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By: Raymond Westland
Gavin Harrison is one of the most celebrated drummers within progressive rock and metal circles noted for his work within Porcupine Tree and more recently, as a member in King Crimson. His latest project entails an album full of obscure Porcupine Tree cuts, completely overhauled and re-arranged, entitled Cheating The Polygraph. Raymond Westland caught up with Mr. Harrison to discuss his most recent musical endeavours, his approach to drums clinics and music in general and dealing with some of the music business more distinguished characters.
(((o))): How did you get the idea to change Porcupine Tree songs and re-create/re-imagine in a jazz/big band type of setting?
Gavin: The first song we arranged was ‘Futile’. It was a piece that I wrote with Steven Wilson back in 2002 and it was our exploration in math metal really. It was very influenced by a Swedish band called Meshuggah. I don’t think the track ever made it to an album or a single. In 2009 I was asked to do something at a memorial event in honour of Buddy Rich, organised by his daughter. She has done these things quite regularly since the eighties. I told her that I’d love to play there and do any of his songs. She asked me to play one of the arrangements from one of my own bands or projects, which was quite a surprise. Nothing came to mind, so I sat down with Laurence Cottle. He’s a good friend of mine and an excellent bass player and arranger. I asked him whether it was possible to make an arrangement of ‘Futile’. He did it and it was very successful. I played it at drum clinics, so I asked him whether it was possible to do another song, but this time with a different approach. We ended up doing ‘Cheating The Polygraph’. After that I got the idea of doing a whole album like this. I knew it would be a massive mountain to climb, because it took 18 months to do ‘Futile’ and ‘Cheating The Polygraph’. So a whole album’s worth would be a very long journey, a very enjoyable journey, but an incredible amount of work.
(((o))): So what exactly made it such an arduous task?
Gavin: If you listen to the original Porcupine Tree piece on any of those songs on and you compare them to the newly arranged pieces it’s a very long journey from one piece to the other. This is more like handing over a photograph to Picasso and ask him to do an impression of this photograph and paint what he feels instead of what he sees. These are very impressionistic type of re-arrangements. There are a great many times where we go completely away from the originals, so in the past five years when Steven would come to my house and I played him the latest song of the time he got to the middle of the song and he still didn’t know what is was.
(((o))): True, speaking from my own experience I could barely recognise some bits and pieces, but that’s about it.
Gavin: There’s some really deep detail to it and that’s why it took so long. For instance, there’s a section in ‘The Sound Of Muzak’ where there’s an impression of Steve’s guitar solo, which is arranged over twelve brass instruments. You probably wouldn’t recognise it when you hear it the first time. There’s a lot of really deep detail that you may not hear the first time or the first ten times when you listen to the album. You might start to recognise the details when you know the Porcupine Tree material very well or when you’re willing to invest a lot of time listening to the album and you’ll start to hear more of the hidden little gems so to speak.
(((o))): Do you have any plans to expand on the concept behind Cheating The Polygraph by doing another album or bringing it to the stage?
Gavin: No, I don’t have any plans to do another album or playing it live either. Logistically it would be very difficult to play it live, because you’d need a band consisting of 18 musicians and we would need to rehearse for six weeks and we would only have 46 minutes worth of material. That’s not enough for a whole concert. I didn’t envisage this to become a live event, but if the opportunity would arise I’d love to play it. I can’t imagine being on a tour bus with 18 guys playing all the material and by the time we would reach the end of the road I’d be done for (laughs).
(((o))): How would you like to describe working together with Laurence Cottle and Nigel Hitchcock? In what way did you guys feed on each other’s creativity?
Gavin: Really, the dictation is in the arrangements. That’s what took so long. It wasn’t like “hey, listen to this melody, can you play this tomorrow?” This took a lot of planning. I spent weeks playing the drums and singing the songs to myself at home to find a path through songs so to speak, just to find what I would thought to be a new direction or an interesting way to go. After that I went to Laurence’s house with demos of drum recordings and bits of me singing to explain how I wanted it to go and leave it with him for a few weeks and go back to his house and he would play me what he thought it and we discuss it. Then I took his ideas to my house and play drums to it. Then I would rearrange those demos and bring it back to him. This would go on for months. Because by the time you got 18 guys coming ready to play on it, that is not the time to be unsure about the arrangements. You’d be better 100% sure about the arrangements. Someone like Nigel Hitchcock, who’s a genius on the saxophone, normally gets recorded first because he got such a good ear for detail and phrasing. He decided how he would phrase or he gave us several options, but really he was reading the charts that Laurence had written and interpreted the way he does.
