May. 08 2006
Keith Harris

Keith Harris

Black Eyed Peas

TAMA :When did you start playing drums?

Keith : Well, it will be 20 years this year. I started out playing drums in church in Chicago where I grew up, and have just been playing ever since.

TAMA : Did you have a drumset in the house?

Keith : Well, it started from playing in church. I always used to go to church early, or for choir rehearsals… anytime the church was open I would go there, because I didn’t have a set at home. So I would just go there early and practice and practice and practice. And finally my grand-momma bought me a drum set out of the Sears catalog (laughs). My first Blackhawk drum set out of the Sears catalog.

TAMA : Did you ever take any lessons or have any formal training?

Keith : I didn’t really have formal training until I went to college at Berklee College of Music in Boston. I took music, because I went to a performing arts high school… so we had music theory classes, drums, drumline and marching band. So it was music all the time, all day, all night. But no private classes, so that didn’t come till Berklee.

TAMA : Have your Gospel roots influenced your drumming in other styles of music, and how is that background reflected in your playing today?

Keith : Oh, definitely. Yeah, it’s definitely influenced my playing and everything. One thing that’s present in Gospel music is the choir director. And the choir director is the center of everything. So pretty much, on my gig with the Black Eyed Peas, Will is kinda like the choir director. He navigates everything that goes on in the show. So playing Gospel music, and playing different styles, different tempos, really prepared me for the Black Eyed Peas gig, where Will freestyles things off the top of his head, and you’ve gotta be ready at a moment’s notice… without a rehearsal, without a cue or anything like that. You just gotta be really attentive. And that’s what Gospel music and playing in church taught me.

TAMA : Who were some of the drummers that influenced you growing up?

Keith : Let’s see… all the Motown drummers, definitely Dennis Chambers, John Blackwell. Oh, there are so many people... Vinnie (Colaiuta), of course. Harvey Mason, and a lot of the old funk stuff… oh man, there’s just so many people (laughs). And there are a lot of guys that a lot of people don’t know about. One guy who taught me a lot of everything that I know as a drummer, who I came up under at my church, is Henry Jones, who was from Chicago as well. And that guy taught me a lot as far as discipline on the drumset, posture and how you’re supposed to sit, and just being a well-rounded musician. Not just playing chops all over the place, but being a part of the music.

TAMA : How did you land the gig with the Black Eyed Peas?

Keith : I met the musical director of the BEP, Printz Board, in New York through a friend of mine from Berklee. I used to live in Brooklyn, so Printz called me up, and said he had a gig for me. He asked me to come do this gig with a group called Star 69, a 3-girl group from California that he was musical directing. So I met Printz, we did a rehearsal, then we did the show, and everything worked out… he liked the way I played. We kept in contact, and maybe a week or two later, he called me about the Black Eyed Peas gig.

So I got the call, and their manager Scott lives in New York, so I had to go to his office and pick up 3 CD’s worth of music, and learn all the songs in like 2 days. They flew me to L.A… I had one rehearsal with the band the night that I flew in, and then one rehearsal with the MCs the next day. And the day after that was a gig in front of 20,000 people at Coachella Music Festival.

TAMA : So you didn’t really have to audition per se… Printz knew your playing and knew that you were capable?

Keith : Yeah, pretty much that’s how it went down, because those guys trust Printz’s opinion. And from the Star 69 gig that we did, he was really impressed with how I learned the music for that gig, and just the groove and the discipline… so he was like, “man you’ll be great for the Black Eyed Peas gig.” They were a little unsure about him bringing me in so last minute, but they were impressed when I came in and had learned the music, and nailed it in one rehearsal.

TAMA : How was that first show for you? Was it pretty nerve-racking or did you feel well-prepared?

