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Adam Hay

Interview by Sean Mitchell // September 02 2010
Adam Hay

You have to sacrifice and study. You have to accept your lot and pull yourself upward. A lot of progressive motion involves taking two steps forward and one step back. Just when you think things can’t get any worse: you’re wrong. Just when you think they can’t get any better: you’re wrong again.

If there are old souls in this world, Adam Hay is one of the oldest. The Toronto born, session, studio, touring groove-guru has crisscrossed the globe with some of the finest talent on the planet and still has time to inspire young minds. Players like Adam are anomalies; perhaps a handful exists in the world. These are the players who play without ego and listen without opinion. They play for the song and the moment, nothing more. They are the truest souls in the sense of the word and bring nothing but growth to our industry. Far beyond chops and groove, Adam strives to be plugged into his creative brain. For him, rhythm is beyond the “one,” the pocket and all of the human terminology we have bestowed upon the most ancient of art forms. Having paid his dues on the streets of Toronto to afford the heady dreams of the big stage alongside the likes of Raine Maida and Chantal Kreviazuk, Adam still remains the eternal student.

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How important is it for a drummer to understand songwriting?

You have to love songs. What’s your motivation as a drummer? Don’t use the song to play drums; use the drums to play the song. You don’t have to know the theory involved in songwriting, necessarily, but you do have to become as masterfully sensitive as you can in detecting, understanding, and supporting the attitude of the song from one moment to the next.

You have to have the discipline to make yourself totally invisible, to be felt and sensed rather than explicitly heard. Because what the audience hears is English coming out of the singer’s mouth! After that, they hear melody, maybe some harmony. The drummer sets the pace (and might determine the tone or volume) of the discursive walk between the songwriter and the audience. What they’re talking about on that walk is what’s in the songwriter’s heart.

One last thing I’ll say that I keep close to me when playing songs is to not be a Song Hog. Don’t hog the song. I know when I’m doing something self-serving—it just doesn’t fit with the tune. Use fills to support the song and to mark transitions—a fill says “here comes a big right turn, everybody, let me take you through it.” The song might need you on the drums, but you shouldn’t try to make it about you unless you really know what you’re doing.

Tell me about your teaching business. Where are you situated, and what could a potential student expect coming into your world?

I teach out of my studio in downtown Toronto, and I go to student’s homes now and then. My very first objective with a new student is to completely dismantle their ego and transform them into the absolute best student I can, not for me, but for them. What concerns me is how that student treats themselves when I’m not there.

I haven’t forgotten what it means to be really wrestling with something on the drums, and I haven’t forgotten what it means to be a slow student, especially back when I was in grade school and high school. This gives me the huge advantage of having basically a boundless supply of patience, and I can summon truckloads of sympathy for what the student is going through. I didn’t choose for things to be this way; this is just the product of my schooling situation when I was a kid.

So after the sympathy, tissues, and patience, I apply what I learned from Brad McNeice and Neil Busby—give the student what they want, give them what they need, don’t give them what you want. A lot of students have the same concerns, and I just lead them to the wonderful world of drumming fundamentals: tempo control, dynamic control, feel, coordination, independence, rudiments, reading, letting the click tame you, ear training, and creativity, for starters. I get them to multitask fundamentals. I mean, that stuff has to become as familiar to you as the roof of your own mouth is familiar to you.

I don’t do weekly lessons unless that’s what the student wants and I can make it happen in my schedule. Instead, I tend to point them in the right direction, get them as fired up as possible, keep in touch along the way, and see them again when they feel ready to come back. Some students turn up a few times a week, others don’t show for months!

I try to turn all of these people into the best students I can, working on their learning habits from the get go. The better they learn, the better they explore. They get out into the drumming world and determine what that world means to them, and they start to see how much we all have in common. I’m a student, too.

The bottom line is, what value can things you’ve learned possibly have if they go with you, clutched to your chest, straight to your grave? In fact, they don’t go with you at all.

What is the best mistake you ever made? 

