Peter Erskine’s career would make a great movie. A drumming prodigy at age four, the New Jersey native was featured on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour Show. At seven, he attended Stan Kenton’s summer clinics and was taught by drummers Louis Hayes, Alan Dawson and Clem De Rosa, future Weather Report bandmate Joe Zawinul, and former Kenton trumpeter Marvin Stamm.Erskine went on to graduate from Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and studied at Indiana University under percussionist George Gaber. He was in the Stan Kenton Orchestra from 1972 to 1975, and later, played with Maynard Ferguson until moving to Los Angeles to join the jazz fusion pioneers in Weather Report in 1978. He recorded five albums with the band and won his first Grammy with their album “8:30.” Erskine left Weather Report in 1982 and moved to New York City, where he worked for five years with Michael Brecker, Mike Mainieri, Eddie Gomez, and Don Grolnick (later, Eliane Elias) in Steps Ahead. Erskine later joined John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Marc Johnson in Bass Desires, the John Abercrombie Trio, and Bob Mintzer’s Big Band.
Based in Los Angeles since 1987, Erskine now travels the world regularly, performing with a diverse range of artists including Diana Krall, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Kate Bush, Seth McFarlane, and Sadao Watanabe. He won a second Grammy Award drumming for the WDR Big Band in Köln with Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, and Vince Mendoza for the “Some Skunk Funk” album. At home in LA, Erskine now works with such artists as Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane – who is an accomplished jazz vocalist; film and TV composer Patrick Williams, and John Beasley, Bob Sheppard, and Benjamin Shepherd, who are members of Erskine’s Dr. Um Band.
Erskine also produces jazz recordings for his own label, Fuzzy Music, which has four Grammy nominations to its credit. He is a prolific author of a number of instructional and general interest titles including, “No Beethoven: An Autobiography & Chronicle of Weather Report”; “Time Awareness for All Musicians,” “Essential Drum Fills,” and his recent “The Drummers’ Lifeline,” co-authored with Dave Black, vice president of Alfred Music Publishing.
Erskine is the Director of Drumset Studies at the Thornton School of Music at USC and is authoring a series of iOS Play-Along apps suitable for all instruments. He was honored with an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music in 1992. In 2015, Erskine was part of the orchestra that performed the soundtrack for the film La La Land, which won six Oscars and seven Golden Globes, including Best Original Score and Best Song in both awards; he performed the score recently in Korea.
Erskine shares his experiences of creating music for films and television, the impact of jazz on movie and TV scores, versatility within the drummer’s craft, the musician’s life in film and reality, and how practitioners of jazz “pay it forward,” for each other and the next generation of players.
You’ve played since age four – how did you choose the drums?
I heard a lot of jazz around the house. By the time I was born, my father was a psychiatrist, but he had been a bass player. He fashioned a drumset for me out of a Chinese tom tom and a conga drum from Havana.
I asked my dad, “Can I start taking lessons?” when I was five. We went to the music store and the guy who happened to be teaching that evening was this remarkably gentle, patient, and swinging drummer, a man named Johnny Civera. He just passed away a few years ago, he was in his 90s.
What early impact did jazz have on television?
When I was growing up – I’m 63-years-old now – I was part of that generation that was watching TV in the late 1950s and all through the 60s. Just about every television show, drama or comedy, had a jazz theme or a jazz-tinged theme because all the writers as well as the studio players all had jazz backgrounds.
It could be McHale’s Navy, I Dream of Jeannie, Peter Gunn, or Johnny Staccato – tons of shows utilized jazz. Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato had actual musicians onscreen. So that meant, in addition to all the variety programming – Ed Sullivan-types of shows, the daytime talk shows – [there was] a lot of jazz being broadcast. On top of which – CBS primarily – made it a mission [to feature jazz], between the Leonard Bernstein/New York Phil broadcasts and the Jazz Omnibus series.
Back in the day, there were three major networks and PBS, and jazz was just part of everyday media life. Even commercial radio had these kind of swingy jazz [themes]. It started to change in the 1960s and the vehicle for expression, especially for young people and political movements, shifted over more to rock than jazz, but jazz kind of adjusted. You had jazz rock and you had fusion. The jazz musicians were energized and excited by what was taking place in the pop world. All of sudden, pop records were really leading the way in terms of sonic innovation.
