Nate Morton

 

He’s got nerves of steel and a truckload of chops—exactly what you need to own the drum seat on a show like The Voice. This month’s cover start takes MD on stage and behind the scenes at the hottest competitive music series on TV.

 

In February 2006, when MD last featured Nate Morton, the drummer was playing in the house band for Rock Star: INXS, a reality show that documented the popular group’s audition process for a replacement for its late singer, Michael Hutchence. Not only did Morton impress the surviving members of INXS, who judged the would be frontmen and frontwomen, but he made a huge impression on the show’s live and TV audience—even non-musicians took notice. The following year Nate was back on the set, this time supporting contestants as they vied for the role of lead singer for Supernova, a group made up of Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee, Metallica’s Jason Newsted, and Guns n’ Roses’ Gilby Clarke.

At the time it seemed as if Morton had come out of nowhere, but the Berklee College of Music graduate, whose classmates included fellow future drumming greats John Blackwell, John Roberts, and Abe Laboriel Jr., had already amassed road chops with Vanessa Carlton, Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, and the 2003 American Idol tour. Rock Star was where the serious buzz began, though, and Morton’s subsequent career has been watched closely by drumming fans across the globe.

After Rock Star went off the air, Morton was a hot property, and he took advantage of opportunities to tour with Cher and with Paul Stanley and record with Latin pop star Thalía, teen heartthrob Mitchel Musso, and TV on the Radio multi-instrumentalist David Sitek. He also got to keep his TV chops sharp during stints on The Bonnie Hunt Show and MTV’s Rock the Cradle. In 2011 he was invited to join the house band for The Voice, which is wrapping up its sixth season as you read this. The show has since become the most popular singing reality series on TV, even eclipsing American Idol. Last Call host Carson Daly leads the on-air proceedings, while four superstar judges choose their favorite singers and then coach them in their bids to win the competition.

The show’s original judges were Blake Shelton, CeeLo Green, Christina Aguilera, and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine; Shakira and Usher have twice replaced Aguilera and Green when touring schedules created conflicts. Other guest musicians act as mentors to the contestants. The show’s star power is off the charts—and yet Morton’s magnetism is undeniable, even in this setting. This season in particular, Nate and a variety of his Pearl drumkits have been featured front and center on the Voice stage. It’s well-deserved attention and proof positive that a musically and visually exciting drummer is as compelling to TV audiences today as any other type of performer.

A fan of all genres of music since he was young—Van Halen, Nirvana, Kiss, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, and Earth, Wind & Fire were all in heavy rotation at home—Morton gets to flex his arsenal of musical know-how on camera every week. Such wide-ranging taste and knowledge are a given with all of the show’s musicians, because the material they have to tackle can range from country to rock to pop to R&B and beyond. Good portions of the show are broadcast live, so there’s no room for error, and song after song these guys are spot on. The workload is serious; the band’s very long days include rehearsals, taped segments, live performances, and recording tracks for iTunes—which at this point number more than six hundred.

Discussing Morton’s super-demanding gig at the MD offices one day, we wondered: What if Nate kept a journal during an entire Voice season, detailing all the aspects of the gig that make it so unusual and intense, and then shared the highlights in the pages of the magazine? This would provide readers with a rare insider’s view of the very highest levels of music production and performance—and offer a perfect opportunity to understand just how the work gets done. Nate, always up for a challenge, was totally on board, and you can read his journal entries starting on page 43. But first, let’s talk some drums.

MD: You’re playing all the time, and we know that’s the best form of practice. But are there any technical challenges you’re working on now?

Nate: When we’re working on the show, I spend eight- to twelve-hour days on the drums. Some days I’m playing nonstop, other days less so. If I’m not actually playing the drums, I may just be doing some rudiments or patterns on the pad to stay warm. Either way, that’s a lot of time with sticks in my hands, so the truth is, when we’re not in production, I try to grant myself a little time off. I make it a point to play chess, ride bikes, or go to the movies with my family. Family time helps me recharge and be ready to return with renewed enthusiasm.

Having said that, when I do find the time to sit down at the drums for myself, I usually just play along to songs on my iPod, or I play time in different genres. Sometimes I’ll just set up a ride cymbal and play “spang, spang-a-lang” to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. I’ve never had the most disciplined practice routine, but I’ve always spent lots of time playing along to songs. That’s what I enjoyed most when I started playing, and that’s still what I enjoy most today.

