Story by Stephen Belans
Photos by Paul La Raia
How does a kid from small-town Canada end up playing drums on records by Katy Perry, Keith Urban, Pink, Greg Holden, Carly Rae Jepsen, Mayer Hawthorne, and global superstar Mika? By harnessing what he calls “sledgehammer moments” and a lifetime of slow-burn lessons.
Greg Wells is a deep thinker with a big brain, which he deploys without pretense or arrogance. He’s charming and earnest, confident yet self-deprecating. He has a big heart; he gives away a drumset every three months on Twitter and dreams of one day opening a music school for kids. Though he was undeniably born with musical aptitude, his vast skill set didn’t develop by accident. He steers an unflinching, deep-seated desire to be better tomorrow than he is today. Greg Wells is always learning.
Wells’ first percussion instrument was a snare drum that he got at age five, and although he excelled at formal piano lessons and taught himself to play guitar and bass, he couldn’t shake the lure of the drums, and at twelve he got his first full set. Plenty of people in L.A. think of him as a pianist, but Greg will tell you he’s still a drummer first. In reality, he quite often is literally a one-man band and the engineer in the studio.
Records that Wells has worked on as a drummer, songwriter, producer, mixer, and/or multi-instrumentalist have sold more than 85 million units. Even so, the era of drummers running from session to session earning triple scale, their drums leapfrogging studios so they could fit more work in a day, is history. “The session scene’s really dried up,” Wells admits. “It doesn’t really exist anymore, with the rarest of exceptions.”
Today, it’s almost imperative that you have a way to record yourself. Wells’ studio is extremely well equipped, housed in the requisite modest industrial building. Drumkits line the hallway, keyboards hang off the wall, and guitars are propped up everywhere. An upright and a grand live in the piano room. Racks of outboard gear and a custom console sit in the control room. It’s a comfortable space and the epicenter of Wells’ work life.
In addition to the artists listed above, Wells has worked with Adele, Twenty One Pilots, Pharrell Williams, Rufus Wainwright, OneRepublic, k.d. lang, and Sir George Martin. Most of that work happens at the aforementioned studio, and most records Wells plays drums on these days result from cowriting sessions at his facility. “Because I write in the same studio I make records in,” Wells explains, “I leave everything miked, set up, and ready to go. Then, if something gets a green light, it becomes ‘the thing.’”
His credits might suggest a frictionless path to success, but Wells is quick to point out the failures along the way. “Most of my career didn’t make any money for anybody, including me,” he says. “Years and years of making mistakes—but paying attention.”
Turning inevitable rejection into motivation for self-improvement allowed Wells to ultimately experience success, which only pushes him harder. “Lack of focus and laziness will hurt you,” he explains. “I think my desire to do this—to chase this dream of making records—is bigger than any talent I do or don’t have.” Such dogged determination never lets up. “It’s that Calvin Coolidge thing,” Wells says, paraphrasing the thirtieth president: “Persistence trumps everything—genius, education, talent. Persistence is the thing.”
People always talk about persistence, but how does it pay off? Well, opportunities aren’t always obvious. “You can never tell how one thing leads to the next,” Wells says. “Sometimes it’s just one more skip of the stone, and sometimes it’s fifteen more circuitous twists and turns.”
Wells studied music at Humber College in Toronto, going through the usual collegiate bebop phase, playing both piano and drums. He started getting calls for jingle sessions on the Toronto studio scene but longed to make records. An unlikely and seemingly unrelated chain of experiences eventually made that possible. Circuitous twists and turns indeed.
After two years at Humber, Wells received a Canadian government grant to spend six weeks in Los Angeles studying harmony with Clare Fischer, the noted composer whose credits included an ongoing role as Prince’s string arranger. Fischer recognized Wells’ talent and began recommending him for sessions on piano—mostly jingles—and his name started getting around. Session work on drums, guitar, and bass came later. Six weeks stretched into twenty-five years and counting.
At one of those initial jingle sessions, the engineer asked Wells to play so he could dial in the piano sound. Wells launched into the last of George Gershwin’s “Three Preludes.” “In my headphones I noticed a bass playing along with me, but not playing the bass part,” Greg recalls. “It was playing the melody, which is like 32nd notes, and just burning!” Wells looked up to see legendary bassist Lee Sklar standing next to him, smiling and playing along. When they finished, Sklar said that he was also a pianist, something most people don’t realize, and that he knew the Gershwin piece well. After that unlikely bonding moment, Sklar, too, started recommending Wells for sessions.
On another jingle session, Wells gave a demo of his own songs to a colleague, who played it for Miles Copeland at I.R.S. Records. Copeland offered Wells a record deal and sent him to Rumbo Recorders to recapture what he had done on his little 8-track home studio, but with more polish. The results, while better sonically, lacked the vibrancy of the demo and became a lasting lesson on the contrast between creating and re-creating. (It’s one of the reasons Wells has his studio constantly at the ready.) As Wells tells it, the silver lining was that the label went bankrupt before his record could be released. Instead, Copeland recruited Wells to produce other artists and offered an invitation to an exclusive songwriting retreat at his French castle.