How did you begin playing for TV and film scores?
My studio work in terms of television and film has always been [less than] many of my colleagues. I just didn’t get called that often and whenever I did, I would consider it “pennies from heaven.” So, I never relied on the studio thing and I never became part of… I would almost venture to say a slave to what that required in terms of staying in town and monitoring who hired you and who didn’t, and making the most of your networking. I didn’t worry about it that much. If somebody called me, fine. If some other drummer did it, I was happy for him or her.
That said, I began getting called for a lot of the dates [in the 1990s] that would require specific things. I get called for a lot of films to play the Gene Krupa “Sing, Sing, Sing” floor tom thing. Another example, Glengarry Glen Ross. The wonderful late Jeff Porcaro was the drummer on that score. Larry Bunker was playing the vibes and percussion – he was a wonderful brushes player.
They were recording Al Jarreau singing “Blue Skies” at a very fast tempo, and for some reason, John Patitucci and myself were called in for that – I don’t know who gave them my name. We cut that [in] the first take and they wound up using the bass and drums of the song in one of the scenes within the film.
Meanwhile, there were some composers who liked using me – George S. Clinton called me for all three of the Austin Powers soundtracks. More recently, I got to work with Alexandre Desplat on The Secret Life of Pets, which was a lot of fun. It turned out when I went up to him and introduced myself, and said, “Maestro, thank you for the music,” he was like, “No, no, no – thank you.” He was a fan.
One of my first films was with Patrick Williams, a wonderful jazz arranger who is also a wonderful film composer. And it was a film called “Used Cars,” it’s funny as hell. Working with Pat was a thrill – I was a fan of his while in high school, I had all of his records.
So, we’re doing what they call a source cue. A source cue is [for example] when characters are in a scene and a radio is playing in the background. Is it a car radio, a TV thing, or is it a live band? To me, the drumming would be different. I asked Pat, “Is it a band playing? Or is it on the radio?” And he said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s a source cue.” I was kind of like the actor who asks, “What’s my motivation?” Pat: “It doesn’t matter!”
By contrast, when I worked with George S. Clinton, he would explain every scene and they really did try to dial the performances into the context. In the case of Austin Powers, we were spoofing a 1960s-era British spy movie. They recorded the drums in the room with the other instruments and we were looking to get leakage. They used mics they imagined would have been used at Abbey Road or a BBC studio.
What is leakage?
In the old days, all the instruments would be in the same room at the same time. Then they started using gobos. A gobo – it possibly stands for “go-between” – is an abbreviated term for a wall you set up in a studio to help isolate the sound of a guitar amp or a drum set. Then they started putting patio umbrellas above the wall of gobos around the drummer.
Eventually, they started putting the drummer in a separate room. When you’re in a separate room, you tend to play differently than when you’re in the room with the other instruments because when you’re in a room with the other instruments, those microphones are going to hear it too.
When other microphones hear it, depending on the distance, what you play becomes much bigger and potentially, less pleasing. When you listen to old film scores, for example, the drums… they’re playing just what the music needs, they don’t overdo it. In later years, when the drummer got into a booth, he or she would start overdoing it because they could make it softer or louder or whatever.
So, they were looking for that leakage [in “Austin Powers”], so the drums wouldn’t sound so pristine. It was more like you hear them in the distance as well as up close. It’s more natural, it’s just the way movies sounded back in the day, when everyone was in the same room.
What were some other memorable studio gigs?
The biggest thrill was getting a call to work with John Williams. The first film was Memoirs of a Geisha. I don’t even know if they specified Memoirs, but I got the call [saying] it would be at MGM, which is now Sony. So I went on the internet to find out what film John Williams was working on. I saw that he was working on Memoirs, but also that he was slated to compose the music for Spielberg’s Munich.
I thought if John called me it must have been in the context of my improvisational jazz work, because otherwise he could have called any number of players. Then I thought it might be period music because I’ve got a bit of a reputation – you can see that drum set there – I’ve dabbled a bit in period stuff and I know enough about it to respect the style.
