One the the world’s greatest drummers suggests that musical growth cannot be separated from personal growth. The proof, as usual, is in the pudding.
The feats required of jazz drummers are Herculean, testing their physical, intellectual, and emotional strength. There is simply no comparable musical challenge.
Consider: Jazz drummers must master the skill of independence — or “interdependence,” as some put it — among all four limbs. They must play with feel, that elusive quality that inserts humanity into the equation of time + dynamics, eliminating the gap between intellect and heart; while it can be studied, it cannot be forced. Jazz drummers also must improvise while their bandmates are doing the same, all the while serving their true leader, the song. And they must do so authentically, communicating with their own true voice.
That last demand is perhaps the most arduous. Self-knowledge doesn’t come easily, self-acceptance even less so, and the ability to express oneself honestly and with great skill, in real time, while swinging with all four limbs…? Rehearsal rooms and theater stages the world over are haunted by the ghosts of those who ultimately lacked the patience, focus, strength of character, or, perhaps, natural ability to fulfill their dreams of greatness.
Fortunately, some of the same drum gurus who make us want to chuck our sticks into a lake due to their ability to put all these skills together are also the ones who can inspire us to keep clawing our way up our own mountains. Eric Harland carries himself with the demeanor of someone who has walked through the fires of self-analysis, physical toil, and the modern music industry, emerging with his sense of humor and empathy in tact, and with his résumé eminently admirable. While not one to sugarcoat, Harland’s tone is opposite to that of, say, the teacher so grossly portrayed in the feature film Whiplash. The word “nurture” comes up again and again in conversation with Eric, a reminder not only of the struggles that he dealt with inside and outside of his home while growing up, but of his refusal to allow them to make him hard or bitter. His words carry weight, and they encourage us to push ourselves while honoring, not breaking, our spirit.
After showing exceptional skills as a youngster in Houston, Texas, where he attended the famed High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Harland studied at the Manhattan School of Music, where he further deepened his craft. Iconic jazz vocalist Betty Carter became an early employer and mentor, providing the drummer with much conceptual and technical fuel that he soon put to good use with modern greats like Stefon Harris, Greg Osby, Jason Moran, and Terence Blanchard. He also gained crucial experience in the trenches with established giants like McCoy Tyner and Dave Holland, and with Charles Lloyd. The saxophone/flute player has provided Harland with some of his most fruitful musical platforms, including the extraordinary 2006 live recording Sangam, featuring tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, and the unique 2018 pairing with Americana singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens. For more than ten years Harland has also led his own group, Voyager, producing a handful albums of great depth and variety. In addition he’s been a principal of GSI Studios in Manhattan, where he and his partners have taken a decidedly community-minded view toward artists who record there.
On the Drums… spoke with Harland from his home in Pennsylvania, where, like so many of us, he’s been making the most of his imposed domesticity.
OTD: Have you been able to do any performances during COVID?
Eric: I’ll be honest, I wanted to stop touring anyway. For jazz artists, we’re in and out of airports all the time. Rock bands know how to do tour buses, so at least there’s more of a comfort zone. So I wanted to scale down and keep it to either East Coast–based or West Coast–based tours. And it’s been fortunate having the recording studio in the city, plus I have a nice small setup here at the house, so I can do remote sessions.
It’s also caused the industry to adapt, so the clubs where we used to play, even though there’s no audience, they’re now doing online live streaming. So at the very least you get to play with your colleagues and friends and do the old, “Let’s catch up and figure out how we feel today and see what we can project musically.” You do miss the interaction with the crowd. But at the same time there’s an intimacy that’s always there when you’re playing with guys and ladies that you love playing with.
OTD: At this point in your career, what’s your view on things like personal accolades, whether it’s winning Grammys or being recognized for your talents as a composer? Is that important to you still?
Eric: I’m taking my notes from people like Herbie Hancock, Charles Lloyd, Chick Corea — God rest his soul. The one thing I always heard them say is that they found a way to remain current. And it’s because they were always in touch with their inner child. It’s like, the boat is always sailing. Now, some people get their one moment and are like, “This is it, I just want to stay here.” Cool, that’s a choice. But do you want one moment, or do you want life to give you a series of moments? And the series of moments is going to have a lot of ups and downs, and it feels like you’re always starting over. And that’s pretty much where I am. If I win a Grammy, cool, but is it what I’m thinking about? No.
