By Charlie Weinmann
Photos by Terence F. Clark
Aaron Steele is a session drummer, solo artist and producer who lives and works in Nashville, TN. He’s toured and written music with artists such as Portugal The Man, Jose James and Hayley Williams, but now he’s getting comfortable in his home studio where he’s able to spend more time working on what he thinks of as “forever projects.” In his Instagram bio he describes himself as “Messy and to the point,” which, after getting to know him a bit better, I can see is perfectly and beautifully accurate.
I met Aaron in Los Angeles, where he used to live for a period of time. He’s such a nice guy and pleasant to talk with. He’s also got one of the deepest pockets around, and can groove as hard as the best of ’em. He’s very musical, as well, which is one of the first things I noticed when I saw him play live for the first time. He understands music, and the importance of playing for the song, which is so important if you’re calling yourself a session drummer.
I first interviewed Aaron back in October, 2019 in Los Angeles. I had been sitting on his interview for some time, hoping to have it published in the print magazine, because I think there’s a lot of value in what he talks about here…but time passed and a spot hadn’t opened up yet for print, and then it was the new year, and then Covid happened. So, I’m deciding to not delay it any longer and to publish this online. I had a follow-up interview with Aaron, recently, and you’ll see that the first part of this text is from that conversation, as well as the last bit. … I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed listening.
You’re playing on the new Hayley Williams EPs that came out recently. I love your groove on “Simmer.” How was working with that group of artists for you?
I’m pretty excited about it. It was kind of nuts–I was in rehearsal with Vanessa Carlton for a tour that we were supposed to do that got canceled…and I had hit up everyone who had recorded on Hayley’s record and was like “Hey, when can I tell people about this, and when is it coming out?” The next day, when I was in rehearsal with Vanessa, I found out the song had come out and nobody had told me about it [laughs]. I kept getting tagged [on Instagram] by all these people I didn’t know who were doing drum covers of the song [laughs]. So that happened. Everything from that project is out now.
But working with them was great. It was honestly one of my favorite recording experiences I’ve had. They kind of just let me do my thing. More often than not, people have a really set, hard-core idea of what they want when I go into the studio, and with them, the way they approached it was just letting me do the initial takes to see what my first instincts were. I’d say for the majority of the songs they went with what I did in my first couple of takes. They let me be super creative.
That’s something I noticed, is that it sounds like you.
Yeah, it’s weird to think of that, but thanks!
Do you have plans to tour with them at all?
I won’t be touring with them. I was just there to make a record. I’m sort of transitioning my career to be more studio oriented, doing more writing and production. It’s been great actually. Moving to Nashville has opened up some great opportunities for me in that way.
Do you feel like you want to stop touring all-together?
Not necessarily. Like, if Beck called me up and asked me to go on the road, I’d be like “Alright, I’ll tour with you Beck.” And I’ll go out with my friends every so often. But I’ve missed opportunities in the past because I was on the road. At this point, I think I have all the road cred I need. I love touring, but at the end of the day, those shows just last for a night. Records and songs last forever. So, I’m trying to work on more forever stuff.
But you’re still playing local shows, which is cool. I saw you put together a series of intimate freestyle shows in Nashville which you called “Nashville You Don’t Understand.” Could you tell me about that?
Yeah, it was going well! People were coming out and telling me ‘thank you for doing this’ because there isn’t really anything like it around town [in Nashville]. I don’t like to be the one to have to do a thing; I’m a fairly lazy person, but I was getting really frustrated that there didn’t seem to be a space for improvised music in Nashville. There’s this bar that I would hang out at all the time and I just asked if I could do a night there. The first time I did it was with Nate Mercereau and Owen Biddle, and the bar sold more drinks than they ever had on a Monday night, so that was good for them. And then they realized I actually played drums for a living and wasn’t just some dude [laughs].
[Begin pre-Covid interview]
You relocated from L.A. to Nashville about a year ago–what has you coming back to L.A. these days?
