A Candid Discussion With Up And Coming Drummer Phil Ehart Of Kansas
by Michael Cramer
At the helm of this adventurous band of versatile performers, surrounded by a wide array of percussive gear, sits drummer Phil Ehart, propelling and driving, classically typifying the high energy drumnastics of the modern rock scene.
An extremely personable and articulate individual, Phil has been playing drums for nearly twenty of his youthful twenty-seven years. He’s held down the drum chair with Kansas for nearly five years, grinding out close to 200 one-nite headliners per year, plus a total of four albums with a combined sales of over one million copies.
Managing to make our way backstage at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, amidst throngs of youthful admirers waiting outside, we were greeted by a most cordial Phil Ehart about an hour before concert time. Quiet and undisturbed in a hallway dressing room he relaxed momentarily, despite the rigors of an exhausting east coast tour, where he spoke openly about music and drumming and some of the hassles of the lifestyle he leads.
MD: Where are you originally from Phil?
PE: I was born in Kansas. My dad was in the service, so I spent most of my early life traveling all over the world. I didn’t actually settle down until Senior High School. Before that, I was changing schools like every two years.
MD: When did you first get interested in drums?
PE: I first discovered I had some natural rhythm, oh, I guess around second grade or so, you know the usual, beating on things with pencils and such. I imagine I was around seven or eight years old. I never had formal lessons of any kind, I more or less picked it up on my own.
MD: Kansas has a very disciplined classical quality, the kind of approach that’s usually an outgrowth of musicians with formal college music education. Did you have any training in that area?
“I could never see the controversy between traditional
and matched grip anyway. As long as a guy can
play the set, what difference does it make how he
holds the sticks.
PE: We do have a very disciplined sound, but I’ve never had formal musical training. I wish I did have some schooling, but I’ve had to depend on my drumming for existence for so long that I never really had the time or the money to pursue it. Whenever I wanted to learn a specific style of drumming, I always had to more or less teach myself.
MD: What kind of things were you listening to when you were first developing musically? Any early influences?
PE: When I was a kid, I’d just come home from school, turn on the radio and start playing drums. This was in the early sixties. I guess, I was listening – like most kids – to the Buckinghams, Young Rascals, Beatles, Stones, Hermits. It was fun music, and I pretty much learned to play by listening to those early recordings.
MD: What were you doing musically, prior to Kansas?
PE: I was working primarily with local bands throughout the state of Kansas, and I did some playing in New Orleans for a while. After a while I got somewhat fed up with local bands, so I decided to go to England for a while and see what I could do over there. It was kind of a weird experience because when I got there, the English were really more interested in the fact that being an American, I could play good blues and country and western styles. Well, that wasn’t what I wanted to play. I wanted to get into more of an English style. As a result, I burned myself out there pretty quick. I only stayed for about three months.
MD: Did the whole Kansas thing come about shortly after your return to the States?
PE: Yes, it did. I more or less put the original band together. We started out as a threesome and later, I added the other guitars and a bass player. Drummers in Kansas are pretty rare, so when the original people learned I was available, they were all ready to do something. We’ve been together almost five years now, so its taken us a long time to get to where we are now. I like to think of putting the whole thing together and making it work as my only real claim to fame, since I don’t really do any of the writing or anything.
MD: Can you tell us something about your equipment?
PE: Well, I’m using Slingerland drums, pretty much of a stock set-up, nothing really customized. I use a 26″ bass drum and a Buddy Rich snare with the wood shell in it which I really love. I have three concert toms, a 10″ x 14″ mounted, and a 16″ and 18″ floor tom. I’m also into Roto-Toms which I use mostly for special effects. They’re so sharp and pure, and I really like them a lot, especially for soloing. I also use a 26″ and 29″ timpani, and a gong.
MD: We noticed that you don’t use double bass drums. Any reason why?
PE: Well, I tried double bass once, but I think you have to decide for yourself just what kind of drums you want to play based on the style of music you want to play. In our band, I’ve never found that double bass drums were conducive to the kind of music we play. Our music is so orchestrated, what with the violin and the synthesizer, that double bass would clutter things up considerably. I’m very concerned with keeping the bottom clean, because there’s so much going on, on top in our particular sound. I don’t really have anything against the double basses; I’ve heard a lot of guys who sound great with them. It’s just something that doesn’t work well in my particular situation.
MD: Your drums have a very distinctive quality. Can you pass along any tips on how you achieve your particular sound?
PE: I use Remo CS Series heads for one thing. To me, definition is the most important thing. One thing that really drives me crazy is when I go see a drummer and he’s using like forty tom-toms and they all sound exactly alike. A lot of people seem to forget that they should try to make each drum sound good in itself, and then to try and blend them so they sound good as a set. Sometimes, you may get a drum that sounds good on its own, but it just won’t mix with the rest of the set and you have to experiment with different heads or dampening devices to get it to sound like a set of drums. I’m also pretty much of a bug on crisp and precise snare drum definition.
MD: What kind of a cymbal set-up are you using now?
PE: I use a 24″ ride cymbal. A lot of guys have trouble controlling a cymbal of that size because it can really build up. You do have to be careful with that large a cymbal, but I’ve adapted to it since I’ve been using that size for a long time. I also use two 20″ Chinese cymbals, two 18″ crashes and 14″ hi-hats, all Zildjians except for two Paiste. I find the Zildjian’s seem to have all the bottom while the Paiste’s have all the top. I have trouble finding individual cymbals that have the full range, but combined I’m able to get the full spectrum of sound that I like.
“I’m basically a wood man. I use chrome drums but they
have wood shells. I’m more interested in how something
sounds. Sure the chrome drums looks good on
stage, but if they didn’t sound good — I certainly
wouldn’t use them.”
