She happens to be one of my all time favs!!!
Currently with The Belle Brigade, Agop artist Barbara Gruska is a drummer, singer, and songwriter who is inspired by life and authors like Paul Bowels and Henry Miller.
Los Angeles based multi-instrumentalist Barbara Gruska has spent 22 years behind the kit, but she is more than a drummer. Over the last few years, Gruska has worked with artists such as Fiona Apple, Elvis Costello, Jenny Lewis, and Ray Lamontagne. In addition to her impressive drum resume, Gruska is a songwriter and vocalist, currently channeling that energy alongside her brother Ethan in The Belle Brigade, where she writes, drums, and sings harmonies and lead. We got a chance to ask Barbara some questions about drumming, influences, and inspiration this summer.
A: How did you get into drumming?
BG: I was completely obsessed with Michael Jackson as a young child, around 4 years old. I had no inkling that I wanted to be a drummer then, but any time I heard Michael’s rhythm section I would become possessed by a funky fresh poltergeist and gyrate myself into euphoria. I’ve seen some home video footage of me dancing along with the Fly Girls from ‘In Living Color,’ and I remember thinking I was the best dancer the world had ever seen but in reality I looked like a spastic shuffling maniac. I thought I was great then because I felt the music so hard and it felt so deeply good to move to it. That connection to rhythm and music was what got me to start playing later on.
I started playing [drums] at 10 but I didn’t start practicing seriously until I was 17 or 18. From 10 to 17 I played along with Stevie Wonder, Sly, and Prince records in my garage daily, but couldn’t play a double stroke roll, or any rudiment for that matter, to save my life. My first year of college at 18 I started studying with Billy Hart, realized how much I wanted to learn and began practicing around six hours every day for the next five years until I went on the road.
A: What made you want to start playing in a band with your brother? What’s that like?
BG: Ethan and I started playing music together once he graduated high school and I was about 25. We had both been writing songs separately and for fun with no intention of doing anything, and then we started singing harmonies on each others new songs and it felt exciting and right. We went into a writing frenzy together and within a few months wrote nine out of the ten songs on our first album. It has been a fabulous experience.
A: How did you create your drumming style?
BG: The way I play drums is always changing and growing in tandem with my personal growth. All I’ve ever wanted is to be able to express myself clearly and to supply with confidence and sensitivity whatever I think the music needs. I don’t practice licks or specific fills because I hate the feeling of being trapped into playing the same thing over and over. I like music to be exciting and free within the bounds of structure, so I practice in ways that I believe help me to do that. I practice independence exercises by interpreting four limbed versions of exercises from books like Stick Control, Bass Drum control and Syncopation. I practice playing time in as many different feels and tempos as I can to a click and I like to play along with recordings that I think feel good. If I transcribe and learn a solo, I learn it not to regurgitate it but to try to pick up some vocabulary and dexterity with which to express my own ideas. My drumming idols, to name a few are- Vernel Fournier, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Roy Hanes, Papa Jo Jones, Bernard Purdie, Jim Keltner, Airto Moriera, Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcaro, Andy Newmark, Paul Motion, Clyde Stubblefield…
A: What inspires you to create?
BG: I like to read a lot and often my favorite writers can inspire me creatively. Right now I’m really into Paul Bowels and Henry Miller. But, mostly just going through the ups and downs of life, from the unbelievably painful and scary to the unbelievably beautiful and joyful, inspires me to sit down and play music or write. Playing drums has always been a surefire escape from pain, so that’s always a big ass inspiration to play!
A: What are some memorable gigs that you have played?
BG: Playing with Fiona Apple, Blake Mills and Sebastian Steinberg at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles was a fantastic experience. I’ve loved playing in big beautiful venues like Red Rocks or The Hollywood Bowl or The Beacon Theater, but I love playing small sweaty dingy rock clubs with a bunch of friends just as much.
A: What kind of gear do you like to use? How do you decide which gear you are going to use for which application?
BG: I love playing versatile, thin, warm and sensitive cymbals with a lot of unique character, so naturally I play on Agops all around. I play these cymbals for rock and jazz alike, the way that I hit them changes depending on the music, but the cymbals stay the same. I have 24”, 22” and 20” Agops in rotation as crash rides, a 24” 30th anniversary crash ride, 15” Agop [Signature] hats, and 14” Mel Lewis hats. I play C&C drums, a combination of DW 5000 and 6000 hardware, and Vic Firth 7A’s.
A: How do you prepare and practice for gigs?
BG: When I am home I try to practice around three hours a day and if I don’t have the time, at the very least I do an endurance warmup called The Stone Killer, developed by George Lawrence Stone, which takes about twenty minutes. Staying in shape is the best way for me to prepare for going into the studio.
Before touring or during tour breaks I like to practice and play in styles that are very different from whatever I’m about to play every night on the road. I make sure to improvise as much as possible and let the spirit loose because being on the road and playing the same songs every night, you don’t have much of a chance to play anything else. I mentally and physically prepare for touring by curbing my travel anxiety through walking and reading.
A: What are your favorite things to do when you are out on the road?
BG: WALK! I explore parks, gardens, museums and I’m constantly on the look out for fun gay bars and drag shows.
A: How does your identity influence the music you make?
BG: I don’t know if my identity influences the music I make, but I do know that my self image certainly does. If I’m hating on myself and thinking I’m a frivolous turd, I’m not going to play with any command or sensitivity or love. I’m not the kind of person to ever think, “Barbara! You’re the shit!” but I need to accept myself and believe that I’m a human being that is worthy of life on the planet Earth in order to play music, or do anything for that matter.
A: Do you have any advice for musicians?
BG: Drag the haters both inside and outside of your head into the trash icon, go to finder, scroll down to ‘empty trash’, press empty trash, hear the crackle, MOVE ON.
As RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the HELL are you gonna love anyone else? Can I get an Amen!”
Stay up to date with Barbara Gruska and The Belle Brigade at http://thebellebrigade.com.
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