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JACK ROBERT: MY SESSION WORLD

Jack Robert is an acclaimed Sydney-based musical director and a session/touring drummer who has worked with a wide variety acts such as: Delta Goodrem, Ian Moss, Rob Thomas (Matchbox Twenty), Ruel, Samantha Jade, Thundamentals, and so many others. Jack’s next gig is with Stephen Taranto in July, supporting Plini, on an Australian east coast run. We recently caught up with Jack to get a wonderful insight into the world of a local and internationally touring session musician. Jack Robert currently plays DW Drums, Sabian Cymbals, Vater sticks and Roland electronic drum gear.

What was the spark that got you into music in the first place?
During the first few years of my life, my dad was a professional drummer, so I was surrounded by music and drums at home. He exposed me to a lot of incredible music that really helped shaped my early tastes. My parents had a great record collection at home that I would dive into. From an early age I was listening to and really gravitated towards artists like Miles, Weather Report, Genesis, Toto, Stevie Wonder and The Police among others. I’m grateful I had access to those types of records at such a young age. At that time, there were also drums and practice pads around the house that I would play around with, so I was definitely heavily influenced by my environment.

Did you have formal music training?
I studied music in high school and played in various school bands. I spent a brief period studying music at uni in Sydney as well but ended up leaving early to pursue my career. I took classical piano lessons form a young age. To be honest though, most of my development came outside of those avenues.

As far as playing drums, from a really young age I would mimic what I saw my dad doing on a pad or at the drums. Once I was little older and started expressing a deeper interest in learning, he showed me the basics. He still has phenomenal hands to this day. I was always an ambitious and self motivated kid, so when I was around nine years old, I decided that this was what I wanted to do professionally and I wanted to be doing it at the highest level possible. At that point, everything changed and I started to dedicate myself completely, to becoming the absolute best player I could. I was putting in a lot of hours every day which continued for the next 10 years or so until my early twenties when I moved out of home. Throughout that time, dad would guide and support me in various ways, but we never had a formal lesson type structure. I would set myself goals and go after them every single day. What I got from him extends way beyond the mechanics of playing. It was a work ethic, discipline and a deep appreciation for music.

In terms of practising, I would constantly be working on my hands and feet and basic attributes like speed, power, endurance, dynamics, control, coordination and independence along with anything else I knew I needed to work on. At that point it was rare that I didn’t have sticks in my hands. I also spent a lot of time playing along with all different types of records which I guess helped me develop a degree of versatility.

As far as formal drum lessons go, a little later on in my mid teens, I had some lessons in Melbourne with Graham Morgan and Gerry Pantazis. I then spent some time in the US in my early twenties where I took a couple of privates with some huge influences for me, Alex Acuna and Chris Coleman. Each of these guys have a lot to offer and I took something away from each of them.

What was your first kit?
I actually didn’t have a kit of my own until I was around 19. We weren’t really living in a place where I could practise on acoustic drums, so up until that point I was practising on pads and electronic drums. When I could, I would practise on my dad’s beautiful birch Tama kit. Eventually, after winning ‘Australia’s Best Up & Coming Drummer’ in 2010, through Frank Corniola, I signed my first endorsement contracts with Gretsch, Sabian, Evans and Vater. That’s when I bought my first kit through Gretsch.

Which drummers inspired you when you were learning drums and who are the newer drummers you that you have respect for?
There are so many that it’s hard to mention just a few. I’ve really made a conscious effort to be open minded and eclectic with my influences and basically just pursue anything that moved me in one way or another.

Early on, Phil Collins was a big influence. I was big into both Genesis and his solo records. We had some of his shows on VHS, with Chester Thompson, that I would watch on repeat. The first major show my parents took me to was his Both Sides Tour in Melbourne. Ricky Lawson, who’s another big influence for me, was also on that tour. I would’ve been 4 years old at the time and still remember the feeling of being at that gig.

I’ve always been big into history, so I’ve spent a lot of time studying a lot of great players from various eras. I tend to gravitate towards players who to me are tasteful, while also pushing the limits of the instrument in one way or another and who have an identifiable approach. Vinnie Colaiuta is someone for me who really epitomises all those qualities and more and someone I deeply respect for what he’s contributed to the craft. There are so many others as well though that have had a huge influence on me.

In terms of newer drummers, some of my favourite players right now are my peers from Sydney and I take any opportunity I get to listen to their records or go see them live. Again, there too many to mention but one of my favourites is Tully Ryan. We were actually housemates for a while not long after I moved to Sydney and he’s got such a beautiful approach to playing. He’s part of a few great projects that I recommend anyone to check out.

How did you get into session work?
It’s been a really incremental process. A family friend of ours, Mark Amato, who’s a really respected keys player and MD from Melbourne, started booking me for small gigs around Melbourne once I finished high school. He taught me a lot about feel and professionalism and has always been super supportive as well as always being an extremely positive energy.

