Eric Hernandez: New Lease On Life

Drummer Eric Hernandez's story resembles the plotline of one of those brick-thick romance novels you see in the grocery-store checkout line: A thrilling saga of love, honor, valor, and glory, spanning continents and generations — that ends up at the Super Bowl. "I'm feeling like I'm up in the clouds, and nothing can stop me at the moment," he says with a grin. And who could blame him? Right now Hernandez is perched atop perhaps the most stratified drum throne on the planet — up onstage behind his brother, pop superstar Bruno Mars.

We Are Family

Home and kin loom large in Hernandez' legend. His grandfather was a guitarist who had his own band, and granddaddy's influence trickled down to Eric's father, who was a Latin percussionist, bandleader, and producer. When Eric was four, the family moved from Brooklyn to Hawaii, where his father worked a six-night-a-week gig as a percussionist.

"He used to take me to his gigs every night, and he sat me under one of his Polynesian percussive instruments," says Hernandez. "I basically had rhythm beaten into me." Yet while the sound and rhythms of the Polynesian percussives soaked right into his bones, Hernandez had his eyes on the kit drummer. "I remember the drum set vividly. It was a black Pearl kit, and I would watch every night. My dad noticed that, and even though he was showing off for me and being all flashy with his rig, I always fixated on the drummer."

So his father bought Hernandez a drum set when he was four, "and that's kind of where I started, sitting behind it — and I couldn't even reach the pedals." He laughs. "It was a Pearl jellybean kit, with a 12" x 9" tom, a 16" floor tom, and a 22" kick, plus a bunch of cymbals I borrowed from my dad." With a few added touches: "I took the bells off tambourines and played the drumhead on them, because I thought it sounded like a Rototom. And I would watch cartoons and play along to the soundtrack. That was my thing; in my mind, that was my gig, every night."

In short order Hernandez did nab a regular gig, with his singer-producer father's Love Notes, a 1950s-'60s pop-music stage revue. Eric started by working the ticket booth with his sister ("meanwhile listening to the show every night"), then graduated to assisting with the lights.

"I would bug my dad, 'Please I want to play in the show — I know the parts!' It was all real simple stuff, all backbeat, and they had a small standup drum kit set up, and they'd all take turns, the guys in the band rotating, playing along to the tracks."

Finally, when Hernandez was ten, his dad gave him a shot, and he got up onstage and wailed on that standup drum set, totally nailing the whole show. He got the gig, and his dad put him on the payroll, six nights a week in Waikiki playing Love Notes — and going to school, of course.

The Love Notes show and a jukebox in the family house gave young Eric a deep immersion in his father's beloved sounds of the '50s, '60s, and '70s. "We heard a lot of James Brown — I always liked the grooves of Clyde Stubblefield — and I started playing things I was hearing on the radio, like 'Too Funky' by Tower Of Power." He'd also honed in on drummers such as Toto's Jeff Porcaro and Stewart Copeland of the Police. "Porcaro's 'Rosanna' shuffle groove was the big thing, and even today, at almost every sound check I'll go into the 'Rosanna' shuffle. That particular groove really showed me how important playing the groove was, i.e., sitting in that pocket."

Hernandez was intrigued by Stewart Copeland's reggae-tinted rhythms and sense of tonality. "Copeland has a lot of reggae influence in his fills and in his sound itself, like with his use of Rototoms; he tunes his toms real high, and uses small cymbal splashes. I also like his accenting on hi-hats, and that's something that I implement now in my playing. While I want to be a solid foundation, I'm looking for ways I can stick in some color that will be subtle, but enough to be cool."

While reggae's huge in Hawaii, islanders have taken their own traditional music and crossed it over with reg-gae. The resulting "Jahwaiian" music is a reggaefied pop that often substitutes ukulele for guitar to supply that reggae strum upbeat (jank! jank! jank!) and tarts it up with sweet vocal harmonies. "I listened to a lot of the Wailers, with their great drummer Carlton Barrett," Hernandez says, "and now a lot of my accents are reggae-esque. But sometimes they're Latin, too, because I heard a lot of Latin when I was growing up, with my Pops."

Hernandez played the Love Notes gigs through the age of 18, but at 16 started joining other bands, many of whom had checked out this nimble young drummer at his father's shows. Then people started noticing him outside of the Love Notes show, and he began picking up little gigs here and there, often subbing for drummers in other bands and eventually landing another full-time drumming job. "I basically had the best gig on the island," he says, "because it was six nights a week, and my drums stayed in one place so I wasn't lugging stuff around. Plus I had a nice apartment in Hawaii about ten minutes from Waikiki. I was sitting pretty."

Welcome To L.A.

One day, the ambitious young Hernandez had a revelation: Sure, he had a tasty gig going in Hawaii, but that was not going to get his face on the cover of a drum magazine, or, most importantly for him, the ability to tour. "Touring is important to me," he says. "Once my dad put me in that gig and I felt the reaction of an audience to me playing my rhythm, that sparked me: I love playing drums, and I love seeing people react to my playing."

He knew he had to take his act to the next level. And as soon as he turned 18 in 1995, he quit his plum gig in Hawaii, shipped his drums and gear, and made the big scary move to Los Angeles, epicenter of the music business. Upon his arrival in L.A., Hernandez had no idea what awaited him — though he didn't worry about it too much, either. "I basically was rolling the dice," he says with a laugh. "I felt like, because I was praised for so long for my musicianship on the island, well, I wouldn't say I was cocky, but I had a lot of confidence." Yet his early days trudging the streets of Hollywood battered that confidence into submission, or at least made him feel like some pretty little guppy in a very big pond. "It made me realize that, holy s--t, this is the real deal," he says.

Like so many others, Hernandez first checked out the classified ads in Music Connection, zeroing in on one that said, "Signed band seeks drummer." After he responded to the ad, he met the lead singer of the band for an interview at a coffee shop in Silverlake and was hired on the spot. The band flew him up to Portland, Oregon, where the rest of the band was based.

"I got in the studio with them, and we jammed for a couple hours, and we just gelled. They were like, 'Oh yeah, you're our guy, you're in the band.'" The band was called Louie Says, an adult contemporary pop act signed to RCA and getting ready to launch their first single and go on tour supporting singer Duncan Sheik. So here's Hernandez, all exited, calling home to report, "I landed this signed deal and I'm going to be part of this band, doing photo shoots, and hey, it's really happening!" Louie Says had started working on their second record, and then — boom! The band lost their deal, and there went Hernandez' gig.

Bloodied but unbowed, Hernandez slunk back to L.A. and restarted the arduous process of trying to find gigs; he again looked in Music Connection, auditioned with bands, and played small shows at local small clubs. "But nothing was substantial enough to be a serious job," he says. "And I needed to make money. I had to pay bills."

That's when he ended up working as a security guard at a department store, taking what he figured would be a temporary detour from music. "I was playing music on the side, for a little bit, and then it got to the point where the job engulfed me and took all of my time. And here I was, a security guard still trying to make it in music, realizing that I was struggling. I needed a career, and I'm getting older, and what am I doing?"

But cops coming in to the department store to pick up shoplifters that Hernandez had apprehended would compliment him on his written crime reports, and suggested that he take the exam to become an LAPD officer. "They said, 'We pay $55,000 a year,' or whatever it was, and it enticed me. I was like, hey man, maybe I need to consider a career change, maybe I have to throw in the towel with music."

He decided to take the test, and was hired by the LAPD, for whom he served as an officer for the next ten years.

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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.

Foundation Man

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."