By Michael Aubrecht
I first became aware of Jason Hartless after watching a video of him participating at a Ronnie Montrose tribute concert. His high intensity performance of “Free Ride” caught my attention and his infectious energy was impossible to miss. A little research led me to a series of online videos capturing his day job as a member of Ted Nugent’s rhythm section. The first thing I noticed was the balance that Hartless had between pocket playing and chops. It is obvious that the Nugent gig calls for both. “The Motor City Madman” as some call him enhances his classic songs with long guitar solos. This requires his backing band to constantly adjust to wherever their fearless leader goes. It is essential that the drummer sync with the singer in order to propel the rest of the band. Hartless excels at this. More than a drummer he has an impressive resume of side projects including studying Music Business at Berklee College of Music, acting as a managing partner of a record label and instructing students as a music teacher. Despite his busy schedule Hartless took some time out to discuss his drumming and much more.
MA: Let’s start with the obvious; what brought you to the drums?
JH: My dad had been a professional musician in Detroit for many years. About the time I was born he had just given up on his dream. He stopped playing music professionally so his drums were always sitting around the house. I have photos and videos of me when I could barely walk crawling downstairs and sitting behind his drum set and banging away. For some reason it must have felt very natural to me. I took up the drums at a very young age and even back then I had a passion and love for the instrument. By the time I was around five years-old my dad started pairing me up with some of his old buddies and we started playing around town. So at five I was already playing gigs with an all adult band. It helped that my parents understood the business and they didn’t want to push me to the point where I didn’t want to play anymore. They never once told me to practice. They never once told me that I had to work on this or that. They wanted me to enjoy the drums and naturally progress. They wanted me to do things out of love for the instrument. Forcing your child to play music is a mistake. I see so many prodigy musicians that have parents like that and it’s a real shame because some end up developing a hatred for music. Instead of fun it becomes a rigorous task.
MA: Even at an early age did you have any influences?
JH: One of my earliest memories as a drummer is watching this VHS tape that was a collection of Top of the Pop performances from the 1970’s Glam Rock era. It featured artists like T-Rex, The Sweet, Gary Glitter and Slade. Those guys were my earliest influences. That was when I began to realize what music was. I eventually got into KISS and Alice Cooper. Of all the drummers Corky Laing from Mountain was the guy for me. He had a huge influence on my playing. Little did I know how much of an influence. My dad had some connections in the industry. He was very dear friends with Richie Scarlet who plays guitar in Ace Frehley’s band. He is actually now my godfather. Richie played bass with Mountain in the 1990’s and into the 2000’s. My band did some covers of Mountain tunes and my dad sent a video of us playing Nantucket Sleighride to Corky Laing. Soon after, my dad got a call from Corky who offered to mentor me. He also offered to work on a little solo record with me. From the time I was around seven to about ten years-old he would drive to Detroit from Toronto a couple weekends here and there and we would work on my record. In addition to drumming he also taught me about surviving the studio and the music industry. He showed me a lot of fundamental drumming skills that had an impact on the way I play today.
MA: Did your schools have music programs?
JH: Yeah. I was very fortunate that I went to a public school that was in Fraser, Michigan which is a little four square mile town outside of Detroit. Despite its size Fraser has been recognized by the NAMM Association as having one of the top music departments in the country. I was incredibly lucky to have grown up there. I had a very deep public school education when it came to music. I was in jazz band, concert band, symphony band, marching band, drum line, percussion ensemble and I also played drums for the show choir from time to time. When they were performing in competitions around the country they would take me along. I was mostly self-taught although I had casually studied with various guys like Corky Laing and Tommy Clufetos who plays with Black Sabbath and also drummed with Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent. (Small world). He’s a Detroit boy as well so I studied with him for a little bit.
I had never had formal private one-on-one lessons until about Middle School and High School. I started seriously studying with a guy named George Dunn. He was a strict jazz player who was regimented. He is one of the most well-known instructors in town and he “super-whipped” my ass into shape. He taught me about reading music and playing all of these different styles. He taught me self-discipline. There is a big difference between being a rock drummer and playing in a symphony where you count two-hundred measures before hitting a triangle. My knowledge and maturity in regards to drumming came along the more I studied. I wouldn’t have the skills I have today without any of those teachers. Music was valued where I was from.