MD: What type of stick do you prefer?
PE: I use a Slingerland 3A. I have a bursitus condition in my right wrist and I can’t use a long stick which really bugs me out, because you can get such a nice bounce from a long stick. My wrist just kills me if I do, so I have to use kind of a short, chunky stick.
MD: What do you think of the new materials like plastic, fiberglass, stainless steel and so forth being used in drum construction today?
PE: I think there’s probably a certain market for that kind of thing, but I also think it’s all very fadish. I mean, who really cares if you can see through your drums when it actually comes down to it. I’m basically a wood man. I use chrome drums, but they have wood shells. I’m more interested in how something sounds. Sure the chrome drums look good on stage, but if they didn’t sound good, I certainly wouldn’t use them. As time goes on, I think we’ll probably see the whole scene pass as the companies begin to work their way back to wood.
MD: Do you get much of an opportunity to practice being on the road so much?
PE: Not as much as I’d like to. I work out before a performance on the Gladstone snare drum pad I carry with me, but I never really get much of a chance to sit and work things out on the set simply because I’m on the road so much. I’m going to be getting a practice set at home soon so at least I can work things out during the time we’re off.
MD: Any feelings on the matched grip?
PE: I can play with the traditional grip, but I prefer the matched most of the time simply because it gives me a bit more speed and power that I’ve got to have for the kind of things I do. I could never see the controversy between traditional and matched grip anyway. As long as a guy can play the set, what difference does it make how he holds the sticks. I imagine it must be very confusing for kids just starting out, to see one guy doing it one way and someone else another way.
MD: Can we look forward to any Phil Ehart clinics for Slingerland in the future?
PE: Yes, as a matter of fact, I will be doing some clinics soon. I’ve never done one before and I’ve been giving it a lot of serious thought. One thing I’m going to try to work on which a lot of young kids don’t get very much exposure to is how to mike drums for live performance and recording. It’s something I really never new anything about until I went into a studio. I would have loved to have somebody tell me how to mike a bass drum, or how to mike a cymbal. Its taken me nearly five years to learn how to mike a cymbal correctly so it will sound right on stage without blowing your head off, or breaking up. There’s an art to miking drums. Of course, I won’t spend the whole clinic on just that, but it’s something I think a lot of kids would like to know.
MD: What kind of drumming do you enjoy listening to, Phil? Do you have any favorites among the players of today?
“Rock is a certain feeling and I honestly don’t feel
that jazz drummers can handle it so well. Likewise, I
don’t think that rock drummers can really handle
jazz styles. They’re just such separate styles of drumming.
But I think that’s great ’cause that’s what divides
two fields and each field respects the other
PE: I love to listen to jazz drummers, even though I sometimes find it depressing ’cause their so damn good. There’s a guy in England with a group called Genesis named Phil Collins who’s a tremendous jazz drummer even though he’s basically in a rock band. I enjoy listening to guys like Lenny White, Steve Gadd, and, of course, Billy is a real freight train, a marvelous player. But, I really think my all time favorite guys are the big band drummers. I could just listen to those guys all day long because that’s something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play. Just to watch guys like Buddy and Louie and Ed Shaughnessy. Wow! I’d love to have the opportunity to meet some of those guys. The ones that I have met, are always glad to talk to you, and that means a lot to somebody like myself. I mean, what can you say; those guys are just the best around.
MD: Any feelings on jazz drummers who lean towards the rock style and vice versa?
PE: I can’t help but feel that many of the jazz drummers who try to swing over to the rock school really have a lot of trouble doing it. Rock is a certain feeling, and I honestly don’t feel that jazz drummers can handle it so well. Likewise, I don’t think that rock drummers can really handle jazz styles. They’re just such separate styles of drumming. But, I think that’s great ’cause that’s what divides the two fields and each field respects the other for it.
MD: You put in an exceptional amount of time travelling. How do you view life on the road and the music business as a whole from your experiences thus far?
PE: My first impulse is to say that it’s just a job, but it’s more than that because I truly love my work. I’m very thankful I can do what I do. I know there are probably a million guys out there who would give their left arm to do what I do and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but life on the road is really bad news. By the time we’re finished with this tour, we’ll have played almost 85 headliners from one end of the country to the other. Not only does it get you health wise, but try to hold up a marriage under those circumstances. The pressure and the competition is just outrageous. It’s a way of life that a lot of guys can’t cope with, and I can certainly see why, even though I love it. You might say that I love music, but I hate the music business. It’s a very unusual business. Our “Leftoverture” album went gold a few months ago, and you wouldn’t believe the kind of people that brings out of the woodwork at our record company. They actually think that we owe it all to them. Well man, we’re the ones who’ve been putting all the work into it; we’re the ones who’ve been out there slaving our butts off for four years. All of a sudden they want all the credit and I’ll tell you, it’s very hard to be honest and say, well, we do appreciate the work you’ve done for us. You gotta kiss ass a lot in this business.
MD: Would you have any parting words of advice for young aspiring drummers, Phil?
PE: That’s a difficult question especially from the standpoint of the field of music I represent. I think that perhaps the best words of advice I could give would be to say; I always knew in my mind that I was going to make it in a rock band, but I always had to keep in mind at the same time, that I might not, and be able to cope with that. To put so much time and effort into something like playing drums and to know that someday, you just might not make it. That’s really a heavy thing for a lot of kids to accept, but you’ve got to remember that the competition is just so unbelievable, that you’ve either got to be the very best, or be in one of the best bands around, or you just might not make it. That’s just the cold reality of this business.