Greg Ellis on the power of rhythm podcast

Recognized as one of the more innovative and versatile drummers in the world Greg Ellis has performed around the world and recorded with musical artists from over 30 countries.

As a passionate advocate for the healing and therapeutic aspects of organic sound and rhythm, he has presented lectures on the topic at various conferences and institutions. Ellis is also working on a documentary exploring the lost languages of rhythm in modern society and the impact of digital culture on music.

His drumming can be heard on more than 150 film, television and video game scores, including 300, Argo, The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, Iron Man, Body of Lies and Transformers among many others.

A human breathing through a track, just that experience of that time in a recording is where the transmission of the energy comes through. It’s not the chord progression or the lyrics and all that. These are the intellectual kind of connectivities. But the visceral connection to the emotion of music, is that resonance of a musician playing their instrument„.

– Greg Ellis 

Watch it on YouTube:

You can subscribe on your favorite platform so that you never miss a new episode:

Transcript of this Episode

REINHARD

Hi Greg.

GREG

Hello Reinhard, nice to see you.

REINHARD

So good to have you here. Rhythm is certainly what connects the two of us.

GREG

In our previous discussions we’ve made those connections that it’s all through rhythm and here we are finally connecting like this, it’s wonderful to be here.

REINHARD

This is an incredible range of possibilities: you’re a drummer, you are composer, you are a therapist and you are a philosopher, in the way of making sense out of what can rhythm do for people.

You started as a rock drummer, right? I’m very curious about what led you to India and how did the Indian experience of drums change your drumming and eventually your life.

GREG

I got my first major label tour with a band called David and David, a songwriting duo that really didn’t get their due. They only did one album but we toured. It was my first time touring the world at 22 years old and my eyes just opened up. It was such an experience traveling then. When you were really away you weren’t connected all the time like you are now. And the world just started seeping into me during these travels and touring for the next eight years. That’s all I did was rock drumming. And I was on tour with one of my bands in late 80s and I just finished a big show outside of Phoenix, Arizona and i’m on the tour bus and the guitar player tossed me a book that his sister had just sent him called “Drumming at the edge of magic” by Mickey Hart.

He tossed it to me because he said that she must have meant this for you because he was a guitar player. I started reading that night, and the next nights on the tour bus reading this book, it was just an epiphanous moment. I had not realized the responsibility and the power of rhythm throughout our evolution. Mickey tells his story but also talks about drummers from around the world and that’s when I read about Zakir Hussain and Indian music. And so here I am at 28 years old thinking i’m set on this trajectory of rock and roll but my world blew apart. I started buying the cds that Mickey recommended in the book and got consumed by Indian music. It really was a sense of order and being in the moment at the same time. You could hear the melody and the kind of communication in it that I just wasn’t getting in rock and roll. So that’s really when it opened my ears, that there’s another world out there. And the next part of the story, it’s then the shift from drum set to percussion, it was really the next kind of big phase of my life.

REINHARD

When did you first go to India, where in India and what did you study first? Did you study a specific drum?

GREG

The band took a break . I bought a little four track cassette recorder and I had collected some drums after reading Mickey’s book for a few months or so. I then went to see Zakir Hussain in concert and I went to see Kodo in concert and I started really immersing myself in this world of world rhythm. So my first trip to India… I had started a group called Vas. I had made the shift to percussion and we had gone to India to get instruments. It was my first time there and I spent about six weeks. I started actually in Nepal and then we worked our way down into India. But I didn’t go as a student of music. I was really developing my own style. So I never studied Indian percussion per se except for nagada in Pushkar. And when I got to Pushkar I met Nathulal Solanki the master Nagara player and he spent days with me and let me do my style.

I could play conventional grip like drum set even though with nagara you play the stick in a a different way. He just gave me permission to kind of find my own way in it. We bonded and became dear friends and have worked together over the years. But that’s what really then I could play an Indian instrument but I didn’t have to go do another lifetime of learning tabla or learning these other languages that I just would have been an amateur at for a long time.

REINHARD

How has the Indian experience changed your drumming?

