Damian Erskine - April 2007
Equally versed at solidifying grooves, blowing lyrical solos, and providing chordal textures on his 6-string bass, Damian Erskine showcased his extraordinary level of musicianship with the release of Trios, his debut as a leader, in February, 2007. As the nephew of world-renowned drummer Peter Erskine (Weather Report), Damian spent much of his childhood surrounded by many legendary musicians. In addition to the degree he earned from Berklee College of Music, Erskine has studied privately with bassists including Marc Johnson, Victor Wooten, Reggie Hamilton, and Kai Eckhardt. Erskine maintains an active presence in the club scene and performs regularly at festivals throughout the Pacific Northwest. Besides touring and recording as a sideman, Erskine offers private instruction from his studio in Portland, Oregon and via webcam through MusicVirtuosity.com. He has also taught seminars at the National Guitar Workshop and Berklee's Guitar Week.
In this interview, Erskine talks about his first solo recording, influences, touring as a sideman, teaching, upcoming projects, and more.
Could you tell us a little about your background and introduction into music?
My grandfather started me on the bass at around age six. He loaded me up with transcriptions, books with tapes minus bass tracks to play with, and Rufus Reid's books. He had me working on pretty difficult stuff like "Teen Town," "Donna Lee," and anything he could find by Jaco Pastorius, along with solos by Eddie Gomez. He was a seriously hip guy with a strong work ethic. He forced me to work on scales daily.
Initially, I always viewed the bass as something I was forced to do because my real love was the drums which I discovered when I was ten years old. My uncle, drummer Peter Erskine, was generous to give me a Slingerland kit, and my family was generous enough to let me go absolutely nuts in the basement for hours on end. The coolest thing my family did for me was drive me to New York from South Jersey frequently on weekends to watch Peter play with a variety of the best guys in the city at 7th Ave. South which was a club owned, I believe, by the Brecker brothers. I got to see Jaco's Word of Mouth Band, Bob Mintzer's Big Band, John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson, and Weather Report among other well known musicians. I was one lucky kid!
Who are the bass players that have inspired your development?
I really didn't associate with bass players until high school. I had actually quit playing for about seven years. At one point, I started digging out some old tapes and found John Scofield's Blue Matter with Gary Grainger and Dennis Chambers as well as Heavy Weather by Weather Report. All I remember is being completely blown away by Jaco. As typical as it may sound, Jaco was the guy who made me want to play again. I immediately found my old bass and got back to work. My next pivotal moment was seeing Oteil Burbridge play with The Aquarium Rescue Unit in 1992, the year I got back into playing bass. Oteil completely changed the way I perceived music. I'm talking on a fundamental level. That show changed me, and I didn't know music could do that. Those guys were all so fluid, interactive, and musical. Lately, I've been obsessed with African bassists such as Richard Bona, Etienne Mbappe, and Linley Marthe, in particular. I'm amazed by their rhythmic intensity and super lyrical phrasing. Another guy is Rich Brown of Dapp Theory and Autorickshaw. He is the one that really gets my attention these days. He has totally amazing tone, phrasing, note choice, and a deep pocket which is my idea of the complete package.
How influential has your uncle, drum legend Peter Erskine, been on your playing?
Honestly, the most influential thing about Peter is his personality. He was always just uncle Pete to me as a kid, but I was always amazed by his even disposition and ability to be forthright and stable. He always seemed to know how to handle a situation. He's also been a huge resource for me. I've been lucky to have someone like that to ask questions and advice. Musically, he is just so confident and capable. I was his assistant and drum tech/cartage guy for awhile during my brief stint living in Los Angeles. That experience was invaluable to me. I still had a lot to learn about playing bass but had way more to learn about how to be a musician. Just watching him in the studio or on a gig and observing his process meant the world to me. He is the hardest working guy I've ever met, and he is still, very much, a student of his craft. I really dig that.
