Gavin Harrison Interview
Originally appeared on January 2010 issue of Batteria & Percussioni magazine
Interview by Roberto BOB Baruffaldi
Gavin Harrison is a really unique drummer; he’s always able to distinguish himself for his approach that is so original and that looks always to the future. His constant research lead himself to get over the trap placed by that “Italian phase”, that gave him a great popularity in our country; he’s been able to escape the cliché of the identification in a role that (it’s for sure) don’t identify himself in the right way. I met Gavin so many times, and every time I try to understand what’s different with him, and every time I find something in his drumming and in his sound that hits me in some way. I remember one time, during a sound check, when I discovered the missing of his usual splash cymbals, and I’ve asked him the reason of this “lost”. Laconically, he answered me that he considered those splashes like old and surpassed tools and that he has lost any interest in using them. I consider this like a small/big sign of the evolution of an artist; his mentality is a great strength’s point that lead Gavin to play with some fantastic artists and bands like Porcupine Tree and King Crimson.
A short time ago, during one of our chats that we usually do by e-mail, I’ve asked him to elaborate and to expand some concepts that I pointed to him, in order to do a proper interview. Soon it came his prompt response, with his usual availability and kindness that always distinguished him…
The first thing that I want to talk about is Circles, the new CD you made with 05Ric. To me it sounds like a little departure form the previous one, and I feel like it’s a little more rock oriented. Do you feel the same?
Not really. When you work on a project for some time you tend to lose sight of those kind of things. To me it sounds like a natural progression from “Drop”, but there was no intention to make it heavier – I guess we just followed our noses and that’s where we ended up with “Circles”. It’s quite an organic process really but it’s very exciting to me because I really feel like I’m pushing myself to play new things. We have no record company so we just make all the discussions the way we like – there’s absolutely no interference from anyone outside of me and Ric, and so it comes out very pure to our creative personalities.
The first CD, Drop, was based about trading your rhythmic ideas with Ric’s compositions. Did it happen again with this one or not? I see that you’re also involved with bass and guitar playing and, talking about your guitar work, I can tell you that I’m surprised about how good it is on this record… maybe being in Fripp’s band had its results…
Yes, we traded ideas again – and in some of my compositional rhythmic ideas I record some guitar and bass lines just to show Ric how I was thinking of those instruments should interact with the drum pattern. Sometimes we really liked those demo guitar and bass lines – so we kept them. My guitar playing tends to be single note tapping – maybe a bit King Crimson in influence – but I’m not a chord player or someone who strums the guitar. I like inter locking lines that have a kind of kaleidoscope effect with each other and create interesting syncopations.
Let’s change subject; I just saw your performance on the MD 2008 Festival and I’m really, really impressed by your playing. You seem really focused and musically “centered” and your playing is simply stunning, and the level of your creativity is outstanding. What do you remember of that performance in general?
Not much really – I can remember thinking I wasn’t very popular with the audience. They went mad for the drummer before me, Todd Sucherman – I was standing in the wings watching it. When I got out there it felt like they went really cold on me. It was probably just the pressure of it. I don’t know if I’ve done something with more pressure than that festival. It really is the “Oscars” of the drum world in my mind. All I can say is that I was incredibly relived when it was over!
I’m wondering about what kind of percentage do you think your performance is divided, between “thinking about it” and “letting go”?
Of course the tunes that I played were not easy to play kind of tunes – so I had to stay focused about the arrangements – but I tried as much as I could to let go and try to improvise some things. Before the show I sat in my dressing room and just listened through all of my songs and imagined myself playing them. I tried to stay relaxed – but it’s really hard in that kind of situation in front of an audience full of drummers – all the other performers watching you from the side of the stage – and it’s being filmed and recorded.
Do you feel your playing differently between solo performances or band performances? Do you change it (or not) for specific reasons or you go for the moment?
Obviously you feel the pressure to perform something interesting from a drum point of view at a drum festival – so I chose songs that kind of featured the drums. I couldn’t play a tour like that because it would kill me. I think I used four weeks worth of energy (physically and mentally) in that 50-minute Modern Drummer performance. It’s a big lonely stage when you’re out there on your own – it would have been easier to do it with a band. Obviously there’s less pressure with a band – and you don’t have to speak to the crowd between songs.
I always pay attention to sounds in general, and I’m really impressed with your drum sound. I remember one time, years ago, when you played a clinic here in Rome, and, at sound-check, you took your drums out from the cases and, once you set them up, they were immediately studio-like sounding. Do you work on sounds in a specific way? What kind of role has the sound in your playing?
I think my drums are very setup and tuned for microphones. I know exactly how they are going to sound through microphones because that’s how I have them at home. I always practise with the studio headphones on listening to them through the mics. I even tune them by listening through the mics. In fact I’m never in a situation where my drums are not heard through mics – so I might as well tune them for that. Probably in a pub jam (with no mics) my drums would sound horrible to someone sitting in the audience.
I think that the sound (and in your case is really evident) set the identity of a musician and you just can’t say you’re a musician if you don’t look for your voice in your sound…
Yes – certain preferences start to make their way through in your sound as well as your playing. You find yourself playing in a certain way and need a certain sound to be able to articulate that. I guess it’s a connection to your personality.
I love when I see you playing with that 12”x5.5” Sonor snare drum (you use it a lot) and I think it really fit your style. I know it can be a silly question, but I’m really curious about what do you feel about that particular snare and why you do use it so much…
Because it’s a really articulate snare – the snare wires are on really tight because I want every note to be heard. There’s something about that drum I really like – could be a lucky piece of wood? I would not say my drums are easy to play – for instance it’s almost impossible to play double stroke rolls on any of my 5 toms (maybe a little bit possible on the smallest one 8”x7”) so it forces me to play in a certain way – always using single strokes on the toms. The bass drum is very dead – it’s the only way I can play certain double pedal ideas and I can only play single strokes on the bass drum too. The priority is the sound – if it sounds good I’ll find a way to play on it – and I’ve enjoyed playing that snare for about 9 years now.
