On a cold rainy night in mid-December, I make my way over to Smoakstack Studios to meet up with one of the hardest-working, most in-demand, and revered drummers working in Nashville today. Having provided a solid, creative groove and feel for artists such as Mat Kearney, Derek Webb, Sixpence None The Richer, Griffin House, Over The Rhine, Katie Herzig, and Ginny Owens, along with the acclaimed Ten Out Of Tennessee tour, Will Sayles has undoubtedly established himself as one of the premier timekeepers in Nashville’s richly eclectic music scene. Will is incredibly warm, relaxed, and humble, and offered a treasure trove of insight and wisdom into being a successful working musician. Enjoy.
DR: Tell me about your upbringing and, more specifically, what your exposure was to music growing up. What were some of your early inspirations and things that struck you?
WS: I grew up in Texas, just north of Dallas. I had a lot of different interests as a kid, and I really wasn’t particularly into music any more than most kids. When I was going into 6th grade, everyone was required to take one year of concert band. One of my brothers had played drums in the school band a few years earlier, so we had one of those student-line Ludwig aluminum snares sitting in the house. So when my turn came in fifth or sixth grade, that’s what I ended up playing. School concert band was my introduction to basic snare drum playing and some of the basic rudiments.
In terms of the music I grew up with, being the youngest, you’re always trying to follow what your older brothers are into. Being in Texas, there was a LOT of country music on the radio!!! I unfortunately have a certain era of early 90s country songs forever etched into my brain! My oldest brother had a couple of REM records, I remember having U2’s The Joshua Tree on tape, I think my mom had a couple of Beatles records, and of course the Eagles, growing up in Texas. I was definitely always interested in the drums, but I really didn’t get super serious about playing until late in high school, and even on into college. There was a lot of music I didn’t even discover until, I’m ashamed to say, pretty late. Some of my friends’ parents were playing them these classic artists, and nothing against my parents, but their record collection was not very extensive. Even now I feel like I’m playing “catch-up” to a certain degree. It’s stuff that’s become really standard like the Stones, the Beatles, even old jazz and blues stuff – it was completely not on my radar until I came up to Nashville and was introduced and exposed to a lot of music.
I’m checking out new bands all the time, but then there’s the part of me that still feels like I need to get a better handle on all this stuff that’s already happened. I remember the first time I sat down and listened to a Led Zeppelin record from top to bottom. I’d obviously heard Led Zeppelin on the radio, but when I started to really dig into their records, it totally rocked my world, but I was nineteen or twenty.
DR: At that point after you had been exposed to the percussion/drum world, and once you started getting into different artists and bands, what were things you started picking up on as far as drumming and drummers go? And in a bigger sense, what was it about some of those artists that made you think, “This is something I could get into”? You mentioned so many great examples of bands that have legendary drummers like John Bonham, Charlie Watts, and Ringo Starr. What started sticking out to you about them?
WS: I’ve always gravitated towards great songs. Obviously it must be a compelling performance but the power and weight of a great song has always been what excites me as a fan of music. I wasn’t buying Dave Weckl solo records when I was kid. It was not the drums, in and of themselves, that got me interested in playing. The drums became my way of participating within the music. When I was fifteen, I never wanted to sit in my room and play a drum solo. I wanted to put on Abbey Road, put headphones on, and play along. As I got older, I realized that so much of what I love about the drums is the overall feel and the groove. I have a lot of different guys that have influenced me but pretty much all of them have that component in their playing.
It’s interesting what can be an influence even though it may not come out in my playing, or it may come out in a very understated way. One record is Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live, which is a double-disc live record, and there’s also the video. Tony Levin’s on bass, Manu Katche’s on drums. What Manu Katche plays on a lot of that stuff is so different, unique, and kind of bizarre. The rhythm and the groove are so strong, and even though Manu tended to overplay a little bit, it totally works in that context.
