20 Questions… Edition #1

This is the first in a new ongoing series of dialogues with some of the creative people I know and respect.  The idea was to ask questions.   For me it was a question to find out how someone approaches their art and craft. What are their inspirations?  Do they work in one mode all of the time or do they mix it up?  How do they sustain their interest and creativity?

On the flip side, it is an opportunity to answer those same types of questions from people that may not specifically be musicians.

Having conversations and finding out people’s experiences and understanding how they approach their art gives an amazing level of clarity not only to the art they love but to the person too.  With that, I give you the first edition of a Different Perspective featuring the questions (to me) of Val Trullinger.

Val is a very good friend.  She’s also a great writer and painter.  We often talk about the other’s art in terms of the language we know best.  She’ll describe sounds or music in colors.  I’ll often talk about the ways I hold sticks, brushes, and implements in terms of the ways she manipulates her paint brush or her stylus or her pen. The seeds of this part of the blog came about through conversations with her, so it seems only fitting that she would be the first series of questions I answer.  I will post her responses to my questions soon.  To check out more of what Val does, check out her website:  http://www.pantagruel.net/

In the mean time, I hope you enjoy my responses to her inquiries about me and what I do.

1. What consistently inspires you?

I’m inspired by, amongst other things, good art: regardless of medium or genre.  I find inspiration in my friends that are doing artistic work as I am.  It comes from anywhere though.  When I go on walks or hikes, the sounds and rhythms that I hear:  footsteps, cars, the sound of my heart in my ears… that also inspires.  The latter is obviously in very rhythmic ways.

I am working on simply be inspired by being able to get up in the morning… something more basic that means just as much (particularly on certain days!); but sometimes that is harder to groove off of than the actual art itself and is something I recognize I want to tap into more.  Being inspired by being here in the now is something not a lot of people can, or are willing to access.  I want that.

2. In what ways do you stretch yourself to make your work grow?

Listening to different musics and different musicians to understand how they perceive music and how they react when they are playing.  Also, spending time in the ‘woodshed’ to work on various patterns, rhythmic ideas.  If you’re open to what’s around you, then you’re going to grow in some tangible way and your art, by extension, is going to grow as well.  A nice trick I’ve picked up is to focus on different instruments when you’re playing… being aware of the whole picture, but focusing on the guitar or the bass or the keyboard or what have you… what can you discern about the player?  It’s really hard to do in classical music… focusing on just one section (violins, for example) because it’s such a wash of sound.  That kind of pinpoint listening though challenges and focuses your ears.

3. When did you first know you were a drummer?

It’s older than I would have thought.  I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old and it just sort of happened.  But, I was at a summer camp for music when I was in my early/mid teens, and at the end of this 4 week camp they had a gala concert.  I was in every single ensemble that had percussion or drums in it.  For the jazz ensemble concert, one of the songs we did was ‘Sing Sing Sing’ – the very famous Benny Goodman tune that featured Gene Krupa on drums and includes a great drum break (free form solo thing around a central rhythmic figure).  The camp/concert director was a drummer himself and he saw a lot of potential in me and pushed me a lot.  Well, at rehearsals, the drum breaks were only what we had on the page… say 16 measures or 32 measures… Well, at the concert…when my last break came up, he motioned for the band to walk off stage.  They obediently and gigglingly complied.  So, I’m out on stage in front of like 500 people – all of the camp staff, the campers, parents, visiting musical dignitaries… etc. and I’m just kind of like ‘what in the hell am I going to do?’  So, I just closed my eyes and played… keeping a handle on the time, keeping the general groove of the song happening… and when I finished… when the band came back on and we kicked into the outro of the song – the crowd went nuts.  Standing ovation, high-fives, and smiles all around.  At that moment, I was like ‘this is what I want to do.’  Not necessarily because of the accolades (which were nice, don’t get me wrong)… but because I was able to sustain a musical idea through an extended section of music without a lot of pre-thought.  I allowed my sub-conscious and my knowledge (what I had at the time) to guide me.  I had to think on my feet and fast.  I think that was the moment when I knew ‘there’s something here with this.’

