Hirsh GardnerInterview by Jonas Mannon // March 30 2012
You know it was a time in our lives when the music did strange things to our insides. It turned me inside out, upside down, and it seems that when it let me go I just walked towards the light. I had to be a musician.
Hirsh Gardner might consider himself an average guy. But how many average guys have conquered the world from behind a drum kit? As the drummer of the band New England, Hirsh Gardner led their mighty charge to packed arenas everywhere in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. His unique musicality was a key component in creating their signature sound and establishing Hirsh as a drummer with an exciting rhythmic and tonal voice.
Hirsh was generous enough to take time recently to talk a bit about “back in the day,” and also what’s happening now. So, as all good tales begin.
Hey, Hirsh, thanks so much. I’m very grateful and I know the fans will be as well.
Thank you, Jonas. After so many years have passed it really does amaze me the interest that folks still have in the band. Thanks for continuing to carry the torch!
My pleasure. So let’s begin by looking back a bit if we may. Do you remember the first record you bought and why?
My sister is a few years older than me. So back in the day, Phyllis was a typical teenage girl collecting the latest records of all the pop stars of the day—Elvis, Bobby Rydell, The Platters, Little Anthony and The Imperials—whatever was on American Bandstand usually made its way into our home. I’d listen to all that stuff.
And what was it about drumming in particular that moved you to pursue it? (Was it seeing Ringo with The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show?)
One event that really shaped my soon-to-be musical journey was The Gene Krupa Story with Sal Mineo. Man, that just flipped me out! I was down to the local record store and bought Gene’s Sing, Sing, Sing album on the Verve label. I think I wore the damn record out. I met Gene several years later…my hero! And yes, The Beatles, Stones, The Animals…all the bands on The Ed Sullivan Show were such an influence to all of us. But you know, it wasn’t just the rock stuff in the earlier days of my life. On Sunday afternoons I’d watch this TV show from Detroit with Mahalia Jackson singin’ gospel tunes with a kick ass R&B backup group and an out of control choir behind her, all yellin’ and screamin’. I was blown away with the emotion and intensity of that music. This was the real deal. I would also listen to the radio all night long, the AM stations. I remember WLS in Chicago had a great rock show. Heard Janis doin’ “Summertime” for the first time and just about fell outta bed. You know it was a time in our lives when the music did strange things to our insides. It turned me inside out, upside down, and it seems that when it let me go I just walked towards the light. I had to be a musician. I had to follow the light and I had to bang on de drum all day (thanks, Todd).
Who were some your main early musical influences?
Well, like I said above, all those folks and more. I never really had a single influence. My Auntie Carol was a lover of swing and jazz. She encouraged me to listen to all the jazz greats from her era. So my record collection was really out there compared to most of my generation. Benny Goodman, Krupa, Buddy Rich, Count Basie and the man himself Mr. Duke Ellington (whom I was privileged to meet several years later).
As a drummer, myself, I was always drawn to Roger Taylor from Queen who I feel is a prime example of a musical drummer. That very unique quality is evident in your drum parts as well. In your opinion, is there a secret or a tried and true formula to writing for the song?
Well thank you. Roger Taylor is very musical and was an influence as well. I remember covering “Keep Yourself Alive” with my New England boys before we were New England and his drum parts were great.
To answer your question directly, yeah, listen to the song! If there is something that is going on that needs a simple rhythmic pattern for support, just play something simple. One and three on the kick and two and four on the snare kicks ass and will win you big time fans from the band and your audience. But if, like in New England, you have an orchestrated part that will allow you to play a complex and musical drum part, go for it. There is a drum break towards the end of “Nothing to Fear” that’s like that. Jimmy’s doing this 1/16 note figure on the keys, John and Gary are doin’ power chords, and I mimic Jimmy’s keyboard part with a drum solo type of thing. When it comes out of that section it explodes into a long jam (and I try to recover and not suffer a stroke). New England’s style of music allowed us all to stretch out and add an extra dimension that gave the band its uniqueness.
Great drummers all have a signature and your drum sound is as recognizable as any. Are there specific differences in how you tune and prepare the kit for studio sessions versus a live situation?
Tune ‘em low and play ‘em loud! I was really fortunate to meet Bill Ludwig III. He saw me play and asked if I’d like to join the Ludwig family of drummers as an endorsee. The kit that we put together was 9 toms, an 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, two 16 floor toms and an 18 floor tom (I saw Lenny White play three floors and had to have it thunderous!), a single bass drum, snare and two tympani. With New England I tried to utilize all the drums as melodically as possible without getting in the way of the song.
