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Russ Miller

Interview by Sean Mitchell // October 03 2013
Russ Miller

Cats today – they’re just not apprentices of what’s going on. They buy a drum set and a take a lesson or buy a video or whatever and then they’re like, “I want to be a rock star”. You don’t have the back story of the whole thing. You’ve got to look at it like another career; a doctor doesn’t go “I want to be a doctor” and go buy a stethoscope and open an office. He’s got to go to school and get some background. I know a lot of cats that are heavy players but they couldn’t do a casual gig if their life depended on it. 

Russ Miller can be catergorized into a very small slice of the musical pie. Russ is a drummer, nay a musician, who is all heart and no ego. The incredibly talented and modest Buckeye has a resume that reads more like a Grammy Award guest list than a musical Curriculum Vitae.

In this day and age of YouTube phenoms and drum clinic majestry, Russ maintains a level of proficency behind the kit that is unlike any other. Russ has done it all—movies, television, studio, lessons, major tours, DVDs and clinics abound. When we think of the Buddy Richs, the Steve Gadds and the John Bonhams, one is wise to include Mr. Miller among that very short list. For it is these types of players that can honestly lay claim that they have shaped the soundtrack of our lives. 



Russ, I think the list of things you haven’t done would be way shorter than the list of things you have done. The only thing you maybe haven’t done is gone to the moon! Twenty-five hit Grammy Award winning songs … how many Modern Drummer awards now? You’re up to seven or eight?  A guy that does that much, when do you find time to do anything else?

Oh, I know.  I have a little five year old girl that fills up the rest of it for me. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t done a lot of big tours over the past five or six years ‘cause I wanted to be around her. But I work a lot.

And you’re the drummer for American Idol?

Yeah, I do all the mentor sessions when they have the guest artists come in, and some of the recordings and various things.

You must see a wide variety of musicians, maybe even really young musicians that don’t have the knowledge that you possess. How do you find that, trying to relate to newer musicians or younger musicians that obviously are very talented, they just don’t have the experience?

There’s this theme of, let’s say, non-apprenticeship, whereas when I was a kid you were an apprentice of your teacher or you were an apprentice of some of the other cats in town, like the guys at the drum shop. I would go sub on their gig or I would go to their gig and watch it, and then I would start doing weddings and bar mitzvahs and corporate things. We just did a million gigs.

Billy Sheehan and I were talking about this the other day that cats, today, they’re just not apprentices of what’s going on. They buy a drum set and a take a lesson or buy a video or whatever and then they’re like, “I want to be a rock star.” You don’t have the back story of the whole thing. You’ve got to look at it like another career. A doctor doesn’t go “I want to be a doctor” and go buy a stethoscope and open an office. He’s got to go to school and get some background.

I know a lot of cats that are heavy players, but they couldn’t do a casual gig if their life depended on it. They don’t even know half of the beats you have to know. That was just stuff that we had to do. You had to know a cha-cha; you had to know a bolero; you had to know a rumba. And it all affected all the other stuff. Did it make me better when I played with the Psychedelic Furs or Andrea Bocelli – yeah, of course it did. It wasn’t that I was playing the cha-cha with them but there was a different foundational aspect of music that came into it. 

We interviewed Billy Sheehan a while back and I asked him how he got to his level—was it the amount of practice? And he said, “No, it was playing; I played with everyone and played everything.”

Yeah, we have a trio—Billy and Phil X and I—and we get together and we will play cover songs; I’m not joking, you have to stop us. Somebody just starts playing a bar of a song and BAM! We’re in because we all know a million songs.

We all did that. I paid my way through college six nights a week in a club from 9:00pm till 3:00am every night, playing Top 40 tunes. I grew up in Ohio then I went to University of Miami, lived in Florida and then worked in the area and with people that were based in that area and then went to LA, so I had three moves or different scenes and I always tell guys that if you move to a new scene you’ve got to get into the casual offices because you meet all these other players. 

For me, if I go to a gig, everyone on that band should be referring me from that night forward; if they don’t, then I’ve failed. That’s how it happens. You go do all these gigs; you meet all these guys and then tonight the bass player calls me for this other gig. So now I’ve got him calling me and the guy on the new gig—hopefully, if I’m doing it well. 

