Growing up on a mix of R&B, pop, rock, and country, David Northrup, originally from Syracuse New York, moved south in the early ’90s playing sessions and gigging the Florida club scene. One of those gigs led him to meeting and working with ace session guitarist Les Dudek.
by Billy Amendola
In 1994, Northrup was called in to finish tracks for Dudek’s recording Deeper Shade Of Blues, when drummer Jeff Porcaro sadly passed away before finishing the record. In 1995, David made the move to the Nashville scene, where he lives and works today.
MD spotlighted this hard-hitting smooth-in-the-groove pocket player when he first appeared in the On The Move column back in October ’96. These days David hits the skins for one of country music’s biggest stars, Travis Tritt.
MD Online caught up with David in between tour dates with Tritt. And although David’s been featured in a live DVD and has been touring in Travis’s band for almost five years, as of this interview he hasn’t had the opportunity to record with the country superstar. So we start our conversation on that topic.
MD: Can we talk a bit about the Nashville recording scene? It seems to be the norm for producers to only work with players they’re familiar with, as opposed to members of the artist’s live band.
David: Well, I understand, because I’ve been on the flip side, where I get called in to do a session with a producer that I work with all the time. The producer knows how I work and we kind of have chemistry and rapport in the studio, so rather than working with somebody he doesn’t really know?. Plus you have the clock ticking and the money to consider. And sometimes it’s unfortunate, because so much of what’s coming out of Nashville is sounding the same – because it’s always the same people. It’ the different chemistries you get from a live band that would actually translate to something fresh in the studio, but that idea hasn’t caught on. I know Billy Mason from Tim McGraw’s band is on Tim’s record, maybe that’s the beginning of something new here in Nashville. Who knows? We’ll see what happens.
MD: How long have you been with Travis Tritt, and what led you to this gig?
David: I’ve been with Travis for four and a half years. Since moving to Nashville in ’95, the studio scene was my focus. But 2000 started out really slow, and I kind of decided, “This is crazy, I’m going to starve.” So I started asking people, “Hey if you hear something, I’d like to go out on the road.” I found out that Travis was auditioning drummers through a friend of mine that I was playing with at the time, and he turned me onto Travis’s manager. I sent a package to him, but thought nothing of it because you hear about this stuff all the time. But he apparently knew who Les Dudek was and knew of my work with him, and he thought that was cool, contacted me, and said, “Hey, we’d like you to audition.” I was like, “Yeah!”
Two days later they called me back and said, “After you audition, would you also be interested in hanging out and doing the auditions for the other players coming in?” And that was really great because not only did I get to play with Travis more than anyone else did, I also got paid for my time – which I thought was very professional. It was a no-lose situation.
My audition ended up being the first one they did, and Travis and I just hit it off. He’s a real fine musician and a strong guitar player. It’s a certain few people I’ve worked with that have that energy about them. When they get on stage, they can take everybody they’re working with up to a different level. Travis is one of those guys. It’s something special, that star-quality.
MD: How do you stay in shape when you’re on tour?
David: Whenever I can, I like to find a YMCA and swim laps. If there’s not one around I’ll find a treadmill in the hotel and I’ll walk for twenty minutes and then run a mile – just a little cardiovascular, a lot of stretching, just to keep my blood flowing. I notice it a lot in the show when I’m not working out.
MD: Do you do drum exercises, warm-ups, before you go on?
David: Oh yeah, definitely. I carry a drum pad with me all the time and always try to find the time. I’d say at least forty-five minutes to an hour before the show I’ll start warming up my fingers and stretching. Then I’ll do doubles, singles and exercises out of Gary Chaffee’s technique book to get my hands to loosen up.
MD: What was it that made you want to play drums?
David: I don’t know – it was one of those things. I started playing when I was in fifth grade, but I remember from a real young age that I’ve always been intrigued. I remember barely being able to sit at the table, but I had the coordination to keep my right hand going and play two and four with my left. I kind of recall the first time I sat behind a drumset as a kid, I could comfortably play a groove.