4. How do you define creativity?

In general terms I kind of think it’s the ability for someone to think, conjure, or describe unique and interesting ideas.  To have the capacity to think of something and envision how it might turn out in the end.  A cook can be creative by thinking of a new recipe.  A musician can be creative by considering a song idea… anyone can be creative… daydreaming is a creative activity.  Playing with Lego blocks is creative.  Creativity is a mental process a lot of people don’t think they have, but is present in all of us.

5. How is creativity different from talent?

Talent is being able to take a creative idea you came up with, and manifest it in the physical realm.  Sometimes it’s genius (like Bach or Picasso) and sometimes it’s a local bar band or the artist you see at the farmers market.  Either way, it’s talent.  You can talk for hours about something and be really creative in that framework, but the talent comes in when you have to manifest that thing you’ve been bouncing around in your head.  Creativity is like potential energy… talent is like kinetic energy.  A great idea has a certain amount of energy in it and when you put the wheels in motion to make that idea a reality, that’s when you get movement… when the idea begins to take up space.  When the creative thought (a painting of a desert landscape) becomes the painting of the desert landscape you are staring at after hours of work put into it.

6. What does it mean to be talented in your field? As a drummer specifically, and as a musician in general?

I guess I define talent as the ability someone has to take an idea, whatever the genre, and be able to execute it to certain high level.  For any musician (drummers, guitarist, trombonists, pianists), I think they are talented if they can play a variety of musical styles convincingly, have good gear that they can make sound great, and show an innate love of what they are doing.  If one chooses to specialize in a certain genre (say a classical pianist, or a jazz saxophonist) then I would say talent is having a very solid repertoire that they can draw from that highlights the most significant techniques that have been developed on the instrument before them and that they also choose to innovate on whatever level that resonates with them.

To be talented in the field of music is also to be recognized by others as being able to convey what the music needs at that time and being open to other options as time progresses.  To be talented also means simply having the ability to have longevity in an art form by adapting to changes in the art while still being who you are as an artist and staying true to what your vision is for yourself as that artist.  There’s the talent to perform the art itself, and then the talent to negotiate the changes that any art goes through over time.

7. Against which great musicians do you compare yourself as a way to gauge your talent?

That’s such a hard question because the general idea is to be on a journey – so arrival at a particular place or point or zenith… especially comparing yourself to ones influences or ‘idols’.  If I look at the quality of work created by drummers like Vinnie Coliauta, JoJo Mayer, Matt Chamberlain, Joey Waronker, Brian Blade, and other musicians like Daniel Lanois, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Scott Henderson, Larry Goldings, Brad Mehldau, Larry Klein, Joni Mitchell, etc…I realize I have a long way to go on many levels.  So, to arrive at a point where I am able to interpret the ideas of an artist and then fulfill the needs of the music I’m playing… that’s kind of the bare bones level.  I know that I have a certain path I can follow – the bread crumbs of which are the recordings or interviews I can read and listen to with these and many other people… In some very special circumstances, I can even meet and have a conversation or two with one of these very personally important people to my musical life and development.

8. Given that often mediocrity sells in the marketplace, do you doubt that talent is an issue in music?

I know talent exists.  Even those that are phoning in songs, etc. have talent.  However, there is a trap you can fall into and it’s an easy and tender trap at that.  In Stephen Pressfield’s book “The War of Art” he talks about thinking ‘hierarchically’ or ‘territorially’.  The hierarchical artist is going to chase after what is going to sell.  What is the hippest, coolest, newest thing to create in order to satisfy the fickle nature of the buying public.  Hey, I get it.  You’ve got to eat.  However, at what cost do you create that?  Do you diminish your muse?  Do you give over too much and become a puppet?  It’s a fine line and some of the best artists have straddled that line or just gone over it at times in order to satisfy a particular moment in history.

