Toward the end of my college years, in 1974, I joined a symphonic band. Between engagements, a master class was scheduled with Ian Bernard, during which he demonstrated the finesse that got him the job with the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada. Afterwards, I approached him for private lessons that I might apply to drumset playing. Bernard declined, suggesting instead that I contact Kevan McKenzie: Kevan was getting a lot of talk around that time.
Even back then, it was not just that Kevan could cover a variety of gigs; any good show drummer could do that. It was the strength of his attack and the authenticity of his approach. If he played funk, you thought of Nile Rodgers; if he played rigid threes, you imagined green hats and lederhosen. The piano player on a recent Canadian film awards show remarked on how Kevan played the date: “It didn’t matter whether it was a polka or a swing number. He was just so funky. When he hits the cues, he doesn’t just accent. It’s like, whack. He’s the loudest drummer I’ve ever played with.”
I never did call Kevan for lessons. I talked to him a number of times, and as a matter of fact, I succeeded him in several groups after he left Ottawa. But the truth is that my pride would not accept that this young upstart just might excel in every area that gave me trouble. Dialing his number would have been a blatant admission of failure. All I know is that, for the longest time, I was a little thankful that Kevan packed up and left for Toronto. The Toronto scene opened up to embrace him in record time, and thus the good local jobs were up for grabs again.
Kevan McKenzie is a classic example of the application of appropriate energy and means to well-conceived ends. Kevan knows, and has known for a long while, what he wants to do, the sort of obstacles he will encounter, the sort of red-herring issues which might divert his attention, and what he needs to do in order to stay in sight of his goals. Kevan has always wanted to be a studio player. Even years ago, when I would be expounding on some thrasher, Kevan would be praising John Guerin. Kevan was probably hip to Steve Gadd before Richard Tee was. I heard stories about Kevan waiting outside Steve’s New York apartment just for a quick chat. These are embarrassing things to corroborate, but it is true that Kevan went through a Gadd stage (as most of us have). In Kevan’s case, however, it started with the release date of Chuck Mangione’s Alive album—certainly long before Gadd was first call in New York. Well over ten years ago, down beat published an article by Harvey Mason on being a studio musician. “That article influenced me so much,” Kevan commented. “Somebody can have all the musical ability in the world, but there’s so much more involved. I remember reading an article on Ralph MacDonald, in which he said that he learned when he was young to keep his mouth shut and his ears open.”
Of course, it all depends on what there is to hear. The conventional school system is not necessarily geared towards producing artists, which eventually led Kevan to explore an institution like the one depicted in the Fame series. “I had gone to a high school that didn’t have a music program. I wanted to take university music, and I needed some basic training in order to get in. So I approached a radical high school about just studying music all day—more or less doing four or five years of high school music in one year. Then at university I studied with Ian Bernard, a classical percussionist. I found I could apply every- thing he taught me to the drumset. Some of the invaluable things I worked on with him included practicing with a metronome and really getting inside notions of time—how to play time, how to play different figures—and analyzing it. I also learned how to produce a really good sound from a drum, and how to listen. A lot of players, especially from a drumset point of view, get into technique and playing certain things, but are not really listening. You can get a hundred different sounds out of the snare drum, depending on how you hit it. When you realize that, you find that your sound starts improving because you’re conscious of it.”
This is all fine if you have access to able instructors and good schooling, or have sufficient on-the-job training. According to Kevan, “If you live in a city like L.A. or New York, you’re looking constantly at some of the best players in the world and seeing them live. You’re absorbing their abilities just by being around them, and that’s great. Conversely, you’re competing with the best players in the world when you may not be at a level where you can compete. Growing up in a smaller city like Ottawa, I obtained lots of experience that I probably wouldn’t have been able to get in a larger city—a lot of recording experience in a lot of musical situations.
“I think practicing to records is really great. For a lot of years, that was my only musical outlet. If you’re practicing to good music and listening to good players, you can just absorb without even knowing that you’re learning.”