Another record that completely rocked my world and got me excited about playing drums was Fiona Apple’s When The Pawn…, and a lot of that was Matt Chamberlain. There are a million things that Chamberlain could have played, but his choices are so musical and perfect for the songs. He taught me a lot about feel, and that fills should be an extension of the groove, not a break from it. That record had an immeasurable impact on me.
That’s kind of how I listen to records and to other drummers. I don’t really get into, “Oh, this is difficult to play, so it’s really great.” It’s more about, “This is so perfect for this song. It’s not distracting or taking away from what the rest of the band is doing, it’s totally the right thing but also still very expressive.” That’s so hard to do consistently and give that foundation. There’s a lot of guys that do that really well who fly under the radar unfortunately, because that kind of thing doesn’t sell drum magazines!!
DR: It’s interesting that you say that. One thing that has always struck me about your playing is that I’ll hear something you’ve played on, and it seems like the song could not be what it is without your parts. You seem to have a great way of integrating yourself into a song and looking at it as a big picture. For instance, you do some great drum intros and doubled drum parts on Derek Webb’s The Ringing Bell. First of all, when I hear those, I automatically know what song it is. Secondly, if I was in the position of playing that live, I’d be thinking, “I’m going to have to play this exactly how Will did it.”
Your desire to be in the middle of something - being in the middle of the song and hearing this bigger palette as opposed to saying, “I’m just going to play on top of this” – is a great character trait of your playing. You mentioned something about certain guys being under the radar, and that’s really what this thing is all about. That stuff does not get talked about enough, in not necessarily playing for the song, but being part of the song. Give me your perspectives on great groove, time, coming up with parts, and more about your perspective on being a part of the song as opposed to just being an outsider who happens to be playing on it.
WS: The thing is, I absolutely love recording. I enjoy touring and I love playing shows, but I really get energized from working in the studio. One of the things I love about it is that every time I go in, I’m always learning something new. Early on, it was really obvious stuff – you do a take, you think it’s killin’, you feel great about it, you go in and listen, and it’s not happening at all! I feel like that’s probably common for a lot of younger guys, because you start realizing that maybe the way you’re perceiving what you play is not really that objective. You have to train yourself to really be listening and care about the little nuances, because ultimately in the studio, it’s the little things that start to really matter.
Another thing is really caring about the sound of the drums. I know when I first starting recording, I was focused almost entirely on what am I going to play. But then I realized, “Oh, that’s only one part of this.” I need to be paying attention to the tone of the drums, the tuning, the cymbals I choose, the snare, the way I’m hitting everything and how it speaks in the track, etc. That’s the kind of stuff that is a never-ending learning process. But I really enjoy all that.
DR: Tell me about your experience in “learning the ropes,” so to speak, about the way things are done in Nashville as far as the recording process goes and what has helped you be successful within that framework.
WS: A lot of music now is recorded to the grid, meaning you’re playing to a click track. For me, from a feel standpoint, it can present a different set of issues and challenges versus performing where a song’s time may ebb and flow a bit. I remember soon after I moved to Nashville, I was talking to [producer/songwriter] Charlie Peacock about the responsibility of the modern session drummer being able to play well with a click. One thing that he told me that I’ve always remembered is that most drummers slightly rush when they go to play a fill. If you slightly rush, you’re going to have to compensate for that in the next measure to get back on with the click. That compensation or “correction” is going to give you a sense of the drum performance dragging. What I realized is that when I would sit on the other side of the speakers and listen back to something I’d played, I’d think, “That’s weird, I dragged that bar.” Actually, I rushed the fill before that bar, and that’s the problem - little revelations like that in the studio can be really helpful. You can get too obsessive about that stuff too though, which I don’t think is good. The danger of Pro Tools is to use your eyes instead of your ears!! You’ve got to strike a good balance.
