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Bass Musician Magazine Featuring Damian Erskine / June 2011 Issue

Damian Erskine… Climbing the ladder to greater exposure in this industry is more than ever a complicated paradigm to try to construct. That being said, I fall to a comment that I heard 30 years ago from guitar legend Pat Martino, who basically said that if you persevere and stay true to your art, true to what you do, people will find you.

Damian Erskine in my opinion is a sterling example of that premise. Hard work, perseverance, and an unbridled dedication to his art has caught the attention of those concerned enough to keep an eye out for artists who are challenging music’s limits in some small way. His latest recording effort, Joy Luck, featuring Peter Erskine and Vardan Ovsepian, is a testament to his work ethic and continued devotion to his axe, and his art.

Seriously concerned musicianship for all the right reasons seems to be a bit of a seek and find adventure these days, and I’m recommending Damian be added to that deserving list. Be sure to read through the entire interview, as widening your musical perspective is the heart of what this musician speaks of.

Jake: Let’s start off talking about your latest recording endeavor, Joy Luck, with Peter Erskine and Vardan Ovsepian, a harmonically rich, sensitive, and extremely musical effort I might add. This must have been a milestone for you.

Damian: Thank you. This recording (as well as the tour in S. America which preceded it) was definitely a personal milestone for me.  I grew up watching Peter play with so many of my favorite musicians. I had always assumed that, although I knew music was going to be my chosen path, I never thought that I would be lucky enough to work with Peter professionally.  Partially, this is because I had never thought of myself as being in the same realm artistically as Peter or the bassists I’ve seen him play with (Jaco, Marc Johnson, Palle Danielson…the list is endless). I’ve also always been solely an electric player, and by the time I was somewhat “up and coming”, Peter was primarily working with uprights bassists in much more acoustic and musically sensitive settings. It was quite a pivotal moment for me when the realization came that I was very much up to the task and could actually contribute something to the sound.

I was somewhat taken back when he asked if I could swing by his house while I was in LA to try out a new trio with pianist Vardan Ovsepian. Quite honestly, I thought, “Well, of course I’ll come by, but the electric bass is just the wrong voice for this material”. I was pleasantly surprised at the immediate connection we had as a group. The music, which is very much an extension of Vardan’s unique (and astoudningly beautiful) voice on the piano, is quite compelling and sensitive, and I was amazed at how well the electric bass worked. I got chills more than once as we ran through a range of material and I found myself playing tunes I had listened to most of my life from Peter’s ECM releases, etc. It was a thrilling experience for me in so many ways, and Peter’s insights into both the music and the way it is to be treated and respected has been immensely enriching for me.

Jake: What do you feel was more or less the focus of your intentions as you prepped for this recording?

Damian: I have the benefit of knowing Peter well (he was always “Uncle Pete” to me before he was “Peter Erskine, drumming legend”) so I knew that my role was to support the music as much as possible. Playing with Peter is an act of reduction for me. I really tried to center myself and put my ego aside and serve the music first and foremost. I knew that as long as I was serving the music and not trying to do something to impress anyone, it would work…and it does!  Beautifully. I really just focused on internalizing the music.  I listened to the demos and any previous recordings of some of the tunes daily while driving to gigs or walking my dog. I played the music daily at home to make sure that I didn’t have to waste brain energy on execution of any unison lines, etc. I wanted my whole brain involved with nothing but listening and reacting musically while recording this material. I really focused on the life of every note I played. There are times when I may be playing nothing but half-notes, but I wanted to put every bit of myself into making those half-notes sing.

Jake: With that being said, tell me about your overall focus within your practice time. There are so many variables as far as what to give your musical attention to these days, many that seem to be almost a 180 philosophically. What are your thoughts?

Damian: My focus these days tends to revolve around being 100% focused on what the music is asking of me. This means that I spend time working on getting different tones and sounds, fine tuning articulations, but it also means that I like to spend time on working through anything that gives me fits on a gig.

I work with an immense number of different people in every different kind of setting. Playing over 200 gigs a year, I spend much of my time simply preparing for one gig or another. When I sit down to actually practice something, it’s usually because I stumbled over one thing or another on a gig, or have trouble with a passage or chord progression while preparing for a gig.

