He’s as likely to be seen rocking out on late-night TV as he is in war-ravaged conflict zones, playing the role of state-sponsored cultural ambassador. It’s all part of a career defined by balance—between preparation and inspiration, commerce and art, emotion and intellect.
In his own words, Los Angeles–based drummer Mark Stepro faces a working reality that requires him to lead a double life. His studio work ranges from, as he says, “big, clicked-out, expensive pop sessions with Keith Urban, Gavin DeGraw, and Train” to “completely click-less, 100 percent live takes off the floor with Sara Watkins, the Mastersons, and Tim Easton.”
Then Stepro will hit the road with the likes of Adam Levy, Ben Kweller, Hayes Carll, or Butch Walker—Walker frequently uses him in the studio as well—supplying a down-home, steady, earthy pulse and just enough vivid colors to make whatever he plays on come to life. “I want to sound like me,” Stepro says. “And I want there to be just enough left-of-center moves in the performance that if someone was really paying attention and I was very lucky, they might identify it as me.”
Stepro grew up in Ohio, where he dug the Eagles’ Hotel California and Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever and figured, “That’s what drums are supposed to sound like.” After studying with a number of teachers, including famed University of North Texas educator Ed Soph and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, Mark moved to New York, and ultimately to L.A. Avoiding cattle-call auditions for the adolescent Disney artist of the moment, the drummer has managed to carve out his own niche, where he knows he’s getting the call for his thing.
“I don’t want to work for someone who doesn’t know my last name,” Stepro says. “I don’t have, nor am I interested in landing, a big gig, and I wouldn’t call myself a hired gun. I’m interested in being part of a group that’s established. I have five part-time jobs that add up to a career.”
MD: Was it always a goal to be affiliated with a producer, the way it has become for you with Butch Walker?
Mark: Was it always a goal? No, because I didn’t know any better. Now that I live in Los Angeles, and having lived in New York, aligning oneself with a producer in the studio…or, if you’re doing it right, a lot of producers…or, if you’re trying to do live touring with big pop gigs, aligning oneself with an MD—that’s the move. I fell backwards into my relationship with Butch. I knew his name as being associated with expensive records. I was playing a lot with Ben Kweller [when I met Walker]. Someone had given him my number, and he called me and asked if I wanted to come to the studio. I realized I didn’t know much about his music, and if I was going to an audition, it was going to be terrible! But he just wanted to hang out, and we talked about Creedence Clearwater Revival the whole time. And it went straight into band practice for this record he was doing. Really organic.
MD: You didn’t even play?
Mark: It’s a testament to Butch and his ear as a producer. With YouTube and the Internet, he could quickly see everything I could and couldn’t do. Which is why every gig you do, whether it’s a bar gig or Letterman, you have to kill it these days. The fact that I played on a ton of TV shows has nothing to do with what I can or can’t do on the instrument, but it sets a prospective employer’s mind at ease a bit. Butch has his own career as a solo artist, and he’s very Wrecking Crew–ish about the whole thing. He wants his own guys on stuff. I didn’t know that was his philosophy, and I got lucky to get called by the right guy at the right time. He kind of made me a guy before I was a guy.
MD: Does it change your approach now that everyone’s shooting HD video on their smartphones?
Mark: This is a new phenomenon, only five or six years old, really. I’m lucky that it came into reality after I spent my twenties playing a bunch of gigs that I sucked at. So YouTube came after I had matured as a player. And it has to be hard for younger guys—though some of them are weirdly embracing it, posting videos of themselves doing drum covers.
MD: Let’s talk about sounds. Your recordings with Gavin DeGraw, Sara Watkins, Tim Easton, and others have a flatter, deader drum tone. Is that something you love from the ’70s or just the nature of modern tastes and approaches?
Mark: That’s just the way I hear drums. My favorite drum sounds are like the one Jim Keltner gets on Bill Frisell’s Good Dog, Happy Man. Just low and slappy. And with Butch, we keep the drums well muffled because the guys on the big pop stuff are adding samples and sound replacing. People get into meticulous conversations about shell depths and plies, but then they still put maxi-pads on their toms anyway.