Literally, I can trace a Grammy situation—say Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird”—I can trace that back. I did it once actually for somebody and I traced it back to a jazz gig at Magic Mountain, the amusement park. I traced how I met all the people in the chain of connections and it went all the way back to a seventy-five-dollar jazz gig at Magic Mountain. You go to the gig and do the best that you can. The great drummers that I know - every gig, it’s just still a gig. Clapton at Wembley, it’s just a gig. It’s no different than when he was at Seventh Avenue South making one-hundred-and-twenty-five bucks. He didn’t try any less there.

I have recently come to understand what real brush playing is. One of the things that really hit me tonight at your clinic was how musical they can be; they can really teach you because, as drummers, we don’t have a way to sustain notes. Let’s talk about the importance of being musical on the drum—in this day and age it’s kind of getting lost—and what that means to you being musical on the drum set.

Like I mentioned in the clinic, the brushes make a different level of connection to the composition, so you become aware of different aspects of the composition that maybe you weren’t aware of on the drum set as a time keeper. Now I’m aware of notes sustained, articulation of the note, and the way that it feels to play that melody on the brushes. That translates to the drums then; I start to hear the sound that I get out of the ride – when you go to play the music it translates over there.

The thing for me was when I started doing a lot of records when I was younger. You’ve got to fight the urge to “this is going to be my ‘Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover.’” Every time you go to a session you’re like, “I’m going to make the best drum track that’s ever been recorded in history.” Or you’re looking “where can I put the most wicked drum fill so that all the cats at (Berklee College of Music) are going to be whoa. You’ve got to get that out of your brain and realize that you’re there to play the best music possible.

One of the things that I did was stopped putting bass and guitar and keys and all those things in my ears and I started only having the click and the voice. I would play with the voice and just make sure that everything that I was doing felt good with the vocal—nothing felt weird with it, nothing fought the vocal because they’re trying to tell the story. I think it’s just moves like that that you start to think different. You go, “Ok, I am going to make sure that this person can comfortably sing this tune and tell that story, and I only support it and make it better. I’m not going to step on it with my China-cymbal.” So it’s a little different attitude, I think.

Who did you grow up listening to? Who were your inspirations—even maybe not drums, maybe musicians themselves?

I grew up around my grandparents so I was playing Big Band music first. I used to play with these Jimmy Smith records with Buddy and all these organ things. Then when I was a teenager I heard AC/DC and I was like, “Okay, that’s cool; the chicks dig that.” I listen to a lot of stuff.

I think what happens is, you take certain players like Neil Peart and those guys with Rush – that’s what I call a great bridge band. It’s not AC/DC where it’s very simple rock playing; it’s not Chick Corea’s electric band where you’ve got an advanced jazz thing. It’s a rock attainable, understandable situation part-oriented yet coloured in a way where guys are saying something. I think that’s why a lot of guys would take to it; they would go, “I get it.” I would do that and then I would hear Chick Corea’s band or something and I would go, “Wait a minute, something else is happening here.”

Steve Gadd and Dave Weckl and those guys flipped me to that side when I was younger. Then once I got into that I started really going back with Max Roach and Papa Joe Jones, Eddie Clarke, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson. But guys that really stood out to me and really affected me as players were Philly Joe Jones, Papa Joe Jones, Max Roach, Shelly Manne—younger guys, not younger than me—guys that I’ve been studying with over the years like Jeff Hamilton and Ed Thigpen and now Peter Erskine. I was just in Germany for a week with Adam Nassbaum. We had such a good time and I learned so much from Adam, another cat that call a tune and if he doesn’t know it, it might not exist.

In talking with you and other successful drummers—Gadd, Kenny Aronoff—I notice one common thread and that is fearlessness. So when we talk about “your sound,” I say that part of developing that is being brave enough to say, “Okay, here’s what I have to offer.” Let’s talk about that, developing your own sound, the whole “I should be able to tell that’s you playing the spoons in a crowd of drummers.” How does that develop?

Well, it develops from having something to say; that’s the first part. All those guys you are talking about are extremely well-educated, extremely well-versed, very experienced, and they’ve become masters because they have a foundation to draw upon. That’s what we have been talking about tonight—don’t dig that cat that you like and stop there. That’s a coloured version of somebody, whoever he listened to. But now you’re starting on the surface. It’s like eating the cherry off the cupcake and then stopping. It’s like, “Man, there’s cupcake under there.” So don’t do that. Go get something to say and then you come out with an attitude of “check this out”; not egotistical.

