Drummer, producer, and composer Mark Guiliana is one of the most sought-after drummers on the scene today. Throughout his career, Guilaina has backed notable names like Meshell NdegocelloGretchen ParlatoLionel LouekeAvishai Cohen, and others. Although his résumé as a sideman is certainly impressive, Guiliana is equally adept at leading and co-leading his own groups as was proven by A Form of Truth, his 2011 debut LP.


Exclusive Interview: Mark Guiliana - 'Beat Music: Los Angeles Improvisations' + 'My Life Starts Now' Pt. I

The beginning of 2014  saw the release of Mehiliana: Taming The Dragon, the first album from Guiliana’s electric duo project with acclaimed pianist Brad Mehldau. While the release of an album with one of modern music’s most influential artists might be enough for most people, Guiliana also dropped two albums this past September under his new imprint, Beat Music Productions. The two records in question are Beat Music: Los Angeles Improvisations featuring Tim Lefebvre (bass), Jeff Babko (keys), and Troy Ziegler (electronics) and My Life Starts Now with Yuki Hirano (keys), Michael Severson (guitar), Stu Brooks (bass) as well as vocalists Gretchen Parlato, Jeff Taylor, and Meshell Ndegeocello on spoken word.

We recently caught up with Guiliana who was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss his influences, what it’s like to play with Brad Mehldau, and his new releases. Scroll down to read our chat. 

Revive: I know a few people who were fortunate to study with you and they’ve told me that what struck them the most was the way you play odd meters so effortlessly.

Mark Guiliana: The reason I’ve spent so much time odd meters is that I was in groups that played songs in odd meters. It’s difficult to practice them without context. I did a little bit of that when I was in college where I would say, “Let’s work on playing in seven today” and figure out different ways to dissect it. But it didn’t become natural until I was in musical situations that demanded me to be fluent in odd meters. The advantage of that was being able to think about music and not numbers.

I always had a context to what I was working towards so I was thinking about melody, the bassline, and the shape instead of obsessing over the numbers. It’s easy to get lost in the details.

My first big lesson in that was playing with Avishai Cohen – the bass player. I spent six years in his band and his method was really inspiring. Nothing was ever written down. I really value charts and they’re very important to me, but having them not written down was an advantage with Avishai. You don’t get a sheet of music that says 11/8 that would immediately freak you out. He would sit at the piano – he’s a great piano player – and we would be at a gig during sound check and he would say, “I have a new song” and would start playing. It ended up being a huge advantage because it never entered my brain in a theoretical way.

The way Avishai plays is very organic, so the last thing I would want to do is to inject numbers into that. I wanted to do my best to camouflage myself within the music. Of course I did have to go home and crunch some numbers and do some homework, but my intention was always to serve the song.


R: During an interview with Modern Drummer, you mentioned that the creation of your previous records came about by “improvising a great deal, but with specific parameters” with Tim Lefebvre and Jason Linder. Was this also the case for the Beat Music: The Los Angeles Improvisations?

MG: Yes.

R: Could you explain some of those parameters?

MG: Tim Lefebvre is one of my favorite musicians and I’m lucky to have been able to play with him a lot during these past several years. We have a lot of shared influences and I consider him a mentor. I would always pick his brain about what music he’s checking out and what I should check out – most of them were in the electronic world.

He was playing in some of my favorite groups in the city. He had a band with Zach Danzinger called Boomish and he was playing with Jojo Mayer’s group called Nerve in the late ’90s.

So I would always ask where he was getting his influences and he gave me a nice concise list of what were highlights for him. I really started to dig into that music big time. A lot of our shared influences were because of him showing me music. So we’re calling on those shared influences when we play. The parameters become somewhat unspoken because there’s a lot of common ground. The parameters are our shared influences.

The context of Beat Music: Los Angeles Improvisations has an electronic spin to it, but the whole point is that we can go anywhere at any moment. We’re just trying to use our intuition as to where the best place to go is. This record was purely improvised in the studio. The only direction I had was that I wanted to avoid playing a chord, we start hitting, then we stop. I wanted to exploit the different ensembles within the band. I wrote down on a piece of paper that everyone does a solo performance. Then I wrote down all the different duos within the group. We also did all the different trios and of course the quartet. I also made notes about making tracks that were devoid of rhythm. I knew that if I didn’t say that we would always be playing stuff in time and I wanted a few of those more ambient things.