I guess my first ‘break’ into the session world though, was when I started working with Ricki-Lee. That was the first time I’d played with a major label artist, I was 21 at the time. I was living in a small coastal town in Victoria and I was hungry to step up into touring and a professional career. I sent some videos out to various managers around the country and Ricki and her manager Rich, happened to be one of the ones that hit me back and it all went from there. I was really fortunate that they took a chance on me. At the time, the whole team was based in Sydney except for me, so they’d fly me up and back for rehearsals which hasn’t happened with another artist since. They looked after me and we’re still friends and working together to this day.

The first thing we did together was a TV appearance and then we headlined a New Years show at the Big Top in Sydney. I still remember playing that show and feeling like my life had really taken a turn from where I’d been up until then.

From there, I eventually moved to Sydney to continue building my career and its essentially been a little like a roller coaster ever since.

Tell us about your current kit
My main kit for the last 7 years or so has been a white DW Performance Series. For me, I like to use a basic five piece setup with a 22” kick, 10” and 12” rack toms, a 16” floor tom and a 14” snare drum and then build on that if need be. The performance series is a maple kit and its helped me cover a variety of different sounds that I’ve needed to pull for different projects. When I’m out of town, usually there’ll be a Collector’s Series backline kit that I’ll play, but to be totally honest, I think my favourite DW kit that I’ve played on the road, was a Design series kit in Melbourne. Even though it’s not advertised as a flagship DW kit, there was just something about it that I really loved and now I look forward to playing that kit whenever I can. As I mentioned earlier, I’m also using Evans heads and they really compliment the DW drums nicely regardless of what sound I’m going for.

What kind of cymbals do you like?
I play Sabian cymbals. They have a great range of cymbals to choose from and I’ve been able to narrow down a selection I love playing. For me, as much as its obviously about how the cymbals sound, I really like them to feel a certain way as well. I generally tend to go for darker, thinner cymbals. My main setup is predominantly HHX based. In my opinion, they’re versatile, they have a lot of give, so you can really dig in without feeling like you’re overworking. I like to be able to crash my ride cymbal as well, so I landed on the 21” Groove ride which for me ticks all the boxes I’m looking for in a ride that I can use in various different scenarios. I think of cymbals as textures essentially, similar to a producers’ mentality, so depending on the project, I’ll switch up or add certain cymbals that compliment that particular music or the vocalist and the majority of the time I find that the HHX line can cover all of those bases.

Why Vater sticks and had you tried many others?
I’ve played a few different companies over the years and I eventually became involved with Vater. They have a range of sticks and other products that work for me and so far it’s been a great experience with them.

Do you use electronic drums too and do you ever use combination of both?
More often than not, I’m using a combination of both. It really depends on the situation. Generally though, I’ll use an  acoustic kit as the foundation, then I’ll combine that with electronic pads and triggers, to varying degrees depending on the project.

Tell us about your electronic gear
The electronic gear is basically just a way to combine the worlds of modern production with live acoustic instruments. It’s not a new concept, it became common to combine both during the eighties, but I think the ease of which we can accomplish it and blend those two worlds now, has really come a long way. I usually use a Roland SPD-SX as the main electronic station for the kit and then I can run external pads and acoustic triggers out of that. The sounds I’m playing on the pads or triggers can vary from main backbeat type samples to loops and efx samples. Ideally, they’re sounds I’ve sampled from the artist’s multi-tracks because that way I can play some of the actual sounds from the record live, in conjunction with the feel of an acoustic kit and have less running through the playback. That way, its essentially an enhanced version of the studio record. Again, every situation is slightly different, so I approach it each time with a fresh outlook on how to best achieve what the artist is going for. It can take some time to dial in the electronic elements, from general levels to touch sensitivity, routing, efx etc so it feels like everything is sounding and sitting comfortably. The other element to all of this is the FOH engineer. Having a great engineer who can really blend these elements together is super important and I’d recommend building a positive and open dialogue with any engineer you’re working with so you can get the best overall result possible. Live shows are such a collaborative team effort, so I always try to bring my A game and make sure I’ve taken care of the things I’m responsible for, so that when we’re all together, it makes everyone else’s jobs easier and we can all focus on the big picture.

What have been some of your favourite tours and live experiences?
Fortunately there are a few that come to mind! My first tour with JOY. in 2017, we did an Australian run supporting Kehlani and that still stands out as one of the best experiences I’ve had on the road. The crowds were hyped up, we had a great team and each night of that tour was a pleasure to be a part of. Big Pineapple Festival in Queensland a couple of years ago with Thundamentals is another one that comes to mind. I got the call from the musical director and guitarist, Carl Dimataga, who I’d worked with previously for another artist. I had a great time working with Carl in the past and when this call came through it all happened relatively quickly. I was going in cold, no rehearsal, I knew most of the members of the band, but I met the Thundas guys about two minutes before we walked on stage. There was just a sea of maybe 20,000 people as far back as I could see up the hill and it was just one of those nights where everything felt like it clicked. We were also part of a bushfire relief concert in earl 2020 at the Enmore in Sydney, which was another really special show with those guys. Playing Falls Festival around the on the country with Toto on the same lineup was pretty surreal as well. Getting to watch their set side of stage was one of those full circle type moments. Lastly, the first time playing stadiums and arenas overseas was a huge buzz.