Nate Morton

MD: What drummers did you admire when you first started?

Nate: When I was a kid I was primarily influenced by two sources. My parents attended Tennessee State University, which is an HBCU [historically black college or university], and their marching band, the Aristocrats, was awesome. I enjoyed going to the games purely for the halftime show, and after the games I’d go home, strap a pillow around my waist with a belt, and march up and down the hallway for hours, playing my pillow with serving spoons and pretending I was in the marching band.

In addition to the TSU band, as a five-year-old my day was made when I got to see Animal play on The Muppet Show. More than anything, the amount of energy and enthusiasm and joy was enough to push me over the edge. I wanted to flail around and hit stuff, yell, and have fun—what five-year-old doesn’t? Animal showed me that I could channel that desire in a direction that made it okay to be a little out of control and over the top. Driving the band is high on my list of drumming job requirements. It’s our responsibility to be the impetus that pushes the machine forward, and to this day Animal continues to inspire me to always keep that in mind.

As far as other influences, in college I wanted to be Omar Hakim. I admired the fact that he could play pop and rock gigs but also had credibility from the jazz gigs he’d done. Moreover, I wanted to look like Omar when I played. I tried to imitate his long, relaxed, flowing stroke. There are too many other influences to name, though I remember being particularly inspired by Dennis Chambers, because he was so powerful and he epitomized driving the band. Then there’s Vinnie Colaiuta—listening to him felt like watching a magician.

I also really enjoyed Will Kennedy. I thought his phrasing was so creative. There’s a tune on the Yellowjackets album Four Corners called “Sightseeing,” and the fill at 2:15 going into the piano solo gets me every time. It has nothing to do with complexity and everything to do with musicality. I’ve always admired and marveled at speed, chops, and drum acrobatics, but I’ve been more inspired by taste and creativity. I don’t know if that comes through in my playing, but it’s what I’m going for.

MD: You’re also a singer-songwriter, and you play piano. Do you have time these days to work on your own material? I really dug your 2006 solo album, Playground Philosophy.

Nate: Thank you! At the moment the show is all encompassing, but I definitely have ideas floating around in my brain. I look forward to making the time to flesh them out and create a permanent record of their existence, so to speak.

MD: What’s the best drumming advice you’ve ever gotten?

Nate: When I attended Berklee College of Music, I had the privilege of studying with Ian Froman. During one of my first lessons with Ian, he asked me to sit down and play something, and the first thing I did was start moving and adjusting parts of the kit—Ian used to play with his hi-hat and snare drum level with one another. But he stopped me and asked what I was doing. I was like, “What do you mean?” He said, “Listen, you’re going to be on tour in Copenhagen or someplace, and you’re going to land, go straight to the venue, and have to walk right on stage. You’re barely going to have time to tune the drums, much less adjust them to your exact specs. You’re going to have to learn how to sit down and make music at whatever kit you’re on.” That’s why I’ve never been that guy who has to tweak and tweak and move a tom a sixteenth of an inch this way or that. That was a valuable lesson that has served me well.

MD: What’s the biggest difference between performing live on TV and playing concerts?

Nate: One big difference is the duration of each song—roughly ninety seconds on TV as opposed to a four-minute full-length song in concert—and the length of time between when you’re actually playing. For example, touring with Paul Stanley, we did an hour-and-forty-minute set of twenty-two songs, with space for a little crowd banter between and sometimes not. Sometimes one song segues straight into the next, and maybe even into a third, so it feels like constant playing, with the occasional pause to breathe.

My experience with TV has been the exact opposite. Some days we make it through twenty-two of our scheduled twenty-five performances. Each artist only gets one crack at it, so at roughly ninety seconds per song, that’s thirty-three minutes of actual playing. So over the course of our ten-hour day, thirty-three minutes—or approximately one twentieth of that time—was actually spent playing. I’m not knocking it; I’m just pointing out the stark contrast to touring or playing club gigs. The rest of the time in that day might be taken up getting crowd shots, coach shots, Carson Daly line readings, post-performance coach feedback to the artist, or the coaches attempting to persuade an artist to join their team.

