Beating the skins from across the musical spectrum, Preston Nash gives ReGen a drummer’s perspective on life as a professional musician.
An Interview with Preston Nash
By: Ilker Yucel
Drummers and percussionists are an interesting breed of musician, one whose actual significance to any band or musical entity can easily be overlooked. After all, they are often relegated to the very rear of the stage area, rarely seen up front or allowed to engage in any of the histrionic flourishes of the rock star persona that vocalists or guitarists regularly enjoy. Of course, there are those drummers who by virtue of their abilities to stand out, be it due to accomplished skill and musicianship or due to an exuberant and occasionally frantic demeanor a la Keith Moon or The Muppets’ Animal, manage to break the mold and come to the fore. Here to give us a drummer’s perspective is Preston Nash, whose body of work is a veritable cornucopia of musical achievement. Having made a name for himself drumming for such diverse groups as Primer 55, Dope and Society 1, embracing styles as varied as nu metal, industrial, jazz, and good old fashioned rock & roll, Nash is also a California radio personality and producer. His talents have taken him around virtually every area of the musical world, from the excesses of rock & roll to the intellectual stimulation of academia. Nash gives us his thoughts on the failings of the music industry, the challenges and rewards of life as a professional musician, and lets us in on what he has in store for his audience.
First of all, let’s start with your background. Tell us about your musical upbringing and how you came to be involved in the music industry. What was it about the drums that appealed to you and that continues to inspire and motivate you today?
Nash: I remember the very first rock song I heard. I was in kindergarten, and it was a 45 of The Beatles ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ and I loved it. Shortly after, for Christmas my folks made the mistake of getting me a little toy snare drum, which was busted in about three days. But it gave me the bug and I wanted to keep going, but my parents didn’t want to deal with the noise of drums in the house. Soon I got into bands like KISS and Cheap Trick, building cardboard box and plastic pail drum sets and wailing along. There was just something about the drums that moved me, especially big toms: Gene Krupa and ‘Sing Sing Sing,’ the Peter Criss ‘100,000 Years’ marathon…I couldn’t get enough and still can’t. Eventually, I got my first kit at around 14 using some money I had from after school jobs, with my parents covering the rest. From there, I combined teaching myself by playing along to records with drum lessons, learning to read and play rudiments and such. I formed garage bands, started playing clubs at 16, spending weekends in NYC practicing and gigging, and just building from there. I put myself through college, getting three degrees in music, including a Masters in Theory/Composition. I took every gig I could, played with as many musicians as I could, and in the process met Tripp Eisen, and we played in countless bands together, the last one being Dope, which launched me to some bigger things. Since that first drum set, I knew that music was the only thing I wanted to do with my life, and knowing that is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because many people struggle to find their purpose in life; I knew mine. A curse because anything other than music could never satisfy me for any length of time, and life as a musician ain’t always easy. As for motivation, it’s just getting off on music, both what I hear, play and create.
Most people probably wouldn’t notice or even consider the sort of formal education you’ve had as being entirely necessary in terms of rock music. In what ways have you noticed this sort of attitude in your experience, either among fans or the bands you’ve played with? In what ways do you feel that music education has benefited you, not just in terms of your performance and composition, but also in your ability to work with others?
Nash: Formal music education has nothing to do with success or failure in rock music. Many of the best and most legendary musicians in rock couldn’t read one note of music. That’s fine. I chose the path I did because I knew that a career as a rock star is a one in a million shot at best. I wanted to make sure I could have a career in music somehow, even if it wasn’t as a rock star. I was lucky to have a taste of rock stardom for a few years, and now I’m also glad to still be able to make music my living through teaching and playing, even if I don’t live on a bus anymore. That being said, being able to read music has definitely helped me out in my rock career. The classic example is my first time playing with Society 1. They were opening for Primer 55 on a tour, and their drummer busted his ankle a few shows in. I volunteered to fill in for him, got their CD, and played the very next night and for the rest of the tour. I was able to notate the drum parts and read them onstage as I played. Without that ability to read and write music and understand notation, I wouldn’t have been able to take over the Society 1 drum seat in literally one day. So, even with an industrial metal band that has a singer with a metal penis welded on his mic stand, being able to read music can come in handy.
In the course of your career, what have you found to be the major challenges that you faced and continue to face? Not just as a drummer, but as a musician on the whole?
Nash: It’s tough on your personal life, and that’s an understatement. There are a lot of sacrifices that go along with a musician’s life, loved ones sometimes being one of them. And it’s not always easy financially. You’ve heard the joke; three men are speaking to St. Peter as they arrive at the pearly gates. The first says, ‘I was a doctor and made one million dollars a year.’ The second says, ‘I was a lawyer and made two million dollars a year.’ The third says, ‘I died penniless and in debt.’ St. Peter asks, ‘what instrument did you play?’ That’s the unfortunate reality sometimes, unless you struck it rich and kept your money. One of the biggest challenges is the music industry itself, a filthy whore that cares nothing for music, only money, and for the most part always has. But since the early ‘90s I’ve taught drums, which I’m also passionate about: passing the torch to younger drummers. So besides playing, gigging, recording, touring, which isn’t a reliable living these days, I can teach and still make music my career and life.
