Nate Morton Interview – by Travis Marc – 2010.
I know that I’m showing favoritism by saying this, but simply put, Nate Morton, is in my opinion, one of the best drummers in the world. He has a great, solid groove, and it has taken him all over the world, as the sticksman behind huge artists such as Paul Stanley, Vanessa Carlton and Madonna. Here’s what Nate had to say, in response to a few questions that I was able to ask him during a recent interview –
What would you say originally attracted you to the drums, and how did you actually get started?
My parents met while they were both students at Tennessee State University which is an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) They used to take me to the football games. At those games the football teams were virtually an after thought. People went to see and hear the marching bands and after I heard those amazing bands, I would go home and strap a pillow around waste with a belt. I’d march up and down the hallway playing that pillow with spoons or sticks or whatever was available. That was the first hook… then I saw Animal on the Muppets playing a drum set and it was over! I started putting together make-shift drum sets from boxes, ice cream cartons, whatever. When I was 5 my parents gave in and bought me a drum set.
Like so many other great American drummers, I understand that you are a Berklee graduate. A question I tend to ask almost everyone that I interview is this. Just how important do you think tuition is for a drummer, and what would you say was some of the most important advice you received while attending your course?
Going to Berklee was the second best thing I ever did to advance my drumming career. I met so many amazing musicians that I continue to work with to this day. I got to study with the best instructors in the world… learn multiple genres and be exposed to so many great players and opportunities. Berklee was a great experience and I benefited tremendously from it. In terms of “advice” I received… I’m sorry to say, it’s impossible to encapsulate my Berklee experience into one bit of advice here or there. Daily i learned or experienced things that affected my playing or the way I view music. I can tell you one story though. For two semesters I studied with a teacher named Ian Froman. Ian is a great player, but beyond that, his musical philosophy was eye-opening.
One of my first lessons with Ian, he asks me to trade 4’s with myself. 4 bars time, 4 bars solo. So I play 4 bars of time and then I go for this lick that I totally mess up… then 4 bars of time again and the next 4 of solo, I go for the same lick… this time, I nail it! Ian stops me. he says, “Hey man, what the f-ck was that?” I’m like, “Whadya mean?.. I nailed it the second time!” he says, “Listen man, if you mess something up, let it go. Don’t practice on the bandstand.” That alone is enough wisdom for one day… but I’m young,… and stupid… so I test him. I say, “… but Ian, if I was a painter and i painted a tree that was wrong,… i wouldn’t just leave it on the canvas, I’d try to fix it.” Smugly I sat awaiting his response… and in Yoda like fashion, Ian says, “Yeah but, you wouldn’t paint the exact same tree right beside the one you just f-cked up!” LOL AMAZING!!!! From that day forth, I bowed to Ian’s wisdom. Today, he probably doesn’t even remember that exchange, but it was incredibly meaningful to me. Every week, every lesson, there was always a new kernel of knowledge. I studied with a lot of teachers at Berklee and learned something from all of them. Ian is the only one I regularly quote.
Tell us a little bit about your practice routine, as well as whether or not you have any warm up rituals that you ensure you perform before each show?
Practice routine… LOL… that’s a good one. I can’t remember the last time I sat down to practice. My running joke (with myself) is this. Ya know that time when, after checking all the individual drums, the sound guy says, “Okay, give me everything.” That’s when I practice. I go nutz… I’m trying to work out that Vinnie lick I heard once, or some Steve Gadd Mozambique pattern, or jazz time against duple paradiddles between my left hand and right foot… that’s when I practice.. until the front of house engineer says, “Okay, now how about something you might actually play IN THE SHOW!” LOL
You’ve been involved in projects such as American Idols and the Rock Star series, as well as performed with artists like Madonna and Vanessa Carlton. Was it a conscious decision to become predominately a session drummer or did it just happen?
That’s a great question. Playing with Vanessa Carlton taught me a valuable lesson. The road doesn’t often lead to the studio and not all artists place much integrity in their word. I learned the hard way that a lot of people will tell you one thing with no intention of actually following through on it. Vanessa Carlton was a great learning experience in that regard and made me appreciate the artists I’ve worked with who say what they mean and mean what they say. After Vanessa Carlton, I focussed on being in town and doing more sessions. Many of the session I do are for demos and indie artists but I take great pride in them. I really enjoy being creative in the studio and contributing to a recording project.
The house band is without a doubt one of the most musically precise, and tightest acts I have ever seen. What’s it like working with such professional musicians, and how did the “house band” come about?