It’s important to remember that keeping the exact tempo throughout an entire song is a very modern, and a relatively recent approach to music. Think about the way tempo increases and decreases in classical music. It helps create dynamic shifts and scene changes. I was listening the other day to “Let It Be,” and I was tapping out the tempo because I was covering it with a band. The song starts with a piano, and the tempo’s around 75 or 76 BPM. When Ringo first comes in with a full groove, it actually drops below 70. It ends up sitting around 68 or 69, and it speeds back up a little bit by the end of the song. We tend to listen to music with a certain criteria that’s very “now,” for better or worse. There are going to be gigs and sessions where it needs to stay that exact tempo top to bottom and you don’t need to drift at all, but then there’s a song like “Let It Be.” The tempo dropping really contributes to the emotion of that track. I think it’s partly why it’s such an incredible moment when the drums first come in. It’s kind of counterintuitive, because it kind of creates this epic-ness to the song [by slowing down]. I was surprised by that when I sat with a metronome and tapped it out, because it’s not something I really noticed before, and I think it’s because it’s so musical.
DR: It feels great. Even the 16th note hi-hat groove he comes in with feels killer, but you would never notice the change in tempo because it breathes.
WS: Yeah. I’m always working on my time, and working on my feel. Another hero of mine is Levon Helm – when I first started listening to The Band, I was just thinking, “What is going on here?” There’s something you can’t really articulate. It’s not just what he’s playing, it’s the way he’s playing it. Some guys would say that having groove is having perfect time, and maybe in a certain context that’s true, like if you’re doing more of a modern R&B thing, but [someone like] Zigaboo Modeliste is another great example of that old school kind of feel that I love.
DR: I was just thinking about him!
WS: Yeah! I remember where I was the first time I heard “Cissy Strut.” What’s cool about it is that you can’t fully explain what it is about it that makes it so great. There’s a mystery to it, and I think that’s good. That’s what’s exciting to me. I love Zig, I love Stanton Moore, Shawn Pelton, all these dudes that have that kind of lilt and that grease in their playing.
DR: Earlier you mentioned briefly about things that were happening when you first came to Nashville, such as meeting Charlie Peacock. Tell me about your coming to Nashville, seeing and experiencing what was going on, and integrating yourself into that.
WS: I went through some ups and down when I first came up to Nashville, because there are so many great players here. I was at Belmont, initially not studying music. I was doing a music business thing, but I was studying drums with Chester Thompson. Studying with Chester was amazing, but initially, it was very hard for me. It felt like, “Okay, let’s tear down everything and rebuild it,” but the rebuilding can be a slow, painful process.
DR: I took from him as well, and it was just this very long, arduous process where I was thinking, “I don’t know if I’m going to make it through this. I’m having to relearn things I’ve been doing for years.”
WS: Studying with Chester was great, but if I had to go back and do it again, I would have tried to integrate all that stuff I was doing into the context of playing music with other people. I spent a lot of time in college just sitting by myself at the drums, which can be good, but only if it’s helping you to ultimately express musical ideas. Being able to do an independence exercise within itself isn’t really useful. It’s all about the application. I got to take a lesson with Stanton Moore, and that’s his thing – application, context, something being musical. I filter everything I learn through that framework.
DR:Is there any particular experience in a studio situation or a live setting where you thought, “Wow, this is what I’m supposed to do, this is what I love doing, and this is worth it.”?
WS: Recording-wise, probably around 2003, me and a bunch of guys were hanging out and playing with an artist named Griffin House. We booked out a studio for a week and did the whole Lost And Found record. It was a really intense five days – Griffin was writing some of these songs the day we were recording them. It wasn’t like we had done tons of pre-production or anything. I think that project was special for everyone that worked on it.
There have definitely been some live shows that [were incredible as well]. I was touring with Mat Kearney, and we were the direct support for John Mayer on the Continuum Tour. Everyone in his band is just ridiculous. Man, that was an education for me, and I look back and realize I learned so much in that time period. Me and the guys in Mat’s band would go out to the soundboard and watch those guys play almost every night – it was that good. I remember the last show of the tour was at Madison Square Garden, and it was completely sold-out. It’s the kind of thing where you can’t even process it at all in the moment.
