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Fits and Starts - Greg Eklund
Overnight Sensation with Everclear
Drum! Magazine, December 1997

By David Weiss

Intimidation was messing with Greg Eklund's mind. "I was one of those people," explains the drummer for platinum Portland trio Everclear, "when I was in high school, the idea of being in a band and playing a show in a club was outrageous to me. And to be recorded and put out a single, you had to be a Neil Peart protege! I mean, you would've had to have been playing drums since the age of three to possibly have the talent to play drums on a record at some point."

That was the early '90s, and Eklund's awe had paralyzed him to the point where he hadn't picked up a pair of sticks in two years. "I figured I'd better do something with my life," he recalls. "So I went to the University of Oregon, and actually met the girl that I'm now married to. She asked me, 'What do you want to do with your life? If you had no limitations?' I said, 'I want to drum in a rock band and tour and see the world.' And she said, 'But you don't even play now.'"

Girlfriend / future wife Ellina had some more sense to smack into him. "She'd come from Berkeley and Oakland, and there was this huge punk scene going, with a lot of bands that eventually turned into Rancid and Green Day," says Eklund, a disarmingly honest person whose voice carries a playful undercurrent. "Everybody was doing it, even if they were absolutely terrible. Ellina's like, 'It takes no talent to be on a record. You just need a couple hundred bucks.' And I said, 'You've got to be kidding me!'"

To hear Eklund pound out his steady pummel for Everclear - or better yet, to witness it live - it's hard to believe that he was a man with a confidence problem. His band's debut album for Capitol, Sparkle and Fade, was a multiplatinum success, riding off irrepressible buzz anthems like "Santa Monica" and "Heartspark Dollarsign". Three years of near-nonstop touring to support the album boosted the group into the rock scene stratosphere.

From there, it was straight into the studio to record the followup, So Much for the Afterglow. The ten-month project received considerably more care and attention than the two-week churn-out of Sparkle, sporting a higher level of polish and production values. For Afterglow, Eklund adjusted from a straight push to a more groove-inclined modus operandi, taking into account the band's renewed interest in loops, soul, and even string sections. His bouncing, attacking rhythms, together with the hue and cry of Everclear's guitarist / frontman Art Alexakis and the tug of Craig Montoya's bass, create often celebrational songs that revel in the moment.

Before he became a part of Everclear's musical outburst, however, Eklund had done a lot of waiting. Especially when it came to drums. "When I was 10 or 11, I saw Adam Ant on TV, and ever since then I was like, 'Mom, Dad, I want to play drums!'" Eklund says. But the skins didn't come easy. Staring down the barrel of having a "Kid Learning to Play Drums" in their very household, the elder Eklunds mandated two years of piano lessons first. With lil' Greg, however, it was just a case of postponing the inevitable. After two years of tickling the ivories with "a smelly old English lady", Eklund cashed in his sentence for a new Sears snare drum.

A full drum set was even further in the future. "My parents had bought this house in Washington, D.C., but in the military you didn't get paid all that much," Eklund says. "I was told time and time again that they couldn't afford it. The fact that they didn't have any furniture in the house kind of drove that home." A new kit finally did come - a mere three years after the drumming bug first bit Eklund - and the slamming commenced forthwith. Quiet Riot, Def Leppard, and Foreigner provided the earliest inspiration. "A butt-rock beginning," admits Eklund.

But before his hair could grow too large, a pubescent romance took Eklund's development on a serious turn. "I was able to hook up with one of the best percussion educators in the country, Dr. Garwood Whaley, partly because I happened to date his daughter in eighth grade," Eklund says. "He takes one student a year, and because I was dating his daughter, he took me."

"That, and I had inside information. He's a total symphonic guy, and his daughter's like, 'If he asks you if you want to learn drum set from him, say no.'" Eklund disavowed any knowledge of rock and roll, and was accepted. For all four years of high school, he was immersed in classical percussion, learning everything from symphonic snare, marimba, and timpani to crash cymbals and triangle technique.

But as Whaley groomed his disciple for further education at Julliard, Eklund was burning out. When he was 18, his father retired from the military and moved to Oregon. Feeling like he had nothing better to do, Eklund came along and found every excuse in the book to begin his two-year hiatus from drumming.