First of all, thank you for that compliment. I really love working with all the guys in “THE HOUSEBAND”. The band came together through a series of auditions, but I had actually worked with Sasha and Jim before getting the HOUSEBAND gig. It was my first time working with Hafa and Paul, but certainly not my last. We’ve all gone on to work together a ton…. in fact, currently, I’m playing with Cher in Vegas at Caesar’s Palace and the band includes Sasha on bass, Jim on keys and Paul as musical director. Prior to that, I played on MTV’s Rock The Cradle which included Paul again and Hafa on guitar… moreover, I am now doing gigs with Hafa in his original band, Magnetico Playing in the HOUSEBAND connected me with wonderful musicians who I am honored to continue to play with today.
I understand that Animal from the Muppet’s is a big inspiration to you. Who or what else inspires you, and why?
I have favorite drummers, favorite records, etc, but at the end of the day what inspires me is simply this. I started playing drums because it was fun pulling all the pots and pans out of the cabinet and banging on them with spoons…. it was loud, raucous, and on occasion rhythmic. Today, even though I’m playing technologically advanced gear, it’s really still just four-year-old me banging on pots and pans. That’s what inspires me… the youthful joy of making a racket and having fun doing so.
Let’s talk about how you approach drum clinics. Do you go the “crazy madman” drum solo route, or do you take more of a musical approach?
I hope what I do is considered a musical approach. There are few things more boring to me than listening to drums played completely unaccompanied. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of great drum soloist, it’s just that I never aspired to be that guy. From age 7 through high school, I studied classical piano and I was pretty okay at it, but the thing I found most irksome was the solitary nature of it. I can still hear the click clacking of my dress shoes echoing through the concert hall as I walked to the lone piano in the middle of the stage to play my latest Chopin Etude. It drove me nutz. I wanted to HAVE FUN and for me, that meant playing with PEOPLE… interacting… That was something I enjoyed immensely about playing drums and as a drummer that’s what I’ve always strived for. As result, my clinics have less to do with open solos and blistering chops and more to do with playing in a group setting… even if that group is in the form of prerecorded backing tracks.
You recently recorded and toured with Kiss front man, “Paul Stanley”, can you tell us a little bit about the recording process for “Live to Win”, as well as what it was like working with the Rock legend?
Working with Paul Stanley was one of the most fun experiences ever. It’s not often you find yourself on stage performing with a person you used to dress like and pretend to be in the mirror when you were six. Paul is an amazing dude. I’ve never known anyone to work so hard all the time. The first day of rehearsals for the tour, we were working on Million To One or something… Paul [Stanley] was screaming his head off. I mean, it’s just the band in a rehearsal studio… no audience, and we’re still just learning parts and everything and he’s going for it like we’re at Wembley! Paul [Mirkovich] our keyboardist, says to him, “Dude, we’re gonna be in here for couple of weeks rehearsing… you could probably take it easy.” Paul Stanley throws his hair back over his shoulders and says, “Listen man, I got two speeds. ON and OFF.” LOL At that moment, I realized exactly why he’s who and where he is.
Tell us about about your solo projects, if you are currently have any. Do you still release any material under Dootybug?
Regrettably, I’ve been completely lax in recording/releasing any more solo project material. It’s the down side to being busy. But for anyone who’s interested, who doesn’t already have it, Playground Philosophy is still available on CDBaby.com. I was just listening to that record the other day. It’s never been easy for me to listen to my own voice on recording, but now that some time has passed and I’m able to listen more objectively, I’m like, “Hey, this isn’t NEARLY as bad as I thought it was.”
What is the Bonnie Hunt show all about ? And how did this gig come about?
Bonnie Hunt is an actress and comedian who now hosts a syndicated day-time talk show on NBC. The gig on the Bonnie Hunt show came about through a relatively small audition and a relationship I have with a musical director in town named Cheche Alara. I had worked with him on a previous American Idol Tour. Situations like that are rarely cattle calls and they usually result from other inroads you’ve made in that area. Since doing ROCKSTAR, my first house band type television show, relationships i made during that time have lead to other television opportunities. Also, people begin to see you in that light and think, oh yeah, that TV guy. Tours beget tours, sessions beget sessions, tv shows beget tv shows. I’ve been VERY fortunate to fall into the world of television. Musically, the Bonnie gig is all over the map. The cue into a commercial might start as a Latin thing, or a bebop head, or whatever, but once solos start, all hell breaks loose. It’s like a night at The Village Vanguard. [NYC jazz club known for the modern and experimental nature of it’s live acts.]
What are you goals for the next five years ? Where do you see yourself on both a personal, and professional level?
My five year goal professionally would simply be to continue finding musical situations that are fun, challenging and musically fulfilling. I’m blessed to play great music of varying styles in multiple contexts with some of the best musicians in the world. Ya can’t ask for much more than that.
