Eric Hernandez

Bruno Mars’ Eric Hernandez

The R&B superstar he plays for—who happens to be his younger brother—has rocketed to stardom, seemingly in no time flat. But this drummer has had fame in his sights for the better part of three decades. You bet he’s excited about his view from the riser these days.

Story by Billy Amendola
Photos by Alex Solca

If you’ve been living underground for the past few years, take a quick look at the magazine racks, scan the record charts, flip on the radio, or visit any social media network, and you’ll immediately learn that Bruno Mars is a bona fide modern pop superstar. Dig deeper, and you’ll realize that in addition to being one of the freshest songwriters to come along in quite a while, he’s also among today’s most exciting entertainers. Mars puts on an incredible live show, and keeping it all together on stage from the drum stool, electrifying the backing band, the Hooligans, is Bruno’s older brother, Eric Hernandez.

“E-Panda,” as he’s known to family and friends, was born in 1976 in Brooklyn, New York. His father is the popular Latin percussionist Pete Hernandez. Shortly after Eric was born, his family relocated to Honolulu, and it was there that his love for music and drums grew. Eric’s younger brother, Peter—nicknamed Bruno by his father—was born in 1985. (The family’s musical talent extends to the siblings’ four talented sisters, who have their own band, the Lylas, which stands for “Love you like a sister.”)

In his early teenage years, Hernandez became one of the most popular drummers in Hawaii. During the summer of 1995, he left to try his hand in Hollywood, where he did live gigs and session work before joining the alternative pop band Louie Says. By 2002, though, Hernandez had burned out on the music business, and he joined the L.A. police force—until 2007, after Mars himself had made the move to California. The talented upstart began bringing his older brother in on sessions for Travie McCoy and the producing and songwriting team the Smeezingtons. Mass acceptance followed soon after for Bruno, via a series of hit singles, including “Just the Way You Are,” “The Lazy Song,” “Locked Out of Heaven,” and “When I Was Your Man.”

Today Hernandez and the rest of the Hooligans are touring the world behind Mars’ second multiplatinum-selling album, Unorthodox Jukebox, enjoying the fruits of music-biz success that very few musicians ever get to experience. Eric recently took some time to give us a glimpse at music making at the very height of fame, and to recount his path to the top.

Eric HernandezMD: You come from such a talented family, with music all around you throughout your life. What were your early years like?

Eric: It all started when I was four years old. My dad would bring me to his nightly gig in Waikiki. I would sit under his toere stand/percussion rig. A toere [pronounced “toe-eddie”] is a Tahitian percussion instrument that’s used during Polynesian dancing. I’d sit under his setup and literally have rhythm beaten down into me. [laughs]

I enjoyed what my father did and learned a lot from him, but I always fixated on his drummer. My pops took note of that and bought me my first kit. We set it up at home, and since the age of four I’ve been pounding away. I remember that at first I couldn’t reach the bass drum pedal, because he bought me a legit set and not a toy. But I knew to use the floor tom as a bass drum. So I would play beats with my right hand on the floor tom, emulating a bass drum part.

As long as I’ve been around—to this day, in fact—my dad has been involved in the music biz. At the age of ten he started a 1950s/1960s revue, covering doo-wop and early R&B hits and groups, including impersonations of iconic entertainers like Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson…. He had a six-night-a-week gig at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. A lot of my family members were a part of the show operations. I started out helping in the ticket booth and doing lights. At the time, they had a full band playing along to sequences, but no drummer. My dad would sometimes stand behind a stand-up kit and play along with the tracks.

I begged and pleaded with him to let me in the show to play drums. After running lights, learning cues, and listening from the ticket booth, I had all the drum parts memorized. Finally my dad gave me my big break, and I started playing along at the stand-up kit and proved myself. Once I had my pops’ and the band’s approval, I slowly worked in my own drumset and stopped standing. So there I was at ten years old—ticket seller/professional drummer.

MD: That had to make you feel good. You were getting your first taste of being a star at a very young age.

Eric: It did. I had a lot of attention every night. People were amazed that a skinny ten-year-old boy was playing drums in a band of adults, counting in songs and steering the show. I remember taking pictures with audience members after every show. I almost stole the show. [laughs] I played this show for years every night after school, and I was on top of the world. I knew that being in the entertainment business, playing live drums, was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I ate up playing in front of people and hearing the roar of an audience, no matter how big or small.

