Steps In Time
From Weather Report drummer to hi-tech enthusiast and Mac fanatic. Bob O'Donnell talks to a drummer who's discovered technology and used his rhythmic knowledge to get the best from his programming.
Renowned for his drumming with Weather Report, drummer, composer and Mac convert Peter Erskine has immersed himself in modern music technology.
THE KIND OF music you're likely to hear on labels like ECM and Passport Jazz has an adventurous, thoughtful spirit that - in the best tradition of music - is difficult to describe. Not surprisingly, some of the most interesting and successful applications of modern musical instruments have come from the marriage of technology and jazz.
Guitar synthesists Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie, keyboardists Joe Zawinul and Lyle Mays, wind synthesist Michael Brecker and a few other great jazz players have produced imaginative, expressive music that goes a long way toward exemplifying the potential of the new instruments.
Another player who deserves inclusion in this elite group is drummer/percussionist Peter Erskine. Like most of the others, Erskine first gained notoriety for his playing ability on an acoustic instrument - in his case the drum kit - but over the last few years he's earned recognition for his work with electronic drums and drum machines. He's also a synthesist and composer and has begun to produce and record his own compositions with the help of his trusty Macintosh and his well-equipped home MIDI studio.
Erskine's second solo album, Transition, combines all the elements of his musical personality. It features straight-ahead jazz tunes which highlight his acoustic playing - including his aggressive, signature snare work - and a tasteful electronic drum solo. He also uses sequences which either the band (John Abercrombie, guitar synth; Marc Johnson, bass; Joe Lovano, sax; Bob Mintzer, sax; Kenny Werner, keyboards; Don Grolnick, keyboards; and Peter Gordon, french horn) or he alone, accompanies.
In the past, Erskine has lent his timekeeping abilities to records by Weather Report, Steps Ahead, Bass Desires, John Abercrombie, Mike Stern and Gary Peacock, to mention a few. Interestingly enough, the snare work which helped him establish his reputation as an acoustic player also provided him with an opportunity to get directly involved with technology. Specifically, the Oberheim DMX digital drum machine.
"When I was in Weather Report we had used the Linn LM1 drum machine on one record and the word we heard was that Oberheim were working on a drum machine of their own. Well, Tom Oberheim used to come to Weather Report shows and I had met him, and a short while later a keyboard tech for Joe [Zawinul, keyboard player with Weather Report] who had a connection with Oberheim called me up and I went into the studio and recorded about three sets worth of drums for them. Most of the sounds on the original DMX, including the snare, were mine."
But the question is, how did a drummer who grew up listening to Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and other straight-ahead drummers first get into technology?
"I've always been intrigued by sound", Erskine replies, "and when I was a young musician my father encouraged me to study keyboard. I liked the piano but I was more intrigued by the Hammond organ in our house. I used to love to play with the drawbars and change harmonics and all that stuff. Then my folks got me a Wurlitzer organ, which was not a synthesiser, but did have a book that showed you how to get the sounds of particular instruments."
A natural progression from those early days took Erskine into drumming and percussion. After finishing school, he toured with the Stan Kenton band and then trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. A few months after the late Jaco Pastorius saw one of the Ferguson band's shows, Erskine got a call from Pastorius and Zawinul about joining Weather Report.
"And so there I was, standing next to the man", Erskine recalls, "with his ARP 2600s, the Oberheim modular system, a Prophet 5 and a few other strange little ARP synths. I remember the big news at the time I joined was that Joe had just gotten the Prophet and that just set him free.
"I guess I've always had an ear out for the hi-tech stuff, and I've been fortunate enough to be working with musicians who use it themselves or who have music that encourage that kind of experimentation."
Erskine experimented a great deal himself, trying a number of different electronic drum/percussion systems to create new sounds for himself.
"Before I joined Weather Report I was a frequent visitor to NAMM shows and I remember when a few electronic things like the Synares came out. I was playing around with one of them and I found it very easy to come up with nice, fat, low frequency sounds - it sounded like hollowed log drums. That was my first involvement with drum electronics."
"When your sax player sounds like vibes and your vibes player sounds like a guitar... you feel like saying, 'why don't we all get back in our seats?'."
From there he moved on to electronic drum kits and drum machines.
