excerpts from my interview with Ilya Stemkovsky of Modern Drummer magazine
1) Let’s talk about longevity in this business and with your long-standing gig with Shakira.
Two things come to mind when you mention the word longevity. The first idea is “longevity in the career of music”. Sustaining an extended career in music, whether it be as a band member, or a freelance musician, or an educator, is extremely challenging. As a creative artist, you are basically being given reasons to quit on a daily basis, and you have to constantly muster up the passion and persistence to overcome these hurdles. It’s not fair, and it’s not easy, but it is fun. There is an expression in the martial art of jiu jitsu, “A blackbelt is a white belt that didn’t quit”. The most successful people around me are usually the ones that simply did not give up.
The second thought regarding the concept of longevity is my long-lasting relationship with multiple artists and musical directors. I have been in Shakira’s band for over 20 years now. But along with her, I have also been working with my friend Elsten Torres for 23 years, and Minnie Driver for 14 years, and several musical directors for more than a decade, and on and on. For the most part, I tend to maintain friendly, positive working relationships with all of my employers and musical buddies. Of course, the first order of business for me is to play the drums at the highest level that I can. But on top of that, I try to also be a problem-solver; a person you can count on to fix things. You need a drummer to play beats? I can do that for you. Oh, you also want to hire three percussionists? I know some great people, let me give them a call. You cannot remember how fast we play this song? No worries, I have all the bpm’s written down here in my phone. You don’t remember how we ended this song on our previous tour? It’s all good, I have a recording of the old show in my computer. You’re unsure about where to come in during the Intro? Cool, just watch me and I will give you a cue. You want to add some electronic elements to this musical segue? Leave it to me, I’ll handle it.
As you can see, the more you can offer and the more comfortable you make others feel, the more they will want you around and appreciate your presence.
So, think about what you offer. Is your time is very good, both with a click and without a click? Can you lock with sequences seamlessly? Can you interpret songs well? Do you also produce or compose music? Do you have the organizational skills to be a musical director? Can you play any other instruments? Do you understand various styles of popular and folkloric music? Can you perform a song precisely the same way over and over again? Conversely, can you give dozens of different vibe options for the same song? Are you independent enough to get yourself to and from gigs in almost any country? Do you have good working relationships with drum manufacturers and backline companies to provide gear to venues? So on, and so forth.
If you can walk around with the aura that says, “if you have an issue, I will take care of it. No worries”, this will help with the psychology of everyone around you. When I think back to my days at the University of Miami’s School of Music, besides playing with guitarists and saxophonists and piano players, I spent a lot of time working with singers. I played on tons of peoples’ recitals and school concerts. I think these experiences helped me gain the empathy needed to be a team player and assist others in feeling comfortable and reaching their goals. This has been invaluable for me over the years.
— Everyone talks about simply having the right attitude and working the hang right because so many people can already play, but is it as simple as that?
Well of course, it goes without saying that you have to be able to play well. But you also have to be able to play appropriately. And you have to be able to play consistently. For a moment, think about the concept of being “hirable”. In a planet with thousands and thousands of drummers, what can make you stand out? How can you be considered “valuable”? What would make someone say, “I want that specific guy in my band”, or “I want that specific girl to play on my record”, or “I think this person would be a good choice for our upcoming tour”? Put yourself in the employers shoes for a moment. If you were a singer, or a band leader, or a manager, or a producer, what qualities would you look for? Good time? of course. Decent gear? check. Gets along with others? yep. Creative? bingo. Doesn’t get arrested? absolutely. Communicates well without throwing temper tantrums? sure. Excellent memory skills? bonus. Precision? yes. Can play with a click? done. Knows electronics? uh huh. Has a look (any look at all)? cool. Can be a showman if necessary, but won’t overdo it? perfect.
And yes, a good attitude is practically essential because as studio and touring musicians, we spend countless hours of spare time hanging out with one another. Dressing rooms, tour buses, airports, hotels, soundchecks. Funny, easy-going people just make the day better. The squeaky wheel does not always get the grease. More often then not, it gets replaced.
— After so many years, and material that’s pretty set, how do you keep your playing fresh without resorting to showy stuff to entertain yourself or your bandmates? Is there ever any room for that?
Well I have to admit, soundchecks do get a bit wacky with the alternate versions and the extended jam sessions. But apart from that, I make sure to schedule time to practice, either on stage after soundcheck, or backstage on a drum pad (and kick practice pad too), or even on off days at a rental rehearsal space. Plus during the actual show, I focus on concepts like: technique, time, subdivisions, vocabulary, posture. It might not seem like it from the outside, but I do play the show slightly differently each night; new fills, added ghost notes, different accents, various grips, improved kick pedal techniques. But, I make sure that the people in charge do not notice a difference from their perspective. Yes, you can practice on a gig. Just don’t sound like you are practicing on a gig!
