GAVIN HARRSION (Pineapple Thief/King Crimson) – intrview
While having had experienced few good thousands concerts in my life so far, watching King Crimson live certainly set new standards for the multitude of senses that can get triggered by a bunch of artists performing in front of your eyes without absolutely any stage show. And a good share of the joy of that experience was due the groovy drum arrangements and improvisations. This, combined with the fact that I’m usually very curious to understand a bit more about the personalities of the musicians whom I find of great inspiration, made me look for a chance to sit down and have a chat with Gavin Harrison, one of the three drummers in the current King Crimson live lineup. I took this chance while he was performing with the British act The Pineapple Thief in Czech Republic during the same weekend I found myself visiting some friends there. It was great to discover such a down to Earth and straight forward person, willing to share his life lessons and some nice dose of British humor during the long chat that you find transcribed below. In a way I regret not having had the chance for the live chat to happen after getting to watch the Pineapple Thief live as well, but I can only be thankful for the opportunity given so far and advise you to make it possible to attend one of the band’s coming shows at the end of February/beginning of March 2019.
Pineapple Thief with Gavin Harrison will also perform at John Dee, in Oslo, on March 6th and you can find more info about the concert here: http://rockefeller.no/jd060319.html
Below you can watch an official clip from the band’s performance at Islington Assembly Hall in 2017.
Considering that you are a professional drummer, having your own studio and probably spending there a big amount of time when you are home, how is touring life affecting this routine?
G.H.: The problem with touring is that you can’t practise, you have no time. When I’m at home, and I’m not working on something, I might do two-three-four hours practice in a day. And I like to practise and I like to have things that I’m working on, concepts and ideas and things that help me improve. You can’t do that when you tour. I get to play for like one minute at the soundcheck and then you’re playing the songs. Playing songs is not the same as practising, so you need to find the right balance.
Indeed, you do seem involved in many projects, so they have to be paused I guess. Is it easy to get back to where you stopped once you return home?
G.H.: Yeah, but I do also like to rest. I don’t like to work so much that I finish one job and the next day I start another job. I like to have at least like two weeks to spend some time at home with my girlfriend and live a normal live.
So you did find a balance to accomplish that
G.H.: Well, I try to but it’s never perfect.
I can imagine. I guess touring with King Crimson is a bit more exquisite than touring with a band that has to be in a different city every day. Is it an easy switch for you between the two styles?
G.H.: This one is more band touring. King Crimson is more like orchestra touring, we never play and travel on the same day. It is very luxurious, we end up staying in very nice hotels. But with Pineapple Thief, it’s like I’m used to from doing it in the past. You travel anything from very little to 6-8 hours or maybe more. This morning we left Warsaw at 9 o’clock and we arrived something like an hour ago (meaning between 3 and 4PM). Six hours in the van, it is pretty tough.
You have to find some positive parts in this though, to keep going like this for weeks
G.H.: I love it
(little interruption for Gavin to demand his coffee maker/slave, Bruce, to make him a coffee with milk)
G.H.: But yeah, it’s a different style of touring. More rock’n’roll if you want, more like I’ve done in the past, many times in different bands, and it’s good fun.
I’m about to see you on stage later this evening as the only drummer, no longer one of the three drummers. How’s the feeling of being the one behind the other guys and no longer in front?
G.H.: Yeah, the only drummer. Being at the back of the stage is the place where I’ve probably spent most of my life. It is very strange to be at the front of the stage with King Crimson. It is interesting but it’s part of Robert’s vision of King Crimson to have three drummers at the front and there’s no front man, there’s no singer in the middle, talking to the audience and such. Jakko (Jakszyk) is a great singer but there is no front man in King Crimson, including Robert. And that’s more like an orchestra and it is an interesting concept I’d say. While tonight and for this band, we have the more traditional setup, and it’s both challenging and fun to play drums as being the only drummer. You can improvise more, it is quite different…
Do you feel more in control in this case?
