In 2015, I participated in Thomas Lang’s annual camp for drum enthusiasts, the Big Drum Bonanza. I went because I ended up winning the competition that is held each year in connection with the event, called the Big Drum Bonanza Playalong Contest. When you win the contest you win a free spot at the Big Drum Bonanza – in addition to loads of drum equipment. Exactly what The Big Drum Bonanza is I will get back to in a minute.
A little bit about myself
A quick rundown from the beginning goes something like this: Began playing drums at the age of 14, played quite a lot for about 15 years and then I pretty much quit completely.
I’m probably most well-known (in Denmark) for my work with the Danish rock act Her Personal Pain, which I founded in 1989 along with Danish vocalist Dicte Westergaard, with whom I worked back in the old days. We released one album, did a lot of touring, won a Danish Grammy award in 1993 and disbanded after that. The time with Her Personal Pain was very turbulent and I soon went on to quit playing music. I did some teaching after that but this faded after a year or two and I just abandoned everything.
I had a lot of drumming heroes through the years, but the primary ones were – listed chronologically – Phil Collins, Stewart Copeland and Vinnie Colaiuta.
Well, that’s that…
The Big Drum Bonanza Playalong Contest
In 2014 I started becoming interested in drumming again and put a couple of videos up on my Youtube channel. I did not know anything about Thomas Lang’s annual competition, but one day I was chatting with one of my old drumming pals and he sent me the link to the video featuring the 2014 winner Mika Ronos. This was in September and therefore way too late for me to enter that year, so I thought that it would be interesting to join the competition the following year. But soon I forgot all about it.
But then this year I happened to be watching Thomas Lang’s Drumeo appearance Applying Technique on the Drum Set and here he was talking about the 2015 edition of the contest still being open. The new ‘remix’ of the Bonanza song is released in the middle of May, I believe, and I was already several days late by that time. But I downloaded the track and decided to give it a shot.
According to the rules you are only allowed to use one camera and no edits. With almost no playing hours under the belt for the past months (and years) it was quite a challenge to nail one long take without stumbling, especially when you have to do some display of chops. I have a full-time office job and allocated a couple of evenings to practice and the Thursday before the deadline (which was Saturday) I left work early to do the final take. I believe I did around 8-10 takes and went for the last one – which really was the last one because my blisters started annoying me quite a bit.
About my entry
As already mentioned, the rules are pretty clear: Everything must be done in one take and using only one camera so that it’s impossible to edit. Also, everything has to be uploaded by midnight on the 30th of May.
Time was scarce and so was the amount of playing time I had had for the past many months and this kind of dictated how I would approach the task. I figured that I would compose a drum track that was different from Thomas Lang’s initial suggestion because I guess that part of the task would be to show a bit of creativity. I would go easy on the chops and the soloing in the intro and ‘verse’, be aware of the overall structure and concentrate on listening to the track and grooving and not just treat it like a click track for one long unstructured solo.
I think that this is part of the reason that I ended up winning. The entries that I liked the most seemed to have the same philosophy, like Italian Fabio Vitiello who came in at number 4 and who – in spite of being quite young – played with maturity, balls and structure. (Though I also liked Daniel Gardenas: great and musically coherent chops – and Blake Watts: Crazy energy and a gutsy performance! … as well as many others.)
Thomas told me later that the jury consists of around 30 people, among others the instructors from last year as well as the instructors from this year, and also representatives from the sponsor companies who are all drummers themselves.
I’m only around 75% content with my entry and part of me is a bit bummed out that I did not deliver a top tier performance when I – at last – reach a bigger audience. A 20 year break doesn’t do your chops any good. Or, as Matt Garstka put it “I’m impressed with the level of your playing considering such a long break. The longest break I’ve ever had was 8 years – from when I was born until I was eight years old. And when I started after that I sucked!”
If I get the time I may do the take that I wanted to have done. We’ll see.
Big Drum Bonanza – The event
Basically, the Big Drum Bonanza is a drumming seminar, or drum camp. This year it was held for the fourth year in a row and it always takes place around the 4th of July, the perfect date for any drummer: Independence Day. Thomas Lang and his wife, Elizabeth Lang, are the main forces behind the event and the instructors vary a bit from year to year, but we are always talking some of the best drummers on the face of the Earth.
This year, the instructors were Thomas Lang himself, Chad Wackerman, Rich Redmond, Matt Garstka, Gergo Borlai and Gregg Bissonette respectively. We also saw Dave Elitch and Tony Royster Jr as well as Jim Keltner.
The teaching is class-based and takes place in a conference room at the hotel where most people are staying, The Palm Garden Hotel in Thousand Oaks, Los Angeles. As a participant you get crazy value for money as the teaching is typically from 9 in the morning to 6 pm – with breaks here and there. The participants are on all playing levels – one guy had only played drums for 8 months and others were experienced drummers with endorsements and all.
