Chris Coleman chats to SA Drummer

Chris Coleman has one of the most recognized names in the drum industry and has made a massive success of himself working with some of the most prominent names in the music business. When he is not backing artists, he is traveling the world doing the drum clinics.

Photo by F:Desmaele

Hey Chris! Thank you for taking the time out to chat. How have things been your end?

 Busy as ever man, busy as ever!

 Are you currently on the road with Beck? Have you guys been touring constantly?

Yeah, since June of last year. We have been touring off and on. It is not extensive tours, but it keeps us busy enough, I guess.

So you have periods where you are busy, and then you are off for a while?

 Yeah. A week here, two weeks there.

 Where have you guys been playing?

 We have been playing all over.

 How is it to work with Beck?

 He is very particular and down to every tone, every sound, and every note.

It is always great to work with people that take joy and pride in their music.

 Yeah, I do prefer that, but I prefer a balance more because sometimes it can be a bit much, because it takes the fire out of it, initially. Although I respect it 100%, it can be exhausting. He is a fun guy to be around. He’s just meticulous. It is what it is :)) I say to my students; “If you want to work with an artist like this, then you must endure it.” I don’t feel that it is vindictive because he is like that with everybody in the band and his music period; not just the drums. Honestly, the drum parts for any music are essential. When you’re listening to any music, people can hear a drum groove without hearing a melodic note, and it will tell them that this is funky or this is rock or hip-hop, etc. The drums cover 60 – 65 percent of every song, so if the drum part isn’t right, then it doesn’t translate overall to what you are trying to say. So, I understood that going into this gig with him. I go with whatever it is that he is hearing or feeling. He takes really REALLY good care of us, so overall… this is amazing. 

Having played for so many different artists, you have worked your way up to being a very recognized drummer in the scene. Where did it all begin for you? 

I started in my grandfather’s church and my uncle’s and father’s group. We were ten siblings of my father. My dad has a twin brother, and there were four boys and six girls, and then there are 22 grandchildren. My mom’s side is like quadruple that. It started out mainly that way. My uncle Richie Coleman who is my dad’s twin brother, started me out on the basics, learning the rudiments and that type of stuff. I started playing when I was 2, so he would hold me on his knee, and I would play with the sticks, but my feet were too short of reaching the pedals. We would go from there.

So church playing was your beginning of actual playing?

Yeah, but equally I was also playing top 40 music on the side, outside of the church in various situations. I was playing in clubs, bars, and events as early as 10 or 11. My dad didn’t always know haha, I would tell him that I was going out and then I would end up playing somewhere.

Do you feel that growing up playing in the church helped solidify your foundation as a drummer?

Yeah, it really did because I grew up playing multiple styles from the very beginning, because of the culture, the timing and the era I was born in (1979). My grandfather was a little bit more traditional as far as going to church was concerned, so I started with the traditional stuff. I had to know all of that because that was what I got birthed in. Shortly after that, the ’90s began kicking in, and the contemporary side of the Gospel started coming into play, so I was at that age and generation where I got the best of it all. I got to start with the traditional, and you could say the contemporary side of things as well.

Your first major gig was with Israel and the New Breed if I am correct?

Yeah, I would say as far as being the permanent drummer, member, and touring member of a band.

Between the years 2003 and 2004 was probably the start and the funny thing for me is, looking back over my career, it wasn’t really planned this way, it was just the way that it was going. It was the start and almost like the end, haha, because after Israel and New Breed, I was never really a part of a gospel group that was that big and that prominent. It had just been session work up until that point. I was with many different Gospel acts, some known, some unknown in various situations, so Israel and New Breed were kind of like the pinnacle, the highest point that you could reach in gospel music as far as artists and touring were concerned. We had billboard hits at that time, so it wasn’t going to go higher than that, so to speak, not to limit it or anything, but that is just what it was at that point.

Photo by F:Desmaele

What made you decide to move on from Israel?