"I was sort of the new guy in the city," Eklund says. "I was 18 years old, so I was too young to go to the bars to meet other musicians. My folks lived out in the country, so it wasn't an easy commute to town, and Portland was a small town anyway. All the musicians there had gone to school together and it was really sort of cliquey."

Elkund didn't mention that there was a hurricane, a flood, he had a flat tire, and his dog ate his homework, but you get the idea. Fortunately, he got himself into the University of Oregon, and the aforementioned Ellina was able to get him in gear. "She just really inspired me to start playing drums again," says Eklund. "She laid into my head that it really is possible. You don't have to be this amazing player."

Eklund threw himself back onto the drum throne - this time for good. His love of rock grooves that is so apparent on Afterglow first surfaced in a band called Jollymon, which had its own share of success during its three-year run in Portland. The group drew 1,000 people per show, but to Eklund it was far from enough.

"I had this idea that you had to tour in order to be successful," Eklund says. "The rest of the band was saying, 'If we become the biggest band in Portland, then someone will notice.' And I'm like, 'I don't think that's going to happen.'" Frustrated, Eklund finally left the group in 1994, and quickly realized he needed some fresh income in order to keep his $75-a-month room.

Keeping his ear to the ground, he soon discovered that another Portland band that he liked was going to be looking for a new drummer. "Everclear was pretty big, but they weren't huge - Jollymon was actually drawing more at the time," Eklund notes. "Art's thing was, they may not be the biggest thing in Portland, but they were touring the country. They were national, laying the kindling for the fire that was going to come later."

After some digging, Eklund got ahold of Alexakis' phone number and broke his shy mold, earnestly informing the guitarist that he need look no further for a new drummer. To Eklund's surprise, Alexakis already knew his name from doing some research of his own. "Art said, 'Do you want to tour? Do you mind sleeping on floors and eating Taco Bell?' And that was already a feast for me anyway - you could go to Taco Bell and get 30 things for $1.75," enthuses Eklund. "I was like, 'Wow! Taco Bell? Sure!' It was like a dream come true for me.

The next day at the audition, Eklund's energy contibuted to a good ol' trashing of the space, after which Alexakis didn't hesitate to invite Eklund to join the band. Right after the drummer accepted, Alexakis threw in a nifty surprise. "We were hanging out outside, and that was when he said, 'Oh yeah, by the way, we're in the middle of an eight-label bidding war!" Eklund recalls with a laugh.

From that moment forward, Eklund's life catapulted into a near nonstop hyper-paced whirlwind from which there has been only the briefest of breaks. It was June of 1994, the band signed with Capitol, and the fun began. "We started this tour on the East Coast, literally two weeks after I joined the band," Eklund says. "Then we came back to Portland and drove straight to the studio, where we recorded Sparkle and Fade for two weeks. Then we were on tour again, all the way through November of '96."

With nothing but road behind them, the band was surprisingly eager to hit the studio again for the recording of Afterglow. With its proven track record, Everclear had the luxury of taking their time with the album's 13 songs. "There was no pressure, and that's because we didn't allow it to get to us," Eklund reports. "We told the label to lay off, you're going to get the record when we think it's done."

While the majority of the drum parts on Sparkle were written by Everclear's previous drummer, the rhythms on Afterglow are all Eklund. "I was able to contribute more from my background on this record, so a lot of the songs are more groove oriented," he says. "It was a lot more collaborative. I didn't necessarily feel I was left out of the last record at the time, but after three years of playing and 600 shows, I think we played better as a band. More important was the fact that over those three years on the road, we bought a lot of CD's. We were constantly listening to and turning each other on to different stuff." From this digging on roots like Ray Charles, Los Lobos, Otis Redding, and Little Richard, elements of funk joined the punk energy, while still being channeled into a pop format.

With Alexakis producing, Eklund attacked the recording sessions with flexibility in mind. "The key word to this record was 'textures' - different textures with guitars, drums, vocals, everything," he says. "We laid the basic tracks at A&M Studios in L.A., which is a massive room where they did 'We Are the World'.

"When we went in there we had two drum kits set up. One was a jazz combo kit with the 18" kick, 12" tom, and 14" tom. The other was the kit that Dave Grohl used on [Nirvana's] Nevermind, because we really liked that drum sound, too."