Can you tell us about, Trios, your debut recording as a solo artist?
Recording my first disc, Trios, was something I had been thinking about for a long time. I've always been a sideman and wasn't even sure how I would go about it. Eventually, I decided that it was time, and there wasn't anything to do but call my favorite musicians in town and have some fun! The disc is primarily a latin-jazz piano trio similar to the Michel Camilo trio with a few additional tracks by Toshi Onizuka who is a great flamenco guitarist and African drummer Israel Annoh that I often play with in Portland. The pianist, Ramsey Embick, is just a monster as is the drummer, Reinhardt Melz. I feel really lucky to play with them. Ramsey has a great salsa band in town and was one of the first guys I met when I moved to Portland. Reinhardt is everyone's first-call drummer. He can really do it all and do it like he was born doing it. I just smile every time we play together.
Where can your new recording be purchased?
Trios is available for purchase at CD Baby, iTunes, Abstract Logix as well as a few other places. It can always be purchased from me directly via e-mail or at my gigs.
Besides your own music, are you involved with any other musical collaborations?
I'm always a sideman for hire. This year, I've been touring a lot with Tony Furtado who is a slide guitarist and an award-winning banjo player. That's a fun gig with a very musical bunch of guys. I also play with most of the folks in Portland when I'm home including Dan Balmer, Stephanie Schneiderman, and Patrick Lamb. I will also be recording a hip hop project in Toronto in June with Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and some phenomenal Canadian talent. I'm really looking forward to that. The project is being put together by a friend of mine from the Boston days named Kate Schutt. She is a great songwriter and 8-string guitarist.
What sort of setup do you use for recording and also playing shows?
I am always playing my Zon Sonus bass. It's basically a Todd Johnson signature model with 26 frets, an extended cutaway, and some further modifications. I had Zon place both pickups further back towards the bridge to emulate what I usually did on older basses with my blend knob. Zon is also making me a 4-string version of the bass which I am very excited to receive. I always use my Aguilar DB 750 head with either my Aguilar GS 410 speaker cabinet for big shows or my Aguilar GS 112 cabinet for small gigs. In larger venues, I'll usually place a microphone in front of my rig to get a fuller sound than most DI's provide. I also use D'Addario strings exclusively and Planet Waves cables.
When I record my bass, I usually use two channels. I mic the rig to one channel while I run my Aguilar DI to the other channel. It's a great sounding combination. I don't really use any effects except for the occasional octave pedal or envelope filter. I do love my Boss Loop Station for teaching and practicing.
Basically, I've obsessed over my tone and have always looked for reliable gear that would allow me to get the full range of tones I want from just my fingers. I don't like to go overboard on the equalization. I just want a nice tube preamp sound with small tweaks here and there, but I mostly like to use my fingers to get the sound I hear.
Can you share with us your experiences as a student at the Berklee College of Music?
Berklee was interesting. I learned a lot about theory, but I also got pretty confused because it can be easy to get lost in the mix at a school that is so big. I had a few great teachers who really helped me along, but I mostly wound up feeling less than confident at the end of it all. I could never quite do things the "Berklee way." I know a lot of guys who thrived there and were very capable of using the specifics of the Berklee method, but I never really caught on to it like some could.
Most everything I learned came after I finished school and started gigging. I've always said that if I'm going to try to play music for a living, I'm not going to allow myself to chicken out of anything because I must always push forward. Because of that, I've always made it a point to hit up the best players in town for lessons and would accept every gig I could, even if I was scared to death. I got my butt schooled big time on a few occasions, but it always helped me to grow which is what it's all about. I learn the most when I'm in over my head so I try to keep myself in those positions. As nice as it feels to be the strongest link on stage, I get the most out of it when I'm the weakest.
How did you develop your ability to groove, provide chordal accompaniment, and improvise solos?
