Jon Epcar’s master plan didn’t involve drumming on Broadway. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Epcar went to a high school with a strong music program that included graduates like saxophonist Kamasi Washington. So the drummer got the bug and eventually headed east to Berklee College of Music, before forming the original rock band Carney. The group must have made quite an impression on theater director Julie Taymor at a gig, because not only was frontman Reeve Carney asked to star in her much buzzed-about show Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which featured music and lyrics by U2’s the Edge and Bono, but the rest of the band was hired to partake in the production as well.
Going from playing clubs to working with Bono and the Edge required a little adjustment. “I was kicking and screaming at the time, because I wanted to maintain this rock band thing we were doing,” Epcar says. “But it was also this amazing opportunity. It’s not every day you get to go into a room with the guys from U2 and some of the best musicians in New York.”
From there, Epcar found himself involved in high-profile sessions with Carly Rae Jepsen, John Legend, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, and Natasha Bedingfield. He even found time to release a moody, beautiful solo record, Morning Drone, which is lighter on drum pyrotechnics but heavy on taste and feel. Just another day at the office, you might say.
MD: Let’s talk about being a sideman. Your credits are diverse. Is there anything specific that you do to prepare for each session?
Jon: Having a broad sense of things helps me prepare for whatever’s coming along. For the John Legend session, for example, the producer explained the whole concept we were going for as Bonham meets Fiona Apple. There’s something off-kilter with the Fiona approach. Most of her last record [with Charley Drayton] doesn’t even sound like drums. I don’t even know what Drayton’s doing. It’s incredible, though. But having a wide range of things you’re into helps you understand what that person is going for. Like, “Here’s an idea of maybe something you heard on another record.” Or maybe to them it’s not a genre-specific part or concept, but used in that way it creates something new or fresh.
MD: But I’m sure you’re not always with the artist, so do you need to reference a demo from the producer?
Jon: Sometimes you don’t have a demo, and you don’t necessarily have a concept. “We’ll figure this out when we get in the room.” And sometimes you do have a demo, and they’ll say they want me to do this exactly. They want these fills or the weird bass drum thing that’s on the “&” of 4. You might have a day to create a song or you might have twenty minutes. What’s important is being able to create new ideas quickly—and being able to abandon them completely if need be. A lot of times ideas come from people that influence you, and you learn from what they’re doing. For me, that’s guys like Jim Keltner, Aaron Sterling, Jay Bellerose, Shawn Pelton.
It depends on the artist or producer or whoever is bringing you in. It’s about being able to roll with the punches, or trying to read the situation. It’s about knowing when it’s appropriate to interject your own sense of musical style or what you think is correct, and knowing when it’s time to shut up and give them what they think is best, because they’re creating the part.
MD: Do you like executing like that—doing a workmanlike job where the producer can rely on you and there’s a satisfaction to that? Or are you thinking that you can come up with something cooler and it gets to be a bummer?
Jon: I’ve always tried to find the challenge in delivering that exactly. But I was finding myself more and more feeling slightly flustered with that, which led me into doing my own thing. I needed an outlet for the things that I was hearing. Doing my record put less pressure on those situations to fulfill me artistically. For that artist or producer, this is something they care passionately about, and that part might not make sense to you, but to them there’s a reason why it’s so important. They’re hearing it that way, and maybe they have a reference point that they’re trying to nail.
MD: Are you bringing seventeen different snares to a session?
Jon: I still bring everything when I do a session. A million snares and bags of cymbals. But a lot of times I’ll end up using whatever’s at the studio, because a lot of times now these studios have great gear. And not only is it in your hands, but the room dictates what you’re going to play, just as much as the music does. The sound of the room is important, and what a drum sounds like in one room is not going to be what it sounds like in another room. Just because you tuned it at home exactly how you want doesn’t mean you’re going to hit it in the room and it will be appropriate. And sometimes it’s not supposed to sound appropriate. It’s okay to not have a drum sound exactly like a pristine drum.
MD: How did the Spider-Man show come your way?
Jon: I was in a band called Carney, with guys from my Hamilton High School days, and we did a show in New York at the Mercury Lounge. Julie Taymor was at that show and she really dug Reeve, the singer. She brought him on to do the show. Bono and the Edge really dug him too. So we went into a studio and knocked out a few demos that they had, and sent those to Bono and the Edge to check out. Then we were brought on board. I had no idea that these types of shows were operating at such a high level.
