A Gretsch Abroad — Exclusive Interview with Shania Twain Drummer Elijah Wood, Part 2
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 TWO –
Lucas: Can you talk about the audition for Shania Twain, how did you prepare for it?
Elijah: My whole plan with the audition was to play it exactly like was on the record. I just had a feeling that that was how they wanted it. I really learned how to play the songs. I analyzed how her last drummer JD Blair executed and played those parts. I tried my best to stay true to that. I didn’t know what she was looking for, I didn’t know what she wanted, but I listened and I performed what I thought the songs needed. When I arrived at the audition, the drummer auditioning before me practically played a different song over another Shania Twain song he was supposed to play. He hit these choppy fills, and the cymbals were all over the place. I’m glad I didn’t choose that route. Sometimes you have to just do what they ask. You have to do what you think they need. They don’t need a show off, and they certainly don’t need someone in the back screwing around with fills and crashing over the lead vocal. The fans want to hear “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” “You Win My Love,” and ”Rock This Country.” They want to hear it like it sounds on the record. They don’t want to hear some random crazy noodling. Before the audition they told me which six songs to learn, but I learned almost her entire touring catalogue just in case they asked me to play a deep cut at the audition.
Lucas: You did a TON of homework then. Did they ask you to play any other songs than the six songs they mentioned?
Elijah: No, but I was ready, because you never know.
Lucas: Was there any point throughout the audition where you felt that they seemed pretty impressed and that maybe you had a shot at getting the job?
Elijah: I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel any of that. I had a moment where I thought that this could happen, I did have a small glimmer of hope. It just felt so perfect. The band was amazing and it just felt right.
Lucas: So were you turning down other jobs because you thought this gig might work out?
Elijah: No, I kept plowing ahead and doing my thing. When I heard back, I was completely shocked. From that moment, I worked hard to make sure I was prepared so that everybody on the team was happy with their choice. I always knew in the back of my mind that they hired somebody with no arena touring experience. I couldn’t fail.
Lucas: A lot of drummers I talk to talk a lot about establishing trust with the lead performers. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with Shania, and what role trust plays in your relationship with her?
Elijah: It’s a big thing. Especially that first big tour when I was 19 years old. The trust she had to have for somebody like me, to make sure her show looked and sounded the way she had envisioned, it needed to be there. Over time, after rehearsing with her, and working together, feeling her energy, and her feeling my energy…it’s important. You have to know how they think; you have to know how they want things done. You have to be able to read their mind in a weird way. It’s hard to do sometimes. I am honored to say that I have developed a really good relationship with her. I recognize now that she took a big chance on me, and I think I did the job the way she wanted it to be done. To that end, I keep getting opportunities from that experience, and I couldn’t have done it without her big push for me, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Lucas: Can you talk about an episode of sickness or exhaustion you’ve had while touring and what happened?
Elijah: As a touring musician you are eventually going to get sick or have to play a show where you didn’t sleep at all because the bus was bumpy. You are going to think, “I am so tired right now and I have to play a two-hour show.” If you are a performer on Broadway or some type of musical, there’s a back-up that can step in and take your role. But as a touring musician, it’s the Wild West, you always play the show – always, no matter what. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if any of the band members or dancers got seriously injured like that. Luckily, I’ve never experienced that. You’ve got to be so careful because at the end of the day you have to play the show. I’ve heard about people fracturing a wrist or falling, getting a concussion, and still playing the show. Personally, I’ve had shows where I’ve had a stomach bug, strep throat, or an upper respiratory infection. On this last tour, I have definitely thrown up on my kit.
Lucas: Really? Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like to throw up on your kit in front of 30,000 people?
Elijah: It’s not super fun. On this last tour I had two kits and one of the kits I had was 30 or 40 feet in the air. Thankfully, I was able to time it just right when the lights went down. It was the last note of “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.” Bat dat, da da…da…dat dat, lights went down, then I just vomited all over the kit. I am thankful to whatever God made me do it right then and not anywhere else during the show.
Lucas: Have you had shows where you haven’t slept the night before at all?
Elijah: This European leg was one of the most difficult legs. We did two nights at The O2 arena in London. After the second night’s show, we got onto the tour bus; the destination was Munich. We then drove two hours to a ferry. Once at the ferry terminal, around 3 a.m., we had to vacate the bus because we couldn’t be on the bus while the ferry was moving. So, we had to sleep on a bench for a few hours while the ferry was rocking in the water. We arrived to port somewhere in France, around 6:30 a.m. where we got back on the bus, attempting to sleep some more. Long story short, we end up in Munich at around 6 p.m. and we have a show in front of 25,000 people. I ended up getting practically zero hours of useful sleep, maybe like 10 minutes. After the O2 show, my adrenaline was flowing so it was impossible to fall asleep. And I hate large boats, especially at night, I hate it. (laughing)
Lucas: Does a lack of sleep affect your drumming? Is hard to concentrate and keep time?
