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Aaron Spears

Web Exclusive Interview

MD: Is Usher attentive to what you're playing on the drums?

Aaron: He is. He's a musician who doesn't play an instrument. But he pays attention to everything, whether it's the bass drum notes, my hi-hat patterns, or whatever. He'll be like, "Was that on the record?" "Ah, yeah man." "Okay, I was just checking to make sure that you're on your game."

MD: In an earlier conversation, you mentioned that you co-produced some tracks on Usher's Confessions CD.

Aaron: Yes, two of the tracks, "Superstar (Interlude)" and "Confessions (Interlude)." The band produced those two tracks with Usher. That's something I hope to be able to get into more in the future.

MD: How did you hook up with Usher?

Aaron: A good buddy of mine, Gerald Hayward, was listening to some tracks by a Gospel band I was playing with in DC called The Gideon Band-a lot of really hot instrumentation, with a good message. Gerald happened to be listening to it in the presence of Valdez Brantley, who's the musical director for Usher, and Val asked Gerald, "Who's playing drums?" So they called and asked if I was interested in the gig. I was like, "Yeah, for sure!"
MD: When was this?

Aaron: It was the summer of 2003. Val asked me to send him a video of me playing some Usher songs, which I did. My tape was one of a hundred or so that came in for the audition, and Valdez and Usher and the rest of the crew selected me as the drummer for the tour. It really amazed me, it was a humbling experience, especially when I got to check out some of the tapes. There are so many cats out here that are really, really killing. It's like a new breed. There are so many good players who've come up over the past few years, there's no choice but for the younger guys to kind of grab onto that and learn from it. It was incredible but really humbling to see that out of all those cats, they picked me. I was blessed to be able to do it.

MD: I would imagine personality has a lot to do with it too.

Aaron:Definitely, that's another thing. I think a lot of cats now that come up don't realize that. They feel they've got all their licks and the chops and all the fundamentals, but they don't have the right personality. It's so easy to lose a gig. Your playing is like maybe 20% of it. You can get fired faster when you're off the gig. But a lot of cats don't really know that. Like I said, I was really fortunate to be able to have friends like Gerald, and Teddy Campbell-just being a light there for me. This is my first "real" gig-my first major tour.

MD: You came from the Gospel scene. There's a big Gospel influence happening.

Aaron:Definitely. I was raised in the Church of God and Christ, a Pentecostal church in DC-lot of playing there, a lot to learn. There's a lot of different styles of music; that's my roots.

MD: Your parents must be proud.

Aaron: They are-I talk to my mom all the time. We just look back and laugh. My mom asks, "Did you ever think that you beating on pots and pans would take you to where you are now?" [laughs] I've been able to go places my parents never saw, only heard about. I could never imagine that this would have taken me to the Grammys or Saturday Night Live.

MD: The buzz after the Grammys was sensational. The next day, everyone was talking about your performance. In the chat rooms on the Web, everyone was asking, "Hey, did you see Usher on the Grammy'? Who was that playing the drums?"

Aaron:It's cool to be the unknown cat.

MD: Let's go back to your early years. How old were you when you first started playing?

Aaron: I remember that the first time I was able to sit down at the drums and play, I was around five. But my mom says that I was tapping in rhythm on stuff when I was one or two. My father played percussion and sang, so I was around music all the time.

MD: What kind of music did your parents listen to?

Aaron:A lot of Gospel, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye. My dad was really into that. I love that music too.

MD: Did you take formal lessons?

Aaron:My mom wanted me to take lessons, so I sat with a teacher for a week or so. He was teaching me paradiddles and some polyrhythms, basic rudiments. But I didn't enjoy it at the time, so I told my mom I was never going back. She was like, "Alright, it's your choice." Now I kind of wish I had stuck with it. I didn't really get any other formal training until high school in marching band, and that's where I learned how to read. I went on to Harper College in LA for a year and a half, then I went back home, where I played in church and did gigs around town. That's around the time I started playing with The Gideon Band. One of the founders of the band, a guy named Cornelius Berkeley, heard me playing at church and asked if I was interested in playing with his band. I've been with them for the last seven years now. It made the transition of me going from church to the stage with Usher really easy, because we played like the big time-we ran Pro Tools and sequencers.

