Friday, July 29, 2011

Interview With Drummer Extraordinaire RANDY COOKE

I'd say I'm quite blessed to be surrounded by and connected to so many extremely talented people. I assure you, today's interviewee, Randy Cooke, is no exception.

I could bore you with a long bio on his entire life story, but rather than do that, I thought I'd just make it really simple and share what it says on his Twitter account in 160 characters or less:

"I hit the crap outta drums for some pretty awesomely awesome singers/songwriters/bands."

So who are these 'awesomely awesome' people he speaks of? Well, I'll mention a few so you get the idea: Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Alanis Morissette, Hilary Duff, Kelly Clarkson, Smash Mouth, Ian Gillan, Dave Stewart, Alannah Myles, Kim Mitchell, Five For Fighting and many, many more.

So, without any further ado, let's begin!


Dr Sean: How long have you been playing drums?

Randy: Got my first drum kit for Xmas when I was 15 years old. So, from then till now. (Or many, many, many years).

Dr Sean: Were you in any original independent bands before you started playing for major artists?

Randy: Indeed I was! My first 'true musical love' was a band called Phase IV. We were an old school funk/reggae band comprising seven members all around the age of 15. The singer and bass player were brothers, the keyboard player and percussionist were brothers, one of our guitarists was a cousin to those four, and those five as well as myself. At the age of ten years old we were in a Cub Scout troop led by my parents. We had one more guitarist making up the complete seven. (he wasn't a brother, cousin OR Cub Scout - but he was awesome). :) Guess you could say it was a family affair.

Dr Sean: What was your first gig playing as a hired gun for a major artist in the realm of live performance and as a studio session player?

Randy: For live touring, that would've been with an incredible British blues artist who resided in Canada named Long John Baldry. I was lucky enough to get a recommendation from my drum teacher at the time (incredible drummer/human Rick Gratton) who at the time was his main drummer and needed a sub.
I was around 19 or 20 at the time.

For studio stuff, my first main full CD recording session was with a band called The Jitters. A couple of their songs got on the radio and were quite popular in Canada at the time. It was my first time hearing myself on the radio. Such a rush! :)

Dr Sean: Do you have a preference for live or studio?

Randy: I definitely don't have a preference. It's apples and oranges.
There's nothing like a group of people applauding your efforts during a live performance. It's so very gratifying, humbling and exhilarating.

In the studio - knowing that someone or some band has entrusted you with the task/honour of providing the drums for recordings that will be etched in stone (vinyl? digitally?) forever is incredible, nerve racking, and well, more nerve racking. It comes with a certain amount of responsibility to the project as well as yourself. It's a portrait of a musical moment that (hopefully) will be heard for many years to come.

Dr Sean: What particular skills and abilities do you think give you that edge when it comes to landing a gig?

Randy: I think it's a combination of things and definitely more than any one thing in particular. Rounded musical abilities, solid technique, the ability to play to a click track well, having good gear, and being an all around nice chap, all play a part in securing 'that' gig.

Dr Sean: How would someone go about breaking into the arena of live and studio work?

Randy: I wanna answer this one in two parts. They apply to both being a sought-after touring musician or session musician.

The first part, although somewhat frustrating at times, is the reality of breaking into the session scene. Session work isn't something that you 'go and get' per se. It's sort of a rite of passage that comes 'to' you. It comes to you because eventually enough people see you play, hear you play, hear about you and meet you and they wanna call you to play live with them, or play on their recordings.

The second part, which is my guide to being a more in-demand live player, absolutely applies to getting session work because most of the time one is a result of the other and it goes both ways. You can end up getting live work as a result of a session you did or vice versa.

Here are some things to consider (of course I'm coming from the 'drummer' angle, but most of this could apply to any instrumentalist).

Have great gear! You wanna do a country session? You wanna do a funk gig? You wanna jam a hard rock thing? Every genre needs its own 'sound' - that's half the battle.
So, it's important to have as many musical options as possible (different snares, kick drum sizes, cymbals, etc.)

