Interview with Aaron Spears
Interview with Aaron Spears
Aaron Spears has been inspiring drummers internationally since he hit the world’s stage playing for Usher in 2003. Aaron has held the drum chair on the American Idol tour since 2004 and his set at Modern Drummer festival in 2006 has since become a Youtube sensation. In 2009 he released his own DVD, ‘Beyond The Chops’, focusing on groove, musicality and technique.
MikeDolbear.com were honoured to interview the man himself to hear about his early years drumming in Washington DC through to his experiences of bowling with Tony Royster Jr…
How did you start playing drums?
I started playing at church; at home in DC I went to a Pentecostal church. The instruments we had there were bass, organ and drums most of the time. I was one of the kids on the front row waiting my turn. The older guys there did the playing. I had my sticks and I’d be ready but because I wasn’t old enough or good enough I just sat on the side and air drummed until church was over. Then I would get on the drums and try to play when I could until the people told me I had to stop. So church is where it all started for me.
What would you say was your way into your first ‘big break’ with drumming?
My first big break was probably playing with the Gideon Band, which is a gospel group out of DC. That was the first time I really got to play in a large setting with a band that were around my age and really passionate about music. Even though it was gospel, we covered so many different styles from jazz to rock. Even some stuff we played had undertones of R''n''B. That prepared me for the stuff that I’m doing now but it all started there with them.
Did you have any lessons when you first started?
For me, when I first started I just played everything by ear. It wasn’t until I got to middle school and high school that I started understanding notation and those building blocks to reading. I played in the concert band and the marching band and I also played in the jazz band so that was where that started. As far as formal training goes outside of that I did a couple of years in college but I didn’t really sit down with a teacher one on one; it didn’t work like that for me.
Who would you say your biggest influences were when you were growing up? I guess guys in church had a lot of influence on what you did?
Initially it was a lot of the church cats that I would hear play; cats that were playing with bigger gospel artists that were able to travel and they would have concerts that I would go to and check them out. People like Gerald Heyward, Joel Smith and Jeff Davis. As I got older I started to look in other places as well or I got hip to other places for inspiration. I got turned on to this video of Dennis Chambers, his ‘In The Pocket’ video and ‘Serious Moves’ and then also Dave Weckl and the few videos that he had. I remember ‘The Next Step’ and a few others that he put out on DCI. Also Vinnie Colaiuta; I checked out the Zildjian day in New York. That video really opened my eyes up a lot to drumming with Vinnie and Steve Gadd on there. That was epic for me to see so many different cats playing so many different ways. Vinnie''s approach to odd time and the way that he placed his licks had a major influence on my playing.
Creativity wise do you have any methods for fills etc or is it all from the heart?
For the most part it is from the heart when I''m playing on a gig. When I''m sitting down practicing I''m thinking about the stuff that I''m playing enough to get it down. I’m not necessarily that I''m thinking about singles or doubles, it''s not that contrived; it''s just what I feel and like. I try to work on different variations of where I place ideas cos I don''t want to play the same thing every time so I may break it up in different ways. That one I could show you better than I could tell you but when I''m practicing there''s more method to the madness.
Have you got any warm ups that you use before gigs?
Before the gig I don''t do a whole lot of warming up. I may sit on the side of the stage and run thru some basic rudiments for a few minutes. My tech is really cool so sometimes he has a practice kit set up on the side near his work station and I may play some singles between my hands and feet for a few minutes or I may run through some different rudiments for my hands but I''m not sitting down for 30 minutes to get hot, nothing like that.
Can you tell me your current set up for Usher?
I''m using DW drums in 10, 12, 16. I use a 7 by 14 as my main snare. I also have a side snare to the left that''s a 5 by 14 and a Roland SPD SX. My cymbals are Zildjian; a 20 inch A Custom EFX on my left, next to that is an 18 K Custom fast crash, in the middle over my toms is a 10 inch K Custom splash, my stack which is a 16 inch A Custom EFX crash and the stack on top of that is a 12 inch splash with holes in it that Zildjian made for me. My ride is a 22 inch K medium dark ride and next to that is a 19 inch K Custom dark crash. I use Remo heads; right now I have clear heads on the top and ambassadors on the bottom; the Emperor X on my snares and the new Powersonic Pro on my bass drum.
How did you get the Usher gig?
For me that came up ‘cause I was with the Gideon band and I had recorded a CD with them. A friend of mine, Gerald Heyward actually was listening to the recording of the band in his hotel room. I think he was in DC or on his way there and Usher''s MD, Valdez Brantley, just walked in to his room to say ‘What’s up’. He heard the recording and asked who was playing drums. Gerald told him about me and he asked if he thought that I would be interested in doing the gig. They called me and I told them, ‘Yes, I''d love to if the opportunity presented itself’. He asked me if I could make a video tape (VHS) of myself playing a few of Usher''s songs. I sent the tape in and I didn''t know it at the time but mine was one of maybe a hundred or so tapes that came in. They were auditioning for bass and drums and out of the people who sent tapes in the MD, Usher, his manager and his road manager at the time selected me to be his drummer.
What''s he like as an artist to work for? Does he have a lot of input?
He actually does. It''s cool ‘cause he''s an artist who understands music. He''s a studier of music and he loves all music, not just the stuff that he does or his genre. It''s a lot of fun to be able to have conversations with him and him talk about the vibe or feel of Empire Of The Sun or different people that I don''t think he''ll be into. He''s a lot of fun to work with. To have someone who understands how to communicate the importance of being able to shift gears or to set the tone, it''s not like an artist who says "I want to have more, I don''t know what exactly but make it happen". He''s not that type of artist, he understands and he speaks musically so we can all understand. He''s very music literate.
