Peter Erskine: Up Front, In Time, and On Call, Part 1

Jim Worsley By

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AAJ: Guessing the bassist stayed.

PE: The bassist stayed. The biggest mistake you can make in a big band is trying to tell the leader how to run his band. Stan loved Jerry and he never would have gotten rid of him. But he had no choice. So, Jerry is out, and Stan calls my dad. "Is Peter ready?" he asks. Now at the time I was working at the Club Harlem on a lot of R&B stuff.

AAJ: Atlantic City?

PE: Atlantic City. I was just about to start a six-week summer gig playing for the Ice Capades. Instead, we drive up to my audition with Kenton's big band at the Lincoln Center. This particular show in New York had the likes of Woody Herman and Zoot Sims and others sitting in. I sit in while they rehearse singer June Christy's portion of the performance. Now, the band didn't know I was auditioning. They just thought that Christy had some long-haired hippie drummer she had brought along. I guess I did okay, and I am invited to play the concert that night. Then I'm told to pack my bags and meet the band less than a week later. I am eighteen years old and I become the drummer for the Stan Kenton big band. As much as I would like to think it was my talent that got me the gig, it was in equal measure, again, Stan recognizing a marketing opportunity. Here I was, a former student of his summer camp. Also, the drummer that I was replacing was a Detroit policeman. Not exactly the right fit.

AAJ: You represented this whole different image.

PE: Yes, an entirely different image that younger people could relate to. It became more relevant. What I lacked in knowledge I made up for in youthful energy. Mostly, it was people my parents age coming to the shows, but sometimes with their eighteen-year old daughter in tow. Hey, I'm eighteen so that works. It was good fun for a time.

AAJ: Later you played with the Maynard Ferguson Big Band. Then you replaced Alex Acuña as the drummer for Weather Report. How did playing in big bands lead to being hired to play in a fusion band?

PE: Jaco Pastorius sold me pretty aggressively to Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. Jaco had heard me play only the one time, but he heard something he liked. There was something in my beat that he felt comfortable with. We had listened to a lot of the same music, so we just sort of had the same rhythmic cadence. They were intrigued by the fact that I had played with Kenton. But the Kenton they heard in their heads was 1950's Kenton. I think that if they had heard what we were doing at the time they never would have hired me. They just thought the idea of it was pretty cool, and then Jaco says the kid can rock. Plus, I had this ensemble experience. So, they thought it might be worth a shot. My audition was basically a phone call. I remember that Joe called, and I had been taking a nap. I was half awake, so we had a completely inconclusive conversation. He asked someone in his management office to call me. The test was, the question was, to ask me if I could play the beat to "Nubian Sundance." That is a song on the album Mysterious Traveler (Columbia,1974). Are you familiar with it?

AAJ: Indeed I am.

PE: As it turned out, the bassist in Maynard's band and I used to play it a lot.

AAJ: Oh, you mean that you guys messed around with it.

PE: We messed around with it, right. I am twenty-three and I tell them to tell Joe that "I can play the shit out of it." Joe loves this answer.

AAJ: He likes the cockiness.

PE: Yes, that's exactly right.

AAJ: You had some prolific years and records with Weather Report. What inspired you to write a Weather Report based autobiography? And what does the title, No Beethoven, refer to?

PE: I was always taking photos and would often write down any interesting tidbits of conversation or jokes or something that Joe or Wayne or Jaco would say that were outlandish or seemed interesting. I sort of kept a journal. So, I had this box of stuff and started going through and cataloging all these great memories. Then Jaco was murdered, and Joe passed away, and I thought the story deserved telling. I was there and now armed with a photographic history. The original concept of the book was to be an electronic book for Ipad. That version has over one thousand photos and is a must see for Weather Report fans. It's stunning. An embarrassment of riches. The title refers to something Joe once said when he was bragging about his compositional prowess. He was talking about something he had just written and said, "I ain't afraid of no Beethoven." (Laughter ensues.)

AAJ: I love that. That's a great story. I opted to listen to the audiobook version and "read" it in that fashion. It made it very personal as if you were speaking directly to me, as you are now. It was also very cool to have time period tunes on there. What was the experience of doing that like?

