A Gretsch Abroad — Exclusive Interview with Shania Twain Drummer Elijah Wood, Part 1
Just before I met Elijah Wood, I imagined someone pulling up to the interview in a yellow Mustang convertible with Gwen Stefani sitting shotgun and a car full of punker chicks blasting “Hollaback Girl,” all swinging their fists in the air. This is the vibe I expected after watching Wood on YouTube performing drum solos on a Gretsch kit in front of 30,000 people – whipping an entire stadium into a maddening frenzy. However, as with most professional performers, their onstage persona is something completely different than who they really are in person. This turned out to be the case with Gretsch drummer Elijah Wood.
Rarely have I met such a humble, shy, and thoughtful person at such a young age. While it could be good parenting, perhaps it is the accelerated maturity that occurs you hit the big time as a teenager. It quickly became clear that Wood grew up fast and was forced to have perspectives and insights well beyond their years.
As we dove into conversation, I got the chance to reflect on Wood’s exciting career, commitment to the craft, and love for Gretsch drums.
PART ONE –
Lucas: Why do you play Gretsch drums?
Elijah: I love Gretsch. I’ve endorsed Gretsch for five or six years now. My first kit was even a Gretsch. It was a very small kit that I got second hand from a music store in the middle of nowhere. When I was younger I tried a lot of different drum kits and I saw which ones I connected with. Over the course of time, I always felt that Gretsch had that superior sound. A sound that connected with me. A sound that I could use to express myself in an honest and creative way.
Lucas: You’re 23 years old now. So you have the bulk of your music career in front of you. Veteran musicians always talk about how difficult this business has become. Especially today with streaming, the struggle is real. It’s very challenging to make a career and to make enough money to get by. When you hear that from veteran musicians, does that motivate you or does that discourage you?
Elijah: It does motivate me in a weird way. I love challenges and I love solving puzzles. When I talk to people who are interested in pursuing music as a career, I tell them that if they love it, they have the passion, and they are not going to be satisfied with any other profession, then that’s what they need to do. Period. It’s hard. It really is. Both of my parents are in the industry, but I’m proud to say that they didn’t have too much of a helping hand with any of the gigs I have gotten so far–other than being sure that I was prepared to handle real life situations. Most of the gigs I’ve gotten came about through word of mouth. I put myself out there. Following other’s advice or making a video or something like that. People started reaching out and slowly over time, stuff develops. A lot of it is luck. You have to be at the right place at the right time. But you can’t be at the right place at the right time if you don’t put yourself out there. You have to take charge of what you want to do.
Lucas: You come from a very musical family. Your mother is a professional vocalist and your father Mark Wood runs the music education program Electrify Your Strings. Were your parents musical mentors for you or were they too busy with their careers to teach you the tools of the trade?
Elijah: It’s true. Ever since I was born, I have been listening to music, playing music, talking about music. I have been surrounded by it since forever. Watching my parents who have succeeded in making it as professional musicians is very inspiring. At first my dad wanted me to play violin, since he is a very well known electric violin player. So I started off with violin very briefly, but I wasn’t any good, and thankfully he didn’t push me into an instrument I didn’t want to play. Soon after, I saw the drummers in my parents bands and I connected with it immediately. I loved that it was so physical and visceral and it was just a different energy versus someone playing guitar or singing. Since that moment, I just went for it and I’ve never looked back. My parents were definitely a nice mix of hands on and hands off. They let me do my own thing, they let me make mistakes, and if I needed guidance or a helping hand they were the first to be there to get me where I needed to be.
Lucas: I imagine at your young age when you sign on to a name like Shania Twain as a 19-year-old, and you’re suddenly playing these gigantic shows in huge stadiums, there must be a sense of “oh no, it can’t possibly go on like this forever!” Do you still have those kind of thoughts?
Elijah: Literally, all the time. Even when I got called for the Shania audition, I heard back three weeks later that I got the gig, I didn’t fully believe it until I was sitting down at the kit with them on stage. I’ve realized that after being with her for four years, that every night when I sit down and play with her, Gwen Stefani, or America’s Got Talent, I sit down and am so grateful and so honored to be doing this. I say that at every show, even if I am sick or feel awful or don’t want to play that night for whatever reason, I always say to myself “the fact that I am here behind the kit playing with this person is a complete and utter honor and I’d never take that for granted”.
Lucas: In 2014, your career really began to take off when you started on America’s Got Talent. A lot of drummers wonder how the big breaks come along. How did you get this gig?
Elijah: Most of the things that have happened to me are a result of some random series of events. I put myself in a position where something like that could become possible.
Lucas: So it’s about positioning yourself to get the opportunity.