The atmosphere is very relaxed as you can come and go as you please. Also, your wife, girlfriend, parents or whomever you brought with you to the Bonanza can just enter the class and sit at the back row and follow the class if they want. The participants are sitting behind each of their DW Go Anywhere kit and plays along – in some instances until they are soaked in sweat (I will get back to that in a minute).
The first days
When you win the Big Drum Bonanza Playalong Contest you win equipment in the form of a DW drum kit, Meinl cymbals, Audix microphones, Vic Firth sticks as well as a free spot at the Big Drum Bonanza. Since I hardly consider myself a drummer these days I was quite surprised to win. This also meant that my girlfriend Pernille and I had to make the travel arrangements in the last minute and we chose to arrive to LA already on the Friday before the event which was set to start on the following Wednesday. This way, we could take a brief look at the enormous city of LA in the days leading up to the BDB.
Monday, I received an email from Thomas Lang asking me if I was already at the hotel in which case he would drop by for a cup of coffee. We agreed to meet at 6 PM and Pernille and I would just swing by Hollywood during the day. We made it but when I got Thomas had postponed the meeting to the following day. He had had to go to the ER with his drum tech, Joey, who had been bitten in the leg by a dog in the attempt to break up a dog fight. Rock’n’roll!
We met the next day and had a long talk about everything from the contest, the jury, the selection process to why I don’t play anymore etc. I was very impressed by Thomas’ interest in me and my story. His is very genuine and down to earth and and gave me a lot of praise for my contest entry – and it seemed like he really meant it. I was also impressed by the fact that he was able to tell me that there was a Her Personal Pain poster hanging on the wall of a local music store in Copenhagen where he had done a clinic long before I won the contest. Even I did not know that.
Thomas and I were joined by Francesco who is one of Thomas’ friends and the photographer of BDB – a great guy that Pernille and I would spend a lot of time with during the days to come. Later we were also joined by one of the participants, Jose from Equador.
Later that day we started hauling equipment into the conference room, DW Go Anywhere kits that we set up – as well as Thomas’ extensive kit. Participants were beginning to drop by. It was a nice way to get started with the event.
Day 1: Thomas Lang with a short visit by Dave Elitch
The class started at 9 am the next morning. The instructor of the day was Mr. Lang himself and after a brief round of introductions we started doing warm-ups – legs and arms: RLRL… heels on the floor while clapping on all strokes with forearms and wrists together. When you play 100% heel-up like I do you quickly begin feeling that burning sensation in your shins.
During the following hours, Thomas talked about much of the stuff he talks about in his Drumeo performance. Rudiments in hands and feet as well as linear exercises and patterns. I was able to keep up to a certain extent, but my great weakness is my left foot and it would soon be challenged – when we are doing double strokes with the feet or paradiddles – or just replicate what we play with the hands.
After lunch everything would be really challenging. Now Thomas would get to layered/polyphonic patterns which he masters to a degree not surpassed by any human drummer on this planet – at least to my knowledge. Starting off “gently” we will play RLRLLRLRLL with the feet while playing RLRRLRLL or a solo with the hands…no problem.
Or what about a solo while playing swiss triplets with the feet – and in what time? 3/4 perhaps, or 4/4?
Thomas explained his Matrix which is a system he has developed to map out these things. I simply never worked with independence on this level and I ended up not playing along and just taking it all in – like everyone else, I believe.
The afternoon session also saw a quick visit by Dave Elitch who did a solo and gave some tips and then he was off.
Then Thomas went on to talk about methods of optimizing your practice sessions. One of Thomas’ credos is: don’t play when you practice. And this is one that I never seem to be able to observe myself.
Being the contest winner I was seated in the middle of the front row so I witnessed Thomas the whole day at approximately one and a half meter’s distance. Thomas is a powerhouse and his enthusiasm and great communication skills are extremely inspiring. He plays with a passion and power and had so much to share that his wife, Elizabeth, eventually had to stop him to let us have some time off.
Day 2: DW factory tour and Redmond and Royster
We met at 9 the next morning and then we left for the DW factory tour in Oxnard. After the tour we would go to the Drum Channel studios which are located in the same building as DW. This year we would only visit Drum Channel once (unlike the previous years) which was fine by me, because that meant that I did not have to perform the Bonanza drum thingy live in front of everybody (when you haven’t performed in front of anybody for two decades a live debut in front of the top drummers of the world isn’t the most gentle start).
It was interesting to see the production process first hand and I’m glad that I won a DW kit because you get an unmistakable urge to own one when you’ve visited their factory and seen the many great products they make.
