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A Gretsch Abroad — An Interview with Gretsch Drummer Morgan Ågren

A Gretsch Abroad — An Interview with Gretsch Drummer Morgan Ågren

This month “A Gretsch Abroad” will be focus on Gretsch Drums in Sweden, and some of the interesting people that help bring “That Great Gretsch Sound” to this fascinating nordic country with such a strong musical tradition.

I had never heard of Morgan Ågren (pronounced “oh-grain”) until just recently. If you are not acquainted with Frank Zappa’s complete body of work, or if you happen to live outside of Sweden, then perhaps you have never heard of Morgan Ågren either. However, in Sweden, Morgan is regarded as a drumming national treasure, and you can quickly see why in this video:    (Check out the entire video in the “Director’s Cut” at the end of this interview!)

Morgan’s drumming is such a potent force, so convincing in its form, that when watching him it becomes evident that one is witnessing a world-class artist at play. Though highly respected by metal drummers for his work with Meshuggah’s Fredrik Thordendal, he is not just another swift-footed, speed drummer. He integrates technology and music into his performance that touches the listener on a very emotional level. I recently watched him perform a clinic, and I became teary eyed at several points, like one would do perhaps at an opera. A perfect blend of impeccable technique and artistry.

I sat down with Morgan and the conversation spanned many important topics including Gretsch drums, his time with Frank Zappa, and his recent kickstarter project for his life-long musical partner, blind keyboardist Mats Öberg, who is now losing his hearing.

Q: Why do you play Gretsch drums?
A: When I started playing drums I considered myself to be more of a fusion drummer than a jazz drummer, and I thought that Gretsch was mainly a be-bop brand, but later I realized how wrong I was. Every time I played a Gretsch kit, even early on, I was always attracted by the tonal qualities.

Q: That tone you are talking about, I know exactly what you mean. It’s a ringing overtone that is so specifically Gretsch, isn’t it?
A: Yes, I think when it comes to snares and specific bass drum sizes, it can be hard to tell what brand of drum it is. But when it comes to toms, especially a 14” inch floor tom and an 18” bass drum, there is an obvious sound difference with Gretsch. That Great Gretsch Sound isn’t just some marketing gimmick, but it’s something that really is there. It’s a specific woody kind of sound. I just turned 50 this summer, and it was about time to follow my instinct. So I got myself a big walnut Gretsch kit from the 70s, including a rare 14×26 bass drum. It is totally amazing.

Vinnie Colaiuta posing with the Gretsch kit he used with Frank Zappa from 1978-1979.

When I grew up, I saw Vinnie Colaiuta played Gretsch, Terry Bozzio, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Christian Vander, etc. These were all artists that I love, although some endorsed other drums at the time. There are pictures of people like Jeff Porcaro and Chad Smith, playing Gretsch drums in the studio while being endorsed by another brand, so there IS obviously something special with these drums. In fact, most of my Gretsch drums used to be the house kit at Cheiron Studios here in Stockholm. This is the studio where pop producer Max Martin used to work in the late 90s. So these drums can be heard on albums by Brittney Spears, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Celine Dion, etc.

Q: What years were you playing with Frank Zappa?
A: In 1988 when Zappa played in Stockholm, he invited me and my blind keyboardist friend Mats to join him on stage. I was only 20 years old at the time, and Mats was 17. After that concert he invited us to come to the US in 1991 and 1993, and there were more plans, but he sadly passed away later that year. In 1994, together with Steve Vai, we won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance from the Zappa’s Universe album.

Q: What was it about your style that Frank Zappa was drawn to?
A: I think it was mainly the fact that Mats and I had a band together that studied and performed his music on a level with which he was satisfied. (See Zappa discuss playing with Mats and Morgan in this video.)  Mats started listening to Zappa when he was seven years old. By the time Mats was ten he had all of Zappa’s albums. When we met Frank I told him about how Mats had listened to him since he was seven and how he knew all of his music. Even Frank was very impressed and he said to Mats “You have listened to my music way too much, you have to know what I look like after all these years.” Frank then grabbed Mats’ hand and put it on his face and while Mats’ fingers explored the details of Zappa’s face, Zappa said to him “don’t forget the famous nose!”. It was an unbelievable moment.

