Pushing forward with the ever-evolving art-rock institution, digging in deeper as a full-fledged member of the Pineapple Thief, and forever shaping the song.
Gavin Harrison speaks with carefully chosen words and a deliberate flow, with no phrase out of place. It’s not overly mechanical, and there’s a sincerity to his thoughts that exemplifies humanity and heart. But there’s no getting around the fact that it’s just, well, perfect. Which is exactly what he sounds like behind the drums. Check out an overhead shot of his kit, and marvel at the stick markings on the heads. Dead center. And is there a better- recorded drum sound, live or on albums? Hard to find.
The English-born Harrison spent years as a session drummer and later elevated the progressive rock group Porcupine Tree to new heights, from him joining in 2002 until that group’s disbandment in 2010. Since 2014 he’s been one of three drummers sharing the front of the stage for the iconic progressive rock band King Crimson, at first with Pat Mastelotto and Bill Rieflin, now with Mastelotto and Jeremy Stacey. You might be surprised to know that Harrison, who grew up a jazz fan, was never a rabid Crimson head. “The weird thing is that I’m probably the only guy in Crimson who didn’t grow up listening to the band,” says Harrison. “[Founder/guitarist] Robert Fripp said, ‘These are the songs,’ and I told him I had a confession that I didn’t have any of his records. Well, I had [1984’s] Three of a Perfect Pair on vinyl, but no record player. But he really liked that I’d be uninfluenced by the past and that I would approach it from a fresh perspective, that I’d treat every song like it was a new song, regardless of when it was written.”
In 2015, returning to his jazz roots, Harrison released Cheating the Polygraph, an album of reworked Porcupine Tree songs in a big band style. And lately, Harrison has recorded two albums with and is now a full-time member of modern progressive group the Pineapple Thief. But it’s with Crimson where his skills as an arranger and master drummer shine brightest, and the re-interpreted beats and wild drum features are on full display on the band’s most recent live Blu-ray/triple-disc release, Meltdown: Live in Mexico City, taken from shows in July 2017.
MD: The last time you spoke with MD, around five years ago, the three-drummer Crimson lineup was brand new. What’s the state of the band now in terms of roles and approach?
Gavin: In 2016, Bill Reiflin pulled out of the band, so we needed to find a drummer who could play keyboards. Jeremy had come around to my apartment in the early 1980s because he knew I had a score of Frank Zappa’s “The Black Page.” He wanted to check out some of the keyboard lines, because I had the drum score and the master score. So thirty years later I remembered there was a drummer I knew who could also play keys, so we invited Jeremy into the band and he filled in really well.
MD: Is everything still relatively open regarding who keeps time and who colors things?
Gavin: Everything changes around all the time. It’s not like I’m playing the main beat and the other two are playing support roles. Lots of times I’m not even playing and Pat is on his own or Jeremy is on his own. We try to find interesting parts. But there’s not much point in having three drummers if you’re all just going to take turns. Although it’s interesting from a groove perspective to hear how three different guys play time and make the music feel, it’s more interesting to find unique parts that three drummers can play at the same time, not [just] doubling bass drum or snare hits.
I was given the job early on to try to arrange parts for the drummers. And I’m lucky because I’ve got a studio at home, so pre-tour I work out arrangements for three kits, and before the band rehearses, we do a drum rehearsal for a week, and Pat, Jeremy, and I go through the parts and figure them out. We adjust and modify them. And it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the original drum part, which lots of times was one drummer on his own. So you abandon that idea and start from scratch, which is quite challenging considering some of the songs have very signature drum parts.
MD: Are you tasked with composing the drum features?
