Years of dedication to his craft—and to putting himself out there—have led him exactly where he wants to be: playing with freedom and fire alongside creative icons like Daniel Lanois. MD contributor Stephen Bidwell traces the busy L.A. drummer’s path to self-realization.
Story by Stephen Bidwell
Photos by Alex Solca
As the son of a Coast Guard pilot, Kyle Crane moved around a lot growing up. Like many of us, he joined school band as a way to get out of class, but once the sticks were in hand, he had the bug pretty bad. Junior high and high school found him living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and playing in church choirs and metal bands. These experiences were followed by serious study at Berklee and USC, which eventually led to touring, recording, and keeping a workaholic gig schedule while at home in L.A.
Today Crane is as comfortable rocking Madison Square Garden with the rock band Everest as he is backing up famed producer/leader Daniel Lanois’ latest experiments or creating television music with producer Glen Ballard.
MD: So it seems we were at the same Terry Bozzio clinic in Sterling, Virginia, back around 1998.
Kyle: When I was thirteen, my first teacher, Brian Pentony of the Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, gave me a ticket and said, “It’s crazy—he’s got like a fifty-piece drumset!” I sat right in front and it completely blew my mind; I never knew that someone could just play solo drums. Bozzio inspired me to start composing my own beats, so that opened up a whole thing. I saw Dennis Chambers at the same store a couple of months later, so he also became a big influence.
MD: As a teenager in the D.C. suburbs, you took lessons and played in metal bands.
Kyle: I also played in three different church bands. That was a nice outlet, because these older guys would tell me I was rushing or dragging, and I’d be like, “I don’t know what that means!” But they slowly showed me the way. That was a pretty big part of learning how to play with a group.
MD: How did you end up at Berklee?
Kyle: I was in jazz band during senior year of high school, and I hadn’t put a ton of thought into what I was going to do for college. But my mom heard about Berklee and signed me up for a three-day percussion festival there. They had the schedule loaded with master classes from 7 a.m. until midnight. After that it was the only school I applied to.
MD: What was your experience there?
Kyle: I went to one party that whole four years; the rest of the time I was in the practice room. My jazz knowledge was kind of limited when I got there, so I had a lot to work on. My first semester I studied with Rod Morgenstein, because I was still very into metal, but then I started studying with Terri Lyne Carrington, and she was a big influence, because the way she thought about jazz made sense to me. When we’d work on up-tempo, burning jazz tunes, she would talk about comping as just playing hip-hop without ever hitting the backbeats. Before that, for some reason I didn’t realize that after a certain speed, everything straightens out.
MD: And after Berklee you went to USC?
Kyle: I spent almost a year in Boston just playing and teaching, and then I auditioned for USC and went to L.A. I went pretty briefly, because I started getting some touring opportunities, but I studied with Peter Erskine and Aaron Serfaty while I was there.
MD: You seem to be incredibly busy. How did you network yourself when you got out to L.A.?
Kyle: When I got out here I thought, I need to play as much as possible. That way as many people as possible can see me. I would just pop into hotels, restaurants, and bars and try to get a gig. Now I have six steady gigs a week, and other stuff will fill in. Every time I play it’s an advertisement. That’s how I met Daniel Lanois, and that’s how I met Everest.
MD: You’ve said that you thought Lanois was just a regular at one of your gigs until you were introduced. What is it like working with him on his own music?
Kyle: Dan is like a musical shaman. You remember everything he says. He will amp you up before, during, and after a show like a boxing coach. He literally lets me play anything I want at the shows, and I get to change it every night. It’s liberating.
MD: You’ve also been in the studio with Glen Ballard.
Kyle: He has a couple of projects currently where he put together a band to play tunes he’s written in conjunction with TV shows that are being developed. I can’t really say much more than that due to nondisclosure agreements, but we do live shows, and hopefully the TV thing will get running. You never know in L.A., because everyone’s making pilots left and right.
MD: You’ve also backed up some mainstream pop acts, like Crystal Bowersox and Bridgit Mendler.
Kyle: Yeah, I was Crystal’s drummer and music director for about a year. It was cool playing with Rickey Minor and the cats from the Tonight Show band, as well as [guitarist/pianist] Brian Green from Montë Mar.
MD: And Montë Mar is your alt-pop project of original music?
Kyle: Yeah, we finished a new full-length record, and we’re seeing if any labels want to put it out. If nobody’s interested we’ll just release it ourselves. We still play around, but the singer tours with John Legend and Michael Bublé, so he’s pretty busy. This year nobody’s schedules have really lined up to play much, but when we release the record we’ll get back into playing.
MD: How did you end up recording with Dale Crover and Coady Willis from the Melvins?
Kyle: Joe Plummer [Modest Mouse, the Shins, Cold War Kids] contacted me about an all-drum album he was making for Joyful Noise records. I played voodoo drum and frame drum with Dale and Coady, and then there’s one song where we all trade. We had four drumkits set up in the room, and we all did drastically different little solos. I did more of a jazzy vibe, and the other guys played more bombastic things on their huge kits.
MD: You also recorded with Kanye West.
Kyle: Kanye signed an MC named Really Doe to his label. I played drums on four tracks of Really Doe’s album. That was one of the first sessions I did when I got out here, and it was a pretty memorable experience. I showed up and there was a Victoria’s Secret model sitting on the couch, a pit bull lying behind the soundboard, and a bunch of rappers in the studio playing Madden. But I did a bunch of loops for them to chop up and use, and then I played on top of four tracks on the record.
MD: There’s a video on YouTube of you and keyboardist Sam Barsh where you play a J Dilla–esque beat. Is that something you’ve checked out much?
Kyle: You’ll be on a gig and somebody will suggest, “Let’s do this tune, but with a J Dilla beat.” That’s become a thing that people reference, to not play so rigid—you know, just throw their own stank on it.
I think I learned a lot playing with people who know that style, but it wasn’t until recently that I actually looked up some J Dilla stuff, just to see what it was about.
MD: It can be demanding on a drummer to try to play what people want to hear yet also have your own sound.
Kyle: Seeing virtuosic drummers all the time, it’s easy for me to get depressed about my sound. But after working with Dan Lanois, I started to realize that I don’t have to be anyone else. On a gig like his, where you’re improvising the entire time, it’s easy to listen back and hear things that I wish I did or didn’t do. But Dan gives me the freedom to let go and have no regrets.
Tools Of The Trade
The kit Crane used during our photo shoot at Daniel Lanois’ home studio is a C&C set with maple/gum shells in tweedy blue finish. It features an 8×12 tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 14×20 bass drum, plus a 5×14, 6-lug C&C chrome-over-brass snare with a George Way throw-off. When Crane went on tour with Lanois this spring, he played the same kit, but with a 15×24 bass drum. His Istanbul Agop cymbals include 15″ Traditional Light hi-hats, a 22″ OM ride, and a 24″ Signature ride. He uses Remo heads.