Q: Is Mats losing his hearing now?
A: Yes, it is really bad, and he is already blind so we need to take care of that. I am starting a kickstarter site and will upload some files there and let people know that if they buy the music, a portion of the proceeds will go towards fighting Mats’ hearing loss. He is hearing different pitches and he hears a delay in certain sounds, like when there is one hand clap he hears two hand claps. It’s a real nightmare and he needs urgent help.

Q: How much do you need to raise?
A: It’s tough to say. There is this audiologist in the US, Stephen Ambrose, that is willing to make a prototype for Mats’ specific needs (the same type of hearing aid that AC/DC’s Brian Johnson just got). It’s just a prototype and isn’t yet available in the market. I have been Skype chatting with him and he really wants to help Mats out. I don’t think it will be very expensive but we need to go there twice. The first time he will see what frequencies Mats needs, then he’ll build the hearing aids and we’ll go back again. Roughly speaking I think 20,000 dollars would do the job, which will also include some additional treatments with laser and acupuncture.

Q: How did you meet Mats?
A: When I was 14, I got a phone call from a lady asking me if I could come and play with this blind keyboard player. I didn’t know who he was really. We met up at this super small café and we were supposed to play for about twenty minutes. We met for the first time two hours before the show. He asked me if I knew the Beatles, and I said I could play “Help” so he said “OK, let’s play Help”. Then he said, “Do you know any Stevie Wonder?” and (remember he is ten years old!) I told him I only knew this reggae type of song called Master Blaster, then he said “OK, we’ll play ‘Master Blaster’”. Then he asked me if I knew any Frank Zappa, and I said that the only song I knew by Frank was “Bobby Brown”, which was a big hit in Europe. He said he knew that song but his mother didn’t let him sing all the words. He had to take out some of the words. But he was standing up there playing a Fender Rhodes, singing in perfect English, playing just perfectly.

Morgan and Mats Performing Together

Q: You guys didn’t even rehearse before this first performance together?
A: Not at all. We had ten minutes for a sound check and that was it.

Q: Wow, so how did it go?
A: It went really well. After the concert my father was almost crying, having witnessed the meeting of these two kids on the stage. Mats’ father was also very excited and wanted me to come over to their house and start rehearsing right away. It was the first time their son had made a connection, before that there was no connection with anybody. He was this ten-year-old listening to Mahavishnu, and there just aren’t a lot of other ten-year-olds doing that, you know. Ever since November 1981 when we did these three songs at the café we have never had much of a break.

Q: So you guys never broke up?
A: Not really. We play in other projects as well, but we’ve been playing together for 35 years. We’ve grown up together and time goes by and we learned more and more, and after a while stuff happens when we play together that is telepathic, in a way.

Q: When did that musical telepathy start between the two of you?
A: Quite early. I would say within the first year. We found a recording a few weeks ago when he was 12 and I was 15. We were playing some songs from Steely Dan’s Royal Scam album. I was just amazed at how he could be singing and playing Steely Dan songs at that age.

Q: Can you tell me about this Swedish television show you guys were on?
A: Back in 2001 there was a television show on national television called Trum, which taught you how to do things, like how to make furniture, how to make clothes, and stuff like that. I got a phone call from them. At first when they called I was not very sure that I wanted to get involved. I had seen that show before and it was hard for me to see how they would put me in their regular format. Then they said “you can do whatever you want on the show”. This was to be the final series of this program so I think they felt they could do something a little bit more experimental than usual. This made me very interested.

