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Mark Kelso

Interview by Sean Mitchell // April 01 2007
Mark Kelso

I think that I was originally chosen to be a vessel for the rhythmic energy that exists in the universe to flow through, but I also believe that after a certain point I now choose to continue to contribute.

I do have to admit in the interest of complete honesty that before I met my teacher Mitch, I had never really heard of Mark Kelso. After a few cups of joe with Mitch and some really great stories, I decided to Google this guy referred to only as “Kelso”. It really is amazing what a small amount of enlightenment can do for an aspiring drummer such as myself. Discovering this Mark Kelso fellow was really quite a trip. His work embodies so many genres and his resume reads like a who’s who in music. Bonnie Raitt, Weird Al Yankovic, Susan Tedeschi, Holly Cole, Jack Semple, Mary Wilson, Shania Twain and Amanda Marshall are names that really only begin to scratch the surface of Mark’s past work and his talent. I could go on with the accolades and compliments aimed at Mark, but for the sake of time and space I will segue into the interview and leave it up to you to discover Kelso on your own terms. Trust me, you’ll enjoy the ride.



What is the connection for you to Bruce Lee’s philosophies?

I was heavily into martial arts as a teenager and started reading Bruce's books on philosophy. It seemed to me that many of his concepts (fluidity, control, focus, power, intensity, core strength) could also be applied to playing the drums. He really made me aware of body movement and not wasting any motion. I have since heard that many drummers consider Bruce to be a huge influence on their playing.

How did your interest in world rhythms and ethnic percussion develop?

That would be mostly from my good friend and percussionist Rick Lazar. I played with him in a band called Coconut Groove back in the 80s and he was into a lot of Afro-beat stuff. When I heard Manu Dibango's "Waka Juju" I was hooked and that sent me off looking for more grooves like that. Even though that kind of music is technical and inventive rhythmically, it has a very powerful groove. I suppose a lot of the fusion stuff I was listening to at the time was also technical but didn't have anywhere near the feel. African music comes from a very deep place.

Touring can often be physically and technically demanding. How do you prepare your chops and body for the rigors of road life?

Well, I think playing the actual gigs helps keep you in shape automatically. I also do a lot of jamming with the other musicians at sound check. Other than I would practice on pads in the hotel rooms or just listen to inspiring music. I also do some yoga postures and try to eat and sleep right.

What is the best way for you to unwind after a gig?

I would usually hang out with the guys in the band or just chill in my hotel room, or if there's a tour bus we would always go and watch a DVD. If I have a good book I'll get into reading that. There's always my vices—crosswords, backgammon and Scrabble!

When you speak of natural flow and “the original feeling of just hitting the drum,” how do you feel that those philosophies can apply to everyday life as well?

Well, a natural flow has a lot to do with natural breathing which helps keep you in a relaxed state. Some people breathe very shallow or very fast and that is not conducive with being relaxed. Therefore I always try to be aware of my breathing and my tension/stress level. Shiatzu massage is very good for being aware of when tension is creeping back into your body after being relaxed.

Henry Ford once said, "Whether you think that you can, or that you can't, you are usually right.” In your opinion how much does state of mind affect one's success and ability in the industry?

I remember when Andre Agassi lost the US Open after being ranked number one in the world. He slipped down to a ranking of 220 or something like that. Of course the media immediately wrote him off. I watched how his technique was still as perfect as it had always been but he somehow lost his confidence in himself after that one match. Luckily he was able to regain it again which showed me how one's state of mind is a huge part of our success in any field. It was an amazing roller coaster ride but after all that his focus was unbelievable.

Do you believe you chose to contribute to this universe through music or were you chosen?

I think that I was originally chosen to be a vessel for the rhythmic energy that exists in the universe to flow through, but I also believe that after a certain point I now choose to continue to contribute.

Our decision to buy a kit is sometimes affected by who is playing which brand and not by which brand of drums speak to us personally. Being that brand names and business agreements can be fleeting, why did you decide to endorse Yamaha?

Steve Gadd, Steve Gadd, Steve Gadd and lastly Steve Gadd. That black recording custom setup with the floor toms on legs was my dream kit for years. I still have mine from 1985. The drums are also really incredible. Fantastic sound, beautiful finishes, superior craftsmanship (I've been to the factory in Japan three times and have seen it firsthand) intelligent design, easy to tune and real dedication to making a classy instrument are all part of what makes Yamaha an amazing product.

