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Mark Kelso

Interview by Sean Mitchell // December 24 2015
Mark Kelso

Watching myself talk on camera, now I get why actors don’t want to go to their own movies. I don’t know if it’s inbred into musicians where we search out the flaws. We’re always striving for perfection and we can rarely ever attain it, so it can be quite frustrating to commit to something, watch it a hundred times and finally just have to go with it. 


It’s been a long time since we’ve had a chat and Mark has some new material on the market. So you’ve got the new band, new DVD and CD with the Jazz Exiles. Tell us about that, Mark.

Nice to see you, buddy. Yes, it’s a new group I started up. I had the plan about 10 years ago and then I got the full-time position at Humber, had my first kid and it just sort of slid into the back of my brain, even though I had the guys in mind.

Finally this year I said I gotta do it, so in between my other project (the DVD) I booked the gig, hired the band, wrote all the material, did one gig and thought, We’ve got to record this.

I started to record it - did it all in my home studio, recorded and engineered it all, produced it, and it‘s been a lot of fun. It’s kind of bringing back the old glory days of the jazz funk fusion era of the '70s – the music I grew up with: Weather Report, early Yellowjackets, Pat Metheny, Jean Luc Ponty – stuff that I really dug when I was a kid. There’s sort of homage in there, drum snippets to drummers who have influenced me. I play little bits of their thing – a little Billy Cobham, David Garibaldi, a little Mark Craney.

I did all that and then I said to the guys, “Gosh, it’s like I’m stealing from my youth with all these ideas." They said, “That’s a great idea for the album cover.” So that was the working title and I just kept it: Stealing from My Youth. I thought, Jazz Exiles ... we’re sort of criminal ... we’re kind of stealing, so it all tied together.

The band is some of the finest musicians that you’ll find in this country. Rich Brown, on bass, who is a world class extraordinaire bass player.  Robi Botos – great, great Hungarian-born Canadian-bred jazz piano player. I got him off the acoustic piano and got him on the NORD playing synth and some keyboards and stuff. No one knows he does that, but he’s really good at it. Luis Gonzales Deniz is a fantastic alto player from Cuba, can handle any kind of rhythm, has got killer solo chops.

Then the last guy in the puzzle was – it was originally going to be a quartet and then I thought, You know I need some guitar on this. I know a lot of guys who I could get but I wanted to bring in some youth in the great tradition of Arthur Blakey and Canadian jazz drummers Marshall Villeneuve or Archie Alleyne. They always brought young players onto the scene for that old school mentorship. I got a young guitar player, Joey Martel, who is in his third year at Humber. He was in my ensemble. I liked his vibe; I liked his groove; I liked his soloing; I liked his stage presence and his ability to really be a metal-head and rock out. So I thought, Yeah, I’m going to ask this guy if he wants to do it. It was kind of funny. He didn’t really know the other guys in the band 'cause he’s so young – he’s 32 years younger than me – so he doesn’t know Robi or Rich. When he finished the first rehearsal he fell on the floor and thought he was having a heart attack -- he was so terrified.

That’s the Jazz Exiles. I’ve gone from 35 years of being a sideman to being a band leader all in one shot. It’s 10 times the work.

No kidding! Mark, this is not your first CD; you’ve had many compositions. What inspired this particular CD?

I was doing research on the great legendary drummer, Claude Ranger. When I was 18 or 19, he was the jazz drummer in North America. He was a troubled man and he had all kinds of issues. Then at the end of his career he just disappeared – walked out of his house one day and no one knows what happened to him. He could be dead; he could have gone underground.

I was trying to research him for my students. I went on-line wondering what I could find out about this guy and there’s very little. There’s one website with about seven or eight audio clips; there’s no video footage. He didn’t really have a large discography. I thought it was a shame – this guy was such a bright star, musically, but years later, what’s left? Not much. Once the generations change it runs the risk of him being completely forgotten. For Canadian drummers or musicians, we have so few that we hold in such high regard so it’s a shame to have the history lost because we’re getting swallowed up in the big cousin down south.

Could that happen to me? Do I want to leave something for my kids? Do I want my kids, in 20 to 30 years from now to go, “Yeah, my dad was a drummer and here is – here’s some video footage of him; here’s projects that he’s led.” It was kind of to do it for my kids and just to leave a mark on the Canadian music scene for myself, more as a leader. It’s my tunes, my projects, as opposed to being a sideman for two or three hundred other projects that I’ve been sideman for.

Mark, you mentioned earlier that you were going to recommend to your fellow musos to never do a CD and a DVD all at once. Tell me a little bit about this process you’ve been going through.

The CD just came out in November. Last summer, in July ’14, I started shooting a DVD. I figured a DVD could be kind of like a CD where you can knock the whole thing out in three months. The guys I was working with said, “Oh yeah, we can do it – Christmas, for sure.” Christmas came and went and we were still editing and editing.

It was four or five cameras and I’m scrutinizing every detail. It’s not just audio and artwork; it’s every single scene. “Is that what the guitar player’s really playing? Is this the right take?” It’s epic and I had to watch it over and over again. There were some in-between moments where nothing would happen for a couple of weeks, so I had downtime when I started thinking about this project and writing tunes for it, organizing a gig. I’m not one to just sit around and not do anything – I like to keep myself busy - so I started doing the project for the CD in between downtime from the DVD. I ended up doing both simultaneously.

