A Gretsch Abroad–An Exclusive Interview with Rikhard Murto
I suppose the best part of my job is getting to meet so many interesting musicians from places like Finland; places I know almost nothing about. How many Finnish bands can you name off the top of your head? Come on, quick! Yet when you take a closer look, the Finnish music scene is incredibly vibrant and diverse, with its own ecosystem of musicians, labels, producers, and promoters. Due to its geographic and cultural isolation from the rest of the world, it has an extremely unique and edgy sound. Long, dark winters can and will have an impact on sensitive and perceptive musicians. They shack up for days on end in rehearsal rooms and recording studios all across the land. This is the breeding ground for surprisingly magnificent and innovational music.
Gretsch drummer Rikhard Murto emerges from this very Finnish scene as a highly-touted session and live drummer. Rikhard is a versatile player who currently tours nationally with high-profile acts such as Cheek and Elastinen. Though his default style is blues and soul, he is talented enough to diversify and play heavier music as well as hip-hop and pop. We recently caught up with Rikhard to talk drums, music, and life.
Lucas: Why do you play Gretsch drums?
Rikhard: I always had good drums. But ever since I had the first chance to hit a USA Custom tom I realized that there are drums, and then there are Gretsch drums. That sound is just so recognizable. I mean anyone can hear the unique timbre of a USA Custom drum. It just is on a different level and with a very unique tone.
Lucas: I see you playing a yellow Gretsch kit with black dot heads, is that a nod to Tony Williams or a coincidence?
Rikhard: Actually, I remembered Tony playing those thunderous and melodic solos with yellow drums later in his career. I always adored that full and rich tone he got on those drums and the black dot heads. Funny enough I got the same sounds instantly with those heads on a Gretsch USA Custom kit. It’s no secret that this combination just works! The first TWYL (Tony Williams Yellow) kit I purchased mainly because of the bold yellow look and individuality, and I knew that many were hesitant to buy them from the local music store. I just had to have them. Later I ordered a second kit in TWYL with a 14” x 26” bass drum. Now I always try to use that big bass drum if I can get away with that massive sound in whatever production or artist I’m playing with!
Lucas: So when did you start playing drums?
Rikhard: I started with classical guitar at the age of six and got introduced to drums when I was eleven. It was all Stick Control, Syncopation and Phil Collins from there on.
Lucas: It’s funny, I think most drummers today have a unique and special relationship to Phil Collins, how has he influenced you as a drummer?
Rikhard: I would have to say that his songwriting and production has had the most impact in me. Of course, the epic drum fills of “In the Air Tonight”, the tom groove on “I Don’t Care Anymore,” or the beat on “Easy Lover” are all things that just get me going every time I hear them. I think his first solo record came out in 1981 when I was born so he has been with me the whole time. I think that he has a very unique and musical approach in the way he plays drums on his own compositions. Something special happens when a drummer composes music and then records drums to that music. I found that if I compose some original material, I can then really mesh with it groove-wise, because it’s like my own heartbeat. I can hear that in Prince’s incredibly funky drumming style as well, when he plays drums on his own songs. I find all that very inspiring and something to try to emulate and understand rhythmically.
Lucas: What are you listening to these days?
Rikhard: Old Prince records, Quincy, Michael Jackson, Chris Dave & Drumhedz, Ghostnote, Led Zeppelin, Thundercat, Dr. Dre, J Dilla, Mutemath, Steve Gadd Band, Zach Danzinger’s stuff, and a lot of YouTube videos with James Gadson and Bernard Purdie. So much music, so little time. Actually, this summer we were playing on stage just before Jack White. I stayed to see their set from stage right and just loved every bit of it. Great live energy and personality. I really should check out more of his music on iTunes now!
Lucas: You mentioned J Dilla, who seems to be a major influence for a lot of musicians today. When did you start listening to him?
Rikhard: I started listening to J Dilla at the time when Neo soul was really booming. I sort of found Erykah Badu, D’angelo, and J Dilla at the same time. D’angelo’s Voodoo is, of course, a staple for me with the amazing Questlove and Pino Palladino. I then discovered that a lot of those beat concepts came from J Dilla, who really created the ”drunken drum beat.” I understand that D’angelo also had a similar approach and really strived for that sound. Actually, it was the Slum Village album Fantastic Vol. 2 that really introduced me to Dilla’s production skills. Then I studied more of his collaborations and solo stuff too. Not just his drum beats but the whole soundscape and how to humanize that stuff. I love his usage of his MPC 3000 and how he chopped samples up and made beats and sonic beds without quantizing everything. That rhythmic ideology was what really inspired me big time. That still gives me confidence to play my way, to feel music my way. Hopefully that translates in my personality and individuality on the drums. I value that the most.
Lucas: Can you talk a bit about the Finnish music scene? What genres are big right now in Finland? It is often said in Scandinavia that the further north you go, the darker and heavier the music becomes. Is this true for Finland as well. Is heavy music the dominant sound up there?