Be able to comfortably play all of those genres and try and study with as many different teachers as You can (or college etc). Regardless of the music you dig the most, you gotta round your playing if you wanna work - especially in the studio - because generally speaking, there's way less of that than live work so why narrow your options by only comfortably playing one genre?

A lot of guys 'think' they can convincingly play a lot of genres, but in reality they can't. They think so, their friends think so, their girlfriends think so, but the people who matter know better (producers/other schooled musicians etc). So take a hard look at yourself and be honest. The quicker you do that, the faster you'll be on the road to bringing your playing level up a notch. Be realistic about your strengths and 'really' work on your weaknesses. Or just turn down jazz gigs like myself because who's kidding who - I'm lousy at jazz.

This next point's probably the most important, believe it or not. Play with everyone, everywhere at anytime for whatever money is offered, IF ANY.
If that means you need to sell Girl Guide cookies to pay your rent in order to be able to do gigs for nothing... do it!

Remember, you don't have to be a massively huge fan of the music you're playing. Just do a great job at playing it and you'll always find the joy in being a part of something great musically. Bottom line? EXPOSURE! People need to see and hear you playing as many different types of gigs possible. This has always played a key role in the popularity and demand for any successful musician.

Be able to play to a click track GREAT! Make sure your feel is comfortable and it doesn't stiffen your playing cause you're concentrating on being in time. People can tell. This in itself can be a huge learning curve.

Dr Sean: For those who aspire to get out there and attract the kind of work you're enjoying these days, what advice do you have to offer?

Randy: Be a nice guy, be on time, don't complain and don't have an attitude. Play what someone wants you to play, not what you wanna play. Leave your musical ego at the door. They may be paying you, so the bottom line is give'm what they want/need.
And of course, re-read the answer to the last question. ;-)

Dr Sean: Please tell us about some of the live and studio gigs you've been involved in recently.

Randy: I just spent a month touring in brazil with Colin Hay (singer from Men At Work) and I'm also on some of his tracks on his latest solo CD. I've been touring with Smash Mouth and recently recorded their new cd due out this fall. I'm still doing live dates with Five for Fighting with whom I've been playing since 2006 and I'm on a live DVD of theirs. I'm also doing live dates with a new Hollywood Records band called Red Light King and I recorded the drums their debut cd as well.

Dr Sean: And for all the drummers out there, tell us about all the gear you're using while on the road or in the studio.

Randy: Yay drummers! For a very long time now, I've been proudly playing/endorsing Yamaha drums, Zildjian cymbals, Remo drum heads and have my own signature stick with Regal Tip sticks. :)

As far as the configuration of shell size, cymbal selection and snare preference I'm using currently, it varies with every single session/gig I do. I can, however, tell you in my studio at home in Los Angeles, I have the Yamaha Phoenix kit set up and mic'd 24/7!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Learn From The Bands Who Are Succeeding... Today

There's so many bands out there and so much choice for music to listen to. There's more music available now than ever before and so it has become even more challenging to get your music noticed as an indie artist and even if you have a major label behind you.

One thing I always suggest when it comes to getting your music heard is to take a look at what the most successful bands of our time are doing to achieve these results. It is always great to learn from those that are succeeding in a big way; however, you must be careful when it comes to the U2s and the ACDCs of the music world because they're playing on a whole different level and they began in a different time. I'm certainly not saying you shouldn't pay close attention to those artists. You absolutely should, but the music industry has changed so much that modeling exactly what many of these artists have done and are currently doing will not always catapult you toward the success you're seeking.

Who's Become Successful In Today's Music Industry?

It's probably a good idea to have a look around at some of the newcomers who've been making a big noise. Although most of the newer acts (if not all) haven't come anywhere close the level of success of the aforementioned U2 and ACDC, what they're doing is a lot more likely to be of use to you when it comes to implementing new strategies with regard to your music career simply because it's a much more sensible comparison. Wouldn't it be nice if an indie act could come up with $100,000,000 to put together a tour, just like that?