Me, Nate Mercereau and Greg Ulman recorded a live record at ETA [bar in east L.A.] in October 2018. We had been using the recording from that show in order to create new music, and that would become the record. So now, we’re chopping it up, sort of like sampling, but we recorded everything pretty deeply and intensely. I might take a section of something I was doing on the drums, and take something the guitar was doing in a different section, and overlay it and see if it works, and try to make a vibe out of it. It was conceptual when we decided to record it, but now we’re deep in it. We didn’t do it to a click, so it’s like sampling, but not on a grid. We wanted to make something that we thought was really special. We’re not doing a lot of overdubs. We’re only using material from that show. I had a drum synth called the Tama Tech Star at the show, and I had it triggering my kick drum for part of it. So we take that sound and we’re pitching it up and down, but we’re not adding new information.
When are you planning on putting that out?
Not sure when it’ll come out, but we’re almost done with it. [Covid has this record on hold for the time being.]
Do you still play in any L.A.-based bands?
I’ll be back in December  to play an album release show with the band Motor Sales. I’ve been playing with them for about two years; they’re some of my really good friends from New York. Their songs are just really good.
How many bands would you say you’re playing in these days?
I don’t know…it’s not like I go out with these players all the time…everyone is their own individual artist. They might have a band name, but it’s really like one or two people and I go out with them whenever they need. I think music is a little too fluid nowadays…
What do you mean by that?
Well, my career has mostly been like…I’m the guy who people usually call when either they’ve fired somebody or their drummer is having a baby, and the day before tour they’ll be like, ‘hey can you learn all this music?’ And I’ll go on the road with them for months at a time. Then I’ll get home and something else like that will pop up. So, I’ve played in all these bands, but sometimes I’m just not “in” the band at all. But I’ve had months and months of experience playing with these people.
Do you like that style of working?
I do that like it, but it’s stressful sometimes. I’m glad that people can trust me and call me to do that. I wish they gave me a little more time, but I’m glad I get the call. I’m glad I’m able to do it. It’s not necessarily a skill that most people are okay with.
So when you’re not doing that kind of gigging, how do you typically fill your days?
I work on a lot of albums. I do a lot of recording sessions. Half of them I do from home and the other half I do in L.A. I do some in Nashville but not a crazy amount. I’m a little too weird for them, which I really like [laughs]. I did some pop country sessions and it was like, ‘I don’t really think I want to do this.’ And then because of that, it made me this weird commodity because I didn’t just say “yes” to something, because it was work. Now I get calls for things that are a little left of center. I’m really happy about that because I actually get to be creative. Not to say you can’t be creative in the pop country format, and I’m not trying to berate any of that stuff, but there’s a level of expectedness that happens. People expect you to do a very specific thing, and I kind of like the unexpected.
Could you describe the setup you have at home?
I’m in a spare bedroom. It’s a medium room. I like to have my drums in the center of the room, but my computer and stuff is in a corner, which it should not be for listening back. But I’ve learned to work with the space.
Before I moved to Nashville, I was living downtown L.A. in a loft, so I’d always be tearing down and setting up. Now that I have a room where everything is set, it’s really nice, because I can work all the time, as opposed to having to delay it.
Is that part of why you wanted to move out of L.A.?
I moved to Nashville because my partner got a job. She works in the music industry on the business side. She’s a streaming, digital music genius. She’s more of a G at anything than I am. I’m very lucky.
So far Nashville has been cool. There’s stuff in town that’s cool, but I think I’m a little too weird for everyone. There’s not a lot of improvised music, which is a big part of how I get inspired. But I also love song structure. It’s a little hard being in a place where there’s only one of those things. But I do like living in Nashville more than I did L.A. I’m too much of a New Yorker, and there’s a bit of a vibe in L.A. that’s too relaxed for me. I moved from New York to L.A. seven years ago.
Would you ever want to live in New York again?
Yeah, I think so. My partner and I talk about it.