Gavin: I get the job of arranging and composing the pieces, but it’s only when I play it with the other two guys that we can manipulate it and it evolves. You can’t just sit in a room with three drummers and say, “We’re going to write a piece. Go!” [laughs] You’ll just end up with a horrible, big jam. In a band with four guys in a room, the drummer plays a beat, the bassist comes up with a riff, and you end up with a half-hour jam in E. And it’s nice, but not a composition. As every year comes around, I try to think of new things we can play. For “Banshee Legs Bell Hassle” [o Meltdown] I had the idea to play in twenty-seven. It’s three bars of seven and one bar of six. At that time Bill was the third drummer, and against the twenty-seven, he could just play in nine, [since] there are three nines in twenty-seven. And I break o the three sevens and a six to join Bill in the three nines. It’s a gentle, simmering little electronic piece.
MD: Does Robert give any feedback or guide you in any way for these drum pieces?
Gavin: I never send it to Robert, and I never ask him if the pieces are okay. And he never says if the pieces are okay or not. He’s a pretty good casting agent. He gets a group of people together that he trusts. The assumption is, if you’re still in the band…. He never tells me what he wants from the drums and never says, “Don’t do that.” He trusts that I’m going to do the right thing. And I take some incredible liberties with some of the arrangements. And we get to the first rehearsal and play it, and he doesn’t say a word. It’s just accepted. He’s the group leader, but he’s not a “bandleader” or the “musical director” of the band.
MD: You shoot a little more from the hip in your solo in “21st Century Schizoid Man,” right?
Gavin: Yes, every night we play that, and it’s an open-ended solo where I can play whatever I want. The challenge for me is really to play a different solo every night. It would be easy to string together a load of pre-rehearsed licks that I’ve done for years that may be crowd pleasing, with lots of speed and flash. But that’s not very interesting to me and not very in the spirit of King Crimson. Most nights I’m doing it for myself and the other band members, because most nights the audience is made up of brand-new people who hadn’t heard the solo I did the previous night. And I’ve played maybe 250 solos. So it’s about the improvisation more than going ballistic and crossing my arms and throwing sticks in the air.
MD: Do you usually stick to some sort of pulse?
Gavin: I try to keep it in some tempo. It might be the tempo of the piece, because I have to bring the band back in at the end of it. That way the audience has a reference point. I don’t really enjoy listening to drum solos much, especially ones that abandon the tempo, because you’ve lost your connection to the subdivision and the beat and where you’re placing your accents or doing syncopations. If you abandon the tempo, we’re into a whole different area, but you’ve lost one of the most primal connections to the audience.
MD: Let’s talk about the Pineapple Thief. Was there a major difference between the two albums you’ve done with them, 2016’s Your Wilderness and 2018’s Dissolution?
Gavin: With Dissolution, I was heavily involved with the writing of the songs with [vocalist/guitarist] Bruce Soord. But there wasn’t that much difference in the approach for both records. I still go at it with the same mindset and ears, to hopefully create unique drum parts that aren’t necessarily complicated but are musical, that create an atmosphere and progress through the song, build the song. The method we started with Your Wilderness, although we never met in person, was so successful that I thought I’d really love to do more with this guy and this band. I was on the same wavelength as him. And much like Robert Fripp, Bruce would let me do anything, including chopping up the arrangement into different time signatures and completely rearranging the song from his demo. And this was before I was even in the band. He gave me that freedom right from the beginning.
MD: I guess that freedom is a testament to your creativity. You might have the better idea.
Gavin: As a session musician, which I’d been for decades, you do start to get a knack for what works and what functions well for the architecture for a song. When you’ve done it hundreds or thousands of times—and sometimes I was just there as a witness, but still hearing the result of something working or not—you can develop a skill for understanding how to arrange, especially from a drumming point of view. You can arrange the songs to have a better shape. The same thing happened when I was in Porcupine Tree.
MD: How’d you come up with the parts for the Dissolution track “Threatening War”? There’s some sidestick, a double-time section with toms, and a 7/8 linear groove before the big climax.