In all the videos I''ve seen he looks like he has a really good connection with you rhythmically; you get each other, which is great to see. Which of his songs do you particularly like to play on?
I don''t think I have a favourite. Whichever is the last song of the concert usually because it means the show is almost over so I can go home and chill! Most of the time there''s a big outro on those as well. To me every song is fun to play for one reason or another, either vibing with Usher or vibing with the band.
The band is amazing! I was trying to explain to someone that playing with this band...I''ve never done drugs before like that but to me I imagine it being like crack or something! When I''m not playing with them I miss it and when I''m playing with them it''s such a high. Music is my drug. I get so excited about it and playing with them really is the ultimate high. This band and Usher really are next level.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I''m in rehearsals with Usher. He''s going to be releasing a new record soon and he''s just released a new single. The single was leaked online but they haven''t released it yet, it''s called ''Climax'' and we''re getting ready for promo for that. We''re also going to South Africa in March, after that we''ll do a bit more promo, after that is the American Idol tour and after that we''ll be getting ready to tour with Usher again.
How do you arrange your schedule? Do you put the Usher gigs first or is it flexible for you?
For the most part I enjoy this gig so much. That one has my top interest right now because I really love it. The bond that we all have, it''s not as easy for me to get a sub as it is for American Idol or something else. I communicate really well with Usher and management about the things I have going on or what''s coming up and fortunately it has been able to work out. I''ve been doing American Idol since 2004 every summer but two years ago I had to get a sub because Usher was on a world tour so I had Gordon Campbell fill in for me for that. When I was on Idol they had a gig at the Essence festival, which is a one off so I got my little brother Jamal Moore to fill in for me with Usher, which was pretty cool. It''s just about communicating and trying to make it happen as best I can.
What are your future plans for work?
Right now I have a few months mapped out throughout the rest of the year but I''m not really sure what''s next. I really want to get into some clinics and stuff. People all over the world have been asking me to come to their country to do clinics so I''m going to try to tap into that during some off time. I''d love to go to the UK, all over Europe, Asia, South America, and even the Bahamas. I get hit up a lot through my Twitter and Facebook; it''s crazy.
It''s brilliant how the internet opens that stuff up
It''s so amazing! When I was coming up it was hard to just be able to know where your favourite drummer was born. That type of information wasn’t accessible and now through the internet we have the power to speak to people. For me it''s so cool to hear from someone that looks up to what I do or appreciates my playing and says, ‘Hey man, I dig what you said or played’. That means a lot. It''s very encouraging and I''m glad to be able to speak to them.
So many people check out your playing on YouTube. Are there players that you like to watch on there yourself?
I check out everybody from old clips of Tony Williams or Dennis Chambers or Vinnie. Just yesterday I was watching a clip of Dennis playing with a track from his old DVD where he had his longhair mullet with a cap on! That stuff is timeless, it’s incredible to watch. Even though it was recorded in the 80’s it still holds so much weight today with how precise and clean he was and how creative. Same with Vinnie. I was watching a clip of him playing at the Baked Potato and to watch him, even though this footage was older, the stuff he creates is incredible. I watch cats like that and some of the younger cats coming up now like Nick Smith and my brother Jamal Moore; his playing is inspiring. Young cats like that are going to be the next wave and to see their growth from where they''ve come from to where they are now is crazy. I also watch people like Thomas Pridgen; his heart is so big its just busting through his shirt when he''s playing! Ronald Bruner, Teddy (Campbell); there are so many people.
YouTube is such a great tool but my fear is sometimes people get caught up in trying to sound like their favourite person as opposed to taking their playing and morphing it into their own style or using small things. Instead of being a carbon copy of what they see they''re afraid to be themselves. It''s a gift and a curse but I love watching YouTube.
What interests do you have for your down time?
I really believe in balance, it''s so important. I like to chill and go to the gym or the movies. To me it makes my playing even more important when I can step away and relax. It makes me thankful to be on my kit and I appreciate it a little bit more. I’m not knocking people who play 10 or 12 hours a day, that''s cool for them but for me balance is the key and it''s important to do other stuff outside of music.
Do you play any other instruments?
I play my iPod and that about it! I wish I did.
If you could play anything what would you choose?
I think keys or piano. I''m amazed by cats that are really good at what they play and their ability to create. The two guys that play with us, Valdez Brantley and Buddy Strong, they''re incredible at what they do, the way they put sounds together and their ability to utilize that stuff. It sets the mood on so many different levels. I can remember different times where the mood in a room was tense or tight and Buddy or Val would pull up a weird or silly sound and start playing like something you''d hear at the circus to break the ice or the tension. It doesn''t work the same on drums! It''s not the same thing.
Even though the USA is such a big place the drummers there seem really close...
I have connections with a lot of drummers, maybe a lot of people''s favourite drummers but when we talk, drums is the last thing we talk about! We talk about life and families or what''s going on. It might be something that we saw or a performance we see each other do, places that we visit. ‘I''m on my way to Lisbon, where should I go and eat?’. Stuff like that. Drums are the only instrument like that where we can all get up and hang. A lot of times we have big events like the Grammy’s or big award shows. When everybody is in town and we''re all hanging we''ll go bowling. I wouldn''t say that we''re good bowlers but it''s just about the hang. Actually, that’s not true. Tony Royster Jr is an amazing bowler! Out of all of us he''s the only one that can really, really bowl; the rest of us are pretty bad. We found that out the hard way! I think it was me, Teddy, Gordon, Gerald and Ronald. We were all bowling and we were pretty rough except Tony who bowled strike after strike after strike! That''s the type of stuff we like to do; it''s like a brotherhood. We''re friends, we''re cool.
Interview by Gemma Hill
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