Learning! A mistake, to me, is what it sounds like to learn something. The uglier the better. I love an ugly mistake. I love awkward, hideous, brain-destroying mistakes. I love to listen to my ego, watch my embarrassment swell. I learn all the time—and not just from my successes.

I let myself make mistakes, I accept them. I learn so fast this way. Emotion is totally removed from the process. Ego is observed as an ignoramus is observed. Mistakes really get a bad rap. They teach you about humility, ability; they don’t lie to you. Your ego lies to you, but mistakes never do. You should really rely on them.

You have a long list of talent with whom you have done some very extensive work. How did you go about setting yourself up in a place like Toronto, and what advice do you have for session players, studio players, players for hire, who are looking to break into the field?

Leap and the net will appear. You’re not gonna die, but you might starve, and you might have to get yourself through many, many dark moments. I highly recommend doing the book The Artist’s Way and checking out The Power of Now. It’s absolutely imperative to gain a higher understanding of what motivates creative people, yourself included.

I’m from Toronto. I spent 1980 to 1990 going to grade school across the street from a prominent strip joint in the worst part of downtown. I had, and still have, an excellent network of friends and family here. What a difference that makes.

But basically, you need to wrap a red dragon bandanna around your head, breathe from the diaphragm, and get serious. You must stop competing with other human beings and learn to get along. Stop sticking your chest out and colliding heads with the other young rams on the side of a mountain.

You have to sacrifice and study. You have to accept your lot and pull yourself upward. A lot of progressive motion involves taking two steps forward and one step back. Just when you think things can’t get any worse: you’re wrong. Just when you think they can’t get any better: you’re wrong again.

Practice. Say goodbye to what popularly constitutes a normal life. Toughen up. Make yourself immune to disappointments. Learn to fearlessly anticipate them. They’ll come at you full throttle and non-stop, I’m afraid.

Say yes to the most repulsive gigs you can. It’ll probably turn out to be fun anyway. Say yes to kissing a 400 pound bearded-lady. You’re gonna have to one way or another, might as well get on with it. This prepares you for appreciating that goddess when she comes along. Make yourself worthy.

When I was 20 I had nowhere else to play but downtown on the sidewalk. I had a busking license and I played in front of City Hall, Osgoode Hall, and at least 100 hours in front of the Eaton Centre. It was terrifying to be that exposed, but it really kept the heart pumping and forced me to play at my absolute best. I’m really glad I put myself through that. It wasn’t pretty. But it was a huge thrill.

Things started to perk up for me a few years later, but those first few years as a young dude who knew nothing, trying to get somewhere, anywhere, was brutally difficult. I literally made no money for 10 months of 1999. Was living off tea and porridge for a few weeks. Was sick, depressed, angry ... it was a scary, nasty, repulsive time in my life. But then I got a huge break!

That’s pretty much how it goes. Follow your bliss, hold fast, and you’ll appreciate that gift when it comes. If the break doesn’t come, then you’re probably not ready yet. After all, a break comes when preparedness meets opportunity.

How difficult/easy is it to define each student’s needs as they enter a lesson with you?

It’s no cakewalk, really. But I just hit them again and again with the same questions, trying to establish how clearly they understand their own goals—if they’ve gotten that far. Then I listen as best I can, we come up with a game plan, a vision, and we’re on our way. I take it easy on my students. I support them. I’m not hard on them. Life takes care of that part.

Most of the time what they need is as clear as day. And they know this. Sometimes they have no idea what they need and I have to teach them not only that they need it, but why they need it. I love that challenge. When their synapse connect and they physically internalize that James Brown groove and it fires them up, I feel like Santa Claus, I swear.

In preliminary lessons, I focus just as much as the student does, except I’m reading their body language every step of the way. I’m looking for tension, slumping shoulders, frustration, and smiles. I don’t really look for talent. If it’s there it’s obvious, and I use it as a bonus. Talent helps you acquire skill at a faster rate than if you aren’t talented, that’s all. You can still be a Jedi without all the midichlorians. Neil Peart is the first guy to tell you how untalented he is. He’s one hell of a Jedi. But he’s one of the hardest practising drummers on the planet.