What do you look for in cymbal sounds, and how do you choose your own setup?

Versatility, medium or dark overtones and clarity in rides, a nice wash in crashes, a warm rumble in Chinese cymbals, and clear bell sounds. Paiste covers all of these grounds and more, which is why I love them so much. I choose my set up mostly based on the style of music I'm playing. Latin Jazz, Big band, funk, R&B, studio, New Orleans, African and Brazilian music all require different tones to support them. I also use bigger cymbals for bigger bands.

What is “empty virtuosity”?

Empty virtuosity is a powerful and uncomplimentary term for a musician who has incredible technique and facility that is completely wasted because of a lack of "feel" or "groove." This type of musician is not balanced according to the principles of the yin-yang. Steve Gadd has incredible facility and chops yet we never ever lose sight of his incredible feel which in turn makes us feel overjoyed. I have so much respect for this man.

How would you describe “the pocket” and do you find yourself there often?

The pocket is where the straight groove and the swung groove coexist and live in harmony. It's in between where the beats are. It's the tension/release that makes our molecular DNA react, which in turn makes our bodies move. It's the easiest and hardest thing in the world to do. It's addictive and I try and find myself there all the time because if I am not playing a groove, just what the hell am I doing?

A great teacher of mine once explained to me that a drummer who has truly developed their own sound becomes as recognizable playing a pair of spoons as they are playing a drumkit. How does a player go about developing their sound?

In this age of generic recording techniques and countless musicians all vying for the same space, it is very hard to have your own sound. Kevin Breit, the amazing guitarist from Toronto, has his own unique sound based on who he listens to (not just musically speaking) who he doesn't listen to and also how he listens to it. I wouldn't say I even have my own real sound like he does on his instrument. I guess for anyone trying to develop a unique sound, don't have the same influences as everyone else. Search out different and unusual sources and don't be afraid to be different. Add various percussion to your setup or maybe try 18 kick pedals because I think 17 has already been done.

You met Buddy Rich at one point in your life and saw him play live. What was the man and the experience like?

Everyone says Buddy was a phenomenon, which he was, but to see him live was another matter entirely. I saw him about six times and met him the once when I was 18. He was very nice and gave me his sticks and an autograph. I was so nervous I didn't really say much to him, but he could see how excited I was to meet him and was nice enough to have his picture taken with me. He did the same actually for my dad 12 years earlier. Watching him play really made you understand what a master was. His technique was so powerful and clean and he had so much finesse. I think the finesse part really stuck with me because I never forgot how everything he did looked so easy and there was never a mistake. His intensity level was also something I keyed into as well.

Does singing have a place in routine drum practice?

Absolutely 100%. The voice was one of the first percussion instruments eons ago and still has a powerful connection to what you play. I like getting students to sing their exercises because it sometimes exposes flaws in the way they play it. If they can't sing it and make it swing then how are they going to translate that into their hands and feet properly? The voice is the fifth limb as far as I am concerned. Besides, bands will usually hire a singing drummer over a non-singing one.

What is the best way for a drummer to practice the all-important skill of relaxing when they are playing?

One must have good technique and good posture, be aware of all the limbs together but not focusing on any one and be aware of their breathing habits. Keep the breathing relaxed to keep the mind relaxed which keeps the body relaxed.

How does being a composer and producer affect the way you approach a studio project behind the kit?

 I guess being a composer helps you think of what is right to play for the music as opposed to what drum beat can I put on here. You're thinking of the whole picture and not just one part of it. I try to be a musician first and a drummer second. Being a producer makes me aware of things like controlling my internal dynamics, edit points and cymbal decay for punching in, keeping backbeats consistent and keeping the intensity level the same for the entire song.

What is coming up for you in the next few months?

I keep a lot of info on my website and MySpace for gigs, but I'll be playing with different artists (Emilie-Claire Barlow, Pretzel Logic, Hilario Duran trio or big band, Montuno Police, Amy Sky and Randy Brecker) here in Toronto. Some session work and I'll be going to Iceland in early May which should be fun as I've never been there yet. I have a few clinics coming up as well. Otherwise I'll be wrapping up my teaching duties at Humber College and enjoying my summer with my wife and son. Oh, and hopefully I find some time in there to practice as well.

Visit Mark online: www.groovydrums.com



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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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