And you can’t forget “glam.” Between many of the segments that are shot, the coaches have their respective hair, makeup, and personal assistants in to fluff hair, blush cheeks, and touch up eyeliner. We refer to them as the coaches’ pit crews—in fact, Michael Bernard, our Pro Tools tech, actually plays samples of NASCAR pit crews changing tires and such in our in-ear monitors while it’s happening! [laughs] I pass some of this time surfing the Web, bidding on eBay items, playing video and word games, texting, sending emails to friends, and stuffing my face at the craft services table. I have a drum pad mounted on the rack, so I also make it a point to play some rudiments to stay warm throughout the day.

MD: Can you talk about the recording process for the iTunes tracks?

Nate: For each of the songs performed by contestants on the show, the band goes into the studio and makes a full-length recording—actually, a three-and-a-half-minute version. We usually shorten or remove portions of the song that don’t contain vocals. The contestant tracks the vocal and the song is released on iTunes, concurrent with his or her performance on the show. The purchases of these iTunes singles factor into the voting process on the show. Sometime last season I lost track of how many recordings we’ve made, but we were approaching six hundred then.

The actual process goes like this: A three-minute-and-thirty-second musical template is created by [Voice musical director] Paul Mirkovich or someone else within the music department who is delegated to do so. That edit is usually made by cutting together parts of our stage performance with other parts of the original version that were omitted to create the ninety-second version for the show. That template is played back, and Paul sings down a guide vocal for us to record to. This is usually my first time hearing the three-and-a-half-minute arrangement, because, while I’ve become more proficient at scribbling down an arrangement after one listen, I’ve also become increasingly remiss about doing my homework. [laughs] For the show and ease of access, I use my algebraic notation for charts, but in the studio I like to actually write a bona fide chart on music paper as Paul sings his scratch vocal. Still, I usually just mark sections and bars. Occasionally I’ll write in a figure or a kick pattern to remind myself to get something right with bassist Sasha Krivtsov.

Once everyone is tuned up and has their sounds, we’re ready to carve. We usually do three takes down. This gives the producer and his staff options. After the third pass, we’ll all call out our favorite passes for ourselves. “Use my second take!” “Third take for me,” etc. Sometimes we work in a staggered time structure with the artist. In other words, we might be scheduled to track the music for a song at 11 a.m., and that artist may be scheduled to come into another studio next door and cut the vocal. When this is the case, it’s important for us to get down all the overdubs and such as we go along, which means I get a fifteen- or twenty-minute break between tracks. When there are no singers scheduled, we blast through and get the final rhythm tracks, and keyboard and guitar overdubs are saved for the end of the day. For obvious reasons, Sasha and I enjoy the latter method. In a normal day, we tackle as many as twelve tracks.

Nate Morton

MD: Are there any songs that you’ve found particularly challenging to play on the show?

Nate: The material is primarily mainstream, so there aren’t many odd meters or complex unison band figures. Lucky for me, it’s not The Voice India, or I’d be in trouble! “This one is in 17/16….” That said, one song does stick out. Terry McDermott performed the Kansas song “Carry On Wayward Son” during season three. “Carry On” already has a few metric modulations and such, but coming out of the guitar solo [3:10 on the iTunes recording] there’s a particular odd bar that to this day gives me fits. It became one of those things where the more you try to reach it, the farther away it gets—which becomes even more frustrating, because you know it shouldn’t be that difficult. This particular brain glitch was compounded by the fact that, when we track iTunes, we give ourselves three takes to nail it, tops. I remember Paul Mirkovich saying, “What’s the matter, Nate, you tired? We’ve only played thirty-seven songs this week!”

 

 

Nate’s Setup

Nate Morton setup

Drums: Pearl Reference Pure in ocean sparkle finish

  1. 14×14 floor tom
  2. 7×13 Reference snare (granite sparkle)
  3. 6.5×14 DTS brass “Heavy Hitter” snare
  4. 7×10 tom
  5. 8×12 tom
  6. 9×13 tom
  7. 16×16 floor tom
  8. 16×18 floor tom
  9. 16×20 bass drum (used as an electronic trigger)
  10. 14×20 gong drum
  11. 18×22 bass drum

Cymbals: Zildjian

  1. 14″ A Custom Mastersound hi-hats
  2. 11″ K Custom Hybrid splash
  3. 20″ Oriental China Trash
  4. 18″ A Custom crash
  5. 19″ A Custom Projection crash
  6. 12″ A Custom splash
  7. 22″ K Custom ride
  8. 20″ A Custom crash
  9. 11″ K Custom Hybrid splash (inverted) stacked on 16″ Oriental China Trash
  10. 19″ K Custom Hybrid crash
  11. 20″ A Custom China