You were in the band Portugal The Man for a while–when did you start playing with them?
Tail end of 2014, beginning of 2015. I got a random call from their manager while I was in New York working on a record for Grace Webber. They asked me to join the band and I was like “Shit yeah, I love that band.” Their first couple of records were some of my favorite records. We ended up becoming really good friends. I’m not in the band anymore, but there’s no animosity. We’re family forever. Jason, the original drummer, wanted to come back, and I have a career outside of the band, so it wasn’t a problem at all.
Did you play on any of their records?
I worked on their last record, Woodstock, so I’m on a fair amount of that record. It’s crazy, just from a random call!
You’ve also worked with the artist Jose James a good amount; what’s the history of your relationship with him?
We went to college together. He’s like my big brother. We’ve just had that relationship since we met. I was with him when he got notified of his first record deal. He got a MySpace message. But I had been with him in the very beginning. Last year he asked me to go on the road with him, even though I had this completely separate life of not playing anything really jazz related, so I’m grateful to him that he trusted I could do that.
I’d like to think that’s the case with most people I work with–that family vibe. Portugal The Man was the outlier in that it was a cold call, but they ended up being family.
What do you like about playing Jose’s music?
Something I really enjoy about it is there’s a bit of freedom in it…there’s structure, but I have to vibe with him and watch him. He’ll be like, ‘actually we’re going to the chorus now,’ or ‘actually you’re gonna take a long solo.’ And that’s not really my thing, but, I can do it, and when I’m doing it I try to be one hundred percent there and commit to it. I try to actually say something. The reason solos kind of bother me, is because most of the time, it’s a lot of default–people just play whatever they had been working on. I was afraid of it. I hadn’t taken a solo for years before touring with Jose. I was afraid of falling into that–just playing whatever I had been working on. So I try to extrapolate on the melody, but through the kit, rhythmically. I ask myself how I can push the emotion of the tune with what I’m playing. I don’t know if I ever get there, but that’s what I’m trying to do, and hopefully some people feel that.
I understand you were a break-dancer in a past life? Could you tell me about that?
[Laughs] Yeah! So, my brother is a drummer, too, and he’s incredible. He can play every instrument really well. As kids, people would always compare us, so I just quit playing drums for a while, because I just didn’t want to have that. I needed something of my own. There were some break-dancers around where I was living at the time. I would always ask them ‘hey could you teach me how to do that?’ They’d be like ‘no…but you can get us juice and watch us and figure it out on your own.’ Because that’s how they had done it. For the longest time that was my nickname: Juice.
But as far as how I relate it to drums, the time that I spent dancing is kind of how I think of time. I had to internalize a lot of those beats because of dancing. You have to internalize the rhythm. So a lot of those breaks, they have to be totally inside me in order to dance the way I did. I think that it’s influenced my playing more than anything else. I don’t really dance anymore, but that time in my life has shaped so many of the friendships that have lasted. My parents raised me, but like, those guys raised me. My parents let me go to competitions around the world. It was all these dudes from the Bronx with this 11-year old kid traveling around with them.
You were 11-years-old?
Yeah, and I did it until I was about 14.
And you were playing drums before that?
Yeah. I grew up in church so I started playing drums when I was like five. My brother is a few years older than me, so there was always that sibling rivalry.
Does your brother still play?
Yeah, he plays in this big CCM band called King’s Kaleidoscope. But he’s also a fairly popular hip-hop producer, as well.
I want to ask you about how you use social media to promote your artistry. It’s a topic that musicians have different opinions on, and we all have different relationships with it. Do you ever find that it interferes with your artistry?
Sometimes it does. I don’t care about it. It’s not a marker for my success in life. I feel like if I did think about it in that way, I’d be really bummed out. I don’t have time for that because luckily, I’m working a lot.
Instagram became a thing for me due to a tour being cancelled. I found out I was going to be home for a while so I started making some videos to kind of hold myself accountable. People started following me. When I toured with Jose, my numbers went up a lot. But it’s not about that for me. It’s really just to interact with my friends, and meet people that I really admire. But I take it all with a grain of salt, because it doesn’t mean anything.
