Shane Gaalaas Talks Drums, B’z and Tour Life In Japan
This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)
Shane Gaalaas sits down with Trend & Chaos to discuss his musical upbringing, his long time affiliation as the drummer for the Japanese superstars B’z and the exciting new projects he is working on now.
Dennis Martin: Thanks for taking the time for an interview with me for Trend & Chaos. I’m glad that you could be a part of our launch!
So you and I have something unique in common; we both have been recording and touring with Japanese artists for about 20 years. It’s great to get a chance to sit down and hear about your experiences and perspectives working in Japan. You are originally from Canada right?
Shane Gaalaas: Yes, I grew up in a small town called Innisfail. Where the foothills meet the Rockies in Central Alberta, Canada
Dennis: You and I met through another Canadian rocker – Pete Thorn. You guys grew up pretty close to each other but hadn’t actually met until we all met one night for Mexican food in Roppongi. Pretty crazy!
Shane: Yes, Oddly enough, it was in Tokyo where we first met. We have so many mutual friends. Roughly the same age and even lived in the same Canadian city.
Dennis: So let’s start at the beginning – Why Drums? How did you first get started on your path as a drummer?
Shane: Growing up in my household I was always surrounded by music. My Mom was always playing and singing songs. I remember the day she taught me how the drums worked. We had one those big old stereo consoles, complete with an 8-track cassette and a turntable in our front room. We also had a Jukebox in the basement. Mom was always playing Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Elvis/etc. I remember clearly my first drum lesson, where she taught me all the main voices of the drum kit from the song ‘Great Balls of Fire’ by Jerry Lee Lewis.
She showed me the 8th note pattern on the hi-hat, the 2 & 4 snare and the 1 & 3 on the bass drum. It’s the same groove I play every day. Haha! I think I was 6 or 7 years old. We had a piano in the basement of our house, my Dad was way into Honky-Tonk piano and Strauss waltzes. My first ear-training came from tinkering around on that old upright. They even put me in piano lessons for a bit but I just didn’t have the aptitude for it, I think I just wanted to rock. Shortly after my Mom explained to me how the voices on the drum kit worked.
My cousin played me ‘100,000 Years’ by KISS, I remember how “in awe” I was of the whole thing. The music, the spectacle, the blood and fire, I immediately became a KISS freak. My friends got into the band at the same time so we started our own KISS band miming along to Kiss Alive 1. Our Mom’s sewed together costumes for us, we did our own makeup. We would have our own concert’s in my friend’s basement where we’d sell tickets…. Man, we were entrepreneurs…haha! We set up a table for the drum riser, I’d bash on ice cream pails, homemade guitars, spitting blood and breathing fire… the whole deal!
Dennis: Was there a turning point where you said to yourself – “This is what I want to do with my life”?
Shane: Kiss was playing in Edmonton on their ‘Love Gun’ tour. I begged my parents to take me to the show, I was 9. They bought tickets to the show, 18th row, center-stage. That day was the most important day for me in my musical life. It was during that concert, I decided and knew what I would do for the rest of my life. I felt it in my DNA, I was going to be a professional drummer, period! From the minute the show finished, I was in relentless pursuit of a drum set.
I begged my parents to get me one. Initially, they had their reservations, worrying that it would be a passing fad and it would end up in the corner collecting dust. But I was possessed, I wouldn’t quit. I literally remember being on my hands and knees begging my Mom to get me a kit. So lo and behold, on my 10th birthday, they took me down into the basement, where before my eyes, sat my very own, silver 5 piece ‘Maxwin’ drum set. I put on ‘Deuce’ by KISS, sat down on the kit and started to play it. I already knew it in my head. I remember hitting the cheap 10″ crash perched on the rickety stand so hard, I knocked it over.
Dennis: Was working with Yngwie Malmsteen your first pro gig? How does a young musician land a gig like that? It’s pretty incredible!
Shane: I basically got the gig from a recommendation by Deen Castronovo after he was judging a Guitar Center “Drum-Off” competition
Dennis Martin: What was that experience like?