Hardware: Pearl, including ICON rack and Eliminator bass drum pedals with chain drive and red cog; Cympad cymbal felts (blue)

Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador snare and tom batters, Smooth White Ambassador gong drum batter, and Powersonic bass drum batters

Sticks: Zildjian Nate Morton signature model

Percussion: Rhythm Tech tambourine and shaker (in a cup holder located below A Custom China)

Electronics: Behringer mixer (with click, band mix, electronics, and computer on separate channels), Apple MacBook laptop (used for notes), Roland SPD-30 multi-pad unit and PD-8 pads, ePad, Sennheiser mics and Amperior headphones

 

 

Nate Morton: A Season in the Life

Nate Morton

Sunday, September 22, 2013

At this point we’ve just started production on season six. I think it’s amazing that the show is still going strong, and every day I realize how fortunate I am to have this opportunity.

One of the things that makes this writing assignment challenging, though, is that I’m not certain what I’m allowed to write about and what I’m not. I mean, I’m under contract with the show, and that contract does include an extensive nondisclosure agreement. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I read all the fine print in a contract. (Note to self, and advice to you, the reader: Start reading the fine print in contracts.) But I’ll do my best to share as much as I can without putting myself on the hook.

The first phase of the show that airs is called blind auditions. The name of the series is actually derived in great part from these performances, because the coaches listen to the singers the first time with their backs to them, giving the judges nothing to assess but “the voice.” And based only on their assessment of that performer’s vocal, they either turn their chair or they don’t. Getting a chair turn determines whether or not a contestant makes it to a team to continue forward in the competition. The blind-audition performances are rehearsed and shot over the course of several weeks, and then the individual performances are edited into the episodes that air at the beginning of the season. Songs are prepared and rehearsed with as many as 140 contestants, but before we see those contestants we have a period of two to three weeks of only band rehearsals to prepare the songs—and that’s the phase we’re in now.

A week ago we learned fifteen songs a day—seventy-five songs. At the end of the week Paul [Mirkovich, musical director] said, “Excellent work—seventy-five songs down. Next week we only have seventy.” Not sure if I ever thought that phrase would apply to my life.

Everyone in the band has different methods for digesting the material. I create road maps—for instance, intro, verse, chorus, bridge, solo, outro, tag, drive, and whatever other sections a song might include—and each section has a corresponding initial, in this case I, V, C, B, S, O, T, D. Each initial is followed by a numeral, which represents the number of bars of that section. So my chart to our arrangement of “Hey Jealousy” looks like this: fill – I2 – V8 + 8 – C8 – T4 – V8 – C8 – D8 (rit) crash. A plus sign means a continuation of the same section, a minus sign denotes a new section, and “rit” equals ritard.

I usually only have to hear a song once before I create my road map. Because I’m relatively familiar with “Hey Jealousy,” I know the basic groove, so this road map gets me through. From there I can season to taste. I try to write as little as possible, because the less dependent I am on my eyes, the more I can rely on my ears.

Here’s an example of a slightly more involved chart, for “How Country Feels”: I2 – V8 – PC4 (crash 1) – C8 – B2 – PC (kik) 4 (crash 1 – 4&) – C9 – D4 (4&).

 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Today’s short five-hour workday concluded our band-only rehearsals. Tomorrow we start seeing twenty-one contestants. Each will be allotted a thirty-minute initial rehearsal with the band. Many will be well prepared and won’t need that much time. Others won’t be prepared, but in the interest of fairness they’ll still get thirty minutes max. Twenty-one contestants times thirty minutes each equals ten and a half hours. Add to that an hour lunch break and time between contestants, and it’s probably going to be a twelve-hour day. But there’s nothing else I’d rather spend twelve hours doing.

 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Today went off with no major arrangement snafus—a few touch-ups here and there, but nothing blew up in our faces. There were a few awkward key transpositions, and while my bandmates’ brains were exploding calculating those, I clasped my hands together, looked toward the sky, and thought, Thank God I play drums!

