Australian Musicians (feat. Ben Vanderwal)

I first met Ben during my time studying at the Queensland Conservatorium. I was instantly impressed with his knowledge, skills and easy going personality. Having spent some time with Ben in both private lessons, watching him perform and take workshops, it was clear to me he’d done his homework and has an incredible amount of experience to share. Fortunately for all of us, he’s a humble musician willing to share his thoughts with anyone interested.

Can you please clearly outline all your current musical projects and professions which make up your life as a professional musician?

I play the drums for a bunch of things: My Name is Nobody, Riffz2000, The Grid, Tim Minchin, a duo with Rai Thistletwayte (Sun Rai), James Muller, Jamie Oehlers, 24 hours in LAPA, Aquila and Howie Morgan. I have made albums recently with James Muller and Wil Vinson, My Name is Nobody, Hank Marvin, Matilda Abrahams, MOE, and the Australian Jazz Orchestra and soon Vince Jones.

I’m a sessional lecturer at WAAPA, and I play some hand drums for contemporary dance classes there too.

How do manage your time to make room for each of these commitments whilst keeping yourself financially independent and living a relatively balanced life?

It’s a juggling act but it somehow seems to work out. I’m not sure if I’d describe it as a “balanced life” though, ha.

Of all your skills (performing, teaching, recording etc) can you specify the order in which each of these skills pays relevance to your income? For example, does performing make up most of your income etc..

Performing is probably the bulk of it.

Do you have a method or personalised criteria to help decide whether to take on a new project or opportunity?

If it’s an earnest, well conceived project I’m generally pretty into it.

What are your thoughts on the Australian jazz music scene and in particular, Perth’s? For example, how has it change throughout your career and where do you see its future heading?

Perth is a small place with a larger, better music scene than one would imagine. It was a great place for me to grow up because I had a strong community of musician mates who all played a lot together and hung a bunch too.

More recently, the advent of a dedicated Jazz club (The Ellington) has really changed the scene here for the better. The music has a real platform now and the audiences are quite receptive.

Australia, in general, seems like it’s in a good place for Jazz, there are a bunch of clubs around like 505, Foundry in Sydney, Bird’s Basement, Jazz Lab, Uptown in Melbourne and Doo Bop and the Brisbane Jazz club and some great International Jazz festivals in Melbourne, Perth, Wangaratta and now the Sydney Con festival.

I guess I’m fortunate in that I get to play with people from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane regularly as well as my Perth cohorts.

Have you ever considered relocating abroad for opportunities outside of Australia?

I bummed around in New York for about a year and a half which was an amazing and life-changing experience. Being around that level of musicianship and commitment to the art form was an awakening.

What’s the most valuable career investment you’ve made to get to where you are now?

I think getting serious and starting to practice properly in my mid 20’s or so.

Is there anything you wish you did differently that in hindsight you feel would’ve positioned you better?

Practiced and played more music before then.

Have you integrated technology into your playing since its rise in popularity in both improvised and arranged music?

I run Ableton loops on some shows. With Riffz2000 I’m running vocal samples and manipulating them as we play. When I made the “My Name is Nobody” album I made a lot of ambient sounds/underpins that were used on the tracks and now we use them and cue them with Ableton on the shows.

On the 24 hours in LAPA show we play to some serious brazilian percussion loops through Ableton which sound epic.

I also run the acoustic drums through some analog delay and filters on the shows with Rai (basically just pretending to be King Tubby)

Has the rise of modern technology directly affected your career path? For example, have you consciously selected any employment or further study to help sustain your future given how rapidly the world is seemingly changing?

The rise and accessibility of technology helped my practicing. From buying a QY-20 in 1998 to having a lap top, suddenly you could program long forms and other ideas with ease, and practice along to them.

Do you spend time composing your own music? If so, can you explain what your interest in composing is and how you go about sharing your music?

Yes, I write songs when the inspiration takes me. They often start from a phone voice memo, a small kernel of an idea and then I refine and elaborate on that in the notation program Sibelius.

It’s great to have a specific ensemble to write for and that can really inspire to down certain directions. I’ve written pieces for The Grid and for My Name is Nobody. It’s also fun to show up to jam session with a new song to try with your mates, you can hear it come alive in ways you did and even better, didn’t plan.

How have your interests in music changed over your career? For example, has practicing become less of a priority and performing original music is more of a focal point? Maybe you’re less interested in music given it has been a lifelong commitment for you?

I’m definitely trying to play more and workshop ideas with other musicians rather than playing by myself in the practice room. It seems like there’s more to be gained there.

Are you currently getting lessons from any other musicians? Or plan to?

I have a couple of friends I occasionally harass about playing Pandeiro (brazilian hand drum). It’d be great to take some guitar lessons at some point. I’d like to at least double my chord knowledge (taking it to a total of 6). I’d like to study with the Sydney percussionist Giorgio Rojas a bit too.

If you could simply create more time for yourself, how would you use it? For example, would you invest in more music related skills or study, or spend more time at home etc..

Of course I would hang out with my family a bunch, do things like go on bush walks and race drones (all the things you never get time to do) then with the remaining time I would play more music, record more music, try out ideas with my musician mates.

Regarding the digital world, how much time and energy do you invest in social media/online presence vs face to face meetings, networking and branding etc

Not a lot and probably not enough.

Did you ever have an 8 hour a day practice schedule before working full time?

I tried, and I loved the notion of it but about 4 hours is my attention span limit.

If you have a set (for me timetabled) agenda and you work on the same things over time, results will come. Unfortunately, I found it took a long time. It would take literally years for some ideas I was practicing to seep in and became a useable/malleable part of my drumming vocabulary.

Do you/did you spend much time transcribing other musicians?

Yeah, I still have a playlist of tracks I like that I listen to regularly and nab ideas from.

If you could only practice three things what would they be?

Legitimate technique

Time

Some rhythmic ideas I have

Where would you like to be in 5 years?

Still playing, performing, writing and recording

If you could pivot to another occupation, what would it be?

Parking inspector – I’d like to work on my conflict skills

What would you say to up and coming musicians who wish to have a sustained and fulfilling career as a full time musician?

Hmmm… practice properly, focus on one thing for a long time. Play original music with other musicians as soon as you can and as often as you can. Invest in projects.

Have you ever wished you weren’t a musician or felt stuck?

Yeah, like everything there are times when you question your path. Something always pulls me back to reality though and I say “What was I thinking” and get on with it.

Do you have any other hobbies or interests outside of music?

No, I am completely one dimensional

If you could study with any musician who would it be?

Changuito

Roy Haynes

Pedro Martinez

Karaikudi Mani

Any other comments or insights you wish to share?

I found recording and listening to myself helps a lot. The thing is, you know how you want to sound and you are your best editor/producer. Have a listen, fix the bits you hate, enjoy the bits you like and refine the parts that have potential.

 

 

 

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