I feel like I have the actual treasure that I enjoy, which is my family. Beautiful kids, wonderful wife…. Both of our families were kind of jacked up, and we had to find a way to console one another and grow together. We found each other at an early age. I was fifteen and she was thirteen, so ever since we’ve tried to figure out the relationship thing, and we understood that when we had kids early on, it was like, how are we going to do this for them? So those are my accolades.
I’m using my relationship with my wife and my kids as a catalyst in how to now engage with the outside environment. Because you have to learn how to love, in a nurturing sense, and how to listen, be understandable, be malleable, and be able to be depended upon. All those things are key concepts that show up in family but that a lot of times don’t show up in other situations.
OTD: Charles Lloyd has had a remarkable and unusual career. What’s he like as a leader?
Eric: It’s that same nurturing aspect. It’s something that his generation had but the next generation started to miss. As much as I love Terrence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis, they came came up at a time where they needed to attain a certain thing. Now that they’re older, it’s cool, but they made a lot of misconceptions along the way, and you hear them talk about that. But Charles, his sense of loyalty, and Herbie’s too, it’s like, “Man, I wanna play with y’all forever.”
And they were friends with all the cats. Charles was telling me how he and Jimi Hendrix were at some party, and of course everybody was doing drugs and stuff. Charles was like, “You know how you’re supposed to take one tab of acid? Well, Jimi took the whole sheet!” Everybody was like, Oh my God, he’s done. But Charles said that for the whole rest of the night, they just sat under a table in the kitchen and talked about life and music. He was like, “Jimi didn’t change one iota. ”They lived in a different time.
You know, we all practice some level of sobriety. Me, at the most I’m just having some wine. Having kids, you know, you can’t go down the rabbit hole of being what you think the artist was. Early on, that’s what I thought being a jazz musician was. And now, seeing it being redefined has been interesting, and a challenge. But, yeah, Charles — yessir.
OTD: It’s interesting seeing that another challenge for folks is still dealing with the literal definition of jazz. People get in heated discussions about it. I understand it, but at the same time it’s like, you’re spending a lot of energy on semantics.
Eric: Yeah. The defense mechanism on its own says a lot. What someone is trying to protect. And how they feel about what this actual thing is. I think jazz is going to go down in history as one of those undefined, redefined entities that we never really know what it was. The argument is going to continue, even into subsidiary genres — modern, post-modern, avant-garde, electronic…it’s only a matter of time before the list continues to expand. Maybe in our life cycle we’ll see another concrete point where it lands, but it’s one of those things that’s hard to know. And it’s hard to sell something that’s ever changing. Otherwise we’d be able to sell life. [laughs]
But that’s why I’m curious about this blog that you’re doing. I want to challenge you to move it into a publication format. [Other magazines are] going to move into a direction that they feel is good for them. But we’re depending on these publications. People are actually looking at these publications as if they’re truth, you know? We need more of them, which at least will lend a voice to the people who are unheard. You can still tie in to people who are heard, it’s just offering a little more honesty to the pot so that the gatekeepers don’t feel like they have the road to themselves.
OTD: Can you speak on the group of musicians you grew up with?
Eric: A large community of us grew up together. Some cats only wanted to play, and that’s all they did. But it left a wider gap for the competition. You know, you’ll always be in competition with somebody else. The next person’s going to come up, and they’re still going to love you and admire you, but you kind of have to build — well, you don’t have to do anything, which I think is a wonderful thing — but you can build a platform for yourself so that you can try to remain current. That’s why you see so many drummers come in and out of so many situations, and then other people just take to one. It depends on whether they’re able to build something for themselves and somehow remain current. I’m still trying to figure out how that system works, though.
