Any musician’s first tour is a special memory – usually several months on the road with friends playing in front of a few interested fans. A lucky performer might head overseas for a run of shows. And that must have been what drummer Keith Harris thought was going to happen when he got the call from Black Eyed Peas musical director Printz Board, asking if he wanted to come along as BEP toured to support Elephunk.
If only he knew.
In 2003, when The Black Eyed Peas released Elephunk, it was difficult to predict that the collective of four MCs (Will.I.Am, Apl de Ap, Taboo, and Fergie) and band (guitarist George Pajon Jr. and multi-instrumentalists Tim Izo and Printz Board) was sitting on such a powder keg of success. Yet on the strength of such breakout hit songs as “Where’s The Love?,” “Hey Mama,” and “Let’s Get It Started,” the band became one of the most in-demand acts of 2004.
Over an eighteen-month period, The Black Eyed Peas played close to five hundred shows, including appearances at the 2004 Grammy Awards, the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Saturday Night Live, Pepsi Smash, and the 2005 Superbowl, not to mention the many globetrotting treks that took them across the States and to Australia and Europe. That’s quite a first tour.
“We did some three hundred-odd shows last year,” Keith Harris says, right before the band is about to play another one-off show in Los Angeles. “Sometimes we’d do three shows a day – and for like seven days straight. We were flying from coast to coast. It was really, really tough, and it was my first tour. I figured if I made it through that, I could make it through anything.”
Harris had better get ready to live up to those words. Monkey Business, the band’s fourth album, is due to be released shortly. “I think this new record, from the songs that we’ve recorded so far, is more of a coming-out for the band, and it shows our maturity as a whole,” Harris insists. “It features all of us playing on it, and I think it has a really good vibe. Elephunk fans are going to enjoy it, and I think it’s probably going to do even better than that album did.”
Harris, a New York City resident, was first introduced to Printz Board when the musical director was in New York playing a show with Star 69, an act he was producing. In fact, Star 69 was in need of a drummer for a one-off gig. “We had rehearsals at SIR and then did the show at [NYC club] B.B. King’s,” Harris recalls. “Everything went well and Printz said we should keep in contact. And then, a couple of weeks later, he called me about the Black Eyed Peas gig.”
Perhaps Harris should have picked up a clue of what was in store for him upon joining BEP, since the first show he played with them was in front of 20,000 people at the Coachella Music Festival. “Their manager sent me their albums Behind The Front and Bridging The Gap [Elephunk had yet to be released] on a Tuesday – I didn’t even have a chance to sit down at the set to practice any of it’they flew me out on a Thursday, we rehearsed two days, and the show was on a Saturday. I had to learn thirteen songs in two days. So I wrote out my little hip-hop charts, my little cheat sheets, and I had them right next to me on the floor, because, of course, no one in hip-hop has a music stand.”
Harris survived being thrown to the lions thanks in part to how he got his start behind the kit – playing drums in his church’s band. “I come from a Gospel background,” he explains. “Having to learn songs fast is part of the everyday life of a church musician doing Gospel music. A lot of times we would do concerts where there was no sheet music and we had thirteen songs in different styles. So just being able to absorb music quickly and keep it locked in is how I’ve learned to approach music.”
In fact, Harris carried the church metaphor into explaining how he relates to the four-MC attack of BEP. “The guys in front are kind of like choir directors,” he explains. “In the church, the choir director is the person who directs the choir and the band and keeps everybody on cue. You have to watch all of his movements and sometimes you accentuate those movements, to bring out certain feels in the music. I apply that same concept to BEP music, because it’s a live band setting where you always have to listen to what’s going on in front of you.
“A lot of times I’m watching them, listening to the lyrics, and trying to Mickey Mouse certain rhythms as well as lock down the groove with the band,” Keith continues. “All of those things have to be meshed together to do this gig, and that’s why I love it, because it’s always spontaneous. We’ve been playing the same set, give or take, for a year and a half, but every time we play the set it’s different. It always has a new energy, because it all depends on how the guys up front spread their energy to the crowd and to us.”