With a new student, I gauge how difficult it’ll be to get past their supposed limitations, right away. I measure the breadth of the frigging moat society has taught them to surround and strangle their potential with. You wouldn’t believe the amount that new students—from all ages and backgrounds—have in common with respect to their own abilities and confidence and insecurities. It’s staggering how hard people are on themselves and what they expect right out of the gates. It’s ridiculous!

For a drummer who has done the work, has the expertise and the contacts and is ready to tour the world, what does (s)he need next? What makes a touring drummer more efficient and employable?

Maturity. Being a grownup. I know what it means to be the youngest person on tour and onstage. It really shuts you up and humbles you. Older musicians don’t like to be constantly reminded of how most nineteen-year-old boys see the world. They’ll have a lot more respect for you for trying to be an adult. Don’t be a liability on the road. You’ll be flown home and your friendships will end. Your reputation will plummet.

What I’ve learned is to become more calm the more insane a situation gets. I’ve been totally lost in many American cities, I’ve slid off highways, I’ve been harassed by Customs, I’ve gotten sick, I’ve been under a lot of strain and dealt with a lot of stress. And thank God. Now it’s way easier. Now I just chill.

Drowning people head for the nearest buoy, so you have to make yourself unsinkable. The way you do this is to tour as much as you can. Learn to be there for other musicians. Learn what it is that they need and why. These aren’t unsolvable problems. Study the situation that the road presents and outsmart the situation.

Learn to take care of yourself. This is hugely important. You have to know what foods are right for you and in what amounts, and when to eat. Vegetables should tremble when they hear your name!

You have to know how to get to sleep as a drummer. For me, if I don’t get enough food and sleep, I’ve got about three or four days in me, max, before I get sick. Once you’ve been sick on the road as a drummer, you’ll try not to re-live that.

There isn’t a lot of personal space on tour. There has to be room in your personality and with your habits for other musicians to engage you on a day-to-day basis. Don’t be musician- or crew-repellent. Don’t be a vibe killer. Look for problems before they arise, and handle any adversity the way your grandfather would.

You should also know your gear inside out and be able to set up and tear down at lightning speed. A monkey should be able to handle your rig. Everything you own should be labelled up the yin yang so that if Buzz Aldrin passed by in a satellite he could recognize your gear from outer space. This deters thieves and the mishandling of your gear. Have backups for everything. Know how to get new stuff once your breakables disintegrate.

One last thing, I do not drink on the road, period. I have enough crap to deal with on tour as it is. Seriously, it’s enough of a challenge just to play the songs well, day in and day out. I respect that challenge enough to protect whatever abilities I need to meet it. I didn’t work this hard to get on tour so that I could drink for free.

I have so much more to say about all this stuff! Readers can email me if they want to hear other tips. I’m happy to share some.

Tell me about some of your teachers (musical or not) and the best lessons you have walked away with.

The best lessons I’ve ever walked away with were those that taught me how to learn, and invariably, those same lessons taught me how to teach. There’s an infinite number of ways to do both badly. But basically, a good lesson exemplifies how the art uses the student for its own designs. That’s a beautiful, sneaky thing. Mother Nature strikes again.

Blair Martin taught me how important it was to study culture, not just a culture’s music. He used patience. He led by example. I was utterly in awe of that guy for years. I still am! I learned from Mike and Tony at Yonge and Dundas, right on the downtown sidewalks, what it means to be a hard working drummer. Those guys worked.

I learned from every artist I ever took in from the audience. It’s impossible for me to hear a drummer or watch a band or listen to a record without wondering how the music is being made. I guess somewhere along the way I was really taught to listen. I learned from Luis Orbegoso that there are no limits. I learned from a billion people, whether they were formally teaching me or not.

You talk about empowering your students. How do you do this on a mental level?

Empowerment has nothing to do with the mind. It has everything to do with no-mind. No-mind is that place that determines when you hit puberty, for example. It’s where all those abilities and potential reside that your mind can’t influence or reach. Empowerment is in your blood. Not in your grey matter. Your grey matter just sits there in your head like a crusty old man. Your blood knows everything about you in a singular sixty-second cycle through your body. Your mind knows nothing. You have to be your blood.