OTD: Well, I think you said it before: if you retain that thirteen-year-old wonder within you, then you’re going to be a magnet for whatever is happening and cool. You’ve been a great generator for newness yourself. Was that part of what you were going for with your studio, not just being involved on the drumming side but also in the production aspects?
Eric: Dude, so far…I mean, we still have to see how this plays out. I always joke with my wife: I don’t want to write a book until I’m ninety, if I make it to that age. Because then I can speak from ninety years of experience. I feel like we’re still in that, “We kinda know some stuff” place.
But everything in my life that somehow works out had to do with initially just being present for it. Not trying to make it any more than what it is. Just accepting what it is and allowing it to grow on its own. You can almost look at it like a plant. There are plants all around, and to focus on one plant can seem insignificant — does it bear fruit, is it going to feed the family? It’s still hard for me, I have to understand that there is a process, there’s a community here that needs to evolve. It needs to move at the pace that it naturally does.
Interestingly enough, when Charles Lloyd first called me to join the band, it was one of the darkest times. It was right after September 11. My son was born on September 7, and we got home on September 10. The rest of that year and into the next, everything that was supposed happen on the road got cancelled. I was so young, we didn’t have much saved up, and we were trying to figure it out. We had enough saved up to move to Pennsylvania. But for eight, nine months I was driving into New York to play jam sessions, pretty much making $150 a weekend. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, even when Charles asked me to join the band, everybody was looking at me like, “Who’s this cat you’re playing with?” And I was like, “It’s Charles Lloyd! You don’t know who he is?” The generation had already moved on to something else.
I was honored that Charles wanted me to be in his band. We just connect. But everybody at the time was talking about Wayne Shorter’s Quartet, because he had Brian Blade and Danilo Pérez and John Patitucci, or Herbie Hancock’s group. Nobody was talking about Charles. And I found that so weird. And he was like, “You can’t worry about that, you just have to be yourself and do your thing.” And I stayed with Charles. I played with McCoy Tyner for a while, a bunch of other bands. But I liked the way Charles felt. You know, you’ll be around certain people and just feel good about yourself. So I let go of trying to be popular. I let go of trying to reach for the top of the mountain to say that I did it. Then people started coming in and out of the band. [Bassist] Bob Hurst became a professor at Michigan State, so I said to Charles, “You know my bro Reuben Rogers is always down.” Even with Jason Moran coming into the band, and Gerri Allen, who we miss dearly. But things started changing. I didn’t understand, I was still too young to.
But it was deep, being able to sit in one spot. I like to remain relevant and reach out to whatever the potential is, but that was family, my nurturing spot. Being with Charles all these years…I feel like we have six bands at once. People gravitate to it, and I get to be a part of that process. I wouldn’t have had a chance to be on Sangam with Zakir if I hadn’t honored the initial relationship with Charles. I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to play with Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz and Lucinda Williams and Nora Jones, people that I’ve always wanted to play with. I couldn’t just run to them and say, “I’m a drummer, you should hire me.” [laughs] It’s being where you are, and somehow it comes to you.
And the same thing happened with GSI. The studio was these two cats from South Carolina [bassist Austin White and saxophonist Daniel Rovin]. It was like a home studio when I first met them. I thought, there’s some potential here. We should think about how this can become more than this — you know, hanging out and trying to make a bachelor bro pad, playing more video games than actually working on music. You know how that is. [laughs] It took years of us just getting to know one anther, learning how to trust one another. And amazingly it grew into something that now is benefiting a lot of people, especially over this past year. We’ve been booking sessions with all of our favorite artists. For instance, we were able to get Mark Turner, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and Orlando LeFleming to come in and do a trio project.
We’re trying to fill a void where artists can be themselves and not be attached to a label contract. You own your masters, your royalties go to you. It’s a beautiful thing, taking something small and watching it evolve. I mean, I want to win the lottery as bad as anyone else. [laughs] I’m always happy for others when it clicks right away. My road hasn’t been that way, it’s been slow. Other people think that it’s been fast, because they only pay attention to the points of recognition. But it’s about nurturing every relationship with people that I meet. I’ll be like, Look, I believe we met for a reason. I believe we’re in this conversation right now for a reason.