We tackle everything from country to old soul, neo soul to punk-pop, classic rock to coffeehouse. It’s a challenge that I once considered daunting, but now I rely on it to feed my ADDemons. A baseball infielder doesn’t think, Oh, no, the batter might hit the ball, and it could go anywhere! What shall I do? They think, If that ball comes anywhere near me, I’m going to grab it and make the play! In fact, I doubt they even think about it—it’s instinctual. To an extent this gig is like that: You have to be ready to dive left or right, climb the stairs, or get in the dirt to make the grab.

 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Today was another relatively smooth one. There were a couple of interesting flips, but they came about fairly easily. With some contestants there’s an underlying desire to reinvent the wheel; they may want to take a legendary classic-rock song and re-create it as a reggae jam, or take a bubblegum pop song and give it depth by “stripping it down” and adding strings. They might be coffeehouse singer-songwriters who believe the strongest presentation of “Enter Sandman” is a single guitar and voice. One past contestant, Nicholas David, did a great job creating hip flips of tunes. Check out his arrangement of “You Are So Beautiful” on iTunes, for instance. Another contestant, Judith Hill, would come in with fully conceived ideas, charts for the band, and a specific concept. Others, though, will be more like, “Umm…could we, like, change it up? Like…let’s try something else.” This is usually when I roll my eyes and shoot my bass player a glance that says, Seriously?

 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Today should be interesting. I arrived at work to find that we have seventeen songs to learn/review—some of which we’ve played before, some that we haven’t. Then we’re seeing ten contestants for their first blind audition rehearsal.

 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Today concluded day two of season-six blind-audition rehearsals with the contestants. It’s been a long couple of days. Yesterday, after a brief soundcheck, we worked with thirty-five contestants, and at the end of the night we found out that one of the contestants’ songs had changed. So after those thirty-five rehearsals, with our collective remaining brain cells, the band had to learn a song and then do a first rehearsal with that contestant. They’ll come through again in the next couple of days of main-stage rehearsals, in order to get their second rehearsal on the stage, like the artists we saw during the day.

These rehearsals are really onstage run-throughs. We play each song with the performers three times—once as a soundcheck, after which they make any necessary audio adjustments, and then two more run-throughs for audio, camera, and lights. These are long days—we had a 10:45 a.m. call time with a scheduled 11:15 p.m. wrap—but they tend to go by fairly quickly, because we’re playing almost constantly and moving through different songs with the singers. It’s a fun challenge seeing how quickly and effectively we can change hats.

One of the current challenges is that the band is divided by a large set piece that limits our sight lines. This creates logistical challenges when things like song endings need to be cued. A funny thing has happened with me and my musical director, Paul, though: Oftentimes Paul cues the end and everybody follows, or the ends are left up to the drummer and everybody follows. With Paul and me, I can’t honestly tell who’s cuing endings anymore—we just intuitively do it simultaneously. Because of this, any of the other band members can choose to watch either of us.

 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Today concluded the third of five scheduled days of blind auditions. I must admit, the talent level never ceases to amaze me. Don’t get me wrong—not every singer is ready to drop a record tomorrow. But with as many as there are who participate from season to season, it’s spectacular that more and more outstanding vocalists keep turning up.

I’ll usually get the songs and the order of performances the previous night, along with a link to where I can download recordings of our stage rehearsals with those contestants. I’ll download the songs from the previous three days; there have been twenty-five per day. From there I create an iTunes playlist, titled something like V6 Blind Auditions Main Stage, Day 3.

Without getting too technical, I’ve developed a system within iTunes that allows me to quickly pair the stage rehearsal with our previous rehearsal studio recording, so then I can copy my algebraic chart from one to the other. After that, I arrange the songs in the order that they will be performed according to my production schedule. And, finally, I listen down to each song, reading through my chart and double-checking that it’s accurate. At that point I’m prepared for the next day’s tasks.

In addition to the band, running the Pro Tools rig behind the scenes is Michael Bernard. He’s the wizard behind the curtain, responsible for adding the elements that we just don’t have enough limbs or fingers to perform 100 percent live. If there’s more than one guitar part, or multiple horns, strings, percussion, or loops of any kind, they get recorded or programmed; Michael is in charge of creating Pro Tools sessions and recording, adding, editing, mixing, and playing back those various other elements. Country songs tend to have layer upon layer of guitar tracks, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and more. Dance songs tend to have multiple synth pads and sequenced arpeggios, as well as specifically programmed and/or effected drum loops. Michael is responsible for the playback of all of these elements. It’s also from Michael’s rig that I receive the count-offs and click tracks in my ear. Michael’s the unsung hero.

