I first met Kyle Crane at the airport in Austin before a barrage of SXSW showcases in 2012, when the band I was playing with flew him in from L.A. to be our drummer for the week. Eight years later, Kyle is one of the most in-demand drummers in Los Angeles. He has recorded and toured extensively with Daniel Lanois [Tape Op #127, #37] and Neko Case [#127], and has worked with many others, such as M. Ward, Pomplamoose, Glen Ballard, and Kurt Vile. He also served as Miles Teller's drum double in the critically-acclaimed 2014 film Whiplash, lending hands, sticks, and blistering acumen to its pivotal musical moments.
His first solo record – released this year under the name Crane Like the Bird – is underpinned by a collection of guest performances that reads like a Who's Who of both indie rock and modern jazz, including: James Mercer (The Shins), Peter Moren (Peter, Bjorn and John [Tape Op #65]), Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses), M. Ward, Luke Steele (Empire of the Sun), Sabina Sciubba (Brazilian Girls), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Brad Mehldau, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, to highlight a few. I caught up with Kyle before an Oakland performance with Neko Case to talk about the record and his career path. Kyle is a pure performing musician, so we spoke little about the technical side of recording. That said, his life is a case study on how to survive and flourish in the modern music industry; no small feat, as most of us know.
You grew up in a military family, right?
My dad was in the Coast Guard, so we moved around a lot – pretty much always on the coast until he passed away, and then we moved to northern Virginia.
How old were you when he passed away?
I was 11. It was a week after his birthday. He was 35.
That's an intense age to have that happen.
When you're traveling a lot [because of his job], your parents and siblings become your best friends, because you're leaving every year or so.
Then suddenly that was all disrupted.
Yes. We were in Humboldt, California – this magical place where they filmed Star Wars [Return of the Jedi] and the Ewoks, as well as lots of scenes from the second Jurassic Park film [The Lost World: Jurassic Park]. And all of a sudden, everything changed and we moved to a suburb in Virginia with no trees.
Did you start playing music when you moved there?
Well, I started in California when I was ten. I was in fifth grade and some kids were leaving class. I was sitting there doing some math. I was like, "How come they get to leave?" And some other kids said, "Oh, they're in the band." I thought, "Okay. I wanna be in the band then," just to get out of whatever I was doing. Someone told me, "Okay, well, you've got to sign up for an instrument." I said, "Okay, drums." That first band class, we didn't have any instruments at the school so we'd play on the cafeteria tables. But the feeling of learning how to balance the stick, I remember it perfectly. Then, in my junior year, my mom said, "Hey, there's this place I saw on television called Berklee."
She saw it on television?
On some news show. She told me, "You can do music there." I said, "Really?" I asked my drum teacher more about it and he said, "There're these guys – they call them session players and they get paid to do recording sessions." So, during that thing they do in high school where you get to shadow somebody for a day, I said, "I want to shadow a session drummer." They looked around and said, "Uh, there are no session drummers here."
The Virginia suburbs! So, Berklee happened, and then afterwards you went to graduate school in L.A.?
It's called "graduate certificate" at USC, which is basically like a Master's degree, but only in playing.
Why not just come out and play?
I wanted some money to come in, so I got a scholarship. I wanted to land in a scene where I knew there were good musicians.
Did that work?
Yes. I met [session guitarist] Brian Green, who's part of my band, Monte Mar. Brian plays on my record, and he's one of my main collaborators.
I heard you went around to 100 restaurants and pitched them a live music night?
I did! It's like if you ask enough people on a date, one of them is gonna say yes.
How uncertain was that period?
The Thirsty Crow was a steady gig, and for a while that was my only steady gig. Then they started to accumulate. Five years ago, before I started touring, I had ten steady gigs a week. I had four every Sunday and then six others.
How do you feel about the current music industry in L.A.?
I think it's great. I think there are opportunities that exist there that don't really exist in other cities.
Do you feel it's still necessary to live in a major market like that to do music?
I do. I mean, there's the whole film and television world. There are opportunities that pop up with that. You have to search a little harder here to find what's going on, and it takes some time to get in the loop. It's not like New York, where you walk into Small's and there's jazz going on.
There's that whole spread out geography you have to deal with in L.A.
But when you live there you realize where all the scenes are. The kind of music that I play – and more or less write – happens on the Eastside. Whereas if you're into ‘80's hair metal, you go to the Viper Room and places like that.
Would you encourage aspiring session drummers to continue to follow their hearts and not assume, "Oh, music's dead."
Definitely. You may have to play a four-hour jazz gig in a hotel lobby to get 100 bucks, but you do that seven times a week and you can pay rent with that, as well as buy some food.
You think outlook or attitude matters in a music career?
Oh, man. I think it's pretty important.
So you don't give up. If you go into situations with no expectations, then you aren't going to get let down. I don't expect anybody to buy this new record, at all. If you have that attitude then you can keep your sanity rather than thinking something's going to catch on and then feeling defeated.
As a drummer, how did you get hooked into songwriting?