Gavin: It took me three or four days to carefully construct it from beginning to end, to zoom out and get a good overall view of how it was going to work. I started off super simple—there’s barely anything in the first verse—then the second verse gets a bit more intricate with a few more voices on the drums coming in. On the third verse I just went dead straight. On the section in seven, I did a kind of trip-hop double time.
I do enjoy that kind of rhythmic designing. I normally save the straight power drumming for the last quarter of the song. If you have a chorus where you think it needs 1 and 3 on the bass drum and 2 and 4 on the snare drum, let’s not do the first chorus like that, or every chorus. Let’s save it for the last chorus. Although doing the backbeats right from the beginning would work, there are better rhythmic opportunities to do something unique. You can play a rhythm that you haven’t heard on any record, and that’s quite an exciting proposition for me.
MD: Crimson has some sections where you’re leaning in, but Pineapple Thief has some really hard hitting parts required of you.
Gavin: When the music feels like it’s rocking, I feel like I want to hit the drums harder. It’s something I grew into with Porcupine Tree. I wasn’t a particularly heavy drummer before joining that band, but there was a lot of metal ring and double bass drum action that I’d never tried to play before. I enjoy it. If it feels right, I’m happy to do it.
My signature Vic Firth sticks are really big. People who get them ask me how I play with them because they’re “like tree trunks.” But I’ve got big hands, so I’ve always liked playing with big sticks. Playing with a 7A or a 5A feels like a knitting needle to me. There was a drummer a while ago I really liked named Tony Beard, and he used massive sticks. I couldn’t understand how he played so articulately and dynamically until I tried to. It’s a different kind of vibe, but you let the sticks do the work for you. As long as they’re not heavy; there’s a difference between big sticks and heavy sticks.
MD: What’s the secret to your kit sound? It sounds consistently amazing in all your bands.
Gavin: Mostly it’s the way you hit the drums. If I got on someone else’s kit, in five minutes it would sound like me. But I do choose the equipment that serves my vision for a drum sound. And I’m careful with the tuning. I spend a long time tuning every day, and I know when a head needs changing.
It’s a fascinating subject. I’ve watched hundreds of YouTube videos about tuning and mic placement, and I’m constantly thinking about it. I’m sure you’ve heard lots of drummers with Tama kits with clear Ambassadors on, but only one of them will sound like Simon Phillips. Because the sound is in Simon’s head, and he makes that sound come out through those drums and those skins. Also, my kit setup has been almost exactly the same for thirty years.
MD: Are there any plans to release another solo project? Cheating the Polygraph was jazzy and different.
Gavin: I don’t have another record planned at the moment, and I probably wouldn’t do another album like that. It was a bucket-list album for me, as I grew up listening to big band music and wanted to make a big band record. And I love the sound of fourteen guys blowing brass. That’s absolute magic to me. And arranging those Porcupine Tree songs for modern brass just worked. I really enjoyed the process. It was super time-consuming and super expensive. I doubt I’ll ever recoup the money I spent on it. But it was probably the best thing I’ve ever spent my money on. I was so pleased with the final result. In terms of now, Bruce and I are writing a new Pineapple Thief record in the gaps I have between King Crimson work. We’d like to get something out for spring 2020.
MD: Has session work taken a back seat?
Gavin: I’ve lost interest in doing sessions just for the money. After being a band member in Porcupine Tree, Crimson, and now Pineapple Thief, just making a living with that mercenary working mentality [as a session drummer] became unfulfilling. Eighty percent of what I played on was crap, to be honest. People still contact me, and if the music is interesting and the artist wants to collaborate with me, it’s something I might be interested in doing. When something lands on my virtual doorstep, if it’s musically satisfying, then we’ll talk.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Harrison plays Sonor drums and Zildjian cymbals and uses Remo heads, Vic Firth sticks, Sonor stands, a Gibraltar rack, a Tama Speed Cobra double bass pedal and Cobra Clutch, Nord electronics, and a Porter & Davies BC2 tactile drum stool monitor.