Swiss Chris Interview – by Travis Marc – 2014.
Swiss Chris is the author for best selling educational drum book ‘Modern Drum Set Stickings’. He also happens to be one of the most sought after drum clinicians and sessions drummers in the world. He has performed with Gloria Gaynor, Kayne West, Estelle and John Legend (just to name a few), and continues to provide grooves and more for some really big name producers on numerous mega hits. Before the UK Drummer website was hacked last year, we had the opportunity to ask Chris some questions about his book and career in the form of an interview. Here’s what the ‘stick trick’ groove master had to say…
We always had classical music by composers like Richard Wagner playing on the radio at my house while growing up, and my mother was a rhythmic/ribbon dancer (she even competed in the olympics) so I grew up seeing a lot of dance and hearing a lot of interesting rhythms. I always thought that drumming was a lot like dancing in a sense because of the rhythms we create by moving our hands and feet in different sequences. It just so happened that my uncle and my grandfather’s brother were also drummers so there were always old drums all laying all over the place.
Later on, when I was in school I took up the flute, but I got so frustrated that I ended up breaking it, that’s where my drumming really started because I realised that my true talent was really more about holding sticks in my hands and banging things.
I learned a lot of marches by going with my grandmother to the local marches in my area and round carnival time myself and a friend of mine used to go to the local pubs and perform for money. I got into the habit of putting a lot of stick tricks into my playing because every time I would make a mistake I’d throw my stick into the air and catch it (or something like that) and it would pick up my confidence after it had dipped by making the mistake. Obviously when I’m playing in a band I’m not focusing on things like stick tricks because I’m more focused on things like feel and time, but the trick thing kind of became embedded in my routine because of how I always did the tricks while growing up. From a teaching point of view it’s been great though, because I use the stick tricks as a way to motivate young players to practice. So often they want to learn what I’m doing trick wise that I do trade offs with them in that, if they practice the things I’ve asked them to practice and can play whatever it is we’re working on that I’ll then show them a trick that they’ve been wanting to learn.
Who or what would you say were your early influences and who/what are they now?
Honestly, the guys that I loved when I was younger are still a lot of the guys that I love now just with a sense of greater appreciation. Just off the top of my head some of those guys I really enjoy are – Mel Gaynor from Simple Minds, I’ve always been impressed with how he plays and always seems to serve the song. The same can be said for Larry Mullen Jr from U2. Ginger Baker, he has it all, such a combination of Fire and passion mixed with some serious skills from so many different genres. I know he gets a bit of negative publicity but you really can’t think about Ginger without being inspired by the passion he exudes, the strangest thing is that people think that he doesn’t even seem to care, but he does, you don’t get that good without caring. So yeah, Ginger is definitely one of my heroes. Early on a drummer named Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds was a big influence of mine, as was (and still is) the legendary Billy Cobham. Billy actually moved to Switzerland while I was still growing up so I had the opportunity to hear and see him play a few times. Later on we became friends and he even became a bit of a mentor to me. Man, I could go on and on and I’m really fortunate that I was able to see and hear so many great drummers while growning up. Even though Switzerland is quite a small country there were always Jazz and Blues festivals happening somewhere around town so there was always someone to watch. I saw Jojo Mayer when I was a kid and was completely blown away, he’s another one of the guys that I was influenced by really early on.
In addition to your live work you’re quite well known for your educational clinics. Tell us briefly, how you prepare yourself mentally before appearing at a clinic?
It’s definitely a different form of preparation performing a clinic compared to a regular gig. When you play in front of audience members (whether it’s live or on TV) you know that the people or fans watching already know the song, and it’s easy to come in with the knowledge that they are really there to check out the artist that you’re playing with and not you. So I go out there and feel relaxed in those types of situations.
When you do clinics I think it’s important to know your limit and understand exactly what you can or should do within the time and space you’ve been given. One way to maybe do this is to start a start off dynamically, so perhaps with a solo but while starting with brushes and then progressing from there rather than just jumping straight into it and burning out and running out of ideas before you’ve really begun. Basically like doing a warm up before jumping straight into a workout. You can’t allow yourself be psyched out by thinking that someone in the audience might be able to do something faster or with more power, so don’t just focus on one subject or element of drumming. I focus on breathing and melody and what you can do with the notes that I know I can use. If you focus on just speed for example, (and let’s say that you’re doing single stroke rolls as 32nd notes at like 140bpm upwards) what you’ll notice is that a lot of guys start to sound like they distort and that distortion type of sound really doesn’t appeal to the ear. So rather focus on your pulse and rhythm and relaxation or a few topics perhaps.