Rikhard: Obviously Finland is quite known for the heavier acts like Nightwish, HIM, Apocalyptica, Children Of Bodom, etc. It can indeed get quite dark up north, but I would argue that the Finnish music scene has diversified a lot since the heavy age. Lots of good quality pop acts and production have emerged even internationally like Alma or Sunrise Avenue. The hip hop / pop scene is also very lively at the moment. The big rap stars like Cheek on Elastinen do all of the main slots during festival season and play the biggest arenas around Finland.
Lucas: Do you have ambitions to leave Finland and to join on with an international act? It seems like that would be an obvious career step for you, but is it really?
Well, I feel that I would definitely consider this possibility. I do feel that it would basically be the same thing I am doing here in Finland at the moment. That said, it would also be nice to get to play for people in other countries too. Sure, I’ve done some gigs in Europe like in Germany and France and I loved those audiences. Different energies are very noticeable in different cultures.
Lucas: Can you talk a bit about your project Garagessa? It looks like a group of pro musicians who play with different singers, is that the case?
Rikhard: Well, yes. It’s a concept I dreamed up. It all started as a way to get together with some of my favorite musicians in Finland and play some improvised jams. Some turned into songs on the fly. It was all improvised at first. No rehearsals, just roll the tape. No second takes. Then after that we started to bring in some good singers as well for some new vibes. The garage we record in is a sort of a vintage motorbike repair shop and it has a studio built behind the wall. But I actually loved the sound and feel of the old garage so I have never tracked any sessions in the real studio. I only record in the garage with good microphones and a mobile rig. The room has great controlled acoustics with a superb drum sound so it is effortless to play live with almost no monitoring.
Lucas: On the Garagessa videos from YouTube you can really hear That Great Gretsch Sound coming through on those recordings. Did you spend a lot of time experimenting with different mics to get that sound down?
Rikhard: That’s a real joy to hear. Funny enough almost the whole drum sound is loosely built around Glyn Johns 4 mic technique. I love the way the toms sing with the kit and I really try to capture my set balance with the overheads distance and by the positioning of them. Obviously, I have some close mics as well but rarely even use those in the final mix. I love to record and mix all of the videos myself.
Lucas: The track “Moody” is really cool and apparently you improvised that. Are you a musician who likes to improvise a lot or do you prefer a set structure in your songs?
Rikhard: I have quite a strong instrumental jazz background and have always just loved to jam no matter what musical style. I feel that if you create the best possible atmosphere for musicians to come together and jam, you can really get some good performances. It is really interesting to get people to just wing it. That danger creates a special mood where creativeness can flourish. On some of the vocal songs we obviously talk and run them through once or twice before a take. Take one or two is usually a keeper and we like to keep it fresh and raw that way too.
Lucas: Is your natural go-to genre of music blues or do you feel comfortable playing other genres?
Rikhard: During bigger mainstream rap/pop/rock productions it’s crucial to be able to play all styles and genres of music. But when I get a chance to be MD or just do my own sessions, I tend to gravitate towards the soul/blues/rock ‘n’ roll realm.
Lucas: Can you talk about your work with CHEEK? Do you enjoy playing electronic music as much as you enjoy playing blues?
Rikhard: Besides playing a traditional drum kit, it seems that I have managed to create a interesting type of hybrid setup for Elastinen, Cheek, and other artists as well. This hybrid kit allows me to generate electronic sound-based grooves with an acoustic drum feel. With Elastinen we perform with the band on top of the DJ tracks (the tracks have been scaled down instrument-wise and remastered) without a click. This configuration enables us to mix in any tracks live and really go wild live with the instant arrangements. You definitely need a top notch FOH engineer to pull this off and get the sound levels right. With Cheek it’s more HD tracks based with loops, album tracks, click and time codes, etc. I’ve also done all of the live programming and designed and operate the redundant playback rigs for Cheek. I feel that it’s good to do both genres. It keeps everything fresh. I try to always keep that balance.
Lucas: What are your plans for the remainder of 2018 and 2019?
Rikhard: I just finished both summer tours for Cheek and Elastinen and two final mega concerts (60,000 tickets sold) in an exotic ski jumping arena in Lahti with Cheek. Quite a ride! Now it is time to wrap up the Elastinen tour for this year with the final shows in December. Also doing a 2-week intense stand-up and music tour mid-October with comedian Ismo Leikola with the final show at Helsinki Ice Hall Arena. Also doing a sold out Arena gig with a plethora of artists for legendary Finnish rap label Rähinä Records to celebrate their 20 years in the business.
Do you have a family?
Rikhard: Yes I have a beautiful wife and a son and they are very supportive of my career. I love them.
Lucas: Well, on behalf of the Gretsch family, we would like to thank you for playing our drums and for being such a great ambassador for That Great Gretsch Sound!
Rikhard: Thank you!
— Lucas von Gretsch
(Gretsch Generation 5)
Feature photo by Tero Vihavainen.