Gavin Harrison drum clinic

Venue : Mr Kyps, Poole
Date : Thursday 18 March 2010
Date of writing this review : 23 March 2010

I am not a drummer.  I am not a musician of any sort.  I suspect my previous blogs on here make that instantly obvious !  What I am is a ‘fan’, and I know what I like.  I very much like the drumming of Gavin Harrison, both within Porcupine Tree and in his work ouside of the band – his performances within the two O5Ric albums and with OSI being particular favourites of mine.  So when I saw he was going to be giving a drum clinic I knew I had to be there, even though the detail contained within it would likely mostly pass me by.  Anyway, it would always be a chance to get an autograph !  Getting ticket number 1 is always a bonus in my book, so I made sure they let me keep that as I came in, and it was another bonus to meet Keith Harrison from The Pineapple Thief there – another drummer whose work has always impressed me.  But getting back to my opening point – I am not a drummer.  So if anything I type in here makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, you can be sure that is down to my interpretation of what Gavin was saying on the night, and my apologies in advance for that.

The evening was being presented in association with Poole Percussion and Austin Lane gave a very nice introducton to Gavin, who reminded us of the George Jessel quote, that “the brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up in public to speak”, and he says there will be a question and answer session later on, “after I’ve gone home”.  He need not worry, because if he did not have the large assembled audience in the palm of his hand already, he does now when he announces he will start by playing The Sound Of Muzak by Porcupine Tree.  As with all the songs he plays tonight, he plays live on his drumkit against a backing track of the song itself.

A big cheer greets the end of the song, to which Gavin replies, “thanks very much and goodnight”.  He talks about the collaboration O5Ric, on which his new book/dvd combination Rhythmic Designs is based, and promises that the evening will feature “more plugs than a bathroom centre”.  He then plays Unsettled, the first song on the first O5Ric album, Drop, telling us that “someone in the audience is going to realise I stole one of their grooves”.  Once he has finished the track he reveals that the person who will recognise it is Phil Gould, the drummer from Level 42, and someone in the audience shouts that “he’s on his way”.  Gavin was the drummer for Level 42 during their 1994 tour and the groove he is talking about is from the track Hot Water.  He says “the second 1/16 note as an open hi hat really motors the track along”.

He tells us how his father was a professional jazz trumpet player, who often played at the BBC studios.  When Gavin was 8 he had a drumkit which consisted of a hi hat, snare, and a bass drum pedal which hit against a big suitcase.  His father took him along to the BBC one day and the drummer there insisted that a chair by put right next to him so that Gavin could see what was happening.  That drummer was Paul Brady, who is here tonight, and Gavin says, “thanks for all the influence and the inspiration” before getting him up on stage to present him with a Sonor snare drum, and wondering aloud as he hands it to him if it will get him out of retirement.  Gavin mentions that Stan Barrett is also here tonight, a percussionist who used to play with Gavin’s late father.  He is going to play Dizzy Gillespie’s Night In Tunisia, and is “going to jazz it up a bit for these guys”.  As he finishes, he continues “Thanks a lot.  I need a drink”.  He opens it up to questions, and I will try to give an idea of what was asked and his responses.

“Can you tell us something about your bass drum technique.  It is very quick.”
He says it is groups of 2, 3, 4 inbetween other things, into fills and patterns, and he is going to play a Porcupine Tree song which shows that, and says he will demonstrate it first.  It is a 4 over 3 polyrhythm.  In between every snare drum beat he plays 2 hits on the bass drum, and with a double pedal you can turn 2 notes into 4 notes.  Resolving every 3 bars.  You have to keep thinking in 4/4.  Apart from that it is just an endurance test.

“How do you practice playing behind the beat ?”
He says it is “just thinking behind the beat”.  He practices with a click, practices playing along with records, him trying to be Jeff Porcaro or Steve Gadd.  But unless the people playing with you understand groove timing it might never actually sound good.

