Jeremy Driesen - Conversations with Artists
What is the art of what you do?
I'm in three creative fields; drumming, photography, and production.
Someone asked me the other day about the connection between drumming and photography. I said I don’t know how artists start with nothing and create from there. As a photographer, I start with a 3x2 frame and the world and I can create something out of that. Drumming is like that too. I don't write songs but I can be creative within the frame that a songwriter has given me. The producer line of work is more about business, but we have clients who are trying to meet objectives, which could be seen as the frame I have to work in. It sounds a little shallow but I think with all these things I don't have to be the initiator of the creation, I just have to create something within the frame and that's my continuity.
How did you enter the production world?
I reached an interesting point as a drummer where I was having a good time and I was making a living but I thought it was time to see what the other 97% of my brain could do. I began talking to a lot of people, taking them out for drinks, coffees, conversations. Anybody who wasn't a musician I asked what they thought I could do. That eventually led me to a promoter/agent/manager guy who gave me an apprenticeship. Then I opened up my own little thing booking musicians. I got a phone call from the guy who then owned Ray Bloch productions, which I had never heard of and he said "we'd like to meet you, we think you might be a good fit for what we do." I went in and met with the president of the company and right away I said, ‘this is it.’ My search for what I was going to do next was like what that Supreme Court Justice said about pornography: ‘I don't know what it is - but I'll know it when I'll see it.’ Five years later I was the owner of the company.
Did production absorb the other 97 percent of your brain?
It absorbed a lot of it. I feel like I have different brains. It's one brain to run a business and deal with employees and clients and the State of NY. Then there are these other brains that do drumming and photography. I think if I put the three of them together I’m probably using everything I've got. Playing drums isn’t a cerebral exercise, it’s an emotional and physical exercise. There's a zen thing about drumming. It's trying to get simple things to happen really well with verve and commitment and with beauty.
Is photography cerebral?
To some extent it is, but my thing is being out with a camera and seeing something and saying 'wow, I want to see how that would look in a photograph' and then shooting it. It's really just reacting and being open visually.
How were you introduced to photography?
My father gave me his Minolta SRT101 film camera and he had a dark room in the basement. I really fell in love with all of that. I loved the camera and I would spend countless nights in the darkroom printing. I fell off the cliff early on. To friends who think about taking up photography, I say: ‘you know, you should consider heroin instead because it's cheaper and less addictive.’ I've been shooting over 40 years, and that's a lot of camera equipment, a lot of time, a lot of brain power.
What is it about being a drummer/photographer. Is it a thing?
I was at Kennedy airport going through security and in my carry-on was a tripod and a cowbell. The x-ray guy looked at the screen and said, ‘oh are you one of those drummer/photographers?’ I was like, really — who knew that it was a thing? I wasn't sure if he was just joking. I should've asked him — ‘do you encounter a lot of these? Does this come up?’
As I think about it there is math that's indigenous to both. Drumming is dividing and subdividing rhythms - is a mathematical mindset. Photography is that way too — you’re dealing with ISO and shutter speed and aperture. For both of them I have to work within a context, and I have to deliver within a frame.
What ties all three of these creative fields together?
I played with Chuck Berry a couple of times. He refused to do any sort of prep with the band; wouldn't rehearse, wouldn't sound check, wouldn't even meet us before we got on stage together in front of 25,000 people. He got on stage and started the first song and we were off to the races. I learned through baptism by fire that I couldn't let the audience know I’d never laid eyes on Chuck Berry before. They had to think that I played with him all the time. It’s about doing things with conviction so that people can believe in it. When I walk into a client meeting for a particular production the client has to feel confident in me and my company and what we do. I think this is true in drumming probably more than any of them. It’s the role of the drummer to establish the band’s confidence and the audience’s confidence. The drummer more than anybody is responsible to say, ‘it's here, it’s right here, it's not anywhere else. This is where the time is, this is the groove, this is where we're going to cut, this is where we're going to come back in.’ So I think through all of these fields there’s the need of being reassuring through confidence-building and commitment in everything you do. Including moments when you might not be 100 percent sure - like when Chuck got on stage and I was momentarily clueless as to where we were headed.
