Colin Stranahan Interview - Complete Text

Below is the transcript of the interview I did with Kurt Rosenwinkel drummer Colin Stranahan last week. For the video and audio versions, go here.

Nate Smith : Colin Stranahan, thank you for joining us. So I think I'll just start by asking what was the beginning of your love affair with the drums. Was there a moment that you knew that this is what you wanted to do?


Colin Stranahan : Yeah, you know my father is a Jazz musician who plays saxophone and he's an educator, still to this day. He had a school and a set of drums at this school. I always used to kind of look at them. In fact both of my Grandfathers were actually drummers. I guess it was somewhere in there. One day I sort of just went over there and found some sticks and started playing whatever was in me at that time. I think I was  listening to a lot of the Beatles. I just kind of went for it. The weird thing about it was that I would take the hi hat stand and move it over to the Floor Tom and sit with my legs that way and the snare drum still there.

Nate: Are you naturally left handed?

Colin: Yeah, everything (I do) is left handed. It just started that way and I started to figure out some rhythms. I think it was at that point I was like, "Yeah, I wanna do this!" I started studying and it just kind of evolved. I guess there was one point in high school where I played American Football and then sort of came down to music or football. I sacked the quarter back and broke his arm. That's when I said, "No, I don't want to do this. I want to play music." So that was kind of the turning point. It was pretty natural that I just started making music.


Nate: Was there a point where it started to become work? Where you had been doing it for fun and then you were like oh shit, now I need to knuckle down and go to work?


Colin: Yeah, definitely with practicing. I think I have good ears. I was able to get things by ear but when it came to actually reading music, I think that was when it was like "Oh man, I gotta work on this! I've got to figure it out.". And as a kid, you kind of want to go outside and play but there was a point internally with myself where I actually said, Ok I need to figure this out. I need to put some time into it. I guess, in that respect it was work. But it never really has felt like that. It was work but it was never something that I was discouraged by if there was a challenge. I kind of was just inspired by that.


Nate: Beside your Dad, who were some early influences?


Colin: Well, Ringo Starr for sure because my parents are both Beatles maniacs and I used to listen to the recordings and at that time I think there was some old VHS videos they had of concerts and I was like "I wanna do that!". And then it was Kind of Blue when I heard that. That was the first Jazz record I ever. When I heard Jimmy Cobb just play the ride cymbal, I was like "I wanna do that! I wanna be like that". I never had an image of what he looked like or how he was doing what he did but there was something about the simplicity and the beat that really attracted me. Those guys early on were kind of the beginning of what opened up the flood gates, and it was just like, everybody else [came after].


Nate: It's interesting to hear that your two or least influences were both sort of musical, intuitive players. I mean, Jimmy Cobb is obviously very technically proficient but the recording you latched onto is one where he was hardly playing anything but the ride cymnal. I can definitely see evidence of that in your playing now as far as you're very technically proficient but you approach things sort of from the ears down. My question is, was there ever a point where technique was the bottleneck for you were you needed to drill down in order to accomplish something?


Colin: Yeah, I think there were certain things when I started checking out people with more technical facility and chops. It was kind of like, I wanted to know how to do that. I appreciate what you say [though because] it never really was something that I said I really need to figure that out. I've always felt encouraged and appreciated just trying to make music out of this instrument and not necessarily think of in a mathematical and technical way. There were definitely moments I had with teachers I had where I needed to embrace thinking in those terms. It was never something that I necessarily felt like I had to really push myself to try to do. But - you know - yeah, it's something I worked on and always very slowly. Not only tempo but just slowly getting into it and saying "Ok! That's how that works! ".

In high pressure situations, sure there’s moments where you have to learn something that’s very difficult but as long as I have that mentality and that spirit, I feel like I get where I need to go.

Nate: So you've played in some pretty "high pressure" situations. You've been on the road with some people like Kurt Rosenwinkel and you competed in the Thelonious Monk Competition. Was there ever a moment when you got up in your head and let the tune go on Autopilot until you could get back into the music or did you always find it easy to hit that musical "flow state"?

Colin: I think it took a while to figure that out but it's always music first. It's what I always say. I definitely to this day have things that hang me up and places where I get caught. But I find the more I really focus on the overall picture of just making good music and also asking a lot of questions to people. Like Herbie Hancock. I asked him, how do you work on being a great musician? How do you work on your facility and all those things? He said, it's not really about. It's just about being a great human being. And so for me, that's really the philosophy I've really brought out and just really tried to find who you are through your instrument. That's really close to me in my heart. In those high pressure situations, sure there's moments where you have to learn something that's very difficult but as long as I have that mentality and that spirit, I feel like I get where I need to go.