It’s so funny. There was this rumor that I got fired, and that is really not the case. I actually told them 30 days before my last day that I was wrestling with moving on. I felt like I just knew that it was the right decision and that my time was done there. There was nothing wrong with the guys or the relationship because I am still cool with every single member of the band to this day. In that world, it was about getting together, praying about it, and everybody coming to an agreement that if this was something that God wanted me to do, then I had to do it. That is really what it was. I even got a bonus cheque on my way out, so I don’t understand where people got this notion that I got fired. I heard it when someone asked me; “How did you take it getting fired from New Breed,” and I was like; “I didn’t get fired, hahaha.” Israel is still my brother to this day, and as far as I am concerned, he is my brther for life. He was always real with me. I can’t speak about anyone else’s relationship with him, I try not to do that with any human, but as far as I am concerned, Israel and Aaron Lyndsey are my brothers for life.

I am sure with Israel being your first major gig that you learned a lot of career and life lessons on the road with them? Can you share some of the experiences that impacted your career?

Yeah, I am actually grateful that I started there because integrity was the most important thing. I truly hate the mental, emotional, and psychological condition of the way the world works, especially social wise. What I mean by that is; I can tell someone that what I strive for is integrity, and then that person will judge me for the one thing I have done wrong. I said, strive. I didn’t say live. It is like drumming, you strive to be better every day, and it doesn’t come in a day or a year, it is something that you are continually growing. We were all where we were in our own individual lives and our walk with God, so all we could do was work towards being better men and women, period. I want to mention that because that’s what was instilled inside me, walking in integrity as much as possible. Everything you do, seen, and unseen got recorded, and that was the type of life with Israel. I took that to heart because it was true, even though I only toured with them for a year and a half or two years. We did the double disk, the DVD, and I did other sessions with other artists alongside Aaron Lyndsey. Another excellent example of integrity would be in January 2003, where I met somebody at a concert, which was a fan. I bumped into that person again in January 2004, and even though I have met so many people and have had so many different life encounters since then, I still strived to treat every human being the same (unless you give me a reason not to). I usually don’t forget a face after I have had an encounter with someone. I saw this person again in January 2004, and we had a full conversation. He acted as if he had never spoken to me even though I clearly remembered our first conversation a year ago. He was actually testing me, which I thought was crazy. He told me that he had met some of his drum heroes and that it was so exciting to meet them, and some of them treated him as if he wasn’t even a human. I was really shocked to hear that. Isn’t that crazy? Every human is valuable, even if you do not agree on things, you are still of value, you have a heart, and it’s beating. He said that the fact that I spoke to him and took the time out to talk to him, even though he didn’t know me personally, proved that I am a genuine and consistent guy. I then told him that I remembered meeting him — integrity moments, man. Whatever you do or say is always recorded. No one is perfect, and I know I am definitely not, it’s just that I take that to heart. 

Some musicians miss this simple point of staying humble and being down to earth. I am sure you could agree that having this sort of attitude can affect your career?

Yup, very much so. We are humans first, so for me, that is what is essential. Everything else can be worked out. I never want us to cease to treat each other like humans.

“Integrity was the most important thing.”

– Chris Coleman

I am sure that this has been vital and is vital for any career?

Yeah, I would agree. Honestly, for me, I would say that it is 80% of my career. It’s about how you conduct yourself with other humans, that’s the way I look at it because every situation is going to be different, every artist is different. My life also changes, so my circumstances will change. You always have these two equations of two worlds merging, even if it’s only for a 6-hour session. You have to know how to work it out because whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we are bringing our personal lives into the situation, even though it is business. Whatever happened last night between you and your wife, girlfriend, or dog will affect you today, and as a professional, you shouldn’t bring that into your working environment. It’s impossible not to let it affect you. There are days where you go to work, and the artist is grumpy as all get out. Maybe he and his wife fought, and he is trying to do business as usual, but he doesn’t realize that he has been snappy with everyone all morning, which leaves everyone looking around at each other, wondering what just happened. That may not have anything to do with anyone in the band; it’s just that he is in that mood. He is trying his best not to include things from his personal life, but it is almost impossible. So my thought is, why spend energy trying, why don’t we develop the skill to be decent human beings so that we can be the same person on stage and off stage? 