After lunch (a round of pizzas, US size) we were assembled in the Drum Channel studios and first up was a very energetic and entertaining Rich Redmond. Rich is one of the leading studio guys in Nashville and forms the backbone of Jason Aldean’s band, a band he has been with since the beginning.
Redmond is also a dynamic and energetic communicator and I was really entertained by him. He played along to some tracks and his timing and power was truly inspiring. Another drummer playing from the heart making faces – and it doesn’t seem likely that Rich has ever played as much as one bar of music that he hasn’t given his all which could be part of the reason why he is such a popular and sought after musician. One of Redmond’s primary points was that you should always play from the heart, even the most ordinary bossanova on a cruiseship should be treated with respect. When you play in the studio you should always make all the soccer moms become ‘dashboard drummers’. Rich also showed his enthusiasm in the coming days by hanging out at the BDB and was often sitting at the back row listening in on the class lessons.
After the break came a clinic featuring Tony Royster Jr. Tony started off playing a solo and played to a piece of music and we had some samples of his impressive skills. He is almost an athlete behind a set of drums and he showed us some examples of exercises that he uses. He asked participants to join him behind the kit. He also had Thomas Lang record an impromptu track on keyboards (Royster had brought his PC with Fruity Loops, I believe). Royster improvised to this track to conclude his performance.
Final activity of the day was a roundtable discussion led by Don Lombardi and featuring Thomas Lang, Jim Keltner, Rich Redmond and Tony Royster Jr. They talked about various themes regarding life as a top drummer. They also touched upon the subject of performance anxiety which was interesting. Not least Thomas Lang’s recollection of his first teacher’s wise words: ‘It’s called to PLAY music for a reason’. You play music and remember, it’s only music and not life or death. So make sure you enjoy it.
Day 3: Chad Wackerman (and private lesson with Matt Garstka)
I’ve been a fan of both Frank Zappa and Allan Holdsworth for years and therefore I had a pretty good idea of who our next teacher was and what he stood for. I had seen Chad Wackerman play live on several occasions with Allan Holdsworth.
Chad started out talking about his formative years as a musician and about his lessons with Murray Spivack. We worked with the special grip and the technique that Spivack taught through a series of exercises and rudiments. We also worked with timing and tempo playing exercises where we were alternating between series of note values that are closely adjacent, for instance one bar of eighth note triplets followed by a bar of sixteenth notes followed by quintuplets and so on. Typically one has a tendency to overplay the transition and you want to learn to hear the transition right before it occurs.
Chad is a very experienced session musician and he went on to explain how you can play the drums to make them sound as well as possible when they are recorded. Microphones tend to ‘hear’ drums slightly differently compared to the human ear and sometimes you can make them sound better and louder by not hitting them too hard.
Chad has a great feel and is able to make a drum set sound fantastic. Like the others, he played Lang’s somewhat special kit and you would quickly notice how balanced and even everything sounds when Chad plays. It is like sitting in front of the world’s most expensive hifi system.
During the lunch break I had a chat with Chad and he told me about gigs with Holdsworth and Streisand and about today’s session scene and how he does Skype lessons.
After lunch I had to leave the class to have a private lesson with one of my favorite drummers in my drumming life version 2.0, the quite young Matt Garstka.
Matt plays with the progressive metal band Animals as Leaders and in my opinion he is phenomenal – on his way to becoming a kind of modern day Vinnie – a description he did not seem to mind. Matt is a very likeable and humorous guy who also gave me a lot of praise and found my level of playing quite high considering my lengthy break.
After my lesson with Matt Garstka whose career I will follow with great interest. When you are able to play at that level at an age of 26 I can only imagine his playing when he reaches my age – that is if he skips the 20 year break.
We talked about various chops and concepts but also some double pedal foot technique at my request. It was fun to see how his creative brain is constantly working out new variations and stickings no matter what you chuck at him.
After the day’s lessons I was chatting with Thomas og Elizabeth and they invited us to dinner with Matt and his girlfriend Lauren at a nearby restaurant. It was great fun and a bit surreal to hang with these guys like this.
Day 4 (4th of July – Independence Day): Matt Garstka (private lesson with Thomas Lang)
At dinner the previous evening Matt had revealed that the next day would see a lot of bass drum exercises and related stuff. This suited me fine as my right foot is among my least weak points (I will not mention my left foot). His predictions were true. Lots of right foot workouts with lots of sixteenth note patterns and permutations and this was right up my alley. I was taken slightly away from my home turf when he later went into polyrythmic bass drum patterns a la Animals as Leaders – the kind that return a downbeat every 10th or 14th time etc. Now I was glad I was able to read the charts to avoid getting thrown off – because I was not really able to feel the patterns right away.
