This is a reprint of a 1993 interview that originally appeared in “The Rhythm Section,” a newsletter published by Rhythm Tech, a percussion accessory manufacturing company in Mamaroneck, NY.
By Paul G. Hichak
Going out on tour with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker a/k/a Steely Dan is supposed to be somewhat of a serious exercise, right? Well, don’t tell that to Peter Erskine. He sounds like he’s having too good of a time.
“All I can tell you is that putting this tour together has been nothing but fun. They’re both great guys to work with. It’s pretty exciting when it gets to be 8:00 PM or 8:30 PM when the show starts. We do “The Royal Scam,” “Bad Sneakers,” and “Aja” … this whole kind of instrumental overture. Then Donald and Walter walk out on stage and the place goes nuts. They shake hands and we start playing a bunch of tunes. It’s a lotta fun.”
The Rhythm Section recently spoke to Peter Erskine who filled us in about what it’s like to be occupying the drum chair on the hottest tour of the Summer.
What led to your involvement with the Steely Dan tour?
I know that both Donald and Walter are great fans of Jazz music. My relationship started with Walter, actually. He called me to play on a Rikki Lee Jones album … we had a great time working with each other. After that, Walter started calling me for some other projects, like Michael Franks and some instrumental things; he was producing Jazz recordings. Then I didn’t hear from Walter for a while.
Then came…”The Call.”
I started hearing rumors about a Steely Dan tour and was just as curious as everybody else as to who would be the drummer. And the next thing I knew my wife called me up while I was working in Europe with my trio. She was all excited and said, “Guess what? Walter Becker just called and he asked if you wanted to do the Steely Dan tour this Summer.” So, needless to say, the answer was yes.
For a man of your talent, you still sound surprised.
I had my doubts about doing the gig, even though I really wanted to. I was getting so immersed when I got the call … I was just getting so much into this kind of European trio music that it was a real 180 degree change of direction.
Well, Tom Moon writing in Musician magazine described the choice of Peter Erskine as “inspired.”
It was very generous of him to say that and Walter’s response was even nicer. I have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that Walter and Donald gave me the chance to do this. Obviously, this is an arena of music that most people don’t associate me with. So I regard it as a pretty generous act of faith that they recognized something in my playing.
From there, how did things develop?
We rehearsed for almost a month. Actually, it was three and a half weeks of rehearsal. I was joking that, geez, in Jazz you’re lucky if you get three and a half hours of rehearsal. But it really paid off. We’re dealing with over 30 songs. It’s a whole different responsibility playing a show like this as opposed to going out and blowing some Jazz tunes. Which I love to do … but this is particularly thrilling.
How’s the tour been going?
The tour started out being a month. It’s been referred to as a hot ticket.
The hottest ticket of the summer.
I would guess so because every show is sold out, certainly within an hour or so of tickets going on sale. So every few days we keep getting revised itineraries that go a few days longer. So now it’s going to be a six week tour.
Are Becker and Fagen as picky on the road as they’re reputed to be in the studio?
You know, I worked with Walter in the studio and despite whatever legends or stories have gone around … I found him to be a real gentlemen and lots of fun to work with. They’re perfectionists. I wouldn’t use the word picky. Picky somehow connotes that they focus on minuscule things that might not be so important. They are specific as to what they want and what they hear. At the same time they’re very generous in letting things happen up there. So they’re not control freaks. And I’ve worked with musicians who are control freaks.
What’s the playing been like?
It’s really fun. I never knew how much fun it could be to play a bass drum on 1 and 3 and a snare drum on 2 and 4. Geez, I felt that years have gone by and I’ve missed something that a lot of other drummers have known. And, it’s not easy to do … to get it lay right. But it’s just as satisfying as the interactive Jazz drumming that I like to do. And in some ways it’s more satisfying. It just really feels good. I started playing professionally when I was pretty young. I was 18 when I went on the road. I did my growing up in public. But right now, I feel like I’m going to the best school in the world.
Oh sure. First off, I mean, the tunes are great. Getting to play them with Donald and Walter … they both have such a great sense of time. An unerring sense of what works. And they’re still very generous as far as big band leaders to let us do our thing. It’s a really good combination of players and elements and they let it do its thing.