MD: When did Bruno join in?

Eric: A few years into my first real gig, Dad brought my little brother into the show. Bruno had a knack for singing and impersonating Elvis at the age of four. He stole the show every night, and now he had all of the attention. [laughs] But I was okay with that, because I was doing what made me happy, and that was playing drums. So he could have the attention; I was still on top of the world. There was really no competition. We were the real-life Sound of Music family, in Hawaii.

MD: Did you ever take formal lessons?

Eric: When I was old enough to comprehend, my dad started to show me his favorite drummers to watch, such as Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Ron Tutt, Clyde Stubblefield, and Jabo Starks. So, besides my father and the drummers at his gigs, these were the drummers I first learned from as a young musician.

MD: What was your practice regimen?

Eric: I would play at home in my room along with my favorite cartoons on TV. This is how I initially practiced. I specifically remember playing drums to all the music of Scooby-Doo. I’ll never forget that. Whenever music was played, whether it was the opening/closing theme or music throughout the show, I was in there playing my little heart out. That was my first gig! Then at night I would play along to the radio or my dad would put on his record player, blasting all of his doo-wop or Elvis favorites. My dad would continue to take me to his gig, and I would study him or the drummer. Then each day I’d try to replicate something I heard the night before, practicing until my cartoons came on.

MD: How do you and Bruno work in the studio? What’s the process?

Eric: Bruno has a proven formula when it comes to the studio. He tells me what to do, and I do it! [laughs] Just kidding. But he does have a formula. He works closely with his production team, who’ve figured out what works for them. A lot of times it’s programming, samples, or sound replacements. The first song they put me on was the Travie McCoy smash hit “Billionaire,” featuring Bruno. That was my first album credit with Bruno as a producer.

Eric HernandezFor Bruno’s first album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, I would help with drum parts and lay down grooves for them to chop up and piece together for the early writing process. Then it would be either sound replaced or reprogrammed. I’m okay with this, because the early structure of a song is still a part of its development. And I’m proud of the results, which are keeping me employed doing what I love. As much as I love to be heard on a record or on the radio, I’ve learned that it’s about publishing and trying to help write the song, trying to get that lyric in there, which will bring you a nice check—sometimes a nicer check than playing drums will! In a word, royalties.

For the second album, Unorthodox Jukebox, Bruno had built a small live room at his studio in Hollywood, to track drums in. He and his team brought me and some of the other Hooligans in, and we would jam for hours. Sometimes we’d go in late at night or in the early morning to catch a vibe until a song idea came to life. Then Bruno would take it from there and do his magic. He worked on this album with the mindset of, How will this sound live? To assist on the album he also recruited other producers in New York, who brought in their teams of musicians, so he could give his best effort for his sophomore album.

Even though we are a band, it all comes down to the music and what feels right for each song. There are no hard feelings involved when it comes to who’s playing what. It’s about making the best album possible, with the hopes of continued success. I worked hard at my contributions to the album, but I really look forward to the live presentation of these songs on TV shows and live around the world. I live for playing live and touring. That’s me!

MD: The performances are wonderful. Are you using sequences, or is it all live?

Eric: The live shows are where Bruno and the band really come alive. Performing is in our blood. Trying to give the ultimate presentation to a wide audience is what we do. Our band has developed a reputation of bringing live music back and really utilizing a full band—nine pieces, to be exact.

Since the beginning we’ve played all live, without the help of a click track. Even the performance that put us on the map, at the 2012 Grammys, was totally live with no click. A lot of people speculated otherwise, because we were blessed with an almost perfect performance. We didn’t choose not to use a click or tracks because we think we’re too good for it, but because Bruno always wanted to keep an open format while playing live—just like James Brown and Prince. If he’s feeling the song and wants to bring back the bridge or the chorus or vamp, he calls an audible. So we’ve had to be on our toes, because the song will not be played the same as the night before.

On this current tour we may explore some percussive effects and sound samples from Unorthodox Jukebox, because there are a lot of cool sounds on the album. I plan to do a bit more triggering to give the best interpretation of this album for the fans. And I’ll implement a click at least for myself, because I prefer to be locked in solid.

