Frank Ferrer, one of the most inspiring drummers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, shares his career-changing, mind-changing message that is sure to light a match under your drum throne. From carting a set on the New York City subway five times a day to manning the throne at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, Frank attended the school of hard knocks and earned every bit of his success. His willingness to share his experiences and advice is a testament to his character. I am very honored to present to you Frank Ferrer in the following exclusive interview.
OLD: Why did you start playing drums?
My father was a lating percussionist growing up. Both of my parents are from Cuba. I grew up in NYC. There was always percussion and music in the house. I was always drawn more toward guitar and horns because they were very musical and powerful. I didn’t know about drum kits because didn’t know about rock music at the time.
When I was around 9 or 10 years old I saw KISS on TV, and they were so outrageous and scary. They were going to be playing Madison Square Garden, so I asked my dad if he would take me. He did. That’s when I knew I wanted to play. I thought I wanted to play guitar because they were up front and running around. The drummer just sat there. But, I always had a natural thing for the drums.
I had a music teacher in school, Mr. Gomez. Along with teaching in the school, he led an inner-city youth chorus. I can’t sing for s***, but he took a liking to me. He asked me if I played anything. I told him that my father had a pair of bongos, and he had me bring them in so I could join the youth chorus. A couple of years later I sat behind a drum set and have been there ever since.
OLD: It’s always amazing when I hear people talk about that one person/teacher that made such a difference in their life. What an impact a person can make…
Mine was Mr. Gomez. Back then I auditioned for the High School of Performing Arts, the one from the movie “Fame.” I tried for it but didn’t get in. I remember sitting in the classroom really depressed. Mr. Gomez knew what had happened and said, “F*** that school. That school doesn’t know anything about music. Just because they say that these kids can get in because they know music, they don’t know what they’re talking about.” It was great to hear this from him because I thought I had failed him a little bit, too. It was those moments that saved my life.
I always ask every musician that I meet, “What are you doing?” especially up and coming guys. If you do it because you love it, then everything that goes with it is great.
What advice do you have for other drummers in regards to accomplishing their goals/dreams?
The one thing I’ve tried to live by is this: get a full night’s sleep. I like to close my eyes, go to bed and know that what I’ve done that day or the last couple of days is something I’ve wanted to do – no one’s made me do it. I would ask any musician to ask himself, “Why do you do it?” Do you do it because you want a nice car? Or, do you want to satisfy the soul? Satisfy the spiritual?
The path that led me to here… if you would have told me 25 years ago, I probably would have quit. If you told me that I was going to carry my drum set on the subway five times a day, I would have been like, “Hell no!” But, I love what I do. Love what you do. If you love what you do, then you’re going to be ok. Maybe you’ll play Madison Square Garden. Maybe you won’t. But, at least you’ll get a full night’s sleep. People that are around you will want to be around you because your spirit will be right. Everything will be right. That’s my advice: find out why you do it, and make sure you can live with it. If you can, you’ll be fine.
What skills do you think are important for a drummer to be successful on the road?
I don’t know if there’s a simple answer for that, especially in this situation with Guns. There’s a lot of different personalities. One thing I’ve always done in any band I’ve been in is tried to maintain some personal time. I try to grab a good book or something like that, and I just try to step away. I’m not very introverted, but you need to learn to be a little more introverted on the road because space is really limited. In this situation with Guns it’s different, but in most bands I’ve played with we’ve had one tour bus. Get away for a bit. Grab a good book and a cup of coffee.
Actually, I was reading this great book by Patti Smith called “Just Kids.” She lived at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd street, and that’s the neighborhood I grew up in. Now it’s an upscale neighborhood, but when I grew up in Chelsea, it was a poor Latino neighborhood. There were a lot of junkies, and a lot of drugs in the neighborhood. In her book, she describes it exactly the way I remember it growing up. That’s why it’s interesting to me. It’s kind of weird at the same time because I haven’t thought about those thoughts in a long, long time.
There’s this one part in the book where she talks about a doughnut shop. There wasn’t Dunkin’ Donuts and all that kind of stuff in that neighborhood. There was a little doughnut shop that would sell old doughnuts, and they were cheap as hell. Stale doughnuts! They were like 10 cents for an apple turnover, and she describes it in the book. I hadn’t though about that place in 100 years! It’s a great book.
Picking up a good book can really help you get away for awhile.
OLD: How did you land the gig with Guns?
I would hardly ever turn down a gig, even if I couldn’t play it. I played with everybody, and in my heart I knew that if enough people knew who I was, then eventually somebody would recommend me for something, and that’s how I ended up with Guns. I had worked with Richard Fortus, the guitar player, since 1992 on a ton of different projects. I worked with Tommy on some solo stuff and a ton of different projects. So, when Brain’s wife was about to have a baby and needed a drummer to fill in for a couple of shows, they knew that I could play the gig, but they also knew me personality-wise, which is very important. They knew Frank could hang. He’s a good guy. That’s how I ended up with Guns.
Especially in NYC, people have to see you play. In NYC, it’s a live thing. It’s a city of live drumming. You’ve got to play live to get put on and to get noticed. That’s how I got my first band called “The Beautiful,” which were signed to Warner Brothers. I started playing with this guy who owned a clothing store in NYC. He was a cheesy dude. Horrible singer! But, he had a band and he sponsored shows, and everybody came because they wanted to go to the clothing store and get discounted clothes. So, on Monday nights the place would be packed.
One day the band that ended up being “The Beautiful” played and saw me play. They were about to get rid of their drummer, and that’s how I got into “The Beautiful.”
Playing live and playing with a lot of different people and different styles, even if I wasn’t that great at it… that’s how I ended up with Guns.
Once I got into Guns, I got really comfortable with the situation and began to make it my own. That’s what Brain told me… he’s like, “You know when you get up there, the best way to approach this is to make it your own.” When I got up there I played a bunch of songs the way Brain played them, but then I started making it my own a little bit. Axl liked what I was doing, and that’s why I ended up playing five songs on the record.
OLD: When playing the same songs each night, how do you keep it exciting?
There’s a lot of songs I play the same. To me, being confident and relaxed up there is the most important thing. It’s usually the first five or six songs I play the same way. It builds confidence and helps me relax and get in the mood. Then, I might change some parts after that, but most songs I’ll play the same. What’s exciting for me is just being there because sometimes I can’t even believe it all. I can’t believe it sometimes. If I can hear that the man, Axl, is having a good time, that’s very exciting for me. If he’s up there and he’s having a good time, turning around, laughing and interacting with me, that carries me for the rest of the show. I mean, there’s been a couple of times where he’s not having a good time for whatever reason, and those are the tough gigs, but so far on this leg of the tour, there hasn’t been one.
OLD: If you could only pass one piece of drumming advice on to the next generation, what would that be?
Play the song. Just play the song. Not every song needs a drum solo in it. You don’t have to put an extra note just to stick out. Play the song. Go to the church of Phil Rudd. Go to the church of Charlie Watts. Go to the church of Steve Jordan. Go to those churches. Just play the song. The song is the most important part of being in a band. That’ s what I would tell any musician but especially drummers. If this thing fits, great. If it doesn’t make the song better, don’t do it.
My father used to tell me this: if youever walk off the stage, and the only thing they can talk about is how great the drummer was, you’re not doing your job.