Interview and above photo by Charlie Weinmann
Kyle Crane has been spending more of his time seated on his bicycle saddle rather than behind a drum kit. With social distancing orders strictly enforced in L.A., the music industry has been on pause and working musicians have been finding other ways to keep busy. For Kyle, this means riding his bicycle, literally all across L.A., from Pasadena to LAX to Hollywood, delivering wax copies of his debut LP, Crane Like the Bird, to anyone who pays him twenty bucks. If you’re not already hip to it, the record is worth a spin, featuring artists like James Mercer, Brad Mehldau, Conor Oberst and M. Ward. Not to mention Crane is a beautiful and thoughtful songwriter and his attention to the music is evident after listening through the first song.
Kyle and I chatted on the side of a bike path running along the L.A. river, (making sure to keep our distance) about his life as an L.A.-based drummer and the path he’s taken to get to where he is today: touring and playing with quite the cast of notable, even legendary artists.
You’ve been delivering this album via bicycle around L.A. What’s that been like for you?
It’s been cool. It’s been an excuse to see people who maybe haven’t been able to leave their house, and just seeing how everybody’s being affected. Just different reality checks–different people with different kinds of jobs…And everybody just seems stoked to see another person.
How many have you delivered at this point?
20. [Now 30 plus.]
What are some things you’ve been witnessing as you’ve been biking around L.A.? You said you were doing like 40 miles a day…what have you observed in general?
Well it’s very different than usual. I did a delivery in Hollywood the other day, and usually there’s like a dude in a Superman outfit, and people are taking pictures of the stars on the sidewalk, and it was just totally dead. There was like three cars parked on Hollywood Blvd. Bizarre stuff like that. Biking through downtown, through L.A. live, no one is down there at all.
How else have you been spending your time?
I don’t know how many days in we are right now, but I guess it’s been a month? In the first week or two I wrote like four new songs and then I just embraced not having to do any music if I don’t want to. I’ve never really felt like that. I always wake up, and not that it’s a burden, but I feel like I have to be creative every day. Now I can just bike if I want. Because, I’m not going to have that opportunity necessarily in the future. I’ve been taking time to do other things I like.
Like biking, and what else?
Hikes…I drove my truck up Angeles Crest and did two hikes I’ve never done…I went with my friend from Eagle Rock and it took 12 mins to get there. There are waterfalls you can get in.
What’s one of the first things you want to do when we’re able to be social again?
Definitely just want to get into the studio with some friends. My home isn’t equipped for anything hi-fi, so I want to get back in some nice studios and do some drums for some people.
I know you had a European tour with Rufus Wainwright, which was canceled–have you toured with him in the past?
That was going to be the first time. We’ve recorded twice. We’re supposed to be already out now, so we’ll see when it picks up again.
How’d you get connected with him?
I had played on a song, a Dolly Parton cover, “Coat of Many Colors,” that he did. Then I wrote a song and sent it to him and asked him if he’d be down to sing on it, and he sang on it. That’ll be on my next record. So we just met that way. He wanted to audition an L.A. band for the new record and I got asked to audition. We had already rehearsed a little bit for what was supposed to be this tour. …For the session for my song, he just crushed it in an hour, he’s so good in the studio.
Where did you record that tune?
Nest, in Boyle Heights.
You’ve played and recorded and toured with an impressive list of prolific musicians. How have you made it all happen? Have you found that you’re recommended a lot, or do you seek out these opportunities?
I feel like there were a couple of pivotal things that happened in my drumming career, if you want to call it that, where I was playing a lot of local gigs, and then I started playing with a band called Everest, which was in my wheelhouse as far as what I listened to, and we were opening for Neil Young and Patty Smith, and Andrew Bird, all these bands that were in the genre that I liked…so all of a sudden I was playing in front of and being around musicians who were doing what I wanted to do. I like playing jazz, but if I was out doing jazz tours, maybe I would have just kept in that genre, because everybody who’s going to those shows, plays jazz. So, I hit it off with a couple of musicians stylistically, and then the next big thing for me was when Daniel Lanois asked me to tour with him. And that was just a fluke thing, because he kept coming to hear me at Thirsty Crow, where I was playing jazz. After that, people took me a little more seriously, I guess, because of his career and what he’s done. I think that opened up a lot.
A lot of artists I’ve toured with, it’s because they sang on my record. So, M. Ward, Neko Case, and Rufus all asked me to tour with them after I asked them to sing on one of my songs. It’s kind of like, egg before the chicken, or chicken before the egg…
I had a unique opportunity to get to know people in a different context. I didn’t know they were going to ask me to tour with them. The timing worked out I guess.
