We met up with Aaron Spears at PASIC 2018 to discuss his life as a drummer for some of the most successful acts in the music business. Aaron’s list of recording credits includes Gideon Band, Chrisette Michelle, Chamillionaire, David Cook, Joanne Rosario, Lil Wayne, Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks, Chaka Khan, Adam Lambert, Israel Houghton, Usher, The Backstreet Boys, Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears.
Aaron Spears has also worked with Alicia Keys, and as a drummer for the American Idol tour. Aaron is endorsed by Sonor Drums, Zildjian Cymbals, Remo Drumheads, Vic Firth Drumsticks and DW Pedals and hardware. On 04 December 2019, he will be on our shores for a drum clinic in Johannesburg.
Where do you take your inspiration from?
Aaron Spears: For me, inspiration comes in many different forms. Mostly it comes from the music itself. I love all kinds of music, rock, hip-hop, R&B and pop. So that is probably one of the first forms of inspiration for me. I am also very much inspired by other musicians, especially drummers. I am inspired by the things they play and their imagination and creativity. Then also the things I see and feel and life in general. I think it is important to have balance and not be solely focused on music only. It is important to be able to enjoy simple things like your family, going to the movies, concerts or anything that you are into.
How do you manage your schedule between recording, touring and flying all over the place for clinics?
Aaron Spears: Balance is important for me to survive in the music industry. The industry can be very stressful with all the travelling and being away from your family. These things can wear you down if you do not maintain a healthy balance and being able to enjoy the little things. The balance between the going away and the coming back makes me appreciate both even more.
When I watched your clinic last night it was very refreshing to see Aaron Spears play a Rihanna tune in a straight 4/4 groove. Is that part of the balance for you?
Aaron Spears: Absolutely. To be able to play music and to play the parts without too much embellishment or to have not too much that takes away from the foundation is important. I feel like in order to really appreciate the creativity and the flash you need to first have the foundation super solid. You need to have the yin and the yang to have everything work well together.
Is that part of the reason you feel you get booked?
Aaron Spears: I think so. I feel it’s also a case of when to and when not to. You’ve got to know and understand when to be expressive and explosive. And then also when to be the foundation and the support for everything else that’s going on.
When you get booked for a huge pop gig for example, how do you prepare for the first rehearsal? What is expected of you?
Aaron Spears: They will often give you a blueprint of what they would like to run through for the first few days. It might be a list of songs. You can listen to it to make sure that you have a handle on the things that you are going to work on for the day. Every camp is different, most of the camps that I have been involved with will send you a playlist of things that they expect you to know. With the playlist it’s just taking the time to work through it, making the notes that you need and playing through it so that you have things down for the first day.
Do you transcribe? What is your method?
Aaron Spears: The notes I take are not necessarily transcriptions. They are more shorthand notes where I’m focused on how many bars are in the intro. I dissect the song from top to bottom like the intro is 4 bars, the second part of the intro is 4 bars and the kick will be 4 to the floor. Then we go to the verse which can be 32 bars and I might write down what the pattern is or even a reference to something or what the vibe is. Then I will notate where a break is, maybe on the 4. Then we go on to the chorus. So this is typically what my notes will be like. When we get to the rehearsal I will have my notes there and I will be looking at it and reading while I am playing.
What makes the transition to the stage where you are just playing and not thinking about the notes?
Aaron Spears: Through the rehearsal and the repetition, it allows you to just kind of cruise on autopilot and not thinking about it so much and just playing. That’s the goal. It’s just to clear your mind and just allow yourself to play.
Will that be with the actual artist or will you have a band director there to get everyone up to speed?
Aaron Spears: Most of the time the band will work together alone with the musical director. The artist will come in once we get a handle on things. It is added and unwanted pressure to have the artist come in on the first day when you are just learning the music or going over it for the first time. Sometimes we have it and it’s cool if they want to come through, but other times the pressure is that much stronger. When you make a mistake and the artist hears that it is kind of embarrassing and not cool. They usually join 2 or 3 days after we started rehearsals, sometimes even a week after we’ve been in rehearsal.
Do you rehearse a couple of hours a day?
Aaron Spears: Yes. 6 or 7 hours a day.
So when the artist comes in do they take control or does the band leader remain in control?
Aaron Spears: The band leader always stays in control and their job is to maintain the integrity of the music. The only thing that supersedes that is if the artist says that “I don’t like that transition here” or “I don’t like that section there. Can you change that?” But the musical director and artist communicate a lot to make sure that that does not really happen that much. There is a great understanding between them that makes everyone’s job easier. It will be terrible to learn the format and arrangement of a song and the artist comes in and says “I don’t like that at all”. Then you have to learn everything all over again.
Do you do a lot of that with familiar faces, for instance, the same bass player?
Aaron Spears: I’m fortunate that I know a lot of people that do this so I work a lot with familiar faces. It varies from gig to gig. I am fortunate that the crew I normally play with have done a lot of stuff together which is great. It forms a bond of familiarity and chemistry between us which is really good. I feel that that also transcends on stage as well which is fantastic. But even if it wasn’t this specific crew, I feel that I know enough people in the industry that we have a certain positive rapport with each other.
