Nick Crescenzo – The Dear Hunter – Exclusive OnlineDrummer.com InterviewNate Brown
I had the chance to sit down with Nick Crescenzo, drummer for The Dear Hunter, before a rockin’ show in Cleveland, Ohio. Nick has the unique ability to easily put his thoughts into words. Step inside the mind of an experienced, touring drummer in this insightful interview.
What is life on the road as a drummer like?
Nick: Oh man… at my level it’s a job, but it’s the best job. You’re up for driving in the rotation; you’re sharing a seat if it needs to be shared. We have a 15 passenger van. We don’t tour in a bus, so it can get a little tight at times, especially with 8 of us in there. There’s not a lot of room to lay down, and then I have to load in my drums, and silly me for choosing a big drum set; I like a lot of cymbals.
At the end of the night after I load [my drum] off stage I have to break it down, pack it up again, load it in the trailer, and then look for a place to sleep or drive over night to the next spot, but it’s alright.
You said you look for a place to sleep. Where do you stay?
Nick: Well, sometimes we stay at fans’ houses… more often than not. I like fans’ houses, but our tour manager, who also does merchandise for us, sets up a little sign that says we need a place to sleep, and then basically we maybe get an average of 5-10 people saying yeah I have enough floor space for you, and then we pick the least awkward out of them. There are some places that we’ve been fortunate enough to stay at repeat houses. They do become friends.
Where you’re at right now in your career, how does life on the road compare to what you thought it would be like before you stated?
Nick: You know, there is always that grand picture, I think, that a lot of musicians have when they’re getting into the idea of being a rock star. They’re like, what do I need to do man? We need to get a band… We need to get a trailer… We need to get out there and hit the road, but there’s a lot of sitting and a lot of waiting. It’s not quite what I thought, but then again there’s so much more to it that I had no idea about, which is really cool. It’s just kind of like behind the scenes stuff – the friendships you make and different personalities on the road, you know.
What do you like most about what you do?
Nick: Having the magical moments on stage with the rhythm section, really. It’s just like when I lock in with the bass and we’re tight and then everything just works. The energy is there. It’s the best man, and yeah, it doesn’t even matter what size venue or if the crowd is into it or not, you know. If we’re up there giving it a 110% and having fun, that’s the best experience night after night. It’s not like we’re up there really to impress the crowd, but at the same time we’re not up there to be disconnected from them. We’re trying to communicate and show them how much fun we’re having and why we make the music that we make, and I think the most fun I have is when we actually just click and make it happen. Yeah, it’s the best.
What do you like least about what you do?
Nick: Setting the tempo the wrong speed for the song and then having to take a break and set it back down. Kind of like last night. I couldn’t see because of the light, so I went to set it to 140 bpm, and I set it to 160 bpm instead. I started tapping on the cymbals and doing my little intro work, and then I was like, this is way too fast, but the bass line already came in and started doing his stuff. I went back to washing and set it back down to 140 bpm. I felt like such an idiot. I felt bad.
When you set the metronome, is it set through everyone’s head set or just yours?
Nick: No, just mine.
What drumming skills do you think are most important in order to do what you do?
Nick: You know, truthfully, I would love to say rudiments are at the utmost importance in order to develop true techniques and chops, but man I never learned rudiments, and I’m still kind of working with that, but pocket and precision are the most important thing that a drummer can develop.
I would hope drummers would continue to, I don’t know, listen to funk and soul and jazz fusion and even just old-school jazz, bebob and just switch it up and hear what it is like when people don’t play right on the beat – hear what it’s like when people play in front of the beat with bebop, and it feels like you’re continually tripping forward downstairs and jumping to catch yourself before you fall, or like when you’re playing on the back of the beat and dragging like a case full of anchors behind you. It’s like so back there, but it sounds so good because you have a bassist that can lock in with you, like I do. I love to be able to switch it up a little, play on the front and the back and the center and every side of the beat, but the people who can’t, it bothers me to no end.
How would you advise guys to learn to play in the pocket?
Nick: You know, you just have to listen to the music. There’s a couple cats I give lessons to and I’ve been teaching for years, and I try to show them what it sounds like to play a shuffle, and they have never heard a shuffle before. These are guys who have been playing for like 5-10 years, and I’m just trying to show them the groove and syncopation, and they just can’t get it through their head. So what I do is turn them on to tunes, like you just need to listen to this and learn it on your own. The stuff I learned to, oddly enough, was Steely Dan, and you know Jeff Porcaro-shuffled stuff, man. He knows what he’s doing. Then there’s also even Aretha Franklin, man [Breaks out singing Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love”] Goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love in my pink Cadillac… [End singing]
Hanging out and bumping and driving. That’s another thing. Driving it. That’s what my band teacher in high school used to say, “Come on! Drive that beat. Drive it!” And, that’s the truth man. When you listen to that music, you understand what the drummers are doing. When I listen to rock music, you know, most people can pick that up, but listening and learning grooves is difficult, man. It’s not easy, so I always try to get people sooner rather than later to pick up a good groove CD and pop it in and try to play it, or you’ll lose the feel altogether and you just become a robot.