Most students think their coordination challenges have something to do with the mind. It’s got nothing to do with the mind. Neither should their ability to focus. You don’t need your mind in order to focus. You need presence. The domain of the moment is the domain of the soul, of peace, of spirit. There’s no English language there. So, if you’re hearing English when you’re playing and practising, and you’re conflicting confidence and ability and self-esteem with mentalese, you’re in quicksand. I recognize this on an almost daily basis, and it really isn’t pretty. It’s as common as seeing pianos in parlour rooms that just never get played. 

I get my students to accept mistakes. There’s a lot of joy in being a beginner. I’m a beginner. This is where we start. I get them to stop learning with emotion. If they’re gonna use their mind, it’s to solve the arithmetical aspects of the problem. Otherwise, the lick just is, and I try to get them to be like the lick, making themselves adjustable to the problem because the problem won’t adjust to them.

Empowerment to me is the cousin of enlightenment. Everything brightens when a student comes into their own. Empowerment arrives when the teacher isn’t quite as needed anymore. Empowerment is the goal. I learned this from Dom Famularo. Teaching someone how to get past the mechanics and to create is the ultimate gift, and I just give back this very thing that I was given. Ideas are in books. Grooving is of the blood. This is the level I strive to maintain, and it keeps the groove alive and well. Empowerment doesn’t come from the ego. I guarantee that.

Talk to me about the mental/emotional/spiritual game of drumming. What are some of the things that you do to keep your “head in the game”?

I don’t think! The mind is the enemy of the groove. I play from the moment. The moment is home. The mind always pulls you into the future or past. Take a look at your mind and you’ll notice that’s it’s never in the here and now.

I’m a timekeeper. But I don’t play from the mind. Rhythm is what time does, but I don’t think when I play. I’m not in the future or the past; I’m in between beats. That distance isn’t actually physical, it’s metaphysical, and I think too many of us try to understand the moment on a mental or conceptual level, which is exactly where it can’t be understood or known. If this sounds like a contradiction, well, it sort of is. But there are all kinds of contradictions in the natural world. We just don’t understand them. The laws of physics are betrayed all over the place. Especially in the nothingness of space, I think. But when you’re beyond the physical and in the eternal, what’s there? Peace...believe it or not.

I keep time by going beyond mental/clock time and diving into rhythm time. I’m sort of like the guy who says he’s going to go meditate for an hour ... okay, so for one hour you’re going to be out of time ... I get it. Kind of confusing, though.

When I’m on the kit, I breathe. I can breathe without thinking, but I can’t think without breathing. The groove comes from there. Not breathing is also known as “being dead.” So I just breathe! I actually have breathe written on my first tom. It really works. Keeps me in the moment. Eastern religions teach about the life force arriving on the breath. Well, to me, that’s true. They also speak of no-mind: that place from where the fuse is driven through the flower stem. It sounds really heavy and everything, but peace is achieved in the moment. Holding a rhythm is, in its essence, totally meditative to me.

You study and teach many ethnic styles of drumming. What turns your crank musically?

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is that when things mean less in a culture, the art becomes trendier than it does substantial. It loses the capacity to reflect, to be a medium. Lady Gaga represents nothing in my life. I guess I’ve gotten older.

Having a mohawk in first nations tribes used to mean something. It even had meaning in the punk era. But now it really doesn’t mean anything. Or the tattoo of Napoleon Dynamite on the back of a guy’s leg ... does that really mean anything? Like, personally, can that mean something to the guy with the tattoo? I guess tattoos aren’t to be taken that seriously anymore. I like art that means something, that is culturally rooted. It’s so much richer that way, so much more exciting and valid to me. There’s so much more of a pulse to it. I’m a huge sucker for traditions and history in art.

Harry Truman said, “The only thing new in this world is the history you don’t know.” We all know we’re in the middle of a gigantic 80s music revival. But the 80s were so much cooler! Why? Because the music was of that time. I love listening to old musicians and old records. I learn so much. There are so many stories, so many reasons for that sound that I’m hearing. So much life there. That’s what gets me excited.