When did you start writing songs?
I’ve been writing songs since like seventh grade, really. I had this little boombox in my room, and I had two tapes so you could overdub with it, and I just figured that out and messed around. I’d record drums and bass, kind of just funny songs for a while. Joke songs, with stupid lyrics–I think I still have those cassettes somewhere. Then by high school, I was really into metal, and I had my own metal bands where I was writing my own riffs and stuff. I continued to write metal tunes half way into Berklee. And then by the end of Berklee I was into the style I am now.
How many years were you at Berklee?
Four years. And I stuck around a year to just play and took a few teaching gigs.
How’d you like the Boston scene? What year was that?
I graduated in 2007. It was cool. People are coming and going a lot because of the school. I feel like it’s not as stable as L.A. You’ll meet someone in L.A. and play with them for years. But I’d meet people in Boston and they’d move back to Japan, or wherever.
Did you always know you wanted to end up in L.A.?
Yeah. I almost left early because I was really eager to get out here, but I thought it was important to finish school. I had a lot to learn. Growing up in Virginia, the only jazz experience I had was going to this jazz camp junior year [of high school,] and senior year I played in jazz band. But it was kind of like snare on two and four jazz.
When you first came out to L.A., was that your first time in L.A.?
No, I had come out here maybe around sophomore year to check out M.I. [Musician’s Institute.] I was just checking out some schools to see if I could come out and still study. I lived here when I was a baby as well but I don’t remember anything.
When you officially moved here after Berklee, what were some of your first experiences as a musician?
I remember I went to The Mint. They had a jam every week. I remember Kevin Kanner was setting up his kit. And he looked kind of cool, like he had Converse, and I was like ‘this isn’t gonna be good,’ because I was used to people who are good at jazz looking like absolute nerds, but then he was just crushing it with some up tempo swing…that was my introduction to L.A. He’s a burning be-bop player.
When did you start playing in more bands?
I think I went on Craigslist and started to try and find some bands that I liked. I found a couple that were cool. I just started playing as much as I could. To be honest, I just like playing drums, so I would play anywhere. I wasn’t really picky. I just liked playing.
Back to present times, what’s your favorite part about touring with so many different artists?
It’s fun because they’re all so different and their approaches are all so different. You really start to realize how personal music is for people. Their approach, like Neko Case, compared to Rufus…learning their material and playing with it…no one can ever do what the other person does, really. It’s like learning a different language every time. Just like the way they approach music and the way they feel time. Like Rufus’ music is mainly piano driven. Neko’s is more acoustic guitar, or just her vocals. For a lot of her songs, she writes all the lyrics first, so everything would be catered to the lyrics–the forms will have bars lopped off, or really odd forms that you just have to learn, and memorize the lyrics.
Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve gotten a gig and you’ve felt out of your element?
That usually happens when a jazz person asks me to do something. I played with this cat, and he was doing a west coast tour. I just filled in for one show at the University of Bakersfield. It was all odd times and stuff. I had to really shed the stuff because I had been playing folk songs…
I was shedding, trying to not mark the downbeat every single time because I don’t want it to sound corny, so if a song is in 11 or 13, I was trying to sound fluid with it. So I would make loops in Logic, and played the chart for a bit on a midi thing and looped the form and practiced not sounding so stiff.
Before we all entered quarantine, you had completed a tour with Madison Cunningham. How was that experience and what did you enjoy most about playing her music?
She approaches music so freely. She plays the songs a little different every night as far as her vocal phrasing and her playing, so it felt fresh every time. I could experiment with different approaches. We were discovering things as we went, because some of the songs were brand-new and hadn’t had any drums recorded on them yet.
What was one of your favorite tunes of hers to play?
There’s one called “Trouble Found Me.” Abe Rounds is on that recording–great drummer. But all her songs are fun. There’s one that I approach kind of like a jazz tune, in 12/8 with an Afro-Cuban vibe, called “Looking Alive.”
What’s the longest tour you’ve ever been on? Without coming back?
The first run with Neko I think was like three months. We had small gaps between all the runs…this Rufus one was going to be the longest. We had these week-long gaps planned where I was going to go record vocals for my second record, so I wouldn’t have come back to L.A. I was going to go to Ben Bridwell’s place in South Carolina, I was going to go to Italy to record Sabina Sciubba when we would have been in Europe. It would have been like six months all together.
I imagine traveling must be one of the best parts about what you do.
Yeah I love it. I don’t have a family or girlfriend or kids so I feel like I’m in a different boat than most people I tour with who want to get back and see their family. Just keep me out as long as possible.
Where are some of the best places a tour has taken you to?