The best in the business are the first to admit that we are always learning. In fact, in the pages of this magazine, we see that those most in demand are those keenly interested in the ways and means of their craft. But at a certain point, formal education ceases and street learning takes over. Kevan decided a decade ago that Ottawa streets were a little too narrow to accommodate the sort of traffic he had in mind. A move to Toronto was inevitable. That city had all the seemingly necessary conditions Ottawa lacked: ample population, ethnic and thus musical diversity, industry and a broad economic base, extremes in income and aspirations. It is also the entertainment capital of Canada. Getting there was easy; breaking in was another question. And yet, only a month or two after leaving home, Kevan was spotted on some national television shows. “I remember that, when I first moved to Toronto, I got a call to sub on the Bob McLean Show. Most of the band was made up of guys from the Boss Brass. Those guys read flyspecks. Most of the music we played had to be sight-read live-to-tape. I remember feeling a lot of pressure playing with those guys, but also a lot of pride when they kept calling me back.”
Toronto is not really a town for specialists—say, Andy Newmarks—who are called upon to add their signature sounds to album projects. You can’t live too long in a single niche, because you won’t work. Kevan had done his homework. “I’ve always striven to be a versatile player. In this business, people tend to try to bag you, so if you want to be known as a player who can do more than one thing, you have to pursue different situations.” Kevan has covered most that Toronto has to offer. “Rob McConnell [Boss Brass] is a real joy to work with; he’s a musicians’ musician, and he’s also one of the funniest guys I know. Anne Murray’s a real professional; she knows exactly what she wants. That always makes my job easier. One of the toughest things in any situation is when you get the feeling that the person you’re working for really doesn’t know what he or she is after. Working with Gene Simmons was an interesting experience. I was still living in Ottawa at the time, and Kiss was playing in town. Gene had written a song, and he wanted to demo it. So he laid down all the parts, and I played drums on it. He told me I played like I had a size 13 shoe! I took that as a compliment. Adapting stylistically to these different situations is only one of the things you’re faced with. The pace of sessions varies a lot. For example, when I first moved to town, I noticed that jingles and television work required that you play the part perfectly and immediately. But with records, that attitude is more lenient. The rhythm section can take its time to experiment with different types of grooves to get a song really working properly. It can be very nerve-racking if you’re not able to work at the same speed as everybody else on the session—whether it’s fast or slow.
During the interview sessions, I queried Kevan about his conception of time and feel. Surely the notions have changed radically over the past decade to the point where it is no longer a question of a drummer and an ensemble carrying the time, but of the same drummer and ensemble trying to make it sound as if they were not working with a click track or drum machine. “From a metronomic point of view, there is no variation. It is constant, but when you’re playing with a band, you’re dealing with people and you have to be flexible. Being very consistent is extremely important, and if you’re able to do that, I think that’s more important than being machine-like. People talking about ‘laying back’ or ‘playing behind or ahead of the beat’; to me, that’s just playing with people and locking in.
“I was always groove oriented. When I found myself in playing situations where the time wasn’t happening, I was very uncomfortable, but I didn’t know why I felt uncomfortable. It was just really hard to play. Subsequently, after analyzing it and playing with people who were really time-conscious, I realized that certain situations felt great while others were like having two tons sitting on your shoulders.”
It is a very rare occasion when you can turn on your radio and hear a song recorded without the aid of a drum machine or click track of some sort. These days, devices like the Linn have created a whole set of imperatives in the production world. Ironically, we have drummers chasing after prerecorded and programmed, machine-made drum tracks, trying to give them a shred of human feeling. There are various ways of doing this. One is to erase a drum machine track that has been recorded as an aid to the composer/arranger completely; thus, the job becomes an effort to keep up with the Linns. The other is to take the drum machine track and overdub a specific element, say a ride cymbal or snare, that was too stiff sounding. But the blunt fact is that the benchmark for rhythm section production nowadays is the rhythmical precision of the imperturbable drum machine with its inherent denial of human shifts in note value.