Shane: The whole Yngwie experience was life-changing. I learned so much during that period as it was my first real taste of touring on an International level. I recorded the ‘Magnum Opus’ record with famed producer Chris Tsangarides at Criteria Studio in Miami. We toured almost non stop for 2.5 years. I played nearly every city in the US, Europe, and 14 cities in Japan. By the time we got to Japan, Magnum Opus had gone platinum, that was nutty to see the fan pandemonium everywhere we went.
Dennis: So how did you first get started playing with the B’z?
Shane: I was playing a House of Blues gig in LA with Michael Schenker during the late ’90s. As fate would have it, B’z were in LA recording and they happened to be at that show. A few years later, when B’z was looking for a drummer, they inquired about me. I went down for an audition and ended up getting a call back for another audition in a recording studio in Tokyo. I traveled there and ended up recording 3 songs and then got the gig.
Dennis: You have been touring and recording with them for 17 years! That is just amazing.
Shane: Yes, it’s been 17 years, I think I’ve recorded around 130 songs with them between B’z, and their solo projects. The first tour was absolutely mind blowing on all levels. Just living in Japan for a long period was a real paradigm shift from a cultural standpoint. Playing in front of stadium audiences was incredible.
Dennis: Touring in Japan with an international artist is very different from touring in Japan with a Japanese artist. From my personal experience, there is a unique way of working that only people that have been through it can really understand. Can you tell us a bit about the process? Did you have your ‘Lost In Translation’ moments?
Shane: Wow, can we do the whole interview on that?? LOL! For me, Japan has been a relatively easy place to adopt as a second home. Aside from living part-time in Amami Oshima (a southern island in Japan), I live in Tokyo, which is a very beautiful, modern city. It took some adjustments at first but I quickly educated myself on the basic customs of Japanese culture.
A lot of this has to do with behavioral practice. To a Westerner, at first blush, it seems like there are a lot of rules with respect to how you conduct yourself around others. There is a higher level of honor and code of respect, that you need to display when interacting. I had to become much more mindful and patient with this and all aspects of life.
I’ll summarize things as this is an extremely deep question. Western culture adapts more of an improvisational approach to life. We just kinda “wing it” in so many ways. In Japan, there is a syntax or playbook for even the most basic things. These processes are taught from a very young age so it’s ingrained into their DNA. It’s fascinating how everyone follows these policies. As a direct result of this, their society as a whole functions like clockwork. Their stuff just works because they all ultimately buy into this principle. They’ve become an economic powerhouse as a result of it. It’s not always without problems as sometimes there is no playbook.
For a Westerner, what could seem an easy workaround to a conflict, could present a mountain of challenges for them because they operate in such a manner. But for the most part, they’ve figured out that if you get everyone on the same page. The system itself will succeed in the end.
Dennis: Of course, there is the language barrier, but was there anything else about working with an all Japanese camp that made it challenging for you?
Shane: Japanese musicians are fantastic to work with, they’re extremely professional, and most pro-musicians have studied their craft a lot.
They have a curiosity about western music and they’re always open to try new ideas. They’re typically very schooled and advanced readers. It’s uncanny how they never make mistakes when it comes to arrangements or anything analytical. This is also quite inherent in their culture for whatever they do. This could be another article in itself. But basically, they’re very determined workers, this is instilled in them from a very early age. So when they set out to do something, they never quit. It’s quite perplexing actually. They always want to rehearse so much and leave nothing to chance, this is one of the fundamental differences between the way musicians in the west do things as a band anyway.
I think this mindset has some great value but it can also be a deterrent to some degree as well. Sometimes if you rehearse too much you can lose the mojo and intangible magic that will just happen naturally in the music or live performance. But B’z has found a good balance of this since they’ve worked with so many high-level musicians over the years.
Dennis: You seem to have made a real connection to the fans in Japan. I remember we were walking together in Tokyo when a girl stuck her head out of the window of a moving car and yelled your name! Gotta love it right?
Shane: Haha, yes Japan is a very special place when it comes to fan appreciation and support. They embrace music and the artists they are interested in, above and beyond anywhere in the world I have ever experienced.
Dennis: So you produced the B’z first ever English language EP. Can you tell us a bit about that process? Was it challenging?