PE: Thank you for the compliment. It was a lot of work. There is a process of pacing, slowing down or speeding up. Fortunately, I had some good help from the producer and some good direction on that. To relate one story from the book that I think sets the tone, is Joe catching me with my headphones on listening in reverie to a kind of commercial jazz. I didn't reveal the name of the artist in the book as what Joe said is kind of insulting and I'm not looking to make a cheap joke out of it. Anyways, it was funny though. We are on the plane and I haven't even played my first gig with Weather Report yet. I see Joe coming down the aisle and I know what is going to happen. He is going to want to hear what I am listening to, and my Miles Davis and John Coltrane tapes are in the overhead compartment. No chance to switch it, it's just out of reach. Sure enough, he wants the headphones and to know what I'm listening to. He listens for awhile, and loudly voices his disapproval. He takes the headphones wide over my head and just before plopping them down on my ears, he says, "sad motherfucker!" (We are both laughing out loud now.)

AAJ: While on tour with Weather Report in Tokyo, you have the good fortunate to meet a lovely interpreter. You go on to get married and raise a family together. What can you tell us about your partner in life and your family?

PE: My wife and I have two wonderful kids. Our son is a video editor and our daughter is actress Maya Erskine. Her TV show just dropped today on Hulu. The LA Times has called it the best new show on TV. It's called Pen15. It refers to an old gag about tricking a kid into writing Pen15 on his forehead under the premise of joining a club. As in I am Pen14, you can be Pen15, etc. The poor kid is now walking around with what looks like "Penis" on his forehead. The trick of the show is that Maya and her comedy partner, Anna Konkle, are both thirty-one years old, but they are portraying thirteen-year olds. All the other actresses actually are thirteen-year old kids. As soon as we are done here, Mutsy (his wife) and I are going to turn off all the phones and binge watch all ten episodes. Mutsy is in it too. She plays the mother. The father is played by Richard Karn, who used to be in Home Improvement. He is terrific in the show. I had to show him how to hold drum sticks because he is a drummer in the show. They didn't want his character to be too successful, so I said, "that's easy, make him a drummer in a Steely Dan cover band." (more laughs)

AAJ: That's terrific. My wife and I will have to check that out.

PE: I think you will enjoy it. We have now lived in this house (we were in Erskine's studio located right behind his house) for thirty-two years. Mutsy is not a musician, but she understands the things about music that I am still in need of learning.

AAJ: Such as? That's interesting that you would say that.

PE: How I am breathing when I play. She knows when I am comfortable or not comfortable. The way a certain situation or instrument will make me play. I switched drum companies almost entirely on her hearing me play a drum set one night and liking the way the drums were making me play.

AAJ: This was the switch to Tama from DW?

PE: Yes. It generally comes down to a relationship with an individual at the drum company. Sometimes those go south for whatever reason. But what is priceless, like the old Mastercard ad, is that feeling I get when I think I have found the instrument for me. I have only been married once. I made a good call on that. But it took me four times with the drums. I started out playing Slingerland. Great drums. Then I started playing Yamaha. They were wonderful drums. Played those for twenty-five years. Then DW, and that was a fun and exciting time to be with that company. But then I started "cheating," if you will. Looking for something else. I bought a couple of drum sets and was trying to find something to satisfy an itch. Not sure what it was.

AAJ: Until you find it.

PE: Yeah, every drum is different. It's not just the way the drum shell is made or the design features. There's a look and feel to the hardware. There's a rapport you get with an instrument because you are handling it almost every day. Taking it apart and putting it together. It can be annoying. So, I figure I am not going to be around that much longer, I don't want to spend my time being annoyed with this shit. Five years with Tama, and I am still just as happy with the way it sounds and the way it plays. So, as I told people at the most recent trade show (NAMM), it feels good to have this shit all settled. I don't have to spend time looking for drumsticks, drumheads, cymbals, etc. Although, I am still looking for the perfect cowbell (he said with a laugh).

AAJ: Well, it's always good to have something to aspire to. You also mentioned in your book that Max Roach's style of play resonated with you much more than that of Buddy Rich. What was it that made that the case?

PE: Buddy Rich was indisputably the Paganini of drums. The greatest in many ways. His kinetic energy. His ability to inspire incredible playing by people on the bandstand and to inspire reaction in the audience. Buddy was great. He was a snare drum centric player. Much of that coming out of the Gene Krupa and Chick Webb kind of thing. As great as that was, it was never something that I felt that I could do. It wasn't something that I was even drawn into learn how to do. I liked listening to it, I just never saw myself doing it. Conversely, Max was a very melodic player. Those contrasting styles are most evident on the record they did together, Rich versus Roach (Mercury, 1959) His approach made total sense to me. Art Blakey's drumming made total sense to me. Elvin Jones's drumming, as mysterious as it still is, made total sense to me. The divine appeal of what he did still appeals to me more than just about anything.
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