(((o))): Originally you come from a jazz background. How was it like to get back in touch with your musical roots again?
Gavin: It didn’t feel like that at all. I don’t see myself as a jazz drummer or a progressive rock drummer or anything like that. I think of myself as being a musician who plays the drums. I try to make good music. I don’t think about genres, limitations or borders. As you can here on Cheating The Polygraph there are a lot of different playing styles involved. There’s some incredibly crazy double bass drums, there’s some funk drumming and there’s some cinematic drumming going on as well. I just feel like playing what fits said piece best. I don’t think about jazz or any other genre when I’m playing.
(((o))): What’s your approach of playing music in general?
Gavin: It’s instinctive. When I start to understand the direction of the music I start looking for something new. I’m very aware of the things I’ve done in the past, so when you get older you got a longer list of things you want to avoid repeating yourself. There’s no point in keeping repeating yourself. It’s not going anywhere. You need to go forward and come up with new ideas. When I start to discover something new or something that doesn’t sound typically like me that’s where I get very interested. I think everyone has a vision of balance about what is the right thing for a song, but it comes really down to your character and personality how things will shape out. What I think or feel is right for a song someone else would play something different. It also depends on how a song is presented. When there are some parts missing you need to figure out where to go like during a writing session for instance. When you get a complete song written for you it kind of acts like a road map and that makes it easier for you as a drummer to play to.
(((o))): You also give drum clinics on a regular basis. How do you approach such a clinic from a didactical point of view? What are the things you emphasis on when teaching and talking to aspiring drummers?
Gavin: It’s all about education. I don’t choose a drum clinic to show you what I can do as a drummer. It’s not like a come see this monkey in a circus act. I don’t like that aspect in a drum clinic really when you use that routine. I’ve been to a lot of clinics and I’m not really into when you blow all your beans all over the drum set. It’s all about their ego. I haven’t come for your ego, I’ve come to learn something and whether I can steal some ideas or come for some inspiration for when I’m sitting behind my drum kit at home reminiscing of what that guy played last night. Perhaps I can work on it and build it from there. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching someone show off. I mean a 30 minutes drum solo and I’ve sat through many of them. At my drum clinics I don’t play any drum solos at all. Of course I play some songs and people ask me questions and I try to find interesting ways that might be educational on how I came up with a certain rhythm or drum fill. It’s really an evening hopefully about the people that come to it and not about me.
(((o))): You did two books on drumming and you released a couple of educational DVDs on drumming as well. Would you aspire to become an actual teacher at some prestigious music college like Berklee for instance?
Gavin: Not at all and not remotely. I don’t have any students nor do I do any teaching at all. The books you mentioned I really wrote them for myself. They were a collection of thoughts about a certain way to manipulate rhythm. It wasn’t about playing fast or playing speedy or twirling drumsticks or anything. It was merely my ideas from the mid ‘80’s to the early ‘90’s captured in the first book called Rhythmic Illusions. The subsequent ideas I had after the release of the first book are described and elaborated upon in a second book called Rhythmic Perspectives. You don’t need to have any technique at all to be able to read the book and to understand the concept. There’s something of rhythmic manipulation on the Cheating The Polygraph record. There are two songs that I fused together, namely ‘Hate Song’ and ‘Halo’. Both songs have different tempos, but I use a technique called metric modulation, which enables me to go from one tempo to another quite seamlessly. It also allows me to come back to the first tempo without it being double time or half time. They are based on groupings of subdivisions, which gives you the illusion of a new tempo.
(((o))): You make it sound like it’s some mathematical equation.
