A drummer can make or break a session, and I have always loved getting their perspectives on the recording process as well as the variety of roles they play in the studio. After several solo records and appearances on records by Dave Holland, Brittany Howard, The Fearless Flyers, Chris Potter, Norah Jones, and Paul Simon – to name a few – drummer and composer Nate Smith certainly has perspective to offer and some great stories to tell.
How did music get sparked for you?
I spent my childhood and teenage years in Chesapeake, Virginia. My fascination with music all started with my dad’s record collection. He has a lot of records. His tastes were in the instrumental R&B world. He was big into the genre of music that unfortunately became known as smooth jazz. It was a generation before that; the soul jazz that was not contrived for commercial use. It was cats playing.
Was that kind of a CTI Records type-vibe?
Yeah, CTI and Creed Taylor, Quincy Jones, those Jazz Crusaders’ records, and the Bob James albums. That brings back all my childhood memories; the music that was in the house. I started mimicking what I was hearing on those records, trying to play along with Steve Gadd, Harvey Mason, and all those great drummers. I was loving the sound of their drums on those records. I’ve always gravitated towards that. My recording career started for me in college. I went to James Madison University, as a percussion performance major, but I decided halfway through my freshman year that I wanted to work more on the media side of music. There was a course called Mass Communications – a blanket term for anything in media. I ended up getting a degree in Mass Comm, but there was an emphasis in Recording and Production. It was the best of both worlds. I got to play the drums and be in the studio, so that’s where the fascination started for me of playing in the studio.
Were you working on engineering?
That was part of it. I learned a little bit about engineering, but I was never as interested. I was much more looking at it as a means of creativity. I wanted to figure out enough to put a mic on the drums, record it, and hear myself back. The craft of engineering at that point wasn’t as appealing to me as the means to hear myself recorded and create music. But I did study the fundamentals of engineering. I learned a lot. My playing career started to take off around my senior year in college. I met some musicians while playing at Disney [in the All-American College Jazz Band] that led to meeting the great jazz singer Betty Carter. I played with her for a couple of years before her death in ‘98. Then I spent about four years in Richmond, Virginia, from 1997 to 2001. During that time is when I got into home recording. I had a [Roland] VS-1680 setup at the house. I was doing tracks on my [Akai] MPC2000, which I still have. I had a [Fender] Rhodes [electric piano] and a couple of Korg keyboards. I was making beats and doing home recording. When I was able to save up enough for a day, I’d go to the studio and dump what I’d been working on from my home recording studio setup either onto tape or ADAT. Those were the early, formative stages of the beginning of my career in the studio, not just as a drummer but as a creative in the studio. Things started to take off a little bit more when I moved to New York in 2001. While I was in Virginia, I met Dave Holland, a great bassist, and he said, “Man, I’m gonna move to New York. I want to play with you.” A year or so after I moved, I started playing with his quintet. We made a record [Critical Mass] that was my first big studio record [with the Dave Holland Quintet]. That was at Avatar Studios [now Power Station at BerkleeNYC] in New York. I had done other smaller sessions, but this was my first “holy shit” moment, where I realized how big a deal it was. James Farber [Tape Op #114] was engineering. He had a long-standing relationship with Dave and did all Dave’s records. He’s a legend. I think we were in the studio three days, and we did Critical Mass in those three days.
How do you prep for sessions?
That’s a great question. I had to learn quick with Dave. So much of it is getting your own sound on your own kit, using your own drums. I had a kit I loved in Virginia, and unfortunately about six months before I moved to New York it got stolen. Drums, cymbals; all of it. I ended up adapting quickly to this idea of playing different drums at different studios and making it sound like me. I had to get good at that. When I got to New York and we had a budget and resources, it was like, “Okay, I want to use this kit.” I got there early and tuned. I was so excited about that record that I wanted to make sure everything was right. I’ve learned to make that process a lot simpler for myself. I think so much of it starts with the drummer and the hands. That’s the main thing. Touch is so huge. On many of the records I’ve played, I show up and play other peoples’ drums, and they’re set up in a certain way. But I still find a way to tweak it or play it that makes it sound like me. When I do have the time, budget, and resources, I take my kit. I play my Ludwig drums; I take in a couple snares, and I’ll have my guy show up early with my drums. We’re cutting within an hour or less of me being there. That’s a sign of someone who’s done it a lot. I try to show up and be as prepared as I can, musically. I let the engineers who are the geniuses of that do their job.
It’s important to be able to walk in and get to work.