Whenever I come across anything that feels difficult or unnatural for me to play, I try and break it down to it’s simplest parts and really focus on it until it becomes more familiar. Quite often, for me personally, it usually winds up being a matter of figuring our how to solo melodically over a given set of changes. I’m very comfortable in my role as a bass player, but have always felt a little bit on thin ice when it comes to soloing, so I spend a lot of time trying to feel more comfortable over certain chord types so I can relax my brain and just play when the time comes (as opposed to thinking so hard that it’s hard to actually listen and interact in a musical way).

For example, one of Vardan Ovsepian’s tunes, “Every Tomorrow”, has a bass solo over a set of chords that I just could not play over in any kind of naturally flowing way. I really was struggling with the changes and figuring out how to connect the chords in a way that didn’t leave me feeling like I was jumping from chord to chord playing one bar ideas for each. I made a loop of the changes and spent hours simply playing arpeggios or scaler exercises over the chords before moving on to inventing little voice leading exercises for myself over the changes. Eventually, after spending hours simply trying to find commanality from one change to the next, I simply looped the section and practiced playing melodies and long lines through the changes. Sometimes I would simply noodle and solo over them for 20 minutes at a time.  I just wanted to internalize them and hear them and begin to see the thread that connected them all together. Eventually, the changes began to make sense. It’s still a hard solo section for me, but I continue to work on it. I have an innate fear of not sounding good which leads me to a stubbornness with my practice. If I can’t do it well, I obsess over it until I begin to “get it”. My goal has always been to be capable of anything asked of me either immediately on the spot or, definitely, by the next time you hear it. I think that some make the mistake when they hear an inspired performance that the player is simply a genius, and therefore able to play this way or that way. The truth is, it is all just a matter of work ethic and dedication to your art. I’d venture to say that there is no genius, only hard work and intentional practice. If someone rebuts, “how could Mozart then do X by 6 years old”, I’d say it was becuase he was made to work 6 hours a day on it since he was 4. All genius can be tracked back to hard work and thousands of hours spent fine tuning one’s abilities.

Jake: Tell me about your latest book “Right hand Drive”, and how that weaves into your overall approach as well, which I most certainly hear signs of on Joy Luck.

Damian: The book started initially as a small booklet that I wrote on the road. It was born out of a number of emails I was getting asking about one thing or another, usually in regards to soloing.  Some time later, it was pointed out to me that I was doing a lot of things with my right hand that people hadn’t seen done (at least in that exact way before), so I decided to try and expand the book.  I broke down the essence of what I was doing with my right hand and reverse engineered it into a discipline. Essentially, I had developed a 3 finger technique. MANY people assume that it is a 4 finger technique, but I only use thumb, index, and middle. It’s more akin to a banjo technique than the Matt Garrison 4 finger technique that involves muting and a lot of rhythmic complexity.  I had developed a series of rudiments (like a snare drummer), essentially, breaking down different fingerings in rhythmic groupings of  2, 3, 4, 5, and any other combinations contained within. My goal was for my right hand to simply be capable of anything I asked of it. This isn’t so I can blow chops all over the place, but rather so I’m just not limited physically. I want my ears to be the only obstacle I have to make good music, not my hands.  Many of the techniques I employ or used in very subtle ways and have a certain arc to the sound. Dynamics and an understanding of space are all important to using my right hand stuff musically.  There are times when what I’m playing could easily sound like a machine gun lick, but instead sounds more like a flowing wave of sound because of the emphasis I place on dynamics and flow.

Jake: I know you keep extremely active in the social networking world. How important is that these days to ones career building architecture in your opinion?

Damian: There are a million ways to get it done when it comes to gaining exposure in the music industry, but social networking is incredibly useful for me personally. The key thing that many people miss when it comes to social networking is that it is a SOCIAL experience. You can’t expect to get a million friends a sell-out your shows thanks to facebook or twitter if all you do is post gig notices online. I got into it because I very much enjoyed the music community and love chatting and dialoguing with other musicians and bassists. Because I’ve formed actualy relationships with people, it has worked for me in that regard. I’m reached a much broader audience than I might have otherwise, and I’ve made a TON of great friends. I’ve gotten gigs, recording sessions, DVD shoots, etc, all from my youtube videos, myspace, Facebook, twitter, whatever it is. Also, when someone says “so and so mentioned you so I looked you up online and MAN…  you’ve got a ton of stuff up there…You’re everywhere!” It does give a little bit of extra “street cred” I suppose, when there is a bit of saturation. I don’t use it as a tool as well as many, but that’s because I don’t want to get disingenuous with it. I really like it because of it’s ability to connect me with a larger community of musicians and people who are passionate about the things I’m also passionate about.