 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Today concluded our final day of shooting season-six blind auditions at Manhattan Beach Studios. It seems crazy that we’re already in season-six production and we haven’t even reached the conclusion of season five yet. Soon we will travel back in time to complete the live shows for season five, after which we’ll go “back to the future” to return to the battles, knockouts, and live shows for season six.

In the end it took a hundred performances of the 130 prepared for the coaches to fill their season-six teams. Even though on TV you barely catch glimpses of the band during this phase of the show, I still like to do stick spins and visuals because the studio audience can see us. I keep the antics to a minimum until a chair turns, though. The thing is, the singer is pouring his or her heart out. If a chair does turn, there’s a collective “Yay!” from the room and the energy level goes through the roof. But if there’s no chair turn, there’s a collective “Aw…” and the energy level deflates. I’d feel bad if I’m going crazy like a lunatic behind the drums and nobody turns their chair, like, “Woohoo! Rock out! By the way, you’re not on the show.” It just seems inconsiderate. Having said that, if there is a chair turn on a rock song, it has the reverse effect. A song that was supposed to have a short-button ending might suddenly have a big held chord at the end, as I throw the drums down the longest flight of stairs ever.

The last singer filled the final spot around 8:30 tonight, at which time the audience was cleared and we were scheduled to rehearse and camera block the coaches’ medley. After we’d already turned in a twelve-hour day, rehearsal got under way around 9:30. By this point everyone was more than a little fried. There comes a time when, even though physically you are still present in the room, your brain just decides, Okay, since you clearly aren’t capable of making good decisions, I’m just going to shut it down right now. The band and coaches collectively hit the spot around 10:30, after accomplishing little more than figuring out all the things about the arrangement that weren’t working.

When a musical number is created, you don’t always know if the coaches are going to agree with all the choices, and because the show works on such a tight schedule, consulting them on every arrangement as it’s being assembled would be impossible. As a result, sometimes rehearsals end with a “back to the drawing board,” as this one did. And a “back to the drawing board” usually means that what was your 11 a.m. call time just became 9 a.m. Doing this show, the philosophy “Be like water” often comes into play. See you at 9 a.m.!

 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

9 a.m. arrival and proceed straight to craft services. Attempt to make healthy choices with fruit and veggies. 10 a.m., rehearsal of new coaches’ medley arrangement. 10:20 a.m., return to craft services, eat more veggies; take first required sampling of the seven-layer dip, which is to die for. 10:30 a.m., rehearsal with the coaches. 10:45 a.m., during rehearsal, I politely ask my drum tech, Steevo, to return to craft services to procure more chips and seven-layer dip. 11 a.m., rehearse and camera block with coaches. 12 noon, try to assuage my guilt by eating even more veggies. 1 p.m., load in audience. 2 p.m., audience warm-up guy takes the stage. 2:30 p.m., I’m saddened to find there is no more seven-layer dip. 3 p.m., I must regain focus; time to shoot the coaches’ medley. 3:30 p.m., shoot coaches’ medley. We generally do multiple passes, a few for warm-up and making sure everyone hits their marks—not just the band and coaches, but also the camera and lighting crew. Then we shoot a few “for real,” with the pyro. 5:30 p.m., show wraps. I drive home, still pondering the seven-layer dip and when we might again be reunited. Note to self: Tomorrow we’re in the studio starting at 11 a.m., with fifteen songs to track.

 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The previous two days were spent learning/reviewing twenty songs per day for the upcoming rehearsals and reality shoots, when we rehearse the artist’s song with the coach present and they offer their feedback and insight. Today was a reality-shoot day for Team Adam.

 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Okay, we’re back! Several weeks ago The Voice reached its exciting conclusion when Tessanne Chin was crowned champion of the show’s fifth season. It was an incredible journey, and she is certainly a worthy victor. I wish her the best of luck.

With every season, the level of contestant talent, production, and competition intensifies. I don’t expect the season-six live shows to be any different, but before we get there we have to pick up where we left off, with the battle rounds.