Oh, yeah. It’s hugely important. This record [Jaime, Tape Op #133] I did with Brittany Howard, the engineer Shawn Everett [#115] is a whiz. He has this brilliant mind, and he thinks about music in these huge, picturesque terms. I would show up to the studio and Brittany would play the demo for me and Shawn. I’d be learning the drum part. Shawn would listen to the sound and say, “Okay, man. I’ve got an idea. I’ve got something that’s gonna sound sick. Give me a little while.” What I learned was “a little while” was two hours, right?
I’d go get a coffee and wait for Brittany to text me or whatever and say, “We’re ready.” Shawn had these outlandish set ups. That’s one approach. On the other tip, there’s The Fearless Flyers, where I show up and there’s this little frame drum that has a big pillow and two cinder blocks in it to keep it from moving. There was also this old [Ludwig] Supraphonic snare with a RootsEQ baffle on it, and a dusty pair of hi-hats. It’s like, “Show up and play this.” So, 20 minutes after we show up, we’re playing and recording. We’re doing takes. Different projects call for different approaches, but if I have my druthers I do prefer to show up and play. Get in and get to it. If we need to make adjustments, we can do that, but I’m keen to get in and strike while the energy is hot. It’s so different for every project and every engineer.
What’s your approach going into a session, knowing that it’s going to be different?
I walk into the door trying to be as open as I can about the music, not walking in with any preconceived ideas. If I’m showing up as a sideman for somebody, then I’m showing up to help fulfill their vision. I can bring my own ideas to it, but most of the time I’m showing up to play the part. Making sure I feel good, my hands feel good, I’m warm, I’ve had my coffee, and I’m alert. I’m open to new parts, listening to the demos, and taking it all in. So much of it revolves around being willing to take direction from musicians who have a specific vision. That’s the main thing I take into the studio. I’m listening way more than I’m playing. Even when we’re doing takes, I might be playing a part, but I’m listening so hard to everything else. I’m trying to figure out where my drums fit in a record and where it’s helping, because it’s all playing in service to the music. When I do these sessions with Dave Cobb [Tape Op #122] at RCA [Studio A, in Nashville], I’ll show up and he’s already got the drums set up. He knows how to tweak those sounds. He’s like, “I’m going for a [Steve] Gadd-something today,” or, “I want a Quincy Jones/Michael Jackson thing.” He’s got preconceived ideas he wants me to dive into, and I can dig into that bag because that’s the music I grew up listening to. I feel I have this library of ideas in my head I can draw from when needed.
That’s the most important aspect, beyond your playing.
Absolutely. We’re walking around with a sample library in our brains all the time. We’ve got three or four terabytes of records in our minds! We can pull one up and go, “Oh, this is the thing! I’m going for James Gadson on [The Jackson 5’s] ‘Dancing Machine’.” I learned that from playing jazz; from hanging out with older musicians who knew a lot more records than me. I’d listen to them talk endlessly about different records and approaches. I’d be like, “I need to catch up!” I’d go and do homework. I’d go and check out music that I hadn’t studied, trying to build this sample library in my mind. That’s not just from being a studio player, it’s also from being a composer. I once heard of a musician, when I was in grad school, who said, “Your textbook as a musician is your record collection. That’s what you’re going to be referring to for rules.” I dug that. That stuck with me.
Tell me a more about working on the Brittany Howard record Jaime.
I walked into Brittany’s room as a fan first. I had been playing [Alabama Shakes’] Sound & Color in my car for a year before I met her. It was an amazing record; just beautiful. It’s a home run. I’m like, “Okay, there’s a reason she called me. There’s definitely a thing that I do, but this is her thing. Let’s start where she is.” Brittany came in with clear ideas. She had very specific demos she had made in Logic or something. We go in and she plays the demo. What I’m thinking at the moment is like, “How do I play this? I hear how Logic is playing it, but how do I play it?” My instinct is to start in this Steve Jordan place of, “I want to get a crispy snare drum sound. I want the kick to be popping.” I’m thinking that, but it might be something where she’s hearing the drums a little more resonant. She might be hearing more overtones. She might be hearing the bass wide open, and Shawn might be hearing that too. I might go in and be gaffing up the drums by putting the RootsEQ on and getting it dry and tight. Then I’d play a take, come out, and they’d say, “Okay, take all that off and play the exact same thing.” When you’re playing drums that are wide open like that, you play differently. I react way differently to the sound of a wide open snare drum than I do the sound of a tight, dry one. In those moments I might wait a little while longer to add those ghost notes, because I want people to hear them, or maybe I don’t add them, because I let the snare carry the whole beat. There are all these little micro-calculations that you make in the moment while you’re playing, listening to the sound of the drums in the room, and listening to the sound of the drums with the track that you’re playing on. When I did the sessions with Brittany, [bassist] Zac Cockrell was on those sessions. A couple of the days I played, Zac was playing with me. We usually do one, maybe two songs a day. We were never at the studio longer than a total of maybe four or five hours. I guess the rest of the time, Brittany and Shawn would sit around and tweak stuff. It was cool to go in, play, listen to her and Shawn’s suggestions, and then play again with that direction in mind. It was a cool, creative experience. Working with Shawn, where I came and saw the setup and was like, “Oh, this is a very deep recording concept he’s got. He wants to use the sound of this entire studio on this record.” He sets up every drum, leaves them wide open in the room, and puts a mic on them. The drum that I’m playing rings throughout the whole room so he can get all that air on the take. It was really something to think about. I’d be thinking about that while I played, so maybe I’d leave a little space and let the drums do their thing. It’s like playing a different room every night. When I’m playing Carnegie Hall in the main space, that’s a resonant room. I’m going to play differently in there than I will at The Fillmore in San Francisco or in The Blue Note. Those are different spaces.