That is such an excellent example of where you meet some known musicians who are nice to you, but as soon as they are in the Rockstar environment, they feel the need to make it clear that you know they are now a Rockstar.

Exactly. I can respect that if you act like that off stage because then at least I know that you are consistent.

Can you tell us a bit more about who you have worked with and who the highlights would be?

Oh wow, I would have to send you a list. I make a list that is more for me to keep. Every time I add somebody to that list, it is for me to be grateful and have gratitude because I can look at it and say, “WOW, this is a big list,” but also to feel grateful and blessed to have worked with these people. Sometimes looking at the list brings back memories of how it all came about for each artist. It brings back so many memories of the stages of life that I was in at that time and reminds me of the journey that music is and makes me appreciate it. 

Although you have worked with the best in the business, who would be your dream artist to work with?

Sting! I have so much respect for Josh Freese and Vinnie Colaiuta, who are the two drummers that are playing with Sting at the moment. That is nothing against them at all. It’s just that every drummer has a dream job and a dream gig and Sting would definitely be one of mine. It is funny because I grew up listening to all the drummers that play for Sting, which is crazy.

Have you had a music education background?

Yeah, it started with my uncle, and then I took private lessons from a guy by the name of Dave Dunham, who comes from out of Michigan. He was all about getting the foundation down. He worked in a music store and taught privately from home and would tell me how he saw me come into the store like a bad dude and shred. He said that it amazed him, but more importantly that he thought I was a good guy and that he wanted to help me out and make sure that I understood the foundations of music. I also played snare drum in middle school, in the 6th grade. The high school band director found out that I played the drum set, and in the 6th grade, he took me off of the snare drum and allowed me to play for the upper class, which was 7th and 8th grade. My teacher was over 5th, and 6th grade, and Mr. Brown was over 7th, and 8th grade, and those four grades were under one school, which was middle school, and in high school, you had 9th through to 12th grades. Mr. Brown was over 9th to 12th. While I was in 6th grade, I played for the high schoolers and the Jazz band. I didn’t have to read music because he just needed someone to play drums since his main drummer graduated. I was playing in all the school bands from 6th grade up until 12th grade, all at one time. It was crazy. Shortly after that, Mr. Brown retired, which was two years before I graduated. We got a new teacher who wasn’t so concerned about Jazz and set music, but rather orchestral music, so I ended up playing timpani’s, marimba, and all of the percussion instruments. I also started reading all of that stuff towards the end of graduation. He would let us play set on some cool stuff every once in a while. We clashed in the beginning because we got so used to having fun, and he was so structured. It took us a while to see where each other was coming from, but once we did, we become great friends.

After that, I studied Piano at the city college for a year, and then I went to study at the Drummers Collective in New York City for a year and lived in NYC for two years. From there, I went to the Atlanta Institute of Music and Atlanta, Georgia, to study music for bass guitar.

I am not sure how many people know this, but you are also a great bassist. Do you still do any gigs on bass?

Well, I try to be, haha. There were a couple of situations where I played both instruments in the band but nothing on a significant scale. It has been session work for me a lot of the time. Some people know that I play bass, so I will do the drums, and then they want to see what I can do on the bass, so I am basically playing alongside myself, haha. It’s like I already know where I am going, and it will be that glue aspect. The reaction that I get most of the time is one of shock because they will actually like it and land up keeping it, and then I will tell them that it is now also two payments, hahaha.

Do you feel that having a foundation of playing bass helps you groove better on the drums with other bassists?

It’s challenging because bassists that I play with love it. They love that because I am a bass player, we can gel and lock so tight. Some bass players don’t, because they get used to having their space in the music, so when the drums become so tuned in to them, it almost feels like they don’t have any space, so it’s really about learning that bass players personality, which becomes a second job for me. First of all, I have to learn his personality, how much of being together does he want, giving him space, and then doing my thing as the drummer. Some people are just used to that, and some are not, so every situation is different, no one formula works.

I saw a post where you were playing bass alongside Aaron Spears. How was that experience?

