As a local percussion educator, performer, and recording studio inhabitant, I love to read interviews of other drummers and learn how they approach these same crafts. I can always learn from the "collective consciousness" of others plying the same trade, and I'm amazed at how some of the smallest bits of information that unknowingly stick in my brain, end up being useful later on!
I've been laying down drum tracks for a local artist, Robert Wessel, on several progressive rock tunes he's written. Just the other day, we were listening to the bass and snare drum sounds we'd recorded on my drum track for his composition "Without Limits." We agreed that both of these instruments needed more presence in the mix. I remembered an interview from years ago, where another artist had experienced the same issues on one of his recordings. His solution was to cut out some of the mid-range and lower bass frequencies. This helped better define the sound, giving both more punch. That was it. We tried it, and it worked like a dream for us, too.
Giving a recorded instrument more presence doesn't always mean turning the volume up. Sometimes, adjusting the frequencies of a given sound will get the instrument to "pop" within the mix.
While reading another interview recently, my thoughts wandered: "I think it would be very interesting if one of my own students who plays professionally, was interviewed." Then, "It might be fresh and revealing if a third party did the questioning." I felt I might be too close to my student for the interview to remain objective.
Cool idea. Let's make this happen!
I decided to enlist the help of a professional journalist who lives close by. How close? Very close.
And I love her very much!
With that being said ...
I'm pleased to introduce you to Aaron Fasting, drummer for the local Celtic rock group, "The Sandcarvers." They won a Wisconsin Area Music Industry (WAMI) award in 2011 for Rock Band of the Year. They play a blend of mostly original music, and also their versions of some traditional Irish tunes, while touring the country. Both are usually rock or funk oriented - very danceable, energetic and entertaining. They say their style is "AmeriCelt" rock.
If you've never heard of these guys, you need to look them up. What a great show they put on! And, need I mention that St. Patties Day is right around the corner?
The Sandcarvers, friends, and green beer. Don't make excuses -- get out there and see them!
Aaron discovers drumming
Kat: When did you begin playing drums?
Aaron: I started in sixth grade, in the middle school band. I always wanted to play drums -- even going back to when I was 4-5 years old.
My sister was in a school jazz band, and they provided the music for a play. My sister brought me over to the drummer after the performance ended and I got to play on the drum set.
Early drum lessons
K: Did you start lessons right away, too?
A: We had regular band class every day for school, and then special lessons for just the percussionists. The lesson teacher would pull us out of band and work with us in a separate room.
K: At what point did you take private lessons on your own?
A: There were two times. The first was with the lesson teacher from high school. He taught mallets and everything. I actually took mallet lessons from him for one summer. The second time was when I started with Jim.
K: What about the teaching styles are different between your first teacher and Jim?
A: The first teacher didn't listen to what I had to say, or to my take on things. And I think he tended to jump ahead further than my skill level at the time. I was turned off by that, so I barely ever practiced.
Jim started out trying to figure out my goals and work with me starting in February 2007, so we've been working together about five years.
K: Who do you look to as inspiration now? Who do you follow?
A: Carter Beauford from Dave Matthews Band is probably my top favorite. I like the way he throws different rhythms and styles into the songs. I like how he can go from busy to just straight and laid back instantaneously. And I like the band's funky-fusion rock style. I also like the range of his abilities, his ability to groove and just go off-beat, on-beat -- that funkier style.
K: Do you consciously try to emulate Beauford's style?
A: To be honest, I don't think I do try to emulate it. I don't think I ever try to purposely play like him, it's just what clicked with me. It just subconsciously got in there, sort of developed that way.
K: How did you find Jim as a teacher?
A: I'll never forget the night. I was driving home from work, and I got this feeling that I need to get serious about this. If I'm going to say I'm a drummer -- somehow, in a band, whatever -- I need to pick this up and get serious, aside from just playing in the basement. I made that decision to take lessons and I asked my sister [Theresa]. She had just started teaching lessons [violin, viola, guitar] at the Academy a couple months prior, and she suggested Jim. I gave him a call.
K: What do you remember about that first lesson?
A: He had me write my goals on a card, and began testing me to see where my skills were at that point. He would flip through pages of a snare lesson book, give me one and I played it through with no problem, he picked another one and it was still good, then he tried another one and I had some issues. So he stopped there. He wrote a date on it for the next lesson, and said, "Let's see where you are next week."
That card is still hanging in the room.
K: Is it?
A: Yeah. He kept it in there. [laughs]
K: What did you think when he first handed you that card, and told you to fill it out?
