The drummer’s musical skills are outweighed only by his ambitions, which include exploring a real-time multi-instrumental approach.

Anyone familiar with the popular television show America’s Got Talent understands the immense pressure on the contestants. They must perform flawlessly for the program’s creator/judge, Simon Cowell, and his panel of celebrity judges—and a live studio audience—in order to move on to quarterfinal, semifinal, and final rounds. In fourteen seasons, the amount of talent that has appeared on AGT is staggering.

In 2018, a musical trio of siblings from McMinnville, Oregon, took the stage and captured the hearts of the judges and audience with an emotionally stirring original song, “Heaven’s Not Too Far,” penned in memory of their mother, who had passed away from cancer in 2016. Even the über-critical Cowell commented, “There’s something really special about you guys.” Although the band, We Three, didn’t win that year, they made it to the semifinal round and walked away with a legion of loyal fans who continue to follow their developing musical journey.

The rhythmically dense vocals, beautifully blended harmonies, advanced instrumental prowess, and real-time loop creations of these talented twenty-somethings are organic and refreshing. And the consistency of their hook-driven, original pop material is rare. Perhaps most noteworthy onstage is the eldest sibling, Joshua Humlie, who skillfully maneuvers drumkit, keyboards, and vocals while triggering samples and setting up the songs throughout their fast-paced live performances. A quick glance at the many positive comments on We Three’s America’s Got Talent YouTube videos confirms that Humlie’s multi-faceted talents are recognized by observant viewers. Watching his AGT performances reveals a mature confidence, a solid feel, a rhythmic pop sensibility, and thoughtful musical choices on drumkit and keyboards. There’s indeed something very special about these young rising stars.

Humlie’s first instrument was guitar. This was encouraged by his father, who played six-string in a band while mom ran sound. But when, at age seven, Joshua sat behind a makeshift drumkit in their basement while his father’s band was rehearsing, it became clear that a new drummer had arrived. Soon Humlie’s father would bring his kids up onstage during gigs to sit in. Joshua fell in love with drums and never looked back. He studied with several teachers that emphasized rudiments and reading.

Early on, Humlie was influenced by Earth, Wind and Fire, Chicago, the Beatles, and Huey Lewis, among others. At an early age he dissected such complex drum tracks as the Tower of Power classic “What Is Hip?” and ultimately gravitated towards jazz in middle school and high school. Eventually he began studying with Motown and jazz drumming great Mel Brown in the Portland area. Brown’s impact on Humlie was life-changing. “There were times when we would meet for a lesson and he would share amazing stories about the old Motown days,” the younger drummer recalls.

Photo by Sydney Humlie

“The thing I learned most from Mel was showmanship,” says Humlie. “He was always fun and entertaining to watch, especially when he would solo. He talked a lot about his influences, like Papa Jo Jones. Mel had all the technical facility, but he had developed that extra level of showmanship that made his playing unique, enjoyable, and entertaining to watch. And while studying with Mel, I fell in love with jazz. My jazzy side rears its head more in my keyboard playing than in my drumming, though, since We Three is a pop group, where solid grooves are essential.”

As We Three started gigging, Humlie became frustrated with having to choose between playing keyboards and drums, so he began incorporating percussion instruments into his keyboard rig by placing shakers in his socks and a tambourine under his other foot. From there it grew into adding kick drum, then hi-hat, then a cymbal, and finally a snare drum underneath the keyboard. In time his drumkit/keyboard rig has become an important part of the trio’s densely layered sound. Brother Manny [guitar and vocals] also adds a looper pedal to thicken the sound by creating extra layers of guitars, trumpet, and the like. (The lineup is rounded out by sister Bethany on bass and vocals.)

“One of the most fun aspects of playing with siblings is that we encourage and push each other in a positive way to grow and try new things to make the music better,” says Humlie. “I wasn’t really influenced by anyone doing a keys/drums combo. It was something that we needed in our music, so I took on the challenge. It’s worked well, and it’s always a work in progress to see what is possible. Sometimes I’ll use a smaller rig of mostly electronic drums, and I’ll stand up to play and sing. I’m always experimenting. We want to keep the group as a trio, and we’ve always been determined to figure it out ourselves. I used to sing more lead vocals, but as my job became more complicated, I had to shift the focus to the instrumental side and add vocal harmonies when needed.”

Joshua considers his role in the band to be that of a musical choreographer, combining vocals, keyboards, loops, and drum parts cohesively, creating a modern pop sound that flows seamlessly. Everything must be worked out in advance of a live show so that nothing gets left out or compromised within the arrangements. The group recently added click and backing tracks to their live shows so that the front-of-house engineers don’t have to mix so many real-time loops.

“I’ve also created piano-chord samples to trigger from the pad, which has helped immensely,” adds Humlie. “We usually write the songs and record them not really thinking too much about how we’re going to recreate them live. Once we have the song recorded the way we like it, then we work out what parts are most important to include in the live performance. For me, sometimes the keys are the primary focus, but then sometimes the groove is most important and I’ll trigger keys while locking down the groove. It’s different with every song. And that’s what makes it fun!”

When asked if he would ever consider bringing in a keyboardist to free him up to play more drums, Joshua immediately responds, “I’ve invested too much into this concept to let it go now. I’m excited to see just how far we can push this thing we’ve created. I have finally conquered the challenge of simultaneously controlling the keyboard sustain pedal with my right heel and the kick pedal with the ball of my foot. It’s amazing what our bodies and minds are capable of. I’m constantly pushing my drumming skills and listening to drummers that inspire me, like Ash Soan, and Larnell Lewis with Snarky Puppy. We’re always writing new music, and we’re touring Europe this year. The momentum and popularity of the band keep growing, and we’re excited to see where that will take us.” 

Humlie’s setup includes a Yamaha Maple Custom 20″ bass drum and 10″ and 14″ toms, a Pearl Fiberglass 16″ tom, and a 13″ custom snare by the Daniel James Drum Co. The toms are fitted with Evans EC2 Clear batter heads, and the snare has an Aquarian Hi-Impact Coated batter. His cymbals include 14″ Zildjian K Custom hi-hats, an 18″ Zildjian medium crash, a 14″ Sabian AAX crash, a Zildjian K Custom dark crash, and a 20″ Bosphorus ride. He uses an assortment of hardware from Yamaha, Tama, and Gibraltar, and a Pearl Eliminator double bass drum pedal. His keyboard is a Yamaha CP4. (“I like the weighted keys since I’m classically trained, and I use it for the internal sounds but also as a controller.”) His MacBook Pro is loaded with Ableton for the tracks and sounds from Toontrack (EZkeys), and he’s got a small MIDI foot controller next to his hi-hat. For a digital audio interface the band uses the iConnectivity PlayAUDIO12. Humlie plays HeadHunters drumsticks.