Yeah, that’s crazy. I think we were in China if I am not mistaken. I knew he was there in the back, and I was trying to give an example in the instruction portion of what I was doing. I mentioned that I needed a drummer and looked over at Aaron, and he said; “No don’t do it” haha and then I announced that I am going to call my good friend Aaron Spears up. Yeah, that was fun.

Do you have any drum clinics coming up in 2018?

Quite a few things are coming up. I am in talks right now. A lot of it comes through Sonor drums in Germany and Meinl Cymbals. I think there is a drum festival in the Czech Republic in September or October, which we are busy confirming. There is some stuff in Japan with Meinl. I have some other things coming up that we are still busy locking down, which is not necessarily through any drum companies, but more like somebody putting on an event, kind of like a one-off thing where we may know that person in the industry. That is usually how it works, I get a phone call, or I’ll give a phone call. For example, Aaron will call me saying; “Hey man, this good guy wants to put on a drum clinic for the used, the community or the music industry in his city, come do this for me.” It’s not like a big financial thing for us, honestly it never really is, you cannot become super-rich off that type of thing, so I am not in it for that. I am in it for the experience and to be able to make connections and meet new people and keep the industry alive. The last thing I want is for this thing to die.

Photo by F:Desmaele

That is also such a fantastic way to give back to the industry.

Exactly.

You are also involved with giving drum lessons if I am correct? I know that you have a huge passion for education.

Yeah, but not in the last two years because I have just been in transition with some health reasons, family, my son, who is seven now, etc. I am just turning a corner now, but I want to get back into it. I think I was just getting burnt out, you know, and I just wanted to reconnect with things that helped me become who I am. I am just trying to figure out what is next. I feel blessed and fortunate to have accomplished a few things, but I am nowhere near to what I desire to achieve. Sometimes it takes stepping away for a second and just resting.

I have been flying anywhere from 125-200 000 miles every year, and at one point I was juggling 3 to 5 artists at a time, knowing 3 to 5 different shows and then still doing sessions, clinics, and lessons. 

I agree with you that you have to take the time out and not let yourself burn out and also remember that you are doing this because you love it and that it is your passion. It can be a tricky balance.

Yup, it is. I wanted to take a moment and not burn out because when you burn out, you don’t have the fuel, and you can tell when someone is running on fumes.

It is a scary thing when you feel yourself burning out because this also affects the quality that you deliver.

Exactly. It is an absolute blessing that we get compensated for what we do, and if you are fortunate and diligent and work hard, you can make a decent living. It is not going to get given to you; you have to work for it. You have to be careful about what type of living that you create, and you have to be mindful of that because if you want to take a break, then you have to shift things around for yourself. It is an eye-opener.

It is a tough balance. Do you ever feel that if you take a break that you might lose work or that the artist may move on and use someone else?

There are a lot of factors that come into play, but the main one for me is my faith. For me, if I didn’t believe what I felt that God promised me, then I wouldn’t be where I am, and that is only one part of it. The other part is that I have to work hard and be diligent to maximize that, so the thing that I love about this is that I have been encouraged about the fact that I am human and that I better rest and if I am going to rest then I can’t stress if that makes sense. If you are going to rest, then you need to rest, you can’t stress about losing your place. Sometimes you may feel as if you are at a specific place or level, so it is terrific to take a step back to see where you actually are. I am not where I would like to be, so I feel that I also need to take a quick breather so I can re-attack it and push even harder to make the next phase happen.

“Why don’t we develop the skill to be decent human beings so that we can be the same person on and off stage?”

– Chris Coleman

That is also a great way to realize your comfort zones and to reanalyze that because you cannot move forward if you are stuck in a comfort zone.

Exactly! I can look back over my career since 15 years old, which is 23 years ago, and realize that this moment has happened a couple of times. The New Breed moment was a step back moment. I got married on 5 January 2005, we are divorced now, but things shifted for me musically. I had to completely re-adapt. I had not been playing anything other than gospel music, and six months after that, I had to be doing other things to make money. I wasn’t into business and investing and all of that. My first gig after Israel was at a Jazz festival in South Africa with Rachelle Ferrell. It was funny because I was back to playing with brushes. It was different to pull that stuff out again. Through this gig, I got to move to California, and then I got working with Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Sammy Clark, and all kinds of different artists. I think it is healthy to take a break and step away sometimes to re-evaluate yourself.