Arcade Fire is definitely a band worth having a look at. They and the team around them have obviously done a few things right and maybe there's something there that you can capitalize on for your own musical endeavours. I'm sure there are many artists out there from whom you could learn a thing or two. The trick is to recognize what is working for others and then determine which of those things resonates with you the most and makes sense in the context of your music and your brand.

Listen To The Fan In You

Spend a great deal of time thinking about this type of thing from a music fan's perspective as well. I'm guessing that 100% of people who get into a band are probably big music fans and so you can check in with yourself to find out what you'd appreciate as a fan from the artists you love. Maybe write a list of marketing strategies that have succeeded in prompting you to part with a few dollars for an item or an experience. And also, write a list of things that put you off, so you know not to repeat those strategies with your fans.

Take some time with this one. You may find that you're not consciously aware of why you follow certain bands with such a great degree of loyalty. If you do some critical thinking though, I'm sure you'll come up with the answers and that will put you in a much stronger position than those who don't do the work.

I'd love to hear what it is about certain bands that either pull you in or turn you off. You don't have to mention names, but I'd love to know which marketing strategies are effective and which are not. As always, thanks for reading!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Interview With Hit Songwriter ANGELO "LEVI" THEMELKOS

A very talented friend of mine, Angelo "Levi" Themelkos is here to shed some light on the subject of songwriting, particularily in the realm of mainstream pop. He's easily one of the best I've ever met and it'll be very much worth your time to have a look at the interview and hopefully learn a little about how to improve your game.


Who Is Levi?

Levi has written songs all around the world, from Swedan to Los Angeles and right here in Toronto Canada, his home base. He's written with some of the best producers around including Anthony M. Jones (R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Day 26, JoJo), Printsz Board (Black Eyed Peas) and Hit-Boy (Eminem, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg).

Levi has been nominated for two JUNO Awards ("Talk To Me" by George and "Test Drive" by Keshia Chante) and has had two Much Music number-one hits ("About Us" by Neverest and "Talk To Me" by George) and Eight Top-40 singles, two of which were Top-ten hits.
He's currently working on projects with Neverest, Dan Talevski, Keshia Chante, Massari and many more.

So now that everyone is acquainted, let's get down to it.

Dr. Sean: How long have you been writing songs and when did you realize you were good at it?

Levi: I've been writing songs for a long while. It only took me ten years to get a number one on Much. lol I knew I had a knack for songwriting because I'm a dreamer--artistic with an imagination. I also hear melodies very easily to instrumentals. It's like a sixth sense.

Dr. Sean: Describe the writing method that has been successful for you.

Levi: My method to writing a song is... I see it first... I see the video move from scene to scene, then I write. I write about true experiences 90% of the time. The lyrics come easier that way, I find.

Dr. Sean: If someone has written a song they believe has hit potential, how do they get it out there?

Levi: When you "service your song to radio" you must do it right. You must hire a radio tracker, you must visit the top radio stations in the country and meet the Program Directors. Shake hands and blow them away with your performance. You must have talent. Having a team behind you is crucial, and you must have financial backing. Without it, you will fail.

Dr. Sean: Can you give us a breakdown of the main elements that you believe are essential when it comes to writing hits?

Levi: Writing a 'hit' must have a formula. Try to write three catchy or hooky sections--verse, pre chorus, chorus. Keep your chorus simple and repetitive. While your verses can show your feeling, talent, heartache, etc., having a witty punchline and a catchy melody helps. And lastly, believe in it!

Dr. Sean: What do you say to people who think it's easy to write a hit?

Levi: I say, write one.

Dr. Sean: What steps would an artist take if they'd like to record one of your songs or write a song with you?

Levi: Contact me via Twitter (@levisingit). You must be passionate, hard working and believe in yourself.

Dr. Sean: How do song-splits work in terms of the ownership of a song?

Levi: Splits are 50% production and 50% lyrics and melodies. Splits can be tricky... I usually chop the song evenly amongst the writers and producers. This way, you get the best song--no egos, just one common goal: help each other, better each other, push each other. This only applies if you're starting from scratch. If your song is written, you own 50% of the 100%.

