Gavin Harrison, the drummer for Porcupine Tree, is so good, it's scary. His interpretation of time and the way he manipulates rhythms has placed him on the pedestal of percussionists. Though his English prog band, Porcupine Tree, doesn't resonate with the larger audience-at-large that may be listening to Rush or Dream Theater, they nonetheless have created a small but faithful following who consistently buy their records and attend their shows. In the drummer's world, however, Harrison is always on the "Best of" lists in drummer's magazines and on percussion websites. He's played with King Crimson who have recently reformed. Here, he talks about who he is as a player and how he sees the world around him.
UG: Can a drummer have feel without technique?GH: Absolutely. I'm always listening to the way it feels and the timing. It’s all about timing. When I hear drummers, that's the first thing that I notice. If someone has a nice feel, then I'm happy to listen to them. If someone's got very interesting ideas but no feel or a poor sense of time, after a short while my interest is going to go away. I'm always yearning for something to feel as good as possible. Even if it's intricate or complicated, it can still feel good. I think people sort of think that things can only feel good when they've got a two and four backbeat, kind of James Brown music. Things can feel really good even in complicated music and complicated time signatures. I think people are much more forgiving when it's complicated structure if it doesn't feel good. But for me, there's no excuse.
Did a drummer like John Bonham have good time?
I think Bonham had great time. I'm not talking about time in a computer sense. I'm not talking about time in measuring it under a microscope because under a microscope nobody can play in time. If you want it to feel like a computer, you've got to have a computer play it. It's an unnatural thing. When we hear John Bonham just play on his own, he sounds great. It feels nice. Not every drummer that plays in two and four has got a good feel.
Has there been a major shift in rock drums in the past decade?
Things have progressed and moved on for better or worse. We all do. Life goes on, doesn't it? If you just stay in the same place all the time, nothing really happens. Only good things happen when you try to do something different. Sometimes it's worse, but sometimes it's better. A lot of productions these days use computers to correct timing and correct tuning. I don't know if the general public really understand that. I don't think that the people who watch American Idol or X Factor realize that the final product that they go down to the store to buy is incredibly manipulated. I noticed with young performers from studio engineers that people just expect that producers and engineers are going to correct their bad timing or correct their bad tuning. For better or worse, those things didn't exist when we were growing up. That kind of technology didn't exist. Players that weren't so good tended to not get very far. It wouldn't be long until you were in a situation where if you didn't sound good, there wasn't anyone that was going to fix it. The only way to fix it was to get somebody who could play.
Someone like you.
It was a baptism by fire for sure. Even now, I like to record the whole song from beginning to end. There are people who want to do just four bars and then stop, and then do another four bars and then stop. Then they correct it and just patch it all together, which is a hard thing to do on the drums. It's easier to do on the bass or vocals. I don't know if there are any vocalists that sing from the beginning of the song to the end. I think they just go line by line. It's an illusion to buy a record. It's been an illusion probably for the last 30 or 40 years ever since people started multi-tracking. They do the drums on their own or redo the bass. Technology has changed the way we work.
Can you hear the difference between digital and analog?
I actually prefer the digital domain. With my band Porcupine Tree, we started to make one of our records with that idea. We would record our drums on 2-inch tape at the Power Station in New York. We went out and bought like 20 reels of tape, which is phenomenally expensive. The idea was we were going to put it onto tape at 30 ips and get the full quality out of the tape. Then we would transfer it over to the computer. I was already beginning to think, "Ah man, this is back to the old days. I'm really going to have to nail the whole song in one go." It's hard to drop in and drop out if I want to do another section again. We did the first song like that and then we simultaneously recorded the drums to the analog tape. Then we split the signal and sent it through the digital converters into the computer. We listened back and to our surprise, the common belief about the tape just wasn't there.
The analog drums didn't sound better than the digital tracks?
The digital sounded better in every way and especially in the high frequencies there was incredible clarity. The tape sounded in comparison very muffled. The middle frequencies and the lower frequencies were all there in the digital as well. All four of us sat in the control room with the engineer and at the end of it we said, "Okay, let's send 19 reels of tape back and see if we can get our money back." It wasn't any contest. Very few people have got 2-inch tape machines at home. You're memory is something and the reality of it are usually quite different. When you think about an old recording that you loved and you haven’t heard it in years, your memory tells you one thing. When you finally get a copy of it and listen to it you go, "Wow, that’s not too good." I'm remembering things from like 30 years ago. You can't compare that memory to real life. Listening to my digital system at home, if all I've got to compare it to is a 30-year-old memory, then it's not really a good A-B test, is it?