MA: Tell us about your first “real” drum set.
JH: The drum set that I learned how to play on was my dad’s late-80’s Pearl World Series kit. I pretty much played on that kit from the time I started until I was about five years-old. My first personal drum set I got the Christmas of 2000 and it was a Pearl Export kit. I used that kit for years, in fact I used it up until I got endorsed by Pearl in 2005. I guess it was meant to be. It’s really cool because a couple years ago I did a video for Pearl when they were doing an ad campaign for their “My First Drum set” website. I used that Export kit in the video and it was neat for things to go full circle. There were so many videos of me playing my dad’s Pearl kit from the time I was a year-old with a huge Pearl banner in the background. It’s good for their marketing to show that I’m a drummer that has played their product his entire life. Years later I’m a drum hoarder and I have every single Pearl drum I’ve ever had. I also collect vintage ones. It’s a blessing and a curse. I’ve got this great collection but my basement looks like a Guitar Center.
MA: Let’s fast forward to your current gig with the “Motor City Madman.” How did you get the Ted Nugent gig? It sounds like Ted stays true to his Detroit roots.
JH: I was touring with a band called Pistol Day Parade that had a lot of success nationally. They were on the radio and had two songs in the Top 40, with one being in the Top 20. We toured with Ted Nugent in 2014 for about three months while opening for him. That helped introduce me to Ted’s management and crew members. Last winter I was shopping around for a gig and I emailed a couple people in the industry just saying “Hey I’m looking for something in the summer. Please keep me in mind.” One of the people I emailed was Ted’s manager. A short time later I got an email from him and he asked if I could play the Ted Nugent set. I said yeah! He responded right back and said that Ted was going to call me in a few days. Next thing I got a call from Ted and we talked for about 45 minutes. We discussed Detroit music and where my style comes from. He wanted a drummer that had a little bit of a snap, someone who could move the beat forward very similar to Cliff Davies who played on all of the iconic Nugent records from the 1970’s. He was a jazz-influenced drummer that played rock. There was almost a swing to his style. Since I’ve played with him we toured all summer of last year and we will be back out this coming year. It’s been a phenomenal experience playing with him.
MA: It’s obvious that is a very intense gig. How does backing someone like Ted Nugent vary from other acts you’ve played with?
JH: Fifty-five shows in sixty-five days (laughs). Last tour we played eighteen shows in nineteen days. That was an incredible experience. Ted is 68 years-old and he is in amazing shape. Myself and the whole crew have a hard time just keeping up with him. He brings over 100% every night. It’s a challenge because he goes nonstop the whole show. The biggest thing is always being on your toes and watching the guy the whole time because you never know what he is going to do live.
MA: Did you have to chart Ted’s music or did you pick it up from listening to it?
JH: I didn’t really have to chart it. There was one song that I was going to chart but we ended up not playing it so it all worked out. His music is a groove style. I wanted to concentrate on finding that pocket and all of the intricate things that went along with it. When I play it I am playing my interpretation of it. It’s all about taking the groove that he wants and adding my flavor and fills to everything. Of course there are iconic parts that have to be there but we do have some freedom to play around with the rest. That was something I was a little unsure about when I first started. I had heard a lot of stories from past musicians that he was demanding on his players. I guess I got lucky because everything I’ve done he’s been pretty happy with.
MA: Of all of these shows do you have a favorite that sticks out in your mind?
JH: One of my favorites that we played on this past tour was in Detroit at a venue called Freedom Hill. It is an amphitheater that is about seven or eight-thousand seats and is literally a mile from my house. It was very cool that I got to perform in my own back yard.
MA: Ted has had such a long career that spans decades. I would imagine that the audience is a mix of faithful fans that have been following him for years as well as young fans that are just discovering him now. Do you see him bridging that gap?
JH: It’s kinda funny because The Amboy Dukes’ records, which are from Ted’s first band, have a cult following here in Detroit. Some of the more psychedelic ones have become popular albums in the used record stores and the hipster crowd and the millennials, which is my generation, really connect to it. Some of his classic stuff like Stranglehold, Free for All and Cat Scratch Fever are timeless classics that you’ll always hear on TV shows and films. Outside of his music he has an audience of hunting fans that are drawn to him as an outdoorsman. It’s really neat to see young kids with their parents in the audience. I certainly didn’t expect that when I first started playing with him.