What would you say have been both the highlights, and low lights of your career, and if you could redo any of the things you’ve done, what would it be and why?
Highlights. The ROCKSTAR house band, the members of which I continue to work with to this day. I’ve been playing drums in Hafa’s solo project called Magnetico, and Paul Mirkovich, Sasha Krivtsov, and Jim McGorman all currently play in Cher’s band. Hmm… “low lights”? I’m not really certain what that means. There’s a constant ebb and flow of my chosen profession and I made peace with it a long time ago, so to me it’s all just my path.
What would you say is the most important piece of drumming advice you’ve ever received, and how did it influence your drumming, and musicality?
A college friend and pianist, Timo Ellison and I were talking one day. I was explaining that i was going to see a particular drummer play because I thought I could steal this or that from him… but i didn’t want to see some other guy play because i’d heard him and already knew everything he could play. Timo was dumbfounded at this notion and asked, “So, are you going to hear every drummer in the world, then check them off your list once you’ve learned all their licks?” I thought to myself, “Well, it sounds stupid when you say it like that.” -but his point was a good one… and very simple. Music is not an Olympic event. The idea is not to compare yourself to every other drummer out there. If you do, you’ll get really depressed very quickly. I don’t ask myself, “Am I as good as -fill in the blank drummer?” I ask myself, “Am I moving towards being the best musician I can be?” -And come to think of it, even in the Olympics, I doubt Hussein Bolt asks, “Am I running as fast as Michael Johnson?” I bet he asks, “Am I running as fast as Hussein Bolt can run?” Since that conversation, I’ve been able to look at different drummers, appreciate what they do, maybe steal something here and there, but at the same time, know that what I do might be different and that’s okay.
Can you briefly tell us about your endorsements ? Why did you choose the brands that you did, and what advice could you give to newly endorsed musicians on how they can do their share to keep the endorsing company happy?
Endorsements are just about one of the simplest concepts in our industry, yet it’s something I get the most questions about. When I was younger, i’d think to myself, I’ll get a drum company endorsement, then Sting will hire me, when in fact, the exact opposite is true. MUSICAL DIRECTORS DO NOT READ MODERN DRUMMER. Sting does not peruse the latest Zildjian catalogue for fresh faces. Endorsements boil down to two words. Exposure & relationships. At the end of the day, any corporation that ‘gives’ you anything… drums, cymbals, tennis shoes or auto parts, is looking for one thing in return. Visibility. -which may come in the form of a sticker on a kick drum, a patch on a racing suit, or a Kobe Bryant poster. The point is, staying visible and keeping the products in front of people is what makes endorsers happy.
The next component is relationships. Looking for endorsement based on who will give you the most stuff is not a good plan. Companies see straight through that stuff and don’t dig it. All the companies I’m with are the result of relationships I’ve built over time. As I’ve grown, the relationship has grown as has the mutual bond. I endorse Pearl Drums, Zildjian Cymbals & Sticks, Remo drumheads, Roland Electronics, RhythmTech percussion, and Epad practice pads and I play them all because I believe they make the best products for my particular needs.
What advice would could you give our readers, both young and old, on how to stay motivated?
For me, motivation has come in many forms. A new band I discovered, a new playing situation with new challenges, or even a book i may have read. It’s like the television show Law & Order. How has it been on the air and so good for so many years? Well, every single day, there’s some new wacky crime, or twisted cover-up, or political scandal in the news. The writers have an endless fount of constantly changing source material. Music can be similar. As long as you continue to seek newness in what you listen to, read, view, play, you should have an endless supply of source material, just like Law & Order. BTW, I believe everything on Law & Order and regularly quote things I’ve seen on the show as fact. LOL
If you could no longer be a drummer, and were suddenly forced to work a normal 9 – 5 job, what do you think you would do, and why?
Die. With all due respect to anyone who works a “straight” job, being a musician is not something I do. It’s something I am. Asking me what I would do if I couldn’t be a drummer is tantamount to asking, “What would you do if you could no longer breathe oxygen?”
Any last words that you would like to add?
I love doing interviews because when people ask questions that I occasionally know the answers to, I feel smart. LOL -but seriously, It’s always a pleasure and privilege to get to pass on any amount of knowledge I’ve gained over the years doing what I do. Hopefully people can gain insight and learn from my mistakes so they don’t have to make the same ones. Thanx for the interview and all the best to your readers. Feel free to contact me and/or stay up on all things nate at natemorton.com or myspace.com/natemorton -and if you don’t already have it, hit CDBaby for a copy of Playground Philosophy by Dootybug. Thanks!