I think that playing drums at an early age was the best thing for me. It developed my time and gave me strong insight to the way drummers think and how they might feel certain grooves. Drummers usually dig my ability to lock in with the kick drum without really having to think about it. When I first started playing bass, I used to play drum grooves on the instrument.
Some of my most notable techniques came from bad practice habits such as playing while watching television. Although good for muscle memory, it's definitely not the best way to go. Since you can't hear harmony that well when you're not plugged in, I would just play drum beats on the bass. I wouldn't bang on it, but I would work on rolls and rudiments with hammer-ons and right hand plucking. I eventually worked on similar stuff while plugged into an amp.
I am also a believer in simplifying things as much as possible. I like to play one note and try to be as funky as possible. I just eliminate the harmony. I also like to remove the time and play through a set of changes just to let the harmony dictate where I take the music. I try to change my perspective on music as much as I can. I also transcribed tunes like crazy and bought every book and recording I could find.
I discovered Victor Wooten in college, but slapping never felt natural to me so I took his techniques and tried to apply them fingerstyle. Victor's slapping techniques led me to a three-finger right hand technique which works well for chordal playing.
I worked on the chordal thing as a byproduct of trying to teach myself how to actually solo over jazz changes. I figured it made sense to learn all of the "inside" notes first so I worked on learning all of my arpeggios which led me to chords. I eventually got into combining the rhythmic percussive stuff with the chordal material and started getting into some pretty neat chordal groove ideas which will likely be part of the focus on my next solo recording.
Soloing was tough for me to get a grip on. I placed a lot of pressure on myself not to fake it and hide behind speed. I still feel like a beginner when it comes to soloing because there is so much to learn. Many guys are just so good at soloing, and it's inspiring to listen to them. I just keep pushing myself. I've gotten back into transcribing solos. That has helped me to discover effective ways of stretching harmony using "outside" notes. There are no bad notes, just bad resolutions!
I've been checking out a lot of Rich Brown along with a lot of guitarists such as Mike Stern, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Adam Rogers. I try to understand how a certain player perceives what they're doing. I don't want to just grab a pattern or two. I try to discover what they saw or heard when they played the thing that caught my attention. It's all about context. It's not just the sequence of notes that changes the overall shape of a line. So much goes into building an effective solo, and I'm still really working on it.
Which aspects of music do you focus on the most in your own studies?
I've been focusing on phrasing, leaving space, and exploring the sounds possible on the bass. I'm also trying to expand my harmonic concept and develop my ability to relax and let the music dictate what I play while not allowing my head to get in the way.
What sort of direction do you try to give your students?
I've actually begun to write an instructional book based on what people ask me the most and what I have discovered connects things the best. I vary my lessons based on the needs of each individual student, but, in general, I stress reading, time, playing in the pocket, scales, and arpeggios. I usually try to get folks practicing with different songs from fakebooks, even if they don't necessarily want to be a "jazz guy." I believe this is essential to discovering harmony and getting to know your instrument. If someone just wants to jam, I can dish out a few lines to give them a few tips on that stuff, too.
Are there any upcoming projects that you are working on?
Yes. There are a few that I'm very excited about. On June 9th, I'm participating in the Zon-sponsored "Ultimate Bass Concert" at the Jazzschool in Berkeley, California. The concert will feature Michael Manring, Ray Riendeau, Todd Johnson, Jonni Lightfoot, and myself doing some solo performances with a monster jam at the end. That kicks off a two-day event of teaching at the San Francisco Bass Weekend on June 10th and 11th. That will be a blast! I'm leaving from there to do the hip hop recording session I mentioned earlier with Terri Lyne Carrington in Toronto. After that, I head to Seattle to teach at the National Guitar Workshop for a week. I will also be doing some festivals with Tony Furtado, and I'm going to try to be home a little bit with my wife Cortney and the dogs!
Zon Sonus Fretted 6-String
Aguilar DB 750
Aguilar GS 410
Aguilar GS 210
Aguilar DB 900 Direct Box
Boss Loop Station