While all drummers must accommodate drum machine technology to the extent to which they are involved in recording projects, players like Kevan must come to some sort of working relationship. “Until a couple of years ago, my entire concept was to be the most versatile drumset player that I could possibly be. The whole electronic thing turned that around for me. I stopped practicing. I started to find myself thinking, ‘What’s the point of developing my technique to the point of being able to play some rhythmical thing precisely, when some person who knows absolutely nothing about drums can sit down at a machine and do it—better—or program something that’s unplayable and have it sound great?’ It really turns your head around. But now that I’ve gotten involved, I’m not intimidated by it, which is a major step that a lot of drummers have to get past. When you know nothing about something, the automatic reaction is to feel intimidated and be negative, and to want to have nothing to do with it. I’ve never agreed with that attitude. In the past, certain players put down various styles of music for the same reason: They just were not familiar with those styles. Now that I’m involved really heavily—I’m not sure of how much percentage-wise; it might be 50/50 electronic/acoustic—I know that I wouldn’t be doing a lot of jobs if it were not for my adapting. I feel comfortable now, and I enjoy it.”
But what of the expense, given the ordinary working drummer trying to make inroads into the electronic realm. I recalled Steve Schaeffer’s comment that it would take a newcomer in town $50,000 to compete for work: “First of all, Steve Schaeffer’s situation is unique in that he’s doing television and motion picture work, so his setup is specific to that work. He’s working in situations where large orchestras are the norm, so it is essential for him to be able to send the engineer a stereo mix. In Toronto, that is not nearly as common. Most of the major studios have a multi-cable setup where you can plug in 16 or 20 outputs for the Linn, Simmons, etc. It’s not a big deal. You go right into the control room and do it. A lot of sessions are not large orchestral situations where all the inputs are taken up and all the tracks taken up. The $50,000 figure is not out of line though. With the new Linn, you’re looking at ten grand, with all the options. The Simmons is six or seven. Then you’ve got the MX1. I mean, add up the price of the cords alone to patch all this stuff together! Then four months later, they come up with something hipper, and all this stuff is obsolete. If you really want to be in competition on that level, you’ve got to keep up with it. I’ve got an EPROM sampler, which is another thousand bucks. And this is apart from all my drum stuff, which is four or five kits; I’ve got about 30 grand invested in acoustic drums. Obviously, nobody goes out and buys all this stuff at the same time. But if you were starting from scratch and wanted to compete with Steve Schaeffer, then the 50 grand figure would not be out of line.
“As for 16-year-olds starting out, they’re probably going to go directly to Simmons and to sequencers, because they won’t know any differently. The point is, how are the young players going to get an across-the-board perspective? They’re going to ask, ‘Why should I learn all this traditional drum stuff?'”
Perhaps the answer to that is that, in a sense, the new digital sampling feature has been a blessing. It has transported us through the Moog Era, from analog synth drums into a realm limited only by the imagination. And curiously, as of late, the creative imaginations have been blowing into chips sounds that are strongly reminiscent of Purdie/Hawkins/Bonham snare sounds of the past. These are sounds that the average garage band can replicate with very little expense. According to Kevan,” I see the young player more involved in live things. That is, I would say that something you are actually playing would be more appropriate. In a live context, it’s just not visually exciting to see a machine reel off its program.”
The move from analog to digital technology has served to revitalize acoustic sound generation, if only long enough for sampling purposes. Being able to produce a given sound when time is at a premium has become an important rationalization for the use of digital chips as opposed to real drums. The stress on sound, per se, is inevitable when machines exist that can produce any rhythm desired. As in the past, a player is distinguished by his or her own sound. “Sound is very important, and it’s such a variable thing. We all have our own concepts of what good and bad sounds are. Experience will tell you what an acceptable sound is and how to get it in the shortest period of time.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that just getting a good sound in itself is not necessarily the bottom line. You can have a great tom sound by itself, but then you play the track, get guitars and keyboards happening, and it gets lost. That’s why sometimes, say, a single-headed tom will work better because it will cut through, rather than a double-headed tom, which I would prefer to play by itself. You have to analyze the situation. If something is not working, then the intelligent thing to do is change it. Being able to sample sound digitally, store it in an EPROM or disc, and alter it or change it is what I’m interested in doing. A lot of my thing is to offer sounds and create individual sounds; that’s as much a part of me as taking a snare drum, setting it up, putting different heads on it, and having people say, ‘I recognize that drummer—that sound!’ You can do that in your sampling.”
I asked Kevan if he noticed any decline in the use of electronic drums and machines as has otherwise been noted in certain areas of the recording industry. “The electronic thing is out of proportion right now. The techno-pop thing has fallen into line. Anything new gets overused; Syndrums are a perfect example.
