This is an exerpt of my column “The Weekend Warrior” in DRUMHEAD Magazine.
It was 2003, about 4am on a hot, humid Sunday morning in Atlanta, GA. I was on a long struggle of a drive from a gig when I got a text from my friend and occasional drum tech from earlier in the night. The NAMM show in Nashville was closing up that day in Nashville. He was going to leave for the show at 7am in order arrive at 10am and he wanted to know if I wanted to go with him. I had about a hour left in my drive. So, get home at 5 am. Maybe fall asleep by 5:30am. Get up at 6:30am. Leave for Nashville at 7am and take in the NAMM show on about 1 hr of sleep. Hell yes! I texted him back that it was a go. In fact, I was using a rental car so we might as well get the most of it, as long as he drove. So at 7am sharp, he arrived at my house and we left for Nashville.
For those of you that haven’t been to a NAMM show. The best way I can describe it is sensory, freakin’, overload. Noise coming from 360degrees of your brain’s audio lobe, gear stacked to the ceiling surrounded by lights constantly distracting your eyes with constant visual stimulation, people shouting over the noise, laughter, and dealin’, dealin’, dealin’ going on at a frantic pace. It’s the perfect place to be on 1 hour of bed sleep and 3 hours of off and on doze sleep in a tiny ass rental compact.
We arrived at the show. I grabbed the largest $5 black coffee I could find and made my way up and down the aisles and aisles of gear. I caught up with some friends that you only get to hang with about once or twice a year, which is the best part of the show. Around 4 or 5pm, many of the exhibitors started packing up after a long weekend and tearing down the booths.
A store owner friend was finishing up ordering cymbals from Zildjian and decided to buy all the cymbals at the booth. He asked us if he could pack some of the cymbals into our rental for us to take back to Atlanta. We said, “Of course!” He told us to hang out as it was going to take a bit for them to pack up all the stuff. How long? It’ll take at least an hour or two. Sigh. I was tired but what the heck. My tech walked away with the store owner, so I chilled out at one of the last tables and chairs still standing in the convention center after grabbing another coffee. I sat there for about twenty minutes and I got a tap on the shoulder. I turned around and my life was about to change.
“Do think any one will give a crap if I have a smoke?” It was Freddie Gruber. THE Freddie Gruber. I had only read about him in interviews with other drummers and how he had an amazing impact on their drumming. “I don’t have a problem with it Mr. Gruber. Take a load off.” I said as I stood up and pulled out a chair for him. “Call me Freddie” he responded. “These shows just really wear me out.” he said in a tired voice as he took a drag from his Marlboro light 100, “Thanks for letting me sit with ya.” “My pleasure and honor.” I responded. “My name is Kent.”
He asked me about myself and what I had going on. He took a real interest in my drumming which really woke me up from my tired state. We talked and talked about the show and things we saw, liked, disliked, etc. Then we started talking about drumming and when you really talk about drumming with Freddie Gruber, it’s a deep conversation.
I started telling him about the different techniques I had been researching, especially the Moeller whip technique. I started talking about the different rudiments I was working on to build up speed and endurance. He said “Got some sticks? Show me what you’ve been working on.” So I grabbed the sticks from my backpack and started working triplets on my lap.
He grabbed my hand, put down his smoke, and said “Do you dance man?” I said, “Yeah, for a white boy, I’d say I have some moves.” We both laughed. He said, “Do you dance when you play?” I didn’t really know how to answer him. If I’m playing the drums, how could I possibly be dancing. I responded, “I guess I’m playing to make other people dance.” Freddie then begins. “Did you go to school dances when you were a kid? Remember how at the beginning of the night, no one would dance. Everyone was too nervous. But then it happens. Somebody starts to dance. Next thing you know, the dance floor is full of people dancing, smiling. Be the guy that starts the dancing.” I was sitting there with my mouth open, maybe drooling, in a mind melted confusion that is often talked about when first meeting and working with Freddie. “The drummer is a dancer. Drumming is a dance.” He then started stomping is right foot and clapping. “The whole drum set design and sound is based around dancing. The bass drum is the stomp, the snare is the hand claps.” This all started to make sense to me. Kinda. “So when you are playing, if you allow yourself to truly dance behind the kit,” he starts to dance is his seat while singing “da dada da” in a swing feel, “you are being the first person to dance and soon the rest of the people will follow.”
Remember, I’m on an hour of sleep, after 8 hrs of a NAMM show, my brain is already a mush of overloaded information. In a way, I think my mind being in that state was allowing what Freddie was saying to me to really sink into my subconscious. It was like my brain was a softened sponge and it was absorbing every word Freddie spoke.
We talked, and talked, and talked about drums and life in general only taking a break to light another smoke. He then started talking about drummers he had seen while he was in town. I started talking about all the amazing guys with chops I had seen during the day. “Chops?” he said. “Chops are useless unless there is feel behind them. Feel is everything. People feel what ya play. When you can make people feel a certain way when the see you play, then you’ve really evolved into a great drummer.”
At this time in my career and my practicing, I would spend at least an hour or two a day focusing on speed, different fast fills, rudiments at faster tempos, etc. “How do you feel when you play?” he asked me. I responded, “What do mean?” He repeated, “How do you feel when you play?” I responded, “I guess I don’t know.” “Do you feel free?” he asked me. “I guess I’m so focused on what I’m playing I haven’t ever thought about it.” He said, “You just found the key if you want it.”