I felt the same thing when I got to play on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. I’m such a huge Conan fan, and I got to play on the original NBC set with Mat. He ended up doing a lot of the television stuff, but playing on Conan had been a dream for so long, and it was very significant for me.
Experiences like that make you want to keep at it and keep working. For me, it’s vital to stay inspired about playing music. I’m always trying to strike a balance between the practical side of playing music for a living, which is making ends meet financially, versus the artistry of playing meaningful music and wanting to build a body of work that I’m proud of. Sometimes the two overlap and unfortunately sometimes they do not. There’s an ebb and flow to it. If I do go out and play with someone for a month or two, and it’s really great pay, I’m sort of thinking through the month or two after that, where could I involve myself in something where the money isn’t as good, but I really love it. I use projects that pay really well to give me that freedom. I know these jazz guys in town, and that’s what they love, but they’re never playing any of that. They’re doing a country gig and they’re miserable. I don’t ever want it to be that.
That’s one of my goals, to let whatever I need to do financially afford me the time to do some of those other things, however I can. When Trent Dabbs talked to me about the Ten Out Of Tenn thing, where it’s ten artists [on one bill] I thought, “I have to do this.” As recent as that stuff was, I feel like it has been very significant for me in terms of feeding that part of me that needs to believe in what I’m a part of.
DR: I feel like one of your biggest strengths is that you’re able to be in so many different situations and have so many different elements of your playing come out. Ten Out Of Tenn is a perfect example of the focus being on the song and what is important for the song, and being able to put yourself in the middle of that. I don’t know of too many other people that could do that as well as you do, where you’ve got ten different voices with ten different ideas coming at you one right after the other, and it sounds like you playing with all of them. You could be playing other people’s parts, but it still sounds like you and your voice and personality. Even then, you’re still able to be in the middle of something and integrate yourself into it.
WS: I got to play some of your parts! (laughs)
DR: I know! (laughs)
WS: The thing that was really exciting to me was that ten artists and me on a tour bus is like summer camp. Seriously! Everybody gets along, and we would joke that, at night, no one wants to be the first person to go to sleep because they’re going to miss out on something. It’s the best hang.
It’s also a fun challenge because all ten artists want to hear different things from the drummer. I’ve worked with artists that, for whatever reason, don’t like cymbals!! The thing is, I can’t laugh at that. I have to recognize that at some point they’ve probably played with a drummer that had no finesse or had really loud, bad-sounding cymbals. That’s part of the challenge, where I’m thinking, “You don’t like cymbals, and I want to make you happy.” That doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t play cymbals, but it means, “How do I adjust what I do around your preference?”
Tempo can be another issue. One artist might feel a song at 100 BPM one night and 110 the next, depending on how they are feeling that particular night. Other artists will want their songs the exact same tempo night after night. It’s a fun challenge to try and make ten different artists happy. Ten Out Of Tenn was great. I hope more stuff happens with it. I know it’s difficult to coordinate everybody’s schedules, but when it happens it’s hard to beat.
DR: This is sort of the opposite question. As a player, what is most gratifying to you when you come out of certain situations? What do you take with you when you’re done with those and you move on to something different?
WS: The crazy part about music is that there’s so much that you learn that’s not necessarily conscious. It’s why musicians can play things that they themselves maybe can’t articulate or break down. Different things end up shaping you in ways that you may not even realize. All the gigs you play, the records you listen too, the conversations you have with other musicians, the recording, the practicing…all that stuff ultimately affects and shapes your playing. I’m excited to see how I will have grown and changed as a player in twenty years, because I know I’ll be better. I’ll probably make different choices in certain scenarios, and that’s just what happens when you do it over and over. You soak up all that stuff.