How many times have you gone into an unknown situation and wondered how you were going to find your way through?
If I’m in unchartered waters my thoughts are usually ‘I don't know what's about to happen but I have a lot of faith in my abilities in these three fields and I'll take the next step and then the next step.' If it is one of those ‘walking into the unknown situations’ I try not to think about the whole thing all at once because that’s intimidating. I’ll ask ‘what’s the next step I can take, what makes sense?’ I’ll do that and then we'll see where we are. I don't know what the whole path is going to look like, but we will get there. With my company, I have an amazing staff of people that have different types of skills and talent and they're really good. If I have any enlightenment as a manager it's to get the heck out of their way. I hire them because they’re smart and talented and really cool. Once we've all agreed on what the mission is, I'd rather they figure out how we get there. I don't want to tell a chef what ingredients to use. I want to say 'I'm looking for a great meal and it can't have red meat. That's the goal - make it happen.' I think that's the best way to work with people.
It's important to let people do what they're good at.
I've said recently as a baseline I want the President of the United States to be a lot smarter than I am. I feel that about a lot of people. I would say that every one of my employees is better at what they do than I am at what they do. I'm best at having the vision for the company and some of the executive managerial skills. But when it comes to the day to day operational stuff of getting the work done I'm not the most skilled player in the room. I’m just smart enough to hire those guys and take care of them.
Do you enjoy being the boss?
Yes and no. I like it better than any alternative. I've always said I'd rather be the asshole than work for the asshole.
We all have our asshole moments.
I try to never have them around my employees. I suspect I'm the boss because the path opened up and made sense and spoke to what I'm good at. Being the boss can be a huge pain in the ass. You have to make decisions all the time even when you have no idea. My guys look to me to make the decision. Sometimes I feel lost and we all kick stuff around and share opinions and observations, but at the end of the day I have to make the call. I don't always like that responsibility, but I know I have to do that because my guys have to feel that there is leadership. I owe them that. They do their part, I've got to do mine. So I like being the boss and I don't always like being the boss.
Tell us about a pivotal moment in your life.
I got out of high school and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I went to college and because I had no guiding light it was hard to pick classes. It was about a month or two into my third semester and I was still unsure of my path when I suddenly felt a bolt of lightning - an epiphany - which was that I wanted to play drums. I'd been a working drummer since I was 13, but when I went to college my mindset was ‘now I'm onto real life’ and I thought the drums were in my past. Then this realization happened and it occurred to me that if I didn't try it, I would probably spend the rest of my life wondering what could've happened. Could I have been a professional drummer and made a living? Funny, because when I became a professional drummer I constantly had people coming up to me after shows saying regretfully "I used to play in high school and then I went to law school.” So I had the epiphany and right away I applied to Berklee, got in and never looked back. That was the big pivot. When I think back on it I'm proud of my young self. I don't think 18, 19, 20 year-olds should be asked to figure out what's going to happen later in their lives - they're too young. But I had the idea 'if I don't do this now I'm going to wish I had' so I did it — for fifteen years full time. I had a ball. I met my wife on a gig. It was a great little gift.
You're one of the few people we’ve spoken to who’s actually listened to their inner voice.
The guiding light then and now is being really committed to doing what I want to do. At the very least, I try to do what I want before settling for doing less. I have this crazy life with the three careers and I spend the summers out of town and do a million gigs on Martha's Vineyard. For me, it's just been luck as much as anything else. I will say though, that I've always had the characteristics that I look for in young people. I think that's what people who were hiring me as a drummer saw. I can play, but so can a lot of other people. But I would be on time, I'd be sober, I’d pay attention, take direction, and hopefully leave my big ass ego at home, at least for the duration of the gig.
So that's my story.