Who were you listening to back in the day?
I was listening to a lot of jazz at that time. More laid back jazz: Chet Baker, Art Farmer, Steve Gadd. I was heavily into Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro at that time. It was the soundtrack to that kind of awakening part of my life, a musical awakening where things were really starting to make sense to me. I still go back to those records now and I love them for what they are. They bring back great memories of that period. I don't listen to them in such an analytical way. People say, "Listen to this record. I used to listen to it when I was 15." I listen to it and I think, "Wow, that sounds like crap." To them, it was like the first time they heard Frank Zappa. It blew their minds and it continues to blow their minds for the rest of their lives.
Does a Zappa record do a whole lot for you?
I love Frank Zappa. I was in my early 20s when I first heard Frank Zappa. I was 19, actually. I came to the States for my very first tour. I had a cassette. On one side of the cassette was Joe's Garage or highlights that someone had made me. On the other side it was "There and Back" by Jeff Beck. It was an eye-opening moment. You remember that stuff. Being on tour with my little Walkman and cassette, it was great fun.
Was that your first experience hearing Simon Phillips on the Jeff Beck album?
Funny enough, I knew Simon when I was a kid. My dad used to play in his dad's band. So I was like seven or eight years old. When I was a kid, if I was off school or it was a school holiday or weekend and my dad had a session or a gig - my dad was a trumpet player - he would take me along. I was just getting into the drums. I was like six or seven years old. I remember going along and seeing Simon play with his dad's band and meeting Simon. Sometimes Simon and his mom would come around to visit my mom. Then I followed his career ever since. So I guess There and Back was about 1980. So yeah, I've heard him quite a long time before then.
What modern drummers interest you?
That's a good question. The drummer who I always really liked is a drummer called Steve Jansen. He was in a band called Japan. They were a pop band. Funny enough, Richard Barbieri, the keyboard player of Japan, was also the keyboard player of Porcupine Tree.
What impressed you about Steve Jansen?
When I first got to hear Japan in the '80s, I was so knocked out with what Steve Jansen played. This is going back to a minimalist approach. I think this tickled part of my musical funny bone that I dug when I was a kid. My dad was very much into minimalism jazz, the cooler Miles Davis or Chet Backer or Art Farmer. It was without ridiculous fireworks and chops going on. It was really nice, tasteful playing. When I heard Steve Jansen play, he did really interesting drum parts that were really simple. It was like no drummer could ever think of them. I had never heard a drummer make a groove on the snare drum on the beats one and two and nothing on three and four. Putting the snare drum on one - you just never do it.
If you had to look at your own body of work, have there been tracks that you thought you did come up with something novel and different?
Absolutely. Some of the stuff I do in Porcupine Tree, I apply exactly those parameters. I try to find simple grooves that are unique that I don't think I've ever heard another drummer play if it's right for the song. If I can do that, I don't need fancy fills or fast double bass drumming. If I just achieve that one thing, what I call a rhythmic design, then that's enough. It doesn't need anything more than that. If you just play a very strict rhythm with two and four, then you're always thinking, "I'll need a really great couple of fills." When you come up with a part that is so right for the song, then you don't feel like you need to look for special fills.
Since you've had your own studio, do you hone in on that even more?
Absolutely. It's a fantastic luxury to have that at home. I find myself looking forward to playing the drums every day. It's not a chore. It's not a discipline to sit down and practice. I really love practicing and I love discovering new things. It's really important to discover things, even if you find out later on that what you've discovered someone else discovered years ago. I was watching this really nice documentary film by Bill Evans, the piano player. He said something like, "To motivate yourself further, you should discover things for yourself." I know that when I discover things for myself, I really learn them. When someone just shows me them or I learn them in a book, it takes away the motivation because I haven't discovered it. When you discover it yourself, it sort of becomes part of you. You don't deprive people of that pleasure of discovering things for themselves by showing them how to do it.
Why do you like doing clinics and instructional DVDs so much?
What I've always tried to do with the books and DVDs was show people concepts that I think you should apply to your own drumming. If you just play the exercises in my book, there's no point to it. The exercises are only there to demonstrate the concepts. The best recommendation I could make is go and work on the concepts on your own drumming. If I show you a rhythm and I displace it or modulate it, then don't just do that rhythm. Play one of your rhythms and then you displace it. You modulate your rhythms. You'll discover something yourself.
