Funk, there was this one tune that had that intensity and excitement that I remembered sometimes that we would get with Weather Report. I played it for one of my students at USC, and he kind of just looked up puzzled, and he said: “Where does that emotional intensity come from?” And in my most professorial manner, the only thing I could think of to say was: “Jon, you just really have to give a shit.”
Reflecting on coming of age in the ’60s and ’70s, how has the musical climate changed for drummers?
Well, I’ve got one answer that I’ve used before, if I may reiterate it. The biggest difference for me, when I think back on the music of the ’60s, music seemed to be asking a lot of questions. And it was just a tremendous sense of being in on that. “Wow, this is what’s possible. What’s going to happen next?” And then somewhere along the way, music felt like it had the answers, and music started feeling or sounding like that, to me. Maybe it’s a reflection of society. Given this same situation in society, where so many things need questioning, people don’t. I mean, in the ’60s, everyone was hitting the streets. Now, [there’s] not a whole lot of voices being [heard], not much outcry, and musically as well. So I’m not sure what the story is with that. So that for me is the biggest difference.
Do you think that the availability of every possible reissue from every genre is a good or bad thing for developing a personality on the instrument?
Oh, I love it. I mean, I’m still waiting for a lot of LPs that were my favorites when I was kid to come out on CD. Sometimes I’ll go back to the LP, because I like the way it sounds more. But it’s nice to be able to hear a pristine copy without the scratches, or, horror of horrors, actually hear alternate takes. I don’t know if it’s farsightedness or shortsightedness, but Weather Report didn’t want CBS to have that option. This is back in the day in the ’70s — they would literally destroy any remaining tape. They would erase it — they didn’t want some guy at CBS putting it out. And I think Joe may have regretted that, because when this Forecast Tomorrow album and the other “live and unreleased” was released, they were scrambling looking for stuff. So there wasn’t that much left, because it all had been erased.
When does the business of music interfere with the art? How do you balance the two?
Two words: My wife. If she walked in here, she wouldn’t like it. She’s very modest. I trust her instincts more than anyone else’s. She’s not a musician, but I trust her musical instincts, her ethical instincts, so we can carry each other’s load in all manners of different aspects of marriage and our family. She’s left shouldering a lot of the burden when I go on the road. You know, it’s just a kitchen tabletop operation as far as the web site and the mail-order. I do the Internet stuff but she fulfills the orders. We’ll get excited when somebody orders a couple of books, and it’s fun for us. The numbers are small but we enjoy it. Meanwhile, our music is also available in a number of digital locations like the iTunes shop, just to name one example. We have a distributor for CDs, and I finally got smart and hired a publicist for the first time for a few months. Basically my schedule is — until by the end of a week or two I burned out and have to recover for a couple of days — I tend to get up about 4:00 or 4:30 a.m. and go to the gym, and then I get kind of energized. Then I have the morning to do two or three hours of email. Oftentimes I have to catch European offices while they are still open. And then today at 9:30 a.m. I was in my studio and I worked till about 12:30 on this music I was writing. Break for lunch. Then I had an order of books come in and I had to sign all of those, and then you called. I have a meeting with this director tonight, and we’re going to look at the score I’ve done and see if he likes it.
You’ve been very involved with education. How did you come to write the books and do instructional videos?
The books started when a Japanese jazz magazine asked me if I wanted to write several drum lessons for three or four issues, and I thought: “Hey, we started a drum book.” So I wrote these chapters for this Japanese jazz magazine, and got to show them to Shelly Manne. We were sharing a flight to Japan, and I was talking about the importance of 2 and 4. And he looked at it, and said, “Yeah, it looks good Peter, but don’t forget man, this stuff about 2 and 4. You can’t have a 2 and 4 without a 1 and a 3. And that was like a big light bulb in my head. I just started seeking out more and more advice, writing down everything that I heard the jazz elders say. And you get a pretty nice collection of wisdom, a lot of it funny, and quite often scatological, but a lot of great stuff, because these people lived it, they knew it. Some of them learned it the hard way.
