Man, am I ever a lucky guy. Keith Carlock has been one of my drumming heroes for many years. Ever since I saw the 1999 Marciac Jazz Festival video on YouTube featuring Keith, Wayne Krantz, and Tim Levebre, I have been a big fan of these musicians. That video had a very profound effect on me as a young musician who was trying to find something new that I would connect with for the rest of my musical life.

Since then, I have wandered cyberspace to find other examples of Keith’s playing that I could also connect with in a similar context, but unfortunately, high fidelity content featuring Keith online is not in abundance. This is one of the big reasons I was excited to see Keith perform and teach his concepts at Drumeo. To witness that in person was a pleasure of the highest order. Moreover, to interview such a modern legend in the Drumeo studio was something I never, ever thought would be in my future. So first and foremost, I owe an enormous thank you to the wonderful team at Drumeo for this opportunity and to Keith for giving me his undivided attention and time after a full day of filming lessons at Drumeo.

Keith Carlock is a favorite of mine because he has such a firm grasp on a distinct sound. In addition to that, he has managed to forge an incredibly nice career for himself working with such acts as Steely Dan, Toto, James Taylor, Oz Noy, Wayne Krantz, Sting, and John Mayer to name a few. He also released his own instructional DVD through Hudson Music titled The Big Picture: Phrasing, Improvisation, Style, and Technique. Over the years, he has also received many accolades through the Modern Drummer’s readers poll, managing to win a few and make it to the top three in several categories many times over. To many drummers, Keith is held in high regard for his smooth delivery, musical style, and untouchable groove.

Can you unlearn?

Taught by Ed Soph, Keith studied at North Texas State University’s acclaimed jazz program in the early ’90s. It would prove to be nearly impossible to consume and digest all of the materials covered in school. Keith sat upon that material for a few years to process everything.

There also came a point where Mr. Soph approached Keith’s mother to inform her that he felt that Keith no longer had to continue his studies. Ed felt that Keith would be just fine if he stopped going. I suppose it is fair to say that Mr. Soph possessed some exceptional foresight.

At one point in the interview, I asked Keith if he ever wished that he could unlearn some of the stuff he learned in school. This curiosity spawned because of a very interesting point made by Mark Guiliana on episode 108 of Drumeo Gab. Mark had declared that while school was great, sometimes he kind of missed how he used to play before he learned all of this stuff in school. This point of view struck me as a very interesting point made in that interview with Mark.

Keith had said that he went to school to learn and be a sponge. How he characterized his sound has much to do with the time spent with guitarist Wayne Krantz. It is how I found Keith originally, after all. Keith regards those early years in NYC, specifically with Krantz, as the years where he really found his sound. Those must have been amazing times for Keith. If you watch any of their stuff, you will notice the wonderful mix of searching for the high and getting there. Wayne with Tim and Keith at the 55 bar playing their butts off is something I wish I could have seen when they were playing there all the time.

Time away from home

Keith is a father and a husband – and a musician. Being a musician seems to be both isolating and social, which seems like a dichotomy. When your life also encompasses your family and friends, I have to think about how the pleasure of the road changes. I would personally find that very challenging. For any small length of time that I have been away from my family, I end up missing them quickly and I find that it takes a day or two to adjust when I return home. I can imagine how difficult it would be for touring drummers who are away from their family for long periods of time. But like anything, people adapt and find their ways to make it work.

Todd Sucherman had said in episode 101, he just slides into the groove that is happening and adjusts to it. But time away from loved ones will always be hard. It is the life a musician chooses. It is one of those sacrifices if you do in fact see it that way.

I want to share a quick story. This is abrupt but hang in there. It is a great perspective given to me by a stranger, and it applies to this.

While I was staying in Abbotsford at the Sandman hotel, I popped outside for a bit of fresh air and found myself having a nearly forty-minute conversation with someone who was also staying at the hotel. He was a European man, middle-aged, who was in town because he and his team set up the scoring system screens for horse racing tracks. I can’t remember all of the details of his job, but what I do recall is the fact that he and his team spend upwards of 300 days per year on the road. His name was Tom.