OTD: Surveying your career, it’s not only the number or the different kinds of records that you’ve made that stand out, but their success from an artistic standpoint. I think your attitude of letting the art happen is reflected in that.
Eric: Oh, man. Well, baby steps. [laughs] And it didn’t feel like that on any of those records. Each one you’re sitting there trying hard not to allow your ego to dominate the moment. Because every moment you’re like, “I feel like I know something, how can I get them to listen?” It goes back to being in a relationship. My wife had to point out to me, “You know there are times when you’re trying to manipulate me, right?” And I’m like, “I do? What are you talking about?” And I’m like, “Shit, I’m doing it right now.” [laughs] There’s something about relinquishing that need to do it your way that allows room for other people to exist. I feel that’s what we all want.
OTD: Talk about how your band Voyager relates to this. Does it make things harder or easier when you’re the leader?
Eric: Honestly it’s the same. The only difference being a leader is that I get a chance to introduce songs that are personal to me and maybe control the narrative of how it’s formatted for a live show or a record. But you’re still dealing with a multitude of personalities. If you force them to do something that they’re not comfortable with, it won’t work.
The challenge was to find content where we each felt as creatively in control as everyone else in the band. So you try to find a way that everyone can continue to write for the song. The song never finishes, there’s always a new dialog. That’s the secret to Voyager. I love this band. When it’s time, we jump in the studio and it’s, boom, there’s material. And a lot of the material is unfinished, but on purpose, because it’s more about the beauty of communication in the music than necessarily the song itself. I feel like if I was a better songwriter, it might be different. There are great songwriters where anybody can play that song and you just move. Like James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” As soon as you hear the lyrics and the harmony and the melody, it puts you in the zone. But I never considered myself one of those types of people. I’m more about the harmony within the community and seeing what we can bring together. Maybe one day I’ll be a fantastic songwriter and write one of those catchy joints where people are like, “I want to hear that song forever.”
OTD: There are various things people fall in love with about music, though. Some people fall in love with a lyric, while some people fall in love with a groove, or even just an amazing drum fill.
Eric: Well, Phil Collins is always the best example of a great drum fill leading into an epic [sings] “I can feel it coming in the air….” Like, Oh my God, how did he know to do this? Or like Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls.” That drum fill leading into the outro? C’mon, man. There’s a passion. Then there’s something as simple as “Hey Nineteen” by Steely Dan. He’s just singing about tequila and, like, “We can’t do this.” [laughs] But they hit a groove that took you into space.
One thing that helped me become a better musician was understanding where things come from. When I got called to play in different jazz ensembles I was fortunate to be around people who let me know, “Yo, something’s lacking here,” and it encouraged me to do research. You have to do research, otherwise you have no idea what you’re talking about. And it’s not saying that you have to be a historian, but there’s an authenticity that, again, has that same nurturing effect. For me it just makes for a better experience; I feel a part of the lineage. I can get in there and receive it. Because the thing is going to keep moving with or without us. I want to pay homage to what happened before and hopefully be a part of what’s going forward.
OTD: You’re often playing somewhere between groove and improv, as if the concept is that there’s this ideal situation where your playing can live in both places at once. Does that make any sense?
Eric: Total sense, man.
OTD: Is that part and parcel of playing jazz, or is it something that you’re conscious of?
Eric: The concept arose from my being a busy player. Some drummers can just sit on a groove, and for a lot of years when I was younger, I didn’t know how to do it. I had all this energy, and I loved being athletic.
The whole body has to work as a unit. My right hand, my left hand, my right foot, my left foot. There’s a certain understanding of where placement is, and it basically comes down to muscle memory. Without the muscle memory aspect, it becomes hard to maneuver. It’s like learning how to walk. Nobody taught us how to walk when we were kids, but all of a sudden we were able to walk by watching and understanding and activating the muscles. So somewhere the brain did most of the work. We’re like, “I would like to be able to do what this person is doing, so I’m going to try it.” And eventually things start to happen. The brain and the muscles come to some kind of agreement, and they understand how to economize.