The flip side is thinking ‘territorially’.  When you do this, you are thinking and acting on the notion that ‘I must do this.  I do not care what the end result is.’  It’s being true to oneself and ones art, perhaps at the expense of the kind of financial success some of your peers have.  Pressfield’s example was Van Gogh – who barely sold any of his paintings while he was alive.  Now?  Forget about it!  All of my friends, if we combined all of our accumulated wealth, MIGHT be able to buy a small Van Gogh painting.

I love to use the example of Radiohead.  Pablo Honey was a very good album.  They proved themselves to a degree with that and were able to maintain enough creative control so that they could roughly do what they wanted.  That album was ‘The Bends’.  A better album in my personal opinion.  Then came ‘OK Computer’… an even better album (some say their best)… It was at this point you started to see the band really going for it and being able to stretch and grow and they followed their muse… they made the art they wanted to make.  From there they went into worlds like ‘Amnesiac’ and ‘Hail to the Theif’ and now their most recent album, ‘In Rainbows’ is this melding of the more pop stuff that got them to a level of success where they could call their own shots and the more ambient, ‘out’ kind of stuff that I fell in love with on something like ‘Amnesiac’.  There’s a lot of talent out there.  Part of the fun has become discovering it in this vast sea of art information we find ourselves afloat on.

9.  Do you feel like you need to concern yourself with things other than talent in order to have a successful career?

Sure.  This is still a business – even if the end result is art.  So, you need to concern yourself with the talent you have and maintaining and growing that talent.  You also need to consider how you want to be perceived in the marketplace.  What’s your niche?  What kind of music do you like?  What do you want to be playing?  What kind of person are you?  What are your personality traits?  How do you get along with folks?  It’s talent, it’s business sense (something I need much more of), and how you treat people, interact with them, and being honest about what you do and what you don’t do.  These are all things that we constantly learn, re-learn, un-learn, and then learn again I think.  I know I have.

10. What do you most fear hearing about yourself?

I’d fear hearing that it isn’t grooving, or I’m overplaying and not serving the song, or that my drum/cymbals sounds aren’t that great.  Perhaps the thing I fear most hearing is that ‘it doesn’t sound/feel like you are taking it seriously and you don’t look like you care.’

11. How would you define what a musician does?

On the most basic level, a musician conveys musical ideas.  A musician makes someone want to get up and dance or sing along or air drum/air guitar, or want to pick up an instrument.  We are modern day bards and troubadours.  We convey information – stories, political beliefs, longings, angers, injustices, happiness… we are also entertainers.  Let’s face it, certain gigs we do we are selling beer (club gigs, etc.) where people are there to unwind after a long week (or a long day) and want to chill out and hear some music.  I’m glad it’s a live band rather than a jukebox.  A musician uses their skills and talents and technique to produce or re-produce musical ideas that (hopefully) resonate with the audience they are being played for and the rest of the people on stage playing.

12. Have you had to hold down day jobs to make ends meet? How have you had to adjust your identities between these two worlds?

Day jobs are a reality for a lot of people I know: whether you are working in an office or doing P.A. stuff on a movie set.  There are day jobs you can have where you don’t need to subsume your true personality, but there are others that you definitely need to curtail it a bit.  It’s a sad reality, but it’s true.  I think certain people just give off a true, unadulterated ‘artist’ kind of air… that can’t be put in a box no matter what they do hide it.  In that case, it’s a simple reality that you are going to have to deal with.  The whole Popeye “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am” kind of thing.  I’ve not often brought up that I’m a musician at a day job.  I’m not embarrassed by it, but not a lot of people get that you have this passion in the world that far outweighs what you might be doing from 9-5 every day.  Given the current economy though, I know lots of creative people that wish they had something steady coming in just so they don’t need to stress about their art so much.  It’s a weird time.