In one of your recent clinics, you talked about finally finding success when you stopped trying to sound like other drummers.
Discovery is the biggest teacher because you're teaching yourself. That's where you really start creating your own parts and making your own decisions and finding your own personality in it. Someone else is not showing you what to do. You've discovered it. You’re making your own kind of personality and style on the instrument.
Do you try to stretch yourself as a drummer on your solo records?
The most rhythmical concepts and ideas I've ever come up with I've been lucky enough to record, especially with my records with 05Ric and with Porcupine Tree. So I've been in the very fortunate position that I've been in a band that would accept and work with some of these more unusual rhythmic ideas. We're not a pop band where most of the songs are just in 4/4. We're a band who are open to ideas about, "Well, let's start here in 17/16 and see where we can go with it." With 05Ric, I can really go way out there. There is no commercial consideration. We just go way out there.
Talk about the squiggle concept, which is giving the drums a melodic voice.
I'm always looking for new angles that will inspire me. That's actually quite an old idea that I had in the '90s, where I wanted to play the drums free of rhythm as if you were playing the trumpet or playing the saxophone and think really melodically even though the pitches you're playing aren't identifiable pitches in terms of normal melodies. Just play phrases. I guess I was leaning toward the kind of phrases I had heard listening to jazz records when I was young. As I was sitting there as a young kid playing along to these jazz records of my dad's, the way that people phrase and the way they would play their solos, I would sing along with them. I would sing along to the trumpet solos or the sax solos as I was playing time along to the record. I guess some of that always felt like it wanted to come out. Because I don't play the trumpet or the saxophone, it never found a way out until I could figure a way to do it on the drums. On that record called "Sanity & Gravity," I tried on a few pieces to play in that way or sometimes have a section where I would just completely play free of tempo and free of anything. I would just try and play emotionally.
What is it like playing in King Crimson?
It was a great experience. A very different experience than anything I’ve done before.
How did you first meet Robert Fripp?Fripp opened some shows for Porcupine Tree.
Was it completely different from Porcupine Tree?
Completely. These guys play very complicated music. It's some of the hardest stuff I've ever tried to play in a band. I'’s very unusual music. Of course, I was the youngest kid in the band, which is nice. At this point in my life I think, "Wow, I'm the baby of the band again." That hadn't happened for like 25 years. It was interesting to see how they work, coming from a slightly different era than me. I've worked with Tony Levin before. Seeing the way Tony Levin and Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew work together was fascinating.
Robert Fripp has a very unique approach to music.
They attempt the most incredibly hard things. In another band I would think, "Man, you're crazy. This is never going to work. You guys can't play that together. It's way too hard." But that's sort of a system that doesn't exist in Crimson. Nothing is beyond reach. They really go for it. The only thing they hate in King Crimson is being boring and mundane. If it's unusual and weird, then they're happy. If it sounds like pop music, then they hate it.
What was it like playing with Pat Mastelotto?
It was a pleasure to play with Pat, of course. He's such a nice guy and such a great drummer. We spent a long time choreographing carefully how we wanted to do the two-drum thing. We really didn't want to play in unison and play the same part, which has been done quite a bit before with two drummers. We wanted to play like one drummer with four arms and four legs. Like a monster kit, but have two kits together. After the first rehearsal I said to Pat, "Rather than having us on either side of the stage, would you mind if we were in the center of the stage almost touching? So where my floor tom ends, that's where your high-hat starts? I'd rather hear you acoustically and play together rather than us being on different sides of the stage, relying on monitors and not being close enough to hear all the subtleties." The other guys in the band were up for that. It was a lot more fun when we were right next to each other. It was great. It was amazing.
Did you play some of the classic Crimson songs?
No, they didn't want to do that. Robert didn't want to play the first record stuff. I think we played "Red" and "Lark's Tongues in Aspic." There was a lot of '80s stuff from when Adrian joined the band.
Any memorable moments with King Crimson?
Before a show when people were still coming in, Robert used to play music by this all-girl band called the Shaggs. They were a really terrible group and couldn't play and Robert used to like to torture the fans. I used to play a solo during the show and one night Adrian Belew dared me to play a solo like the drummer in the Shaggs would play it. He meant play something really bad. He said if I did that he'd buy me dinner at any restaurant in New York. I risked my career doing that but I did it one night.