I sent a period kit and one of my contemporary improvisational jazz kits to the studio. I thought, it could be an action film like “Munich” – I’d better send a drum set [for that]. So, I sent three drum sets to the studio. I showed up early because I had to figure out which kit to use. And the engineer said, “Your drums all sound great. Too bad you’re not going to be playing any of them. You’re going to be in the main room with the other percussionists and the small orchestra … on Japanese o-taiko drums.”
The skin is thicker than a normal drum head and there is very tight tension. And the drumsticks are much larger than regular drumsticks. These all belonged to a percussionist named Michael Fisher, he has one of the great collections in Los Angeles of Japanese drums.
One of the Japanese music advisors had also recommended me because I had gone to a fundraiser in Little Tokyo and there was a taiko group that I had worked with a few years earlier. They [invited me] to come up and play. Someone videotaped it and the [music director] saw it and thought, “That guy knows how to play [o-taiko].”
Meanwhile, I’m excited to meet John Williams. I don’t know how to address him, so I ask one of the harpists, “Is it John? Is it Mr. Williams – is it, ‘Maestro’?” She said, “It’s always ‘Maestro, only Maestro.’” So, he walks into the studio and says, “Peter.” I said, “Maestro.” He said, “No, no – call me John.”
He points to the set-up of the three drums and the music cues. He said, “Let’s look at this first cue.” It was about four pages long, and in 6/8 time. I’m looking at it, and he said something very interesting. He said, “I’d like you to approach this as if you were a Japanese Buddy Rich.” Which is funny, but it immediately clarified what he wanted. So much of what he writes is informed by jazz. [Most] percussionists will play a pretty straight-up-and-down rhythmic approach. A jazz drummer will play a more legato dub-buh-duh-ba-duh. It’s more how we hear the music, and John wanted that.
The most instructive moment of that session was during a short break. John was dictating a change of notes to the two harpists, writing it down as he’s composing in his head. When he was done, he asked them [to play it]. So, he counted off and the two of them played it. And his response was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever heard.
Instead of saying, “That sounds good,” he said, “That’s going to look real nice.” Here’s a musician, and certainly the greatest living film composer that I can think of, who sees and hears what he does in such a cinematic, filmic sense; serving the story, because he has enough confidence in his writing.
It blew me away. I remember that I came home and said, “Whatever else I’ve done, it was like playing with the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.” I did another film with him, The Adventures of Tin Tin, and that was a very demanding, very specific [score], very jazzy. The main title alone is great – that it didn’t win the Academy Award that year blew my mind.
When [Steven] Spielberg was in the room, Williams instructed the ensemble – it was a small orchestra – not to attempt to add any feeling or interpretation to maximize the expression. The maximal expression would result if we played exactly what was on the paper. That’s not a direction you normally get. You wouldn’t believe how challenging that is to do and keep it the same.
What is unique about this period drum set?
That drum set is from 1935 and I got it from the Pro Drum Shop in Hollywood. I like to keep that set up as a reminder of where drumming has come from. That’s a 28 -inch bass drum. It’s a tom-tom, made in China. There’s a contraption on the bass drum pedal that will simultaneously strike the cymbal if you want. There’s no hi-hat. In later years, they came up with the snowshoe or low-boy, which is the pair of cymbals near the ground that drummers played. Gene Krupa was instrumental in bringing the cymbals up so that they could be played with the sticks, the hi-hat cymbals. The time-keeping was done mainly on the drums, not so much when the ride cymbal became more prominent, in swing and definitely in bebop.
While jazz was prevalent in film or TV scores of the 20th Century, how has it been represented more recently?
Before La La Land, there was Whiplash. Damien Chazelle, the director, played drums in high school. He suffered a lot of anxiety and I think he had a pretty demanding instructor, [although] nothing like the Marine drill sergeant psycho personality [portrayed in Whiplash]. I was involved with a DVD packaging of the film. They wanted to include, as one of the additional features, interviews with different drummers on what their education was like.
I said, “A film about a drummer. Maybe I should watch it first if I’m going to make comments on the DVD.” So, they sent a messenger with a watermarked version of the disc, and I watched it and said, “Good lord, what did I just agree to?” The thing I really disliked about it was that it didn’t convey a hint of the joy that musicians get from playing – that’s why we do it.