GREG

It was a point of singularity for me. It didn’t change my drumming, it created my drumming. Because I wasn’t a student and I wasn’t there to kind of learn that language, I immersed myself in the music and when I would play with musicians there, the first one being Bickram Ghosh, the tabla maestro from Kolkata, son of Pandit Shankar Ghosh. What they liked is I wasn’t there to show them what a good student i’ve been. I could communicate with them in a dialect they understood but it wasn’t theirs and it was really about the groove. So I took my drum set sensibility and I just started putting into percussion with nagara… If it’s the low drum, that’s my kick drum, the small drum is my snare drum. On doumbek, on cajon… I still think kick and snare. So everything is coming from the place of the groove in my head. So I could find the groove in these rhythms that I wasn’t doing the same thing or answering in the way that they were used to and it brought out a different essence in the music. When I started actually working with Mickey Hart, ten years after I read his book, he was producing a CD called “Kodo“ and Zakir (Hussain) was there and that’s where I met Zakir and had developed this style of mine. We became dear friends because of that as well. What all these masters care about, is the one. If you respect the one and you find your place in there, you’re in. That’s all that ultimately matters. And my groove and my time is really good and I could really keep up and understand what they were doing and they just loved it. But it wasn’t a novelty of “look at the good western Indian drummer”.

REINHARD

I understand it fully. You had already in the very beginning made an integration. You just brought the playing into your drum set, more or less, that’s great. But you have studied drum, practiced drums for so many years as we all have as drummers.

And here we come to your amazing documentary “The Click”, where you describe how today you can just press a button and it makes a sound, because you have sampled it. Or you can even press a button and it just plays a sequence, because the sequencer does it. And of course with that what we lose is the uniqueness or is even the truth of “I create rhythm”…I just press a button, in reality. Let’s go deeper into that also.

GREG

It’s a deep rabbit hole to go into when you really start thinking about it. I think we’ve become so desensitized to it over the last 30 years, that to talk about it it’s almost like archaic in a way of “this is what it is so, what’s the the issue? We must make an alliance”. But I think what it lost is the magic of a musician, but it’s just a human breathing through a track. Just that experience of that time in a recording is something that I think is where the transmission of the energy comes through. It’s not the chord progression or the lyrics and all that. These are the intellectual kind of connectivities. But the thing that connects the visceral connection to the emotion of music, is that resonance of a musician playing their instrument from here to there and not from here to here, and here to here, and here to here. That’s alternating current. That’s going to keep distracting the signal. I’m talking about direct current energy. And that comes through a musician breathing through the song. That’s what I feel is really that resonance. Before any of technology doing music, there was just as much bad music as there is now. It’s not a judgment of the music. But what you had was a real experience of time that was generated by the energy of the music.

REINHARD

Here we come to something I really get in your music. I had an image today when I was listening to “The Click”. Your music “Kala Rupa”, for example. It’s really fluctuating, you can feel the fluctuation. That comes from you playing life. I had this image all of a sudden: if you have a plaster on because you broke your arm or so, it may be secure and it holds everything together, but inside it gets weaker and weaker. So if you have this grid outside, or this click outside, it avoids you of getting to the core of feeling that groove. Groove is never something rigid it’s always fluctuating and if you have something around, you cannot fluctuate, you cannot be flexible.

GREG

I thought i’d covered every way to look at it as there is, but that’s wonderful because what you’re saying is that it’s not this external thing that we’re following that it’s encompassing us. So inside you still have the live material but it’s contained by this, and you’re absolutely right. The muscle atrophies, the muscle weakens and that’s the soul of the music. I love that analogy. That’s really well put.

REINHARD

When I grew up with the percussion it was the 60s and in that time we were like rebels, we were proud to be rebels and do something that the normal people would say “what crazy stuff is that”. We were proud of that, to be different, outstanding in a way.

Today you can actually find, as the music styles narrow down more and more, with all the electronics, and also the people especially in the corona time now, that we have been educated in becoming much more in the conformity. I think it’s related to the click that you say.

GREG

It’s absolutely right, yes. I think of that often where if I was 20 years old today moving to Los Angeles there’s no way the journey would have happened. The journey happened for me discovering these instruments and my true. Not just in terms of mastery or artistry i’ll say. Prior to that as a rock and roll drummer I loved playing it, I still love playing kit. But the journey from that to getting into a level of composition and artistry, and technical mastery with the percussion that i’ve done, it took probably 15 years of making that decision at 28 years old. To where I could really step up and kind of play with the masters in that way. That journey is what got me there. It wasn’t just the years of practice and understanding. It was the time and the way how to even get to India. How can I take six weeks off from my life and keep it going? Those decisions, that I couldn’t just download a lesson with somebody in India or anything. So you had to show up. And I think that time of the process it takes to, either create something or to have a life’s journey. When that’s removed or when that’s done through an app kind of guiding you, there’s nothing dangerous there, right? You won’t find anything out about you in a way that the journey takes you on and you’re confronted with situations.