There are a couple of inspired drum parts in the song “Shoot” on the first New England album. The first is where you do a drum-fill that runs over the bar line before coming back to the main groove. The other is the incredible wall of drums outro section. Can you convey how you approach writing such parts?
The over-bar thing…ahhhh, I think I just messed up? No, just kidding. That’s an R&B thang where you do a fill and come in on two instead of one. Loved doing that shit…guys in the band always looked at me like “what the…!” As for the outro solo, I think we couldn’t come up with an ending for the song so it’s like, give the drummer some. It’s actually my take of the Bonham triplet bass drum riff with some added stuff.
Before we move on, just one question about the title cut from New England’s epic Explorer Suite. The drum parts are quite lyrical as the patterns you apply to the tom range literally create actual phrases, more like compositions. Do you sometimes draw from classical or orchestral percussion when writing for the drum kit?
I was an orchestral drummer early on and was part of some award-winning percussion ensembles, so yes I do draw on those musical influences a lot. That also has a lot to do with the drum kit that Billy Ludwig and I put together. Not only did the kit look cool but it was designed with that melodic style in mind.
Okay, let’s talk about what’s happening now. First, how’s the fro?
The fro is good. I currently use TRESemme conditioner and Garnier Fructis Style curl scrunch (I’m an endorsee of both). LeeAnne styles and cuts it once every two years so it doesn’t get too long; ya know, gotta take care of the important stuff.
And where are you living these days?
I live in Salem, New Hampshire, and have my two beautiful and very talented daughters, Michela and Samantha.
And legendary talent hawk Lenny Petze, who signed Boston and Michael Jackson to Epic Records, has brought you onboard to produce for Josef Hedinger, a gifted young singer/songwriter. How did that come about?
Lenny and I go back quite a few years and recently rekindled our friendship. I produced a couple tracks for his grandson Dom, an incredible young guitarist. Lenny then came to me with Josef and we decided to produce some tracks for him. Josef is a phenomenal artist whom I really believe you will be hearing a lot about in the near future.
Are you only producing or are you playing on it as well?
Yeah, I’ve done some drum stuff which we’ve used as the basis of the rhythm track on one song. We looped it up with a cool Reason drum track to create a kick ass rhythmic pattern. I don’t profess to be a guitar player but I did get the ol’ Les Paul out and lay down some cool power chords in the song “Stiletto.” Some keyboard stuff as well.
Are you involved in any other projects currently?
I’ve just finished producing and mixing Willie Nile’s last two albums. House of 1000 Guitars garnered a Top 40 Hit Single. I love Willie’s stuff, very Americana and lyrically superb! I also am very involved in my record label, GB Music. We’ve just released Tenement Angels by Scott Kempner both on CD and vinyl, as well as releases by Marky and DeeDee Ramone (The Remainz), New England’s re-releases and an upcoming release by Elliott Murphy. My partner Gary Borress keeps us very busy signing these incredible artists. Gary is brilliant and I really think that we are doing something very unique with our label at a time when most labels are going away. We promised ourselves that we would only do a label if we could have fun with it. We’re having fun!
I know you also sit in with John Fannon of New England sometimes for his solo shows. Have you written or recorded any original material for, say, a Hirsh Gardner solo project?
John’s show is killer. If you get a chance to see him live, do it! I believe he’s at Passim in Cambridge Mass in October. John called me up for Explorer Suite and Get It Up. I had such a great time (Thanks, John).
I released a solo album, Wasteland For Broken Hearts, several years ago on Marquis/Avalon in Japan, MTM in Europe and our own label here in the States, GB Music. I have about three-quarters of an album done now and Gary is all over me to finish it. I guess I should, huh?
Who are some modern artists that you enjoy, and who would you like to possibly work with in the future?
Lady Gaga blew me away with her performance at the VMAs. Wow!!! And, then Brian May comes out and kills the solo! I like anything that’s well done. It’s gotta be a quality, heartfelt, soulful performance though.
Well, Hirsh, thanks so much for taking some time. All the best and continued success. Peace and Paradiddles.
Thank you, Jonas, and remember, the fondest memories were “from Detroit on those Sunday afternoon TV shows with Mahalia Jackson singin’ gospel tunes with a kick ass R&B backup group and an out of control choir behind her…all yellin’ and screamin’…” This was the real deal.
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About the Author
Jonas Mannon has been fortunate enough to work with people like Duff McKagen, Peter Criss and Bill Ward, among others. He still contends, however that he's still "just a knock-around drummer kid from New York." As a freelance journalist he has interviewed 13-time Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs and drumming legends, Artimus Pyle, Sandy Gennaro and Kenny Aronoff, among others.
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