At the castle, writers were paired off to collaborate. Wells wrote a song with Howard Jones (of “No One Is to Blame” fame) that had a reggae vibe. When it came time to record the demo in the castle’s studio, Wells planned to play drums and overdub bass. Of course, Miles Copeland has a brother named Stewart who’s known to have a flair for reggae-tinged grooves. Turns out the Police drummer was also at the retreat, and Greg found the nerve to approach his teen-years idol (“I wanted to be Stewart Copeland”) to play on the demo. To his surprise, the legendary drummer agreed.
Wells laid down a convincing reggae bass part while Copeland played drums. Impressed by his collaborator’s versatility, Copeland began telling the other writers at the retreat that Wells was a “studio Swiss Army knife.” (See sidebar.) They collaborated when they got back to California and remain friends.
Wait a minute…Wells played a convincing reggae bass part? “As a teenager, I actually played with a real reggae band from Kingston, Jamaica,” Greg says. “I learned it from them.”
The band had a drummer for its Canadian tour but needed a percussionist, and Wells’ small hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, where the tour started, wasn’t exactly teeming with candidates. “Somehow I got the call,” Wells says. “I toured with them the whole summer.” Recognizing Wells’ musicality but lack of familiarity with the genre, his bandmates were patient and encouraging, showing him what he needed to know. “I was just sort of improvising, and they said, ‘No, no, no, here are some patterns. This goes with what he’s playing on the drums. Hear what the piano player’s playing? This goes with that; it goes with what the bass is doing. It’s filling in all the holes—that’s how it works. Don’t worry about showboating. This is very much a team effort. Be on the team.’”
Not only did this experience help Wells years later when writing and recording with Jones and Copeland, but it opened his eyes to assembling the interlocking parts of an arrangement, knowledge that he now puts to use on a daily basis. “It’s like to make the game of chess work, there’s a reason the pawn can do what the pawn does, and there’s a reason the knight does what it does.” He found the big-picture lesson hidden in all of it. “There’s a lot of freedom in structure.”
Wells’ musicianship and production display a distinctly cinematic flair, with dramatic tension and release. That’s no accident. Wells has a longtime interest in foreign film, and the autobiography of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa laid the groundwork for his approach to making records. Kurosawa recommends immersing yourself in the classics to figure out what makes them tick; Wells applied that to music by dissecting what makes great songs great, what makes great records great.
Kurosawa also suggests that aspiring directors learn and experience every single job in the making of a film, from writing a great story to turning it into a script, from acting before the camera to how to score the music, from learning what lens to use for any given situation to costume design. “He said: If you get all that together, then you might have a shot at being a really good film director,” Wells explains. “And that hit me like the best sledgehammer in the forehead. It really connected with me, and from that day on, that’s been my goal, which is to take a really wide, sort of macro path. It inspired me, and I got it.”
Wells’ other big lesson from film came from a more succinct but no less influential quote by English director David Lean, best known for spectacular epics like Lawrence of Arabia. Lean’s advice? “Don’t be boring,” Wells says. “That was it! Sledgehammer!”
The fusion and application of these two pieces of advice continue to inform Wells’ work. “I like things that don’t sound like anything else,” Greg says. “That really attracts me. My favorite qualities in music are a boldness, a sense of humor, and a good amount of surprise. I don’t like to see the joke coming.”
Wells can lay down a four-on-the-floor beat with the best of them, but he finds ways to drive a groove without defaulting to standard practices. He’s apt to ride on toms or a rim instead of a hi-hat, or simply leave space to let the piano or guitar carry the subdivisions. He’ll sneak in an unexpected jab or stab—sometimes subtle, sometimes daring—elevating a syllable in a way that emphasizes the lyric and not the drums.
When cowriting or producing, Wells gets the artist to cut a scratch vocal and guitar or piano as early in the process as possible, to have a framework from which to work. Drums often come next. How does he know what to play when the track is still in such a raw, bare-bones form? “After doing this so many times for so many years, I sort of hear the whole record in my head before I ever go out there,” he explains. “I think of it all as accompaniment. I don’t delineate between ‘here comes the bass,’ ‘here comes the drums.’ It’s the same brushstroke—accompaniment to telling the story.
“There are a few people that I work with consistently that are really great at producing me as a drummer while I’m producing them as an artist,” Wells continues. “Katy Perry is one of them. She’s great at that stuff.” Perry’s input was key to the giant drums in the chorus of “Choose Your Battles,” from her most recent album, Prism, but Wells says she had a vision for the drums even on her debut. “I still remember doing ‘Waking Up in Vegas,’ and she’d be coaching me: ‘That’s great! No, don’t do that, do more of this, and give me a bigger fill here.’ That helps a lot.