I’m on sabbatical from Humber now. The original plan was to have a sabbatical last year and get it all done. So I started it, thinking I might have a sabbatical, and when I didn’t I decided to keep going anyway. It got a little bit hectic and crazy trying to do everything at once. I survived, but now I understand why George Lucas had a heart attack at the end of Star Wars.

I know that video is a whole lot different than audio. Let’s talk about, from a drummer’s standpoint, having to watch yourself a million times.

Doing a CD is bad enough where you have to listen to yourself and go, “Oh, that one hi-hat 8th note is a little bit rushed – the whole song is a disaster.” We lose perspective. Now when you have to see it on top of hearing it, you’re just watching going, “What am I talking about? I don’t even understand what I said. Okay, let’s cut that out, let’s edit to here.” I actually didn’t realize that most of the professional DVDs were done with teleprompters till I was talking to John Riley – a great jazz drummer in New York - and he asked me if I had used one. I said, “No, I just went off the top of my head for a bunch of the stuff.” He said, “Everybody uses a teleprompter.” I went back and started watching DVDs and now I can see them all reading! I went back, wrote a script and tried cue cards. I re-shot a lot of stuff to correct it.

The speaking parts are all there. The playing parts were the easiest; the camera stuff was fun, but watching myself talk on camera, now I get why actors don’t want to go to their own movies. I don’t know if it’s inbred into musicians where we search out the flaws. We’re always striving for perfection and we can rarely ever attain it, so it can be quite frustrating to commit to something, watch it a hundred times and finally just have to go with it. Then when you get to the final stages where you’re proofing everything, you’ve got to watch the whole thing – start to finish – and it’s four hours long! You’re just so sick of watching yourself, but when you take a break and watch it again with a fresh perspective, you go, “Hey, it’s pretty good."

There’s that hilarious little diagram of the life of the artist – “It sucks, it’s fantastic, it sucks, it’s fantastic.” (laughs) It’s this perpetual pendulum of going back and forth. Finally you just have to put it out and go, “You know what? It’s the best I can do right now." Now being a year older, I would have done things differently, but I can’t -- and also it’s an expensive process.

The most terrifying part was signing off at the end going, “Okay, put it in to the manufacturer; there’s no turning back now.” Now my biggest fear is people pay for it and go, “Wow, this really sucks!” I’m bracing myself for the worst – but it’s going to be fantastic! (laughs)

I’m sure even Ringo and Paul would love to go back and do things differently on some of the early Beatles albums.

When Steve Gadd came to Humber he was using my office to go over all these tunes. The song "Samba Song" was a famous drum solo. I’m sitting there watching Steve; I want to see his thought process when he’s looking at the tunes – he’s listening to the original recordings. When he gets to the solo in "Samba" he fast-forwards and goes to the end of the song.

I asked him after if he doesn’t like the solo and he said, “Not so much.” As an alternative he plays "Nite Sprite" from the Leprechaun record, which has another solo and this time he lets the solo go by. At the end I said, “So Steve, you like that one?” He goes “Yeah, that was a good one.”

So even for Steve Gadd, being on the inside is different from the outside. Wanting to give a 110 percent is good to have if you don’t drive yourself nuts doing it.

The CD right now is getting a great response. I feel good about the project.

You mentioned Humber. Mark, you’ve been there for quite a few years now; you finally got your sabbatical. You’ve left the ship in good hands. Let’s talk a little bit about your protégé, a mutual friend of ours.

I’ve been running the drum department at Humber College for 10 years. My predecessor, Roger Flock, had that job for 34 years. I don’t know that I’ll be there for 34 years. In fact, it was a surprise that I was even there at all. If you had of told me when I was a teenager, at the same school, that in 30 years I was going to run this place, I would have bet you a million dollars that was not the case.

I absolutely love it. I love being around the students – even though they drive me crazy sometimes. I love being around young guys who are into practising, who are into music. They help me meet all kinds of new drummers I’ve never heard and new music. It’s a really creative environment to be in and I’m happy to impart my knowledge to them.

When I took a sabbatical I thought about who I could leave it in good hands with. I left it with this young guy, Larnell Lewis, another former student. Technically I taught him for a year, but he was already pretty good. He calls me a mentor which is kind of him.

Normally he would walk in, teach some lessons then walk out, and now he’s getting the whole shebang. He’s running the department, taking some of the master classes. After start up when he had to organize 80 students in 56 ensembles and give them different private lesson teachers he texted me and said, “And you have kids on top of this? You are my hero!” It’s a whole new experience for him.

I miss it and I’m already thinking about my ensemble next year, what tunes I can do. So I never really leave it. Plus the guys always send me questions about day to day details. You’re not only a teacher and department head, you’re a mentor to the students and almost like a parental figure. A lot of times they come to you with something that has nothing to do with drums but you want to be open and be available to help them with whatever they’re struggling with.

Larnell is doing a bang-up job!

So Mark, is the Musician First, Drummer Second DVD out yet? 

The CD is out. Everything right now can be ordered on- line at my website www.groovydrums.com. You can download the CD there or I can send you a hardcopy. I’ve just gave my web designer play-along tracks and charts for the CD, so students looking for some rhythmic challenges can download those. I’m taking pre-orders for the DVD right now. The manufacturer is saying next Friday I’ll have hard copies. [Editor's note: The DVD is now available.]

I’m thinking about doing a direct digital download for the DVD as well. I’m trying to make it easily accessible.






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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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