So what’s the “damn” at the end of your Instagram handle?
Oh, just because someone took my name. I tried “Aaron Steele 1”, “Aaron Steele 2”… it’s the dumbest thing [laughs].
What would you say is one of the most challenging projects you’ve worked on?
To be honest, I would say Portugal [The Man] was pretty hard. It’s because they’re so punk rock about it. And I grew up playing in hardcore bands and whatever, but I spent so much time being a session musician that they’d be like ‘can you just make it shittier? Like more fucked up?’ And it was kind of difficult for me, to make it more sloshy, or whatever. In the studio, everyone wants you to make it more clean.
My playing changed over the years from being this weird crazy thing, like super angular, to being very tight and with intent. Now I can kind of move between those worlds and it’s a lot of fun. But at the time it was difficult. Like, ‘how do I do this without getting really drunk?’ [laughs]. I don’t like to drink before I play, but like, how do you sound like that and actually retain…trying to find a balance was really difficult.
Oh, and as far as difficulty…Chromesparks. Playing with them was fucking hard. The music was intense. It was like ‘oh you missed this 16th note.’ He’s a drummer and he programs everything and you have to play that live, almost exactly. He comes from a classical background, so kind of like the Suzuki method–‘oh, it’s wrong, start it again.’ For me, I need context. So, playing with him was the most I’ve ever rehearsed for anything. And it was awesome. We’re really close to this day, too. The only reason I stopped playing with him was because I started playing with Portugal.
Do you have a practice routine?
I don’t practice much. I play a lot. I think there’s too much emphasis on becoming a really good technician. The things that matter to me now are very different than the things that mattered to me as a child. It’s more about feel. I know I can do the things I need to do in order to get what I want to get out. I can’t do things that a lot of drummers can do. Really easy example: keeping quarter note hi-hats going throughout the beat–I can’t do that shit! At all! But there has never been a moment where someone was like ‘you need to do this.’
I’m very linear, it’s one drum at a time, but really fast. That works in a lot of contexts. If someone wants me to play some crazy metal stuff, I don’t think I can do that anymore, and that’s just not my gig. I don’t need to be able to play every gig.
Was there ever a time when you studied jazz and practiced double strokes and stuff like that?
Yes, before I went to college. I knew if I wanted to go to college, I’d need to take some swing lessons. Because before, I didn’t understand the concept. I was playing in hardcore bands. So I took a couple lessons with Ari Hoenig. He’s the master. There’s this guy, Kenny Grohowski–he basically taught me how to play drums. He plays with Brand X now, and John Zorn. He’s so good. But he basically taught me how to play, and his teacher was Ari. It was pretty great [learning from them.]
My swing isn’t the best. The way I play jazz now is more intuitive. It’s not like I’m going for this be-bop thing. I just play improvised music. However it feels is how it feels. I’m not trying to work from this lexicon.
History matters to me. I don’t think you necessarily have to play something note for note that Jimmy Cobb did in order to play in the spirit of that. And sometimes I think if you’re going for a straight vibe, like a 60’s post-bop thing, then you’re taking away from the music, because you’re not actually in it, you’re just imitating. But who’s to say?
Does anyone come to mind who you’re really inspired by right now?
Charley Drayton. There’s two names: always Brian Blade, always Charley Drayton. This is a quality that they both have: they are a hundred percent committed to being a vessel for music. There’s no ego involved. All they’re trying to do is elevate the music to a place where it can be. They’re not trying to be like ‘look at this dope lick I can play,’ or ‘how fat can I make this pocket,’ no, it’s just ‘how can I make the song better?’
I remember I was at a session–Jon Cowherd is the pianist in Brian Blade’s fellowship, and he and I are pretty good friends, and he invited me to this session that they were doing for his record. They were listening back and they had just done a take. Blade was so in it. He was listening back and he was dancing along and just listening, while everyone else is ordering Thai food. The song finishes and he’s just like ‘guys, that was beautiful. I’ll have the…’ He understands being in the moment.