At that time in India you had to dig deep into yourself, and learning a music and being involved in a culture that was so foreign to me, I had to just completely be vulnerable and open myself up. And that could only happen over time. That’s a gradual process. I’m thinking of all the musicians that would have our take of growing up in the west and making that journey, who will never experience it because it’s not needed anymore.

REINHARD

I have the impression we are very narrow to a big change. I see people waking up in incredible amounts and being ready for courage, for living the life, for remembering that it’s not just going through the life secure but daring things and do crazy things.

I think we’re moving out of the click soon. I feel so many people yearning for essence of life, for essence of being alive and with this they will naturally come to rhythm, because rhythm is the essence behind every living organism. So I think the time for rhythm is just about to come.

GREG

For many years I was really thinking it’s one or the other, that it’s organic music against mechanical music, or like digital versus analog. The digital, the click is here to stay. It’s not going anywhere. Our atomic clocks are now down to one trillionth of a second off every billion years or something. But it’s still off, they can’t get it perfect. The idea of the clock and the click track, that’s there. So what we’re looking at is, that we don’t have any other way. If I record a set of organic music CD’s, like RhythmPharm, for instance, the only way to get them to you is still through a digital platform. That’s here to stay. So we have to seek out this natural time, we have to seek out these experiences and allow these experiences to be as accessible as the onslaught of everything else that we’re fed on the machine.

REINHARD

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with digital and all these things. The only wrong thing is that we lost our connection to rhythm, that we allowed ourselves to be pulled away. Just with splitting an atom we could have done different things but we created this nuclear bomb. It’s being mature enough to use things that you develop, and technique is quite a very powerful thing. So I don’t think it’s bad per se, no, not at all.

I think even this year we’ll have huge changes, I feel this in my gut, I have no other things, but I feel it in my gut.

Greg, you have been in so many films. I could ask you how did you go there but much more interesting for me is, how do you approach that? What’s first there and what’s the blueprint?

GREG

It changes a lot. It really depends on the project, it depends more on the level and the budget of the project over anything else. The limitations come very quickly when there’s not a big budget in terms of the time a composer can hire live musicians or the studios they can record at. Most of it’s done, obviously all this year, it’s been done at home, but even for years i’ve been doing most of my recording remotely here at home. If we do some taikos or timpani, or we need the big layers, then I will go to a big studio, a proper studio. But for all my hand drums it’s a good mic into a good preamp, into Pro Tools and that’s anywhere you would do that. You don’t need a room necessarily.

So i’ve learned to record myself really well like that. Actually all the music you hear in The Click trailer is all stuff from my film work, and most of what you heard on that stuff it was recorded at my house. It does vary.

I started this group Vas I mentioned earlier and I learned to layer my percussion in very melodic and cinematic ways, where I wasn’t doing an ensemble like an Indian ensemble or a latin American ensemble, where each person is playing the role of that one rhythm, where each person has their part. What I was doing is layering on kharkharbas from Morocco with chan chan’s from Indonesia, with the nagadas, with the dholak, with cajón… So I found ways to blend these instruments without being kind of geographically specific. It allowed, instead of just playing tabla over a track, or traditional darbuka over a track, composers responded to me layering my instruments in ways that kind of created a symphony of percussion in a sense. So it really match well with the orchestra. It could be action, it could work with electronics and it just became a way of layering.

It would generally start with laying down a shaker, khakharba or chan chan that I would get a time keeper going, and then you listen for either accents in the score. The score comes first. Rarely do I see picture unless i’m in the studio for property reasons. They can’t send me a picture when i’m working at home. But even if there’s a picture that’s more for the composer to watch, i’m reading the music or i’m really focused on my part. The parts worked out. We rarely improvise in a sense of a layered part. There may be some improvisational takes where you do bowed metals and water phone, and gongs and things…. Ambient stuff. But all the rhythmic stuff is already tight to the picture. And then you just start layering and then finding creative ways to mute and bring things in and out. It just became a style I did.

In the early 2000s, the style of music of major films like Matrix and Iron Man, it was just starting to blend electronic but there was still this live component in there. It wasn’t completely taken over by CGI. So there’s still a human component that transmitted through the music as well. That’s kind of how I approach it pretty much.

REINHARD

Do you remember what was your first big film?