The more connected you are with the limbs, the more information you can allow to be dispersed through each and every one of them, and the more that they can support each other. They form this alliance so that the whole thing will always feel supported. The idea is that we can move within this without feeling like a prisoner to it. Drummers get in a lock thing because they’ve allowed everything to depend on one limb. And the rest of the limbs are like, “Yeah, we didn’t really work on that.” [laughs] So you get stuck and you don’t feel like you can contribute to a song organically.
In the end it might not matter. If you still support the song, it’s great. But for the freedom aspect of what you were talking about, where I’m not really soloing but I’m also not [playing a static part], it comes from allowing each one of my limbs to be reactive to something that’s being heard. And that concept comes from practicing to Syncopation with a metronome — all that boring stuff that I know drummers don’t want to do. But it’s the backbone of what allows you to understand the relationship of time and how time is something that you don’t do by yourself. It’s something that’s agreed upon. And since it’s agreed upon, it requires listening so that you all can pace at the same rate and move in what feels like the right way to move. And it’s a beautiful thing, man.
OTD: It’s a simple concept, but high-level at the same time.
Eric: Well, it gets back to nurturing that plant. And you know when you’re a busy type of person, it’s like, how can you be supportive and most authentic in this moment? It’s one thing to be supportive, but if you’re not authentic in the way you’re supporting, you’re still not really supporting, you’re doing something because you feel like you have to do it. And that’s a whole different thing, because then you expect something in return. But if you’re able to be authentic in the way that you’re supporting something, the return is immediate, you feel it, which encourages you to continue to do it. You never feel that stuck feeling.
OTD: Who were you listening to early on that nudged you into this multi-limb approach?
Eric: I guess we all fall in love with the person who sticks out. A lot of times it can be the lead singer, or the lead soloist. For instance, John Coltrane. Man, he was playing a lot of notes, and I was like, “I like it!” [laughs] So I would play along with it to understand. And he wasn’t playing a lot of notes all the time — he played wonderful ballads, and the way he would approach melodies was equally powerful. But the beauty was in understanding how he was able to play all those notes, and why it felt so good.
It wasn’t just him, it was the whole team. So that encouraged my listening, and then people would say, you sound kind of like Elvin. And I’d say, the funny thing is, I wasn’t actually trying to sound like Elvin. It’s just that Elvin, when I was listening to Trane, made it feel so good that you pick up on it. The way he supported. There are many drummers who try to play like Elvin, and they go right to what they think Elvin would play. So it’s automatically [Eric vocalizes a flurry of Elvin-like phrases] but not realizing how Elvin made the room feel. The same with Billy Higgins, all the greats. Tony Williams, people go to a certain level of articulation, fast stabs at the toms, hi-hat on all fours, but that’s only one of Tony’s egos. You gotta pull from when Tony was playing on Point of Departurewith Andrew Hill, or Miles’ Live at the Plugged Nickel, where he just played the ride cymbal.
Decision-making was Tony’s gift. Those were the things that taught me that it’s not about the one-trick pony, it’s that they were consistently adapting to what was happening onstage — and offstage too. It had to be something that was part of their character. Jack DeJohnette, the same thing. Roy Haynes, Max Roach — all those cats. It was just a different support element.
Now, we’re all human, and they weren’t making those supportive decisions every single moment. [laughs] But they gain equity because of the times that they did. We all have those nights, and we’re forgiven, because the good outweighs the bad. On to the next gig.
OTD: On the track “Balkan Winds” from Miklós Lukács’ Cimbalom Unlimited album, there’s this cool aggressive section where you’re focusing on the toms — what was the decision-making there like? It’s a very bold statement.
Eric: I’ve had some great teachers in my life, like Jaki Byard, and these great masters have a way of saying something. Betty Carter was one of those, I had to push to play with her, as well as Joe Henderson. They could do something as simple as asking you a question. “Why are you playing that ride cymbal?” And you’re like, “Oh, my goodness. I thought I was supposed to be playing the ride cymbal.” And it changes the whole scope. “Oh, man, I’m not even listening. I’m up here like stock photos.” And real artists can feel that, like, We can get stock anywhere. If you’re playing the ride cymbal, I want to feel the reason you’re playing the ride.