We also touched upon various independence stuff. Here Matt would hear everyone individually. The pattern he would hear us play was KLLKLLKLL (in 3/4) with fourths/eights or groups of sixteenth notes in the right hand (K = kick). As an old fan of Danish drum great Niels Ratzer I have worked a great deal with combinations like these way back when I was a teenager – so I was kind of content that this was that Matt would test us in.
Next it was time for my private lesson with Thomas Lang. I requested that we would talk about foot technique with emphasis on my weak left foot. And we did. A full hour of exercises for the left foot made me feel like I had only played drums for a couple of months. No mercy and no shortcuts. Even playing RRLLRRLL with the feet and playing simple eighth and sixteenth note patterns with the hands quickly gets me into trouble since I never worked on these things before.
After the day’s lessons we were hanging around in the hotel’s so-called Hollywood suite. Here I met Gergo Borlai for the first time and was immediately surprised just how friendly and humble a guy he is. He remembered my contest entry very well and joked that he did not know what he could possibly teach me during the private lesson scheduled to take place the following day. “Eeerh I’m sure you’ll think of something” I replied.
Just like Matt Garstka, Gergo is one of the drummers that I have been listening to a lot since my interest has returned. And Gergo too impresses me with his outstanding musicality and unpredictability behind a drum kit. I love listening to gospel chops players but one of the things I really like with especially Matt and Gergo is the fact that they do not really play the gospel chops style but have a somewhat different approach and voice.
Well, this was the 4th of July and most places were closed. So Elizabeth and Thomas got the ingredients for a makeshift dinner party at a local supermarket and we quickly served this on the pool table in the hotel suite. We had a fun and informal evening in the company of various Bonanza participants as well as Thomas, Gergo and Rich Redmond.
4th of July in great company. Gergo Borlai, myself, Thomas Lang and Rich Redmond.
Day 5: Gergo Borlai and Gregg Bissonette (private lesson with Borlai)
Day 5 was the day that saw the most intense drumming in the class room. Gergo Borlai headed the morning session which turned out to be a no-nonsense workout. He started off with a series of non-stop warm-up exercises. He led the proceedings with one exercise and we followed him – one exercise directly followed by the next and we ended up playing for more than 75 minutes non-stop with an increasing difficulty level and intensity. This intense workout earned us a break and many of us went to change our t-shirts or get towels from the hotel rooms. After the break Thomas had us do a series of tabata exercises – high intensity intervals for drum kit: 20 seconds of full speed and highest possible volume in both hands and feet followed by a 10 second break and then over again many times. It was a stupid move of me to change the t-shirt.
In Gergo’s second half he taught us a series of specific licks.
After lunch it was Gregg Bissonette’s turn. I clearly remember Gregg from the eighties (where I was an active musician) and his playing on the David Lee Roth albums – and the Buddy Rich tribute concert that everyone used to have on VHS back then. Gregg too was a very energetic teacher. He had lots of entertaining stories that he delivered in an equally entertaining fashion. His teaching focused on sight-reading and he had brought a lot of charts and original music that we would read and play. Sometimes Gregg would pick one from the class to play a track on Thomas’ kit.
Next was my private lesson with Gergo Borlai. I don’t really have fast hands and therefore I requested that we would work on hand speed. We also touched upon various licks and also did a short jam which was a cool experience.
After the scheduled lessons,Thomas handed out the diplomas and we took down all the kits. It was quite sad that these five very intense days had come to an end and everything would soon go back to normal.
Big Drum Bonanza 2016?
Both Pernille and myself had an outstanding experience – the place, the weather, the venue and not least the drumming-related content was truly epic. Actually, it was so great that we will be working on returning next year. This time we will have to pay, but there is no doubt that it will be worth every penny.
As for myself, I couldn’t dream of a better way to jump start Heine’s Drumming Life Version 2.0. After speaking to all the great pros and especially Thomas Lang – who were all very supportive of my playing – I have regained confidence in my own playing as well as the urge to improve in a constructive way. At least now I know where to start. After all this, however, I can’t help regretting taking such a long break and missing many years of practising and developing. But what can you do….?
I would very much like to make music a part of my life again. I just have to find out how to make that happen. At this point, I think that teaching drums is something I want to get back into so I am currently working on launching my website lennart.dk which will feature various instructional stuff once I get it ready.
I also hope that this story can inspire other Danish drummers to enter the playalong contest for 2016. Thomas releases the new version of the BDB track in the middle of May. (By the way, he plays all the instruments himself, except the vocals).
Finally, I can also highly recommend everyone to just go to the Bonanza as a ‘normal’ participant and pay the entrance fee. No matter how you get there, you’re in for the drumming experience of a lifetime.