Nate: Yeah, that's really deep. It's funny y'know? Because I would talk to musicians that I looked up to for years and I would hear them say things like that. I feel like only this year, that sort of made sense. You can't get to any kind of really artistic level if you're faking anything in a spiritual way.

Colin: Absolutely.

Nate: If you're trying to put something over on people rather than just sharing your being, there's going to be something in the way. That's very deep.

I always give the analogy of saying you’re in a car and trying to drive but the engine’s not on. It’s just not going to work.

[Next question] If you're doing a clinic at a University in Europe or you're back home in Denver teaching lessons and you run across players who are young, who are still developing but they've got that thing. Like, "that dude's going to have some stuff together if he keeps playing." What is that to you?


Colin: That's a great question! I think it really starts with a strong beat, regardless of what sort of style of music it is. Good time and a good beat. An understanding of forward motion, being able to let something ring and go by but still have time within space. I mean, that's something that I really strive and try to teach and strive in my own playing. Understanding that silence is also part of the beat and also not being afraid of it. Having a forward momentum I always use this analogy of; You're driving in a car and you turn the engine on. The engine is always there and it's on, hopefully! You're driving your car. It's not something you have to think about. You can shift the gears, you can turn and stop but the engine is what makes it work. It's like the heartbeat. People talk about the heart. I always give the analogy of saying you're in a car and trying to drive but the engine's not on. It's just not going to work. The engine represents the music and the movement and understanding that even if you're playing any style, there has to be movement and beat and groove in what you play. When I see that in younger players, it makes me very happy and I encourage them to trust that. Trust what they're doing is ok and strive to work as hard as you can but always remember momentum, forward motion and beat. Adapt and get that message across.


Nate: Is there anything you sometimes see younger players doing consistently that you feel like is a stumbling block?


Colin: Yeah, absolutely. I like analogies and I suppose somebody told me this earlier on. It's something I talk about. It's like, if you were to walk into a book store and you look at a shelf of books, each book represents a musical idea. A lot of the time, what I find is young drummers and drummers in general, we tend to go up to the book shelf and take them all at once and open them all up and read them at the same time. To me, that represents Chops, an idea and a concept. I try to talk about, it can be a whole gig. You just pick up that one book and one idea and let that be what it is for that time. Whether it's a solo or a gig or a tune, just really think about that. Try to have a conception. And even when I was playing earlier, trying to find what idea and really try to develop. That's really what I hear and I try to reiterate in my teaching and remind myself almost every day.


Nate: What I get from your playing, especially just now is that you've got a really strong thematic unity, which I think is fantastic. I think probably a lot of young players and when they think about what success would look like, like "oh I'm going to get called to tour with Mark Turner, or I'm going to move to New York and [blow up]"... My question is, was there anything that jumped out at you as far as being different about it from your expectations?


Colin: That's a great question. I guess the consistency and understanding that. You know, I had really strong goals that I wanted and I really strived for. One of them being was that I wanted to play with Kurt Rosenwinkel since the age of ten. Not being specific but for me it's consistency. It's great to have gigs and it's great to be on the road but there are times when that's not going to be the case. It's a struggle to understand that we're not always busy and we have to find creative ways to keep busy and keep living and surviving. I guess, in the beginning I figured "Oh! Once that happens, everything's going to be great." But it's not always the case and its' not always a negative thing but it's something I've really learned about and keep learning about. You're just there. You have to keep striving and working no matter what comes back at you. Great moments are there. Even in those moments where you don't think anything's happening, there is something to work on and something to do. In that respect, I think it really expanded and changed my mind and spirit. There's never that one moment. There are moments where you say "Yeah! I did it!" but there's a lot of moments where I'm saying "Well, now I'm going to do this" and I have to figure out what "this" is.


Nate: Yea. No I was thinking about that too, both in terms of...sort of...stoicism and also Buddhism, and how they kind of converge on the idea that you're going to have highs and lows, and the idea is you kind of want to moderate it. Yea, you let yourself feel good and you let yourself feel bad but it's not really about, when you're at the peak you can just press pause there. The timeline continues.

Do you do any sort of meditation or mindfulness practice or anything? Just out of curiosity...


Colin: Yeah, I practice Buddhism. I chant. It's a sect of Buddhism from Japan - Soka Gakkai - and It's something that's really helped me. A lot of musicians do it, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter. A lot of people that I've been around. And it really helps me center myself and understand that I can't really seek that happiness or anything else other than from within me. That's what helps me balance and understand and trust that what I'm doing is great. I can only just bring out the best of what I do inside of myself. Look at everything else as an opportunity and learn from from everyone around me. Whether it's music that interests me or not, there's always something in there that you can take away from that benefit your life and your music.


Nate: Well, thanks so much for talking with me.


Colin: Thank you for having me.