A Conversation With ... Mark Kelso
The veteran Toronto drummer/composer/bandleader has been posting intriguing videos of covers while transitioning to life in the pandemic age. Here he discusses the videos, his home recording, life as an educator, and new creative pursuits.
By Bill King
Knowing drummer/composer Mark Kelso the past three decades tells me there's no way he'd homestay and not take advantage of downtime. That's not who he is. Mark is the person you call for a gig, shows at rehearsal ready to chart each song or correct your chart – a perfectionist. He's also the type of guy who listens to a full breadth of music, and if something piques interest, he jumps in and learns for himself – not surface learning but going to the core of the song – dissects and perfects.
Here's a quick snap - he has worked/recorded with a wide array of artists such as Pat Metheny, Donny McCaslin, Laila Biali, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Michael Bublé, Changuito, David Clayton-Thomas, Holly Cole, Larry Coryell, Eliana Cuevas, Paquito D'Riveria, Hilario Duran, David Foster, Dave Grusin, Herbie Hancock, Olivia Newton-John, Molly Johnson, Chaka Khan, Pat LaBarbera, Donnell Leahy, Natalie MacMaster, Bob Mintzer, Peter Murphy (Bauhaus), Donny Osmond, Danilo Perez, Chris Potter, Jovino Santos Neto, NOJO, Bonnie Raitt, Maria Schneider, John Scofield, Ron Sexsmith, Mike Stern, Soul Stew, James Taylor, Susan Tedeschi, Ian Tyson, Gino Vannelli, Carol Welsman and his own Juno award-nominated band, The Jazz Exiles.
Mark runs Groovy Drums Studio, where he records drum tracks for many artists around the world. To date, he has played on over 285 recordings.
What caught my interest, Mark has been posting videos of covers – drums and track – of Tower of Power, Bob Mintzer Big Band, Hilario Duran, and Snarky Puppy. These are confident and supremely executed. I spoke to Kelso about the impetus behind this and the tools needed.
Bill King: You've had to adjust from being a busy educator, session drummer and live performer. How difficult has the transition been?
Mark Kelso: The transition came faster in some areas, but slower in others. I'm still doing recording sessions for people out of my home studio, but the live gigs stopped almost immediately, so that's been rough. Teaching classes at Humber kept going for four more weeks once all this started happening, so that gave me some sort of normalcy by seeing my students on a weekly basis. We're eight weeks in now, and I'm starting to feel it. I'm missing playing live a lot right now.
B.K: You have quite the home set-up for recording. How long have you been building and expanding, and what are your tools – microphones, recording, etc.?
M.K: I started all this back in 2000 when larger studios started closing down in the city. That's also around the time that digital home recording became an option, which meant I didn't have to have a 2-inch tape machine in my house. That was a significant change. I've built the pieces bit by bit over the last 20 years, so I kind of grew into the studio. I use pretty standard equipment - Logic X, Yamaha 01V96 digital mixer, Beta 52 (kick), Shure SM57 & 58 (snare x2), Neuman Km184' 's (overheads), Audix D2&D4's for toms and an AKG C451 for the hi-hat. From years of session work, I was able to set the mic up the way I saw pro engineers do it. I can get a pretty good drum sound now.
B.K: Are you teaching online?
M.K: I've done some private stuff on Skype in the past, but the sound quality is pretty rough, so not my favourite thing to use. At Humber, I used Zoom, but it proved just a bad with audio quality and time lag. I ended up having to do videos for all my examples and use those because playing live was impossible.
B.K: Now, the videos – the covers of various bands. What's the thought behind this?
M.K: Well, as I mentioned, I started having to do video examples of my playing for Humber classes, and I just went from there. I started with iMovie and then graduated to Final Cut Pro. Thankfully, they are very similar apps to use. There's plenty of tutorials online, which I used to learn the program. Once I had the school stuff done, I thought it would be fun to stay creative and make my videos as well. So far, it's been an excellent and fun thing to be working on while there are no live gigs.
B.K: How long does it take to create?
M.K: One six-minute video can take between 4-8 hrs to make, between the recording and mixing of music, the video shoot (I'm up to 4 cameras now) and the video editing. It's very time consuming, but each time gets a little faster as I learn more shortcuts. The chief pain is playing a great take and then finding one of the cameras didn't work or ran out of space. It's very annoying when that happens.
B.K: You are using a variety of cameras positioned at various angles. Editing must be trying. Go Pros?
M.K: It's pretty simple. I'm using two iPhones and two iPads. I bought a few stands on Amazon, so it's easier to position cameras now. Editing takes a while, as you know, but I'm getting pretty fast at matching the cuts with the music. Helps to be a drummer for the timing of that, haha.
B.K: Unlike some, you use the off-time to learn. What has been the new conquest?
M.K: I just have to stay creative and put my energy somewhere. I can't just sit around and do nothing. Our time is valuable here, so we should try and make the most of it. The new conquest has been shooting the videos. It's not something I've had many experiences at doing myself. I've always had professionals do them. I still get some practice time on the kit as well.
B.K: Final Cut Pro?
M.K: Yeah, it's a wicked program. Pretty easy to learn too, which is a big plus for me. I'm just getting started, so eventually, I'll work out some new tricks, hopefully.
B.K: Lots of family time. What goes on in the Kelso house most days?
M.K: Well, we have our new puppy, Olive, who is a Golden Lab, Great Dane, Mastiff mix. She pretty much needs constant attention, so Patricia and I have been doing puppy duty full-time every day. The kids are helping as well. Patricia is a real estate agent, so she's still working in a limited capacity, and I'm again writing music for the Jazz Exiles. I'm still involved with faculty meetings for next semester at Humber in the fall as well.
B.K: What's playing in the background, and what new music has caught your attention
M.K: The new Metheny recording From This Place is fantastic. Metheny is one of my favourite artists. He's so versatile and always trying to be creative. Nate Smith's stuff is pretty cool as well. The new Monkey House is still getting a lot of play (even though I played drums on it). My students have also hipped to artists like P.J. Morton and Cory Wong. It's great to be around the students for that kind of thing.