MA: Do you guys play the same set night after night or does Ted switch it up often?
JH: We have our base set of songs but things change a lot. We add or remove songs at almost every show. It keeps things from getting repetitive for all of us. We started the tour learning about twenty songs and we pull maybe ten or eleven out of that night after night.
MA: You mentioned that Ted allows you room for interpretation while maintaining the classic parts. Have you talked to any of Ted’s past drummers for their perspectives?
JH: I knew Mick Brown who was my predecessor. He drummed for Ted for about ten years or so. Of course I studied with Tommy Clufetos so I knew a couple guys. I didn’t discuss their styles because I wanted to bring something new to the table myself. I wanted to go back to the Cliff Davie’s mentality. He’s had a ton of drummers over his career so everyone that plays for Ted is going to interpret his songs a little differently. There’s always the small little things that must remain the same. For instance, in Stranglehold, the hi-hat has no accents at all. It’s so “drum machine” and staccato-like. That’s what makes the song almost trance-like. I think I’m one of the first drummers in a long time to go back to the original part. It’s super hard to play because you are sitting there for nine minutes trying to keep things exactly the same. It feels incredibly stiff when you are playing that beat. It brings a whole different character to that song. Nobody plays that song like Ted. His right hand is amazing and I’ve never seen anyone play the guitar like he does. He will definitely go down as one of the greatest of all time.
MA: I assume that you have to play with some great intensity. How do you manage the energy to do that night after night?
JH: It’s definitely a workout. I have to train myself. I naturally hit very hard from the wrist. I’m not a drummer who is going to over extend and bash the drums. I think you can lose the sound quality of the drums and it doesn’t look good. I’m not a big fan of showmanship drumming. With Ted I have to play with a little more flashiness because the gig calls for that. I have to do pushups every day and get my upper body strength ready for the job.
MA: You play matched grip right?
JH: I actually play both depending on the situation. Usually when I’m teaching, playing jazz sessions or recording I play traditional. For Ted I use matched because it fits the part.
MA: Do you have a preference?
JH: I guess it’s really a matter of what situation I’m in. For more chops-oriented stuff I play traditional because I feel that it is an easier flow around the drum kit, especially when I play jazz or any kind of sensitive music. Power-wise and getting more wrist action calls for matched grip. I played matched most of my life. I only got into traditional for school bands and marching band. Sitting there doing all those rudiments got my grip in shape. Our drumline instructor was also my private teacher so I ended up using traditional more with him. He used to destroy us. We would sit there for twenty minutes doing double stroke rolls and triplets. Our hands would hurt but it really built up my strength that I took to the drum set.
MA: Can you tell us about the current touring rig that you are using?
JH: Two years ago I did a video for Pearl down at their Nashville headquarters for the wood-fiberglass kit. I’ve always been a huge vintage Pearl drums guy, especially the 1960’s and 1970’s. When they re-issued the wood-fiberglass kits I was super excited and I had to get one. The one I am using for Ted is actually a custom one. It’s the only wrapped wood-fiberglass in existence. All of the others are lacquered finished. It’s worked out great and these drums sound amazing. It’s a Kapur shell with a fiber-glass inlay. I actually ordered the kit before I was with Ted so the sizes aren’t ideal for the gig but they sound so good I went with them. My drum tech Randy Walker tunes them perfectly.
There’s a 24×14 bass drum, 12×8 rack tom, 14×14 floor tom and a 16×16 floor tom. I switch up snares pretty frequently on each tour, but on the last tour I had with us a 14×5 Pearl Chad Smith Signature Snare and 14×6.5 Pearl Hybrid Exotic Kapur/Fiberglass snare. I also used a snare that my friend James Beier custom built for me, a 14×5.5 Beier Steel Snare. I’ve pretty much used Sabian cymbals for my whole life. I love them. I’m mainly using HHXs with a Paragon Ride and China. My setup for the last tour was: 14” HHX Stage Hats, 18” HHX X-Plosion Crash, 20” HHX X-Plosion Crash, 22” Paragon Ride, 19” Paragon China. My sticks are usually Signature Vater 5As but when we started the Nugent tour I was breaking sticks like there was no tomorrow. So I ended up switching to the Vater Josh Freese H-220 sticks which are the same length as a 5A but slightly thicker. I’ve always been a big proponent of only using what you want to use. I’m not a fan of players switching companies for free gear. I’ve played everything I play for all or most of my life.