MD: Did you start taking lessons?
David: I started taking lessons in fifth grade, and I played all through high school. I studied privately in tenth grade with a guy named John Dixon, who went to Crane’s School of Music. I also studied with a guy named Frank Briggs, who’s a phenomenal drummer. He was in a local band in Syracuse called 805, who were on RCA records for a few years. He lives out in LA now and does clinics. He also has instructional books out on Mel Bay. He’s one of those guys who’s not only a phenomenal player, he’s really gracious, very patient. He was a big inspiration for me growing up. Frank was one of the first guys who helped me figure out what I was going to do. Whenever I had questions about the business or putting a r’sum’ together, he was always very helpful.
MD: It’s great having friends like that in your corner.
David: Big time. Playing is only part of the business. Having a personality and taking time with people – giving back – is really important. You don’t realize all this until you get older. I also studied with Chuck Silverman a bit – there were many teachers over the years.
MD: What was your practice method like? Would you study with books and also play along to records?
David: Oh yeah, all the time. That was probably the biggest thing that I always did: Michael McDonald, Toto, Steely Dan, Pete Townshend’s White City – that’s when I discovered Simon Phillips. At that time The Police were huge and I became a big Stewart Copeland fan. David Gilmour’s About Face album was when my love of Jeff Porcaro began. I started noticing him on all the records I was playing along to.
When I started formal lessons, I worked out of the Stick Control book and Jim Chapin’s book, and then later Gary Chaffee’s books. Then the instructional video boom took place when I was in my early twenties, so I started getting into the Dave Weckl and Steve Smith videos. David Garibaldi was also a very big influence on me. Young kids today have so much available to them. And it’s a good thing because the bar is going to raise a few levels in the next few years. My twenty-month-old son, Miles, can sit behind a kit and just dat-dat-dat-dat, play single strokes, and it’s kind of spooky. It’s like, “Big deal, dad, why don’t you get a real job?”[laughs]
MD: Let’s talk a bit more about your influences.
David: John Bonham, Steve Gadd, big time – a lot of the early Paul Simon stuff, Steps Ahead, and Rickie Lee Jones. Jim Keltner was another big influence, Carlos Vega. I love the groove guys who pay attention to the song structure and song building. One of my favorite albums is James Taylor Live, the double CD that Carlos played on. It’s seamless playing, just incredible!
Then there’s Barriemore Barlow from Jethro Tull – majorly underrated player – I love his playing. Then later on I got into Dave Weckl and the Elektric Band, then Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers. I remember when I bought John Scofield’s Blue Matter CD. I thought it was skipping. I was like, “What is this?” It was so wild. Coming from a pop-rock background and all of a sudden discovering that was like, “Oh, my God! This is out there!”
MD: Let’s talk about your relationship with Les Dudek and his record Deeper Shade Of Blue, which Jeff Porcaro and you both played on.
David: That experience was amazing. Not many people know that Les started out when he was nineteen with the Allman Brothers. He played the guitar solo on “Ramblin’ Man.” And he also worked with Steve Miller and then Boz Scaggs on Silk Degrees, and that’s where Les met Jeff Porcaro.
When Les got his first solo deal, Boz produced it and Jeff played drums. So this began their friendship. Years later, in 1990, when Les started his record Deeper Shade Of Blue, he called Jeff again to play on it. Then Les went on tour that summer with Stevie Nicks and put the record on hold. Unfortunately, before they resumed recording, Jeff passed away.
I was living in Central Florida at the time, and one night I was playing a small blues club in the middle of nowhere, and unknown to us, Les Dudek is in the audience listening. So after the set, he comes over to me, introduces himself, and says he liked my playing. Now, his name sounded familiar to me, but I really didn’t know much about him. But he wound up sitting in with the band that night, and then we hung afterwards talking. He mentions that he’s finishing up a record, and has one more song to track. He wanted to keep the drum track in the same vibe and style as the rest of the record. So I’m like, “Yeah, cool.” I’m young at the time, so I’m trying to be the cool cat. [laughs]
In passing Les mentions that the original drummer was a good friend who had passed away. So I ask him who it was and he says Jeff Porcaro. I nearly fell off my chair. Now I’m really trying to stay cool, but inside I’m like, “Oh my God!” So we exchange numbers, and I go home and wait. Three days later, I get a phone message that the session’s a go and to get back if I was interested. I saved that message for months.