Have you toured overseas much, if so where and who with?
The majority of my overseas touring has been with Ruel. From 2017-2019, we did multiple tours through Europe and the UK, a couple of runs to Japan, as well as multiple tours of Australia and New Zealand. It was an exciting and busy phase.

Who are you currently working with?
I’m currently juggling a few different projects. On the drumming side, I recently played with Jarryd James. We recorded an episode for season 3 of the The Set on ABC which should be airing sometime soon. I was filling in for a good friend of mine, Yanya Boston, who’s a great drummer and one of my favourite MDs to work for.

The next tour coming up at this stage is in July with Stephen Taranto, supporting Plini, on an Australian east coast run. That came about through another good mate of mine Mitch Clews who’s playing guitar in the band as well. We’re in rehearsals for these shows at the moment and it’s definitely the most challenging music I’ve ever had to learn and its forcing me to level up in certain areas of my playing. I’ve always been really into instrumental progressive music, so getting to play it with guys of this calibre is something I’m stoked to be doing. Not to mention, Plini’s record ‘Impulse Voices’ was my favourite record to come out in 2020, so I’m  keen to see him and the band play it live.

There are some other artists I’ve been playing drums with recently as well but outside of that, I’ve been doing more and more MD work which has been great. It’s another side to shows that I enjoy. From project to project the term ‘MD’ can mean different things. Generally speaking though, you’re responsible for building and arranging the show from a musical and technical perspective, building and running a payback rig, hiring the right people for the band and crew, organising and running rehearsals and basically being the middle man between the band/crew and the artists’ team.

I recently had the opportunity to MD some festival shows for Thomas Headon which also happened to be his first live band shows. We played April Sun Festival in Melbourne and then Your’s and Owl’s Festival in Wollongong. Thomas’ team is based in Europe, so it meant communication was even more important than usual. We had a couple of zoom meetings, they sent me the files and basically just said do your thing! Due to scheduling we only had time for one rehearsal, then a couple of days later we were on stage in front of thousands of people. Thankfully we had great team involved, with Stan Wong on guitar and bass and Andy Troy mixing, so even with constraints, it all worked out well.

How different is a progressive metal gig with Stephen Taranto compared to a gig with pop vocalists such as Samantha Jade or a hip hop group like Thundamentals? What’s the difference in your set up?
I guess on the surface, you get the call, you have x amount of time to prepare and then you’re on, but each situation requires a slightly unique approach. I tend not to think of music in styles in a limiting way. It can helpful with getting a general vibe for the project but once I’ve established that I find it more useful to approach each artist and their catalogue as its own entity. My job is to figure out the best way to contribute to that, which includes how I’m playing and approaching the music and what gear I’m using. I’m always listening to a lot of different music so I never really feel like its a huge shift in my headspace to go from situation to another, doing that helps to keep things fluid and adaptable.

When a new call comes through, the first thing I’ll do is just dive into the music and memorise it as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. During that process I’m also deciding what gear will be best to use, how I might distribute parts around the kit especially if there are electronics involved and just building an overall approach and concept for that particular artist.

Setup wise, I have the main five piece kit that I use as the foundation and then I’ll adjust from there. For Stephen’s music, it’s really double bass heavy, so I’ll use a double pedal and x hats, I’m not using any electronics, and because of the sorts of fills and patterns involved, I’ll add a second floor tom.

Working with an artist like Samantha Jade, its basis is modern pop music, so it includes a lot of electronic elements. For that gig, I would keep the five or six piece kit and then add the SPD-SX, I’ll add a Roland KT-10 which is an electronic kick pedal and some other external pads depending on the setlist. When it comes to snare drums for this music, because its so backbeat heavy, I like to have some options for different tones. I generally use my main snare as a middle ground and then add a side snare tuned much lower. For certain situations I’ve even added a third smaller snare, tuned way up to cover that sonic range as well. Guys like Rex Hardy and Brian Frasier-Moore are big influences when it comes to that approach for hybrid rigs.

For Thundamentals, that gig is very loop heavy, so I essentially end up just playing acoustic drums along with the playback to add the live feel and energy to the show. That’s been the same for other hip hop tours I’ve done as well.

The other variable would be head choice and tuning. Often there isn’t time to be changing heads on a lot of these gigs if we’re flying in and out, so you sort of develop a tuning system that gets you in the ball park quickly and frequently you’ll have to do it without even really hearing the drums, so it very much becomes a feel thing and then tweaking as you go. If I’m in town, I can be more particular about those things. For example with Jarryd James, the drums sounds were really particular, so I switched out all my Evans black chrome heads on the toms which I’ve been running for a while and went with all coated G2s, tuned the drums way down and heavily dampened them. That approach worked well for Jarryd’s music but its a totally different approach to what I would use for some of the other artists we talked about.

https://www.jack-robert.com/