“Sometimes the best drum part is to play nothing for two bars,” Wells says, “and I don’t know that when I’m drumming on the thing. When you’re mixing and you solo a group of instruments just to hear what’s going on, you realize that it sounds so much better than the whole track playing.”
Getting down to the essence of telling the story as directly as possible is a recurring theme with Wells, who shares an anecdote involving a session he once did with legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach. “We had a live orchestra, just a completely blown-out session for a week at Capitol Studio A. He would say, ‘No orchestra for the first thirty-two bars,’ even though we hired an arranger who’d written amazingly gorgeous music top to bottom. Burt would say, ‘Just nylon-string guitar and vocal at the top,’ and everyone would kind of look at each other: What’s going on? Until we heard it. He was right every time! He would just remove and sculpt and take away.” After the session, Bacharach explained that he always strived to see how naked the arrangement could be and still feel like the song. The lesson stuck.
“I’m naturally more of an indulgent musician,” Wells says. “I like being really complicated. I like playing grooves in 19/16. I like a lot of information coming at me.” He pauses and takes a deep breath, emphasizing what comes next. “It is way harder to do something simple on a level of excellence, to boil it down to the kernel of the idea and just be true to that little nugget of whatever the muse decided to deliver.
“There are so many really great drummers capable of extreme pyrotechnics that are impressive and unbelievably exciting to watch. But I’m telling you as someone who watched a lot of record producers make records when I was one of their hired musicians, and now as someone who has been hired to produce records for a long time: If anyone showed up on a session and unleashed stuff that was ‘look at me’ and it didn’t fit the song, they would immediately get booted out of the studio.
“It happens,” Wells laments, “and it’s brutal. There’s a very short list of people you can bring into a studio under the scrutiny of microphones a half inch away from every drumhead, with speakers that reveal everything in the most merciless, unforgiving way, who can play at a level of excellence that makes the song sound like a better song. To me, that is the true benchmark to hit.”
Wells points to two of his favorite drummers, both of whom have worked in his studio. “The thing about Jim Keltner or Matt Chamberlain is they will nine times out of ten play pretty simply, but it’s the most gorgeous, most exquisite version of simple you’ve probably ever heard. As minimalistic a drummer as Keltner is, he will surprise you with this lovely little technical flourish that you cannot pull off if you’re not just a mind-blowing drummer. But he barely ever uses that stuff, and the feeling he imparts from his drumming is so immense. It just fills your soul. That’s the thing to shoot for. It’s all about the right energy for the song, like two magnets that go together. You have to make it not about you. I only learned it from tripping and breaking my nose a gazillion times and realizing, Oh, that didn’t work. A lot of it is getting out of the way of your own ability. Forget that it’s you playing and somehow let the music play you. That’s when things get really good.”
The Sharpest Knife in the Drawer
Stewart Copeland on Greg Wells
I met Greg at a fancy castle in France at a songwriters’ retreat. It was an incredible experience rubbing up with all kinds of great musicians and players like Greg. He has an original spark. The tunes he comes up with are not anodyne, milquetoast, chart-bound sounds. There’s something quirky. He has his own voice, a very distinctive
When people like Greg sit on the drums, they do so with a purpose that is not being a star drummer. They kind of understand from the point of view of a songwriter what the drums are for, and they play the drums in support of the song more than in support of their own career as a flash drummer. There’s a very different vibe that comes from that.
He can sing; he plays drums, guitar, keyboards; he can produce. He knows where to put the microphone. He has a wide variety of skills that make him very useful in the studio. There are “players,” like guitarists who can pull out any style, who are like Swiss Army knives, but in Greg’s case, as a producer and music collaborator in a broader sense, he very much is a Swiss Army knife.
Tools of the Trade
“In the studio, my go-to sound is vintage Slingerland Radio King drumkits,” Wells says. “I have several drumsets made by different manufacturers that have based the design on the old Radio King build and sound. I keep coming back to a drumset that Matt Chamberlain recommended to me in Seattle. It’s a 1940 Slingerland Radio King kit with a 26″ bass drum. It records better than anything else I’ve got, and I put it on pop records and everything else. My favorite snare drums are a Black Beauty reissue snare that I bought from West L.A. Music in 1994 for $333. That drum never disappoints. My other two favorite snare drums are a Sonor bell brass that sounds like the most glorious punch in the stomach, and a 5″ vintage 1981 Tama bell brass that sounds like a Black Beauty on steroids. All of these snares are capable of many different sounds and pitches, and consistently record like a dream.”
Sowing the Seeds of Drums
Greg Wells’ Twitter drumkit giveaway, referenced in this article’s intro, was devised for people who want to play but don’t currently have drums. According to Wells, the age limit is four years old to 130. “To enter,” he explains, “send a video clip of you drumming on anything, like a friend’s drumkit or your own kitchen table, to my Twitter account [@greg_wells], with a link for me to view.”