DR: Does it tend be something that makes more sense down the road when you’re involved in something else, not in the sense of “I should play this groove here,” or whatever, but more along the lines of certain thoughts, ideas, and philosophies coming into play?
WS: Oh definitely. I think experience really comes into play in the studio, especially when things maybe aren’t totally coming together. Knowing what things may need to be changed to make something right for the song is imperative. It could be so many different things - a section that doesn’t feel right, transitioning in and out of sections, and I’m always trying to tweak and fine tune that stuff until it sits right – to the tones [of the drums]. I’ll spend however long it takes to get the snare to sound right for the track, [things like] “Do I change the tuning on this? Do I change out the kick drum? Do I put a softer beater on the kick pedal? Do I switch out the hi-hats? Do I play at the tip of the hi-hat?” Some of that stuff will be conscious decisions and then some of it will just change naturally as you react to everything.
You’re always sort of responding to [what’s going on around you]. Everyone’s doing that. Every musician. The bass player may say, “My tone needs to be darker” or “I need to simplify that section.” It’s a constant process of refining. By the end of the day, after twelve or fourteen hours of that, I’m just beat! That’s the thing - with a lot of younger players, they might listen to a record and think, “Oh, I could have done that, there’s nothing complicated going on.” But they don’t realize how many decisions were made to get there. Whether it’s the musical ideas, the arrangement changes that were made, the different tones from swapping out drums, changing the tuning, dampening the heads, changing out a cymbal, whatever - for a long time I never even thought about that stuff, but it’s changed the way I listen to records now.
DR: Everything I’ve ever heard you do has been this great mix of serving a song and the music as a whole, while still retaining your personality and putting your spin on things. You remind me a lot of someone like Jim Keltner, in that you can come in and lay down the most straight-ahead parts, but incorporate a kind of brilliant quirkiness that keeps things interesting and intriguing, along with having a great feel and groove. How do feel you are able to balance those worlds of “playing for the song” yet still expressing your unique identity and personality as a player?
WS: I’ve tried to strike a balance between having an identity as a player, knowing my strengths, and then at the same time trying to expand on that. There are guys that just have a really strong voice/identity on the instrument. My friend Jeremy (Lutito) is like that. I know it’s him when I hear him play on a record. Jeremy has definitely influenced my playing, and it’s because I’ve been around him so much. Everyone has had different experiences, and everyone’s drawing from different places. Vinnie Colaiuta’s amazing, but I could never sound like him. There was probably a time where that really depressed me, but if you’re upset about that, you’re looking at it really one-dimensionally. I feel like there’s a tendency in the drumming community to value things in a very one-dimensional way, especially if it’s something really “technical” and difficult to play. It’s really unfortunate, because there are players out there that aren’t really that confident when they should be, because they have strengths that aren’t really as celebrated.
DR: It’s interesting you bring up Jeremy, because something he said that really struck me during his interview was that he can be at a show and see a guy who’s only played drums for maybe three or four years, where maybe the guy doesn’t think he’s that great, but Jeremy can watch him play and think, “I’ve never even thought about some of the stuff he’s doing, that’s great.”
WS: Absolutely!! I experience that all the time.
DR: But then you see a show and watch some chops wizard blow for an hour, which is all fine and great, but I don’t feel anything after that. I feel empty.
WS: Totally man. To me, that’s what’s so amazing about music. It might be the simplest thing, but someone makes this decision to play this certain part that’s just brilliant!! You don’t have to be one of these clinician guys, and I’m not knocking that at all, but when you say, “I don’t feel anything,” I am the exact same way. When I hear someone do a drum solo, that just doesn’t get me excited compared to when I hear a great band play. The power of a great groove gets me really excited. I love Stanton Moore because he kind of exists in that world, but man, he’s so musical. There are a lot of guys like that – Steve Jordan, Steve Gadd – and those are the guys I gravitate toward.