Tom told me an amazing story about how he was a musician in Europe during his teens and into his twenties. His music became quite popular in Germany and other parts of Europe. He got into electronica toward the end of his music career and had the best management in Europe handling his act at the time. This same management was working for Sigfried Fischbacher. Yes, the world-renowned magician. Well, as it turns out, Tom and Sigfried became very good friends. Sigfried eventually told Tom that he should incorporate magic into his musical show to bedazzle his audience and add something that no one was doing at the time.

Eventually, Tom’s act became solely a magic show. He bought a caravan and toured all over Europe performing his magic. He eventually gave that up and began this gig with the scoreboard systems. This is, of course, the CliffsNotes version of the story he told me, but there was something very interesting in it all: a perspective that helped me understand a lot more about what some musicians who tour for most of their lives might go through.

Tom had said that after a week at home, as much as he loved his home (which he showed me a picture of on his phone and it is absolutely lovely) he would get very antsy after a week. Willie Nelson comes to mind.

What I was getting from Tom was that even though he did miss home when he was away, he was just so used to the life of being in different, far away places all the time. Tom began touring very young. So, really – it is all he knows. He probably feels more at home on the road than at home. Starting late with a career that involves travel might be a totally different story for some people. I just find this idea of detachment from a physical home base really fascinating about musicians, or anyone in entertainment-based careers.

I wonder how many musicians began playing an instrument because of the appeal of potentially touring? Could that be why some musicians began playing? This is why I think some people are built for the road. There must be so many costs and perks to touring. The adventure! I mean, c’mon, when you are young it would be amazing! This must be a dream for a person who is, other than to him/herself and music, not committed to anything too significant. Pack up and go whenever you want. Eventually though, I think it is hard to not notice the pressure to conform to adult society. House, marriage, stable job, financial freedom, kid(s) and on it goes.

I am bringing this up because I know some musicians that never really settled down. When you are young it must be fun, but it seems lonely when you’re older. Props to any musician that has a family at home and with the support of their spouse, manages to find a routine or norm within their family unit. Just something to create some stability. That mustn’t come easy. The thing we love isn’t easily compatible with the idea of settling down – if you want to make it your life, that is.

Finding your voice

I see a lot of chatter online – and I am certain it has been discussed on this podcast before – that says we as musicians need to learn as many styles as possible in order to establish a more reliable career. Before I continue, I do not disagree with this at all because it has been stated many times by many industry professionals. But the quality of that message is determined by how it is interpreted. It could be possible that the wrong approach to this idea leads to a generic sound. Even with a generic sound, as long as the drumming is tight, and you have yourself put together professionally, that could be just fine. However, I still feel like there is something to be said for recognizable musicians.

So I asked Keith what he thought about this, after basically answering my own question, and he made a very good point. He used an example of some African music that he was asked to perform once where the artists sang the parts for him to play (which was very helpful, he says). Keith wasn’t born in Africa, nor did he grow up there with their music, so there is a limit to the authenticity. He managed to play the music and they actually called him back, even though he may not have been the most ideal musician to play the music.

But the most important thing Keith said in regards to all of this, in my opinion, was that with any musical style, it is important to find your voice in it. What is it that you can connect with, and how can you project your true self through the music? I think this is such a cool point. It’s not just about the notes, but the attitude, the spirit, creativity, and flow. I think this is a strong point that everyone should consider when they get called to perform. How can you inject your voice into something pre-existing and let your sound be heard without taking anything away from the music?

In conclusion

This opportunity to speak with one of my heroes is one that I will never forget, and it’s certainly a highlight of this podcast. Keith is an incredibly nice guy. It’s so nice when you meet one of your heroes and they turn out to be a person that you really like. It was a very important and special time that I will be telling my kid about one day. So, I hope that you enjoy some good vibes and the thoughts of a truly great player in this episode. It was an absolute treat. Thank you again for all of your comments in the Drumeo Edge section, and for the DMs and emails to show your love and support for this podcast. I appreciate every single one of you.

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