When we decided to put together a special issue focusing on live playing, one of the first drummers we thought of who embodies the dedication, endurance, and craft needed to perform at the highest levels was Eric Hernandez. “I’ve toured with Eric for nearly eight years now,” says Jamareo Artis, bassist with superstar Bruno Mars’ backing band, the Hooligans, “and I’ve only got two words to describe him: hard worker. Eric’s a very solid player, and he leaves room for the band to play. As a bass player, that’s all you could ever wish for.”
The Hooligans, who also feature keyboardist John Fossitt, multi-instrumentalist Phredley Brown, backup singer Philip Lawrence, trombonist Kameron Whalum, saxophonist Dwayne Dugger, and trumpeter James King, have been touring nonstop with Bruno Mars since 2010, and are more popular today than ever. When tickets went on sale for their current 24k Magic World Tour, which began in March of 2017 and continues throughout 2018, more than one million were sold in the first twenty-four hours. It doesn’t get any bigger than that—and the responsibility for driving a tour at that level doesn’t get any more intense.
By now most fans know that Eric Hernandez is not only Bruno Mars’ drummer, he’s also his brother. A pretty good player himself, Bruno tells MD, “I wouldn’t consider myself a drummer; my brother has always been a better one than me. We’ve been playing music since we were kids, and when I would venture off into other things, he’d keep on practicing his instrument. He’ll always have that over me—but in all honesty, I wouldn’t want anyone else playing for me.”
“E-Panda,” as family and friends know Eric, was born in 1976 in Brooklyn, New York. He began drumming at an early age, performing with his percussionist dad, Pete, who was fronting his own band in Hawaii with a then-five-year-old Bruno impersonating Elvis Presley. After serving in the Los Angeles Police Department from 2002 to 2007, Eric revived his drumming career and rejoined his brother. Modern Drummer first featured him in the October 2013 issue; this is his first MD cover.
MD: What’s a typical day like when you’re on tour?
Eric: It’s wake up on the bus, grab your toiletries and clothes for the day, and enter the venue for that evening’s show. During this time the venue is chaotic, with crew and stagehands running around all over the place, setting up. We follow the signs and look for the Hooligans’ dressing room. Next stop is catering for a healthy breakfast, usually egg whites and some turkey sausages or oatmeal. Once I’ve eaten and digested, I look for the workout room, where I’ll usually work out to the “Insanity” videos, unless the venue has a full gym—then I’ll switch it up by running on a treadmill and lifting some weights. After working out, I’ll drink a protein shake, shower, and get ready for the day. After lunch I’ll check in with my family via FaceTime to see how they’re doing.
MD: What goes on from soundcheck up to show time?
Eric: Usually by 4 p.m. we hit the stage ready to go. Bruno likes to soundcheck almost every show to get the blood going, maybe try some new ideas for the show. Or we start jamming, which gets recorded and sometimes turns into new song ideas. This is how “Uptown Funk” was born.
After soundcheck I’ll usually head to catering for dinner. Most times I take my time eating sensibly and mainly hanging out, talking to our crew and bandmates, trying to stay sane from all this touring we do day in and day out. After dinner it’s time to FaceTime home again, since now my kids are home from school. We talk for a while and share each other’s days. Once I hang up, I’ll head to our practice room, where I have a four-piece kit set up with three cymbals. I’ll generally play for about forty-five minutes. I’ll usually play grooves for a while, and then I’ll start to play fills around the kit while grooving, and some linear fills. Then I may noodle around the kit as if I’m soloing, which consists of singles, doubles, paradiddles, etc.
If another Hooligan is in the room, I like to jam with them. On a good day, everyone is in the practice room at the same time, and we try to create new ideas for a future Hooligans project. By now I’m definitely warmed up, and I’ll head back to the dressing room and start changing into my show wardrobe. After a last-minute stretch with drumsticks and a preshow shot of whiskey, it’s show time! Sometimes right before show time I’ll do warm-ups on a pad, such as singles, doubles, paradiddles, etc. The show is a full ninety-minute set. Afterwards I get off stage, decompress, shower, change, and get on the bus to drive to the next city. I go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again.