Keith : Well, it wasn’t necessarily nerve-racking, but there were little things going on. Like… what I did is write lead sheets of all the songs because there were so many. So I had my hip-hop lead sheets, but of course on gigs like that, you don’t have a music stand or anything, so I had my charts on the floor. And that’s an outside gig, so the wind started picking up, and started blowing all my music away (laughs)… so I’m like, “Bobby, Bobby, catch the music man!” So my tech had to tape it to the floor so it wouldn’t blow away, while I’m trying to watch the floor and watch the hits and the breaks, and then you have Will and other MCs doing crazy stuff and jumping off the stage and all types of craziness going on. I was like, “whoa, this is outrageous.” But it was cool, man. And that’s where that whole choir director thing came in, you just gotta watch.

TAMA : Had you ever played a gig of that magnitude before?

Keith : I think the biggest gig that I did before that was when I did a Gospel gig for the Catholic convention in Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts, where the Patriots play. And I think that was about 30,000 Catholic fans… quite a different crowd than the Black Eyed Peas gig (laughs).

TAMA : After coming aboard, you toured relentlessly with BEP in support of Elephunk, including appearances at the 2004 Grammy Awards, the Democratic National Convention, Saturday Night Live, and the SuperBowl. And this was all part of your first tour… what was that experience like for you?

Keith : Yeah, it was my first tour, and it’s funny because it was supposed to be 3 months… May through September, you know, through the summer. That was 2003. But we didn’t get off the road till Christmas time last year (2005).

But I must say I was extremely blessed to be in that position, to be able to do that. All my friends had been touring, and I was like the last one to get on the road. And it seems like doing this gig has superseded so many gigs, because this band has really just taken off the last three years, with Elephunk and now, Monkey Business. We did over 500 shows in one year. And it was just rigorous, it was crazy, because we would do like a morning TV show, then we would do the stadium show with Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, and then we would do our own club show after that.

And we were flying from here to there, to Paris, to Vegas, it was crazy. It was crazy. But it was definitely a blessing to be able to do that. This band has been phenomenal. And one thing I must say about the band is that, out of all of those shows, I never once got tired of it, because it’s always fresh and it’s always new… because of the energy of the crowds and the energy of the MCs performing.

TAMA : Is there a particular show or event that you guys have done that stands out above the rest as a personal favorite or highlight?

Keith : I would have to say the first time we did the Grammy’s, because that was something I always wanted to do. As a musician, you always want to be with a Grammy Award-winning band, and you always want to play around the world. All my greatest wishes have come true on this tour, it’s just crazy. But I would have to say the Grammy’s… you know, seeing all my heroes and people I look up to, and they’re like my peers now, and I’m like, “wow, I can’t believe this.”

TAMA : Has your drumming changed at all after such extensive touring and playing?

Keith : Yeah, I think it’s affected my playing… in good ways and in bad ways. I’m just being honest. In the good ways, it keeps you on top of your chops because you’re playing every night, and it gives you a good chance to really express yourself with different ideas. On the back end of things, since you’re playing live you can get away with a lot of stuff, whereas when you’re in the studio, you have to be really meticulous about what you play because you don’t have anything to cover you up. So I know the difference between playing live and playing in the studio is a big one for me. And when I got off the road and started doing studio stuff, I thought, “wow, there’s a whole different technique here, I gotta retrain myself to be cleaner and more precise in the studio. Live on the road you can get away with a lot of stuff, because it’s all about the feeling and the energy that you bring on stage. So you can do little tricks and flashy stuff. But in the studio, it’s your technique and your feel that has to come across on tape, instead of the visual aspects of it.

TAMA : What was the writing and recording process like for Monkey Business?

Keith : Well, how we did that record is we were living in London for the summer of 2005. And we all had houses out there – the band had a house, the MCs had a house – and we would all be in the studio every day. We had about 3 different studios going at one time. So, Will had a studio, Printz had a studio, and George had a studio, and we were all working on the record simultaneously. So that’s how we knocked it out. And also, we did a lot of the songs on the John Lennon bus, which followed us on the first year of the Elephunk tour. We had a studio bus. And then also, we did a couple of tracks on our laptops, because we were traveling so much. I know Will did “Pump It” on the bullet train, so that’s where that track came from… we didn’t even do that one in the studio. Yeah, so we would just use every opportunity that we had.

