Russ Miller Interview
Learning From the Greatest
Russ Miller is internationally known as one of the top drummers of today. As a Multi-Platinum recording artist, he has played on multiple Grammy® award winning recordings with combined sales of over 26 million copies. His musical versatility has led him to work with an incredible list of over 50 international artists from legends like Ray Charles, The Fifth Dimension, Natalie Cole, Tina Turner & Bobby Caldwell through modern stars, Nelly Furtado, The Psychedelic Furs, Hilary Duff, Steve Perry, Andrea Bocelli, Daniel Bedingfield and Meredith Brooks.
In this interview Russ shares some great insights on how he developed as a player, how he works and what you need to do to succeed in the industry:
How did you get started with drums in the first place?
I grew up in Ohio and I actually started playing the guitar. It took me four months to learn the theme to Batman so I figured I might be better switching to something else. A good friend of mine played the drums and so did my cousin so I used to see their drumsets and that got me interested.
I grew up around my grandparents and my grandfather had a drumset when he was a kid. He never really played but he’s one of those music enthusiasts, you know, he loves music and is always listening to music. He knew all the players and would play me Buddy Rich records, Gene Krupa records and Davey Tough big band records. I actually grew up playing big band music before I played anything else. I didn’t discover rock till I was in high school.
Can you tell us a bit about your studies and your education?
I’ve taken lessons my whole life. I still take private lessons to this day – every other month usually. It’s always been a part of my existence, having a private lesson sort of curriculum on the side. Even when I was in school, I played in all the bands, all the music classes and of course I majored in Studio Music and Jazz Performance at the University Of Miami – I was doing all this stuff, but I always studied privately as well. Even now, I still take lessons and I practice one hour a day, every day – even when I’m on the road.
Of course, back in school I used to be a fiend. I practiced a lot, you know, 6,7, 8 hours a day. When I was in high school I’d be with bands and stuff all day, then I would go do marching band right after school and then I would go do gigs at night. I was playing all the time.
Part of learning is not only the lessons but also those experiences on gigs. You know, doing 10, 000 crazy gigs in every possible club, wedding and bar mitzvah. Anything you could do through all those years just to gain experiences of playing music.
As far as specific teachers goes, I did five years with Jim Chapin, I did several years with Ed Thigpen and then later on I studied with Steve Rucker and Steve Bagby who were the deans of drumset at the University Of Miami. As I progressed in my professional career I just became friends with so many guys and I got a chance to spend a lot of time with them – sometimes we would be on gigs together and we would hang or we’d be on a festival and we would hang. So, I’ve had a chance to spend a lot of time with a lot of different guys, everybody from Chanquito all the way to Jeff Hamilton and Peter Erskine, the guys I study with now.
I always try to look for someday who is doing what I want to do and then go right to them.
You’ve established yourself as one of LA’s top session drummers. When did your first major breakthrough come?
After college, I stayed in Miami for a while and worked with artists like Gloria Estefan, John Secada and different people that were based there. When I moved to LA in 96 I kind of started all over again. I literally played every gig that I could and an engineer that I had met was working on this movie called The Boondock Saints, which became a cult classic. I ended up playing on that soundtrack because of his recommendation and because of that I met Jeff Danna who was the composer. He’s one of the top film composers in LA and he ended up using me on everything that he’s done literally since that day. We’ve probably done maybe 35-40 movies together.
That kind of broke me in and once I got a couple of sessions going the first really big record was Nelly Furtado’s, ‘Whoa Nelly!’ I played on ‘I’m Like a Bird’ and that was the big single that went on to sell 9 million copies and win two Grammy’s. That kind of really opened the door. She was a new artist and we didn’t think that thing would sell at all. I mean, to me it was just a regular gig – I had no idea, you never do. It’s probably better that you don’t or you’d be a nervous wreck. That single was in super heavy rotation and everybody knew the song.
After that I would come up to a producer or a composer and they would ask what have you done before. If they were in the movie business I would say ‘Boondock Saints’ and if they were in the record business I would say ‘Whoa Nelly!’ That kind of opened the door for me and made it a lot easier.
Having worked on tours and sessions with the likes of Bobby Caldwell, Meredith Brooks, The Fifth Dimension and Nelly Furtado what are your most memorable moments?
I played on a Ray Charles record about nine years ago and just being in the room with Ray Charles, you know, and having him saying I want this and I want that – it was very difficult session, I’m not going to lie, he was a tough cookie – but that experience was pretty heavy.
Probably the second one after that was doing Steve Perry’s record at the beginning of this year. I was a huge Journey fan and I have become really good friends with Steve Smith. I was recommended to maybe cover the Journey gig when Dean (Castronovo) wasn’t able to and that didn’t go through but maybe the next best thing, if not even better happened which was me doing Steve’s record. That was really fun for me and we did it all at my studio so he was at my house the whole time – that was pretty wild.
How much of your work is done at home and what kind of set-up do you have?
It’s totally flipped in the past three or four years. Before, I was in commercial studio’s 80% of the time and my room 20%. Now, It’s totally the opposite and I’m in my room almost all the time. I’ll do maybe one or two a month in commercial studios. There were 160 some commercial studios in LA county and now there’s like 14. It’s a whole different market now.
It’s pretty difficult and I’m not sure that you could break into the industry now like I did 15 years ago without any personal recording facilities at all. I didn’t have anything, I just had a drum kit and two pairs of sticks – that’s about all I could afford. Now you need to have some kind of something because that’s such a big part of what’s going on. Not only because the budgets are lower but the rooms aren’t there and everybody’s just got used to recording, especially TV & movie stuff that way.