MD: How do you prepare mentally before heading out for the tour?
Eric: Mentally preparing for tours can be tough, given how long our typical runs are. It’s especially hard for me, being a family man. It’s hard on me and on my family, especially after being home during a little bit of downtime and being able to participate in school activities or my son’s sports. They get used to me being there day in and day out. When I tell them I have to leave them for months at a time, with only small breaks in between, for the next two years, it’s not easy. During this last tour cycle, management also inserted a TV show, 24k Magic Live at the Apollo, and the Grammys were during our break between legs. So not only do we sacrifice, so do our families. But, hey, you have to work when the work is there, and at the end of the day, even while looking at a long, rigorous calendar, I’m still living the dream. Physically, I keep things pretty much the same. I keep a sensible diet and maintain a workout routine.
MD: What about gear? You guys put on an amazing live show, and you always have a different kit.
Eric: As far as preparing gear for the tour, I think about the sounds and instruments on the recordings, which are used to paint the picture and direction of the album. In this case, there’s an homage to ’90s R&B and the new jack swing sound. So I also listened to what drummers were playing in the ’90s and looked at their setups. I mimicked that with my setup in terms of drum shells, sizes, head combinations, and cymbal choices and sizes, but also kept the theme of the tour and the stage set in mind.
MD: Is it difficult to keep the energy and momentum going without getting tired of playing the same show night after night?
Eric: I was put on this earth to play drums and entertain. There’s a switch that turns on nightly when the show starts. Even though we’ve played these songs over a hundred fifty times—some of them for years—that all goes out the window when you hear the roar of the audience and feel their love when they hear the live interpretation of their favorite songs for the first time. That makes playing these songs fun and rewarding, and you don’t care about playing them over and over.
MD: Are there any songs in the set that challenge you more than the others?
Eric: There’s no one particular song that challenges me. I think the only thing to be careful of is, when you’ve played the show for so long, you could almost phone it in and go on autopilot. This can be dangerous, for me anyway, because I have to make sure my mind doesn’t drift and I [don’t] lose track of where I am. That doesn’t happen often, but it can. The challenge is not letting yourself get bored. You have to play the show like it’s the first time you’ve ever played it. We give the audience our best and hopefully the ultimate live experience.
Another challenge is to not overplay the songs, to serve the songs properly. Sometimes you may get bored of playing the same fill, but that fill is part of the show now, and it might even be part of a lighting or pyro cue, or a cue that Bruno and the band reacts to.
MD: What’s one of your favorite songs to play, and why?
Eric: I enjoy playing “Finesse” because it’s really an ode to the new jack swing sound I mentioned earlier. When played in the pocket, it’s really grooving. Actually, all the songs off the 24k Magic album are fun to play, because it’s about that feel—the R&B ’90s pocket that gets you dancing and really bobbing your head. I love watching the crowd move to the music. That’s the fuel that keeps me running.
MD: What’s the mix in your in-ear monitors?
Eric: I like keeping a “CD-like” mix in my ears. I have all the instruments in, but I keep the bass a little louder, as well as Bruno’s vocal, as he calls many audible signals. I actually have the drums slightly softer than everything else in my mix. And I have a click track running in my mix for any of our songs that use tracks or running time code for production.
MD: Growing up, did you learn from any particular drummers how to present yourself in a live setting?
Eric: As a young drummer, my dad made sure I saw footage of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. He wanted me to appreciate their musicality and command over their bands while they kept the pulse. But he emphasized their showmanship. My father really liked Krupa’s showmanship, and as I started working for him in his bands he wanted me to possess that quality during live performances. Then later on I started watching videos of Gregg Bissonette, Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dennis Chambers, and Steve Gadd. I was so into those drummers and their speed, phrasing, soloing abilities, and feel.