G.H.: No, I feel in control in King Crimson as well, but it’s just a completely different feeling. You can’t compare the two bands nor the setups.
Of course, you have a more central figure in King Crimson so you probably have to be more serious
G.H.: You have to wear at least a shirt.
Photo by Lasse Hoile
There’s some really nice photos on your website, when you’re lying on your drums. Has photoshop been used?
G.H.: No no, I actually did that. And it really hurt. That’s a photographer friend. I had those seven drums made and Lasse Hoile, a Danish film director came to my house to make a photo session. He’s always looking for something special, so I told him ‘look, I have an idea to lie on these drums. But please be quick cause this is gonna hurt’ And it was indeed painful.
How can you even balance yourself on those?
G.H.: You can stand on one leg for about three minutes before you fall off, so you do find a way to balance yourself. But it was rather tough.
You’ve been drumming for a while and by now you probably have the drumkit setup as you want it to be. But does it happen often that you make changes to it?
G.H.: Not really. I’ve played this style of setup since, I think, about 1987. So we’re talking like thirty one years now. I had various setups, sometimes with two bass drums, sometimes with more toms, more cymbals, but eventually the way it is today ended up making most sense to me. The range of pitches, the layout, everything, so I kinda stayed with it. I prefer to play the same instrument all the time because I don’t have to think about it. I just know where all the sounds are even if I play with my eyes closed, I know where to go.
So it’s probably like an instinct for you by now
G.H.: Yeah, pretty much. If I change setup all the time, I would probably look at the drums more, trying to look out for what to do.
Don’t you have a lot of companies trying to ask you ‘Hey, can you please use this or that, try this or that’?
G.H.: I have a relationship with the German drums company SONOR, since 1986. The cymbal company since 1986, the sticks company since mid nineties, same with the drumheads. I just found the companies and the equipment that I could find my sound easiest and most comfortable with. I was looking for what I considered to be the best equipment. Someone else might tell you something different. But for me and my sound this is the best equipment. So I am very happy to have this relationship with the companies. They support me, we develop things. I have experiments and prototypes, I ask them ‘can you build me this, I would like to try that, this size, this depths and so on’ and they make those things. That’s fantastic, to have a company that would do that.
But despite all these not many changes have been made to the kit
G.H.: Well, every few years little things change but not big things. Just little subtleties, they evolved.
I saw you cleaning the drumsticks quite a lot during the King Crimson concert. I haven’t seen other drummers doing that yet
G.H.: I’m not cleaning them. I am actually putting wax on.
G.H.: It is a special wax called ‘Mr’s Zog Sex Wax‘. It has nothing to do with sex, except that this company, who makes wax for surfers and boards, found out that if they put the word sex in the product name, they sell a lot more. So it’s basically surf boarding wax and it gives you a little bit of grip feeling and I put that on and now I don’t have any blisters. In the past I would get blisters, I would put band aids all the time and would end up making real mess with the hands.
But how did you actually end up with the wax in the first place?
G.H.: I just tried it one day. I just saw an advert for drum stick wax, I think. So I tried it, loved it and I’ve used it ever since.
Lucky trial then
G.H.: Yeah, it’s this kind of small accessory things I like to try all the time. I see them on the internet and I want to try, so I end up buying them. Some things are great, some not so much so. If they’re good, I’d just keep using them.
Photo by Diana Seifert
G.H.: With King Crimson I play these Nord electronic drums, made by a Swedish company. They make some interesting electronic sounds which I don’t use in Pineapple Thief for example.
Tell me a bit about your warmup routine
G.H.: I normally play on a pad for about thirty-forty minutes, before the show, just to loosen up my muscles. And I do it right before the concert.
What about the legs? Do drummers ever warm up their legs?
G.H.: Should do, but not in the same way that you’d warm up your hands. Your hands are doing about fifty times more than your feet. If you play black metal though and you play a lot of double bass then yeah, you should maybe warm up your feet too.