What non-drumming skills do you think are needed to make it in the business?
Nick: Well, I would not say I made it yet. If you were looking to make it to my level some skills would definitely be patience. You know, patience, but not laziness. If you’re overly patient to the sense that it will happen, man, you know, it will not happen. If you think you can play this venue in Cleveland and play this venue a year and someone’s going to sign you; it’s just not going to happen. You have to get out there and tour and expand your fan base by getting around the country.
I was playing with a group of dudes in Los Angeles and the name was Figureone. Have you ever heard of KROQ in Los Angeles? They are this big radio station. They did this unsigned band thing, and I jumped in on the band wagon with them and brought the music up. We had this Coldplay sound going, got a lot of attention and started playing Sunset Strip and Santa Monica places. Then we got Best Unsigned Band in Los Angles from LA’s top radio station for rock. So we had something good going, but then we just kept playing the same venues again and again and again, and I just got so burnt out that I was threatening to quit. I was like, dude, if we don’t get on the road I gotta go play with someone else. Then they were like, then we can’t count on you anymore and we’re just worried you’re going to leave us. So they fired me, and the band broke up, and now I’m playing around the United States doing exactly what I wanted to do, but they were lazy. That’s what halted their musical careers: not being hungry enough.
I think that’s another character trait that’s important is being hungry to be a touring musician, and that means sacrifice. You’re not always going to be able to have a 9-5 job and have them be cool with you leaving for a month and a half, so a lot of people live with their parents and don’t make much money in the off season of touring, but it’s because they live to play music and that is the purpose for living and breathing, you know, is playing music. I don’t want to be told what to do by someone else or sit behind a desk. I just want to create an art form and share it with the world, and I understand that mindset more now than I did before – that it’s worth it, man. It’s worth it living with your parents.
In regards to family and loved ones, do you find it difficult to keep in touch while touring?
Nick: Yeah, it’s kind of like the out of sight out of mind thing sometimes, but it’s always good talking to family. I have awesome parents, and I really love them, and it’s not because of anything other than I just haven’t really had the mindset to pick up the phone and go, “Hey mom and dad,” that is the only reason I don’t talk to them. Otherwise, it is really easy to call your parents, to call your girlfriend and talk to them.
Do you memorize your drum parts and play them the same way for each show?
Nick: A little bit of both, I’d say. It’s not so much a rock or a blues song as a musical sound track, the story of a dear hunter, so the visual aspect of it is very important, and that can only be carried out by us playing pretty close to what we wrote in the studio. Now there are parts where I can expand upon an idea or switch it up a little bit, or like in one song I have a beat that is [taps out the beat ], but it’s not like I’m filling, it’s just moving those around a little. In a couple of heavy parts sometimes I’ll throw in a different solo or mix it up a tad or move to a different cymbal, start doing different crashing patterns, but more often than not, I stay pretty consistent to the album.
How do you prepare for your shows?
Nick: I am the worst person to ask that. I don’t get drunk or get wasted before a show or get totally high or anything like that. I just hang out, and man, I ‘ll tell you when I get up on stage and I put all my drums there, I don’t feel anything until I sit down and start dialing in, like exactly where it should be and moving it around to the right spot, and then I start to get a little bit nervous, and like my biggest thing is making sure, especially after this motorcycle accident that causes this hand to go numb during some sets. Yeah, it’s really a pain. I have to hold the stick like this [shows grip], but at any one time the most I’ve ever done is go like this on a pad [mimics drum stick strokes] for a little bit and get harder and harder single stroke, double stroke, and some paradiddles. I just try to relax.
When you’re playing every single day you develop the endurance to be able to go for much longer than if you played once a week, so my warm up was the day before playing, even if it was only like 45 min a day. I should be practicing more. Every drummer should be practicing for at least an hour a day.
Do you think it’s important to get involved in the song writing process beyond laying down the beats?
Nick: It depends, man. If you are a musically-minded drummer, like I can play bass really well, and I can write a little bit on acoustic guitar, and I can sing pretty well. My brother and I grew up with a mother that was a vocal coach and a background singer on Motown records and stuff. My dad is an awesome musician, as well. I think I contribute to the musical process.
If you are a drummer whose focus is on the drums and not the music, the music is support for the drums and not the other way around, then I think you would be a problem in the writing process. If you’re trying to write your parts and make it sound really cool, likeok wait, we should go dadada because it matches with this cool kick pattern, then maybe relax and take a step back and let them work it out, and then contribute to the song. But, if you can sit there and be productive and understand that the job of every instrument is to make every other instrument sound that much better and to contribute to the whole sonically, then yeah I think you’re important to the writing process because then you’re really a band writing together.