When it comes to live performance in a funk, pop, or R&B setting, I love watching Ricky Lawson and Jonathan Moffett with Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. They would play the records and give it just the right amount of umph for the live versions, never missing a beat, and keeping the crowd on their feet and dancing the whole time. I also like David Garibaldi and Russ McKinnon, who both played with Tower of Power, and Maurice White, Sonny Emory, and John Paris with Earth, Wind and Fire. All these drummers were—and some still are—laying down fat and funky grooves, and never overplaying.
Of course you can’t forget Clyde Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks with James Brown—in fact, anydrummer that played with James Brown. Then there’s John Blackwell Jr. and Michael Bland with Prince. Obviously these drummers remind me of my situation, working with a musical multi-instrumentalist who is looking for a solid foundation to keep the band and audience moving while staying funky. There’s also Brian Frasier-Moore, whose performance on Usher’s Live album blew me away—his approach to the songs, his setups into song sections. He plays the right amount of tasty licks, and the drum tone is perfect. He’s still a major influence on me. And there are so many other drummers…the list is too long.
MD: You’ve studied with Dave Elitch, correct?
Eric: Yes. I still take lessons with him. We’re working on refining my hand technique and proper grip. I’m self taught and definitely not as fluid and fast as I’d like to be. I play matched grip, and I’m not as smooth as I want to be. I’ve realized while working with Dave that it’s hard to relearn simple things, such as grip, since I’ve been playing a certain way for so long. Sometimes it is hard to teach an old dog a new trick. [laughs]
MD: Back to the topic of live performance, what was it like playing the Super Bowl halftime show in 2014 at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey? Records show that that halftime show attracted the largest TV audience in the history of the Super Bowl, close to 120 million people.
Eric: I remember when we first started playing big shows and TV shows. I used to feel that, for a musician, playing the Grammys was like playing the Super Bowl of music. I never thought about the actual Super Bowl until the opportunity came to us. Then it was like, Wait, I’m about to play the Super Bowl!
That experience was so amazing, and one I’ll never forget. When we rehearsed in 15-degree weather on the field leading up to the Sunday show, I remember not being able to hold a drumstick in my hand and thinking, How am I going to do this? But we had heated gloves and hand warmers ready between each run-through, and we pushed through. We ended up being blessed with great weather that day, and it was a dream performance that will live with me forever. Actually, I was fortunate to do the Super Bowl a second time, when Coldplay asked us to be their guests. I’m truly blessed to have had these incredible opportunities to play some of the biggest shows ever.
Drums: DW Maple Collector’s Series
A. 3.5×13 PDP E-PandanSignature snare
B. 6×10 popcorn snare
C. 8×8 tom
D. 8×10 tom
E. 8×12 tom
F. 14×16 floor tom
G. 7×14 snare
H. 5×20 gong drum
I. 14×22 bass drum
1. 14″ HHX Evolution hi-hats
2. 18″ HHX Evolution crash
3. 17″ HHX Legacy crash
4. 6″ AAX splash
5. 8″ AAX Aero splash
6. 10″ AAX Aero splash
7. 16″ XSR Fast Stax
8. 22″ HHX Legacy heavy ride
9. 17″ AA Holy China
10. 19″ AA thin crash
Hardware: DW 9000 series, gold plated
Sticks: Vic Firth X8D
Electronics: Roland TD-50 V-Drums, PD-108-BC V-Pads, PDX-6 V-Pads, BT-1 Bar Trigger Pad
Heads: Remo Emperor Clear, Ambassador Clear, Emperor Vintage Coated, Powerstroke P4 Clear
Accessories: Porter & Davies throne/monitor system, KickPro bass drum pillows, Knockout Beaters custom “E-Panda” bass drum beater
Featured image by Harald Peter