That also shows how versatile you have to be so that you can be ready for the next step because you never know which gig you may get.

It is crucial. I have had this discussion once before. I believe that you should study as much as you can. I think that you need to focus on your goal. What is it ultimately that you want to do? I had to ask myself because I just liked a challenge. I like to challenge myself, and that is an integral part of my personality, to always challenge myself and to get into situations where I know that I am going to be uncomfortable and where I don’t know all of the answers, but I shut up and learn. I then realize I am going to be a better person because I have added this to my repertoire and my arsenal. My goal was to maximize every moment. I didn’t look at it and think that I just wanted to be the most excellent Jazz or funk drummer. I just wanted to be great at drums, so whatever the request is on the chart, whether it is rock music, jazz music, blues music, etc., I wanted to be able to play it. 

A lot of drummers get stuck only playing one style and are not open to other styles of music and then wonder why they are not getting work.

Yeah! It was kind of a shocker for myself when I got an email to go and audition for Beck. I have a lot of respect for him because he crosses a lot of different musical lines with his background being Punk. When I said yes to the audition, the first thing I did was go onto Youtube and create a playlist. I called it, ‘All Things Beck,’ and I just absorbed how he has like five sounds in one song. It is so cool but crazy at the same time. I was like “heck yeah” and went in to audition like everybody else. I am fortunate enough to have landed the gig, and I am appreciative of that. They were telling me a year into the gig that I was one of the only guys out of around 15 to 18 drummers that came prepared. I was so shocked because this is Beck, he has won a Grammy, and you can’t hear the details in his music? Album to album, it is all drastically different. He studies, so you are going to have to study. It wasn’t only that; they told me it was my feel and interpretation of the music that impressed them the most and that it felt like I had been playing with them for years. I tell my students all the time that they have to become the music. I didn’t know these guys; I had never met them, I didn’t know the guitar player, the keyboard player or the bass player. That is an excellent example of what I try and teach my students. You have to become the music. 

It is so crazy that people don’t prepare for an audition, especially one of this caliber.

It is so strange. It is a mentality. Why go to an audition if you don’t plan on getting it? That is the way I got raised. You have to prepare for it like you actually want it and that you are going to get it. Why go if you are not going to do that?

Very true! I want to go back in time and chat about the drum-off that you won in 2001. How did winning an event like this elevate your career, and how did you maintain it after the competition?

The crazy thing is that it did help me, but not until later. I would say, seven years later. I was working a 9-5 as a correctional officer at a county jail in Cleveland, Ohio. I was working 12 hours, sometimes 16-hour shifts, so I was barely practicing or playing drums. I was also doing some stuff in the ministry with a pastor that I followed from my home town, Michigan. During that time, I was doing more work in the church as well. My friend signed me up for the Drum off. I didn’t even sign up for it. I knew nothing about it; he just told me that he put my name down and that I am going to play at this competition. I did it only to please my friends and to have fun. I am not a competitive person, so my mentality was not about winning. It was September 2001 when I won that, and I had just left school to study bass guitar, which was my goal. I already had a goal set, and the competition fell in the middle of all of that. After the competition, I was still set on going to school, but everyone was telling me that I needed to start working, but I just wanted to learn how to write music. That is where the money is, hahaha. I had already been playing with artists up until that point. I got wisdom about needing to learn how to write music and to produce and to learn the business aspect of music so that I could make some real money. That was what motivated me. It was to be more than just a drummer, not that that is bad, it has worked out for some people, but I was on this path and journey. I didn’t see anything, nor got recognized from the drum off until 2008 or 2009. I moved to LA in 2006 and started working on gigs and word got out, and only then people started realizing that I was the guy that won the drum off. I got told that people were wondering what had happened to me. I can’t say that it didn’t benefit me, of course, it did, but I didn’t see most of that until later.