TAMA : Can you outline the kit that you are using with the Black Eyed Peas?

Keith : The kit I have now is a Starclassic Maple in Diamond Dust finish, with the sound focus rings. I use 7x8, 7x10, 12x14, and 14x14 toms, with an 18x20 kick, and the snare I use is a 6x13 G Maple. And I also use the Iron Cobra Power Glide bass drum pedal, and the Iron Cobra Lever Glide hi-hat stand.

TAMA : Why do you prefer to use the sound focus rings on your toms?

Keith : Well, I use the sound focus rings because I think they help with the overall tone of the toms, and give them just a little more resonance. So I like them a lot. My boy Brian Frasier Moore turned me onto the sound focus rings.

TAMA : You seem to prefer fairly shallow depths for your toms, and use a 20” kick and 13” snare. Is there something about the sound of smaller drums that you like?

Keith : Yeah, that’s totally it for me, man. I like the smaller drums because I think they’re more versatile in sound. I can tune a 20” kick and make it sound like a 22”, but I can’t make a 22” sound like a 20”… it won’t sound right. So I think I have more flexibility with the smaller toms. And I like the way they fit on the kit, too, because they give me a different way to set up the kit that’s more comfortable to get around. Because I move so fast, I gotta have things really close, and with bigger toms I can’t really get around the way I need to.

TAMA : What about your 13” snare?

Keith : Yeah, I fell in love with the 13”. I’d never played a 13” until, once again, I heard Brian’s 13” snare… and I was like, “wow.” And it just fits perfectly within the setup. The 14” is definitely a beast as far as what I would use in the studio, or maybe for like a second side snare. But the 13” is a little more versatile, I can get it higher if need to, but also get the depth from it, almost like a 14”.

TAMA : So you’ve been happy with your Tama drums and hardware, and they’ve held up with all the touring that you’ve done?

Keith : Yes, that’s one thing I can say… I’ve never had a hardware issue or anything of that sort with Tama drums. They definitely get the Keith Harris seal-of-approval as far as road worthiness (laughs). Because after 500-600 shows in like two years, I’ve never had anything break or come apart. It’s all been really, really sturdy and it’s held up to the challenge.

TAMA : What other projects are you currently involved with, or do you have planned for the future?

Keith : Well, as of now, I’ve been doing a lot of production and writing. So, some recent things I’ve done that are out right now are… I co-produced a song called “Lovely People” on Earth, Wind & Fire’s record Illumination that came out sometime last year… Tama drums are featured on that. I have a song co-written with Will called “About You” on Mary J. Blige’s new record Breakthrough. I played drums on Ricky Martin’s new record that came out recently; I think the song is called “It’s All Right.”

Also, on Macy Gray’s new record that’s due to be released sometime this year, I have co-production and writing credits, and also played Tama drums on that album. I have a song on Fergy’s new record that’s coming out sometime this year, and also a song on a new movie coming out called Psodien.

TAMA : It sounds like you’ve been extremely busy, between the Black Eyed Peas and all this session work. Do you have a preference between playing live versus in the studio?

Keith : Well, I always prefer doing live shows, because you feed off the energy of the crowd and all that good stuff. But I love the studio work as well… it’s not as hard as live shows, because nowadays they just tell you to play 8 bars or something like that and chop you up and loop you, and it’s a wrap! (laughs) So that’s cool. But as of now and the future for me, I’m looking to get more into producing, and just getting my production and writing credits up. So that’s something for everybody to look out for.

TAMA : Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Keith : Well, I just wanted to add this… I just want to thank you guys at Tama, especially Gene, for believing in me way back when I first got the gig with the Black Eyed Peas. They’ve done wonders and worked magic on getting me drums at the last minute. And I just thank everybody at Tama for giving me such a great product to represent on the road. I appreciate it.