Is age affecting drumming performance in any way? Do you feel like some things have to be done in a different manner?
G.H.: I get annoyed quicker. But I don’t feel like I’ve lost any facility or speed or agility, but probably stamina gets you in the end.
So you wouldn’t start playing black metal concerts now
G.H.: I don’t wanna play a two hours concert of black metal. I don’t think I could now.
Do you think it made you a smarter drummer? Or well, you drum in a smarter way?
G.H.: Yeah, you gotta conserve your energy. You know there’s times that are really important and you need to push, and other times you can conserve energy a bit more. When I was 21 I would maybe just go crazy irregardless.
Have you ever performed on the streets in your life? I’ve seen some young drummers doing that nowadays
G.H.: No. Do I need to?
I wouldn’t mind passing by a Gavin Harrison solo on my way home.
-interrupted by soundcheck-
I started asking you about what is your biggest ‘Wow, I can finally do that’ that you can think of?
G.H.: If you mean technically, that happens all the time.
G.H.: Yeah, you think of something. This is part of my practice routine at home. If I can imagine something then I might try to play it, and initially I can’t play it. But the important thing is to have a method to find a creative solution on how to play it. For example, if you’re thinking about a rhythm that’s a complicated polyrhythm, where you’re playing different times on different limbs. I might be able to play some of it quite quickly and then have to work out on how to play the last part of it. But sometimes I need to write all the notation out and then I can see where all the beats go. And it might take me anywhere between five minutes and five days. I know I can play it because there were so many things in the past that I couldn’t play and then after four or five days I ended up being able to. I think the important thing is that you don’t convince yourself that you’re not good enough to do it. It’s important that you don’t believe that it’s so hard you can’t ever play it. A lot of it is about defeating your mental condition. If you believe ‘Nah, I’m never gonna be able to play that’, then you never will. If you say ‘Wow, that is really, really hard but I’m gonna work on it’, depending on how much determination and time you put into it, then you can actually do it. I’ve proven it thousands of times.
Do you apply this approach to other areas in your life?
G.H.: Yeah, it’s about finding a creative solution to a problem. Like the other day, a friend of mine said he’d like to do an interview with me if I’d be at this certain show, a show that I couldn’t attend. He wanted to do a podcast, but he didn’t want it to sound like I was on the phone. You hear a lot of such interviews and they’re horrible. I wasn’t able to go to him, since he lives in Germany, I wasn’t able to be at the show either but I had an idea. I recorded myself on the microphone at home, in my studio. He records his microphone at home, in the studio. And after the interview I send over my recording and he’d have to synchronize the two recordings to make it sound like we’re in the same room. So this is a simple, creative solution. The more you start to find solution to your problems, the better you become at finding the creative side of them.
Yeah, it applies to my job a lot when solving bugs.
G.H.: So it’s the same with drumming. So you have a creative mind for problem solving. Some of it has to do with drumming, some with general life. You just get good at becoming creative.
But in order to come up with these ideas, do you just wake up dreaming of numbers or patterns or? Do you listen to a lot of new music?
G.H.: No, not really. The creative ideas are usually inspired by ideas that are not necessarily related to music. I’ve said it many times in interviews about architecture, about design. You’re walking past a shop that sells watches and you’re looking at hundreds of watches and they all do the same thing, right? But some of them are beyond the functional. Some of them have a beauty to them and they would catch your eye. It has nothing to do with the price or the name, it’s something about that watch that makes you think that watch got an elegance, a beauty to it. Of course it tells the time, they all tell the time. But I think musically you try to do the same thing. You try to find beautiful, elegant solution. You could just play a standard four-four rhythm, in every four-four song. You can just play boom-pam-boom-boom-pam in every song and some drummers do. But actually you can find simple, creative and interesting solutions which make you think differently about the music and that’s something I do with Pineapple Thief or King Crimson and something I did with Porcupine Tree. I’d say it’s to find the less obvious path and to design something unique for each song.