Talking about bands… Let’s talk about the new Porcupine Tree CD; do you want to talk about the recordings of the album and the way you’ve recorded it? You guys were in a studio together or everyone recorded their parts at home?
Every album has been different so far. With the first one In Absentia we all went to a studio in New York – but most of the time I played in the studio on my own to the demos. The other guys were there and we would discuss the parts as they were recorded.
The next record Deadwing everyone recorded at home on their own and there were never two band members in the same room at the same time.
Then Fear Of A Blank Planet was recorded at home – but this time we had played all of the material live for about 20 concerts before we recorded it so it was very easy. Everyone knew exactly what they needed to do.
For this new record (The Incident) I went to AIR studios in London (one of my favourite drum rooms in the world) and recorded on my own. I wanted a different experience this time instead of recording on my own at home again. Some of the material had been written together in a studio out of London a couple of months before – so we had a kind of good idea what we all wanted to do. There’s always a bit of a jigsaw puzzle going on – but that’s just how records are made for the last 30 years. I’m happy with the results – the drums sound good – and the record sounds good.
What kind of role do you have in the band? I mean, what kind of importance have your inputs or ideas in the arrangements of the tunes? Is there any space for something like this or not?
We all make a contribution to the sound of the band – sometimes it’s in the writing, sometimes it’s in the arranging. You can probably tell which ones are some of my inputs – I usually have the most adventurous rhythmic ideas.
I think that the sound and the musical direction of the band changed a lot since the first recording In Absentia you made with them; even if you participated to those sessions as a session player, what kind of contribution do you think you gave to the evolution of the band?
It’s a hard thing to really quantify – the influence is subtle – but the sound of the band comes from the chemistry of all four members. We all like different kinds of music – and come from different musical backgrounds. I have a jazz background and like to improvise – the others guys are coming from a different place – so sometimes we fight about things but it always resolves in a better outcome in the end. We’re all evolving in our personal lives and that influences the personality of the band – I think the band is growing up.
I would also like to know what kind of plans do you have for the new Porcupine Tree live DVD that has been recorded on October 2008…
Yes we had to put it on the shelf for now because we prioritised the new album and didn’t have time to work on the DVD yet. I think it will come out in the first half of 2010.
One thing that everyone was talking about last year was your involvement with King Crimson, one of the most creative bands of all times. I’m curious to know something more about your role in that band, and if and how do you had to adapt your playing for that situation, considering also your double drumming role with Pat Mastellotto.
It was a big challenge to play with them and I had to learn a lot of really complicated tunes – and fit in with Pat (who is fantastic). Every rehearsal was recorded on multi track – so Pat and I would solo the drum tracks and just listen to how we could improve the arrangements – and not step on each others balls. We carefully tried to not play anything in unison. We didn’t really want big flams with the bass drum or snare drum to be happening. We wanted to play like one drummer (with 4 arms and 4 legs) rather than two separate drummers. Sometimes the best part I could find was to not play anything. Robert Fripp wanted me to improvise – and there were a couple of solo spots where I could freak out – like the song Indiscipline. Pat and I wrote a couple of “drum performances” and we also improvised a couple of them too.
Did you find something (or some aspect/element) that was really challenging to play or to relate to, when you played with King Crimson?
It’s been so long since I did a tour without playing to a sequencer or click – you really had to listen very hard to the other players because someone might go wrong and you need to make an instant adjustment. Maybe one player is playing in 6/8 and another player comes in after 8 bars and plays in 11/8 – but one night they might come in after 7 bars instead – so you have to be ready to jump to a new place in your arrangement. Sometimes there might be a section where you stop playing and have to count 15 bars of 11/8 whilst two guitarists play polyrhythms against each other – if you can hear one of the guitars louder than the other – you can easily get lost. There’s a song called “Frame By Frame” where Adrian Belew plays the intro on his own in 7/8 – but half way through the intro Robert Fripp joins in playing 6/8. If he’s much louder in your mix than Adrian you could lose where you are in 7/8. There were some strange syncopation moments that I had to play with Pat. It’s a thing that the band call “Thraking”. That means one drummer plays (bass drum and muted crash cymbal together) in patterns of 7 whilst the other drummer does the same thing but in patterns of 11. You really have to concentrate and count. Mentally the concerts are quite exhausting. It’s easy to make a mistake. Before each concert Robert Fripp would say “Gentlemen – tonight mistakes will be made – so let’s try to make a better quality of mistake”.
The thing is that it seems like there isn’t anything around documenting those shows… Do you think we will ever see/hear something recorded from that shows, or is it something that will always leave us wondering how it’s been?
There is a downloadable live mix of the concert at Park West, Chicago, Illinois – August 7, 2008 available from the DGM website www.dgmlive.com . Every night of the tour was recorded so I imagine one day they will all be available.
I identify your drumming as some of the most contemporary and, in a certain way, futuristic that I ever seen, and I think a lot of people feels the same. How do you relate with this definition?
Thanks – I’m very pleased. I noticed early on in my development that some players sounded forever ‘young and hip’ and always managed to sound fresh and new. I think it’s an approach to art in general. I don’t like to repeat myself – I have a very clear understanding of what I consider to be cliché or un-hip and I really try to avoid playing anything that falls into that category. It’s a category that is also changing and growing with me as the years go by. Most of the time I have a very clear idea of where I DON’T want to go – and usually that gets me where I DO want to go.
Interview concept by Roberto BOB Baruffaldi