A: I thought, what an interesting way to do this [laughs]. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, but I didn't actually write anything down until I was sitting in the waiting room, waiting for my lesson to start [laughs].
K: What were some of your goals?
A: Having a better sense of time, endurance, being more consistent with the hits, and getting comfortable with odd time meters. The biggest one was having more confidence in myself, the whole stage fright thing. When I started, I never thought I would've joined a band; I didn't think I could do it. That was the biggest thing.
Down to work
K: How much do you typically practice in a week?
A: I probably practice for a half hour every day in my car during lunch. The band practices for three hours once a week. If I can, I’ll get in other solid practice time. Aside from that, I might have a week or two where I won’t have any extra time. Then there might be the random Thursday or so where I won’t have anything else going on, and I’ll head over to where my drum set is and practice for four hours.
Practice is kind of sporadic, but I’m doing the best with it I can. I wish I had a little bit more consistent practice schedule.
K: What exercises do you do to improve?
A: Repetitions with drum strokes, either between my hands with the drumsticks or with my feet. The feet have been my biggest challenge. I’ve probably worked on that the most over the past few months, getting more consistent with the hits, because the endurance will come once I’m actually teaching my muscles to work properly.
K: Did [Jim] have to correct your hands at all?
A: Yes, my left hand, because I’m right handed. He said try to force myself to do different things throughout your day, purposely with my left hand. Not writing, but opening doors and things like that. I’ve taught myself to use a mouse left-handed, just for that reason. At first it was really awkward, but now it feels natural.
K: In all of your formal instruction, what has been the hardest part to master that you still use today?
A: Probably getting a good sense of time. Jim says some people have a natural sense of time, but I had to really work at it. I never had that groove. I had to really develop that as I was taught properly. I had to know how to practice properly before I could develop it.
K: How did you develop that?
A: Practicing with a metronome -- a lot. Always practice with a metronome and you'll naturally start to develop that inner sense of time. And I'm still working on it. I'm starting to feel that a lot more comfortably and groove in different ways, and the way music can develop by having the correct type of rhythm with it. And being able to doctor other rhythms up and mess with them.
K: How do you doctor a rhythm or mess with it?
A: That's what I'm working on now as the band develops new material. Start with something basic. Writing it down definitely helps - I'm not as quick in writing it as Jim is [laughs] - writing that basic rhythm down, then either switching up where some of those hits are placed, or the sound source you're using. It might be the same "beat one," but it may be on the snare instead of the bass drum. Or it might be on one of the toms.
Meeting The Sandcarvers
K: At what point did you decide to start looking for a band?
A: After thinking about it for a while and talking to Jim. I remember looking online to see what was out there. I would bring a couple ads to him, and ask him to check them out. That's how I ended up finding The Sandcarvers, who were looking for a new drummer.
K: How was your audition?
A: I took the day off work, because I wanted to ensure I was ready. My boss wasn't happy and he said it would have to be without pay. I didn't care; I needed to practice. The Sandcarvers gave me about six songs to play. I assumed that I had to have all six songs ready. I'm glad I did because we played all six.
I got to the audition a little early, and met the guitar player. He said, "You wanna help me with my guitar cases? This is the first part of your audition." [smiling] I grabbed the guitar cases and waited for the other band members to show up.
I sat behind the other drummer's set that was still there [the other members had arrived], and we just kind of went into it. The other members introduced themselves and said, "OK. Let's lay 'em down. Pick one."
We played all of them, and I know I played them too fast and wasn't grooving well, but there was something there. I could tell they were diggin' it, but it wasn't tight. I was nervous.
But then we played one song, and when we were done they said, "Yeah, it was a little fast, and a little busy in some spots. But the bass player was like, "I think I'm starting to feel something, let's try playing it again. And we did. I didn't know if I was in at that point but we sat down to talk.
They asked me, "What are your goals? Is money the only motivating factor? How open are you for weekends and weeknights to practice or have shows? Are you open to travel?" Those types of questions. And they must have liked my responses because they gave me a key to the practice space.
Gigging - the Celtic way
K: How about your first gig?
A: That was in Indianapolis. It went fine, but I'm sure I screwed up. I think I lost a couple of sticks while playing [laughs]. The songs weren't totally solid, I mean, I only had a few weeks to learn the material. For my first show ever it was fine. It was kind of cool being up on the stage and everything.
I just wanted to get everything right, because I knew all the stage hands, the ones setting up everything, they knew I didn't know what I was doing [laughs]. They knew I was "green." So, I was getting "busted" for that a lot [smiles].