Dr. Sean: How do writers get paid for their songs?

Levi: We get paid through SOCAN and the CMRRA everytime a song is played on the radio or television, and we get mechanical royalties everytime a CD is manufactured and purchased. Good songwriters also get paid for writing good songs.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Why You Should Record Off-The-Floor?

All the major bands that make those amazing records that we love to listen to spend hundreds of hours (sometimes 17 years, like with Axel Rose and The Chinese Democracy) in the studio recording and perfecting their songs and performances. If you're going to play ball with the big boys, you're going to have to spend a similar amount time putting your tracks together. I'm not really suggesting that you need to spend 17 years, I just had to mention that because it's so ridiculous.

Recording your album off-the-floor in a few days, on the other hand, isn't going to yield the necessary results if it's something you're planning on releasing on a serious level. I know Van Halen made many of their early records in a matter of days, but it's not 1979 anymore.

Recording off-the-floor may not be the way to go if you want produce a slick-sounding recording that will stand up to other pro bands in your genre; however, there are a few reasons why it can be something worth doing under the right circumstances.

1. If you've just put your band together and you're in the early stages of writing songs and finding your 'sound,' it can be great way to put your ideas down in a tangible form in order to become more clear about your current direction. This will allow you to listen to your music more objectively so you can tweak the arrangement, parts of each individual instrument, the melody and so on until you have a cohesive, hard-hitting song that's ready to knock your audience out of their seats!

2. It can also be a great exercise to help improve the level of musicianship within the band. Nothing's more humbling than hearing what you really sound like in the sterile studio environment. When you listen back to your tracks on studio monitors you hear everything.

When you're rehearsing with your band in a typical rehearsal space, it's usually too loud (probably around 105-110 dB) to hear what's really going on. In fact, when the music is above 95 decibles, you're simply unable to discern things such as timing and pitch. You're perception of what you're hearing is distorted and therefore, inaccurate. This is why live music (which is up in the 115-120 dB range) tends to sound so awesome when you're there, but, in many cases, not so awesome when you play back the video footage of that same performance. At a lower volume level, you can hear all the mistakes. Ouch!

Don't be afraid of finding out that you're not as tight as you thought you were. This will just serve to make you tighter when you become aware of what you need to work on. Be open to feedback from your engineer and/or producer too. This kind of constructive feedback can help you improve leaps and bounds if you let it. If you continue to hide behind the security that volume provides, you'll continue to make the same old mistakes everytime you perform your songs.

3. Getting the whole band used to playing together with a click track is great practise and something that not only offers valuable experience in the studio environment, but also gives you more options with your live show should you decide you'd like to incorporate backing tracks or loops from your computer. My bands, Emerald Rain and Pain, used to run tapes for our vocals because we had a million harmonies on our recordings like Def Leppard and there were only four of us. We would sing live and feed the tape track in a bit to thicken the sound. All of our songs were mapped out to a tee with the tape vocals happening exactly where they were supposed to and we had to be right on that click or else it would've been disasterous. :)

So there's a few reasons why I think off-the-floor recording can be a great experience. Maybe you can think of more and if you do, please share them here. Or if you've had good or bad experiences with this kind of thing, please tell me all about it. If you've never recorded off-the-floor, give me a shout and we'll do it up!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Where Will You Be Two Years From Now?

Think back two years ago. Where was your band? Where was your music career? How much has changed since then?

Are you still playing the same local venues to the same general audience or have you extended your reach to other provinces, states or countries? Does your set list consist largely of the same songs you were playing two years ago or are you constantly writing and performing new material? Is your live show evolving into something that would stand up next to major artists in you genre or is it stagnant? How current is your latest release?

When was the last time you updated your website, your facebook and other social networking sites? Are you effectively engaging with your fans on a consistent basis? How many fans do you have on your email list now verses two years ago?

If you were as productive at your day job as you are moving your music career forward would you still have a job? Would you be fired or promoted?

Where will your music career be two years from now?