And it complements the style of music of the artists I play with. One of my favorite recording techniques is to tune the drums low and flat, turn up the mic preamps, and play really quietly, like James Gadson. Weirdly, it makes the drums sound way bigger than if you’re just barreling into them.
MD: Let’s talk about the difference between “Mark performing a function” and “Mark being Mark”—getting called for that serviceable timekeeping vibe as opposed to a situation when you can be more creative.
Mark: Last night I played a bar gig with a friend where we were doing Donny Hathaway music for people drinking martinis on a rooftop in downtown L.A. I always want to stay in touch with the craftsman element of it. There’s a real romance to that. I’m happy to do both of those things and dig a ditch for a guy, as long as the people making the music are great.
I’m lucky to play exclusively with people that I have respect for. If they ask me to just keep time on something, I’m happy to do it. That’s its own art form and requires its own skill. I did a record for a producer named Jim Scott, who’s got multiple, multiple Grammys. He wanted simple drums. I would start with something that I thought was groovy and cerebral and kind of hip, and he would systematically pare it down. His reference was a cool track on ’70s FM radio, and if a drum track pokes out and self-identifies, that wasn’t right. But in the band Taurus, it was fulfilling to really create something and not have to wear the hat of “side guy making his employer happy,” and to just ask myself: What’s the most interesting drum thing I can get going on here that won’t upset the balance and make it sound like a drum solo?
MD: Are all your sessions with Butch pretty similar?
Mark: In most cases the artist isn’t even there. I’m just playing with Butch and the engineer. They’ll build a drum track based on the demo. For the Keith Urban session, I was basically replacing the drum machine. The reality is that’s pop music and it’s all going to get snapped to the grid, but they wanted a human playing over top of the metronomic machine.
The Gavin DeGraw stuff was live. We set up a band and played, and he was there. We had the demo cued up and we would play along to it to get our bearings. By the third or fourth time playing along, we basically had a track. It was interesting, because I didn’t have to chart it out and learn it. Before we knew it, the tracks were done, because we didn’t think we were trying to pull anything off. Then they just pulled out the demo, and what was left was everyone’s existing tracks.
MD: Do you lament missing the golden age of studio work?
Mark: Guys like Josh Freese, Shawn Pelton, and Matt Chamberlain got really good at the drums during a period in history where that was a marketable, bankable skill. This golden era, where the system was flush with cash and Hal Blaine owned a yacht—that’s a very small period of time. I came around in the early to mid 2000s, and it’s like I came to the party and there are beer cans everywhere and a couple of dudes
are passed out on the couch. I did some recording with Jakob Dylan and was telling him I loved the [Wallflowers] record Chamberlain played on, 1996’s Bringing Down the Horse, which was a real watershed for pop/rock drummers. I was saying that nowadays I wouldn’t get a chance to deliver something along those lines. And Jakob explained that I never even had a bite of the apple, so I wouldn’t be moping around L.A., bitter that there wasn’t a $500 cartage budget.
For me it’s a new frontier. Maybe you’re not going to get rich as a sideman drummer today, so let’s just have fun. This next gig I’m going to do—I just want to play better than I did yesterday.
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Tools of the Trade
Stepro plays Ludwig Keystone series drums (13″, 16″, 24″) with a 6.5×14 Black Beauty snare. His Zildjian cymbals include 16″ K Light hi-hats, an 18″ K Custom Session crash, a 22″ K Constantinople Medium Thin ride, and a 19″ K Constantinople crash/ride. He uses Remo heads and Vater sticks.
Stepro tours regularly with singer-songwriter Mary McBride as part of the U.S. State Department–sponsored project known as the Home Tour. “We could be playing Ray Charles songs for severely disabled orphans in Indonesia or Aretha Franklin hits for female prisoners in Albania,” the drummer says. The shots here were taken in Nakhchivan, a small autonomous region in Azerbaijan.
Story by Ilya Stemkovsky
Photos by Alex Solca