That is crazy, haha! Was it still your dream to pursue drums as a career even though you were still studying bass guitar, songwriting, and producing?

That is challenging I guess, in the sense of one side of me always wanting to be a drummer and wanting to play, so whatever came my way, I was equally excited about it, even it was just a club gig, cause I got a chance to play and become better. The other side of me has always been business sided. I wanted to franchise some things, and I wanted to get into investing and explore life. I have tried to live in both worlds, which is working for me, but it is also a challenge because I get asked by people about why I am not doing certain things. I tell them that I am where I am. I am grateful for where I am, and if that is where I am heading, then I will get there. My path may not have the same formula as someone else’s.

So, a question that I am sure most drummers want to ask is your outlook on counting. In your videos, you demonstrated that with a smile on your face, that is saying, “Try to find the 1,” hahaha. I know that you have a killer outlook on counting, which I was hoping you could share with us?

Right! To me, it is the equivalent of you calling yourself a chef, but you don’t know what the seasonings are. That is how I look at it. How do you call yourself a chef if you don’t know what Paprika does or how it doesn’t mix with something else. How can you call yourself a chef? What we do is numbers, what we play are numbers, so how can you not count when you need numbers? What motivated me to start using the metronome that voice counts numbers was when I was playing a solo once where I think I was playing in 5. It was early on when I first got into youtube, and social media and I kid you not, 80% of the comments were arguments about what I was playing and what time I was playing in, and everybody was actually wrong. That made me wonder how I could help people, and that is why I started using the metronome with the voice count because then there is no doubt about what people are hearing.

It shows how many drummers miss the simple foundational steps, haha!

Dude, it was hilarious. I was in tears laughing. I wasn’t laughing at them; I was laughing at the fact of how crazy that is. I was clearly playing in 5, but I was on the other side of a typical accent. That’s the problem. People learn it a certain way, and they hear the accent and know that it is in 5 when, in the meantime, that was only the 1 and 3 of 5, what about 2 and 4 of 5 or 5 of 5. What about the ‘+’ of 2 or the ‘e’ of 4? It is all in 5, but because I play the accent different, it doesn’t mean that I am still not in 5. People are always looking for the backbeat, but what if I never played the 1? When you put a voice on, then people can hear it and realize that it is still in 5. A lot of people wonder how I think that. I explore every beat; every single beat can be dominant, every 16th note or 16th note triplet between 1 and 5 can be the theme if that makes sense? If you are not counting, then you will be lost. You will think it is something else because you are looking for the downbeat, which doesn’t always have to be on 1.

I have seen this myself with students that are not counting. You tell them to accent on the “E” of 4, and they look at you crazy because they have no idea where that is, haha!

Exxxaaaactly! Exactly! We have this table of elements for scientists, ask the highest rank scientist in biology, or maths how many times that they have had to go over that table. It is a daily thing, and they go to the point where they can quote every aspect of that table without looking at a book. Imagine where your playing would be if every drummer spent time counting every part of every subdivision. Where would your understanding and control be? People are so concerned about speed, but I am concerned about brakes. What good is it to have a Lamborghini if it doesn’t have good brakes?

Haha! Lastly, what would your tips be for a drummer that wants to pursue a career in music?

The keyword that you just said was ‘career.’ If you are not setting long term goals, then you are just spinning your wheels. Here is why I say this, and a lot of people may disagree. That is how I will prove my point. There is one thing in life that you cannot replace, and that is time, you cannot replace time, so why waste it if you don’t have goals? Does that make sense? Career is the keyword. Prepare, practice, and present for a career and not just for the moment. That is my advice and my life story. I want a career. What happens if, after 23 years, something happens and I am no longer Chris Coleman, the drummer? Now what? I am 38, so I can’t wake up and get serious now. I had to think of all of that before I even got involved. The moves and choices you make and how you handle relationships should go on you wanting to make a career and not just cutting off some person just because you are mad at him. Even if you are angry at him, you have to work through it because you may cross paths again because of this industry being so small. Career is the keyword that you said. Approach it, live it, breath it, study, plan, present it, and perform it as if it’s a career, not a moment.

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