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hilliard 1Those fortunate enough to have witnessed any of David Byrne’s shows on his recent Australian tour would have been blown away by the percussive onslaught provided by percussionist Mauro Refosco and drummer David Hilliard. Byrne, the ex-Talking Heads lead vocalist has lost none of  his enthusiasm for contagious rhythms since leaving the band whose frenzied beats are immortalised on the Stop Making Sense film soundtrack. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips got to analyse the percussive aspect of Byrne’s show when he spoke to the amiable, Oklahoma born drummer David Hilliard the morning after a stunning Melbourne performance.

David Hilliard’s introduction to percussion came through the encouragement of his music loving father.  The  sound of the Langston University marching band where his father taught culinary arts, made such an impression on Hilliard that his dad bought him his first drum kit at the age of four. At seven years old David was playing the blues all night at a club in Brinkley, Arkansas, then would sometimes have to rise early in the morning to accompany the local Mt. Olive Baptist church choir. Much later Hilliard would go on tour with the “United States Collegiate Wind Band, and after the military played weekends in cover bands in Colorado. While working as a United Parcel Service Supervisor he gigged and DJ’d on off Nights. He relocated to study at Columbia College in Chicago and at NorthEastern University in Illinois where he was a member of the jazz ensemble. With a formal classical background behind him and a respect for the likes of Buddy Miles, Gene Krupa, Billy Cobham and Buddy Rich, Hilliard found a career as a drummer progressing nicely. He  was soon beating skins for Tranquility Bass, a band from Chicago, who was touring and hoping to become supported  by David Byrne’s record label (Luaka Bop)  in New York. This connection ultimately lead to Hilliard winning his current gig. Other sessions included  his Chicago Party band”Boogis Shoes”,  live spots with members of Liquid Soul, Tortois, Marvin Tate’s D-Settlement, WILCO and Sugar Blue.

In David Byrne’s current show apart from the rhythm section of Hilliard, Refosco and bass player Paul Frazier, there is also a six piece string section Austin, Texas Tango Orchestra , which just completed sessions with the Dixie Chicks. The setting allows for Hilliard to draw on his classical background and pull out things like brushes, mallets and triangle beaters. The song list can also be quite gruelling going from an upbeat Talking Heads tune one minute to a lush string piece the next. “It’s a wonderful challenge to be honest for a drummer” explains Hilliard. ” It shows some versatility and diversity in my skills. I consider it a challenge to be able to rock then feel like I’m in an orchestra pit in the same show. So it’s a great discipline. As far as I’m concerned all musicians should know something of all styles and try to be able to play it all.”

D.HilliardAnother first for Hilliard was the use of in-ear monitoring. Byrne introduced the Shure PSM 600 hard-wired in-ear monitoring system  because he didn’t want any amplification visible on stage. Most drummers like to feel the kick drum hitting them square in the chest but Hilliard warmed quickly to the idea of hearing the mix through earphones. “It’s the first time I have ever used it. I like it because I’m very click orientated I request a metronome for some songs so that I make sure I’m solid for the vocalist. I’ve never been in a setting before where I can play a heavy beat and still have strings on stage, and it’s just great. So it was very intriguing when David came up with that idea that there would be no amps on stage. It’s the first time in this setting and has taught me a lot of discipline.”

To further enhance the simulation of the normal feel of the drums on stage, monitor engineer Kris Umezawa introduced the curious Butt Kicker Shaker monitor which is fitted into Hilliard’s seat. “Oh that! (great laughter) Oh man that keeps me regulated! It’s awesome because it’s all fill. I can actually get the click in my butt.” said Hilliard struggling to contain his laughter. “I can feel all the low end stuff. I’m not used to having movement in that area other than the natural, yet, I don’t want to go there. I got a little paranoid for a while because friends told me that the little frequency can burn your organs. So for a while it was like ’no way’. It’s an amazing thing but helps a lot.  Though, I’ve learned that I can trust Kris with my life.”

You play with another percussionist on stage, Mauro Refosco, how do you find that?
“Mauro is awesome. He has helped my groove a lot in the last year. He has introduced me to some really cool “riddims.” I’ve seen us on video and there are times where our sticks are meeting the drums at the same time. It’s so amazing to know that we are right there together. I’m very rhythm orientated and when we’re all on the same beat, it’s just amazing.For instance in a song like “God’s Child” or  “Great Intoxication” I can hear David doing cool rhythm guitar chops and then polyrhythms and melodies vocally, Mauro does a Latin rhythm and programmed ambience with the midi works that fits within, I’m doing straight ahead things with builds and accents on the stuff their playing, Paul Frazier, our bass player might be doing a smooth jazzy rhythmic run within the bass lines, but it all just fits in together. and it’s just euphoric that we’re all doing different things but all on the same path at a certain time.”

Does playing with strings present any problems?
“Not really. Yet, because I am somewhat of a rock/funk head we have the baffles on stage between me and the strings. Just a technical adjustment because when I do get to play loud sometimes the drums would bleed into the mikes of the strings. David said we’ll put up the baffle so you don’t have to hold back, you can go for it. At first I was a little timid and nervous and I’d  begin to over play the strings and everybody else on stage because there is no amplification. I really depend on Paul, Mauro and David a lot on stage and after hearing the mix it was like  ‘No worries’…we have great engineers in Kris Umezawa, George Bade and Terry Pearson.”

BYRNEWhat’s David Byrne like as a boss?
“He is the ultimate professional. He works harder than anyone else I have ever observed. In all that hard work he always has quality time for his Family, friends and colleagues. He mentions that in his songs himself, that his friends are important. Even though he’s a man of many missions, he still takes time to say hello and chat. To me that means a lot. For somebody who has covered the whole world, he’s still human.” So far, that’s what I’m learning most from him…to care  and to stay real.

Hilliard, who is now back in Chicago finishing the David Byrne, “Like Humans Do” club remix with producer/engineer Peter Marq at Green Street Recording Company, which Hilliard is co-owner and business manager, is keen to continue his association with rock icons and dreams of playing with people like Patti LaBelle, Sting or David Bowie.  He elaborates “Here’s my thing. I’m 37, been playing for quite a while, I’d love to continue playing with rock icons. You know what I mean. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing sessions and developing artists but I’d love to be able to play with someone like BB King or James Brown, Elton John.  Since I have worked with the consummate professional in David Byrne, it would be hard to settle for less. I mean he knows what’s going on. Every thing from the tour routing to what you eat during the day to keep your energy right, the guy knows everything and still knows if the last note in the last song of the last set was where it needed to be.  Absolutely Amazing. And in mentioning, I would like to personally congratulate David Byrne for his induction into the Hall of Fame this year.  I’d like to stay in this level of musicianship so I can continue to grow and learn.”

DAVID’S GEAR: 20” kick, 10” and 12” rack toms, 14” floor toms, Tama Brass Mighty Hoop snare, 13” Jack DeJohnette Encore crash, 14” HH hi-hat, 15” crash, 18” HHX crash, 21” Signature Series ride, Shure PSM 600 hardwired in-ear monitor system, Guitammer Butt-Kicker shaker kit.

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