Do you think that the difference between European and American drummers is very pronounced?
The European aesthetic — Manfred [Eicher, producer] definitely wasn’t intimidated by the length of a song. And if there was something that was inherently commercial, in an ECM way, I never sensed that he gave any thought to that if he felt something was artistically valid. On my first [solo] album for ECM [1992’s You Never Know], probably the most commercial tune was the tune I wrote called “On The Lake.” With Manfred, we would do all of the recordings in Oslo, Norway. Manfred doesn’t read Norwegian, but if you saw him reading a Norwegian newspaper in the control room, you could tell that you were in trouble. That meant that he didn’t like it. He’d be holding up a newspaper that we know he can’t understand. Anyway, he put the newspaper down, and we listened to the playback of the one and only take we did, and I said, “What are you saying here?” And he just sort of shrugged his shoulders. It was the first time during that project that he was showing no interest. I said, “Well, we should do it again?” And then he looked at me, and he said, “What for?” An American producer would be much more distant, “Well, sure, you’ve got to try it.” It was always a more interesting experience with Manfred than I’ve ever had with any other American producer.
What aspect of drumming do you think drummers think about the least, which could potentially contribute most to their development?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is tone. The other thing that is most important is time. And, ultimately I guess, the arc — the horizon of a piece of music, the shape of the song. Another answer: lack of specificity. I’m really getting on this with a lot of my students now, and I just don’t want to hear guys playing drums. I know that it’s part of the process and you have to go through that, the call-and-response thing. So much of it seems so clichéd to me, and I think new music-making really demands that you really have to listen. And if you are going to say something, it really has to be specific. To go back, if I may, to my trio album, the number of times I hit the snare drum in one chorus you could count on one hand. At least for the first couple of choruses, it’s very sparse. Or I may just go and not play the hi-hat and just focus on the ride cymbal. That kind of attention to detail I think, timbre wise, really just gives dimensionality.
With the demise of IAJE [International Association Of Jazz Educators], what are your thoughts on the state of jazz education? And what does its downfall say to you about this industry as a whole?
The downfall was of the organization’s own making, apparently. I heard that they misspent of a lot of money on hiring consultants who contributed nothing in terms of increasing the membership. And I don’t know if in the process of doing that there was an abuse of the organization’s funds in terms of anything questionable, legally or ethically, or just a bunch of joyriding and junkets and bullshit. I don’t know. The IAJE board and certainly the executive staff will have to answer. Before it all fell apart, I was starting to read emails from past presidents, and at such a high level of anger and disgust. I’m like, “Whoa, wait a minute. What’s going on here?” Maybe we can blame society at large for not giving more support. We’ve allowed the arts to be taken out of the curriculum, [which] is something that everyone will regret.
Your dad was a psychologist.
A psychiatrist. Do you think that you delve into an inner analysis the way that your father did, through music and listening and interacting with other people? Musically?
Yes. Only to the extent that — again, my dad was a great teacher, and he had great insight into how people behaved. One piece of advice of his I remember, and I try to remember this when I’m teaching or when I’m dealing with someone, whether I’m producing or working with any other human beings — he used to say: “You always have to give something to someone before you can get something else away from them, psychically.” I would notice him in a restaurant, and the waitress would come over, and he would say, “The food is really good.” And she’d go, “Oh, thank you.” But then … you know, it always worked wonders. He could always make it a win-win situation. And I think that’s a nice way to go through life: trying to make it a win-win for everybody. I forget the person who said this — that it’s not enough that I just come out ahead or win, I have to crush my opponent. I think as drummers we live in a community where we’re probably more openly supportive of our colleagues as well as our competition, just as well as any other field I can think of. It’s a good thing to remember. There’s no trophy; there’s no winner. That’s not the idea. I think we really have to show more kindness to people, musically and otherwise. And that’s, I think, ultimately how you can feel pretty good about what you do. I think we’d better end on that note.