All too true about the music industry, and it’s now at that point where artists are starting their own labels, building their own studios (albeit on a much smaller scale since music technology and equipment is more affordable), releasing music digitally, etc. What are your thoughts on the way musicians are utilizing new tools to release music on their own terms? As well, what are your thoughts on the way the industry has reacted to this?
Nash: Look… here are my thoughts on Shawn Fanning and Napster and download technology, and it won’t be popular amongst some musicians and peers. Instead of the industry spending millions and millions and millions suing Fanning over Napster, they should have said, ‘You’re a brilliant cat and this technology is amazing. How can we utilize this?’ and they should have given him millions to help them figure it out. The toothpaste was out of the tube; you can’t put it back in. Technology never moves backwards. So the industry should have embraced download technology instead of fighting it. Instead, they wanted to hold onto their cash–cow business model of selling CDs for $20, CDs that had two or three songs that consumers actually wanted, along with nine tracks of filler BS. Kids figured out they could get just the songs they wanted. So instead of the industry being creative, embracing the concept of selling downloadable individual songs instead of entire CDs, saving a ton of money on manufacturing and distribution costs, they fought and fought…and lost. Now, there are virtually no major labels left; they all bought each other and merged. Technology won. And while compressed MP3 files don’t sound as good as uncompressed audio on a CD, it doesn’t matter. Cassettes didn’t sound as good as vinyl records, but convenience made cassettes more popular. We’re a world that thrives on convenience. I can fit 20 CDs’ worth of songs on a device smaller than a cigarette lighter. And I can sort and switch those songs at the click of a mouse. Who the hell wouldn’t want that convenience? It’s the same with bands and recording. Technology now allows bands to record their own music in a digital multi–track format in their bedrooms. Is it as good as recording at Electric Ladyland with Eddie Kramer turning the knobs? Probably not, but who can afford that? I built a home studio with Pro–Tools, an MBox and a Macbook Pro for a couple grand that lets me do nearly as much as I could in a huge commercial studio. It won’t sound as good as a Rick Rubin joint, but it will be radio and release quality. The band I’m currently with, Noctura, did the same thing; their entire album was self-produced on Logic, then just sent to a producer to do the final mix and master. And many bands and musicians are doing this, and if they’re not, they should. Again, this will piss off some people; well, get over it. Welcome to today and the technology that exists. Bands should record and release their own music through the avenues available. As musicians and artists, we play and create music so it can be heard. Who’s to say that big record companies are the only ones who get to say what’s heard or not? Everyone who cared enough to pick up an instrument or write a song should try to explore every possible way to get heard, and to hell with the industry. Because ironically, the industry won’t touch any artist that hasn’t already built up a following using the DYI tools out there. Like I said, and I wasn’t being trite, the music industry is a whore; all that matters is getting paid.
You’ve been involved in various bands and projects over the years, with Society 1, Dope and Primer 55 being among the higher profile acts. As you’ve worked in these and your other bands, how difficult is it for you to work within all the different sounds and styles in which you’ve been incorporated?
Nash: Not difficult at all, really. I’ve always been into many styles of music. I love old big band jazz, I love classical and orchestral music, I love punk, I love rock, metal, funk, blues. To me, it’s not about the genre; it’s about the song or the piece of music. During my college years, I played every classical percussion instrument, focusing most on timpani. I played a ton of jazz gigs and weddings to help pay bills. I took every pick-up gig, either live or in the studio, playing all styles of music. So by the time I got to Dope, I’d been playing drums for about 15 years, played in countless situations, from CBGB’s to Carnegie Hall, and had already played in Europe and throughout Canada. With every new band, there’s always an adjustment period of building up new muscle memory for the new material, but I can usually get it, or pretty close. The harder part than adjusting to the actual music is adjusting to different personalities, and between Dope, Primer and Society 1, there was no shortage of personalities to contend with, including my own.
Mixing genres is certainly nothing new, and you’ve touched on various styles from gothic to hard rock and metal to punk and industrial. What are your thoughts on the validity of such categorizations as it applies to your approach to music? Or are they even valid?
Nash: Those categorizations serve a purpose, I guess, for radio stations, record labels, CD stores. They mean nothing to me or my approach to playing drums or writing music. I write what sounds good to me, regardless of how it may be categorized. That being said, I’m mostly a rock guy, so I’ll go with distorted guitar, bass and drums more than any other instrumentation, just because I like the way it sounds. But I never think, ‘Is this metal? Is this punk? Is this progressive?’ Who gives a rat’s ass? How about, ‘Is this good?’
On the same note, not just in the music you’ve made but also across the spectrum, as more and more bands and artists mix sounds and genres, do you find such categorizations to even apply to modern music anymore?