Elijah: Exactly. I made videos. I’ve been playing drums on stage ever since I started playing drums. I owe a lot to my parents. I started playing with Electrify Your Strings, my parents’ music education program, right when I just started playing drums. I had just started playing and I was on stage. I much prefer being on stage as a medium to express myself. It sounds so weird and ethereal but you have to have the right energy and take the steps. At the time I was making a lot of videos and I posted some of them. I just honed my talent, in my own time and on stage whenever I could. Literally any chance I had to get on a stage, I took it. No matter how small or weird, no matter what the gig was, I did it.
Lucas: So it was luck.
Elijah: Luck! I got a call from the casting director of America’s Got Talent and they were looking for somebody to back up some rock contestants. They thought I had a rock edge and I just thought yeah, I’ll do it. It was at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and long story short, I went on the season. They didn’t know what to expect of me and they only saw me on video, so I needed to make an impression. I played a version of “Come Together,” and, of course, they produced the hell out of it and made it huge and TV worthy. I’m normally a very reserved person in real life, but the second I get behind the kit for some crazy reason, it all goes out the door. I sat down at my Gretsch kit and they counted down, and…
Lucas: You were born. You came alive.
Elijah: It was like 3, 2, 1, go, and I thought I’ll just do whatever. I literally just played hard and crazy.
Lucas: But it was an absolute authentic expression.
Elijah: It was! I was like “This is so cool!” And over the next several takes I noticed the cameras were kind of inching closer to me.
Lucas: So you could sense that they were grooving off of what you were doing.
Elijah: I didn’t get any notes or anything so I just kept going. Long story short, after performing in the entire season with several different contestants, I ended up being one of the first backing musicians to get quite a few big camera shots. On the last episode in 2014, I was on TV so much with the contestants that I was starting to get recognized. Some people even thought I was a contestant. They didn’t know who the hell I was but everybody was like…who’s the drummer? Who’s the drummer? That’s just how it kind of started.
Lucas: You strike me as a very reserved person, but when I see you perform I get the impression that you could be kind of a loud person, kind of wild. That’s at least your vibe with Shania. This sort of powerful vibe with a dominant personality. It’s like an alter ego kind of thing. So in that America’s Got Talent audition you kind of took a chance and revealed that side of you. Everyone could have thought it was too weird and told you to stop playing that way, but you did it anyways and the response was positive.
Elijah: It’s really nice to reflect on it because that moment was the first big gig I ever got outside of my parents’ projects. Throughout middle school and high school, I was touring with Electrify Your Strings and it was always with my parents. This was the first time I was outside of that. If you find videos of me online from years ago, I had long brown crazy hair. People compared me to Neil Peart a lot because I looked very stoic when I played. I was a machine, I was a technician, and I thought that I didn’t have to perform. I just had to focus on what I was doing and how to get it done properly. That’s it.
Lucas: Yeah well you can hardly be twirling your sticks with that complex fusion stuff.
Elijah: I do have to say I never really expressed myself visually and passionately in that way until right around America’s Got Talent. The moment I realized that this is what I can do visually in addition to my playing was a big one.
Lucas: The combination of those two things is something really potent.
Elijah: I see drummers all the time that are amazing technicians, but who just aren’t performing that well. You can then find the opposite as well. They can show off and twirl the sticks, but they really can’t hold a groove. For me, my biggest goal was to try to join those two worlds. I want to be a good player and a good performer.
Lucas: Your career then progressed further in 2015 when you started touring and playing stadiums with Shania Twain.
Elijah: Yeah, sure. This last tour with Shania was very strange and amazing for me because this was the first time I was so out front, so much in a show that size. When I first got the call for the NOW tour, which ran from March 2018 until December 2018, they were like “We want you to do a drum solo!” I was never really a drum solo person. I just liked playing and doing my thing in the background. But they were like “We want you up there for three minutes. Just you, in an arena.” I freaked out. I had my moment. My mantra in life is to just say yes now and then figure it out later. So, I said I’d do it and I figured it out. They needed it for a very specific amount of time so she could change her outfit, so I spent the time, and wrote something with arena rock in mind. When I watch and compare my performance from the beginning of the tour with my performance versus our last show in Dunedin, New Zealand in December, I can see how much my comfort level in that position has really evolved. It’s such a crazy amazing experience that they trusted me with that.
Can you talk about your first show with Shania Twain and what that experience was like? Do you get stage fright?
Elijah: Simple answer, yes, 100%, all the time. Every time, all the time. I joined her band in 2015 and I had never played with an artist that size, ever. That first show hit and I was extremely nervous, but I felt prepared since we had rehearsed twelve hours a day for a solid month. The biggest heart-stopping moment and realization of where I was came at the end of the show, after “Man I Feel Like A Woman,” Shania descended through the stage on an elevator. At the end of the first show, right before she went down the elevator, she turned, looked at me, and gave me a thumbs up. I knew at that point that I was in and that I was doing what I needed to do. Literally to this day, every single show, I get nervous. But the second I start performing, it all goes away.
— Lucas von Gretsch
(Gretsch Generation 5)
Feature photo credit: Jordan Pulman.