“What is your ultimate 4 piece ?”
“Couch, reclining chair…”  He has thoughts about playing within Earth, Wind & Fire or Steely Dan at their heights, but in terms of an ultimate band “I don’t fantasize about that very much”.

“How do you get focused ?”
“I don’t worry about it.  Two years ago I played with King Crimson and that was the hardest stuff I’ve ever played.  So hard I couldn’t learn some of it and needed a chart.  So sometimes you just have to skim over it, rather than focusing.  That’s not very helpful, is it ?  If you’re worrying about it then you are already on a bad footing.  Embrace it rather than being scared of it.  It’s a mental state more than anything.”

He moves on to playing the next track – Anesthetize by Porcupine Tree, “the centre section of the piece, about 5 minutes.  You’ll get to hear that little trick.”  Big applause follows.  Last year I saw Porcupine Tree a few times on the tour for The Incident and I took a friend along to see them at the Wolverhampton gig.  Just as Russia On Ice went into Anesthetize I said to her, “watch the drummer”, and she looked blankly at me.  At the end of the track she turned to me and said, “I know why you told me to ‘watch’ now…”.  I am sure there is a longer clip out there on YouTube of Gavin playing over the Anesthetize soundtrack, and if you can find it then watch it, and be amazed – and send me the link, please.  I am still not sure how he manages to make all the sounds he does, and for this performance I was close enough that I could see his feet !

“Talk us through the first section of that piece”
He has always enjoyed slightly improvising over the top, he likes fills which go over the spill line, but in some parts he plays the fill exactly the same every night because it is a cue for other members in the band.  He starts in the second 16th, basically playing a flam, playing 2 bass drum notes, so it starts to sound like a 4 stroke roll.  Putting 2 notes on the bass drum takes it to another level.  It’s really just groups of 3.  Filling in with the bass drum means you can come up with things which sound different, but are really not very different.

He talks about ghost notes.  How it is really easy to make a buzz on the snare with the traditional grip.  He talks about the Porcupine Tree track, Cheating The Polygraph, where because there is so much heavy, distorted guitar his ghost notes are lost, so he started playing on the rim so they would come through.

He then goes on to mention tracks in the King Crimson catalogue which employ multiple time signatures and one sequence which started off in 9/16 and him and Pat Mastelotto called this a Greek 9.  He compares it to something within the track Blue Rondo A La Turk from The Dave Brubeck Quartet.  He says occasionally he puts in three groups of 3.  And he demonstrates it with an O5Ric track, Life, again from their debut album, Drop.

He continues giving some detail on his background as a drummer, how he continued his studies with Joe Hodson, who wanted him to play left hand lead with a match grip.  He also mentions Steve Sanglan and Jim Evans, before saying that Paul Brady introduced him to Dave Cutler.  Gavin went to see him playing in a pub with a band called Black Water and he said Dave played things he had never even heard before.  Part of his training with Dave included having some patterns demonstrated to him and being told to come back when he had mastered them.  So for him the path went through Joe, Paul and Dave and “I wouldn’t be the drummer I am today without them”.  He mentions that Dave is playing with Critical Issues on 31 March at Champions in Bournemouth.

The Korg Wavedrum is the only electronic drum he has owned, and he thought he might make a killing selling it on eBay, but now they are bringing out a new version, which puts paid to that plan.  “I am going to show some of the textures you can get from this thing”, and he proceeds to play it along with his hi hat and snare, producing some watery, bell, oriental type sounds.  “As you can hear, it’s very very dynamic”, “you can play it with brushes too and it’s a completely different vibe”, and he demonstrates that.  “I’m going to start using it in the band”.

He talks about hearing The Yoruba Jazz Boys and explains that he is going to play an arrangement of Footprints by Wayne Shorter using a Nigerian drum rhythm, which he then breaks down before he plays it for us.  Triplets in 4/4.  The bass drum always on beats 2 and 3.  It accents the middle note of a triplet.  The hi hat plays the first 2 of every triplet, with the snare on beat 3.  The fills nearly always go over the bar line on a 2.  And then he plays it for us, and I can properly appreciate what he has been explaining to those with the technical knowledge.

