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Chris Brien

Interview by Sean Mitchell // December 02 2007
Chris Brien

With the advancement of hand and foot techniques, the only limitations are what we and future drummers put upon themselves. The internet has totally revolutionized drumming by giving access to drummers all over the world on how to play what was once considered impossible.

The Thunder From Down Under, errr....uhh no. Ummm, Crocodile Drumdee! Hmmm...maybe not. It would seem that my feeble attempt at being witty has produced no Aussie-isms that can accurately answer the question, how astounding is drummer Chris Brien? Put it this way, Australia's "Drumming Wizard of Oz” can do with four limbs what King Vidor did with a pair of ruby slippers and a yellow brick road. Chris’s style and techniques are all that masterpieces are made of.

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Chris, your solos involve the best of both worlds: the intricate touch of polyrhythmic playing and the pulse of a really fat groove. How have you developed this ability over the years?

Thanks for your kind words, Sean. How I have developed my approach to combining polyrhythmic playing with a strong groove is due to two things: firstly, my love for African and Latin rhythms; and, secondly, due to the fact that from 1992-1999 I was playing in a band in Australia called Swoop that was essentially a hip-hop come funk band. The role of a drummer in a funk band is to lay down fat and funky grooves. When I mixed this drumming approach with 6 to 8 hours a day of drum practice, over the years I then ended up with my unique style of drumming. Incidentally, Swoop reached No.3 on the Charts in Japan in 1996 and also achieved No.1 on the charts in Australia, as well as many other top 40 hits in Australia between 1993-1998.

For a drummer who is trying to cop your chops, what is the method behind the madness of your incredible footwork?

Firstly, it is extremely important to understand that slow, relaxed practice develops control which, in turn, develops speed. In saying this, of course exercises, of which at first you practice slowly, in time will be practiced fast, but at first everything needs to be practiced slowly so as to develop the muscle memory and also to avoid repetitive, strain-related injuries. A use of a metronome or click track is essential for most of the following patterns.

The patterns I focus on with my feet are:

1. Single Strokes

2. Double Strokes

3. Flams

4. Paradiddles (the single, double, triple, inward, reverse and outward)

5. Funkadiddles. Funkadiddles are my own variations of the 4 essential paradiddles being the single, inward, reverse and outward paradiddles. These are explained thoroughly in my book Progressive Rhythms and demonstrated on my DVD Independence Part II and in the on-line lessons at my website.

6. Fundamental Latin Rhythms. The Son Clave, the Rhumba Clave, the Brazilian Clave, the African Clave, the Cascara, the Palitos, the Timbale Cowbell Pattern (Mambo) and the Mozambique.

As far as developing these fundamental Latin rhythms with your feet, they just require repetition at comfortable tempos, preferably with music so as to help you to create a musical feel not a metronomic feel. As far as developing single strokes, doubles strokes, paradiddles etc. with your feet, they require the use of a metronome.

This is my own 10 minute daily exercise I have used over the years and taught my students to use for years, with fantastic results:

10 MINUTE DAILY EXERCISE

  • Play Double Strokes @ 50 BPM for 2 minutes playing 1/8 Notes.
  • Play Double Strokes @ 55 BPM for 2 minutes playing 1/8 Notes.
  • Play Double Strokes @ 60 BPM for 2 minutes playing 1/8 Notes.
  • Play Double Strokes @ 65 BPM for 2 minutes playing 1/8 Notes.
  • Play Double Strokes @ 70 BPM for 2 minutes playing 1/8 Notes.

The following day begin 5 BPM faster.

If this exercise is practiced daily without fail, within 30 days you will be starting the exercise at 195 BPM. Once this is achieved begin the “10 Minute Daily Exercise” at 100 BPM playing 1/16 Notes. Within a few months you should be playing 1/16 Note Double Strokes at 200 BPM. Lastly, apply this exercise to single strokes and paradiddles as well. The idea is to develop your muscle memory and control as opposed to just trying to force out fast double strokes with your feet, which will not only sound tense but can also cause injury to your knees and ankles.