You really played a solo like that?
I have to say that I do a very good approximation of their playing. People would hear it and think it was some difficult tempo modulation I was doing. When you get to some level of popularity, you can play anything and people will think it's cool.
What did Fripp think?
I looked over at Robert Fripp while I was playing it and he was laughing. When I got done, he came over and said he liked it. He never said that to me on any other night. He gave me a thumbs up.
Did Adrian Belew buy you dinner?
No, he never did - cheap bastard.
Were you a fan of Crimson's music?
I actually liked the "Bruford" period, but I didn't really have a lot of his stuff. The only record I had was "Discipline." When Robert came around to my house to talk about which songs he wanted me to learn I said look, "I've got to be honest. I've only got 'Discipline' and that's on vinyl, and I don't have a turntable anymore."
That took some nerve to tell Fripp you didn't really know Crimson's music.
He said, "That's great. I want you to listen to it with completely fresh ears and completely new blood. It would be an advantage that you don't know all those pieces. I want you to just start from scratch." I said, "Did you want me to learn Bill's parts?" He said, "No. Learn these songs. Learn these arrangements and how the songs go. Don't learn any parts." I said. "What do you want me to play?" He said, "Play what you've always wanted to play in a rock band but were never allowed." That was his advice. I thought about it for awhile. I thought, "Wow, that's a pretty blank canvas."That's a pretty remarkable comment for Robert to make.
He really meant it. If I wanted to freak out and play anything I wanted, he would be happy. The worst thing I could do is just sit there and play four and four or two and four on the snare drum. If I wanted to stand up and play the bell and the cymbal and the floor tom in patterns of five and seven, he would be happy with that if that's what I felt at the time. He said, "Improvise. You don't have to play the same every night. Do whatever you like. If you want to play a drum fill, don't think you have to end on the one. I know where the one is."
You'd think Robert Fripp would want the music to be played in a very strict fashion.
It's not the old thing where the drummer is the conductor. "If there is a chorus coming, you don't have to play a great big fill and hit a one. Don't play any fill or play a fill and just keep going. Think of filling as a completely different process to what you've always known as pop drumming. Challenge it. Don't think that it's written in stone. If you want to pay a fill in the middle of bar 11 and stop in the middle of bar 13, do that." It sounds so weird when someone says that to you. In any other band in the world, you'd probably be fired in a second doing that.
Was Fripp's timing pretty incredible?
He's pretty solid. When you throw people is when you're playing in 4/4 and they've settled into the idea that you're playing 4/4 and then you suddenly do a fill or play the 4/4 beat with the 16th note out. Everyone freaks out. If all the music is kind of out to start with, going out doesn't really feel like you’re really going out. Everything is out the window to start with. It doesn't sound weird if you play something even further out than that. It's all weird to start with. So no, I don't know if I ever was to lose him or throw him. It's never my intention to lose or throw anyone apart from occasional jokes at soundcheck. Out of boredom I might decide to do something ridiculous and just crack everyone up. I never use those ideas to upset someone or make people lose where they are.
You win a lot of awards from drum magazines. You were number three on Rhythm's (English magazine) list of the best drummers of the past 25 years - what does that mean to you?
Some of them you have to take with a pinch of salt. Greatest drummer in the last 25 years? That's just ridiculous.
Do you say that because you don't think you deserve it?
I don't deserve it. First of all, the idea of a competition or a poll is a bit ridiculous. How could you say Tony Williams is a better drummer than Jack DeJohnette? You don't compare them. Jack DeJohnette is Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams is Tony Williams. I never thought which is the better one. That's ridiculous. I guess it all meant that I was the third most popular drummer at the time the poll was taken.
Still that must feel rewarding?
Of course, there were many, many drummers on that poll that I thought were actually drum gods and I still think they're drum gods. Some canvass votes on Facebook and some people have like five million followers. When you ask someone to vote for you on Facebook and you have five million followers, it's no surprise that you end up getting very high up on a poll. I imagine some of those people might not have even heard of most of the other drummers on that poll. The thing is ridiculous. If you could look at any kind of award properly, the only thing that is of any value to you is if you're being judged by a panel of your peers.
Slipknot's Joey Jordison was number one Rhythm's poll. What is your feeling toward the metal players that use the double bass pedal a lot?