MD: Which do you prefer, in-ear monitors or wedges?

Eric: I’ve played in venues ranging in size from lounges to stadiums. Growing up, I always used wedges for monitors. For a long time it was a difficult, less organic feeling transitioning to the in-ear monitor system. Obviously nowadays in-ears have become the norm, so I worked on getting used to them. Now I use what I feel are the best out there, JH Audio’s JH16s. I’m really getting that vibe, and even the low end that I was missing. A good monitor engineer is a plus too—especially one that enjoys and is great at mixing drums.

MD: You have a tight relationship with Hooligans bassist Jamareo Artis. Any tips on locking in with a bass player?

Eric: The rhythm section should always be locked in, especially with straightforward pop-rock or R&B music. A great bass player is consistent and knows about getting the right tone for the genre of music you’re playing. There is no science to it, in my opinion; it’s all about listening to each other. Whenever I’m in a long-term band situation, I take time to get to know the other members personally, especially the bass player. Knowing their personality can help you create a vibe together, and it can help you lock in with each other and also make it fun. Even now I will listen back to live recordings and hear Jamareo and I doing fills together or the same accents, and I realize that I didn’t even think about it at the time. We just listened to each other, and we’re on the same wavelength whenever we play.

MD: Let’s talk gear.

Eric: I’m a proud player of DW drums, Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, and Remo heads. I bought my first DW set from a drummer in Hawaii by the name of Larry McCracken, back in 1992. Since then I’ve fallen in love with the quality craftsmanship and the sounds of their products, which have been consistent since I’ve known of the company. I always told myself that I would work toward being an official DW artist. It took some time, but it’s been worth the wait, and I couldn’t be happier.

Vic Firth, Sabian, and Remo have been with me since I learned to play the drums, so it’s been a natural desire to want to work with these companies. I always said that whatever products you will pay top dollar for on your own, that’s who you want to work toward building relationships with. I’m very lucky to be a part of these drum families, and I’m grateful for the relationships I’ve made with all my reps.

MD: Any particular players you’re digging?

Eric: These days I take notes from players such as [Madonna/Justin Timberlake drummer] Brian Frasier-Moore, who is on top of his electronic game. He’s mastered triggering electronic sounds, integrating the sounds with his acoustic kit, and playing those exact sounds you want to hear from the album live. That shows us that less is more, and that playing what’s on the album—what put you in the position in the first place—is important. Brian is a monster player with a monster résumé, and I’ll definitely be asking him for advice on my triggering situation.

MD: So what makes Bruno a worldwide sensation?

Eric: Bruno is not only an artist, he’s a producer and multi-instrumentalist, including a drummer. So he knows what he wants to hear on his album, and he knows how to tell you to play it. Even if I can play something I think is better than what he describes, if he doesn’t feel that it enhances the song, he’ll call me on it. He’ll say, “Just play it like I said,” or “Play it like the recording.” And I can’t be mad at that. Like I said, he and his music are the reason why I am here and why people are getting to know me—including Modern Drummer readers!

Eric’s Setup

Eric Hernandez kit

Drums: DW Maple/Mahogany Collector’s series in custom black lacquer finish with gold flake and 24 karat gold hardware. Hoops and snare include custom graphics with gold leaf, painted by Louie Garcia of DW.
A. 5×14 VLT snare
B. 6.5×14 brass snare
C. 7×10 tom
D. 8×12 tom
E. 16×16 floor tom
F. 18×18 floor tom
G. 18×22 bass drum

Cymbals: Sabian
1. 20″ Aero crash
2. 15″ HHX Groove Hats
3. 10″ HH Duo splash
4. 6″ AAX splash
5. 21″ Legacy ride (used as crash)
6. 22″ Legacy Heavy ride
7. 17″ Holy China
8. 22″ HHX-Plosion crash

Heads: Remo X14 snare batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, Clear Vintage Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and Powerstroke 4 bass drum batter and Powerstroke 3 or Emperor front head; Woodshed Stage Art custom head graphics

Sticks: Vic Firth custom X5B

Hardware: DW 9000 series in 24 karat gold

Electronics: Roland SPD-SX sampling pad and kick and snare triggers