If you’ve watched funny animal videos on YouTube, been notified of a “friendaversary” by Facebook, or heard something from Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Western Stars, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Gunnar Olsen. Those are three completely random places to hear the forty-year-old Brooklyn-based drummer keeping the beat. They also happen to be three of the most recognizable brands on the planet. Meaning tens of millions of people have heard Olsen’s drumming. Not many freelance drummers in this day and age have those kind of stats.
When Olsen first began recording and touring with the alternative rock band the Exit in the early 2000s, he envisioned that kind of exposure, but strictly as the drummer in the Exit. He planned to be what Dave Grohl was to Nirvana, what Taylor Hawkins is to the Foo Fighters—“a guy in a band,” as he puts it. “I was convinced that the Exit was going to rule the world,” Olsen says while seated just a few feet from his brand-new C&C kit at Russell Street Recording, a co-op studio that serves as his home base in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
“On our very first tour, we were paying ourselves $10 a day, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I could just do this for the rest of my life.’ We were sleeping on couches. We were playing shows. I didn’t owe anybody any money. Then the Exit had a pretty good record deal with Wind-up. One of the last major-label deals. I lived off that for two years. It was never about sessions. That world never entered my mind.”
The Exit never did end up ruling the world, but Olsen’s slashing, groove-oriented playing made an impression on Wind-up A&R executive/producer Gregg Wattenberg, who eventually started using him on records he produced for the Goo Goo Dolls, O.A.R., Gavin DeGraw, and others. Touring gigs followed, with electronic-leaning artists like Big Data, Fischerspooner, and Miike Snow.
Olsen was busy, but as many freelance drummers can attest to, “busy” isn’t always synonymous with creative fulfillment or financial sustainability. And some drummers would rather not spend weeks and months at a time on the road if they can help it. So what’s a freelancer to do? In Olsen’s case, he took advantage of the new opportunities technology and social media presented for musicians and managed to turn them into creative outlets and revenue streams.
With an audience of thousands of Instagram followers, Olsen began posting clips of himself playing. Though he didn’t necessarily intend for the clips to serve as a commercial for his services, the DMs and emails began coming in with inquiries about remote session work, which, in most cases, he’s able to engineer on his own. On the day MD visited with Olsen, he was working on tracks for RX Bandits singer Matt Embree and electronic artist Baauer of “Harlem Shake” fame.
And when YouTube began assembling a library of royalty-free music as a means for video creators to soundtrack their clips legally (as opposed to, say, using “Baby Shark” without permission), Olsen and other musicians were hired to record hundreds of tracks in rapid-fire fashion to populate the library. Olsen landed similar work when Facebook began assembling its own library of royalty-free music.
Now Olsen and some of those musicians are taking the idea of royalty-free music a step further with a new endeavor called TrackTribe. The group is making royalty-free music for video creators to use on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. Users can download the songs for free and keep 100 percent of the money generated through the videos (via ads, etc.). Drummers can also download drum-less versions of select songs to play along with. All TrackTribe asks for is a charitable donation, though it’s not required.
The path Olsen’s career has taken—which also includes wedding and corporate gigs with the New York City–based Dexter Lake Club—isn’t what he envisioned during his days with the Exit. But these are radically different times for musicians. And Olsen, a different drummer with a different outlook from when he started out, is definitely content with where he is professionally.
“Being a freelance drummer in 2019,” says Olsen, “it’s, ‘What can I do to pay the bills? What can I do to be creatively stimulated?’ Playing corporate gigs and weddings, and making music for Facebook—on paper, those could be very uncool things. The twenty-year-old me would be like, ‘Oh, man, are you selling out?’ If I’m selling out doing all that, I’m cool with it, because I’m making good money. I’m not touring all the time and only seeing my wife six months out of the year.
“All I ever wanted to do as a musician was to make people happy and be heard doing what I’m doing. I feel like I’m doing that.”
MD: Your career typifies what a new age it is for freelance drummers. Like using Instagram as a showcase for your skills.
Gunnar: I like Instagram as a platform because I can be in [my studio] on a day when I’m working for nobody, having fun. And the goal can be, “I have a minute on Instagram…make a piece of art that’s a minute long.” It’s a fun goal to set for yourself. It’s like setting limits for yourself. I’m in a position now where more people can see me on Instagram with a video than if I’m playing on tour.
MD: How do you navigate getting hit up for session work via social media? I would imagine it’s mostly D.I.Y. artists without much of a budget.
Gunnar: I try to answer everything. Then it always comes down to rate. That’s going to change for everybody. I always try to say, “Send me the song, what you have in mind,” and I can usually get a gauge of what level it’s on. I can do a little research and see if they’re on a label. If it’s something I like and they can’t afford my rate, I might say, “Let’s work out a deal.”