"We used the LM1 right after it came out on a tune called 'When It Was Now', and I'm pretty sure it was the first instrumental, at least with a band that had any kind of improvisatory thing, using a drum computer. It was really exciting programming it. I got a crash course from Joe's keyboard tech, and we loaded up the tune and played along with it in one take.
"Then I left Weather Report, moved to New York and started playing with Steps Ahead", he continues, "and all of a sudden the word was out that Bill Bruford was playing this new instrument. I went to see him and the clarity of his sound was incredible. It turns out it was the original Simmons SDS5. They looked really painful to play, though, and it turns out that, for durability's sake, they were using the same tremendously hard plastic that the British police used for their riot shields. So if you got really excited and wanted to play something loud you could really hurt yourself. But the sound knocked me out, so I went into 'wait and see' mode."
In the meantime, Erskine also became the operator of Steps' Oberheim System.
"I really liked the way that system (the OBX synth, DMX drum machine and DSX sequencer) operated, and the fact that the DSX offered a tapeless form of recording was amazing. Of course, editing was tricky, but you could be pretty knocked out by what that system could do.
"Then I finally decided to take the Simmons plunge. I did a NAMM show for them and got to use an SDS7. I remember I wasn't exactly sure of how the thing worked, so I just set up some ostinatos on their sequencer. But I loved the sound possibilities, the multi-note samples. I found most of the sounds to be grainy and noisy, however, so I went looking for a '5. I ended up doing a lot of phone work with drum technician Vince Gutman, and he put together a system with footswitching and triggering capability for me. I had it split between the '5 and '7 because I liked the digital attack of the '7 but I also liked the thick analogue stuff from the '5. It's a tremendous sounding instrument, especially in the lower frequencies."
Erskine's next major gig was a reunion with Zawinul in Weather Update. With the new band came a new set of drums, the Yamaha Electronic Percussion System, which helped him overcome sound problems that he was facing.
"I stopped triggering from my acoustic kit because I was so intrigued by the sounds the Yamaha FM system was producing that I wanted those sounds without hearing a tom-tom as well.
At the same time I was realising that whenever we got a great snare sound, as soon as we opened up the tom mics we lost what the snare drum sound was, so I said, 'Why not go for a direct tom-tom sound?'
"I still need a real bass drum and snare drum to feel like a drummer", Erksine admits, "because there's so much in my vocabulary of playing that needs those."
Erskine was impressed by the unique sounds of the system, and its MIDI implementation met with his and Zawinul's complete approval.
"As a drummer I've never thought in terms of four- or eight-bar patterns, so why should I when I program? I think of it as an unbroken thread."
"Zawinul was intrigued by the heart of the system, the PMC1 Percussion-to-MIDI Converter. Its MIDI capability is rich with things like Dynamic Note Shifting, which allows you to crossfade between different notes on the same pad depending on how hard you hit it, so you can play melodies. I remember Joe said 'I don't know how you drummers have gone so long without this'."
After a brief stint with the Korg DDD1, Erskine also changed his drum machine for a Yamaha.
"I did some demonstrations and clinics for Yamaha in Japan and I got to spend some time at their R&D centre, which was really exciting. That's also where I really discovered what the PMC1 could do and found out about the RX5.
The RX5 sounds are real clean and not only are they great to begin with, but they also lend themselves well to effects. The thing is confounding at first, but once you get into it and figure out the architecture, then all of the buttons have a rich meaning."
Discussing drum machines with a drummer who's known for playing music with a great deal of freedom may sound odd, but Erskine doesn't feel threatened by machines. But because of his interesting views on the notion of "time", he doesn't think that variable tempo devices like the Human Clock are always necessary when playing along with drum machines.
"I understand they work very well but to be frank, they don't appeal to me because I like to play with a clock. You see, a constant clock, like that provided by a drum machine, is like a good drummer. A good drummer is rock solid, and playing with a clock gives you the chance to breathe with it because the reference point always stays the same.
