Hot bassist talks about growing up Erskine, including first-hand accounts of those famous Weather Report rehearsals with you-know-who!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
November 15, 2010
Damian Erskine has earned a reputation as a solid groove player, as well as virtuoso soloist on the bass. Equally proficient in jazz, funk, latin and other styles of music, Damian has performed and/or recorded with Peter Erskine, Teri Lyne Carrington, Gino Vannelli, Luis Conte, Les McCann, Jeff Lorber and countless others.
He is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and makes his home in Portland, Oregon.
FBPO: It seems you’ve been surrounded by music practically your entire life. How would you describe your musical upbringing?
DE: I was fortunate in that I had both a motivating force in my life and the opportunity to be exposed to some of the best music happening at the time. The motivating force was my grandfather. He really made me focus when I practiced and kept a close eye on my progress. He often brought me play-along books, transcriptions of solos, books of scales, etc. He would actually quiz me on things when I least expected it. I owe a lot of my early learning and work ethic to him.
In addition, I grew up in New Jersey and my uncle, Peter Erskine, was living in NYC at the time. My grandfather would drive me up to the city on weekends when there was a cool show happening. I got to see a lot of the greatest players do their thing. Our favorite spot was 7th Avenue South, which was owned by the Brecker Brothers and located in the Village. We got to see Peter playing with Jaco, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Bob Mintzer … all the heavy cats in the ‘80s. That was a really vibrant scene!
FBPO: What made you settle on the bass as your primary instrument?
DE: I’ve always loved playing both bass and drums, but, in a way, it was laziness that brought me to focus on the bass. I was attending Berklee College of Music and, at the time, the school wasn’t set up well for drummers. We had stairs everywhere and had to lug our drums all over the place when we wanted to practice or play with anyone. Basically, I wound up getting lazy and slacking on my drumming because it was just a hassle.
Around that time, I started to rediscover Jaco and also fell in love with a lot of the newer bass players on the scene, like Victor Wooten and Richard Bona, so I decided I would rededicate myself to the bass. I immediately fell wholly in love with it. It also helped that everyone needed a bass player! Work came quickly.
FBPO: Tell me about your experience at Berklee.
DE: Honestly, I have mixed feelings about Berklee. I had a lot of fun and met a lot of great players, but I was never actually very good at learning music in an academic way. It wound up being bad for my self-confidence and I almost quit playing music. I questioned whether I really had it in me like I should. Thankfully, after leaving school, I wound up working a lot and learning most of the stuff I couldn’t figure out in the classroom. Instead, I ended up learning it on the stage. School works better for some people than others. I happen to learn better by gigging and shedding material in my own way.
FBPO: Hanging out with the Weather Report guys must have been incredible! Any stories from those times that stand out in your mind as being particularly memorable or meaningful? Or funny?
DE: It was incredible, although I was pretty young at the time. I got to see Weather Report live many times when I was very young. In fact, I was only two weeks old at my first concert! I remember just thinking, “Wow! These guys are just so freaking cool! That must be what it’s like to really make it.” I was too young to get much beyond that, unfortunately.
My most vivid memories are more from Jaco’s years post-Weather Report. The last time I saw Jaco play was when I was at 7th Avenue South with my grandfather. Jaco came up to our table and tried to convince my grandfather not to worry about him. He told my grandfather how he had gotten his stuff together and was sober, etc. That was only a few months before he died. My grandfather was hit really hard by Jaco’s death. They were pretty close.
FBPO: Can you share a little bit about your experiences studying with Marc Johnson and Victor Wooten?
DE: I was pretty young when I took lessons from Marc. It was at my uncle’s apartment in NYC. I could read pretty well, but had trouble playing anything that wasn’t pre-written for me. Marc really tried to get me to understand chord changes and how to develop lines from them. Marc has always been an endlessly generous, soft-spoken, sweet guy. He was always very patient with me and made me feel very comfortable. I have very fond memories of our time together.
I only studied with Victor in the context of his Bass/Nature Camp, which was an absolute blast and an extremely interesting experience. The thing I’ve always dug about Victor is his ability to think outside the box, not just for its own sake, but in the service of being true to himself and what he hears and feels. He’s a very down-to-earth guy. He’s also about as big a rock star in the bass world as you can be, so it’s quite a challenge to get more than a word or two in privately before someone else is demanding his attention. At least that’s been the case whenever I’ve had the opportunity to speak with him.
FBPO: How about Jaco?