At this point I’m starting to hallucinate from sleep deprivation as the one to two hours waiting on the cymbals I’ll be transporting back to Atlanta to be packed was well into hour two and it’s going to be another hour. “Freddie? Ya’ wanna get some fresh air?” I asked him. “Absolutely.” He said. “Let’s step out side.”
We walked through the mobs of people packing up gear in a frantic pace. Freddie continues to teach. “See how everyone is pushing so hard to get everything packed?” He asked. “Yeah.” I responded. “Do you ever feel that way when you play?” he asked me. I had to really stop and think about how I felt when I play. “Ya know Freddie? I really do sometimes feel that way. I feel like I’m always trying to think one note ahead, one song ahead. I’ve been told by fellow musicians that I play on top of the beat. Some of them loved it, some of them wanted me to lay back. Laying back is really hard to do.” Freddie responds, “Not when you are free.”
We sat down on a bench right outside the back of the convention center near a large loading door that was being left open to allow folks to load out stuff. This way we could be outside but yet have some air conditioned relief from the hot July in Nashville heat.
“The true masters of music can take you on a trip, to a place, when you listen to them play. I just caught this cat in the city and when he played, it felt like an eagle soaring off its nest. Whoooooooooooooooosh.” He said while using his hands to imitate a bird in flight. “So if that is what it felt like for us in the audience listening to him play, how do you think he felt? Or a better question, where do you think he was at? What place was he in? The world is a place. The universe is a place. We are surrounded by places to go. But many of them it’s up to us to go there. If we allow ourselves to go there, then we can take the audience with us. But first you have to have the patience to see the place, respect, it and live there. It’s right now.”
The only way I can describe what I was feeling at this point was that this is how Luke had to feel upon meeting Yoda in the Dagobah system. I was listening, trying to decipher Freddie’s code of speech. He continued. “The groove is a place. It has a top, it has a bottom, there are endless places to hang out in a groove. You have to be able to check out all of it before you can really live there. Right now you are just living at the top, looking down into the groove not actually going in to check it out. If you want to lay back, you need to live at the bottom of the groove for awhile. But, you can’t do that if you are always thinking ahead. You have to feel that moment, that place in your playing, and live there. Chops, notes, are not important. It’s the place those notes live in that is important. The air, the emotion, the feeling around the note makes it real, makes it a feeling. If you master that, then you will truly feel everything you play making notes, techniques, all the other stuff, effortless.”
“Hey Kent, it was nice meeting you. Care to help me hail a cab?” he said while standing up slowly from his chair. “Absolutely Freddie.” We walked back through the convention center. All of the exhibitors were finishing up their packing and many of them were starting to wind down, and relax from a long weekend. “Remember how this room felt last time we walked in here?” Freddie asked me. I said, “It’s much calmer now.” He responded. “Can you feel it? Do you feel the calm?” I said, “Yeah.”
We stepped outside and I hailed Freddie a cab. He turned to me and said. “It was nice meeting you Kent. How do ya feel? Do ya still feel the calm from inside?” I said “I really do feel good. Thanks for sharing some time with me.” He responded. “Welcome to bottom of the groove. Hang out for a while. Enjoy it. Respect it. Live in it man. Good Luck.” I said “ Thank you Mr. Gruber.” He replied, “Call me Freddie.” and he gave me a hug goodbye.
I went to my rental car and pulled it up to the curb where folks filled every space with boxes of cymbals. I fell asleep as my tech drove us back to Atlanta and we dropped the cymbals off at the music store. The next morning I woke up and started to drive the compact rental back to the rental place. Driving down the hill of my apartment I hit the brakes as I approached a stop sign. “GGGGGGGGGGGGrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnndddddddd!” I guess driving a compact car back from Nashville, through the mountains, loaded to the gills with metal, is bad for the brakes and we, absolutely, drove the the rotors off the car! Shit! What the hell was I going to do? The rental place is going to charge me for the brakes. I’m screwed! I remembered then what Freddie said. I focused on staying calm and not thinking ahead as I pulled it into the rental car place. “Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnd!” the car shouted as I pulled in to a parking spot right in front of the rental associate. He looked at me in a state of shock. I said in a very calm voice, “We drove home from Nashville last night and it started making this noise after the mountains. I’m sorry.” His look of despair instantly turned to a smile and said “We’ve noticed brakes wear fast on these cars for some reason. Not to worry man. Thanks. Have a good day.” I then left without a scratch and absolutely relieved and even more calm.
Did my calmness change the situation? Did I bring him to my place of being? Did he feel my calmness? Everything Freddie said to me was starting to hit me in the face. I realized then that the reason I didn’t quite understand what Freddie was talking about at times was because I was too busy trying to figure it out instead of just taking it in and hanging with it, in his place. No different that when I was playing. I was constantly trying to decipher the groove into notes instead of just being in the groove, truly enjoying it, respecting it, and living in it.
That night I played my local house gig. Before the show, I allowed myself a moment of calm. I relaxed while playing my practice pad. Not warming up, but actually playing my practice pad focusing on staying in a calm place. My hands started to feel looser than they ever had, my arms felt great, I was in good spirits. When I started to play, I forgot about notes, I forgot about technique, and I just danced and sure enough, the crowd followed. I was the first one to dance. I was in the place. I hope to never leave.
RIP Freddie Gruber. I know you are in a good place. Hangin in it, livin’ in it, making the spirits feel groove and dance. Thank you.