Writing new Sandcarvers material
K: How does The Sandcarvers write new songs?
A: The vocalists bring in the majority of the original material. They have the best song-writing skills and are good with lyrics. They put a lot of emotion into the songs they write. We also put our own spin on traditional Irish tunes.
K: So they bring it in and play it through on the guitar, or do they say, this is kind of what I'm feeling here, can you give me a beat like this?
A: It depends. A couple of times they've brought in a frame-work, not even a completed song -- maybe a riff or two that they might be thinking about. Then we all tried to build around that. I think it works better if we have a little more of a solid idea first, then work it up.
I understand every band's dynamics are different, but the methods we use have been successful for us.
Aaron’s contribution to the material
K: Do you ever hear something in your head that you think would be really cool in a song but not know exactly how to incorporate it?
A: Oh yeah.
K: How do you work through that?
A: I don’t think I have yet. Most of the time when something hits me, I’ll be at work, listening to last night’s rehearsal, and it’ll go in one ear and out the other, and it’s done. I need to write things down. I’ve got little sticky notes, and I force myself to write things down –- even a little piece of it. I’ve got like a little stack of them in my pocket.
Private lessons - beyond the technical
K: Has playing with The Sandcarvers changed how you approach your lessons with Jim?
A: Yeah. Not only has it been technically how to play correctly, but now the lessons have morphed into discussions as well about learning how to work with other band members at times, because the whole experience is still so new to me.
Learning how to approach new music in different ways, because we're working on new original songs. So it's been a lot of discussion, more than anything.
Improving as a musician
K: Is there anything as a musician you’d like to learn or improve upon?
A: Yeah. I wish I was a little more open to just try new things and be happy with them so I could contribute more to the development of the music. I need to understand that something isn’t going to just develop overnight. I don’t think mentally I’ve accepted that. I feel if I can get over that, I could contribute even more effectively to the songs.
K: Do you have any idea why you’re holding back?
A: I think I worry about it too much. I always think it could be different, or it's not good enough, or I laid something down and think, ohhhh, maybe this would be better. Then I just can’t get happy with something and say – this is good.
K: What part of playing with the band professionally improved your time?
A: It’s it’s a different feel than practicing alone or with recorded music. You’ve got to listen to all the other instruments knowing that you control everything. And, with recorded music, they’re not just going to stop if you screw up.
Thoughts on his teacher
K: What are your favorite qualities of Jim as a teacher?
A: That he actually paid attention to my goals, and gauged where I was first before deciding where to go with me. The fact that he listens really well, and is open to listening to my ideas.
K: What do you take from watching him perform?
A: Amazing. He doesn’t give himself enough credit. He doesn’t. I mean, he played that progressive rock song he recorded. I said to him, “You’re gonna need some napkins, I need to get the drool off the floor.” And he’s like, “Really?” He was like, surprised that I would find it that awesome. I was surprised that he was surprised!
I don’t get it. I think he’s up there with some of the top players. He doesn’t think he is.
K: I agree he’s up there with top players. But, how cool is it that his heart is teaching?
K: Would you say that you've met your goals, or is it a continuing process?
A: Always a continuing process [laughs]. Have I met the goals? I don't think I'll ever complete them, but I'm always working toward them.
K: Any other goals you’ve thought about?
A: I think, as far as technical stuff, just learning to not be so afraid of being creative in how I play. Jim talks about areas of music being tasty for a drummer to play. I know I do that, but to be comfortable and open to it and kind of increase my vocabulary and repertoire of possibilities of things I can put in certain places in the music. It’s kind of a growth of what I wrote on the card before.
K: Is there any advice that you would give to yourself, if you were talking to you?
A: That everything’s gonna be fine. That your hard work is actually paying off, keep going [laughs].
Jim: I have a question. You’ve been with me for about five years. In the beginning, what made you feel I was the teacher for you?
A: Because, I felt I could trust you. I don’t know how to describe it. It's mostly a comfort level. I know if I have to deal with some of the inadequacies of my playing at that time, I feel comfortable enough to talk to you about those things, and start to work through them.
And you joked around. We have similar personalities in some ways, so that helped.
K: One final question: Are Jim’s jokes really that bad, or is it just me [laughs]?
A: Oh no. They’re bad [laughter all around - including Jim]!
Thanks to my lovely wife, Kat, who is managing editor of Trains magazine at Kalmbach Publishing in Waukesha. She conducted this interview, and does some light editing on my blogs to save me from myself.