DR: From your experience in being in Nashville, working with so many people, and particularly with your experiences when you first arrived, what advice would you give to someone who desired to do what you’re doing and be at the level you are?
WS: I never made playing professionally the “thing”. I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything, but I never got caught up in that. I think I had a luxury in that when I moved here, I was able to be in school and let that be my “day job,” if you will. It wasn’t like I was working somewhere I hated, thinking, “Man, all I want to do is get out and play drums,” which is totally valid. I’m very sympathetic to that. For one, it’s hard work. I feel like I’ve been very blessed by a lot of things that have helped me be able to do this for a living. I don’t think for a second I’m here because I did A-B-C-D.
DR: Do you feel that the relationships you had, such as those you developed before you made the Lost And Found record with Griffin House, had an impact on the direction your career has taken?
WS: I do think that’s a big part of it. I don’t want to say it’s being in the right place at the right time – that’s probably more true when someone’s trying to get a record deal as a pop star. I feel like being a professional musician is completely different than being an artist. When you’re an artist, I do feel it’s more about getting breaks. When you’re player, you do need to have those opportunities, but there is so much you can do on your own. All the people that I know who do music professionally seem to all have a different story of how they got where they are. There’s really not a “thing” you could do necessarily. But moving to Nashville was a big step, because there are lots of opportunities to play here. Follow what you’re passionate about. From early on, I loved recording, and I did that as much as I could.
There’s a bass player in town named Craig Young, who’s played with just about everybody. He told me during one of my first couple of years here that, “Every significant gig that I’ve had has always come from doing something for free.” This is a guy who probably gets paid double scale to record, and he’s still going out and playing in a club with somebody because he loves it, because he loves music. Then the guitar player hears him and says, “Hey, we need a bass player for this tour.” In turn, the guy who was playing in that tiny little club gig is now playing with some huge artist.
That was a big lesson for me, realizing that you can’t really craft out a path to follow. Just try and be a part of as much stuff as you can. That was kind of his bit of advice, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. If someone asks me to play, particularly if it’s in town and I’m available, then I try to do it. I don’t want to get to a point where I say, “Oh, there’s no money in that” or “They’re only paying me fifty bucks” or something. As cheesy as this sounds, if you love music, let that passion help make some of those decisions.
DR: The way I’ve always thought about it was if someone wasn’t in some way passionate about music until they knew they could make money doing it, then they probably need to re-evaluate their career choice. I’ve met and know guys like that and I really have a hard time taking them seriously.
WS: For me, it’s always been about the playing. I’m not looking to have some lavish lifestyle. If I can make ends meet and get to play, then that’s awesome. But I promise you, if I wasn’t playing professionally, I would still be playing as much as I could. I love it, I’ve always loved it, and I think that’s really what it comes down to.
DR: What do you have currently in the works, and in a bigger sense, what are you looking forward to? What aspirations do you have for the future?
WS: I’ve been in town this whole last year. My wife had a crazy surgery in April, so this year more than in the past, I really didn’t tour at all. I’ve been playing some with this band Sixpence None The Richer, which I love playing with them. We did a record with Jim Scott last January out in L.A. It’s done, but I’m not sure when it’s going to come out. Hopefully [I’ll be] touring with them some this next year. I’d love for there to be a Ten Out Of Tenn thing as well, if possible. Katie Herzig has a new record that’s almost done and I’m really excited about that too.
DR: What would you say are your long-term goals?
WS: My goal is to be doing what I’m doing now, but I would love to be able to get to a point where I’m more and more involved in stuff that I love. It’s being able to play with artists that I really respect, I’m into the music, and I’m not really having to make as many decisions based on the budget component. I want to continue to work with more and more artists, and to keep working on my playing by watching other guys play and getting inspired. I’d eventually love to have a Meters cover band!! I’d love to have a group of guys that just know all the tunes and we can just get together and play for fun, and doing more projects like that, where it’s just about enjoying playing.