Damien approached it as a psychological thriller and that was the setting for it. But I was asked my opinion by KCET and they asked a few specific questions. Yes, [Whiplash is] exciting to watch, but no way was it anything like real life. Most people appreciated my point of view and other people said, “Hey, lighten up – it’s only a movie.” That’s fine, I admit as much. But I was openly critical of the film.
How did this lead to being chosen for the La La Land orchestra?
I figured I had completely burnt any possible bridge to ever work with this talented director. He is talented – they shot Whiplash in 17 days or something like that, a pretty remarkable piece of filmmaking. But – typical Hollywood – when you come out and voice your honest opinion about something, they seem more than eager to win you over somehow.
I got called to work on La La Land. Damien might have just been a fan of mine. I don’t want to think that he bothered himself reading that KCET piece, but it was ironic to get called to work on his next film. I was feeling a little bit self-conscious, but he was very gracious.
We didn’t get to work too much with him, because this was before the Academy Awards and Whiplash was all of a sudden, the talk of the entertainment industry and he was constantly being pulled out of the recording studio [during] the La La Land pre-record to do Skype interviews. We were left in the capable hands of a film music producer. He was aware of how the music would play in the film and that what we do, [matches up with] what’s being done by actors onscreen.
During a lot of the pre-record, it seemed to me they were still trying to figure out the tone for the characters in terms of onscreen. I asked, “Who’s the drummer onscreen? Is it an older guy?” “No, it’s a young guy who’s trying to prove himself.” So, I tried to play it like a younger, less discreet drummer would do it. But when I saw the scenes in the Lighthouse, it was an older guy – I totally got that wrong. Me and my questions!
Did they record all the musicians separately or together as an orchestra?
The [jazz] combo was done separately and then the orchestra was [recorded]. They were doing sessions at Warner Brothers and we were doing ours in Hollywood at a smaller studio. Then they added some things – I didn’t even recognize my drumming in a couple of spots because they added some electronic drumbeats to give it more punch for the dance pieces.
On “Another Day of Sun,” the first part of it [was played by] a wonderful drummer named Gary Novak. Then I was brought in. It starts off, “dee-dee-dee-duh-dee-duh-dee-dee-dee,” and then it goes to jazz. I went to put my part in, I’m counting and listening to the metronome – we call it a click track. I count and I play my little fill-in. I got all the way to the end, and they said, “That was good, but we want a bigger fill.” I said okay and did it again – played the fill, played the whole cue. They said, “We want a bigger fill.” I was getting irritated. I said, “Look, if you don’t like what I play in the beginning, just stop me – don’t make me play the whole damned thing.”
So, I counted and said, “Here I go – here’s your big goddamned stupid fill,” and that’s what they kept. I recall how peeved and angry I was when I played it, and during the Golden Globes, they kept cueing that up every time somebody went up for an award.
Do you think La La Land may have awakened a consciousness in audiences that may not have previously paid attention to jazz?
They made a film that tapped into something people really enjoyed, and I think it was a pleasant release from everything else going on in the world. Anything that uses jazz is to be celebrated, and if it turns more people on to [the music], that’s great.
I don’t think that there have been too many films that have been able to utilize jazz and escape criticism, whether it’s the way the musicians’ lives are portrayed, the accuracy of the craft of playing the instrument, or the actual music used. A film that gets it very, very right – but it’s a documentary – is I Called Him Morgan. Among musicians we all said, ‘Yeah, that’s how we remember it.” The tone of it is very close to what we do.
What do you think compels your students to study jazz?
Jazz is not something you decide to do because you think it represents a smart business decision or life planning. I think it’s the same for most music, but very much for jazz because of the amount of time that you need to commit and dedicate to learning the craft of it.
It’s a passion. Among all the students I have, the ones who succeeded are the ones who are truly passionate about the music. And it could be any style of music [where] that would be an ingredient for success. If I sense that there isn’t any there there [with a student], it doesn’t surprise me that they usually wind up finding another avenue to pursue in the music business.
What inspired you to create the Fuzzy Music label?