I guess this pretty much answers my question which is ‘what is the main challenge in playing the music that you do?’
G.H.: I try to find an interesting creative solution in every song
Is it because you get bored to just play four four?
G.H.: No, no I’m not bored to do so. I just think I can play something more original. The classic four four rhythms are great, but not original, you have heard it a million times before. So maybe I can make something for Pineapple Thief, a rhythm that you have never heard before. Nor that I’ve never heard before either. And that gives the band an identity and it also brings my personality through into the music, without playing fast or complicated in a way that I’m trying to take the focus onto me from a technique point of view.
I guess at the end of the day that’s what music has to be about: personalities. Else, it’s just copy paste and that’s when it ends up being boring. You did participate in composing music for the latest Pineapple Thief release, Dissolution. I’m wondering how is copyright actually working in today’s music making. The songs are composed by how many people?
G.H.: In the case of Dissolution, just me and Bruce.
So you’re the two copyright owners. That easy…was thinking it’s a more complicated story involving everyone
G.H.: Making a contribution to a song which has already been written, you might call it arranging. If you write the chords and an idea of a bass line, then the bass player comes along and he plays something slightly different to what your demo was, that doesn’t necessarily becomes part of the composition from the copyright point of view. Strictly speaking, the only things that are copyrightable, are the lyrics and the melody. This is by law, and I don’t agree with it because you can write a completely original drum rhythm and in the eyes of the law it has no legal place in a copyright. However, most of the songwriters, including Bruce, would agree with you about a division, or percentage of the song. For example, on the previous album, ‘Your Wilderness’, the songs were already written and I just played drums on them so then I get no copyright/publishing rights in that case. So it is actually a rather complicated affair.
Ok, so you say it’s the two of you who composed. How much are you contributing with? Do you write for other instruments as well?
G.H.: Yes, sometimes. I play keyboards, I play guitar, I play bass. Bruce plays all those things too. It’s a mysterious process. And we’re not in the same room, we live like four hours away from each other. It’s a very internet based relationship. Sometimes we speak on the phone and I tell him ‘I’ve written this section, I send it to you, I think we could use this after the second chorus, this section could go here, tell me what you think’ or something like that. Later, he phones me back to tell me what he thinks, or maybe he makes some changes, sends it back to me for another evaluation and so on.
Does this composition or creation process ever ends? Or do you constantly get new ideas?
G.H.: I think you have to understand when it’s completed. Otherwise you’ll never stop writing, recording nor mixing. You usually have a deadline. We thought we could write, record, mix and master within about six to eight weeks. Bruce was very optimistic and I tried to contradict him. And it took six months, even if I have my own studio, Bruce has his own, Steve records keyboards at home and John records his bass at home.
But it would have been different if you would have used another studio that gives you a fixed deadline?
G.H.: If you’re talking about money, yeah, that’s the case if you go in a big studio. That’s what we did thirty years ago. We went into big studios and it used to cost lots and lots of money and you had to live with it whether you liked it or not because you’d run out of money at some point. In today’s world, where you have a home studio, I can record for five minutes or five months, the costs are very small. But you have to recognise a point where you think ‘This is about as good as it could be. I’m happy with this. Probably I can keep recording over and over again and make it like one percent better. But I would lose some of the innocence and some of the energy that I had when I started recording it.’ You can go too far, that’s for sure. You have to see when it doesn’t get better and it just gets worse.
Do you find yourself trying to make sounds out of everything that you encounter in your way? I’ve seen some videos by this Swedish drummer, Morgan Ågren and he just finds items in the kitchen and starts making groves with them
G.H.: Yeah, I know him and I’ve done stuff like that. I actually made a video in my kitchen about sixteen or seventeen years ago. I played the toaster, the sink, some kitchen utensils. The video is online actually.