"Now, time is an absolute", he continues. "You always hear guys say 'ahead of the beat' and 'behind the beat' and that really confuses a lot of drummers. It's not a conscious decision you make, you just do what feels good, but there's an absolute, there's a centre to the beat, just like there's a centre to pitch. If you want to deviate from that, then it creates tension and music's moving forward is based on tension and release. For example, if a soloist is playing along with a clock and he just goes 'da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da'", he sings evenly, "then it's no good. But if he does something like 'doo-by-ya-ba-da-be-do-be', then it's great. Now if somebody starts saying 'we want freedom', I think it's because the guys can't cut playing with a machine. If you keep the clock, that gives you the chance to create subtleties which give the music a sense of forward motion. You can get the 'rubberbanding' type of effect."
Erskine also has opinions about and approaches to programming drum machines. For a start, he normally does it from a keyboard.
"For realistic drum programs, I do it in a linear kind of way. I go left to right, from start to finish and, if I'm working with a sequencer, I generally put my drum parts on last. Being a drummer I like to see what the tune is doing before I put a drum part on it.
"I'll make a pass with bass drum and snare and then I'll put things on top. I selectively quantise certain parts, but not others. What this does is get you away from repetitive patterns. As a drummer I've never thought in terms of four- or eight-bar patterns, so why should I when I program? I think of it from beginning to end, as an unbroken thread, because that's what timekeeping is all about."
But not everyone Erskine comes into contact with agrees with his approach.
"I think what these instruments and what technology gives all of us is the chance to achieve our artistic ideas. They're the keys to the Magic Kingdom."
"I was in the studio laying down some drum machine parts and the engineer turned around and said, 'These drums aren't all hitting together. Did you quantise this?' and I just gave him a shooing motion and said, 'Just turn around and mix; don't worry about it'. I like things to be a little sloppy; basically. I'm just improvising every time I put down a drum part."
IN ADDITION TO his work with electronic percussion devices, Erskine has jumped headfirst into the synth and MIDI fray. His home studio contains a Casio FZ1 and CZ101, a Roland Super JX, a Korg DW8000 and Poly 800, a recently MIDI'd Oberheim OBXa, a Yamaha DX100 and Yamaha RX5, PMC1 and TX816.
"Another instrument that I really love is the Roland MKS20", he comments, "which I occasionally borrow."
Erskine ties the system together with his beloved Macintosh. At the time of the interview he had been using Southworth's Total Music for sequencing, but he's considering switching over to Mark of the Unicorn's Performer. He also uses Opcode's Librarian program for his TX.
The combination of computer and synthesisers has had a dramatic effect on Erskine's musical life - he's caught the MIDI bug in a serious way.
"It's just teeming with so many possibilities", enthuses Erskine, "and you just want to jump right in. But then you take on all this technical responsibility because the stuffs gotta work, and if you're going to use it you've got to know what you're doing."
He also points out that though the potential of the technology is great, the opportunity to take things too far is correspondingly great.
"In Steps things got a little goofy because you could get to a point where you didn't know who was playing what. I mean obviously, the improvisational ideas of one guy are different from another, but when your sax player sounds like vibes and your vibes player sounds like a guitar and your guitar player sounds like a sax, you feel like saying, 'OK, why don't we all get back in our seats again'. I think it's always good to be able to take a step back when you're dealing with new instruments to see what you're trying to accomplish in a given piece of music."
In strange contrast to Erskine's talents as a drummer, the musical direction he wants to take next almost ignores the notion of "time".
"I want to create music with harmonic changes and development that don't fall on bar lines. I want it to have an amorphous cloud quality and I want to imbue it with the innate, creative intelligence that the best improvised music has to offer, which to me, is jazz."
But he's quick to point out that he's not referring to new age music.
"I resent listening to new age because, to my ears, most 'new age players' can't improvise their way out of a wet paper bag. Plus, most of what I've heard has such a predictable harmonic sense that it's very unappealing. What I want to do is create music that really expects or demands a lot from the listener hut is eminently listenable and enjoyable at the same time."
A difficult task perhaps, but one that Erskine feels he can achieve, particularly with the help of his electronic tools.
"I'm not a very good keyboard player but I'll tell you, something happens when it's me and my Mac and I get alone and work. I'm really surprised by what comes out and I think that's what these instruments and what technology gives all of us. Some people out there haven't had much formal training but they have artistic ideas and these instruments give us the chance to achieve our artistic ideas. As far as I'm concerned," Erskine chuckles, "they're like the keys to the Magic Kingdom."
Interview by Bob O'Donnell
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