BWW Interview: Greg Kanaga - A Drummer For All Times
With drumming chops more lethal than most drummers one-third of his age, Greg Kanaga holds court with his bandmates Matthew Loren Cohen and Larry Treadwell making kick-ass music for The Groundlings Friday/Saturday night shows (Next Friday/Saturday night show GROUNDLINGS MIX TAPE opens November 2, 2018). It was only a matter of time before I caught up with Greg to pick his musical brain, as I had already interviewed Matthew (interview linked here) and Larry (linked here) earlier.
Thank you, Greg, for doing this interview.
How long have you been playing with The Groundlings?
On and off for 35 years. I took a extended break to pursue a career as an airline pilot. I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area studying screenwriting when the former Groundlings music director and long-time friend Willy Etra called and asked if I'd be interested in coming back for a third tour. That was 2016.
What fortuitous serendipity brought you and The Groundlings together?
I moved to L.A. back in the early eighties to study with one of my idols, Terry Bozzio. At that , my former wife and I were friends with Kathy Griffin. When Kathy joined the Sunday Company she asked if I would play drums for the show. Back then, the theater could only afford a pianist for Sunday, so the cast all kicked in to pay me. When the drummer for the main show quit to tour with Bruce Hornsby, I auditioned for music director Ray Colcord and somehow managed to get the job.
In my previous interviews with your fellow Groundlings bandmates, I asked what was their favorite song you play during your Friday/Saturday shows' set changes. Matt's was Earth, Wind & Fire's "Fantasy." Larry picked "Buenos Aires" from EVITA. What's yours?
Really? I'm flattered because I'm the one who brought those two songs up for consideration. I'm going to cheat because there's two. We're currently doing the Halloween show, so it's the theme from the film Halloween, because it's in an odd-time signature. The other is "Happy Phantom" by Fiona Apple.
So where did you learn to play such mean, kick-ass drums?
My kick ass days are behind me. In fact, when I returned to the show I found that that something weird had developed between my brain and my muscle memory. I lost confidence and was making some really embarrassing mistakes. I'm still nowhere near the player I was, but at least now I can keep time.
Back to your question, I had several great drum teachers. But John Prosser and Jim Chanteloup had the biggest impact on me. Jim is a consummate musician and introduced me to jazz, latin and classical music; and was able to teach me how to read drum charts, even though I suffer from dyslexia. Both their DNA are deeply imbedded in my playing.
How old were you when you first picked up a pair of drumsticks?
My father brought home a wood block of all things for my first instrument. But I think I was around seven or eight when I got a drum set for Christmas, an old used Slingerland kit that's would be worth a fortune these days. I didn't start taking drumming seriously until I was seventeen.
Were drums also your instrument of choice? Or did you experiment with other instruments first?
I used to sit at the neighbor's piano and try to will my fingers to create music, but unfortunately, I wasn't a savant and my parents had no money for a piano back then.
Who was the drummer that you idolized in your early years?
It depends. How early are we're talking? My earliest memory with drumming is sitting on the curb watching a marching band at a local parade. The drum line blew me away. The sound was exciting and a little scary. I was hooked from that moment. Ironically, I never got to play in a marching band. Of course, like most kids in the 60s, Ringo was the drummer we wanted to be. In my late teens, I, as I mentioned earlier, I was introduced to legends like Tony Williams and Billy Cobham.
So tell me a little about all the various groups you've been in over the years (i.e.; The Megatones, Etra Glasser Group)?
Wow, you've done your homework! The common thread with those groups is Willy Etra. We met backing a singer in the 80s, and have continued to work together on projects ever since.
What was the important piece of advice or instruction you received in your formative years that you still adhere to, to this very day?
Don't do heroin.
What sage advice would you pass onto a budding drummer?
The competition is brutal out there. If you're serious, it's going to require passion for the vocation and self-discipline. There's a ton of stuff available online. Attend a college with a respected music department and immerse yourself with better players than you. Learn to read and learn to play piano. Find the best teachers to help you develop a large musical vocabulary, so you can get paid playing any styles of music required.
Can you name a couple of Groundlings that you predicted would make it big?
I can't say I predicted his success, but Phil Hartman was someone I always couldn't wait to see what he was going to do when he came on stage. He was pure joy.
Any projects in the near future for Greg Kanaga that you can share?
I co-wrote a short filmed in Australia that will hopefully be hitting the festival circuit next year.
Thanks again, Greg! I look forward to hearing your bad-ass drumming at the next Groundlings show!
The next Friday/Saturday show GROUNDLINGS MIX TAPE goes from November 2 to November 17, 2018. GROUNDLINGS HOLIDAY SHOW runs from November 30 to December 22, 2018. For ticket availability and show schedule for these and other Groundling laughfests, log onto www.groundlings.com