I was in Norway once with Daniel Lanois, and the Festival we played kind of treated us like kings. We had two houses on the water; there’s all these rocky islands everywhere, and these Viking carvings on this ancient rock to show they had been there. We were there for four days after we played. Me and the bass player had one house and Dan, our tech and the tour manager had the other house, built in the 1400s. There was no wi-fi, so I would take the kayak out and go around the islands. So that was pretty magical.
Sounds pretty magical. Have you ever turned down a good tour in order to stay in town?
I only turn down a tour if I’m not a fan of the music. Even if it sounds like the drumming would be fun, I may turn it down if I’m not a true fan–if it’s not something I’d sit down to listen to.
Does that happen often?
The more and more that I play with people I like, anyone who thinks of me for a tour is kind of already in that scene, so I’m not turning much down lately.
What’s the best part of playing music in Los Angeles for you?
I’d say all of the great players. We’re kind of spoiled with the level of talent and diversity in people’s playing. Everybody has their own voice and is good at different things…New York is similar, but I like the lifestyle here better. There’s a little more space. But you could pop into a random spot in New York and have your mind blown by the jazz players. It’s hard to say if we could rival that here. You’re not going to stumble upon it in L.A. You have to know where to go, for jazz at least.
I wanted to ask you about budgeting, on tour and just in general, because being a musician isn’t always the most stable. What are some budgeting habits you’ve employed over the years or maybe some of your food staples while on tour?
I’m the kind of guy who will just eat the green room food and the bus food. I’ll pocket all the buy-outs and per diems. It’s a lot of turkey sandwiches, or I’ll chop up all the vegetables in the green room that nobody touches, you know they always have the ranch spread, I’ll chop that up, put it in a bowl, add some, whatever…nothing glamorous. Every few days a venue will treat you to a legit meal, and I’ll just kind of wait for those and eat turkey sandwiches in-between.
Would you call yourself a cook at all?
Nah, but if they have like a George Foreman on the tour bus, I’ll throw stuff in that. But you can save a lot of money if you’re willing to eat sandwiches all the time.
When you went to Berklee, did you know you wanted to be a session musician?
Yeah, I actually took this class called session drumming, which was pretty fun. It was like eight drummers. We met in a studio twice a week for four hours, which was cool because it was more time than most classes. The teacher had this Parliament Funkadelic track that he played on, so he had the actual track, and we all laid down drums to it. That was really eye-opening to hear me and seven other drummers lay down drums to the same track. We did a lot of fun stuff like that, and that made me excited to pursue it. But then at some point you realize you kind of have to do everything as far as live and studio. There are definitely guys who just do the studio thing, but I think I enjoy them equally. I haven’t really pushed myself to be “the studio guy.” I don’t have a lot of gear, I don’t really have a set-up for it. I’m gone touring mostly.
What advice would you have for a young drummer who wants to do what you do?
I guess just put in the time early on, practicing. Once you start touring you won’t have much time to be shedding, so you have to do all the work early-on. When I was at Berklee all I really did was practice.
Do you have mentors who you turn to for advice?
Daniel Lanois. He’s 70-something…he’s done much and has worked with so many musicians, so I’ll ask him for advice. He has a lot of life experience. As far as drummers, I’m just kind of observing people I admire, whether it be through social media or going out to live shows in L.A. A lot of them are peers. I’m just learning from them all the time.
Your first record, Crane Like The Bird, came out in January 2019. Can you describe your vision for your next album?
The next album is shaping up to be a lot more through-composed–less traditional song forms…some weirder twists and turns. Some of them are harder pitches to send to singers. But now that I’ve met some of the people I want to sing on my record, I can send them something a little weirder and they’re into it.
When I listen to your record, of course the drumming is great, but I don’t think of it as a “drummy” record.
Totally. Same concept for the second record. It’s kind of an afterthought. When I was writing the credits, it’s almost like I forgot that I played drums on it. I’m not even thinking about it, when I think of the songs. It’s just one element. I’m thinking more about the lyrics and overall sound.
Are you superstitious?
Eh, not so much.
In another life, if you weren’t a musician, what do you think you would have done?
It’s hard to say because I never really developed any other skills where I could have been a professional…but if I wasn’t into drumming and I spent more time on something else I love, like surfing, or lacrosse, or snowboarding…even if I just became an instructor
When do you see your second album coming out?
It’s interesting because I had all of the sessions mapped out for the year, all around the Rufus schedule, and now that the tour isn’t happening, it’s not like I can just fly to Italy to record Sabina…but once it’s safer to fly within the country, there are a couple of artists I could fly to in the U.S. and record, just to keep things moving.
>>Kyle on Bandcamp<<