GREG

What it came early on was The Matrix Reloaded. I worked with a composer named Tyler Bates who did 300, Watchmen and Guardians of the Galaxy and he’s prolific out there. But when I got the call for the Matrix, that was the one, because I love the first Matrix.

Not so much thinking of what the movie was but got me thinking of these ideas on my own and seen it right in front of me. So working on that was interesting. It was with a composer from England, who has a group called Juno Reactor that i’ve worked with for years as well, and it blends kind of psytrance techno with organic rhythms and vocals. So he was hired to do all the techno cues for (Matrix) Reloaded and Revolutions and they were recorded back to back. So we worked for almost eight months on both scores. On all the techno cues there’s a human thing in there. I at least would play a hi-hat or a shaker. But I said like I was Neo of the score, like I was the one human in this matrix world that was like still giving it some kind of life. That was never discussed beforehand but I think energetically these things do come through in a way. It’s as subtle as they are, but there is a Tibetan bowl in there, there is my kharkharbas and my nagadas… They’re in there, so they’re part of the matrix. That was exciting, and then came 300, of course another really big milestone, and then Iron Man.

But it’s much more romantic than it sounds. These sometimes are just really like sessions that it’s a deadline. I work for two days, I forget everything, send it off and they mix it in and do it all. But certain scores like Argo was really beautiful. We had three days of capital records to record just percussion. The composer Alexandre Desplat is just one of my favorites and meticulous composers and an incredibly creative producer. That was a real treat, that was really a musical experience.

REINHARD

It’s so amazing that you have been the one human component in the Matrix. That again is really the sign of Greg Ellis for me.

GREG

I’m not going to let go!

I’ve been this far. There’s no way my heartbeat’s not going to continue to get in these projects. Video games are now the next level where all these composers are going. I just have done a big Sony Playstation game. I’ve done a few of the God of War franchise games but I just did another big one that I can’t say anything about that, will be out next year. But again, i’m adding this complete heartbeat kind of vibe to now a complete virtual world. So there’s no human in the world at all, but you still have these composers that want the live thing in there. God bless them because it keeps me going and I think it keeps, like you said, the hope alive.

REINHARD

On the preparation for our podcast I checked out a lot of different videos of you on the net, and what touched my heart so deep and really resonated with me, because it’s the same approach I feel, is that you are having this African anchor bells and you’re going like crazy with them, grooving it, and you are really burning while you drum. For me there’s nothing between you, the drum and the audience. It’s just one. That really touches me because if we talk about healing, that is what is healing, it’s just here and now, it’s timelessness. You’re reaching timelessness. I think that is fascinating about your work.

GREG

I appreciate that. That’s been the hardest year and a half of all our lives, but for my life specifically not having that connection and not having that ability to be to challenge myself when I play live. Because when I play live i’m all in. Right before a concert, it’s interesting, I get very tired. Like five minutes we’re off the side of the stage going on and I just start yawning. I think what i’m doing is I start each performance from emptiness. It’s like a balloon I want to fill up. I don’t want to come out here all ready to go and then like try to keep it like that the whole time. So I really have that sense of this flow and when I have that live, the audience is aware of this and I can really keep my own with anybody, even though technically i’m certainly not at all on a traditional level of probably 90 percent of the musicians I work with. But what comes through is a different kind of mastery and that’s why I like the referring myself to a rhythmatist. My sole responsibility is to the groove. I’ll push myself technically or with some fast and technical things. I actually like to push myself to the point of what would be perceived as a mistake because that’s where I love fixing the misstep at the speed of light.

When you’re dealing at 64th notes at 140 beats a minute, that space in between those two notes… You and I we know, we know if that finger missed… I love trying to rectify that and make it seamless and those kinds of challenges. So I push myself and I think the audience responds to that. I think there’s nothing rehearsed, there’s nothing gimmicky. I really am getting into the vibe and the sound of what i’m feeling in that moment and that’s going to be recognized by anybody regardless of what style or genre you’re playing.

REINHARD

In my work that’s called TaKeTiNa, you’re doing one rhythm with the feet, another with the clap and another with the voice. And of course in this process everyone loses the rhythm and, the more you lose it, that’s the miracle, the more secure you become when you come back. You lose the fear of making mistakes. You actually start, as you say, to play with mistakes.

Back to the healing theme. You have created something that’s called RhythmPharm, like rhythm pharmacy. That’s more up to date than ever because now everyone runs to the pharmacy, try to get a shot or whatever.

So what is the idea behind the RhythmPharm?

