Gavin Harrison joined British progressive rockers Porcupine Tree in 2002 on the cusp of recording the groundbreaking CD, In Absentia. Since then, the drummer has found time between touring and recording with Porcupine Tree to work on a variety of outside projects, including a globally acclaimed series of instructional books and DVDs covering his cerebral theories on beat displacement and rhythmic illusions. Gavin’s subtle, tasteful grooves, punctuations of flair and amazing independence have inspired an increase in both his popularity among the fans and his profile in the drumming community. If you weren’t able to catch Gavin’s playing on tour with Porcupine Tree in support of its latest release, Fear of a Blank Planet, be sure to check out the band’s excellent live DVD, Arriving Somewhere.
Metal Edge: Your latest instructional DVD, Rhythmic Horizons is amazing. How have your concepts of rhythmic displacement evolved as your series of books and DVDs has progressed?
Gavin Harrison: Rhythmic illusions are something I’ve done so many times that it seeps through emotionally and becomes sort of a sixth sense when I’m playing. Interestingly enough, I was just [at a clinic] in Frankfurt where I had to do three half-hour performances. I was worried about playing my piece called “Nineteen Days,” because it’s very complicated. I played “Futile” and “The Sound of Muzak,” which some of the people knew and could relate to. So I thought, with a completely random audience, I’ll try playing a quite tricky composition like “Nineteen Days,” which is, of course, in a nineteen-eight time signature. I thought it would really die on its ass, but the crowd was cheering halfway through! It’s quite a delicate piece; it’s not got a metal or a heavy rock edge, but surprisingly they really liked it and that was encouraging.
Metal Edge: Are there examples of how your displacement concepts can be integrated into a more traditional hard rock, approach?
Gavin Harrison: Not to a four-on-the-floor approach, but when you hear bands like Meshuggah, they’re doing fantastic rhythmic designs between the drums and the guitars. They do some really advanced rhythmic concepts and that’s what attracts me to their music the most. Perhaps some of the listeners don’t realize it and are enjoying it on a different level. But I know that’s one of the reasons that I really like them.
Metal Edge: It seems that a lot of the time in metal music, players are concentrating on speed. Are you aware of many Metal guys playing in odd times?
Gavin Harrison: Apart from Thomas Haake from Meshuggah, I really like this Swedish drummer, Morgan Agren. I’ve only heard him on a couple of things, one being a solo album by Meshuggah’s guitarist, Fredrik Thordendal. Morgan played drums on that and was absolutely phenomenal. It’s one of the best records I’ve ever heard, actually. I’m not really a speed drummer. I shy away from it, because I think you can say more in the spaces than you can say by filling every tiny hole with really fast notes. You’ve got nowhere to go if you just play 64th notes on the bass drum. There’s no real level above that: you’re at the maximum. If you start off the very first song of the set with that, it’d be pretty tough to follow. Everything after would be a bit of a disappointment (laughs).
Metal Edge: In a recent interview, you said, ‘The beauty of rhythmic illusions is that it’s a concept rather than a physical technique…it lends itself very well to death metal.’ Can you elaborate on that?
Gavin Harrison: ‘Yeah’ he says, not even knowing what death metal is (laughs). I think I was just trying to find an extreme; it can lend itself to any music. It’s just pure rhythm. If you’re playing Country, Dixieland jazz, Be-bop or even a Top 40 gig – anything – those concepts can apply to you. What I liked about my book (Rhythmic Illusions) is that it should be applied to the specific user. There’s no real point in trying to play exactly what I play in the book. The interesting part is when the concepts are applied to your style of music and your situation. Rhythm is just rhythm. The attitude is something else.
Metal Edge: You’ve also said that players don’t need a lot of chops to play your stuff, but they need a lot of gray matter.
Gavin Harrison: Yes. It doesn’t require any real physical technique; it’s just a mind over matter thing. You have to ask yourself to play something you’ve played a million times, but starting in a very strange place in the bar. That concerns your perception of rhythm. Suddenly, it becomes really hard, even though your limbs are doing exactly what they’ve done a million times. And that’s why (laughs) it makes your brain hurt! I realized years ago that to really make my personality come through in music, the ideas were going to have to come from my brain. I’ve got no inspiration in my fingers or my biceps. They can move the sticks at the speed I want them to move, but when I’m presented with a new song my muscles have got no ideas (laughs). It’s the ideas that always attracted me. Someone like Stuart Copeland springs to mind – what he plays isn’t technically difficult, but no one else thought of it. 95% of the things I play today I had enough technique to play twenty years ago, but I didn’t have the brain capacity. For me, it’s much more rewarding to work on mental concepts and to exercise the big muscle in my head.
Sizes: 17”x22” Bass Drum, 14”x16” and 12”x14” Floor Toms, 9”x12”, 8”x10” and 8”x8” Rack Toms, 5”x12 Snare, 6”x14” Cottonwood Snare, 5”x14” Black Steel Snare
Sticks: Vic Firth Rock Model
This article was originally written for Metal Edge Magazine as part of a monthly column by Gail Worley (under the pen name Jayne Rollins). With the magazines’ dissolution, the article has been added to the content base of The Worley Gig for our readers’ enjoyment.