G.H.: Yeah. I have pretty bad tinnitus. I’ve got ringing in my years constantly. And you can’t get rid of it. In the beginning, when I was playing with Iggy Pop in 1986, my ears would be ringing at the end of the night but it would be gone in the morning when I’d wake up. As I got older, I’d wake up in the morning but the ringing hasn’t disappeared. It’s just all day long. Recently I’ve telephoned to the tinnitus hotline
Oh, there’s one?
G.H.: Yeah, but it’s just ringing and ringing
Damnit, you got me there. Guess this is one that works every time.
G.H.: It’s one of my favorite jokes and it works every single time.
But tinnitus doesn’t necessarily affect the hearing itself.
G.H.: No, it’s not deafness. I can still hear when I rub my fingers together. I don’t think I’m going deaf more than anyone else my age. But the tinnitus is bad. I blew my ears up twenty-thirty years ago. I was playing crazy volume without any protection, for too many hours in a day. The damage was done and there’s no way back.
If I go back to the earlier idea about how you come up with new rhythms. I am wondering, do you try to play it straight ahead as you imagine it or do you also have to find ways around it, slow it down or something?
G.H.: You try to play from the beginning exactly as you expect it to sound, and then it falls apart. And then you try again and it keeps falling apart. So that’s when you see you can’t do it like that, and decide to slow it down and simplify it and this is where it helps to read. You can write the score and you immediately see the moment where you have the problem, and where some coordination problems might exist. That’s the point where it always seems to fall apart. It’s normally a combination of hand movements to feet movements. So you need to identify this problem, and make a new, much simpler, exercise, to address the problem. Then, when you go back to playing the original thing, you can actually do it.
Are you a schooled drummer?
G.H.: I had lessons when I was a kid
But not like university or so
G.H.: No, no, there was no university for, let’s say, drums set. When I was at school in the seventies, in England, there was no way you could go to the university and study drums. You could study classical percussion but not drum set. Now, there’s schools like Berkley and there’s drum schools or schools for rock’n’roll instruments, but back then they didn’t exist.
Besides the ‘progressive acts’ like Porcupine Tree or Pineapple Thief, or King Crimson (where there is less about composing new music), you did release some own compositions so far like the rearrangements for the brass ensemble (Cheating the Polygraph) or the works with 05Ric. Do you still find the need to compose new music yourself these days after being done with those? Where do you find yourself now from this point of view?
G.H.: It’s important that everything I do is new. I don’t like going back into the past and situations that I’ve already done many times. But I also have a very loaded schedule. I go home after this tour, take those two weeks off then I start rehearsing with King Crimson. In January I would probably start to work with Bruce on a new record. The process takes so long until it’s written, until it’s recorded, mastered, until the record company is ready to release it and so on. It could be more than one year. I also have limited amounts of free time that I can dedicate to this process anyway. There’s the second part of the tour with Pineapple Thief at the end of February, there’s some recording projects in January, then there’s a lot of time booked with King Crimson, the summer will probably have some festivals here and there. So you see, it’s barely any time left and I have to start managing my time something like eighteen months to two years in advance.
Do you miss those days when you were just taking whatever drumming job came at you so you can make ends meet?
G.H.: No, not at all. And now I don’t really work for money anymore. My life changed maybe fifteen years ago when I realised that I had some money and I would rather buy myself some freedom than a big car. It’s more important that if I don’t want to do a job, then I say no. That was the first time that I was able to control the path of my career. Before that time, you’d just have to say yes to everything because you needed money. But now I don’t wanna do that anymore. I’ve played with so many artists and tours, you can see a list of them on my website. But I’ve done that kind of thing, now it’s more interesting to me to be involved in a collaboration with a band than to be a session musician playing behind a singer.
Dissolution. What’s your favorite song?
G.H.: It kinda changes from night to night. But I enjoy playing White Mist, that’s good fun. I also enjoy playing songs from Your Wilderness, but it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy playing the even older songs on our playlist. That is good fun for me.