GREG

It started initially not as an idea of becoming RhythmPharm. It was in early 2005 I believe, late 2004. From 2000 to 2004 my film work, but more my session work, my drum set work had been basically decimated because the onslaught of the loop libraries at that point. Drum machines were one thing, samples were one thing. But once loop libraries came out, where you could have Steve Gad playing a verse groove at five different ways and recorded by Bob Clearmountain at Ocean Way Studios, and that for a thousand bucks… That’s one day in the studio for me.  Who can compete with that? Once those loop libraries started getting really sophisticated and then the nature of the processed drum sound really became the standard of pop music, even if you had a live drummer it would be processed to sound like a machine.

Like I said I wasn’t this first call session guy because I played percussion, I toured with other bands… But I play really well in a song. I’d be hired for albums because they wanted that style throughout an album. So I brought that to it and that was the work that I did on the album front and that within three or four years that was gone. Of course I was angry but I was also really like finding what is this component that people are either afraid of or resistant to, or just not interested anymore. So I challenged myself every day for a month to record with just my organic instruments. No plastic skins, everything made from bone, metal, animal skin, shell, clay…

REINHARD

From all around the world, right?

GREG

Yes, from all around the world. I recorded these without a click track, without any samples or loops. I would just put up a mic and record one instrument and without listening do a next one and four or five tracks in. Once I started learning the piece I called it done. I didn’t want to compose it, I wanted it to be a discovery. So once I started making compositional choices that’s when I called it finish. I didn’t want it to be a composition. So when you listen to them you feel this journey of discovery because every layer that I do is discovering the previous layer. I also would not punch myself in in any way. So if I have a bell part that only comes in three minutes into a piece I would still press record from the beginning, so I would still be in the recording breathing up until the part I came in. Like you would in a studio. You don’t leave the room and come in a bar before you’re ready to go. These are all ideas that some people could listen and think that’s kind of a gimmick. But I knew that was being lost in the studio. We would start at the second chorus and punch it in. We didn’t play it from the beginning if we just needed to get the second chorus. And you started skipping this vibe. So in a, let’s say a 10 minute piece on a rhythm tonic, that I call them, if I have six layers there’s actually 60 minutes of real time in that 10-minute dose. So you listen to it and it feels like a lot longer than it is into your body, because you do have these layers from the beginning to end… I’m alive in the track.

REINHARD

And the ingredients are the drums that you also mentioned very clearly. And then there is your lifetime, I mean it’s your presence. For me it’s not just that you let it run for so long but if you have only three minutes in the middle you are present throughout the whole thing, then you play. I think that you’re present. And the presence is also something that goes in the medicine, right?

GREG

Exactly. You integrate the whole thing. So if there’s just a small measurement of something it’s integrated still with the whole thing.

REINHARD

How many different tonics do you have?

GREG

There’s seven cds in the set. Again, this was done in 2005. This is before streaming. YouTube wasn’t even started yet. It was meant to be a hard copy experience. It goes from growth to serenity to vitality, balance, clarity. And then I call the hero’s doses, the inner journey, that’s that’s the last one.

REINHARD

I really recommend my readers to check that out. There’s so much to discover. Just go to https://rhythmpharm.com/ You will find a lot of amazing stuff and it’s a very good entrance into the world that Greg represents.

Greg, thank you so much for what you give to my podcast, to the audience that listens to it. Yours are words of wisdom and i’m sure, from my heart, we will play and reconnect in music sometime soon. I’m doing my orchestral project TAKETINA SYMPHONIC and i’m trying to revive MegaDrums. In some of this we will meet. I really adore your work, I adore what you stand for and thank you so much for being on my podcast.

GREG

It’s my pleasure. I mean just after all these years to finally connect, Reinhard, it’s really been a pleasure. I look forward to everything ahead for us.

Please leave a comment below, and let me know what you think!
I’m curious about your sharings, thoughts and feedback.

Thanks, Reinhard

2 Kommentare

  1. Wowowww….very great podcast full of wisdom. Thanks for the discovery & inspiration of Greg Ellis’s world.

    Antworten
  2. Thanks Reinhard for this inspiring and thoughtful connection with Greg Ellis.
    Your conversation has a strong resonance, giving the opportunity to make a step aside from the mainstream course of modern music development. Thank you so much for keeping on entertaining discussions with great, active musicians all around the world. An occasion that can’t be missed.
    All the best,
    Philippe

    Antworten

Einen Kommentar abschicken

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert.