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Kevin Murphy

Interview by Sean Mitchell // September 09 2014
Kevin Murphy

It’s about letting it live as brightly as it can on stage. If you’re sticking that really cool Dave Weckl fill in when you’re going to the bridge on a song, watch the crowd next time. If they stop dancing during that moment, stop playing that fill there and ask yourself what Carlos Vega would’ve played.  

I discovered the name Kevin Murphy quite by accident one night recently as I sit learning tunes for an upcoming fill in gig with a local country act. I YouTubed a couple songs by an artist named Randy Houser, who as it turns out had this killer live drummer that I just needed to steal from. Kevin Murphy is a Bonaham-esq player with all the swing and swagger of Bernand Purdie. And while Kevin can lay it down with the best of them Mr. Big Right Foot is also a technician when it comes to the ins and outs of the music industry as a whole. Kevin is not only an accomplished player, he and drummers like him are the new breed of session musicians. 

Hey Kevin, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Let's start at the beginning, the moment when you picked up a set of sticks and decided, “From this day forth, I shall make music.” 

I’m not entirely sure. My mom always had music playing when I was a kid, so my sisters and I would always just hear music when we played or did chores. Mom would dance and sing with us to Fleetwood Mac, Zep, Beatles, whatever. I think she made music fun for me. She tells me that I used to play on the dash with McDonald’s straws. I suppose I was always interested in the rhythmic aspect of it. I liked whatever was making us dance, whatever that was that drove it. 

Who were your influences growing up? 

Everything on the radio, really. When I was young the formats were a bit more broad. I would hear Joni Mitchell then Zeppelin, Earth Wind & Fire then Skynyrd. First song I actually played on a drum set was “Who Can it Be?” by Men at Work. Then I got into Rush, I suppose just because Neil was so exposed. My mom swayed me into Bonham—then it was pretty much over. Then I got hungry for hearing anyone and everyone. 

Seems today we have a lot of, dare I say, clones and empty virtuosity. Is the industry too full of hype? 

I think that is more a reflection on the times, on the shift of culture. I believe that people are still casting their opinions into the universe; it’s just that a lot of that energy is bullshit, based on our society. We have a tapas style mentality. We take lots of little bites, we get bored easily, and we have grown accustomed to blurting out unfinished and unrefined thoughts. People are still writing about what they know; we just have to understand that what Pitbull knows and considers important is very different from Ed Sheeran or Eric Paslay. It is also important for us to acknowledge and understand that what someone else’s experiences are might be alien to you, but that doesn’t make them invalid. Kedrick Lamar’s last record is unreal, and while it might not be playing in your car right now, he is someone’s Dylan. 

As a follow-up to that question, what new artists in your mind represent an honest change for the better? 

I think there are pockets everywhere of great stuff. I really don’t think the great-to-shit ratio is any worse than it’s ever been; we just hear everything now. Anyone can slap together some chords and words and post it. You have to sift through. 

Don’t take me wrong, I don’t think it needs to be underground or indie to be a good change—hell, sifting through all that shit just isn’t something I can bring myself to do. Some great stuff is getting some success right now. I think Ed Sheeran is writing great stuff. I mentioned Kendrick; his album gets played a lot on my drives. Animals as Leaders is great. Glen Hansard. These are totally all over the map, but just examples of how every genre has stuff to grab. 

I think that Randy (Houser) and Eric Paslay are a couple of real artists and writers putting real thoughts and emotions into the universe. They’re worth hearing and respecting. I argue with friends all the time about other artists like Luke (Bryan) and Taylor (Swift). If you’ve got a problem with them, you just aren’t getting it. You’re judging them against something random, not viewing them for what they’re bringing. Tay empowers young girls and doesn’t take herself too seriously. Being a dad, I appreciate that. Luke has jams. That’s it. He is absolutely offering relief after a blue-collar week. He’s an open beer on Friday night. His stuff isn’t about filing reports or working diligently on a useless project at work—his stuff is about getting laid. Everything has its place. Everything is valid to someone.  

Looking to the future of the industry, how do you feel a band should proceed in a career—go searching for a label? DIY indie route? 

Very few are successful hunting for a label. Your interest in being signed or whatever doesn’t mean a thing to them—whether or not they can generate income on you or your art does. Make what you think is good, put it on display for people to embrace or discard. The indie route is pretty much the only smart way to start, just because you can. The trick is to just be yourself. If you try to fit or fill a hole that exists, by the time you’ve got final mixes someone else has done it. Why not just be you and see if anyone gives a shit? 

I spent a number of years as a drummer for a country artist. I definitely credit my experiences in that genre as having made me a more solid drummer. Upon seeing the music scene in Nashville for the first time, I was incredibly humbled. The first club we went to was a throw-together band made up of members of (Trisha) Yearwood's, J.M. Montgomery and Reba (McEntire)'s bands. No setlist, just the audience calling out songs and these cats were schooling everybody. Now that you are in the fold, how does a drummer stay sharp and working among the Ben Sesar's and the Pat McDonald's of the world? How high is that bar? 

It isn’t a bar; it’s a cloud. It’s funny, I hear drummers constantly pissing and moaning about that big gig they could “do better than that guy,” and it just makes me laugh. Jojo Mayer is infinitely more physically talented than me regarding drumming, and you know what gig he couldn’t take? Mine. The guys that are working bigger shit in any genre all share one quality—they sound like them. I can hear drums down the hallway at SIR and I’ll be able to tell you who is in which room—Buda over there, McNabb down the hall, Lester Estelle over here. I know what they sound like because they sound like them. Not just in country, everywhere. I can hear Sutter in his playing, I can hear Jon Theodore. Some guys are harder to pick out, some dudes have a really defined drumming voice, like Fred Eltringham.  Shit, I can hear three beats and know it’s him. Almost everyone in a coveted gig shares that. 

Nashville is funny, everyone can play. Everyone. Some dudes just don’t get it and like to focus on bullshit instead of taking inventory of what they are or what they bring. You’re not being asked to play for folks? It might have something to do with your shitty vibe. 

Randy doesn’t pay me for the show; I’m comfortable behind drums. He pays me for the other 22 hours a day that I’m not comfortable. He pays me to be away from people I care about. If no one is asking you to play, it’s probably about the non-stage time.  

It’s also pretty easy to get caught up in bullshit about the math of drumming. I once had a dude who plays his ass off say, “Man, I’m better than Keio (Stroud). How come he’s always busy?” I was floored.  Poor guy doesn’t realize that Keio is busy because he would never, ever say such a thing about anyone else. 

Everyone is a shark in Nashville. A lot of guys are really great drummers, and everyone wants your job.  Wanna stay sharp? Watch your singer, rhythmically lead with enough confidence that no one ever doubts what is happening, don’t be a dick. More mechanically, here’s a good one: practice mistakes.  My bass player, Tripper Ryder, and I love doing that. We’ll come up with a scenario where something might be misread, miscued, or just f*@#ed up and run it occasionally. We’ll laugh about it, but guess what, when you’ve thought about that stuff, it’s pretty easily resolved during the show.  

Any thoughts on how a drummer can benefit from songwriting? 

Any? All. Everyone should write, or try to write, or at least sing ideas into their phone memos. You’re playing music. Writing helps you understand, understanding helps you play it. You don’t have to grasp every aspect, but knowing what it feels like to come up with something helps to respect what you’re doing for your employer.    

Having learned some of Randy Houser's tunes for some of my own fill-in gigs, I really love listening to your live interpretations of songs. What is that process like for you? Do you specifically track a tune one way and then develop a live variation over time and touring? 

Well, first off, I don’t track for Randy. He and Derek (George) prefer to use Lonnie Wilson on records. I track stuff for other people and produce things occasionally if I like them, but not with Randy. They have a studio vibe they like, and one has to respect that. 

Live interpretation is pretty gut-oriented. If Randy wanted me to cop the record exactly, I’d be outta here. I know of many artists who are like that, and f*@# them. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Maybe for an artist or band who really labored over it, sure, but to hire a touring drummer and say, “Regardless of how this dynamic develops over the next two years on the road, I want you to exactly mimic what Chris McHugh came up with on his second pass on this song 18 month ago.” Stupid and insulting.  I love Chris, and consider him a close friend, and I can promise you that he doesn’t remember what he did on that second pass last year of that hit song because he’s done 20 albums since then. He served the song well, undoubtedly, and the parts are likely pretty strong, but letting them develop live with new personnel and attitude is the other side of that art.  

