On a breezy, late December morning, I make my way over to one of Nashville’s most hallowed halls of music, the RCA complex on Music Row. Housed inside is what is now officially Crystal City, the central location for the all-in-one production company created by the supremely talented Marcus Hill and his brother Dwan. Marcus’s reputation as one of the most solid, grooving, and versatile drummers in Nashville has been growing steadily ever since his arrival in 2005. Having held the drum chair with artists such as Melinda Doolittle, Nicole C. Mullen, B. Reith, Joe Robinson, and Alvin Love, among many others, Marcus’s superb sense of pocket, time, and feel, along with his incredibly warm and humble personality, have made him one of Music City’s best up-and-coming drummers.
DR: Tell me about your upbringing, and more specifically, what your musical exposure was like and how it played out as you were growing up.
MH: Ever since I can remember, I’d been exposed to music all the time. My parents are musicians – my mom is a singer, and actually played organ, piano, and a little bass guitar in her church. She did a lot, but she was a preacher’s kid, so she was kind of forced to do everything. My dad was the same way – he played piano and saxophone. I came into a musical family, with cousins and grandparents that are involved in music.
I’ve always kind of had the rhythm thing. My mom says she used to set up pots and pans when I was real small. They always gave me toy drum sets and all that jazz. But my brother and I actually began taking piano lessons when I was five and continued until I was about eleven or twelve. I was playing drums throughout that whole time, but around the time I was seven or eight, I started playing more at church, for children’s choir, youth choir, youth activities and things, but it wasn’t like I was playing every Sunday. It was just like once a month when they had “Youth Day” or whatever. As I got older, I started to play more and more in church. Then in middle school when band started up, I started doing percussion like snare, xylophone, timpani, and all that. In high school, I did concert band the first year, then in junior year I did marching band, where I played snare, and then senior year I did choir. (laughs) I just wanted something different. After that it was college. I went to Belmont, and majored in commercial music playing drums.
As far as influences, I was listening to pretty much only gospel and Christian music growing up, because that was all we were allowed to listen to! (laughs) It wasn’t until junior or senior year of high school when I started branching out, and even more so in college, when I was like, “There’s so much good music out there, and I need to find as much as I can.”
DR: Tell me more about your musical experience within the church. How did that environment influence your playing? Were there any musicians, especially drummers, who you were drawn to early on?
MH: I’ve always said that playing in church is the best ear training. I grew up in a black Pentecostal type of church. In those kinds of churches, you have Sunday morning services, but you have mid-week services and revivals and stuff. And in those types of settings…basically anything goes! (laughs) Anything can happen! I think it prepared me in a way to be able to follow, to change, and to be spontaneous. At any point, anybody can start any song that you may or may not know (most of the time you don’t know) and you just have to catch on and follow, whether it’s piano or drums. It could be in whatever key – normally it’s in a random key, so you just kind of have to figure it out.
Being in that type of setting really taught me that you basically have to be prepared beforehand, know your craft, and know your skill. If you’re playing piano, know all your keys and figure out the basics that are in most songs, so if somebody starts a song that you don’t know, you can kind of fake your way through it. Those types of lessons play out in playing drums professionally for artists. While that stuff doesn’t happen that often, sometimes it does. Sometimes an artist will say, “Hey, I need to pull this song, do you know it?” It’s easy to be more comfortable in that situation having grown up in situations like [I did in church]. Since church happens every week, it would be forcing me to learn songs every week. It kept me playing, and allowed me to get used to the idea of playing all the time as my thing.
As far as drummers go, at that time I really wasn’t keeping up with who was playing on what, I just knew what I was listening to. Any of the gospel of the 90s, I basically knew it all - I kind of had to! Thinking back, it was probably drummers like Joel Smith, Calvin Rodgers when he was first starting out, and Marvin McQuitty. I was heavily influenced by Marvin because he played for Fred Hammond, and that was my favorite at the time. He’s really where I got my pocket from, because he’s a straight pocket drummer, and a lot of the fills and stuff I learned from him.