— You’ve seen quite a bit of change with gear and the technical side of your kit. How have you navigated that world?
I do my best to stay hip to the new innovations in the percussion world, especially from my endorsement companies (DW, Sabian, Remo, Vic Firth, Roland, LP, etc). I like to know what inventions have come out every year, and what each new thing does and does not do.
But most of my kit designs actually come from brainstorming sessions with the artists and musical directors. We normally discuss how they want to approach each arrangement for a song. What will be played acoustically? Drumset, or maybe some percussion? What will be sampled and triggered electronically? What loops will be left in the computer sequences? Then, we design a stage setup that will be both functional and fun; sonically, visually, emotionally. I go through the same process with almost every artist with whom I work.
— Can you suggest the use of different sounds, either electronically or acoustically? Do you take Shakira’s or someone else’s direction well if they suggest alternate sounds?
The electronic sounds normally come from one of three sources, (a) the actual Pro Tools sessions from the artist’s albums, (b) from the musical director’s sound libraries, or (c) from my own personal collection of sounds and effects. For example, we could start a programming session by sampling and labeling all of the drum sounds from a song on Shakira’s new album. I can spread them around accordingly on the various trigger pads of my kit and play the song like so. But then the musical director could say, “I’d like to try a different snare sound for this tune. Let me email you one of my favorite samples during our next break.” Then, I’d swap that out and see how it sounds. And next, Shakira could ask for some collage of funky hand claps or noises during a new sing-a-long section of the tune. I would quickly pull them up from a sound library on my hard drive and throw them on a trigger pad. The good thing nowadays is that I can blend sounds too. So we could use a little bit of the old, and a little bit of the new. And the particular software sampler Battery 4 by Native Instruments has a built-in effects engine, so I can also mangle the sounds in the program. And keep in mind, we will often get input from our front house engineer too. He might say, “hey guys, that electronic kick drum is cool by itself, but it’s just not cutting well while everyone is playing at the same time”. So we will switch it up for something else that has more attack, or try to carve it up a bit using EQ filters. After all, for a live concert, although it’s cool for everything to sound and feel good coming through your in-ears, it’s actually more crucial that drums sound incredible coming through a giant P/A System.
— What’s your mindset when interpreting programmed sounds from the records and the way you translate them to the stage?
Well, this would depend on the gig, and the song. Sometimes, as I mentioned, I will simply snag the actual programmed sound from the Pro Tools recording session of an album. But other times, it might actually be more fun to try to reproduce the sounds using acoustic drums, cymbals, and percussion. I have lots of different types of effects that can mimmic the sounds of programmed snares and claps. Keplinger metal jingles, Big Fat Snare Drum rings, cymbal stacks. This process can be more exciting for you as a player and for the audience as well.
— You’ve spoken on nutrition before, and as you age, is it even more important to keep your body free of the bad stuff?
The bad stuff??? Well, I guess it all depends on how you want to feel the next morning! In all seriousness, I have become a bit of a nutrition buff since college. I read tons of studies, and I experiment with various types of diets and programs. Age definitely comes into play. As a teenager or a person in his or her 20’s, you can pretty much do whatever you want to yourself and still bounce back with resilience. You’re kind of bulletproof. Back in the day, I use to run myself ragged with no repercussions. I hardly slept at all! But eventually, father time kicks in at around the mid-30’s, and you can truly feel the difference between good fuel and bad fuel. I eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and healthy proteins. Almost no sugar, or bread, or fried foods. I drink lots of water. I don’t smoke. And I try not to eat after 8:00 pm so that my stomach can rest overnight. These are just a few dietary hints. However, I am not saying that everyone needs to go through life living like a saint. What’s the fun in that!?! But just be aware of the consequences for each “bad” decision.
— What about exercise?
Oh, I am a big fan of exercise. I once read that if each person were giving one automobile to use for his or her entire life (only one), then that person would probably cherish that car, almost worship it, and take care of it to the degree that it would last well over 100 years. But in reality, we get cars and already imagine replacing them every 5 years. Phones, computers, houses! Forget about it. Everything is replaceable nowadays. However, we do not get to replace our entire body every 5 years, so we need to do the proper maintenance to maximize its functional life span.
I exercise (almost) every day. Sometimes it’s for over 2 hours. But other times I can only squeeze in 15 minutes. Basically, my goal is to make sure that my body functions well; the way it was designed to work. Lift, carry, run, climb, crawl, throw, etc. I dig sports too. And I like kick boxing and martial arts. For me, I don’t do all of this because I am concerned about living until the ripe old age of 90 or 100. I just want to feel good and functional at any age. And as we all know, drumming is a physical instrument. If you wind up having a crappy body, it’s going to be hard playing those Meshuggah grooves and Vinnie licks when you’re a grandpa.