Gunnar Olsen is a New York-based musician who performs both live and in the studio very often. He has performed with The Exit, Big Data, Mother Feather, The Goo Goo Dolls, and even the boss. Mr. Bruce Springsteen. You are going to hear all about how that came to be in this interview. He represents C&C drum company, Zildjian Cymbals, Remo Drumheads, Vater Drumsticks, GoPro, Big Fat Snare Drum, Big Ear N.Y.C., Ableton and Reflexx.
Becoming a session player
Gunnar talks about how back when he was playing with The Exit originally, he believed that what he wanted out of his career was to be a band guy. A rock star type. That was where his head was at. But as he continued on his path with music he started getting calls to do other stuff for other people. Eventually, The Exit fizzled out and by this point, Gunnar was finding himself doing a lot more session-based work. It wasn’t really the goal when he set out to pursue music but it became his experience either way.
As Gunnar explains in the interview, he was being taught many important things about how to do a session gig to best suit the music, artist, and the producer. It is a discipline to simplify your playing in order to get a thumbs up from the producer. Is it really necessary to get attached to your performance on the record or to just do what is satisfying everyone else who is involved? This is a very interesting point of the conversation. On the other side of the coin, sometimes it is a great thing to really push the envelope and create something particularly special on the drums. I suppose that is a matter of good judgment, experience, and intuition.
In any case, as you will hear in the episode, Gunnar has become a very active player in the New York scene and recording remotely for other people abroad.
The Bruce Springsteen thing
To lay down drums for the Boss has to be one of the greatest feelings a session player can experience in his/her lifetime. A major triumph and validation that you are doing something right. The tracking for Bruce’s new album “Western Star” happened a few years ago. Gunnar wasn’t sure if the music was ever going to be released, but sure enough this summer it happened. He finally had the chance to tell the world what he had participated in. And you are getting that story told for the first time publicly on this podcast. What a treat!
The story of how Gunnar got this gig and the events that took place at Bruce’s home studio at his ranch is larger than life really. You can tell that Gunnar has rehearsed this story by living with it for so long and telling his close buddies in sworn secrecy. I won’t spoil it in this article, but what I will mention is how Gunnar knew how to read a situation and provide what was truly preferred by Bruce. This must be incremental as well considering the other two cats who laid down tracks previously to Gunnar. But a combination of having a producer’s ear for drumming and intuiting a situation based on a keen observation made by Gunnar definitely had to play a role in why you are hearing him on that record. I actually included the tune “Sundown” at the end of this podcast from Bruce’s new record. And yes, that is Gunnar on drums.
A producer’s ear
I think that this is an often-overlooked “chop” by drummers. We tend to focus on the technical prowess that we possess on our instrument and less often employing a producer’s ear towards what we perform. Music isn’t just about drumming and I realize this isn’t news to many people.
What I am getting at though is that many of us, I think anyway, are looking to constantly improve our abilities on the drums and rightly so! But we cannot simply focus on that. We also need to look at how our natural eq is in the mix when we play, what sounds we select for any given song, the effectiveness of our fills that we use and this applies to the grooves that we use too. It all plays a role in the delivery of the music and drums have a lot to do with setting the pace on this stuff. Of course, all of the instruments involved in a piece of music have to be considered, but drums really do have a profound place in this and it isn’t something I hear much discussion about.
Like you, I see so many incredible session players who know what to do with this and can fit in nicely with their playing and even inject their distinct sound into a piece of music but we are observing that. So Gunnar and I have a go with this subject and I think there are some valuable nuggets in there for listeners to check out.
What should we focus on?
Gunnar talks about how he isn’t interested so much in being an engineer. Like any skill, much time is required to become great at something. With time invested in one thing, means that less time can be afforded for other things. Gunnar COULD dive headfirst into engineering but he is far more interested in producing and drumming. Between those two things, he could easily spend a lifetime growing and he just isn’t keen on including engineering into that mix.
I think what is important for people to consider is to really hone in on a couple things at a time. Take your time to truly explore a skill and develop it through your honest interest and passion for it. There is no better way to see what is possible within yourself by being selective and intentional like that with learning. I really like that message. It is really easy to get tempted into other things by the vast quantity of tutorials and so on out there but it is common to be really into something for a short while and discover that you aren’t truly into it once the honeymoon phase wears off. Be observant of your level of interest in what you pursue.
Music used in this episode:
“When Will Today Be Tomorrow” - Gunnar Olsen
“Sundown” - Bruce Springsteen “Western Stars”
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