Q: You basically said you would do it if you can do whatever you want?
A: Exactly. I said I would like to play as much music as possible, and talk less. We did a total of ten episodes and each of them was 15 minutes. I mainly played with the Mats/Morgan Band, with my brother Jimmy on guitar and Tommy Tordsson on bass, Robert Elovsson on keyboards, and Mats, and we brought in a guest every second show, even Spoonman from the US. We’d play for about 10 minutes or so then I would talk about rudiments for a few minutes and then show three records that influenced me. It was a one in a million chance because there we were playing to the entire country on public television and we were playing music that you normally would never hear on TV or radio. It was complete freedom. It was also very surreal to be showing the entire nation album covers of King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Magma, Captain Beefheart, etc. My vision was to let people hear this music rather than just showing people how to do rudiments, and I received many emails from people, even non-musicians, saying they were interested in this type of music and wanted to know more. That’s when I felt that we had accomplished something special. For one short moment, there was something different coming out of the television and I am so happy to have been a part of it.

Q: You were expanding the musical horizons of the Swedish public.
A: Well I was at least making them aware that there was more music out there than just the four or five things you hear again and again on the radio. I wanted to give them a chance to hear something else. It’s interesting because now these episodes are available on YouTube to an even greater audience. One of the guest musicians I had on the show is guitarist Fredrik Thordendal from Meshuggah and that particular episode, number 3, seems to be quite popular. I know people in Metallica, Rush, and Slayer have referenced this clip and Frederik’s solo album Sol Niger Within which I played drums on. So that show continues to have a life of its own on the Internet now. There is almost like a cult following that stems only from these TV episodes.

Q: Can we back up? Where were you born?
A: I was born in 1967 in Umeå in the far north of Sweden. My father was a singer in a band. When I was seven years old he took me with him on a trip to play some shows. The drummer was a super friendly guy who let me play his drums, and one night he let me play drums during their performance. That’s when I realized that this was what I wanted to do. I also played some ice hockey and football but this was somehow different. It was totally obvious for me very early on that this was the thing I wanted to spend my life doing.

Q: How old were you when you got your first drum set?
A: I got a snare and a hi-hat and a cymbal when I was five years old. It wasn’t my parent’s idea at all, it was just because they saw that I was banging on stuff all the time.

Q: Do you remember the first time you were actually keeping a beat and playing songs?
A: The first time I remember keeping a beat with somebody was with my dad who also played violin. I got that first snare drum for Christmas and I remember I was only five years old. We were playing in an apartment so they had me put a towel over the snare to muffle the sound a bit. It was like a folk music kind of thing and I kept the beat. While we played I felt that what I was doing was connected with them and that we were doing it together. That was the first time I felt, OK, now I am creating something with two other people – and it worked! Then as a ten-year-old I heard Buddy Rich and that opened a new world for me. I tried to imitate him for the next five years straight.

Q: You weren’t taking any lessons at that time?
A: Not too much. I played in my basement and I had headphones and would listen to Buddy Rich albums and play along with them, trying to imitate his nice snare touch, which wasn’t easy to do as a ten-year-old. Even now I find it difficult. He wasn’t only fast but he had such a nice touch. Anybody can play fast but not everyone can have that touch.

Q: Was that something that you realized at a very young age–the importance of having a stylistic touch? Most 10-year-old drummers are thinking only about speed.
A: I remember when I first heard Ian Paice from Deep Purple play his drum solo on their Made in Japan album. I remember thinking it was OK but that it wasn’t the same level as Buddy Rich. Then I heard Mick Tucker from the band Sweet, who also did nice snare work and had a good sound, but it didn’t come close to Buddy Rich.
Then I found Louie Bellson who had this orchestral sound almost, perhaps not as technically advanced but still with a super nice sound. I started to imitate those jazz drummers early which is how I got better, by imitating those drummers. It never felt like “OK, now I need to practice” but rather more like “I want to sound like Buddy” and you try, and you try, and you try, and without even knowing it, I built up my playing ability.

Morgan at age 11 playing on Åke Eriksson’s Gretsch kit.