It’s like that MasterCard commercial. The cost of making an album: $6,000. The cost of promoting an album: $10,000. The enjoyment of making your own musical decisions: priceless. We’ve been doing that for almost 20 years. No single project has ever earned enough money for me to take a vacation, but I have a respectable catalogue of music, and we do wind up making money.
Years ago, I was given some advice by someone in the music industry, a drum head manufacturer. He saw me running around [playing gigs] – which I still do – and he said, “Peter, you have to find a way to make money while you sleep.” And so, I started writing, I started working with instrument manufacturers on the design of new instruments. I started composing.
You wear a lot of different hats, and you also try to create not only legacy projects or items to be known for, but something for your family. I have a wife and two children. The children are 31 and 36 now, but they’re still my kids and I always want them to be taken care of. So, we make all of our choices based on what’s going to be best for the family.
Having said that, my wife has always been supportive 100 percent [saying], “Play the music you want to play.” I’m happy that I get to teach at USC, I’m grateful for the opportunity. It’s an excellent school. It functions as a very powerful magnet – we attract some of the best players. Look at our faculty. Most music schools have one or two of us. We’ve got a roomful. We not only have hundreds of years of experience combined and the passion, but we are all active in the recording industries as well as live performances.
And, students have the value of your providing the proverbial foot-in-the-door…
It would take two hands or more for me to count the number of students who are working in the field, who I have given work to – “Hey, I can’t do this job, will you cover and do it for me?” Then, boom, they’re in.
I love being part of that process. Jazz is not the only thing that does this, but jazz is very much the music of “pay it forward.” We were given the time and the advice and the benefit of the experience by great jazz musicians. It only feels natural to pass that along. I’ve never run into a jazz master who was stingy with his or her time. They’re always sharing the benefit of their wisdom because it’s their passion.
Drummers in particular, have this. My wife has said on repeated occasions, “I’ve never seen a group of people, or musicians specifically, like drummers.” In essence, we’re all competitors, but we all share our trade secrets. We’re happy to show [each other], “How do you do that?” It’s not like I’m not going to show you because I want to be the only guy that can do that and therefore, become more valuable.
That’s not the way we think. And it keeps you sane. If I get called to work on a film, great. If I don’t, I’m happy for the other drummer. If you run into a great player, [they are] a talent to celebrate and hopefully make a part of your musical circle.
What are you most looking forward to now?
I’ve got some interesting projects coming up. There’s a classical composer who utilizes quite a bit of jazz in his music, named Mark-Anthony Turnage. About twenty years ago, we did a piece called, “Blood on the Floor,” featuring John Scofield and myself, a saxophonist named Martin Robertson who’s a British musician, and Ensemble Moderne, a chamber orchestra based in Frankfurt, Germany.
Since that time, I’ve worked with the Berlin Philharmonic, the L.A. Phil – I’ve done a lot of orchestras. Mark wrote me a concerto for drumset and orchestra. He was my kind of doorway into the classical world. I had studied it in school and I’m beginning to play with these great orchestras. I’m doing a concerto in December in Tokyo with an excellent orchestra there. And I’m playing with another orchestra in October with the pianist Makoto Ozone. We’re going to play [Leonard] Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety,” which is a piano concerto.
Do you think that there is a greater appreciation for jazz outside of the United States?
I don’t know. Yes, it’s certainly very possible to do a one, two, or three-week tour of Europe with a jazz band, where in the U.S. it’s pretty difficult. In Italy, we play free concerts in town squares and they’re packed with people. In America, you’d have trouble getting a crowd. At the same time, you see concerts at LACMA and they’re jam-packed. So, it depends a lot on good promotion as well as playing at a place that has a built-in audience.
Jazz was never that popular [in the U.S.], but it was more prevalent by the time TV came along. They used it in ads for everything. But in general, the arts get more support in Europe. They recognize that you have a healthier, happier society when you have art. You go to London and you don’t pay to go to a museum.
Their governments make it a mission that they want the people to be educated. It’s a smart investment. That’s why I’ve never minded taxes. If that means that the people I encounter every day aren’t stressing about their health care or are a little smarter, that’s better for me.
For Peter Erskine’s KCET interview on Whiplash, click here.
© MMXVII Joanie Harmon
From the forthcoming book, “Making Life Swing: Jazz on TV and Other Unexpected Places”