Since first being introduced to the violin at the tender age of three, Brian Choper has been living a musical life. The musician/band manager/executive producer has drawn international acclaim as a percussionist, playing everything from Klezmer to the Blues. Currently, Brian is collaborating with bands such as Lemoyne Alexander, Maroon 5 and St8OfGrace but he took time out of his busy schedule to talk about his craft, from his early beginnings in a classical musical household to how the Internet has changed music.
When did you first get into music?
I am not sure way back then, at age 6 or 9, that I would use the words, “interested in music”. I cannot say that I knew I was “interested in music” when I started. I was not thinking like that. I was 6 or so, and mom and dad enrolled me in Suzuki, a method of learning violin. They were purely classical music people. I had no idea what I wanted. I tried it, did it for a while. I think I was more fascinated with the sound of that instrument and the art of finding just the right notes on it, and producing them in perfect key. Remember, there are no frets on a violin. This is the instrument that taught me perfect pitch. So, I liked it as a mechanical thing that allowed me to experiment. I also enjoyed playing basic songs on it, experimenting with pitch. Marry Had A Little Lamb. That was fun. As I think back, I don’t think I ever liked it as an instrument for its sound. But, I was far unable to articulate that at that age. I was fooling around. Experimenting.
So, if you were to ask me when I knew I wanted to be a drummer, then I can do a better job of answering you. I knew that after seeing one or two rock drummers live. I need to explain. My parents never had anything but classical and opera playing in the house (and today they still do not). And….I learned to love both. In fact, I respect highly, those players who are both polished and classically trained. But I also believe that if you are polished but yet cannot improvise on a melody, you have disregarded a huge aspect what music is about. I find that many classical artists cannot improvise. Not to learn this is a handicap in my opinion. A big mistake. Music is about the notes. It is also about interpretation of those notes, accompanied by precision. I love all of this, and that influence had me striving for the same qualities later as I was learning. I was not exposed to rock music unless I went to friend’s houses. So, I was 9 or so before I actually saw a live drummer on a stage. As soon as I saw that, I knew I wanted THAT. It was not about music itself at that point, but about what I could do with what I heard. It was about drumming.
Did you initially start as a drummer?
Nope. It was banjo for a week (or so it seemed). Then violin. Then the drums once I saw drummers play live. I loved the beat, and I was a natural at it. I never had to work at drumming. I mean, we all have to work, but I never had to struggle at it.
Interesting that today, when I hear an arrangement or even a new score, I can hear in my head all the instrument that should be involved and what they should be playing, even if they are not in the room. I can just hear this. But, my roots are centered around the percussion of it all. I go from the lead melody, to the percussion to auxiliary and backup melodies and the brass as I hear the orchestration, and this is how I arrange for writers.
Back to your question, once I knew I wanted to be a drummer, I had to convince my parents, and that was a task and a story unto itself. They were not happy. Obviously, I won that battle.
Why did you choose the drums as your instrument?
I just felt it. It caught my attention and hooked me at an age when you know interest yet not know why. I said “wow!”, I want that, not “OK this is what I want to do, and I want to play on all stages.” I had no idea about any of that. I just knew I loved what I saw, and could not stop thinking about it. I will say, the strategy used to convince my parents to allow it in the house, was actually a thought through strategic plan. I realized the problem, knew the challenge, anticipated the objections and reluctance, knew they would not be happy with this music in the house. I planned when to tell them, how to tell them and my arguments. All this was worked out, and it took me about three weeks to implement and work through.
How has that defined your musical perspective?
I am not sure I get the question. However, I guess like any musician, when I hear music, I reflect on my instrument, and therefore listen to the beat first. I believe, and not because I am a drummer, that the rhythm and vocals defines the song. It is the mood, the heartbeat that controls even what the singer does with it. The WRONG rhythm (or percussive sounds) will destroy a song, and there are MANY instance….I hear it all the time…where the drummer is playing the wrong thing. This is my FIRST clue that the drummer is either good or bad. The ability to know the right groove and the beat, instinctively. No matter how good you are as a technician, if you cannot interpret music well, you will never be a good drummer.
Ringo Starr is the perfect example of an artist who could feel out exactly what to do, even when the solution was unconventional. He was NEVER a soloist, never a technician. He was an accompanist who could feel exactly what to play and when, and execute it cleanly to enhance the band.
What style of music did you start playing?
Ragtime, classical, Klezmer. I also had a short-lived rock band made up of school mates. I was not necessarily looking. All these things just happened. I did not know what I wanted. I had not been exposed to enough to know that. These were the bands that first found me. They asked me to play for them. The weird thing about that was, most of the people I played with from these bands outside of school were 30 years older than me. So, I had friends who were really my mentors. I was bored playing with people my own age, and that rock band from school did not last long.