Randy is super cool about stuff like that. He has never said a thing about it. I think he respects my history and skill and knows that I’m going to represent him and the recorded parts honorably. The key to that is making sure to grab those fills or patterns that really pin the song or set up something key. There’s a triplet thing going into the outro of “Moonlight.” Hell, it might have just been a “whatever” moment fill for Lonnie on a later pass during tracking, but it’s on the record, it sets up the next moment beautifully, and I felt like it needed to be represented.  

It’s about letting it live as brightly as it can on stage. If you’re sticking that really cool Dave Weckl fill in when you’re going to the bridge on a song, watch the crowd next time. If they stop dancing during that moment, stop playing that fill there and ask yourself what Carlos Vega would’ve played.  

Many drummers today must absolutely be able and willing to be all things (vocals, percussion, electronics). Talk a little about your experiences as a live drummer and the expectations artists have on their players. What can an up-and-coming drummer expect to face when entering life as a sideman? 

Here’s the simplest answer: Grow thick skin. If you’re a sideguy, you’re occasionally going to work for narcissistic shithooks that take their fortune, your skill, and your presence for granted. You can’t fix those guys. Deal with them until other opportunities arise. There is more than a few of those in Nashville, all of us know who they are, everyone has their badge of honor stories about surviving a week or a year or whatever with them, and you will too if you’re a sideman.  

Here’s the other bit for drummers: learn Ableton. I don’t fly in a single track, but I use it. Three of Randy’s songs have simple loops. Nothing fancy, just a drop here and there and some shaker rhythm stuff, but I use Ableton so I can fire pre-recorded vocal counts to the guys in their ears. A lot of us are doing that, and it’s pretty much required once you’re on bigger stages. Try to yell over to your bass player to start a tune with twenty thousand people yelling, and suddenly the sterility of an Ableton count-off sounds pretty sweet.  

Being that you have enjoyed the role of producer many a time, what advice can you give drummers when it comes to micing techniques in the studio? 

My only advice on that is to break every rule once you know the parameters. Hell, I’d say that’s probably my advice on life, too.  

Set up your drums, tune them, make them feel good first. Call a buddy to come over and play them.  Walk around and listen. Start with one mic in the sweetest spot and go from there. So many techniques exist, so the key is doing what is right for this day, for this moment. It is art with definitions and parameters, but it is yours. If it sounds good to your ears, it is right. If you’re working in conjunction with others as engineers or producers, make sure you’re all on the same technical page so your art doesn’t shit someone else’s bed.  

Do you do any form of practice on the road and if so what do you work on for techniques? 

Not really. I have a pad and a couple of pairs of marching sticks, some Queens and some Aungsts. I just pad out for a bit loosely. I have one lick that has turned into the if-I-can-play-this-smooth-around-120-I’m-good lick, but other than that I don’t have a regimen. On this tour Charlie Worsham’s drummer, Scott Quintana, and I pad a bit, and Ben will join a bit before his show with Paisley starts, but nothing too focused.  

What do you have coming up in the near future? 

There are a couple of projects I’m hoping to produce and a couple of others I’m going to drum on. I’m stoked to do other things just because the road cycle with Randy is year-round. We finish up this tour with Paisley soon and jump onto an arena thing with Dierks Bentley. I like those guys, so I’m looking forward to it. I’m also working on doing more and better drum cam vids for my YouTube page (BigRightFoot) so drummers can really dig in and hear all the good and bad. I’m developing a clinic package for next year. 

Hmmm … other than that? Let’s see. I’m finishing up my website soon to make it easier for people to reach me for e-sessions, and my daughter is starting her senior year in high school, so I suppose I’m freaking out a little bit. Some friends and I have a hot sauce company, Mad Hatter www.madhatterfoods.com that is super healthy and badass, and we’ve been taking that to the next level recently, so I’m hoping to get more crazy things going on with that, too. Hmmm … there’s a TV thing that might turn into a web thing, still working on that. Hell, I guess I’m actually kinda busy. I lose track sometimes. I also need more plants, would like a garden, and am training myself to talk less. 

IF YOU LIKE THIS INTERVIEW YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY THESE INTERVIEWS: Rich Redmond, Nashville Drummer's Round Table Part 1Nashville Drummer's Round Table Part 2



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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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