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R: I know that Jojo Mayer was a huge influence on you, but could you talk about Zach Danziger’s influence on you as a drummer as well as a producer?

MG: Zach’s a huge influence on me and he’s one of my best friends and we hang out all the time. What drew me to him was his drumming. But after we became friends, I got a peek inside his work process. It’s incredible – he’s the hardest working guy I know and I know a lot of hard working guys. I look up to him in a many ways and he has such conviction in his music making process. Everything that comes through him as a drummer or a producer has his stamp on it but not in an abusive way. It’s always appropriate. I think he’s always at the cutting edge.

He and Jojo Mayer – for me – were the first guys that prove that you could emulate the electronic world. I loved that music so much, but I was having a difficult time connecting it to my acoustic drumset. Seeing those guys play gave me the confidence to take a road that is worthy of exploring.

R: You started playing with Brad Mehldau back 2008. Has playing with Mehldau influenced your own compositional voice?

MG: It definitely has, especially in an environment where it’s just the two of us on stage. I’ll make a confession on the record. When I was in school, I really got into the Brad Mehldau Trio and I would go hear him at the Vanguard with Jorge Rossy on drums and I loved it! I was obsessed with the music but I can’t say I got it. But who cares? I loved it!

Then Largo came out in 2001 and it was still Brad’s genius in a new context. The biggest thing for me was that what the rhythm section was playing– especially the drummers being Matt Chamberlain, Jim Keltner, and Jorge for a little bit – felt like backbeats.

So there was this really solid rhythmic foundation to hold on to as a listener and hearing Brad on top of that made me get it. As a listener, I was holding for dear life on Larry Grenadier while Jorge is having this beautiful conversation with Brad during the trio stuff. But in Largo, for example the first track, “When It Rains,” Matt Chamberlain is playing a slow backbeat. To hear Brad’s vocabulary, phrasing, and placement on top of this “simple” context really allowed me to appreciate how he plays and what he plays.

It’s sort of a similar thing with Mehliana where it’s more about beats. To see the way Brad’s brain is processing information in real time in a beautiful meditative state is amazing. It’s just 100 percent music at all times.

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R: I’ve always thought that Mehldau’s left hand alone can do more than two pianists combined. I’ve watched the video for “Hungry Ghost” countless times now and I’m still amazed at how he adds so many layers with two hands. What’s the experience like playing with him? Will you ever get to the point where hearing Mehldau play is normal for you?

MG: [Laughs] Never, never. I was a fan of his long before I met him and that will never go away. He’s had an influence on me before Mehliana. His commitment is impenetrable. It’s one thing to go see a concert and be like “Wow! That was great,” but being on stage with him every night for a month and to see his commitment every night of pure music is humbling. I feel very lucky to be able to make music with him.

The coordination thing with the two hands will never be normal. There are times, especially in the improvisation sections, where I’m removed from my state because I’m like, “How did that happen?” So there are moments that I have to investigate for myself.

The beautiful thing is that he does that when he plays solo piano! It’s the same thing but it’s all one timbre so it’s more disguised. All that detail and counterpoint is in there and the effect is magnified when you put those different limbs to different sounds.

R: How are you keeping track of all those different voices?

MG: The timbre is really guiding us in this case. The general rig is a Rhodes, a monophonic snyth that usually acts as a bass, and a polyphonic synth where he can play chords. Any one of these roles can change at any moment. The bass voice can be a solo voice when you put it up two octaves. But the Rhodes is a melodic and soloistic voice, the polyphonic keyboard is pads and sometimes accompaniment voice, and the monophonic voice is bass. But it’s about always reassessing what feels right with the main responsibility of what feels good. Brad’s sending so much my way so I try to do my best to send it back in a good way.

To purchase your copy of ‘Beat Music: Los Angeles Improvisations’  and ‘My Life Starts Now,’ click here and here. Stay tuned for Pt. II of our Exclusive Interview with Mark Guiliana.



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