So, I go to Orlando, we do the track, but we run into a problem here and there with one of the other parts and I’m thinking, “Oh no, they’re not going to use my track.” But Les redid the part himself and we went with it. In the meantime I was getting to know Les and we were hanging out more and more. Les really knew Jeff and told me some great stories. In time we became friends and he let me sit in when they were mixing the record. They would solo Jeff’s tracks, and man, here’s Jeff coming through the speakers like he’s right there. You could hear him lay down his sticks on the floor tom after finishing a track, and you’d hear him breath and say, “Let’s go check that one out.” And I’m sitting there like, “Holy cow.” It was surreal.
MD: How was it working with bassist Anthony Jackson on the Blue Zone project in ’96?
David: Another great experience! I had been in Nashville a year and a half, and a buddy of mine that I knew in New York was in a band that Anthony Jackson was in. Their drummer quit and they were looking for drummers, so I auditioned. Obviously knowing a few people in the band helped me get in with them. It was a short-lived situation – maybe three, four months – but I had a chance to work with Anthony for a few weeks and rehearse with him. He’s a really gracious man.
I think I learned more in those few weeks than I did in four years of playing. Anthony’s all about groove. He had some really good tips. He told me to record myself live, so I started recording myself. Even when I went on an audition, I’d bring a little handheld recorder and see how I really did. He told me, “Man, just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll figure out where you’re going.” I had some great conversations with him. He talked about playing with Simon Phillips and Dennis Chambers, who at the time were two of my favorite players. We talked about working with Gadd. It was a great experience all around, I was amazingly blessed. And obviously, as I get older, I appreciate all of that even more.
While we’re talking about bass players, another great cat I had a chance to work with in Nashville was one of the Motown legends, Bob Babbit. That was also quite an experience. We did a few sessions together, and that was just too cool.
MD: How would you describe your own playing? Some of the CDs you played on have a lot of R&B flavor to them.
David: I just kind of gravitated to that R&B vibe. I’m a big-time Marvin Gaye fan. Benny Benjamin is another big influence of mine. Growing up, my mom used to listen to Barry White all the time, and that was R&B session great Ed Green. Upon moving to Nashville I had the wonderful privilege and pleasure to study briefly with Ed.
MD: You’ve got a really good feel, and it’s obvious you go for the emotion of the song.
David: Thank you. The chops thing I’ve always loved, but it’s never really been my bag. I’ve always really dug the guys that just lay in the pocket and groove. Gadd, for instance, has more facility than ten drummers put together, but he just lays it down and is very, very select about where he places things. It’s not what he says, it’s what he doesn’t say. It’s like Miles Davis said, “It’s not just notes, but the notes between the notes.”
MD: So, when you go on an audition, are you required to show your chops, or do they say, Play these songs?
David: Well, there you go. They want you to play songs. For the majority of the auditions I’ve had, I’ve prepared by playing as close to the record as possible – feel-wise, tempo-wise, drum fills – to a T. I try to get it as close as possible just to give them the comfort level to know that this guy is good enough to figure out the record.
MD: Have you ever gone on an audition where they said, Let me hear a drum solo?
David: I can’t say that I ever have. I know in rehearsal, jamming opportunities sometimes come up where you’ll trade 8ths with the bass player and you get a chance to speak a little bit and just screw around, but not really at auditions.
MD: Let’s talk about the “country” drummer being different from the “rock” drummer. If you’re playing with a country artist, would you not do certain things because it’s too rock ‘n’ roll, and vice versa?
David: Yes and no. And I think this is true with all genres. The way you lay into a cymbal on a country or a rock gig is definitely going to be different from the way you would on a jazz gig.