“Do you always count ?”
“I never count.  I sing a rhythm in my head”.
The next track he is going to play is in 11/16.  He remembers seeing Graham Ward sight read a piece in 11/8, and he (Gavin) did not even know what 11/8 was.  “Rather than counting to 5, I go with 1 and 3, and it becomes a lot less scary”.  “I used to have a Roland Bassline and would loop basslines, and then try them with different time signatures”.  “If you can sing it (the rhythm) in your mind, you can play it”.  “That’s how I felt in King Crimson after a track or a gig – ‘how did I get through that ?!'”.  He tells us that the track he is about to play goes from 11/16 to 4/4, but it has got an illusion in it, and proceeds to play Scar, from the recent O5Ric album, Circles.

“The rhythm in 4/4 features the beginning of a modulation”, and to prepare us for his explanation of that, he will “first show you a couple of displacements, and I need your assistance to clap in 4 for me”.  And in between us clapping and him playing he goes into detail, gets technical beyond my non-drumming brain (I am not sure I will ever know what a 3 16ths is), and to be honest I found it hard to clap in time when he was playing around us.  What it really brings home to me is just how complex this really is, while he makes it look so very simple and easy.  “Thank you, you’ve been great”, he says to us for our clapping, and continues that “displacing some of my fills makes it sound like a whole new fill to me”, explaining that he will use this within the live context with Porcupine Tree, and there will be times when the band are aware he will do a “freaky fill” – and he does it in Hatesong, for example.  He then says that What Happens Now ? is “probably the most complicated thing we’ve tried to do”.  The drums are in 7 with the bass (and he demonstrates that), and he plays every 3rd 16th note on the right cymbal.  Then Richard Barbieri (keyboards) and Steven Wilson (guitar) pick up on the right cymbal and develop a new 12/8 pattern (and he demonstrates that).  “It’s a rhythmic journey and it uses rhythmic illusion ideas to create it”.  He continues talking about Porcupine Tree in the live context, saying they have to use a click on a lot of songs to stay with the projections which form part of the stage show.  “I made myself a ‘talk track’ describing the path of the track”.  For example, in Arriving Somewhere But Not Here “Wes plays 11 bars of one chord and then the 12th bar cues Steven”, so rather than Wes (John Wesley, guitar) and Steven counting through 11 bars and being ready for the cue, they all have headphones so they can hear the talk track and it will alert them to when they are approaching certain points within the song.  Things have never gone so bad for him in a performance that he has had to stop and start again, but at the recent gig they played in India (on 21 December 2009 in Mumbai), they were in the middle of playing an 11 minute track when the power went.  The computers kept going on battery power and when everything came back on they were amazed to be still in time.  As a big fan of Porcupine Tree, I find all of this fascinating.

He trained playing along to records and “behind this boyish grin is hours of agonising practice”.

He carries on with a truncated version of Bonnie The Cat, from the second disc of the recent Porcupine Tree album, The Incident, telling us that the rhythm is all in 4/4 but has got a displacement to it.

“OK folks, I’ve got to wrap it up – I’m knackered.  I would like to pay tribute to the great Paul Brady, and the inspiration behind doing this was having the opportunity to come and see him”.  He thanks Dave Cutler and Poole Percussion, and tells us he is going to finish with a big band piece, Quite Firm by Laurence Cottle.

There is huge applause at the end, and he says “thanks very much, you’ve been very nice”, and it just remains for Austin to thank Gavin for coming along and being such a “gentleman” – and I know exactly what he means.  Gavin came across as being friendly, helpful, enthusiastic, with a great sense of humour, and very able to impart information in a fun way, but most of all, for someone who is clearly very talented, he came across as being genuinely humble, and a “gentleman”.  I should also say that in writing this review I wanted clarification on a couple of points and he replied to me on here in no time at all – all errors remain mine, of course.  I had to rush off at the end because of work commitments the following day, so I missed the chance to nab him for autographs…so I will look forward to another opportunity for that, hopefully very soon.

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