13. What makes your work stand out?

Oddly enough, I think it’s transparency.  You stand out by not standing out (if that makes sense).  I don’t often draw attention to myself in the parts I create for myself or when I’m on stage.  By nature of the instrument, you are kind of the center of attention because you have the largest and loudest (musical) instrument on stage usually.  That said, I don’t want to draw focus away from the person or people I’m supporting.  For the gigs that I do, it’s not ‘The Christopher Allis Show’.  I’m a support player.  I try to have a certain lack of ego, which I think (oddly) makes me stand out.  I’m not in competition.

14. Why do you play the way you do?

I think there is a point after a certain period of study where you are better able to start developing your own voice on your instrument.  Once you get the basics down, the canvas is fairly wide open.  It’s a bringing together of who you listen(ed) to and what you were/are working on and what you actually hear in your head.  Not everyone hears the same things.  So, there’s a point where you really understand that and then can begin to figure out ‘how do I make the sounds I hear in my head on the actual instrument?’  You develop your own style and your own techniques and your own ways of making sounds.  My dad didn’t force me to play a particular way.  He let me be and figure it out for the most part.  We all stand on the backs of giants though.  I play the way I play because of who I listened to growing up and analyzing their playing to understand why and how they did it.  I’m still searching for a lot of those answers.  Guys like Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Vinnie Coliauta, Steve Jordan, Neil Peart, Terry Bozzio, Chad Wackerman, Bill Bruford, Joey Baron… those are the guys I grew up listening to (among countless others).  They all influence the way I play.  There is a point though where all of that influence just kind of becomes you.  At times I think I wear my influences on my sleeve, but overall I think it’s a nice amalgam of the people that inspired me and continue to.

15. What art-related business situations make you most anxious, and how do you deal with the anxiety?

The money talk.  I hate it.  I hate having to bring it up because I wasn’t thinking in terms of bread when I became a musician.  I was thinking in terms of experiencing a kind of joy through art.  Because of this, I’ve been screwed in the past.  I don’t know of many people that haven’t.  Money is a big part of this.  This is an industry (regardless of how messed up it is right now).  If I get called by someone to do a gig, I need to charge because a) it keeps the lights on and food on the table, and b) I’m not often getting residuals (as a writer) and I may not have recorded the stuff originally either so there’s no way to get performance royalties at that point.

If I have a hand in writing and producing something, then I defer because when something gets placed or picked up… then there is back-end money that you get to see.

I’ve chosen not to have a manager for myself because I want to play the stuff I want to play.  I can manage myself.  I just need a split personality so one side can talk money and the other side can just focus on the music at hand.

How I deal with it is just try to be upfront and try to explain my situation.  If someone balks at my rates (far far away from the most it could be for what I think they are getting) then there has to be something else really compelling to make be like ‘hey, it’s cool.’  If you think only about the money (which I have in the past) then you’re miserable.  If you focus on the art, then you have a clearer head for what is going to bring you joy when you’re playing your instrument and then… strangely… the money starts to come.

16. How would you like your music career to look?

My music career would be a combination of studio and live stuff where I can be working with artists that I enjoy and respect.  Having a nice place to live where I can have a small set up so I can do sessions for others and being able to sustain a healthy existence for myself and my wife.  That would be a lovely career and one I am working toward.  That is kind of the new goal.  Stardom is so fleeting.  It’s not something I ever sought specifically.  But, it has a very strong allure.  In the end though, I’d rather be doing good work with people I respect and enjoy the art I’m creating.  It’s a hard balance sometimes, but that is the goal.

17. The snare drum collection… why snare drums, instead of, say, bass drums?

It’s kind of like asking ‘why so many brushes?’ to a painter.  Snare drums and cymbals are more of a unique voice and sought after voice.  It seems that, if a set of toms or a bass drum sounds good, it’s going to do in most situations (in my opinion).  Whereas, with snare drums and cymbals – if you swap those out in a track, it really has a dramatic affect on the overall sound.  Also, if I find a drum I like, it might be able to do a lot of things well… but I kind of dig the idea of getting a snare drum in a tuning that is really cool and fits that particular instrument and then leave it there… let the drum dictate the sound that it wants to be at as opposed to trying to make a drum go somewhere it doesn’t want to go.  In that regard, my drum collections includes a drum set purposely set up in a jazz tuning (high pitched and dry), as well as a drum kit that is more of a big, old school rock sound (big, thuddy, warm).