Elijah: Yeah, it gets a little tough sometimes. I have to plan out my energy and prioritize. Maybe not head bang so much. I remember thinking that some of these people in Munich had not seen Shania for 18 or 20 years and they might not get a chance to see her again. In these moments, I remind myself that they don’t care if I’m tired or didn’t sleep the night before. And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because I am here to make them happy. I am here to make their night and to make Shania look and sound great. I remind myself all of this, take deep breaths, drink lots of water, try to sneak in a nap where I can, and just go for it. Funny enough, it’s usually the show I go into thinking that it will be my worst show because I am so tired or sick, that ends up being one of my best shows. I don’t know how or why, but it just happens that way. It’s something about taking a deep breath, stepping back, and letting go. You are just in the energy. Every single crowd has that energy. You just take it in, you give it right back, you expand it, and you grow it.
Lucas: Do you have a warm up routine you do before every show?
Elijah: I sound check early in the day and thankfully get several minutes alone with the kit. If it’s been a few days off, I’ll play and get my arms warm again. And I’ll play some trickier parts from the show that I need to get in my head again. An hour-and-a-half before the show, I go into lock down. I put my phone away and take out my pad. I had already gone through hair and make-up, so when that is out of the way, I can just focus on getting my hands in shape. I’ve had problems with my wrists before so I take this very seriously.
Lucas: What kind of problems?
Elijah: I’ve had carpal tunnel in both wrists.
Lucas: Oh wow, really?
Elijah: It happened to be somewhat of a genetic mistake, if you will. I just have very small carpal tunnels, mixed with playing a lot; perfect storm. As a result, I take my warm up very, very seriously. I have to do it. I love it though. It gives me a moment to settle down and get away from everybody else, make sure I ate something, et cetera. I like to stretch as well because I move around a lot during the show and use my whole body.
Lucas: You are a drummer that is very technically proficient. Playing with Shania Twain hardly demands a highly technical fusion style of playing. Did you feel underwhelmed or underchallenged in any way?
Elijah: No, not one bit. That kind of drumming is all about groove. Playing it correctly, playing it with a groove and doing the songs justice is a challenge. Anybody can sort of play “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.” But to get that groove down, play that high hat part correctly, and to make it sit in the click with a massive production going on all around you – that’s the challenge. There are a lot of elements that run with the band. The click is driving the show, the lights, the video, the percussion backing tracks, and so forth. The hardest part for me was trying to find a balance between being a complete robotic perfectionist and maintaining some level of human organic feel. That was extremely difficult and I think, even to this day, every time I play the show, I feel like I am moving closer to that.
People literally tell me all the time, “Oh yeah, my drum teacher is making me play ‘Back In Black’ or some other easy song by AC/DC or the Beatles,” but that stuff is much harder to play than you think! On the surface you could say that anybody can play it, but not anybody can play it well. To execute it properly, to feel the music, to have somebody close their eyes and dance to it, that is a lot harder than you think. So that was the challenge. I knew her music was very much to click. I sat down and played to click. I knew the previous drummer JD got the gig because he was so locked to the click that he made it disappear. So I tried my best to lock to the click and make it disappear.
Lucas: I hear a lot of drummers talking about working with the click and working around the click. Playing a little behind the click in the verse and then playing just ahead of the click in the chorus. Do you work with the click in that kind of way?
Elijah: Yes, 100 percent. There are drummers who don’t have as much experience with the click and tend to move around it very fluidly. It doesn’t quite make sense with the music and you feel like they’re not connected with what is going on. It’s truly an art. You have to find a way to make a machine feel organic. Often, after I’ve played a show, I request the Pro Tools multi-track. I carefully find all of my snares, kicks, and everything in between and I look at the grid to see where they ended up. I can work from there to see how I can improve.
Lucas: Did you have a lot of experience working with a click?
Elijah: Thankfully, I did. Mostly because of my parents and because of America’s Got Talent, which was all to click. I sat down one day and played the same beat to a click for hours. No cymbals, no fills. Just time. I kept playing until I could not hear the click anymore. From there, I would slowly expand.
Beyond that, a lot of the challenges I faced learning Shania’s catalogue was due to the swing feel, because a lot of her music is country driven. Getting that swing feel perfect when I was very much a rock, four-on-the-floor type of player was challenging. I tried my best and put the time in. Especially with a click. For the initial audition, I was nervous as hell but I went in and it just felt right when I played with everyone.
Lucas: OK so you take the audio file to see how accurate your hits are?
Elijah: Yes. I also listen to the recording more broadly with the click and I sometimes think, “you know what, it’s too loose, I am all over the place, I am flamming with the click or tracks.” So, I go back, focus, and try to get the hit where it needs to be.
Lucas: Is there anyone telling you to do this, is Shania like, “Hey, Elijah you gotta get tighter with the click,” or are you just totally geeking out in a perfectionist sort of way.
Elijah: Nobody tells me to do it, so I guess I am geeking out. But it’s certainly not beyond the scope of the gig, because I think it’s necessary in order to perform the gig the way she wants it performed. You might think I’m crazy as an outsider looking in, thinking that I am literally nitpicking a four-on-the-floor drum beat, but at the end of the day, I think it matters.
Lucas: Well on behalf of the entire Gretsch family, thank you for being such a great Gretsch ambassador and for playing Gretsch drums!
Elijah: Thank you!
Enjoy Part One of this exclusive interview, and . . .
Feature photo by Jordan Pulmano.
— Lucas von Gretsch
(Gretsch Generation 5)