Shane: Yes, that was fun! Basically, the terminology is different when it comes to the word “Producer” in Japan. In the west, “Producer” is the equivalent of an “Arranger” in Japan. I wore many hats on the project. I started with re-recording some of the bed tracks, such as drums and bass, kept most all of the guitars. And then wrote English lyrics and re-cut the vocal tracks with Inaba Koshi. Most everything was done out of my studio (Crumb West Studios) It was especially fun working with Inaba Koshi on the vocal tracks as he sang everything in English. I mixed and mastered along with the very talented, Cory Churko.
Dennis: After all those years touring with one of Japan’s biggest rock bands you must have some “tour stories”! Any highlights or something crazy or funny you can share?
Shane: Well, I don’t know where to start. But I broke my ankle second show into a 13 dome tour. That is something I won’t probably ever forget. I stepped off the drum riser at the end of the show on my way to bow at the front of the stage. I stepped onto a snake (patchbox) my ankle folded over and I heard a big, scary “CRUNCH” sound. I knew it wasn’t gonna be good, the next day I went and had x-rays which confirmed it was broken. Good thing it was my left foot but it was a challenge to do that tour with a broken foot.
Dennis: You have toured all over Japan countless times, what are some of your favorite cities?
Shane: I love Fukuoka for the laid-back atmosphere. Amami-Oshima for the surf. Hokkaido for the food. Kyoto for the history, and beauty. As far as a big city, Tokyo is my fave in the world, it has everything.
Dennis: Japan is such a beautiful country, what are some of the sites that are a must see for people visiting?
Shane: Kuruma/Kifune area in Kyoto is an absolutely spectacular place to visit. Ishigaki-Jima has the most beautiful ocean/reef I’ve ever seen. Kamakura is a very beautiful area as well and it’s close to Tokyo. Gifu, Gunma, Miyazaki, Amami Oshima, Nigaata, Hokkaido are all wonderful places to see as well.
Dennis: Any favorite eating spots other than “Shane’s Magical Kitchen”?
Dennis: How much of the Japanese language have you picked up over the years? It’s not an easy language but you seem to have a pretty good ear for it.
Shane: Haha, well it’s kind of embarrassing that I don’t speak better after all the time I’ve spent there. But in order to get a real grasp on conversational Japanese, it takes some real hard work, dedication, practice but most importantly, you have to learn Kanji which is a colossal skill to acquire.
Dennis: You have a long-standing relationship with the drum manufacturer – Pearl. They are a great company with a long legacy in Japan. Tell us how having support from a company like Pearl is so essential for a touring musician.
Shane: Yes, I’ve basically played Pearl Drums my whole life. Aside from being a great drum manufacturer, they have become like a family to me. They go way above and beyond to provide me with the best gear on the road and for the studio as well.
Dennis: So it was recently announced that after many years the B’z are going to move forward with a new band. Leaving the band after 17 years must be an emotional experience. I know it must have come as a shock to thousands of fans.
Shane: Yes, initially this was challenging to accept, It is a big move for them to restructure the entire band after so many years but they have built their career from making bold decisions. I know they will be successful in whatever they choose to do in the future. I wish only the best for them and I’m grateful to have experienced so many wonderful years making music with them.
Dennis: What have you been working on lately? Any cool projects we should be on the lookout for?
Shane: Yes, I have so many new things on the go that I am excited about. I recently finished a new record with my longtime band Diesel Machine, my new band Toque has a record we will release later this year. Look for Cosmosquad to have something in the works and my solo writing continues to evolve.
Dennis: I’m sure you are looking forward to going back to Japan soon. What do you miss the most when you are away?
Shane: Yes, Japan has become my second home. I miss a little bit of everything in Japan. I know I will be back soon to some capacity.
Dennis: Bro! Thanks so much for doing the interview. Looking forward to hearing your new projects and also getting back in the studio together to work on something! ありがとうございました！お疲れ様でした！ [Arigatōgozaimasshita! Otsukaresamadeshita!]
Shane: どういたしまして! [Dōitashimashite]… Thank you, I’m sure we’ll be back in Japan soon!
Live Drum Cam footage from ‘Fireball’ by B’z.
Live Drum Cam footage from ‘Fear’ by B’z.
‘Shut It’ Play Along from Diesel Machine
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This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)