I think there are certain feels that you should master that you can utilize in all different styles. For instance, a country shuffle is different from a blues shuffle in terms of where you place the backbeat. If you’re playing a blues shuffle, you want to lay it back a little bit – a little bit greasier, a little more fatback. On a traditional country shuffle you want to lay right in the middle of the beat.
I think a lot of what’s going on now in contemporary country music is really just ’70s rock. It’s the same stuff we were listening to with Dan Fogelberg and The Eagles. Maybe it’s a little different now because it’s more pop-sounding. But it’s just 2 and 4; it’s not as square as it used to be. It’s still cookie-cutter, but it’s got a little bit more life, a little more grease.
Good examples of guys who are making it their own, and making the drums sound different in Nashville, are Greg Morrow and Chad Cromwell – two of my favorite Nashville guys who are actually both from Memphis. They come from that background, that kind of swampy thing. It’s a little more intricate, a little bit more interesting. Chad especially is truly a musician: He plays parts that are supportive of the song. Matt Chamberlain is another example of that, and Shawn Pelton. Guys that make me say, “I quit!” They’re too good. [laughs]
MD: Do you get a chance to practice these days?
David: Not nearly as much as I’d like to. With having to make phone calls, return emails, it’s like being in a business for yourself. You’ve got to let people know you are alive and do the networking thing for the session scene. Trying to continue to stay afloat in the Nashville scene is a lot of work, especially if you’re on the road. That takes up a lot of my time. And then being a father and a husband, I have those obligations, which are very cool. So I don’t get to practice nearly as much as I’d like to. To the young guys: Take advantage while you’ve got the time.
MD: When you do session work, what’s the procedure? Do the producers leave your parts up to you, do they have a chart for you to read, do they play a demo?
David: A good 75% to 80% of the time the charts are already sitting out and they have an idea of what direction they want to go. And usually there’s some sort of a roadmap demo. On occasion a singer/songwriter might be there with an acoustic guitar, and he or she will strum chords. “Are we going to do a half-time feel – is it going to be a shuffle or straight 8ths, – you determine that sort of thing. And then you try a few different things to see what works.
MD: Would you say that it’s important to read, then?
David: Oh yeah, big time. When I first moved to town that was a rude awakening, because it was something I ignored from early on. I’d learned to read in my formative years, but I just didn’t put that much effort into it.
Occasionally, if I don’t have conflicts with Travis, I’ve been called to fill in for people at the last minute. In a lot of those situations I don’t even get to rehearse with the band, and I might only have two days to prepare for it. You’re basically just thrown up there on stage, or you have a soundcheck the day of the show and that’s your rehearsal. To be able to pull something off like that, unless you’ve got an amazing memory, it’s never going to happen. I have to write it out. And then being the drummer, you’ve got the responsibility of counting people off. Even if the drums don’t start at the top, you’ve got to know the tempos.
MD: Do you use a metronome or follow a click?
David: I use both a Rhythm Watch and a Boss DR-770 drum machine. There are a few songs that I actually have little loops in my ears that I play along to. They don’t play to the house, I just have them in my phones. Sometimes I’ll just have a percussion loop. There are maybe four or five songs that I play to a click. For the rest of it I use the Rhythm Watch.
And there’s some ebb and flow, which is nice about Travis’s gig. It’s not just the manufactured Nashville sound everybody uses – perfectly-time coded. Music is not rocket science. It’s supposed to get a little emotional, and the chorus or the bridge might rise a little bit.
On the other side of the coin there are some songs that really need to be kept honest, and it’s good to play to a click to keep everybody right on it so it doesn’t get out of hand or drag.
But look at all the Motown stuff. Benny Benjamin – come on, you can’t get any fatter than that. You should be able to have enough control and good enough internal time that you can have little nuances to your playing and it won’t matter. There’s nothing wrong with perfection. It’s a nice thing to try for. But it’s also important for drummers to know that it’ okay to have things feel natural. That’s why you probably wanted to start playing music to begin with – because of the way the music made you feel.
For more on what David is up to check his Web site at, www.davidnorthrup.com.