New Erskine iBook Evokes Weather Report Years
On April 1, drummer Peter Erskine released No Beethoven (Fuzzy Music), an autobiographical account of the legendary stick slinger’s time with Weather Report, as well as the impact those years have had on the rest of his career. Erskine sat down with DownBeat to discuss the memoir amid his busy schedule as a performer, educator and Director of Drumset Studies at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California.
What made you want to write the book?
Well, having been not only a jazz fly on the wall, but an active participant in bands like Weather Report and Steps Ahead, John Abercrombie and Bill Frisell’s groups, the big bands of Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson [and more], I have not just a unique story, but really a lot of stories that offer a behind-the-scenes look at what made these bands tick. It also chronicles my good fortune in having been able to play with so many great musicians. And, with great musicians come great stories.
The book is also a chance for me to pass along so much of the wisdom and advice I learned from these greats to younger musicians. Not all of the lessons were simple, and not all of them were pretty or even nice, but they were all very important to my growth as a musician.
The book describes the development of your career out of the foundation of your time with Weather Report. Was that part of your goal in building the narrative?
Yeah. Weather Report definitely functions as the nexus, if you will. It was, on the one hand, a real culmination of being a young drummer and getting to play with Weather Report; it was also a doorway for me to be able to do so many other kinds of things.
Weather Report certainly provides my greatest point of reference—even to this day—to make musical judgments and evaluations. Oftentimes, that means saying, “This is the way Weather Report would do this,” or conversely, “I’m going to do this exactly the way Weather Report didn’t do it because I’ve moved on.” So, it’s really kind of a yin-yang thing.
Wayne Shorter was equally as brilliant in expressing himself through what he didn’t say as much as what he did. [Joe] Zawinul was very outspoken. And, of course, Jaco [Pastorius] was one of the most outspoken people I’d ever run into.
Your stories offer insight into who these guys were when removed from the public eye.
Absolutely. They were characters, that’s for sure—and quite funny people too. I mean, sometimes, when people ask me, “What were some of your strongest memories of Weather Report?” I always say, “Well, we laughed a lot.” We laughed an awful lot.
The band worked hard to project a very serious image to the world along with a bit of mystery, so I am turning on a few lights when it comes to some of the darker corners.
Do you still listen to the records?
Yeah, I do. I probably listen more to the Weather Report albums that I didn’t play on than those I did. I’m such a fan of not only the earlier recordings, but the later ones with Omar [Hakim], too. But, hearing Alphonse Mouzon and Eric Gravatt’s drumming, the compositions throughout, and Alex Acuña and Chester Thompson’s drumming, of course. I’m just a huge fan of all those musicians.
I listen to the ones we did, too. I like ’em. I’m easily the most severe critic of my own drumming, so I can hear what didn’t come out the way I’d hoped. But, it’s a lot of great music, and Joe, Wayne and Jaco all loved a good melody; and they certainly played a lot of them.
Let’s talk about your first experience recording with the band. You were asked to overdub a track on which Steve Gadd had played. Is that right?
Yes. Joe wanted me to add a hi-hat thing to the drum track. Weather Report did a lot of layering to the parts. Listening back later, I realized it was easy to hear that two people had been playing on certain parts. They really used the studio and the recording process as an instrument in and of itself.
Was that process intimidating at all?
No, not at all. It’s funny. I never felt self-conscious or anything. It seemed natural for me to be there.
Is that kind of comfort and self-assurance something you’ve incorporated into your teaching?
Yeah, and this is something that I’ve been talking to my students at USC about lately. The drum chair for Weather Report was a hot seat back then. Any drummer would receive plenty of direction, suggestion and criticism, and I intuited that you can never personalize musical direction. When you’re in the heat of creating something, certain things might be felt or said, but it has nothing to do with you as a person. And, that was really the biggest lesson I learned from Weather Report.
For all of Joe’s bluster and directness, it was never anything personal—it was only him trying to achieve a musical end. Once I learned not to personalize those comments, I could eliminate my ego and focus on making it sound better.
I certainly survived a fair amount of withering commentary directed my way by any number of people. Maybe that was something that all of these guys learned from Miles—if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen—and Weather Report was like that. I figured there was something to learn in all that.
Beyond that, what I learned basically boils down to this: Play what you want to hear next. If you’re listening, and that ego is out of the way—you’re not worried about how you sound—there’s almost no question what to play next. Let the music guide you. It’s that process of letting go and eliminating that really became what the book is all about.