A Gretsch Abroad–Exclusive Interview with Blue Man Group Drummer Dave Anania
I was filming a Gretsch commercial at Just Music in Kreuzberg, Berlin when I met Dave Anania for the first time. We needed a drummer to come and play a little and create some pleasant background drumming for the commercial. I’d never met Dave before and I’d never heard his drumming, so I had no idea what was about to happen. “3, 2, 1, action!” I shout and I point to him behind a six-piece USA Custom kit. He nods at me, jams an earplug into his head, and what followed next was a maddening flurry of power drumming, the likes of which I have never seen before. It was like this tribal type of playing and extremely powerful. He was all over those toms and it was a style that was heavy, fast, and hard—but also full of great technical flair. He attacked that poor Gretsch kit like a vicious bulldog, and from that day forward I only refer to him by that name, “Vicious Bulldog,” or VB for short.
As a talented professional drummer, Dave was picked up by Blue Man Group in New York back in 2000 and he has been performing for them in Berlin since 2004. I was fortunate enough to meet with this wildly-creative pro drummer just before one of his Blue Man Group performances and we got to talk drums, music, and life.
Lucas: Why do you play Gretsch drums?
Dave: In the very beginning when I started out, it was solely because of my appreciation for Phil Collins. But as I got older and began to appreciate the musicality of the instrument at a deeper level, for me there was no equal. They have such an unbelievably pure and warm tone, but the sound is also extremely individual. When somebody plays a Gretsch kit, I just know right away. The sound is so pure, right out of the box. They are gorgeous drums and are just so well crafted . . . the quality. They sing like no other—“That Great Gretsch Sound.”
Lucas: For those who don’t know, can you explain what the Blue Man Group is?
Dave: Sure, it’s a live performance that was created as a commentary on pop culture. It was developed in the late 80s out of skits that were created by the three original Blue Man Group members. It was commenting on the state of modern music, art, science, education, and pop culture in general.
Lucas: Social Commentary stuff.
Dave: Basically, yeah, but they wanted to use a character that was unidentifiable. So they chose Blue. The characters don’t speak so they discover just by experience. So the idea behind the show is that the character also is sort of an extension of our inner child or subconsciousness. The character wants to experience things but definitely doesn’t understand pop culture components the way we do, because it’s our culture. Because of that there is an innocence in the character that makes it really fun and funny when they are interacting with the audience, or interacting with something, that for us, is very normal.
Lucas: Maybe it’s like how an alien would perceive our world when it comes to our planet for the first time?
Dave: That is sort of the idea. They do come from ”somewhere,” but they’re definitely beings, more so than aliens.
Lucas: So it’s performance art. Is there music going the whole time throughout the show?
Dave: No, not the whole time but most of the time. It’s strenuous, and the drum parts are kickin’. I’d describe it as a punk-tribal kind of sound.
Lucas: Complex, right?
Dave: Yeah, it’s really unconventional. We are doing a lot of grooves in the show where there are simultaneous 8th notes with the feet, and then there are these syncopated, angular, 16th note patterns that are sort of tribal in nature, but also punk and drum ‘n’ bass. It’s really fun and challenging to play.
Lucas: Do you work on other projects outside of Blue Man Group?
Dave: I do. I came out with my own solo album last year called Reinvent the Feel. I had a lot of dear friends come play on it, particularly the instruments I don’t play very well like guitar, strings, and horns. It’s power pop, almost prog-ish at times. There’s a lot of orchestration going on. In the last 2 or 3 years, that album has taken up a lot of my time—finishing the song demos at home, then recording, mixing, and mastering them—all at Studio Wong here in Berlin.
Lucas: So how long have you been playing Gretsch?
Dave: Well, I’ve been a Gretsch artist since 2017 but because of my love for Genesis, Gretsch has been my dream kit since I was a kid.
Lucas: Concert toms?
Dave: Yeah, and I had that! I had a beautifully-lacquered rosewood kit in high school. All of Phil Collins’ sizes so 8”, 10”, 12”, 15” and then the 16” and 18.” And I loved it.
Lucas: All of them concert toms? Even the floor toms?
Dave: Yep, all concert toms.
Lucas: Wow, that’s intense.
Dave: Now I’ve got this unbelievably-beautiful USA Custom kit here that I’ve been playing on for the last two years. I’m doing a video series on my Facebook page called “Thank Groove It’s Friday” which comes out every week. I’m just all over those toms.
Lucas: So you’re a tom guy. A tom boy?
Dave: Ha! Yeah, well that’s what I grew up listening to: melodic drumming. The orchestration of the toms that Phil would have in his playing. He would play very complex fills but they were also very necessary to the composition of the song. So, just thinking about drums in that way, I’ve always had a big kit.
Lucas: Can you talk about how you got started playing the drums?