What's your history with World music?

When I was younger, I heard some music coming out of my older brother’s music room which intrigued me. The music I heard made me want to play the drums, and my aim was to sound like that drummer on that recording. Anyway, the band was Santana, and I didn’t know back then that the drummer I heard was a drummer and three percussionists. Nevertheless, ever since I still wanted to sound like that “drummer.” That was my childhood dream and I think I’ve achieved it. Some kids want to be firemen whereas I wanted to sound like the drummer on that record.

I have only ever played in one World music band. The band is called Heval. Heval won an award at the 2006 Oz Music Awards in Australia for being the best World Music Band in Australia in the year of 2006. I joined Heval in late 2005. They play mainly Turkish and Kurdish influenced music. Most of the tunes were either in 7/8, 5/8 and 6/4. Other than Heval, I have spent most of my drumming life listening to non-drummers, such as guitarists, keyboard players, saxophonists, singers and percussion rhythms, etc., which probably explains why I have a different approach to the drumset.

Some drummers may find a few of my drumset compositions and solos repetitive, but, to me, I’m thinking more melodically, which is how traditional ethnic rhythms tend to be played. More often than not each percussion instrument plays a melody and then there may also be some solo sections featuring some of the percussion instruments in the percussion ensemble. Music cannot exist without rhythm and melody. I never think of ways I can impress a bunch of drummers with stick tosses, backward somersaults and playing as fast and as complicated as possible—which I think in moderation is fine, but when drummers use this approach constantly I personally think it is totally unmusical and stupid and driven by an ego problem.

My biggest influences are George Benson, Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder, Bach, Mozart, Giovanni Hidalgo, Steve Gadd, Gene Krupa, Paul McCartney, and every Ethnic rhythm, whether it be from China, Brazil, Ethiopia, Cuba, Australia or wherever that I have ever heard.

Your style proves that a drum solo is a living breathing musical entity, rather than an impressive flurry of fragmented chops. What is the recipe for a great drum solo? 

Firstly, I think it’s important to define a great drum solo. It all depends on the context. Personally, I love to listen to someone like Dave Lombardo or Deen Castonovo thrash out a drum solo. These guys and others like them are amazing! Or to see Dave Weckl play with Chick Corea or to watch and listen to the unbelievable brilliance and musicality of Simon Phillips. Check out Steve Gadd’s solo on the song “Aja” by Steely Dan. Besides being a first take recording, it is totally musical. But, what else would you expect from Steve Gadd? I always think of having an underlying pulse and to produce the sound of a percussion section with a drummer, not just the sound of one drummer.

For myself, the recipe for a great drum solo will usually employ the use of ostinatos (repetitive patterns). Ostinatos not only help you sound like more than one drummer but more importantly allow the drummer to incorporate melodic layers into his or her drum solo. I find that a musical drum solo not only sounds great but also appeals to non-drummers as well as non-musicians. I don’t want to just cater to drummers who want to get excited over a pair of fast hands and fast feet. There’s a lot more to drumming than playing loud and fast; it’s called music!

Tell me a bit about your solo "The Belly Dance."

In many of my drumset compositions I either have a message in them, or I am telling a story or both. In the case of “The Belly Dance,” I wrote it as a protest of the atrocities that are happening in Iraq to totally innocent civilians. The Belly Dance is based on an Iraqi rhythm. It tells the story of an Iraqi woman who has lost everything to war: her children, her husband, her parents, her home, her job—she has lost everything. All that she has left now is the ability to dance. And dance she will, so "The Belly Dance" begins. As "The Belly Dance" unfolds you will hear and feel her despair as she dances for hope and for freedom. For the full version of “The Belly Dance,” it is on my DVD Independence Part II and also on my new solo CD World Rhythms.

Straying from drums for a moment, what brought you to Hong Kong?