“I don’t think the point of the Linn-Drum is to take the place of the drummer. Maybe it has in certain situations but not in general. I’m the first person to listen to a track and say, ‘If you want a machine-like feel on this, use a machine.’ The thing I think is out of proportion is the use of machines indiscriminately. I’ll be programming, and people will ask for various shifts and nuances—things a real drummer might do. To me, if you want it to sound like a real drummer, use a real drummer! Use the machine for what it does best. Obviously, you can’t say that to somebody who’s just hired you, but I think that’s what it’s moving towards.”
Kevan touched upon another subject relating to studio playing. “I’ve contracted a few sessions recently, and it really opened my eyes. One thing I realized is just how important it is for studio players to have some sort of answering service. If you’re contracting a large session, you want to get an answer from somebody fast. As for who gets the call, you obviously want somebody who can do the job well, but you also want to have somebody. It’s your responsibility to make sure everybody shows up. It’s really nerve-racking not knowing if somebody’s booked or not. It’s eleven o’clock in the evening before a nine A.M. session, and you don’t know if so-and-so is booked! It’s a fact that most contractors are keyboard players, and it’s also a fact that keyboard players rush the tempo a little. Who wouldn’t rush the time with all that stuff to worry about? No wonder they’re hyper!”
As far as the tools of his trade are concerned, on the acoustic side Kevan uses a fairly basic drumset. For a while, he tried the Steve Gadd setup, starting with a 10″ tom. “You go to the 10″ first, and if you count the marks on that head, you go to that tom more than any other tom, and it’s too high. If you put that tom in a 10″, 12″, 13″, 16″ combination, it adds that high end to give a full sound; if you put the 10″ in place of the 12″, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I use a 20″ bass drum on a lot of sessions because it’s punchy, but maybe for general purposes, the 22″ is bigger sounding. I use RIMS on most of my toms.”
For cymbals Kevan endorses Sabian—perhaps a natural choice since he was the first local boy to use the old K’s years before they were fashionable in rock. Most of his Sabians are the hand-hammered variety, including a set of sizzle-hats (rivets in the bottom cymbal only). “When I did a recent telethon, I brought my Sabian cymbals, knowing the drums would be on camera constantly; otherwise, you would have seen the Paistes that were supplied with the drumkit. I mean, when it comes down to it, how many people watching would have noticed or known that Kevan McKenzie, Sabian endorser, was using Paiste cymbals on the gig? But I want to be associated with a company like Sabian, which has an attitude of mutual respect. I feel strongly about that. And of course, I love the cymbals; the ones I have feel sort of ‘softer.’ They seem to have more flex to them.
“Bob Hughes from Grooves Drumsticks is a really nice guy, as well. I got maybe 40 pairs of drumsticks in the mail that I didn’t ask for and that were made to my specifications. That’s a nice touch!”
At the end of his day, which can be incredibly long and varied, Kevan reviews the events and tries to learn from his mistakes. “As for attaining whatever it is you want to do, every day you have to make decisions. You’re given choices, and the ones you make define your destiny. If you don’t realize that, then you’re extremely naive. People talk about getting breaks and opportunities: Everybody has opportunities. I can remember being in Ottawa and thinking that certain people had more experience. There I was, sitting in school practicing however many hours per day, while other people were out playing. I felt envious of that, but I knew that what I wanted to do required those hours. I knew that the approach I was taking would pay off, and it has.
“I love playing live, but if I had to make a choice, I’d have to choose the studio. I enjoy the freedom of being able to go into a session and work with great people, have the respect of my peers, get paid well, and then leave. I’d also like to have wider recognition, but it’s definitely not the most important thing to me.”
Kevan certainly has respect and recognition in Canada. He has an identifiable style—sort of loose and funky. (One newspaper review called him “Canada’s answer to Steve Gadd.” He is not, however, a Gadd clone.) Kevan has worked hard on his particular way of clobbering. “I remember talking to Larrie Londin. He told me that you can be an imitation of a great player and you will be successful in a certain environment—maybe in a certain city. But if you want to go beyond that, you’ve got to be unique and offer something different. What it comes down to is that, if you play like somebody else, people are going to hire that person, not the imitation. It really made me think about trying to be myself and feeling good about it, instead of always trying to play like whoever I might have been listening to.”