DE: Aside from the previous story, I always remember Jaco as being the “hippest cat” in the room. He was a character in so many ways. I always just had fun watching him as a kid. I also remember my grandfather or uncle abruptly thinking of where else they could take me when anyone stepped out of “kid appropriate” behavior. There were many times when I was whisked out of a green room when someone realized that there was a joint being passed around or something – I remember always wondering what that smell was! I only really got the PG-13 version of the hang because I was so young.
FBPO: Your relationship with Kai Eckhardt seems to have given your career a boost at an early age. How did you hook up with him?
DE: Kai is a wonderful guy. When I moved to the Bay Area, I tried to find out what other players were there. When I realized that Kai lived there, I flipped and immediately called and asked for lessons. I’ve always loved his playing. I was broke at the time, working at a coffee shop, so I could only afford the occasional lesson, but I always walked away with a fresh perspective. Kai also started referring people my way and I got more work there because of him. A lot of my best learning experiences – and getting my a** kicked experiences – happened while subbing on gigs for Kai. He helped me raise my own bar in a number of ways. He’s a very deep cat and nothing was ever “just music” with Kai. He’s very in touch with his effect on the world as a whole and his function as an artist in the world. I owe many an interesting conversion to Kai.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busiest these days?
DE: My two most intensive gigs are touring with the Peter Erskine New Trio, with whom I just finished recording our first CD as a group in LA, and playing with pop icon Gino Vannelli. It’s such a wonderful dichotomy, I think. Peter is pure art and understatement and Gino is big stage show with an absolutely smoking band.
I’m learning so much from finally playing with Peter. We had a short run in South America a few months ago and I could feel myself developing musically, night to night. He’s really got me thinking about the art of reduction. What needs to be here and what does not. Why am I playing what I’m playing? It’s all about serving the music and nothing else. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be touring with Peter and pianist Vardan Ovsepian. They are truly two masters of their craft and I can feel myself growing as a player with every show.
Gino is also a blast. The band is just smoking and he really likes to showcase the guys. He’s really a master craftsman and an amazing artist. I’ve never met anyone with better ears than Gino. He hears everything, so you really have to have your stuff together. Even though it’s a pop gig, this is some of the toughest music I’ve had to play. There are some very intricate arrangements, tricky unison lines and a lot of sensitive fretless work. This gig has been great for my fretless intonation!
Aside from those two “bigger” gigs, I keep extremely busy locally in Portland, playing everything under the sun, from Klezmer gigs, songwriter gigs, salsa gigs, jazz gigs, jam bands … you name it and I’m playing it somewhere with somebody!
I’ve also accepted an adjunct position at Portland State University so, for a few days a week, I’m the “Electric Bass” guy in the jazz department. I’m really stoked on that! It’s a great learning experience for me, personally, and they’ve been very flexible with my touring schedule. I couldn’t ask for more!
FBPO: What future plans do you have for your career? What else can we look forward to seeing and hearing from Damian Erskine?
DE: I hope to only get busier and busier. I’d love to spend more time on the road, actually. I’ll be doing some Canadian tours with Gino over the next few months, as well as a European tour next summer with Peter. I’m hoping to spend more of my year on higher-end tours like those, actually. I have so much fun doing them and I gain so much from the time I get to spend with such seasoned artists. Times are tough and it’s harder to book three months of gigs than it’s ever been, so I take what I can! Between those tours and my local work, I keep busy with about 250+ gigs/year. I can’t complain!
Ideally, I’d love to start touring with my own band soon. It’s such a wonderful group and the guys are just slamming! Booking has never been my forte, so I just need to find a little bit of time and hit the phones, I guess. I think I’m subconsciously holding out for a booking agent, to be honest. I don’t really have the time for cold calling clubs all over the world, so we just work locally when we all have the time to keep the tunes flowing. Everyone in the group is pretty busy, so we’re all happy to gig when we can and do other stuff in between.
I’d love to record a third album within the next year or two. I learn so much through the writing process and the band is so good. It’d be silly not to document it, especially as the group continues to gel. I already feel like we’ve grown by leaps and bounds since the last record, so it’s time to start thinking about taking the next step! I’m one of those guys who could spend a solid year on the road and not tire of it – as long as the conditions are good!
FBPO: What do you like to do when you’re not immersed in music?
DE: Beyond music, it’s all about my wife and dog, really. Nothing beats a day in the woods or, if I’ve been out of town, a day on the porch with the family! I’m also a bit of a tech-geek so I probably spend too much time dorking around with my computer or iPad, reading blogs, etc.
As I think about it, though, I don’t have much time at all that isn’t devoted to music in some way, shape or form. If I’m not gigging, I’m shedding for a gig, or, at the very least, thinking about it. Thankfully, I also having a very understanding and supportive wife!