MD: Was there an adjustment period for you to get into “Broadway mode”?
Jon: A lot of it was using your ear to come up with parts. My reading was always kind of okay, so I could read well enough that I was getting the job done. I wouldn’t ever want to sight-read a Zappa tune or something. But by doing a lot of shows, it upped my reading a lot.
And you’re there to help deliver what the people in charge want. That can vary from show to show. There’s not one style of Broadway. Someone doing West Side Story is going to have a very different concept musically from someone doing Spider-Man. Spider-Man was way more rock and heavy playing, and it was a lot looser as far as what you could play. But you’re there to achieve that vision, which may or may not involve expressing yourself a certain way. Sometimes the fills are very exact, and sometimes the parts are very exact, and sometimes you look at the page and there are slashes all the way down and you have to interpret what’s being asked. The Edge was super-awesome and worked with the band. Sometimes he’d send things via GarageBand, like, “This is a part for this,” and some things he came up with in GarageBand stayed in the show, which is insane that it was that good.
MD: What about Amélie? It closed quickly, but not because of the drumming, I’m sure.
Jon: These shows are a gamble. They’re a lot of money to get up and running. Amélie had a lot of awesome people involved. I got brought in by the conductor, who also conducted Spider-Man. It just wasn’t landing with audiences for whatever reason.
MD: Was that a little more in the “musical theater” drumming box, as opposed to a rock show?
Jon: For Spider-Man, I was in an isolated drum booth in the basement, not even in a pit. For Amélie, the orchestra was just eight people, and we were in the theater, in the “Lincoln seats” in the balcony, with no baffling. It was super-live, so I had to be very cautious of dynamics and volume. A lot of the show was with brushes or rods, and there was a lot more mallet percussion—glockenspiel, crotales. Spider-Man was more of a rock set. But Amélie was still more poppy than a traditional Broadway show; there just wasn’t a lot of bashing. I only used sticks on one or two songs.
MD: Let’s talk about your solo record, Morning Drone. It’s not exactly a drum bonanza, which is cool.
Jon: Doing the Spider-Man show every day got me to feel stagnant. And Aaron Comess pointed me in the direction of Michael Carvin, who’s a drum teacher in town. First lesson, he totally kicked my ass. I sat down. He said, “Play something.” I played for ten seconds, and he said, “Stop.” He immediately dissected my entire music history.
Michael’s the drum Yoda. He has what I call these Carvinisms, like, “If you work on your weaknesses, you’ll have no weaknesses.” And then he’ll just walk out of the room. It’s incredible. He said, “The thing that you just did, play that as quietly as possible.” And he explained that in his room we’re only going to play as quietly as possible. Then he said to play it as slowly as possible. He quickly saw that I was having trouble with that. So he said, “Great, in this room we’re only going to play as slow as possible.”
It wasn’t a chops session. He was going to rebuild you. He finds the things you really need to work on the most and zeroes in on them, which can be uncomfortable. But I wanted to find my inspiration again. And through doing it, I got excited about practicing again.
One thing he thought I should do was to lead a band and make a record. It was something I fought, but it started clicking more and more. I had to do something where I was making decisions and calling the shots, for better or worse. And I booked a studio, because the bassist and guitarist I wanted to work with were going to be in town for one day. I booked a day, two weeks away, and I had zero music. I was listening to a lot of Morricone and Daniel Lanois records. And I came up with three demos, sort of jazz heads, in GarageBand. And I got them in the studio and they were like, “So, what are we doing?”
MD: Sounds nerve-racking.
Jon: Yeah, I had to start making decisions. I put myself into an uncomfortable place, and it forced me into making the choices that ended up on the record. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted it to be more melody driven or have this drum presence, and in the process of creating it, making this cinematic record was much more fulfilling. So it opened up this world outside of drumming.
Tools of the Trade
Epcar plays a Craviotto walnut single-ply kit consisting of a 6.5×14 snare, a 9×13 tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 14×22 bass drum. He will also play a 6.5×14 C&C nickel-over-brass snare. His cymbals include Paiste 15″ Formula 602 Modern Essentials hi-hats, a 20″ Traditionals Light ride, and a 20″ Twenty Masters Dark crash/ride. He uses Vater 5B or Fusion Acorn wood-tip sticks and Monster brushes, Aquarian heads, a Roc-n-Soc swivel throne, and DW hardware, and he works out on a Reflexx pad.