Musicians in the third world who have nothing but who make the most amazingly joyful music, that impresses me and teaches me and makes me move. There’s so much more wisdom in how that music is put together and why than in what the dude with the handgun and the crack is trying to sell to me, downtempo. I know it sounds all preachy, but I’ve walked through very nasty slums in Africa where there’s sewage and garbage and dirt everywhere, where the kids play barefoot in mountains of trash, and the music was awesome.

As the next generations of drummers take over for the previous one (on tours, in studios, in the classrooms), we are seeing younger players and educators who have predominantly always had the internet during their formative years. This versus players who, from an older generation, had records or tapes. What are the players of the new millennium going to look and sound like with teachers who are able to identify more closely with them?

Pretty soon everyone’s going to evolve a little Tyrannosaurus Rex arm that kind of hangs from the middle of the chest. That’s for the personal communication device. Texting, surfing, the whole bit. We won’t shake each other’s arms with this limb, but our five-way coordination will be outstanding.

Seriously? Technology can try to deek out light waves and sound waves with ones and zeros all it wants, but there’s way more intelligence at work in how nature assembled us than in anything we can assemble. Take some binoculars to the night sky and you’ll see how small we are.

Hopefully drummers will use technology to look at what has come before, to study the greats. Those guys could play circles around us, man. It’s really important to know that! A bird can sing circles around us. Have you ever heard a woodpecker do an eleven stroke roll? It’s terrifyingly precise. We have machines that sound like that.

I just really love the idea that nature has most of the answers, and that we don’t have all the answers. We’ve got some. Technology has a few—until you have to replace your webcam or your iPhone again. What did Socrates say? “All I know is I know nothing.” The amount of contradictory results in studies within the scientific community these past few years is really staggering. I firmly believe that we have no flippin’ clue how most of the universe works. We know a tiny, tiny, tiny amount.

So, do I have a lot of faith in technology? I’ve got some. But it’s a mistake, I think, to be so bizarrely and awkwardly swimming in it. As long as new technology has a rewind button on it, I’ll believe in it to a certain degree. Other than that, I really hope future players and students will have strong memories and a killer capacity for listening.

As someone who is currently working in the industry to achieve their goals, what have been the best tools at your disposal? What works when dealing with people?

If you don’t love people, you’re in trouble. I used to have to like the pay, the artist, and their music before I agreed to the gig. Now all of that goes out the window because I’ve learned to bring the best out of the music that I possibly can, that there are so many variables beyond my control when performing music that what it really comes down to, and what the music really demands of me, is sheer effort and preparation.

If the money is no good, I can deal with that. How is that new? That’s nothing new. If the artist has an ego or is hard to be around, I can deal with that because I’ve been around a phenomenal amount of that.

I’m just really happy and honoured to get to play and to work. It’s an honour. I know it’s a stock answer, or cliché, but cliché needs truth. Like bread needs yeast. I love doing my job. If I hated it, you’d probably be talking to someone else right now.

What do you have coming up in 2010?

Maybe to stop listening to Tom Waits. I’ve been trying to stop. But I just can’t seem to. Other than that, I’ll be practising, learning, studying, teaching, recording, rehearsing, playing live, doing some road work, and trying my best to stay healthy and organized. I’m on a mission lately to have balance. I’m not too far off. Actually, I’m pretty happy with how I’ve been doing. I’ll keep writing, travel a bit. Maintain that balance. Hang with the woman I love.

I took a lesson from Michael Beauclerc not too long ago and he taught me about the conventional traditional grip. That’s really been rocking my world. I’ll just keep on top of this new, happy heap, learning to be organized, hopefully consistent and efficient and productive—but hopefully while knowing how to relax, too. I’m really enjoying my life lately and feel like I’m starting to be of value as a drummer. I have so much to learn, though. And I know I’ll stay psyched about that.

Visit Adam online: http://www.adamhay.net/index.html




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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.



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