With Miklós, he’s playing an instrument that’s kind of pre-piano, the cimbalom, which you play by hand, with hammers. Its frequencies are so up there, I didn’t see where the cymbals were going to work. Depending on the room, cymbals can cover up so much, and you wouldn’t be able to appreciate the articulation that he was giving if something was washing it out. So I was like, how can I provide clarity but still be engaged in the moment? And then [going to the toms] also gives shape to the song. If it’s only one dimension, you zone out and stop listening.
OTD: It’s interesting that what started out as a sonic choice took the song in a different direction.
Eric: Yeah, that’s all we can hope for.
OTD: Listening to that section also got me thinking that in drum instruction there’s so much time spent on certain pairs of sounds, like the snare and bass drum, or the snare and ride cymbal. I’m wondering if there’s other combinations that we neglect.
Eric: It all falls under how much information a person is allowing themselves to listen to. You can listen to a lot of West African rhythms and even Indian percussion. I’ve been fortunate to be around Zakir Hussain. So you can go to India [to hear this]. But it’s also in native American music, where they might be playing shakers and a tom. And you’re like, “Wow, that still works.” If you pigeonhole it to, “This is a jazz ride cymbal, this is a jazz kit,” then you’ll be like, “I’m playing jazz, so I’m going to do it like I heard the greats do it.” But I feel like a lot of the great drummers pull from a wide variety of sources. You don’t even have to go down the rabbit hole and live with it. I wanted to do that with Indian classical music, but Zakir was like, “Nah, don’t do that to yourself.” He’s been playing since he was five, and he was like, “It’s a lot of information.” And he’s right. It’s enough to just be around it and get your own interpretation of it, because it has its own way of filling into your own playing. So that has its way of motivating you to think, “How can I get the trapset to sound like tabla?”
Chris Dave is my cousin, and he and I used to practice together all the time. And we would try to find weird ways to make the drums not sound like the drums everybody else was playing. This is something I encourage all drummers to do. We would mess around with different tunings, like the top head tight and the bottom head super loose, just to see what it sounded like. It also affects the bounce factor, and it becomes about conditioning and strength training of the muscles in your arms and wrists and fingers to adapt to any surface. But also you’re learning different variants of tonality. It’s like, “This sounds like the drums I was hearing on that Fela Kuti album — I always wondered how they got that.” Then you get bored and start throwing random objects on the drums — anything to achieve a different sound that fits what’s happening.
And it’s back to that simple concept of, “Why are you playing that ride cymbal?” When you approach musical situations with that concept, a lot more space in the music can happen. Even if you have to stick to the basics in a certain situation. Like the Lloyd band playing with Lucinda Williams. She came on the road with us, and I was like, “This ain’t the time to be hip. This is the time to be completely supportive, down the line.” Singers are used to playing with people who lay it down.
So those are two different situations, and I honor both equally. But I’m happy to be a jazz drummer because I do get the freedom to make decisions like, I’m going to put my hi-hat cymbal on the rack tom.
OTD: You bring up an interesting point. People often make judgements about the way a drummer plays on a certain record, but they might not understand what goes into any particular decision. Like what you were saying about Victoria — those were musical decisions, but they were also about making her comfortable. Have you ever struggled with listeners’ expectations?
Eric: Nah, I don’t worry about that at all. Maybe that was because I grew up heavy, so I was kind of an outcast as a kid. It ended up being a blessing, because I’m okay with people having an opinion. It’s okay, we don’t have to agree. And my job is to do what I think is best to honor the situation. And if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. And something not working out is just a feeling. It’s a horrible one, but if you’re willing to stick through with your career, at some point you have to believe that you gain enough equity that it’s going to be fine. And people’s opinions change — and you get better.
So I always try to encourage drummers, don’t overthink where you want to be today. Think about the longevity of everything that you want to do, because you might suck for years. But by sucking for years and eventually getting better, people want to hear that. It becomes interesting — they remember you when. So they’ve been a part of that whole experience. And even though that part was horrible because you feel like you’re getting talked about, or, “I could have played a hipper groove than that,” just let it sit. Those years of sounding horrible but keeping going, you were able to transpire to inspire.