Jake: Your compositional prowess has shown signs of being on the move as I heard on your last CD So to Speak. Where does this ageless and sometimes mysterious process sit in your musical landscape these days?

Damian: It is a never ending quest for me to develop compositionally. “So To Speak” was literally the first 8 tunes I’d ever written (all written just prior to recording the disc). It really started as a personal challenge to myself to explore what voice I may have compositionally (love it or hate it). I’ve since written about 9 more tunes and hope to do a live CD this summer with my current band. The lineup now is just ridiculously talented and they really play the living hell out of my music.

I’ve always loved Picasso’s quote, “I only do that which I cannot do so that I may, one day, be able to do it”. That’s kind of how I’ve lived my musical life. I never say no to a gig out of fear, and I always try and rise to any challenge, instead of hiding from possible failure. In order to grow, you have to risk failure, and I’m much more concerned with growing musically than I am being successful at it. I’ve always figured that once I’m good, it’ll happen anyway, so I don’t worry about success so much as I do mastery, and composition is certainly an aspect of musical understanding that I felt I had to immerse myself with.

Jake: I’m going to grab a quote out of my book from Alain Caron that I’m sure you’ll relate to, that being: “In my opinion, a good musician will be influenced right away when hearing different and varied musical perspectives from other cultures.” Your thoughts?

Damian: That’s for sure! I’ve been realizing lately that I’m actually more influenced in a literal way (the way I play) by what I listen to than by what I transcribe, and I’ve certainly become obsessed with music from other parts of the globe. I’ve long been enamored with African and Cuban music for obvious reasons (rhythm!). But lately, I’ve also found myself seeking out music from Israel, Turkey, Eastern block countries. I’m fascinated with  how many ways one can perceive and approach both harmony and rhythm…I eat it up!

Jake: Do you find yourself giving any attention, I guess I’ll say consciously or sub-consciously, to the always conceptually tricky development of “your voice” on your instrument, and do you feel this is a component that merits some type of attention?

Damian: I’ve never really thought literally about developing my own voice. I have always assumed that if one works hard enough to get to a place where they are really playing the music from their own perspective, and not just regurgitating someones exact lines or approach, that it’s inevitable that your “voice” will come naturally and organically. I think it’s virtually impossible for someone to come to a place of understanding with music and develop as a player without having at least a little bit of themselves in there. That being said, once certain things have revealed themselves to me as being fairly unique to myself, I do take a look at those things and try and develop them further (like my right hand technique) or, if I didn’t necessarily like that thing, come to an understanding of what it was, where it came from, and how I might better control or develop it into something more along the lines of my ideals for myself. Just like I hate the sound of my voice on an answering machine, there are certain things I can always recognize in my playing that I don’t really like. I’m not sure if that’ll ever cease to be the case, but it keeps me working hard to improve and try to become the bass player that I want to hear.

Jake: What’s coming up for you as of late that we should know about?

Damian: Aside from the CD release with Peter Erskine, and future tours with that trio, I continue to tour with Gino Vannelli as well as a number of different artists from one place or another.  I’m making it a point to focus on my band a bit more this year (they sound so good, I just can’t NOT try and get them out there) so I plan on recording a live CD in Portland this summer and will try and get some tour support for a European run. I get asked quite a bit to come to the UK and a few other countries, so I’m going to do my best to get out there and do it. Later in the year, Fuzzy music will also be releasing a really well done play-along series for the recording. I’ve been asked for quite some time for an instructional DVD, so I’m kicking around ideas for that as well. But with my schedule, there’s no telling when I’ll actually do it.

My advice would be to check my site occasionally for tour dates, book releases, cd releases, etc. I play with an average of 2 to 4 different bands per week at any given time, so it’s hard to say exactly what’ll happen when. I can say this…the Peter Erskine New Trio will be holding it’s CD release gig at Vittello’s in Los Angeles on June 4th, and the CD is quite beautiful. It’s such an honor for me to be a part of that fantastic trio, and I really encourage people to check that one out.

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