It’s not always unknown artists. Baauer, the guy who did “Harlem Shake,” found me on Instagram. He saw a video of me running a Yamaha EAD10 and some pedals, getting weird sounds, and getting live loops. And he said, “I have some electronic music that would be great to add live drums to,” so we met up.
MD: With remote sessions, do you have a standard process for giving an artist or a producer options, carving out time for fixes, etc.?
Gunnar: I did a session for this Mexican band called Porter about a year and a half ago. It was the first time someone said, “Can you do it again?” My ego was like, “Oh, did I not play it right?” And the producer, Hector Castillo, said, “You sound great. But you sound like a session drummer. Ditch the ghost notes. Imagine you’re the drummer in this band.” His notes were great. It was an eye-opening moment. It made me step back and think about what I’m doing when I’m doing a remote thing.
It’s really important to have a few emails or phone calls to figure out what we’re looking for. I’m pretty good at giving people four options of something. Nowadays almost everyone is sending me a drum idea. The first thing I do is my version of their beat. Then by the end, it’s what I would do. I try to do everything in between, with fill options and cymbal hits.
But that thought of “Play like you’re in this band…you’re not doing a remote session”—those are the kind of things that you only learn by doing them.
MD: How did you become adept at engineering and recording yourself?
Gunnar: As the Exit was morphing into other things, a buddy put Abelton Live on my computer. I’d go into my iTunes, throw an mp3 into it, and cut it up, just experimenting. So I was just kind of creating stuff. Recording stuff into the mics on my laptop. I remember being able to go home with a rough mix, add some percussion ideas, then show up at the studio the next day with some stuff we could add to the track. And very slowly over time, I was observing other engineers, asking questions, taking pictures. I started with two mics, then I got an Apogee Duet, and it grew from there.
It’s only in the last couple of years that I was able to come into a place like this and actually know how to route everything and record my drumset, then add some other music in. I couldn’t get these mics up and running by myself before. I had to have someone come in here. I can do a two- to five- mic setup here and feel comfortable that if I send you something, it’ll sound cool and you’ll probably be into it. And if you need me to do it again, it’s probably not hard.
There’s another studio in Brooklyn called Mozart Street, and I have a friend there who engineers. I go there when I do stuff for producers who want all the toms miked, the hi-hat miked—when they want more than ten mics [on the kit]. So I’m not worrying about phasing with fifteen microphones. That’s out of my comfort zone. But I’m really trying to be able to do it totally on my own.
MD: Engineering and recording drums to the degree that you do, has that prompted you to think differently about the way you play on a session?
Gunnar: It definitely opens up your ears. When I do sessions now, I can hear a little bit more of the big picture in my head. Like, okay, if I’m giving this guy five takes, don’t do all this bullshit that he’s going to have to go through and need to get rid of. When we first started doing [royalty-free music] for YouTube, I was doing a lot of stuff at home with programmed drums, a lot of electronic drums. Building a beat at home and coming in here using two or three mics and adding live drums and a live energy to it. But then you still have the electronic kick and snare to punch through. So it’s, How do I play to that? What drums do I use? How do I mike a drum and get it to a point that I know how to mix it?
MD: The world of royalty-free music is a relatively new phenomenon. People might assume it’s one person doing all the tracks on a laptop or something, that there’d be no need for a drummer. How did you wind up in that world?
Gunnar: YouTube wanted to build a royalty-free audio library of music, so they reached out to some musician friends. I accidentally stumbled into playing live drums on about 250 songs in six months for YouTube. And those songs have been downloaded 20 million times and are in 50 million videos. If I played with Beyoncé, I’d have similar numbers. This is in the last five years. Seven years ago, the literal thing that we’re talking about didn’t even exist.
There’s a whole web of people I’ve worked with doing this stuff . Credit to the people working the music systems for YouTube and Facebook; they want it to be real music. A lot of the royalty-free music has a certain sound. Our goal was, Just because it’s free and it’s background music, it doesn’t mean it has to sound lame.
MD: You have to work pretty quickly to cut drums for 250 original songs in six months. What’s your process?
Gunnar: Our goal was to do as few takes as possible so we could move on to the next song. That was good for me because I was always like, Oh, we’ll do two or three takes and then comp the best stuff. There’s no time for that. We were trying to bang out ten songs in a day. So I got good at not doing stuff I didn’t 100 percent believe in. Keep it simple. When the chorus comes, go to the ride cymbal. That sort of thing.
MD: It seems like an assembly-line approach. Did you find you were still growing as a player, learning new things?
Gunnar: It’s good for your chops. Facebook asks for ten songs in the vein of the Strokes, or you’re trying to make ten songs that sound like Vampire Weekend, though not necessarily sound-alikes. But it’s really fun to get into the headspace of, What are the drum sounds on this? What are the guitar, bass, and drums doing that if you hear it, you’re reminded of a band? Or learning how to make a dubstep song. I’ve really enjoyed it because I’ve learned a lot as a music maker.