Can you talk a little bit about being taken out of your comfort zone as a player?
Absolutely. Here’s a cool example. I did two songs on Paul Simon’s last record [In the Blue Light]. It was something that happened at the last minute. I did both the sessions with [bassist] John Patitucci, who I think recommended me for it. I’d heard all kinds of stories about Paul Simon, so I walked in a little intimidated. But he was very kind to me. He was cool, very friendly and encouraging, but he was also very direct about what he did and didn’t like. One thing he told me was, “I don’t want you to play cymbals. Try to stay away from them, because it’s hard for me to sing over cymbals.” I had never thought about that. It was the first and only time I’d ever heard a singer say that. I came in with sticks, and I was full-on playing a groove with hi-hat, sticks, the ride, and crash a little bit. I played soft because it was a soft tune, and he was like, “I love everything you’re doing, just no sticks. I want you to play brushes and no cymbals.” I said, “Okay.” But he also said, “I still want you to do your thing.” That’s where the math comes in. “How do I do my thing?”
No sticks, so pick up a pair of brushes. Thankfully, I’m a jazz drummer. I played with Betty Carter who gave me a crash course lesson on playing brushes. She played long, slow ballads. You have to find a way to make brushes interesting, but not distracting. We did two more takes, and every direction Paul gave me I took. I added a couple little fills in there, some parts I thought were musical, and he liked it. In the course of two hours, we had the song. By the third take he was happy. It was all about us listening to Paul and following his lead. It’s his record, with his name. I’m not too proud to just play snare drums. Especially for Paul Simon! I did a record with Norah Jones last year, and we did one take that I played full. I was playing a shuffle. And she said, “Oh, it’s a little too much. Can you dial it back?” Okay. The next take I played maybe 20 percent less. She said, “Okay, even less than that.” Then finally she was like, “Oh, it’s a two-beat! That’s what I want you to play. Boom-tap, boom-tap, boom-tap.” And that’s exactly what I did for a four-minute song. But it took us going through those takes to hear what she wanted me to do. I go in and I’m ready for that as a sideman, particularly as a drummer. I’m ready to be told to play less all the time.
What advice would you give to somebody who’s getting into session work as a drummer?
Build your library; listen to as many records as you can. Start with the stuff that you like, then ripple out into what you haven’t checked out yet. That was it for me. The records I was most fascinated with were the records my dad had. Then, when I was a teenager, it was like, “Here’s The Police,” and, “Here’s Prince.” All these records that are really produced, and there’s a sonic personality they all have. It started with, “How did they get all these drums to sound like that?” That’s all a part of building your library of sound. Play as many sounds as you can, but sound like you. While you’re building your library, keep working on your musical personality. Make sure that you keep that intact. The trick about a musical personality is that it’s almost as much about what the audience or the musicians you work with think as much as it is about what you think. The musicians in your musical community might help you discover your musical personality. Play with as many different cats as you can, out live, and document yourself doing it. You’ll find all those little Easter eggs that make you sound like you. It’s all buried in there.
How about the same question directed at producers and engineers?
Know who your musicians are. That’s a cool thing, “I checked you out on such and such.” This was one of the things I loved about the first Fearless Flyers record. [Producer] Jack Stratton had been watching all four of us. He obviously knew Cory [Wong] and Joe [Dart], [They all play in Vulfpeck. -ed] but he’d been watching videos of Mark Lettieri and me as well. There were parts in what we were doing where he was like, “I love this. Can we build a track around this thing you do?” There’s no better way to make the music sound personal; know your players. If you’re a producer or songwriter and want to bring a certain band in, know what they sound like. That’s huge. Then have a specific idea of what you want, but also be open to suggestions. Be open to let the cats do what they do. If everybody comes in with mutual respect and mutual openness, you’re going to make a great record.