I don't listen to much death metal. As we know from the earliest part of this conversation, I grew up listening to Chet Baker and Art Farmer and Miles Davis. There is a band that I really like if death metal is the right genre. There are so many subgenres in metal music. It's a band called Meshuggah, the Swedish band. The thing I really love is the rhythmic design. It's absolutely beautiful. They made a record called "Destroy Erase Improve." It was a record I wouldn't have bought in a million years unless someone told me to go buy it.
Who told you about Meshuggah?Steven Wilson (vocalist/guitarist for Porcupine Tree) did. He said, "You’ve never heard Meshuggah?" I said, "No." He said, "Buy this record." It really blew my mind. It was fantastic, beautiful rhythmic design. It was absolutely beautifully played and recorded. It's not my style of music. I'm not a metal kind of guy, but that really knocked me out. I'm sure there are lots of great metal bands, but it's not in my blood.
You've spent time with the Opeth guys.
Yeah, they're a great band; an amazing band. Michael is such a nice musical guy. We had him play a guitar solo on "Deadwing." Absolutely fantastic. We did a tour with Opeth. We did a U.S. tour and I loved them. They were really nice. There is a young band I really like called Everything Everything. I don't know if they've come out over here yet. They're starting to make good waves in the UK. They're a brand new band and their songs are very unusual. It's got a slight '80s feel to it in the best of the '80s, Scritti Politti, Thomas Dolby kind of way. If you get a chance to hear Everything Everything, it's like pop music you've never heard before. I've never heard a pop band sound like that. It kind of makes me worry that they're not going to get very far because they're just too unusual.
You're a Sonor guy. What is it about Sonor's drums that appeal to you?
I don't know. Since I first started playing Sonor drums I thought, "I can make the sound I really like." I think every drummer knows the sound they're trying to go for. You've got a sound in your head of what you think is a great tom sound or bass drum sound. I found I easily could get a sound that sounded like me out of these drums. It was just very simple. The company is very nice. It's nice to talk to the designers and the guys that run the business. I've got a nice relationship with them. I've played quite a few. I've never played a Sonor kit that I thought, "Yeah, I couldn’t get a sound out of that one." I've always got a good sound. I don't know what they do to them.
Do you get butterflies before a gig?
Now that you mentioned it! No. The thing with getting nervous is that it's a state of mind. It's built upon the idea of anxiety that you're going to go wrong. The funny thing, the more nervous you get the more likely you are going to go wrong. So it's a cycle you have to take by the horns. You think, "It's 10 minutes before I go onstage, I'm really nervous. My hands are sweaty. I'm shaking. What am I worried about? I'm worried about going out there and making a huge mistake and making an idiot of myself. The worst thing I could do is be nervous."
Did you get nervous before playing any King Crimson gigs?
Robert Fripp used to say before we went onstage, "Gentlemen, tonight there will be mistakes. Let's try to make a better quality of mistake." And that was it. Yes, there are going to be mistakes. Some of them might be so small that no one would notice. Some of them would be medium to big, and no one notices. Sometimes we've had terrible things go wrong onstage or arrangements go wrong, and people still didn't notice. But for us, we're onstage and thinking this is the end of the world. I know the best place I can be is relaxed and concentrated. It's the anticipation. It's the 30 minutes before you go onstage and walking around thinking, "This is going to be a nightmare. This is going to be the end of my career."
That kind of self-defeating mentality can suck you in.
That's the worst thing you can do. You're fighting yourself. You're fighting your own anxiety. I just need to be in the right place. I've played the drums more than anything else in my life other than sleeping and breathing. So I've got enough faith in myself that I can pull myself out of a nosedive. Yes, probably there will be mistakes. If you worry too much about the mistakes, when you do make a mistake you spend the next two songs thinking about it.
How do you deal with mistakes in Porcupine Tree?
We had this discussion in Porcupine Tree. Sometimes technical things can go wrong. A keyboard can be off or a guitar is not plugged in or a microphone stand falls over. Then that moment is gone. The keyboard is working, the microphone stand is back up, and the guitar is back on. That moment is gone. Don't let that ruin the rest of your night or the rest of your performance. You've got to move on. There are probably a lot of people who didn't see it or notice it. Then you're having a really, really crappy night because something happened in the early part of the first song. It can be exasperating in that you're recording the show or you're filming the show. You just have to get over it.
Interview by Steven Rosen