Backing Up the Boss
Early one morning in 2014, Gunnar Olsen received a vague text asking if he was available for a session that day. Several hours later, he found himself in Bruce Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey, working on songs that would eventually see the light of day five years later on the Western Stars album. Olsen ultimately wound up on six songs, and appeared in the videos for the title track and “Tucson Train,” and in the Western Stars concert film, all shot at Springsteen’s home. (The film debuted in theaters this past October 25, and the live music from the concert film came out the same day.) He told us about the experience of working on the record.
“My friend Ross Peterson had been engineering. It’s a very secretive world. I knew he was working on something with Bruce, but I had no idea he was working on a record. Bruce was on tour at the time. He was recording a lot of ideas with guitar and vocals, and he would go back on tour. I think [producer] Ron Aniello was taking those songs and building up stuff, with drum loops Ross had made out of snare and hi-hats. And I think Ross said, ‘Why don’t we get my buddy Gunnar in here to play some real drum ideas? Best case scenario, we keep them. If not, it sounds better than us hacking away at a snare drum.’
“I get to Bruce’s place, and they play me a song once or twice—I’m not quite sure what song it was. It’s very surreal. I’m hearing Bruce’s voice [in the headphones]. Now I’m tracking to his voice. I do a take, and I go in. I’m going to listen. And then I hear this murmuring: ‘He’s here.’ Bruce walks in the room, and now I’m in this weird position of sitting in the back of the control room and he’s going to listen to some songs.
“First was a song on the record called ‘Sleepy Joe’s Café.’ They bring up a version with Matt Chamberlain. We listen to this song, and I’m feeling so weird. It sounds great; it sounds like Matt. But I don’t feel like I should be here. So they finish, and they pull up a version with Steve Jordan. Apparently Bruce had never heard these songs past very early demos. And now he’s hearing a full, mixed version with two completely different drum options. Obviously they’re two different players. Steve was doing kind of a Latin groove. They finish and, I’ll never forget it, Bruce looks over at me and says, ‘You wanna give it a shot?’ And it had nothing to do with what those guys were doing. He wanted another option.
“I think in the back of my mind I was like, ‘You should probably be learning this song.’ I never make charts or notes, I have to make a mental road map. So in my mind, I was just going to give them the Max [Weinberg] version. Really just up the middle. As we’re listening back I’m watching him. His eyes were closed. I remember it got to the chorus and he kind of did like an air fill. It was telling me he wants a setup there, without him saying, ‘Hey, can you set up the chorus?’ So I probably did a couple more takes with that in mind. I think we did three songs that day. He hung the whole time.
“There’s another song on the album called ‘Drive Fast (The Stuntman).’ That song is one take. That day it was me, Bruce, and some other players. I feel like Bruce showed up out of nowhere that day. He had a new song and taught us the song. It’s like anything: you sit around, he’s got an acoustic guitar, and he wants to play twenty seconds of it in four or five different keys to see what sounds good with his voice. We decide on a key, and now we’re going to do the take. And because he was going so quickly, the other musicians were making charts really quickly and trying to do mental transposing. So we go to do the take, and it just wasn’t super tight. No discredit to the amazing musicians. So he just says, ‘Gunnar, let’s do it, you and me. We’ll lay down the foundation, then we can build stuff on top of it.’ We do the take. He’s playing acoustic and singing. Next thing I know, David Sancious is adding some organ.
“He’s a very loyal person. Pretty much everyone who did the videos had played on the record. All the extras in the videos are just these locals that know him. He’s not interested in session people. He’s interested in players. I’d like to think that’s what he saw in me.”
To catch a behind-the-scenes look at Gunnar Olsen’s creative process in the studio, see the video here.
Drums: C&C Gladstone Maple in Fiesta Red finish
A. 5×14 Acrylic red concert tom
B. 6.5×14 Black Chrome Over Brass snare
C. 9×13 tom
D. 16×16 floor tom
E. 16x 22 bass drum
1. 15″ Avedis hi-hats
2. 18″ K Constantinople crash
3. 12″ Remix prototype hi-hats
4. 22″ K Custom Dark ride
5. 14″ Trashformer/16″ A Custom EFX stack
Accessories: Big Fat Snare Drum HALO ring, Index Drums shakers
Sticks: Vater Power 5B acorn-tip
Hardware: Yamaha bass drum pedal, DW stands
Heads: Remo, including Powerstroke P77 Colortone red concert tom batter, Controlled Sound Reverse Dot Coated snare batter, Emperor Coated tom batters and Ambassador Clear resonants, and Powerstroke P3 bass drum batter
Electronics: Yamaha EAD10 stereo mic on kick hoop that feeds into pedal board; Big Ear Chaka and Woodcutter effects pedals; Electro-Harmonix 45000 Looper pedal, Freeze Sound Retainer pedal, and Memory Man digital