Interview with US Drummer, Teacher Brett Campbell
in Modern Player Music Magazine, Beijing, 2013

What inspired you to begin playing drums and what inspires you now?
Sound. Sounds captivated me and activated my imagination. In the west around that time, the early 1960’s, music just exploded. Folk, rhythm & blues, soul, surf, space, exotica, Brazilian, gospel, blues, all kinds of Black music, rock & roll, country & western, movie soundtracks, British bands, all was on the radio and television constantly. Being the youngest of 5 children I got to hear what my family was listening to, but quickly found my own path. AM radio played everything, all kinds of music. Late at night, at age 8 or 10, I could listen to the really good DJ’s at radio stations far away, Chicago, Kansas City, New York, Philadelphia because the radio signal travelled farther at night. I got to hear all the cool music and then go try to find the records at the music store. Most of all it was the sounds, the clean Fender guitar sound, the syncopation of the rhythms. I spent hours every single day devoted just to listening to records. I need to do more of it now.
The same thing, sounds, inspires me now. In addition, in recent years I get inspiration from knowing the cultural context and the personal history of the music and its people. Also, the many things I have experienced and learned in my life influence me to appreciate good musicianship and recognize when people have done their homework and are able to contribute something new to the art form. It’s difficult to create something new because so much has been done already, but it’s not impossible. I get a lot of personal benefits from playing my instrument.

What are the most important things a drummer needs to know to play well?
There’s not a lot to know about playing drums but it takes a lot to know it. I’d say start from these two things and build upon them constantly: 1, know where the beats are deeply, internally, really know precisely. Accurate measurement of the time allows you to subdivide correctly. Your notes will feel more substantial, ideas will be clearer, more effective, and your grooves deeper; 2, learn to let go of tension, use relaxed muscles; use momentum instead of force.

What is the role of the drummer in a group?
There are many. You can be conductor…you lead the group in the performance. You set the tone both with your own personality and with the tone of what and how you play. By not using all your power shows strength, gives the music headroom and connects to the listener on their level. The type of groove or flavor you choose colors the feeling of the song. Providing stability, forward momentum and flexibility all at the same time takes experience. Drummers in most situations are there to add support for the song, the singer, the soloist, everyone really. Everyone needs impeccable time, not just the drummer. To me the best drummers aren’t the ones who stand out too much by overplaying. I’ve been working on integrating my sound into the music recently. Removing ego.

How old is the drum set and how / when / where was it born?
Before the 20th C there were no drums in American music, believe it or not. We all know drums have been around forever but the unification of the snare, toms, bass and cymbals into one instrument occurred rapidly around 1900, mostly in New Orleans. If you’ve never heard the New Orleans Second Line musicians, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Those musicians took European military drum rhythms and methods and West African rhythms and combined them in a slippery way which was the beginning of all American music that followed throughout the 20th C. Even today, the 3-3-2 thing (pulse on ‘1’, the ‘+’ of ‘2’, ‘4’) is used more than ever worldwide.

What is talent and how does one get it?
There are many opinions about this and I, too, have tried to find this answer. I know what it is, it’s more difficult to pinpoint where it comes from. I came up with a definition one time, I like. It goes: talent is the ability to do the right thing fairly quickly. Where does it come from? Talent can be grown, no question. Knowing how we learn makes it easier to know how to acquire abilities. While I do not believe that everyone is born with some sort of universal sameness per se, what matters more is what inspires people combined with the quality of their learning, the quality of their practice.

What are the major cultural differences between American music and Chinese music?
I cannot speak very much about Chinese music, I am sorry. What I have heard in your country has truly been some of the most beautiful and touching melodies I have ever heard. Watching the 2013 CCTV Spring Festival Gala, my jaw dropped when I watched/listened to Na Ying sing In Spring and heard some of the other folk melodies. I have found some truly astoundingly beautiful music. It just makes my jaw drop and my eyes water. The immensity of the scale of Chinese culture is indescribable…on every level: beauty, architecture, food, history, future, flexibility…all. The musicians and singers in China, the ones who are really good, are truly capable of expressing the sentiment of an entire culture. It’s powerful.
It’s difficult for me to define an American style in recent years. China has so many important, unique cultural contributions…the written language, paper, fire, etc. However, what art form is unique to the US? I can only think of this one: African American music: blues, all kinds of jazz, gospel, rhythm & blues, soul, funk, etc. The one thing in common was the Black experience. It is a terrible and sad history. The beautiful part of it is the music. The thing is, the music came out of living experience. The things African Americans suffered through are very, very important in the creation of the music. The point is that young Chinese musicians can consider their own experience and let the music be an expression of that.

How does a person develop his or her own unique sound?
Everyone already has their own sound…your sound is who you are at any given time. The quality of that sound can be improved, however. One can have a wide scope of life experience and have a wide sound, or one can have a narrow range of experience and have a narrow sound. One can be really loose and relaxed and their sound is that way. Tight, contracted individuals will have this tight sound. Sometimes the most relaxed people can have the tightest sound. Music is an honest profession. Players who you can readily identify by their notes are rare, but I believe it is because they have become so comfortable with themselves and have had so many experiences that they are able to select and express things in their own unique way. It goes beyond what kind of drums, tuning and cymbals you use. To me, that is not really your sound.

How has playing drums affected your life?
It is as if they are a part of my body, I cannot imagine being without them. I must play every day, at least some cymbals. It’s like eating, sleeping or breathing…I cannot not do it. It’s not as if I’m one of those drum nuts, though. I think of myself first as an artist, second, a person, a musician and teacher third and a drummer, fourth. After playing for so long, I’ve been able to apply the methods of expression and self knowledge I’ve learned through playing to my everyday life. The path of musicianship and my personal, spiritual path have merged completely now. The idea from my practice that every note I play is an opportunity to make it the best I can do is the same as that all of my encounters and challenges in my life are gifts for me to overcome my fears and always act from a place of love. haha