After four weeks off, today felt like the first day back in school after summer break. Once we’d exchanged vacation stories, it was back to work with Team Blake, with six songs and six battles to rehearse. At this point it’s fairly typical that we would walk in with six songs to play, having never rehearsed them as a band, and, in some cases, having never even heard them. When that happens, we generally allow ourselves fifteen to twenty minutes to get it together. Granted, we start with an already cut-down arrangement and charts for the guys who read them. Paul sings a scratch vocal, which Michael Bernard records for us to play to, and that represents our one “listen down.” Then it’s time to play it. Generally, two or three run-throughs is what we get, and then it’s on to the next track. Starting around 10 a.m., the first two hours were spent learning the six songs for the day, and after a little break it’s time to shoot the rehearsals with Team Blake.

10 a.m. to noon, learn six songs, then it’s, Lights…camera…WAIT! Jay, one of our reality producers, calls, “Okay, everybody—going in ten minutes!” Sometimes the time Jay calls is closer to the square root of our actual downbeat, but it’s TV, after all. Be like water…be like water…be like water….

One of the coolest aspects of this show is getting to meet the guests who come to play and/or mentor. Today Blake’s guest mentors are Neil, Kimberly, and Reid of the Band Perry. They’re an amazing group whose musical talents are equaled only by their great personalities and down-to-earth attitudes. The more I learn about the world of country music, the more I like it.

A reality-shoot day generally means I play less and spend more time being a prop in the background, but on this day I spent a fair amount of time watching live videos of the Band Perry. Once the shoot portion of the day got rolling, it was smooth sailing. We did six duets in all, and Blake, Neil, Kimberly, and Reid gave some great feedback.

 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Easy day—it’s a second-rehearsal day, which means we’re seeing the contestants for the second time. The first was with their coach/mentors, and the second is usually a review/refresher with just the contestant(s) and the band. It’s their last chance to rehearse their song before the main-stage run-throughs for camera and lights. We already shot our battle-rounds reality segment with Shakira, her guest mentor, and six battle pairings—that was before we shifted back to season five. Today, second rehearsals with Team Shakira and Team Blake.

From time to time, when I’m reasonably familiar with the songs, it’s fun to create challenges. Nothing crazy, just something different to break my mind from what might be its most familiar or comfortable mode of operating.

Today I recalled a recording I played on. The producer was Tom Rothrock, and during preproduction I was playing along to some guitar/vocal demos. At first I approached them in a very typical way, playing fills and crashes to turn around the sections, verse to pre-chorus to chorus, etc. After one or two passes, Tom said, “Okay, this time don’t play any crashes.” So we played down the song a couple of times with no crashes, and whenever I’d play a fill I’d just return on the downbeat to the hats or the ride. Then he asked me to play the entire track with no fills. That sounds fairly simple, but you’d be surprised. It’s so easy to become completely ingrained in the dogma of “fill every eight bars, crash” that when you have to do exactly not that, you might actually have to concentrate on making yourself do nothing. Tom explained that sometimes it’s important to focus on playing the track down with nothing, to see where the song actually needs a fill or crash and where it doesn’t. It’s a simple idea, but it’s not always one’s first instinct.

So one of today’s challenges was seeing if I could play an entire song without one single fill or crash. When you remove adornments from your playing, you’re forced to concentrate on the purest elements of your time. “Does this pocket feel good?” “Can I bury the click?” (In my case, generally no.) “Are my ghost notes all at the same dynamic level?” “How consistently can I strike the snare in the exact same location?” Ideally, you want to think less and just play music, but occasional challenges like these help me assess my bad habits or inconsistencies.

 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Besides me, the person on the show who plays my drums the most is Adam Levine. I think he’d build a drumkit on the platform with his twirly red chair if he could. It’s to the point where if I stand up off the drum throne to go to the bathroom, Adam is literally on it before my second foot is off the riser. You know those spiky things across the tops of billboards to keep birds from landing there? It’s been suggested that I look into something like that for my throne. Trap doors, ejector seats, and hiding the drumsticks have also been suggested. But seriously, it’s pretty hilarious. Adam is actually a very good drummer, so it’s not like he’s just pounding away. He’s a song guy, so even if he’s playing alone, he’s playing the groove to a song, so that’s cool. And besides, when Adam plays, that’s just more time for me to go see if there’s any more seven-layer dip at craft services.

 

To read Morton’s journal entries for the final weeks of The Voice, season six, go to moderndrummer.com.