The other thing is don’t underestimate that each one of those guys that you were talking about plays from the cerebral and the heart and it manifests outward. A lot of guys play outside of themselves. They go, “I’m playing this beat. It should hopefully provide something for these guys to play with or dance to.” But no, it happens in the mind and heart and it comes out in the playing. That’s what you feel when those guys play; you feel a different pulse. You feel the solidity of things, and that guy, he has a certain presence and as soon as he starts playing you go, “Man, I can feel the way that guy feels.”

What we were talking about at the clinic was to look at all the aspects of the things that are important from: is it sub-divided correctly? Is it in time? What’s your notes sustain like in reference to the composition and the feel of what you’re doing? Is it dynamic? Is it placed well? How’s the sound coming out? What sound are you making and the tone? All that stuff’s going down in its simplest form so when you get hyper-complicated and do all those things and you’ve got all that inside of it and behind it, maybe not. Maybe you’re leaving some pieces behind in the effort to play more or play busier, and that’s where those mistakes happen.

Speaking of recorded music, you actually have a couple of DVDs – Arrival is what it’s called – Jerry Watts, Rick Krive. Speaking of monster players, Pete Lockett’s on one, Jeff Hamilton; you did a piece with … is it Zoro on this one?

Well the Arrival record was a project; it took three years and it’s an eighty-minute long piece of music that has nineteen movements. Nine of the movements were written for two interplay drum set parts, so we wrote them out almost drum corps style. There would be things where I’d be playing the “E” and the “A” of the fill and the other guy’s playing the down beat. There was improvisation there too.

There was Gadd; JR Robinson; Steve Smith; Zoro; Johnny Rabb; Jeff Hamilton; Rick Marotta; Akira Jimbo; Wolfgang Haffner; Louis Conte; Richie Garcia; Pete Lockett.

Another thing you have is the drum lesson thing going on. Tell me a little bit about this and how readers can sign up for that.

It’s at russmiller.com and you click “classroom.” I saw some online lesson things and I saw guys just teaching drum fills and beats and stuff. Any information is better than no information, but the bottom line was you show guys drum fills and they’re just going to look for somewhere to play it and that’s not playing music; it’s playing drums.

As much as it’s good to get facility and move around and get ideas and that’s cool, I thought I don’t want guys to think that learning the instrument is like shooting arrows in the dark. It’s a compound learning experience. We were talking about the Molnar technique and it’s compound. It’s like building a building and if you build the foundation a couple of millimetres off by the eightieth floor this thing looks like The Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s the same with the drums; it’s got to be correct from the get-go. That means, the correct technique, the correct understanding of what’s going on. It’s just going to haunt you later.

What I said I was going to do was to come up with an online experience that was interactive with me, where you send in your goals. I want to learn this; I’m struggling with this. I shot about a hundred-and-twenty videos; they’re about eighteen to twenty minutes each—they’re six-camera-HD, they’re the real deal stuff.  Once I get your thing, I look at it and I send you back your course list and say, “Do these in this order, then come back and we’ll do the review.” You get your password and download everything; you work on it; we have a streaming masterclass once a quarter where you can write in live.

We’re doing a fill of the month and things like that. Everything is shot and done; they’re just finishing the Web. It will be maybe the end of September. The price is $99 US for a year. Hopefully, it will be a directive study where you’re getting somewhere—you’re getting from point A to point B and somebody’s coaching. I talk about you’ve got to have a coach, man. Tiger Woods has a golf coach; Tom Brady’s got a golf coach. I’ve always had a coach. I’m no less serious about my job than Tom Brady is.

What do you have coming up, Russ? Where can people see you, find you, check you out?

I did Percy Jackson’s Sea of Monsters. I play on Continuum. The TV show’s filmed in Vancouver, that season two is running right now. I have a new record with the Arrival trio that’s coming out. I don’t exactly know when but we’re working on it right now. I’m doing a ton of stuff for Mapex. I’m going with them this year; we’re just trying to get the word out on the switching and the new Saturn IV drums that they have, so I’ll be out every month for a week for those guys. I have a couple of movies that I’m starting when I get back, some of which are the new Avatar movies. There are a couple of movies that I did which aren’t out yet.  One is Planes; I think it’s coming out soon. Then I’ve got George Shelby, the great sax player that I’m doing his record and another Canadian artist called Chanté who’s had a couple of records out. I just finished her record; that’s coming soon. I can’t remember anything else (laughs).



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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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