Dave: I have an older brother who is exactly 10 years older then me, to the DAY. When he was off at school I’d find my way down to his bedroom. I don’t even remember what kind of kit he had but it was a five-piece with a couple of cymbals, and I just started banging away. I got my first kit when I was six. By then I was just playing along to groups like The Beach Boys, KISS, and Foreigner. My dad was an actor so we also had a lot of Broadway musical soundtracks. There was a weird mixture of styles at my home. Then a few years later when I was nine, my older brother, who wasn’t really drumming anymore, had moved out and gotten his own place in Jersey City. My mom would let me stay with him every once in a while. One weekend he played a live Genesis record called Seconds Out from 1977. It was when Phil Collins took over as the lead singer after Peter Gabriel left. They hired Bill Bruford to play drums for the 1976 tour, and replaced him in 1977 with Chester Thompson. There were a lot of tunes where there was quite a bit of double drumming. Chester and Phil on one track, Bill Bruford and Phil on another track, and so forth. There were lots of odd time signatures, it was totally prog, and that was it for me. I had been playing for like five years at that point, but that was the record. I remember thinking “I don’t know what’s going on with this music but I know that this is something that I want to do for the rest of my life.” The way Phil and Chester played together had such a great feel–they each had such different pockets, but when they played together, the sound was really thick.
Lucas: Yeah, but you were only nine, and you were locking in to that stuff at nine? Pretty advanced for your age.
Dave: Well, the advantage of having an older brother with that much of an age difference was that I got turned on to a LOT of different music. So fast forward 20 years and the first Blue Man Group CD I heard was called Audio back in 2000. That had a lot of this multiple drummer material that was orchestrated, and you know a lot of these Genesis fills are orchestrated. Phil and Chester were doing a lot of call-and-response stuff, and Blue Man Group has a lot of that stuff in its drumming as well. The Blue Man Group style of drumming is very specific. I mentioned it’s very tribal, but with a punk vibe. When we audition people to be drummers in the show we give them a little advice and ask them to be more aligned with John Bonham, Keith Moon, and Dave Grohl, and stay away from the Colaiuta and Weckl stuff. So if someone is playing too technical, it doesn’t fit the Blue Man Group world, which needs this sort of guttural, primal drumming. Especially since there is a lot of multiple drumming, if someone is going to start doing Swiss triplets and six stroke rolls (which I otherwise love), it’s going to sound bad.
Lucas: Has the Blue Man Group show evolved and changed over time?
Dave: Absolutely. The idea is that these Blue Man characters are here, checking us all out. They are asking about what is going on with pop culture and why these things are important to us humans, and then commenting on it. So over time, the show has to evolve because society and technology evolve. So new musical pieces are written and new character parts are written for the show. It’s a continuous evolution. That’s what makes it different for years and years to come, and what also makes it translatable internationally. We opened in Berlin in 2004, and that was the first international production outside of the four shows in the States. Before that I was doing the New York show for three-and-a-half years and that’s where I got to perform for my idol, Phil Collins.
Lucas: Phil Collins saw you performing a Blue Man Group show?
Dave: Yeah! At that time he was working on Tarzan with Disney in 2004. He was about to go out on his first Final Farewell Tour. It was bizarre. I looked out into the audience and I was watching THE PERSON who was responsible for me choosing a career as a musician. I was really nervous at first. I threw in a couple signature Genesis fills in his honor. I am lucky because the Blue Man Group Music is very tom oriented so I could throw in a Genesis fill without coming out of the Blue Man Group aesthetic. So, my being influenced by Phil Collins actually works really well here.
Lucas: Yeah, I could hear that at your soundcheck for sure.
Dave: Yeah, lots of toms, flams, all of that! Afterwards we always do a meet ‘n’ greet and there he was, so I met him and I shook his hand. I was really authentically grateful to meet him and I didn’t get too “fan boy” on him, I hope. I told him he was the reason I became a professional drummer. He actually came over and gave me a hug after that! I gave him my card and said “Hey, if one day Chester can’t . . . you know . . . make it to work, give me a call.” Less than two days later he wrote an email saying it was nice to meet me, how fantastic the show was, and he invited me to one of his shows.
Lucas: What do you think of his son Nick as a drummer?
Dave: I think he is great! I think for an 18-year-old kid, he is really holding his own. He’s playing stadiums and arenas around the globe–that’s a ton of pressure. He keeps getting better. I saw one of the first times he played for his dad in Lausanne, Switzerland. I thought “OK, he’s good” . . . of course, I am always going to want that gig, but I’m not going to get it and that’s OK. I have come to terms with it (laughing).
Lucas: Do you plan on working with Blue Man Group until you retire?
Dave: I am just thinking about the now, but as long as Blue Man Group is here, I am here.
Lucas: Well, on behalf of the Gretsch family, thank you for playing Gretsch drums!
Dave: Thank you!
— Lucas von Gretsch
(Gretsch Generation 5)