DR: It’s interesting you mention that, because something I’ve always noticed about your pocket is that you sit right on the beat, but there’s enough “lean” in your playing where it kind of pulls and pushes at the same time. There’s a great energy to it, but you’re able to sit back yet still drive something forward.
MH: A lot of it comes from listening to all those gospel drummers back in the day, but a lot of it really is Marvin. To me, he was the best out of all of them as far as staying in the pocket and making it feel really good. After getting out of listening to all that gospel and listening to all that other stuff, it all kind of merged together and influenced my playing as well.
DR: Once you started listening to other music besides gospel and Christian music, who started sticking out to you as far as artists and drummers alike?
MH: Before I got to Nashville and Belmont and really got serious about drumming, I would hear about certain drummers and think, “Hmm, maybe I should go listen to them.” During that little period, I was listening to people like Dave Weckl and Dennis Chambers. Those guys had big names, and I thought, “Oh – these are the people I’ve heard of, so I’ll just go listen to them.” After I got to Nashville, I started branching out more and listening to different genres. I learned how to play jazz when I got here when I was studying with Chester Thompson. Chester basically taught me how to play jazz. He took me to the Belmont library one time and said, “You need to listen to all these jazz artists and all these jazz drummers,” and introduced me to Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, all those guys. I basically sat down in the library one day and listened to those guys all day. After that, I started pulling out some pop stuff, listening to guys like Dan Needham. I love love LOVE Dan Needham. I love his pocket and his fills. I also started listening to Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, got into some Steely Dan, and Stuff [the New York-based collective of musicians featuring Steve Gadd], Will Kennedy from the Yellowjackets, Stewart Copeland, all of the Sting and Police stuff, Keith Carlock - I just started grabbing everything!
DR: After hearing all those different artists and drummers, how did you begin to integrate what you were hearing into your own musical style and palette?
MH: I was trying to understand that, thinking, “What is it about all these drummers that makes them really great, and what is it about the recordings they played on?” What I discovered was how their drumming fit the song and how it helped make the song what it was. While I learned a lot from all those gospel drummers, most of the time it’s not really about the song. Sometimes it is, but all the drumming in the songs kind of sounds the same. I could tell you beforehand in any of the gospel songs what they’re going to play, because it’s the same type of stuff. Some of it is a lot of chops, and it’s whatever. But listening to this other stuff, it made me realize that playing for the song is really important. I learned that those guys were able to bring their style of playing and any of the chops that they learned [to the table], but would make it fit in the song really well, whether it’s no fills throughout the song, or one fill. One perfect fill in one song will make a song for me. I love Steve Jordan, and he does that all the time. What he’s played in some songs makes me think, “That’s perfect. If he had played anything else, it wouldn’t have been the same song.”
DR: After you really started understanding where those guys were coming from and how they were able to bring their own unique voice to different situations, tell me about how your own concepts in terms of groove, pocket, playing for the song, and coming up with parts for songs developed.
MH: It’s almost like there’s no formula. It’s all about the feel - making the song feel good, pushing when it needs to, holding back when it needs to. Every instrument has its part and spot in a song, and drums are the same. Also, every song is different. Sometimes I feel the role of the drums is to just lay down a pocket and a groove so the song feels good, maybe some fills here and there, or maybe it doesn’t need anything else. Sometimes there are songs where it needs a little bit more, where the drummer has to push the songs a little more and add more energy. You may set up certain sections, like a keyboard solo or something. Maybe you’re playing an instrumental song on a jazz-fusion record and you’re going all out the whole time! There’s always a role for the drums, but it’s always up to drummer or the producer to decide how the song should feel. The drummer has a lot of power. I feel like if the drums are where they’re supposed to be, it’s a lot easier for everything else to fall into place. To me, it’s all about feel, man. If you can trust your heart and your internal groove, whatever song or record you’re doing will turn out great. I think it’s a matter of playing out a lot, playing live and studio sessions. The more you do it, the more you get a feel for what songs need and what they don’t need, and the more you get a feel for your internal sense of groove and learn to trust it.