What tip will you give drummers looking to get booked for a gig? What tip will you give session drummers to tick off the box apart from the chops and the playing?
Aaron Spears: In order to be a working musician aside from having great ability or understanding of music or all those things that are just naturally required, one thing that is really important is to be likeable. If you are going to work with people it is important that people like to work with you. No one wants to work with someone that is a head-case or a know-it-all or a jerk. It is important to be humble and to be likeable.
For your clinics, do you vary the topics and the music or do you do what you feel like on the day?
Aaron Spears: Lately my focus has really been about balance. So many people focus on things that are not a priority. I do try to play different things at my clinics but it depends on what my vibe is and what I feel like playing that day. Right now the topic and subject matter is about balance. It is fun being able to play these different figures, beats and chops which is cool. But the most important thing, the number one thing, is maintaining the foundation. I am just really trying to drive that point home.
Manufacturers get a lot of requests from all ages and abilities for endorsements. What tip can you give someone that’s looking for an endorsement?
Aaron Spears: With endorsements, you need to understand the reason they work like they do. It’s about a partnership. A lot of people are like “I am amazing, I can play. I am incredible. Everyone tells me I am incredible, so I should be endorsed.” That only works to a certain degree because even after you secured an endorsement the companies want to support you while you support them. They want you to be working and touring. They will not be excited about supporting you if you are playing at your house.
Some people have been able to create their own audiences using social media. It’s kind of a new thing that’s been happening and it’s really cool when it’s a successful one, but it does not necessarily work for everybody. For me, an endorsement is about being out on the road and touring and needing the companies to support you to get through your gig. Whether it be drums or skins or sticks or cymbals. Whatever your needs are the companies are there to help meet the need. It is normally bigger than you just playing on social media.
Do you think social media has changed the scene?
Aaron Spears: I think it has changed a lot of things. It is awesome because you are allowed to see the creativity of so many people and it’s just fantastic to see what people are playing and thinking and willing to share. The downside to it is that people treat it as the law. They see someone play and posting and take it as the bar they have to be at to be successful. That is not necessarily true. I think that you can be successful at whatever level it is as long as you stay true to yourself and to your identity. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be like the internet kings and queens. Just focus on you. Have fun. The internet is a great tool, but it has to be used in the right way.
What were the key milestones for you from picking up sticks for the first time to becoming a worldwide recognised drummer?
Aaron Spears: A lot of things happened with gigs. Usher was the main thing that really propelled me to another level. The Modern Drummer Festival (2006) was another thing that propelled me to another level. Playing at the Grammy’s was another thing that people gravitated towards. There has been a lot of things that people took notice of. For me, none of it would have happened though if it was not for God opening doors for me. There are so many people that are amazing and they play so well. But for me, God really opened doors to be who I am and to play the way that I play.
Was that always part of the goal?
Aaron Spears: No. I always just wanted to play and have fun. All the other things that have happened was just the by-product of that. I’ve never been one of those guys saying that I am going to be the best in the world or change the game. I am just having fun and it’s great to see that people are enjoying the process as well.
Did you study anything?
Aaron Spears: I am pretty much self-taught. I did a little at high school to understand notation and went to college for a year. I studied a bit of jazz theory but I am not like super heavy man. My reading is not super sweet. I wish it was better. I feel like when I am reading and playing my playing is separate because I am so focused on the charts and not making mistakes. I just don’t utilise it like that. Having gigs or opportunities where I have to read all the time is just not happening.
What was it like with the Usher gig?
Aaron Spears: With Usher it started to feel like maybe I am actually going to be a touring musician or a career musician.
Did you have any hardships along the way where you felt that this was not going to work?
Aaron Spears: I did not know whether I was going to make it as a musician or not. I was working a 9 to 5 job as an IT consultant and doing gigs over weekends. I was basically installing software. For me, it was chilled because I like computers and gravitated towards that. I was making a decent living which was cool, but I did not know whether I was actually going to be a career musician.
I did not really have opportunities like that. For me, I just really believed that God would open a door for me to be able to do that and when he did it was like everything was just perfect. It wound up better than I could ever imagine. There were definitely tough times cause you have a passion and a love for music and the potential of having a career and doing something that you love, but not knowing how to go about it. It kind of makes you feel that you don’t know what’s happening and what’s going on. You can get down, but for me, I just always try to focus on the positive of the situation and making the most of the moments where I was actually able to play.
You’re coming out to South Africa soon. Is that something you’ve always wanted to do?
Aaron Spears: Yeah. I am going to India first for a couple of clinics and then Nigeria for a clinic and then Johannesburg. I have been to Johannesburg before one time with Usher which was really cool and I went to Durban as well. I did a clinic in Durban with Buddy Strong, Usher’s keyboard player. That was about 5 years ago. I was just really looking forward to making my way back there again.