The reason I relocated to Hong Kong from Sydney, Australia, in November 2006, was because I was performing with some local and international artists here in Hong Kong as well as in China, and while I was here I was invited to set up my drumming course in conjunction with the largest music retail store and private music college in China and Southeast Asia, Tom Lee Music and The Tom Lee Music Foundation. My course, The Chris Brien Drumming System, was launched here in Hong Kong in late April of 2007.

You are one of a very few drummers from Australia who have appeared in Modern Drummer magazine. Can you give me a sense of what the drumming community is like in the land down under?

I have received three positive reviews in Modern Drummer Magazine. In the February 2006 issue of Modern Drummer, Independence Part II received a 4-star rating. In March 2007, my book Progressive Rhythms was reviewed by Modern Drummer. In the June 2007 issue of Modern Drummer, Progressive Rhythms was listed as one of the top 12 tutorials released world wide since 2005, which was a huge honor as my book was the only independently released product in the review.

In regards to the Australia drumming community, Australia produces many of the best drummers in the world. The reason being is that Australians are extremely competitive when it comes to the arts and sports, as well as that there is a very strong drumming foundation in Australia. Australia has many fantastic drumming stores with very knowledgeable staff, and most drummers are very keen to learn as much about drums and drumming as possible. When you live in a country as beautiful and relaxed as Australia, it just makes sense to either play a sport or an instrument or both. It is simply the best country in the world.

Tell me about your drumming schools in Australia.

I currently have two drumming studios operating in the Northern Beaches area of Sydney. There are several drum tutors, all of whom are previous students of mine who teach my drumming system to many Sydney drummers each week. Many of my students in Australia have had great success in the music industry in Australia and overseas. I established my first drumming studio in Sydney in 1988.

How did you get the nickname "The Drumming Wizard of Oz"?

This nickname was suggested to me from a friend as it was a way of people seeing me as a solo drummer and not just as a freelance session drummer, if that makes any sense? It was one of those things that stuck, as Australian’s like nicknames. But these days I don’t hear it much any more since I spend most of my time outside of Australia.

What does it take to break into the clinician circuit these days?

4 words: “Practice”, “Dedication,” “Originality,” and “Contacts.” Never say die. I’ve had success on the pop charts and recorded and performed with some big names, but to tell you the truth, it takes a lot more work to make it as a drum clinician than to make it in a band. Understand that being a clinician for percussion companies is about two things: selling equipment and educating drummers about equipment and playing styles, which in turn makes everyone happy. If you’re just after cheap gear it won’t work and you will be black listed by all of the sales reps from the drum companies who service your state. No one is going to give you something for nothing.

Just because you’re a good drummer doesn’t mean that you will get endorsed or deserve to be endorsed. If you’re in a famous band, regardless of how well you do or don’t play, you will get endorsed. Unfortunately some drum companies do put some of their endorsees on clinic tours when they do not have drumming or people skills to do so, which is totally counter productive for all parties involved.

Please understand that the clinician circuit does not need another Virgil Donati or John Blackwell clone. There are way too many copycat drummers in the world, and they are all so boring and predictable. It’s much easier to “imitate than to innovate.”

If you are serious about getting into the clinician circuit, make sure that you have a totally unique style and that you have great self promotion, selling, teaching, presentation and people skills and always have an up to date biography on hand. On top of this you have to be an amazing player.

You will need to get to know the sales reps who visit your local music stores, as well as the people at your local music store who arrange clinics and ask them what it is they want and look for in a clinician. Remember, people don’t want to see just another clone; they want to see something new so that they can be inspired.

Every great drummer in this world has their own sound and this has nothing to do with technical ability—Ringo Starr. Mick Fleetwood, Steve Gadd, Max Roach, Phil Rudd, Marco Minnemann, Karen Carpenter, Billy Cobham, Phil Collins.

Tell me a bit about Chris Brien Drumming System.