I have a pretty significant set-up here. It’s a whole other 850sq ft. building on our property with three rooms, 12ft ceilings and hardwood floors. It’s all Neve, API and Pro Tools HD – pretty high-end but I had to do that. Even though it was a significant investment and I didn’t want to spend that amount of money, I had to do it. The way the business was going, if I didn’t do it I probably would have cut way back on the work I was doing. It allowed to me continue working for the same clients and they were never concerned about the quality of the recording because I had invested in all the high-end stuff. It’s really the same thing you find at Capitol or Paramount or anywhere, minus the bigger room.
How does the process normally work?
It’s comes to me in one of a couple of ways. If it’s a guy that I’ve worked with a lot like Jeff Danna, Danny Elfman or Mychael Danna they just post the files on my server. Sometimes they have charts and sometimes they want me to write them – so, I write it all out, get it organized, bring it down, put in in Pro Tools, put all the drums and percussion or whatever I’m putting on it and then just post it back up there. Then they download it and that’s it. The other way is they come to the studio and bring the drives or whatever.
I also do quite a few sessions from Japan, Europe and other parts of the country where artists want you to play on the record but don’t necessarily have the budget to bring you there. Same sort of thing and I have my website set up where they can pay with a credit card from another country – it’s pretty dialed in and it has to be.
What are the major challenges that you have to get the best product out the door?
I’m working by myself a lot of the time so you need to integrate yourself into the piece as if the ensemble is playing and you’re playing with them. So, there’s a certain reaction to what’s going on and there is a certain level of, I wouldn’t say improvisation, but I have to place a certain level of freedom onto the track that would be there if we were all playing together. If everything is super spot on then it’s obvious that we weren’t in the room together.
Instead of fixing and editing things to perfection, I try to work the performance up until I literally play the piece down from top to bottom. I try to stamp a performance onto the piece so it feels more natural. Rather than assembling the notes together into the part.
You’ve recently been voted #2 session drummer on the Modern Drummer’s readers poll. What does this accolade mean to you?
Well, it means I’ll never be #1 until Vinnie Colaiuta retires (laughs!). You know, it’s an incredible honor that guys would recognize your contribution to that category of playing. It’s something I dreamt about as a little kid. I had aspirations that all these things would happen – gold and platinum records, grammy awards and drums with your name on them but to see it all happening is pretty astonishing. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it’s real. It’s a huge honor and I really appreciate everybody that votes for me.
You’re about to launch an updated and expanded version of RussMiller.com can you tell us what will be included?
There will be loads of learning materials, video podcasts, gear links and frequently asked questions that I’ve gathered up over the years. There’s also a web store with a significant amount of products, not only my signature products, books and DvD’s but also products that are exclusive to the website. For example, we’ve worked with SKB Cases to design an exclusive case for the sub kick.
Probably the biggest thing though is going to be like a virtual drum & percussion university with 15 minute classes that are topic specific (say jazz or double bass), 30 minute master classes that encompass a generalized talk of that particular topic and track discussion classes where I talk in depth about some of the top tracks that I’ve played on – the situation, what I was doing, my approach and some of the gear that I used. It’s all formatted for the iPod and the iPad and it’s pretty inexpensive, you know, $1.99 for a class. We’ll also offer yearly tuition where you get everything that’s already on the site, plus everything that comes up for the next year.
The first phase will launch August, 1st 2010 and that will be the new version of everything up there just now with all the new gear stuff and FAQ’s and then October 1st we’ll launch the classroom side of things with all of the downloads.
What else do you have in the pipeline?
Well, a lot of work on the website while I’m in town. I just finished the new Drew Barrymore, Justin Long movie called ‘Going The Distance’ which was with Mychael Danna.
Right now I’m working on a new record with my own trio. That should come out at the beginning of the year and we’ll tour next April/May. Russ Ferrante is on piano, Jerry Watts on bass and we’ll also have some guests playing with us on tour. The first leg will be Frank Gambale and the second leg Eric Marienthal.
The 15th anniversary of ‘The Crash Course’ materials is 2011 so I just starting work with Alfred Publications on new material, new footage and a repackaging for that. We’ll put a whole new package together that’s going to launch at NAMM in January.
Do you have any words of advice for drummers who would like to follow in your footsteps and increase their chances of success in the industry?
The first thing is to realize that your playing is a product. What you’re attempting to do is be a self-employed business owner selling a product. If you just step back and look at it like a basic business then and ask, ‘Well, what would it take for me to be one of the most popular lawyers in the world?’ You would have to be extremely knowledgeable and proficient at your craft. What your talking about doing is becoming one of the top people in your field so never rest on your laurels with your playing – always study, work on new things, be very organized, keep trying to be a better player and keep moving forward because that’s the only thing that can really open the doors for you.
Even if you know somebody, that might open the door the first time, but if you can’t play, your not gonna stay inside for very long. Your playing will open the door just as much as knowing somebody will.
The second thing is to remain conscious of what’s going on in the industry and to diversify what you are doing. That’s what’s worked for me. If someone can figure you out really quickly then you’re exposing your weaknesses too much. They need to step back and think, ‘What is this guy?’, ‘Is he a Jazz player, is he a Rock player or is he just playing it all?’ ‘What is he?’ If you’re only doing a hyper specific thing, that’s great, but if your not working at that, then your not working. It’s hard enough to get the phone to ring let alone turning things down all the time. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t excel at one thing but most of the guys who are successful in this business were very proficient at a lot of stuff and then as there career refined, they got pulled in certain directions and got more focussed in that kind of way.
So get the product happening, diversify and think of it as a business. You want to be well known for what you’re doing so you need to be on top of your game. Also, try to be honest to who you are and what you’re doing because honesty shows through in your playing.