I recently went to go see Sara Bareilles and Charley was playing drums. I talked to him slightly afterwards. You could see the devotion for trying to make it the best possible when you’re talking to him. He said he had a few moments where he almost cried onstage. He was really trying to be there and be present for the whole thing. It’s shit like that–if I can get even like a tenth of that, I think I’ll be okay. That’s the shit that matters to me. Those guys, if they don’t think they’re doing something to elevate the song, they’ll just lay out. So egoless. That’s important. Maybe more important than anything.
Playing with zero ego can be a very challenging thing sometimes.
Exactly. Honestly, I’ve been working on it for the last few years. I don’t know if I’m accomplishing it, but I’m really trying. I’ll probably be like 65 when I feel like I did it.
What’s coming up for you? What have you been working on recently?
I’m finishing up my first solo record. I co-produced a record by this band Hearts. It’s the first record I have production credit on. That’s coming out fairly soon. I’m also working on a few collaboration EPs. I’m trying to do a little bit more outside of playing drums. I’m writing with people more now. It’s been good to stretch that aspect of my brand a little bit more. Having the career I’ve had so far helps, because I’ve been playing all these songs for years and I can draw from that–what do I like and what don’t I like…
Could you describe your solo record?
Half of it is electronic, where I’m not really playing drums on it. The other half is a band. The idea of the record is that it goes from electronic to organic. It’s not very drummy, unfortunately people who expect it to be. So, sorry everybody [laughs]. Someone asked me what I’m trying to do with the record–I’m just trying to emotionally show people how I feel about my friends. Because everybody involved in the project are people who I’m so grateful to be working with. They’re some of my best friends in the world but I also know for a fact that they’re some of the best musicians in the world. To me it blows my mind. But then it’s also like, that’s the person you’ve been making fart jokes with for the past 20 years.
The bass player who plays on the organic half is Solomon Dorsey, and that fool is underrated and one of the best bass players on the planet. Nobody sounds like him. And he can sing his brains out. And he can cook the shit out of some buffalo cauliflower.
Nate Mercereau and I met by accident in San Francisco. He asked me if I wanted to play an improv set with him, and he’s been one of my closest friends since.
And then there’s Kris Bowers–literally, hands down the best pianist in the world. It’s crazy. He makes me smile every moment I’m with him. He scored Green Book and won an academy award for it. He’s 30 years old.
Josh Johnson. He freaks me out, he’s so good.
Having those people in my life, without even playing music with them, is already a pleasure. The fact that I get to play music with them, I just wanted to show people that and that’s basically what my record is. It starts with me doing shit myself and then it gets exponentially better because I’m with these people.
[Resume Covid-period interview]
So what’s the current status of your solo record?
I’m putting out a single soon, and I’ve shot a video for it. It’s called “Shooting Star.” I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to release it, because I’m releasing it myself. It’s not a whole record, but more of an EP. But they are long songs. It’s basically done, I’m just getting it mixed and mastered. … It’ll be out soon!
How else are you spending your time during quarantine? You’re obviously working a lot…
Now that we’re stuck in the house, we’re actually working out a lot more. That’s kind of become a hobby…every day at like 6:30pm I put my shit away, put on my shorts and do an hour of some crazy workout thing, I sweat, cook some food, shower, drink some whiskey and go to bed. It’s such a routine that it feels opposite of my normal life.
I’m learning a lot…I have time to practice the guitar. I don’t remember not being good enough on drums to get my ideas out, but like, I definitely can’t get my ideas out on guitar right now. I’m starting from scratch. Sometimes it’s pretty defeating, but when you hit those little goals, it’s pretty inspiring. Like, “Yeah, I got an E chord!”
Aaron Steele is open for business and would love to work on your music from his home studio in Nashville. Hit him up!