Gavin: It’s exactly mathematics. I really don’t use mathematics that much, but music is mathematics, especially drumming. There are twelve tones and there are sixteenth notes in a bar of four/four. If you going to subdivide them into certain groupings it becomes mathematical. When I play the drums I’m not counting like in adding up or subtracting certain numbers, but I might be trying to see what’s it like when I’m playing to different set of numbers at the same time sounds like and see whether it’s useful from a composing point of view. There’s a section in ‘What Happens Now’, which is built around two different time signatures around the same time. It’s a polyrhythmic kind of idea and you have to know the mathematics behind it for it to work.
(((o))): How does it feel to be driving seat with your own project like Cheating The Polygraph for once instead of catering to someone else’s ideas and visions?
Gavin: How it feels like? I never thought about that to be honest. When I’m in a band or a project I like to contribute in the same way if it was my own project. I like to be involved and not to sit in the back until someone tells me what to play. It doesn’t whether it’s Porcupine Tree, King Crimson or one of my own projects. Robert Fripp never tells me what to play. He just expects you to know what you should play.
(((o))): Meeting Robert’s Fripp’s expectations is quite a challenge to say the least.
Gavin: Yes and that’s why you’re there. He’s really good at picking the right people as you can see in the history of King Crimson. He picks the right people and that is one of his best skills. He’s kind of a cast director and he really knows what will work.
(((o))): Now you mention it, what’s the latest from the King Crimson camp?
Gavin: I don’t know of any recordings, but we are starting to rehearse for a tour that will start at the end of August. For a band with three drummers it takes a lot of careful choreographing, so that we don’t fall over each other and that we all play at the same time and don’t make it turn into a big mess. A month ago Pat Mastelotto and Bill Rieflin came over to my studio and we spent a week working on some stuff and we’ll do another ten days before we get together with the band working on some pieces and even going back and remembering all the arrangements from last year’s tour, which entails a two hour ten minute set with a million things to remember. It’s very very challenging to play a King Crimson concert. Every part has a different time signature and it’s not like you’re sitting there with a piece of paper. You have to remember it.
(((o))): How do you remember all those little details and different phrasings?
Gavin: Massive reputation. I do have charts and I write out charts. Sometimes I play and I can see the charts in my mind. It’s a photographic type of memory thing. Each time you play it sinks in a little more. You make a lot of mistakes and when those mistakes happen you won’t make them again. It’s a long process. Perfect practise makes perfect.
(((o))): You have a long history of working with people with a really strong musical vision like the earlier mentioned Steven Wilson and Robert Fripp, but also with someone like Iggy Pop. How do you work with those people on both a personal and professional level?
Gavin: On a personal level, well, there’s usually some kind of relationship that you get on one way or another. I don’t know, it’s a difficult question to answer. You find a way to work with people that want to work with you. Sometimes in a collaborative way and for instance with Iggy Pop he wasn’t looking for something to contribute to his music, but he was looking for a good drummer who could play his songs. There was no kind of soloing or anything or trying to explore the arrangements. It was basically smashing the shit out the drums for three hours and play as hard as you can. With any artist you work with it’s about figuring out what they want and sometimes when you’re in a band situation like Porcupine Tree or King Crimson you can do a lot more that you want. It’s about knowing when to put your own ego aside. Believe me, there are a lot of egos in this business.
(((o))): Finally, you’re one of the most celebrated drummers in the business and you’ve won numerous awards and whatnot. What’s your secret of staying grounded and not to get carried away with it?
Gavin: It just distracts me. I didn’t start to play drums to become famous. I don’t want to be famous or to be recognised when I’m walking in the streets or when I’m in a shop buying a can of beans. It’s all about the music for me. It’s very nice to get the awards, but at the end of the day it’s just a popularity contest. It’s doesn’t mean that you really are the best prog drummer in the world. I don’t even know what that means. Music is an art form and not a competition. How do you compare someone like Stuart Copeland with Neil Peart from Rush or Neil Peart with Buddy Rich? They are all from a different time and they all play differently. So the whole question of who’s best or any top ten is completely void in my view. It seems kind of immature. It’s like when you’re a schoolboy and you got your top ten of favourite football players or your top 10 of favourite bands. You believe in that list so much that you’re willing to have a fight with another boy who says that another drummer is better over this and that. It’s completely silly.