On faster songs, like "Normal Like You" and "Amphetamine", the bigger kit was employed, and wouldn't you know it - you can hear that same deep bass drum and manhole snare from "In Bloom", supplying nothing but foundation. On groovier tunes like "Everything to Everyone", the smaller kit with a tight 12" Premier snare drum was engaged, enabling Eklund to apply a snappy hip-hop feel.

But the musicians had other texture tricks up their sleeves. "On a couple of songs, we overlapped the two kits," Eklund explains. "'Father of Mine' is the small kit on the verse, and then the big kit and small kit played together on the chorus. The two were mixed just a little bit out of phase - just a millisecond off from each other - so it ends up sounding really massive."

Another rhythmic twist for the band was drum loops, adding shake in "Father of Mine" and the royal "California King". Rather than being an added-on afterthought in "One Hit Wonder", however, the percussion loop Eklund recorded with a set of wooden spoons, bass, and snare turned out to be the song's primary ingredient. "We decided we were going to use that loop for the drum beat," Eklund says. "To get the natural feel, we had all the band members in the room. We brought in this P.A. system, and piped the drum loop in, then played along to it.

"Another thing we did was that a lot of drum fills and snare rolls were doubled, like on 'Everything to Everyone'. I'll start a roll on the 12" snare later than the big drum roll starts. I felt pretty silly sometimes standing in a big studio with nothing but big cymbals around me and just hitting one, or doing a snare roll over and over again."

The method for miking the drums was another source of inconvenience for Eklund. "The drums were miked in a way that I actually believe in, but we ended up having a problem with it later," says Eklund. "We miked the drum kit as one instrument, not just isolating each drum and every little thing. We had cymbal mikes way in the back of the room, which provided a massive sound. But what we didn't do was mike the high-hat." As a result, the hats were often swallowed up almost completely, forcing Eklund to go back and rerecord them for parts of certain songs.

Anyone who's ever seen the explosive spontaneous energy of an Everclear show might be surprised by the intensive detail-oriented approach the band took to recording Afterglow. According to Eklund, however, there is a time and a place for everything. "The whole purpose of recording is to document something that's going to be listened to over and over again, so you want to get it as perfect for the idea of the song as it can be.

"Live, however, is complete abandonment. You just go for it. It's about energy, sweat, screaming at the top of your lungs, and spitting on yourself. I'm not sitting there trying to think of tempos or anything like that. If we speed up, we speed up. And if we slow down, we slow down. I'm not going to sit there and play the tempo right, just because I'm right and everyone else is wrong. Whatever we do, we do it as a band."

In an era of control freak band situations, the fun-oriented live philosophy of Everclear may be a crucial factor in the band's ability to stay on the road for such long stetches. "I think on the road you go through cycles where even though you're physically tired, you can still go out and play an amazing show," Eklund theorizes. "There's been many nights where I've been backstage going, 'I can't physically do this.' An then I go out, and the minute I hit the stage, the endorphins and adrenaline kick in and everything's great. Then I come off and I'm like, 'I can't do that tomorrow night.' Tomorrow night comes around, and I'm ready to do it again."

On the rare occasions when Eklund is off tour, he's been making a serious run at guitar and ukelele (acquired on his recent honeymoon), with a return to marimba square in his sights. When all the dust from Everclear settles, the man who was determined to see the world from a drum riser might make a solid career counselor. For now, however, he's reluctant to serve as a role model.

"I have a problem with kids coming up to me today and asking, 'What do I have to do in order to to do what you do?'" Eklund admits. "I don't really feel right telling them, 'Well, you've got to starve, you've got to quit your job, you've got to make sure you don't have a girlfriend so that when a band calls, you can just leave on tour immediately.' Because that's not going to happen for most people. At times, I feel like saying, 'Go to school, get a backup,' something like that - which is really good advice.

"But you know what? All the people I know were the people starving on the floors, who didn't have a job, who were just scrounging to make it happen. I really think that's what you have to do.

"Although I wouldn't recommend it to anyone."

Greg's Kit

Drums: DW

1. 24" x 14"
Bass Drum
2. 14" Snare
3. 12" Snare
4. 13" Tom
5. 16" Tom
Cymbals: Zildjian

A. 14" K/Z Hi-Hats
B. 19" A Custom
Projection Crash
C. 18" A Custom
Projection Crash
D. 20" A Custom Ride
E. 19" K China

F. Tambourine
G. Zildjian Earth

Greg Eklund also uses Vic Firth sticks and Remo coated Emperor heads.