18. What are your expectations when you step into a studio? A gig? A rehearsal?

Well, I have to really remember and be aware that I can only have expectations of/for myself.  In the past (recent past even), I’ve placed the expectations I have of myself on everyone else.  That causes friction and that makes for unpleasant music making.  If someone else doesn’t have it together, that is not my issue.  Everyone has off days, but if it happens consistently, then I have to reconsider if this situation is worth my time and effort for the money I’m making.

Basically, I need to be as prepared as I possibly can.  There are times where I don’t know the music going in, or it’s a new studio, or a new artist, or I’m trying out new gear because it was requested for the situation.  In general terms, my expectations for myself (the things that make a gig, session, rehearsal, etc. base line good) revolve around the following:

I have a good attitude and be myself.

My gear in tip top shape and sounds great.

I have extras of things I might need if something breaks.

Any special instruments or noise makers required for a particular artist, session, gig, rehearsal are with me.

If it’s a session, I know exactly where the studio is (including load in areas, entrances, etc.)?

If it’s a session, I know who the engineer is.

Knowing what time I need to be there.

How does the artist like to work?  Are they stick to a schedule types or is it more loosey goosey with time?

How long am I going to be wherever I’m at?

If I know that information, then I can focus more on the music and be in the moment.  If I ask the questions I need to ahead of time, I can better meet my expectations of myself.  If I don’t, I hope I learn from them for the next time.

19. Will you ever write music for yourself?

I have written a few things but if lyrics are involved I’m terribly self conscious of coming off like a complete novice (which I AM!).  As I learn more theory and understand more the inner-working of contemporary music, it becomes easier to communicate what I’m hearing.  The next step after that, is to collaborate and write for myself.  Now, if only I weren’t so damned self conscious!  I think it’s more about being able to let go and let the muse take you were it wishes… and not trying to control everything so much.  That is a very hard lesson to learn and keep for me.

20. How have you defined recognition? How will you know when you’re recognized ‘enough’?

I guess I would define recognition as a certain kind of Trust.  Recognition means getting called back to do more gigs, sessions, etc.  That’s kind of it on a fundamental level.  If someone likes what I’ve played/created, and they call back then I’ve been recognized by that person as someone they can trust to convey the musical ideas they need.  You build a reputation for yourself by being a recognizable musician.  That doesn’t necessarily mean flash or bombast… it just means that when someone hears an album they can go ‘oh, that sounds like…’  You have your own voice.  You’ve developed it, honed it, tweaked it, changed it, and tweaked it again over and over.  At some point, you come to what is ‘you’.  You are recognized for your sound, your attitude, your abilities, your gear collection, and how you hang with other folks on the gig.  Basically, what you bring to the table.

The other side of that is being recognized in a more ‘bank account’ kind of fashion.  But that is a difficult thing to get caught up in because if you are focused on chasing the dollar, then you diminish what you might be able to do for yourself (I know this for a fact).  People will notice that it is more about the money for you and less about the art.  I joke about the fact that I’m a ‘drum whore’ but I can assure you that for all of the people I play with, I’m not rolling around in a ton of money.  I do alright though.  I want to be able to survive playing music and be able to cover my monthly nut for my wife and I.  Yes, there are definitely things I want (house with my own drum cave, a small fun car, a nice nest egg for later years) and I am working on those things, but my focus is not on being a ‘rock star’ – stars are created in this industry.  There are machines behind that moniker that baffle the mind.  I want to be a respected musician that is able to cover his expenses and take a nice trip once in a while and live a comfortable life.  As long as the phone keeps ringing and people continue to dig what you are doing and you are growing as a musician in the fashion that makes you happy, then at some point, that is enough.

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