MD: Church bands are getting pretty huge.

Aaron:Yeah, it's a big deal. It's really, really funky now.

MD: Are you are playing with sequences and loops with Usher?

Aaron:Yes. We run sequences on everything.

MD: Do you prefer phones or monitors?

Aaron: I have headphones that pump the sequences to me. I don't have a click or anything, just a sequence that I play with.

MD: Going back to when you first started playing, would you play along to records?

Aaron: Oh, yeah. I would play along to everything and anything I could get my hands on. Lots of Gospel. My parents were really into church, so a lot of their records were The Winans with Dana Davis-he's one of my favorites. Michael Williams, who used to play with Commission, Joel Smith, who played with The Hawkins, Gerald Hayward with Hezekiah Walker back in the day-those drummers really put it down. I never knew that you could play drums like that, some of the things that Gerald was doing. I used to practice to a lot to him. As I got a little older, like fifteen, sixteen, I started to get into Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd, and Vinnie Colaiuta. I remember seeing the video of the Zildjian Day in New York with Vinnie and Alex Acuna, and they were playing all these odd-time meters. I didn't even know who they were, but the stuff that they played came across so well. And that made me start doing some research on Vinnie and what he was doing with Sting. Then that led me to Dennis Chambers and Weckl and Steve Gadd. Their playing took me to a different place.

MD: Would you watch their videos?

Aaron:Yes, and then try to sit down and do what they did. Dave Weckl's videos helped me a lot, because he really broke down the stuff that he was doing. That was like the keys to the kingdom right there.

MD: I'm sure right now some kids are watching what you did at the Grammys, and they're in their basement shedding and rewinding that tape.

Aaron: [laughs] I hope so. I hope that it inspires somebody. It's like if you don't give back, then you'll never fully grow. If you don't share what you do, it will never propel you to the next level. That's why I'm so thankful for the cats that are sharing their gift. I can't say enough about my brothers Gerald, Teddy, Jamal Moore, and Nissan Stuart-the cats that paved the way for me. There are so many more-Lil' John Roberts and George "Spanky" McCurdy from Philly, Virgil Donati, Jojo Mayer, and Keith Harris. There's a cat named Eric Green who's playing with Jill Scott, he's hot. Chris "Daddy" Dave, he's probably one of the most underrated drummers. Chris has played with everybody, so many different styles of music, and he's got so much knowledge. If you just sit down and take a listen to what he's playing, it's so crazy it's scary.

MD: When you practice now, what type of things do you work on?

Aaron: It varies. When I'm getting ready for an Usher tour, I sit down with just the CD and listen to the music. I still practice. It could be anything-a sequenced track, Outkast, an old blues shuffle, salsa. I rock out to Linkin Park, Green Day. I try to play anything and everything. I'm really fascinated right now with odd meters. I love playing in seven and five. A buddy of mine up at Berklee named Dana Hawkins-he's up and coming, incredible-he and I sat down about a month ago and worked on this thing where we were playing in thirteen. Then we were playing in seven, six-just crazy stuff. A lot of cats, because they don't understand it, tend to shy away from odd times. But if you can get that down, it can make a huge difference in your playing.

MD: Do you use a single or a double pedal?

Aaron: I use a single pedal. I actually purchased a double pedal recently, so I've been working with it a little bit.

MD: Any advice for our young readers?

Aaron: Just learn and stay humble in everything you do. Keep God first, and be patient. I couldn't have planned what I'm in now. I know that it's nothing that I did, it's just that the timing was right. God had everything set up-even with the companies I endorse. I couldn't have asked for a better situation with Remo, Vic Firth, DW, Zildjian, Puresound-those are all the companies that I really sought after and I really wanted as my sponsors, and now it's happened. I tell kids all the time, you just got to be patient, just hang tight. If it's meant to be it's going to be. But when it is your turn, make sure you're ready. Don't drop the ball, don't fumble. Be fully prepared.

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