You always want to know that you can give a bit more so you need to relax and make things feel good. It’s important for young drummers to realise that it’s not all about speed. Speed is an illusion, and it’s often much harder to play less with really good timing than what it is to fill up all the gaps. You need to respect the pulse. Also, at a lot of the clinics I do, I manage to meet a lot of the audience, you shake some hands and you feel the energy and vibe, it’s all about staying positive and focusing on your strengths, it’s great.
Let’s talk about gear for a bit. Obviously you endorse quite a few brands, but is there any brand that you’d like to use but can’t due to endorsement conflicts?
If I’m in the studio and I’m working for with a producer who is after a certain sound and I need to play a bucket with broken glass in it and hit that bucket with a hammer then that’s what I’ll do. I’ve been fortunate enough to have made some good records with some really good artists like John Legend, Estelle and Kayne West, so whatever I can do to create the sound that they’re after is what my job entails.. That might mean playing some brushes on a shoe box after buying some new kicks, but if that’s what the guy needs then that’s what I’ll do. I am really proud of the products I endorse so I like to stay consistant in playing the products that I use and I feel really privileged to use the gear that I do. I really love the Natal stuff that I’m using at the moment and I really enjoy the fact that it’s a family run business that will answer my calls whenever I call them. It’s important to have a strong relationship with the companies you endorse so that relationship can grow, there should be good communication between the company and the artist relations department, and then artist relations and the artist. I’m a working drummer the last thing I want is to call up a company because I need something and have them not know who I am.
What about practice, do you still practice in between your busy work schedule and if so what are you currently working on?
There’s different ways of practice. There’s general practicing and there’s practicing independence. With independence practice you can do a lot of stuff mentally by clapping and singing different rhythms, I like to use exercises from my book, but you could also come up with some different mental exercises and come up with different phrases or melodic and harmonic type phrases that you might be able to play around the drums. I personally like to practice really slowly and count loud, I then do different permutations of singles and doubles (or whatever I feel like really). I like to practice the ‘rudimental ritual’ by Alan Dawson every morning and I enjoy running through rudiments with brushes on a newspaper or running through various exercises and patterns with my feet. At slower tempos I feel that my practice starts to feel like a bit of a meditation method and I really try to feel what is is that I’d practicing. I also practice a lot of double bass even though I don’t play a lot of double bass stuff. There are endless possibilities and you can push any idea through various tempos and dynamics. A good idea is to make a list of your favourite grooves and fills and all the things that you know that you can do and put that list where you can see it. Then when you go into your practice room do all the things on that list for the first ten minutes as it’ll really help to build your confidence up, then after that try start working on the things you feel that maybe you don’t know or can’t do so well. Start out slow and have patience as not everything will always sound good. When you practice you should actually practice so it’s ok if it doesn’t sound great. It’s how you’ll get better rather than just maintaining the stuff you can already do.
What advice would you give to up and coming players on trying to ‘break’ into the music industry?
The music industry is always changing and can be a bit of a shape shifting type of monster. The truth is that music doesn’t really sell that much anymore and it’s become very much about the image and marketing of a product. It’s about the feel and the experience now and one should be aware of that. For example, a lot of people will go to see the acts in a circus but will mainly attend because of the feeling they get by going to see the circus, they don’t come to see just one clown. What hasn’t changed is you, and your integrity, and commitment to the music. As an up and coming drummer you need to be on time, play in time, all the time. Use dynamics, orchestrate melody and accent the points you need in a way that you can be proud of. If you can’t sing it you can’t play it, not if you want to really play it properly at least. Listen to the music and play for the music because a lot of times what might impress a drummer might not impress the band or a band leader who might give you a gig. Be open to all styles and be flexible, don’t let your ego get in the way because what you might be hearing in your head might not be what everyone else is hearing.
In turn, what would you say has been the best piece of advice you’ve ever received in regards to your own career?
Sometimes advice doesn’t just come in the form of words and can be simply a gesture. Most of the guys I studied with (and I could go down the list with this) always had great advice to share. The thing that was definitely a lesson worth learning was learning how to listen. You know, trying to hear and understand where you might fit in. Every drummer I’ve ever paid to have lessons with has been very insightful and I’ve come to realise that in one way or another you’re always going to be a teacher and a student at the same time if you’re willing to listen. You can’t cheat the sound ! Whatever I can do to grow or evolve as a human and a musician/drummer is something that I want to do.
Any last thoughts or words of advice?
Try find inspiration outside of the music that you love in the same way that Buddy Rich found inspiration from Bruce Lee. Try tell a story, more than ever it’s very important for us as drummers to tell a story through our playing. Don’t bring people down and rather try to unify people through your music and always give respect if you want to get respect. Oh and, listen, listen, listen.
For more information on Swiss Chris please visit www.swisschris777.com
To purchase Modern Drum Set Stickings please visit – http://www.amazon.com/dp/1603781323/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_tslRub0NM8CDR
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