I am really happy as I look back, that I was in the ragtime band, etc. At the time, ragtime was not the cool thing to be doing. But, I did it anyway. It exposed me to this huge culture and music history, and this was SO important to me as I explored. I think I kind of knew that as I was doing it. You know, here I am this kid, playing with all of these “old people”. But, they all took me on. In fact, as I now remember, after I guess three or four years, when I eventually decided to leave, they tried hard to convince me to stay on. It actually took me many weeks to find a way to bail out gracefully and move on. I had gone as far as I could go, and did get bored with it. They wanted me there. That was an experience as well.
Who were some of your musical influences?
Buddy Rich obviously, even though I don’t think he was as musically creative as others. I know that may surprise some people to hear. An equally big influence was Louis Bellson, and what a nice guy he was. Louis Bellson was so nice and laid back, you could not tell when you were annoying him. Seriously. While Buddy was a technical genius, Louis was a creative genius. Every time you saw him play, every time he touched a drum, you picked up a new sound or idea. There is also Neil Peart (his earlier years with Rush were his best), and I really like Dave Weckl. Steve Gadd is my influence for playing with dynamics, interesting rhythms and purity.
How has your music changed over the years?
I went from really playing Swing and Rock, to playing Ragtime and Klezmer, to playing Jazz and Rock, all from the 80’s through now. Modern Jazz, Funk and Blues (if the Blues band is really tight) are my absolute favorites, but I like it all.
How do you define your current style?
I am a mixture of everything, with an emphasis on Jazz and Rock. I have the philosophy that if you are going to do anything well, play it like it’s all you’ve ever done. In other words, do it authentically. So, when I play the Blues, you cannot tell I’ve played Jazz, and when I play Rock, you’d never know I’d been in a Klezmer band. That’s what I go for.
You also have a management company and a record label how did that come about?
Those started in about 2003. I already managed several bands, and it was tricky marketing all of those brands. So, it became clear that I had to create a shell that would manage all of these projects. That was the beginning of WEC, or Washington’s Entertainment Connection. Through the company, I managed all of these bands in addition to the ones I owned. It was much easier. Thunder Records is my label. Through TR, I can manage and coach and nurture the bands and the artists within them, showing them what they need to do to make things work. I did not want to use an outside label for this, as I had not found one that knew how to manage and mentor their artists. Rather, those other labels simple signed those band that fit the look and sound they thought they could sell, then dumped them once their popularity diminished. WEC looks for new and original talent, then mentors them, nurtures them and helps them grow.
Who are some of the acts your working with?
We (WEC and I) represent St8OfGrace, a fun, original, very serious family oriented rock band. I perform as a guest with many national acts, including bands that perform for the USO (a lot of fun and very rewarding), and focus on Thunder & Lightning, WEC’s house original rock band. This band performs classics as well as originals and features a full vocal front line as well as a complete rhythm section with horns. It is a great band and project. We have a wonderful writer who originates tunes, then he comes to me to arrange them. I cannot write, but am a good arranger. So, the writing process for this band is a collaborative between this one guy who never thought he’s see his works get performed, and myself.
It was interesting, because when he first came to us, he was asking if we would be interested in hearing any of his music. After talking with him and reviewing his work, I realized that this was not just a really nice guy, but a person talented and passionate about what he was doing, yet he had no idea what to do with any of the charts he had written. I took him under my wing and showed him just how good his work was. But I went one step further. I showed him how I would help him arrange each tune to make them even better. He saw what I was doing and liked it. I then offered to introduce these compositions to T&L, and he agreed. The band loved them, and now we are writing our own music.
Basically, it’s a story about how the benefits of working with WEC and Thunder Records went full-circle. I needed the agency to handle the management of all the bands I worked with. But with the agency and the record label attached under one umbrella, I was not only able to manage the artists and help this writer, I was actually able to mentor and merge them together as a collaborative, to help them grow together, this time directly finding an outlet for great original music.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry
A lack of understanding on how to find, nurture and market new talent. Outside of WEC, it seems to be becoming a lost art. In fact, agencies and labels are so out of touch or lost about what to do, they fear signing any unknown talent or talent offering new sounds or new music. In other words, they only go for what they know is safe, even if it’s the same old sound everyone’s heard before.
WEC looks for original talent, and although it can be a risky thing, that’s part of what we try to mentor, coach and show the world.
What do you feel the secrets to success are in the online age?
Web presence, social media and the advertising of your URL’s. Include lots of the best audio and video of your act you can get your hands on. Don’t present poor samples. Here are a few tips. Obviously, you need to have a beautiful website presentation and make sure you are found on the search engines. Your SEO must also be in place. Next, you need to develop a strong social media campaign to get the word out. You must make sure your music CANNOT be downloaded easily (otherwise everyone will download it and you will never see a return), and unless you feel ok with giving it away to those who know how to steal it, never place entire tracks online. Get involved with email blast programs and use them. Finally, merge your online campaigns with your performances. Advertise your websites at all shows, and make sure people friend you on Facebook and social media.
Brian Choper can be found at http://www.brianchoper.com/.