OTD: The fact that you chose the name Voyager for your band, to put that word out front — there’s so much in that term.
OTD: At the same time, I’m wondering if you ever sort of go backwards, thinking in terms of the drums being the oldest instrument after the human voice.
Eric: Growing up, my mom was a singer, and pretty much all the women and a couple of my uncles were all tremendously great singers. Gospel, jazz. They kept it at the house, or at church. But playing with them a lot gave me the understanding of the dynamic between the drums and the voice. I remember some pivotal times when one of the ladies from the choir would get up and sing. And the thing about gospel music is that even though it can be centered around the song, there are moments when it vamps out, just like with jazz. They hit a vamp, and the vocalists start riffing, going through these series of riffs and rhythms. And I started to recognize these connections. We could get into a thing where they’d sing something and I’d respond to that, or I’d play something and they’d respond to that. “Oh, that’s what communication is.” And I’d think about how it tied in to everything else that I already understood. And you do hear that: “First came the voice, and then came the drum, and they were a marriage.”
But back to the Voyager concept: Talking to McCoy Tyner, he told me that he took ballet lessons because he wanted to be able to play a certain way. He said ballet taught him how to be supportive, because it taught him how to support himself. He wanted a certain level of control over his body so that it could prove to be beneficial. He was also a soul/blues keyboardist who got ushered into one of the greatest quartets of all time. So, humble beginnings, and then the continuation, which ties back to Voyager.
But the actual voyager concept comes from my wife and I loving Star Trek Voyager, like, Captain Janeway all day. But we discovered something else as far as choosing films. She chooses movies based on the dialog, and I can choose movies based on the music. Voyager was one where we met in the middle. She was like, “The dialog was killin’,” and I was like, “Absolutely, but Jerry Goldsmith’s theme music — that is crazy.”
OTD: You mentioned dance before. Has that been something you’ve paid much attention to?
Eric: Yes, absolutely. My wife has been a ballet dancer for years, also Broadway, modern, tap, everything. Yeah, man, it’s the thing. It’s understanding the positioning of the body. And engaging things from the core aspect. My mom helped me with my positioning at the drums. She was approaching it from what it looked like — don’t look slouchy on the drums. But understanding core training came from my wife. I was like, oh wow, you don’t control the limbs from the actual limbs. The support system has to exist somewhere else in the body. This should be common knowledge, but it’s not. You keep trying to train this leg, but you’re still not understanding what controls the leg to get the motion. When you lift the leg, everything is engaged in your core. So the more you get familiar with that, the easier the motion of the legs is. That’s what I tell drummers: Put it in your stomach and allow your limbs to feel like they’re an extension of that. That’s what gives you the freedom.
OTD: Have you ever experimented with seat height and drumset arrangement along those lines?
Eric: Yeah, that’s another part of it. Those things impact. I used to play my cymbals low, then I played them kind of medium. Now I put them way high. When I’m up there on the cymbal, once again, I have a reason to be there. My arm gets tired if I’m up there too long. Whereas when I had them all kind of close together, it was this around-the-kit sound all at once. I was like, “I want to switch that up a little bit. I want to differentiate what’s going on.” And then I’d experiment with sitting high, sitting low. Chris Dave, once he found out that you can sit that high at the drums, he was like, “I’m never going back to sitting low.” I was like, “I hear you, brother,” because when you sit high, it’s less that you have to move your leg, because it’s already bent. So you can focus more on ankle activity.
OTD: How about how high you are on stage? I remember the first gig I did where I was on my own platform, and all of a sudden I was looking at everybody else on stage at eye level. I was like, “I am awesome!” Maybe that was just ego, but it felt different, like I was more in command. It took me by surprise.
Eric: That’s it. Man, look, all that’s part of it. A lot of drummers don’t allow those moments to speak to them like that, they try to suppress themselves in some way, and they cheat themselves of natural growth. We all grow differently, but we’re all growing. We’re all evolving.