MA: I notice that you play live behind a drum shield. That’s not common. Why the shield?
JH: It’s mainly for Ted. I never played behind one until that tour. The bass player and myself use in-ears so we don’t have any monitors on stage. In fact the only monitors on stage are for Ted and the only thing that comes out of them are guitar and vocals. Over the years Ted’s got some hearing loss and the cymbal frequencies mess with his ears. There are also venues which are much smaller and Ted will be right on top of the drums. It cuts the stage volume plus it gives our house guy Frank a much better mixing situation no matter what venue we play. We gate the drums but the sound quality is insane. Frank is a master of pushing the drums into the empty spots and it fills the room. You can literarily hear everything in the mix.
MA: You do sessions too. Can you tell us a little about that?
JH: I do most of my work out of a studio here in town called Pearl Sound Studios, which have recorded artists such as Stevie Wonder, Madonna, George Clinton, Ted Nugent (Fred Bear was recorded here), Robert Planet and Jimmy Page. I do a lot of sessions over the course of a year. Last year I did around ten records and a handful of singles for various people. I’ve done remote sessions for artists across the world. It’s fun for me. I actually love studio work, even somewhat more than playing live because every song is different. I get to stretch out more in the studio. You can record something until it is perfect and you have that recording forever. In a live situation there is no re-take.
MA: I understand you are also a teacher at the local School of Rock.
JH: Yes, I teach there when I am not on the road. That is a joy for me. It’s all about sharing your experiences and knowledge with the kids. I get to influence them just like I was influenced by my teachers. It’s inspirational for both of us.
MA: You mentioned collecting vintage Pearl drums. Tell us about your collection.
JH: It’s been a passion for me for a long time. I’ve always been fascinated with vintage drums. When I got a little bit older I bought a 1967 gold-sparkle Pearl rack tom. I think I paid twenty bucks for it. And that led to me buying more and more. I searched for years and years for a particular drum set from the 1970’s. My dad’s first drum set was a 1975 Pearl white Leatherette drum set. It was wrapped in white leather and incredibly rare. I searched on eBay and blogs and everywhere. The only other person that had one was a former A&R rep for Pearl Canada. I finally came across one and I ended up only paying one hundred and eighty dollars because the person who I bought it from had no idea what he had. His loss was my gain (laughs). I restored it and now I have one of the rarest Pearl drum sets in the world. That started the disease. Now I’ve got the late 1980’s kit that was my dad’s. I’ve also got a rare 1975 Pearl Crystal Beat Kit which is the acrylic drums. I just acquired a 1978 Pearl maple drum set in a white marine pearl finish similar to the one I use today on the Nugent tour. It’s a rare Be-Bop kit. Every time I get a new drum set or snare the Pearl guys say “How the hell did you find that!” I always seem to get lucky and I swoop in and get them at ridiculous prices.
MA: Before we finish I have to ask you the most important question of all. I noticed that you are a big time hockey fan. Who’s your team?
JH: Obviously being from Detroit the Red Wings are my team but I also have affection for the Toronto Maple Leafs. In fact, I think the Leafs will win the Stanley Cup in about five years or so. My company (Record Label) has a suite at Joe Louis Arena so I get to go to a lot of games. It’s like my second home. I will be very sad to see the old place go. I am a true hockey nut. My Twitter feed has nothing but hockey news. I rarely follow anything else. Whenever I’m not concentrating on music I’m all about hockey. My favorite all-time player is Sergei Fedorov. He was one of the best to ever to play the game…
(Editor’s note: Jason went on to unleash his incredible knowledge of the game that would have eclipsed this entire interview. He is an encyclopedia of hockey.)
MA: Any parting thoughts?
JH: Music has always been a part of me. Drums have given me a great life and I am never satisfied. I continue to push myself. I’m always working toward improving as a drummer and as a person.
Visit Jason online at http://www.jasonhartless.com.