DR: It’s really cool to hear you focus primarily on feel, because something that I feel you’ve been very successful at is taking a really rich, meaty gospel pocket, but doing away with much of the chops-oriented part of it, where it fits better in a wider variety of situations. You can wail in a Latin setting, a pop setting, and a gospel setting, but it all works. You’ve been able to integrate the most important parts of all those things, yet it still sounds like you. It’s very focused. I’ve heard you play in many different environments, and you’ve definitely got chops, but they’re super tasteful chops. I’ve seen and heard a lot of guys who came up playing in the church as you did who are either really great gospel drummers, or gospel drummers with really great chops. There’s a difference. Many guys in the latter group will get work, but it seems to be in these crazy over-blown fusion bands, where I tend to come away thinking, “It’s great that you can do that, but those types of things normally won’t last that long. You’ve really got to figure out what will get you consistent work.” I feel like you’ve been able to do that extremely well.
MH: Thanks man! That was kind of my goal. I love lots of different genres, and I wanted my playing to be able to get me calls for all the jobs and not just one, so I thought, “How can I get my playing to that point and that level?” I credit a lot of it to, first of all, being in Nashville and being able to hear a lot of guys in different genres. There’s lots of country of here, but there’s lots of other things here too if you know where to look. I’ve been able to get around a lot of those other guys and study them and just learn from what they’re doing. A lot of the guys that you’re interviewing for this project, and a lot of the guys I went to school with made me say, “What is it about their playing that I really like and how can I use that in my playing?” It’s the same thing with all the celebrity drummers too – I like to take what I like about all of their playing and infuse it into mine, whether it’s Latin, jazz, country, r&b – whatever it is, I like to put it in. I’ve been blessed with the gigs that I’ve gotten. I was just thinking about that today. All the gigs I’m playing right now are basically in different genres! I love to be able to switch out like that, because they’re all lots of fun to play.
DR: Is there any particular experience, whether playing with in a live setting or in a studio setting, that sticks out to you above the others?
MH: In the studio, it was probably working on a record that just came out by Alvin Love. I was able to do the majority of the drum parts on that. That was probably the most fun and fulfilling studio project I’ve done so far. We did a lot of work on focusing on what drum tones and parts we wanted. That’s a really great example of dissecting every song and saying, “What exactly do we want for this song? How can the drum parts make the song?” It was a blast playing all those parts.
As far as live experiences, there’s so many. As I said, I have so much fun playing lots of stuff. I was playing in a Latin-jazz band for a while called El Movimiento, and we played every week at a coffee shop called the Frothy Monkey. We weren’t playing to thousands of people in a stadium - it was just like fifty people or so. I had so much fun doing that. We played Latin-jazz for two hours every Tuesday, just fun songs, and people would come sit in – it was just a cool vibe. I miss it now because we don’t do it anymore.
Of course, it was fun doing the bigger stuff. I did Africa with Nicole C. Mullen in 2009. That was a lot of fun, because it was just a stadium full of people. I could tell that every single person that was there was excited to be there and were really fulfilled by the music we were playing. It’s a really good feeling to know that the music you’re playing is affecting and benefiting others. That was a blessing to me, and I really enjoyed doing it.
DR: This is sort of the flip side of the last question. What is most gratifying to you as a player in being a part of so many different musical situations? What do you feel you end up taking away the most from those experiences?