Well, I travel with a little two octave keyboard that's about a foot wide, and I'll use MIDI sounds for bass, drums, and guitar. I can sit on a plane, or anywhere, and write a song with it. It became a little world to escape to in between playing drums. I enjoy that more than watching television or whatever. When I get off a gig, I'd go write songs instead of practicing the whole time on drums. I felt like my life became a lot more balanced when that happened. There was no grand plan to make this album, early on. I was writing songs for my own enjoyment.
How did you go about making a record with all these first-rate vocalists on it?
Well, I started recording the songs with no vocals. I recorded all the music – laying down the drums, overdubbing the keyboards, and building the arrangements.
How did you pair songs with people?
"When I See" was the first song that I finished instrumentally. Daniel Lanois played pedal steel on it, and Kurt Rosenwinkel did a guitar solo in the middle.
That's the one Conor Oberst sings on. It has a fantastic guitar solo. It's really beautiful and unusual.
It wasn't comped or anything. He felt that whole thing and did it.
How did Conor get involved?
I was thinking of it like, "Who would sing this that I'm a fan of?" Conor came to mind. I was thinking of his songs, like "Waste of Paint," where it's just him and a guitar. He has that super honest voice, where there's nothing commercial about it whatsoever. I was recording with Mike Mogis [Tape Op #51], and Conor's wife [Corina Figueroa Escamilla] was engineering. I said, "Corina, I've got this song. Can I send it and see if Conor would be interested in singing a part? I have a scratch vocal so he could hear exactly what it is, and see if it's something he'd be into?" She said, "I'll play it for him." Then she came back and told me, "He said he's down." So, that was the first one. I'm so glad he was willing to do it, because it felt like it was actually possible.
Do you think if that one didn't happen, then the whole thing wouldn't have happened?
I don't know... I'm obviously grateful to everyone on the record, no matter how big or small a part they played in it. But Conor and Corina, I feel a special love for them for being willing. He said, "I like the song; sure." Not, "Who's on it?" or, "What label is it on?" That's the kind of person he is. He's the only singer that I wasn't present for during the recording. He had the scratch vocal and a stem of the instrumental. Corina recorded Conor, he sang a lead and a double and they sent it back from Omaha. For the other vocalists I traveled out to their studios or we recorded in LA if they happened to be in town.
Now you've got one song, with one vocalist...
We mixed that song and made it presentable. Then I had something to show – a finished product. Then I met M. Ward in Denmark, when I was on tour with Daniel Lanois. I mentioned the record to Matt [Ward], because I've been a big fan of his for a long time. I said, "Hey, I got this record. I'd love to send you a song and see if you want to do it." He agreed, and that's "The Painter." The last song on the album.
It kind of cascaded from there?
I think after Matt, then I contacted either Luke [Steele] from Empire of the Sun or Ben from Band of Horses. That was right around the same time. They both said yes. Luke [Steele], we did in Santa Monica, with Justin Batad, who does all the Empire of the Sun music. Then Peter [Morén] we recorded in Sweden, where he does his vocals.
Were you on tour there?
I was playing with Lanois. I got ahold of [Peter's] email, and told him about the record. He said, "Yeah, come to Stockholm afterwards." We finished [the tour] in Norway, so it was right there.
So, the moral is if you want something, you should just ask the person?
Almost all of these artists, you only know them because you cold contacted them to sing on your record?
Yep. Matt [Ward] asked me to tour after he sang on my record, so I started touring in his band, and I also played on his record. [What a Wonderful Industry] With Peter, we did some Crane Like the Bird shows in Europe where he sang lead vocals.
That's pretty cool.
It was super fun. We opened for Neko, so there were only sold-out shows. I feel like I skipped the line, as far as other bands that I was in, where you grind for years to even get to open for somebody. I felt like a spoiled kid.
Has working so extensively with Daniel Lanois influenced you as a producer?
It definitely has. I did start playing him mixes as I was working on the record. Dan has a way of listening to something and giving you some piece of advice that's this grand concept, and then you have to figure out how to deal with it. It was funny, the way he told me. He said, "It would be a tragedy, an absolute tragedy, if you didn't capture what you did at Thirsty Crow [Kyle's improv jazz gig] on this album." He felt very strongly about it. That's how Brad Mehldau and the long six-minute outro on "Kaleidoscope" came about. I thought, "Okay. How do I work that spirit of jazz in?"
Do you now have grand producer-songwriter plans?
I want to keep making my own records. I have a bucket list of other singers that I'd love to have on the next one. In fact, I've already started recording the next one. Neko and M. Ward sang on it. Bill Frisell played guitar. I've been chipping away. I have about 30 songs recorded that need a real lead vocal. And I'm writing in the meantime, too. I'm not waiting on anything.
Can I ask who else is on your bucket list?
You'll keep making records until you cover everyone!
I would go down the playlist that I've made more for myself, of my favorite singers. If I could bring Nick Drake back from the dead, that would be a bigger achievement.