The Chris Brien Drumming System is mapped out in Progressive Rhythms, one of the most comprehensive drum books ever released, and focuses on the following areas:

  • RHYTHMIC STUDIES
  • 1/8 NOTE and 1/16 NOTE ROCK BEATS (320 beats)
  • LAYERED GROOVES
  • SHUFFLE BEATS (150 beats)
  • LAYERED SHUFFLE GROOVES
  • FUNKADIDDLES
  • MIXED STICKINGS
  • ACCENTED 1/16 NOTES
  • ACCENTED TRIPLETS
  • LATIN RHYTHMS
  • 1/16 NOTE PERMUTATIONS
  • 1/8 NOTE TRIPLET PERMUTATIONS
  • OSTINATOS (60 examples)
  • SOLO EXERCISES
  • TRIPLET BASED SOLO EXERCISES
  • M.L.R.G’s (Multi-Layered Rhythmic Grooves)
  • THE ESSENTIAL 48 SNARE DRUM RUDIMENTS

There are literally tens of thousands of combinations within the Chris Brien Drumming System. One of the many unique features of Progressive Rhythms is that anyone who purchases a copy gets free access to video files at my website that demonstrate and explain many of the fundamental patterns and exercises in Progressive Rhythms.

With the advancement of drum systems such as yours, the emphasis now put on hand and foot techniques and the floating feet techniques, what are we going to see players capable of in the decades to come?

The drum kit is the fastest evolving instrument in the world today. Classical composers are now using more percussion in their music than ever before. With the advancement of hand and foot techniques the only limitations are what we and future drummers put upon themselves. The internet has totally revolutionized drumming by giving access to drummers all over the world on how to play what was once considered impossible, including such techniques as playing fast single stroke rolls with one hand or playing 7 or more rhythms simultaneously. We are still going to have great groove players and drum soloists in future but we are also going to have the musical monsters that compose incredible music and can play the most amazing drum solos while also playing keyboards with one hand and singing at the same time. I feel the best person to answer this question would be Kenwood Denard.

What goes into writing and/or producing an instructional DVD?

I’ve discussed this with several other drummers who have also released instructional DVDs, and we all agree that most drummers don’t understand the amount of work and money it takes to produce an instructional DVD. A lot of work goes into writing and producing the DVD, as all of the material has to be original. Myself, I have released three instructional DVDs to date, and I have plans of releasing a forth in 2008.

Firstly, you have to develop your pieces/solos etc, so as you can play them in your sleep, as there is little time on the film set of an instructional DVD for second and third takes. Time is money in expensive recording studios. If you have several takes at recording a track and you’re filming with six different cameras this makes the editing process extremely difficult, frustration, confusing and expensive, so you have to make sure that what you are going to put down is 100% comfortable! All of my pieces on all of my DVDs and CDs are all first takes.

What do you have coming up in the New Year? 

I am releasing a new solo CD entitled World Rhythms By Chris Brien. The release date is December 2, 2007. A Chinese based record company called Mutual Chord asked me in July of 2007 to release a solo CD, which was a great honor as very few drummers are asked to release solo drum albums by record companies that usually only deal with singers, bands and orchestras. World Rhythms is my second CD release to date. In 2008, I will be doing a lot of clinics and drum seminars in China on behalf of Tom Lee Music, Gretsch Drums, Zildjian Cymbals, Latin Percussion, Gibraltar Hardware and Vic Firth Drumsticks. As well as performing with different artists and teaching lots of drummers how to improve their lives by having fun playing drums and percussion.

Visit Chris online: http://www.chrisbrien.com/




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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean has 15 years experience behind the kit, studying under greats like Mitch Dorge and participating in master classes with Dom Famularo and Zoro. It was these life-changing exchanges that prompted the Canadian-born drummer to create a global drumming community, The Black Page, that was easily accessible to drummers of all backgrounds and levels of expertise. In addition to his work with BP, Sean is one-half of the world soul group The Mitchells.



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