MH: For me, the biggest thing I’ve learned is that the music is something that’s beyond me. It’s real easy to get caught up in learning the songs and the details of everything. All of that is important and I’m not discrediting that at all, but once you finally get onstage and play the show, especially if you’ve done the homework where you’re no longer worrying about what’s coming up next and it’s internalized, that feeling is pretty awesome to me. At that point it’s no longer about me, but it’s more about how the music is affecting others, hopefully in a positive way! It takes a lot of work to get to that point, but all that work pays off when other people are benefited or blessed by whatever you’re doing, whether that’s playing on stage or playing on a record someone’s listening to in their car. That’s something I enjoy every time I get to do it. Anytime I see anyone out in the audience bobbing their head, I’m like, “Okay – we’re successful!” You know you’re doing something right! (laughs)
DR: From your own experience in coming to Nashville and playing with so many great artists, what do you feel are the most important things for drummers to know who are wanting to break in and have consistent work as players?
MH: Of course all the obvious things for drummers – practicing, working on your craft; I think all that stuff kind of goes without saying. There are a couple of things though. One is to make sure that when you are working on your craft and getting it up to par, make sure you’re practicing being yourself and don’t try to be someone else. If someone calls me for a gig, it’s because they want how I play on that gig. Practicing being yourself will help create a unique sound, and that’s very important in this circuit. The other thing is that in this town, it’s about networking just as much as the playing, if not more so – knowing people and being in the loop. For the drummer, that means getting out and playing as much as possible, but also going out to shows, meeting people – basically taking any chance you get to make connections with people. Not that you have to be schmoozing with people, but making friendships and just building strong relationships. In this town, even if it’s your dentist, everybody knows somebody that does something in music, if they don’t already do it themselves. I would say those two things – having a unique sound and building strong relationships with people – are what will take someone a long way.
DR: What are you currently involved with or working on, and in a broader scope, what are your aspirations for the future?
MH: Right now, those two questions kind of go hand in hand! I’ve got a lot of exciting things coming up! In November, I did a tour of Europe with this guitarist named Joe Robinson, who’s from Australia. We did about thirty dates that month, and the second leg of that tour is in January, where we’re doing Australia, just touring everywhere there. I’m still doing touring dates with Melinda Doolittle, who was a finalist on American Idol a few seasons back. She’s got a lot of dates coming up this year. The really exciting thing is that I’m finishing up my solo EP! That’ll be available in January. Being on the Joe Robinson tour kind of forced me to do it, because I needed something to sell on the road. I put it together real quick before we left, producing it and playing drums on it, and got a lot of friends to play on it and write songs. It’s a five-song EP, and it’s not really a drum record. I love the drum parts, but it’s kind of a compilation/production type of thing. I think it’s cool, and I’m excited to hear what other people think about it!
That will kind of be in conjunction with what I have coming up as far as aspirations go. My brother and I just got this studio here on Music Row, which is pretty exciting, and we’re starting our own production company. We’re going to be doing production work for people where they want us to produce or play on EPs, full projects, or demos, or any other musical production needs. If they just need a drum track from me, I can track it here and send it to them – whatever people need, it’ll be sort of a one-stop shop for production. It’s called Crystal City, and that’ll be launched in January as well. We’ve got a lot of exciting things happening, man. We’re just going to keep trucking and do what we love. It’s great to able to do this for a living.
DR: What would like to see yourself doing years and even decades down the road from now?
MH: I love to travel, so I could see myself being a touring musician for a while. Not that I’ll do it forever, but for right now that’s what I love to do. I want to get into doing some clinics as well. I want to somehow incorporate teaching – I don’t know if teaching private lessons or in a public school is where I’ll be, so maybe doing clinics, and books and DVDs as well, is something I’d like to look into doing later on. I want to think big, and I want to work with a lot of the big producers that are basically doing all the music you hear on the radio. Ten or fifteen years from now, I just see myself working with a lot of people and playing music with a lot of different people. Like I said, I love playing different genres, and I want to work with everybody! (laughs) I just want this production thing and my playing to get out there so I can work with as many people as I can.
To learn more about Marcus and to check out what Crystal City is all about, go here – www.crystalcityinc.com