Nash: Less and less, thankfully. But it is evolution; sounds and genres have always eventually mixed to create something new. Stravinsky added jazz to classical music. The beginning of rock & roll was a mixing of blues and country and jazz. The music out of New Orleans was a mix of not only sounds and styles, but of color, countries and continents. To me, it was always refreshing to hear styles collide. Maybe that’s why I’m such a huge Frank Zappa fan, because there was no style, genre or instrument he didn’t explore at some point. But in more familiar examples, whether it was Kerry King playing guitar on a Beastie Boys song, Eddie Van Halen playing on ‘Beat It,’ Anthrax working with Public Enemy, or Metallica performing with a symphony orchestra, I always loved when artists from different worlds came together. To some degree my perspective is a little different, maybe, because I look at music and its history through a wider spectrum. But back to your original question, those categorizations and pigeonholing labels will exist as long as some suit needs an easier and faster way to sell music to the masses, with no regard for the music itself. Thankfully, with new technology and the Internet, those categorizations are less and less valid these days.
As mentioned, particularly as bands like Dope and Society 1 integrated industrial modes and textures, which traditionally places an emphasis on percussion, how do you find that combining the organic live sound with synthetic programming has benefited you as a drummer and as a musician, if at all? And if at all, in what ways do you feel that it has been a detriment?
Nash: It improves your timing. Drummers practice to a metronome to improve their timing, because it develops that muscle memory of playing more in sync with a perfect mechanical timekeeper. So, if you’re constantly playing along with either programmed samples or backing tracks with a click, as I did with Dope and Society 1, it’s like playing with a metronome in a way. It feels very natural to me to play with a click, and years of touring with Dope and Society 1 contributed to that. On the negative side, you’re locked into whatever’s programmed or on a backing track, so it can be harder to be spontaneous.
You’ve said that you find drum solos boring for the most part, while music with drums as the focal point is cool. From a musician’s perspective, what musical capacity would you say the drums and percussion fulfill besides simply keeping time or providing a beat?
Nash: Well it’s relative to the situation and type of music. Again, in classical music, percussion is for punctuation and dynamics, not timekeeping; that’s the conductor’s job. In jazz, drums keep time but also add color and improvisational drive. But with rock/metal, it is about keeping time first and foremost, and then where it goes beyond that depends on the band and the drummer. For AC/DC, it is simply keeping time and providing a beat, but it’s a great beat and essential to their groove. For Rush, the drums are probably more melodic and memorable than the vocals, honestly. For me, what makes drums interesting is how you craft the beat, dress it up, and where else you take it. Again, I’ll reference Gene Krupa with the Benny Goodman band doing ‘Sing Sing Sing,’ especially the live version from Carnegie Hall. That piece of music is perfect, and the role of the drums really sums up so much of what I love about the instrument. That’s what I’m exploring more and more with the music I’m writing now, more instructional type stuff with that very purpose in mind, to show how you can use different techniques and approaches to crafting drum parts, along the lines of what I did with my Slam! video. I’ll be releasing more of those soon through my website, which is under construction right now.
You’re also a radio personality and producer, so you approach music from the perspective of being a musician as well as a listener and promoter. How do you feel these areas complement each other from a creative standpoint?
Nash: I don’t know if my radio career influenced my music, honestly. Maybe it should have more; I’d probably be making more money.
Let’s talk about what you’re working on now. What is your current or most recent project? How has working on this compared to past experiences and how do you feel it is adding to the challenge and furthering your abilities?
Nash: As I mentioned, I’m writing music with drums more as the focus, and I’m going to be doing more instructional type things along the lines of the Slam! video I did 2 years ago. It’s bringing together all the different sides of what I do with music: play drums, write music and teach. I’ll have the songs available for download and you will get the song both with and without drums, so drummers can use it as a play–along track. I’ll be doing videos for each song as well, again, instructional type thing. This has really forced me to work harder as a drummer than I’ve worked in years, practicing new concepts, pushing and expanding my own boundaries. I always battle with a little bit of an identity crisis as a player, sometimes dwelling too much on things I can’t do versus things I’m good at. I’m finally feeling a little more comfortable in my own skin and identity as a player. I may not have as fast feet as Joey Jordison or play blast beats like Derrick Roddy, but it gives me something to work towards because you never stop learning as a musician, or you shouldn’t. I always want to grow and by focusing more on teaching, hopefully, I’ll be able to help some others grow in their own path as well. I’m building www.prestonnash.net right now – it’s online but it’s a work in progress. I’ve also been working with Sam Ash here in Indianapolis, managing their lessons program and developing some new programs I’m really excited about, especially a rock band boot camp that starts in February. I’m also playing with a band called Noctura since July, a female-fronted band with great songs. We just did a short east coast run, and we’ll be doing more regional touring soon, and we’re working on new material. So I’m definitely busy, and really happy with the musical outlets I have and have created.