What’s the highlight of the tour been so far?
For me, when we get off stage and Donald’s smiling and he just says, “Yeah, the grooves were great tonight.” Because that’s the whole point of being out here. And each city has its own energy. It’s very different from playing Jazz clubs, I’ll tell you that.
Having never played on a Steely Dan studio album, is it hard to play up to what people expect from hearing the music on records?
No, not at all. First of all, the drum tracks are so great on every one of those records. We’re talking about players like Jeff Porcaro, Bernard Purdie, Jim Keltner. I consider the drum tracks part of the tune. They become part of the construct of the song and so it’s a great starting point. You know I think when I was younger … one, I wouldn’t have been able to do this gig. And two, the reason being I would have felt the ego need to leave more fingerprints at the scene of the crime.
As I was preparing for this tour by listening to the recordings, I realized that it’s so great playing just real simple. And it’s the open spaces that really count. I knew this intellectually, to some degree, in Jazz. The more we rehearsed the music with Steely Dan I realized it’s just not when you play the notes; but it’s when you don’t play the notes. It’s the whole release in the space between things. And Donald’s very specific about that kind of phrasing. And the chance for self-expression is all over the place in terms of the wave or flow. It’s that subtle phrasing of how you get the thing moving. It says an awful lot about the musician that’s doing it. It leaves a very strong mark on the music.
Are you an advocate of drummers’ mastering percussion?
Oh, positively! Actually, there are even a couple of spots during the show that I’m picking up a tambourine during some keyboard intros. I’ve always liked percussion. I wanted to be a classical percussionist, at one point. I love all kinds of music, including Latin music; so I was building a nice collection of instruments ever since I was a kid. And my teacher was a professor at Indiana University. He always felt that a well played note on a triangle was just as artistic as a violin cadenza in the orchestra or a great drum solo. It all has to do with touch and taste. Hey, if it’s right … it’s right.
When is it right for you?
When it comes to certain kind of rhythm things, particularly like shaker or tambourine tracks. I like the way I can really lock up with my own Hi Hat or Ride Cymbal beat. So a lot of times in recording I’ll be asked — or even volunteer — to put a shaker or tambourine track on. Just to give it something extra. And it always works great. I hate it when I’m in the studio and I don’t have any shakers or tambourines with me. I’ve been on a few dates when we didn’t have anything and tried to improvise shakers out of some uncooked rice in soda cans. It sounded horrible.
I hope you’ve solved that problem.
I now keep with all my drum kits — I have kits in New York, Boston and Los Angeles — a percussion kit where I have all different Rhythm Tech Shakers and Tambourines because on almost every record I do I’m going to play some percussion. Then this influenced my live work. I love Rhythm Tech Eggz Shakers. Of all the egg shakers out there, I think they’re the best sounding and I really like the way they play. It just must be what’s ever inside of the things.
Any situations come to mind?
I started using them a lot for the various Jazz groups I was playing with. Sometimes in the introduction to a tune, instead of playing brushes, I’d play the Eggz. It’s a great sound … it’s a different sound. And visually it’s kind of a nice thing, too. So I always have at least two Rhythm Tech Eggz in my stick bags.
How do you encourage other players to use percussion accessories?
If you’re going to play in a band and other members want to pick up a percussion instrument and start playing it, it’s better that they pick up something that you know is going to sound good. I always feel good if people in the group want to start playing percussion and I hand them a couple of Rhythm Tech Studio Shakers — the small black ones. I know it’s going to be a good, smooth sound.
So having the right percussion accessories is always an asset.
It occurred to me that every percussionist should have a percussion bag of tricks, as it were. There are all sorts of situations where you’re gonna want to have a tambourine or a Shaker handy. I consider them almost as a part of my drum kit.
In closing… could you sum up what it’s been really like being on tour with Donald and Walter?
The audience responses are such a kick. By the end of the night when everyone is standing up, thrusting their arms, punctuating all of the lyrics that they know, and singing along … it’s really cool. It makes you feel good to see so many people having a good time.