Q: Did you ever have any formal training where you sat down with a teacher who made you work through the paradiddles? When I watch a player at your level I always think that you must have just practiced all day, every day for many years.

A: I think I am where I am today because I started early and I ran into fantastic albums at an early age. Being ten years old and imitating Buddy Rich, that was more important than any drum book in the world. I get a bit restless when I read facts and theories, I just want to play.

Buddy Rich in 1977.

After imitating Buddy Rich I ran into Mahavishnu, Billy Cobham, and Narada Michael Walden which opened a new world once again. Buddy was always a fantastic drummer but the music wasn’t always giving me huge inspiration. When I listened to a Buddy Rich album back then, I would kind of fast forward through the arrangements and only listen to the big drum parts. I really like music though, so when I found the music of Allan Holdsworth, Mahavishnu, or Return Forever, suddenly there was this fantastic music on top of the musicianship of any individual player. I didn’t only care about the drums, actually liking the composition was equally important. All those albums that I found early had both great drumming and great music. I imitated Billy Cobham, Bill Bruford, and, of course, Tony Williams.

Tony Williams and his yellow Gretsch kit.

I never copied these guys beat by beat, but when you hear somebody like Tony Williams, I like not only his force and energy, but the way his playing style is so wild. It seems like it’s almost falling apart sometimes, it’s not polished, and that’s what I love. It’s from the Earth, it’s not polished and quantized. Like in the 1980s you had drummers like Dave Weckl who were very popular but that was too clean for me (no offense!), but I always preferred the wild style of a Tony Williams, Ronald Shannon Jackson, or Christian Vander–that open sound. There was almost an air of violence in their playing that really inspired me. When I was listening to these guys I wouldn’t try to imitate their beats per se, but rather try to capture their attitude and complete natural expression without regard to rules. I think Tony’s sound is magical anyway, both the drums and cymbals. Nothing he plays is super complicated in terms of speed, but it still grabs me more than anything else. It’s beyond speed and muscles. Pure art for me. I read somewhere that his mother actually bought him that famous yellow Gretsch kit, before that he had a smaller Gretsch kit. I think most Tony Williams fans like that early era when he played with Miles on that smaller kit. I like that, too, but that huge yellow kit was amazing. The Pearl kit that I had in the 90s was shipped to me directly from Pearl, and on the way bill it says Tony Williams Gretsch Yellow. That was the specific color I wanted on my drums, haha.

Q: You mentioned you have a home studio, what kind of projects are you working on now?
A: People send me music and ask me to record drum tracks for them. They send me an MP3 and they give me the BPM and some guidelines but usually they give me lots of creative room in what I play. I guess they contact me specifically because they feel that my style would fit with the sound and music that they are trying to achieve.

Q: Which recording software do you use?
A: I use Pro Tools with Universal Audio pre-amps and Ehrlund microphones on each drum. The Ehrlund microphones have this triangular membrane inside them which help reduce a lot of unwanted sound and distortion, and it captures sound like no other microphone I’ve worked with. They use a technology invented by the company’s founder Göran Ehrlund who has a patent on the triangular membrane technology. He’s like a Swedish Les Paul type of guy. My recording studio is just a little cabin in my garden but its big enough for recording drums, and it sounds great there in fact.

Q: I noticed after your recent clinic in Sweden, you were surrounded by fans who were in complete awe of you and your drum set. Does that ever get to your head? You seem like a very down-to-earth guy.
A: That kind of thing doesn’t get to my head, because I think I am a happy person in general. It seems that arrogant people are mostly unhappy with themselves but I feel very fortunate to have this career where I can do what I love. When I can make people happy or excited about drumming with my playing, that’s a powerful thing. I feel very lucky to be able to do that.

Q: Well I can tell you that we feel lucky to have you playing Gretsch drums and to have you as part of the Gretsch family of artists–and thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.
A: My pleasure!

— Lucas O’Connor

(Gretsch Generation 5)