By: John Wayne Harris, drummer for Elk Atack

After an intense 5 day game of phone tag I was finally able to connect with Robert Earl Keen’s main man on the backside of the stage. By that I mean, the man with the best seat in the house, the man behind the Drums, Tom Van Schaik. Tom had been on the road with Robert for the past few weeks and recently was bouncing in and out of the mountains of Idaho, making connecting with the busy tour drummer a little more difficult. We were finally able to set a good time after his load in at a random central Idaho-venue. When we finally connected, we shared a moment of relief because our epic game of phone tag was finally over. I almost immediately explained to Tom that I have little experience interviewing and that I was simply a drummer with some questions. Please bare with me. Good thing is he’s a drummer too, and a damn good one at that. I started the interview trying to avoid the question that most interveiwers ask, “How did you get your start on drums?
Instead, I wanted to know if he ever had that moment where he decided he was going to be a drummer. For me it was the first time I saw my cooler, older next-door neighbor shredding a Pearl Export Drum kit to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

Me: Tom, when did you know you would be drummer?

Tom: Well, I never had that Ah-ha moment when I was young. I can’t really remember a time when drums weren’t part of my life. I know I started on pots and pans in the kitchen when my mom was cooking. It came really naturally at very young age. By 4th grade, I was studying formally, spending a whole year on a practice pad, then moving to snare drum and then finally getting my first drum set in 5th grade. Throughout my middle school and high school years I was in an out of symphonic bands, percussion ensembles, jazz bands, pit orchestras etc. I gained a lot of experience before going to college at the University of North Texas where I studied music.

Me: After you graduated from UNT, did you have a period of searching for the right gig, or did you have it coming out of school?

Tom: I was fortunate to be already working a lot, I was doing weekly Jazz lounge gigs around Dallas, and I was pretty much the only drummer doing theater work in the city so I was busy. I was also playing in a corporate band playing weddings, parties and corporate events. Around the same time, I met the Dixie Chicks and became their regular drummer.

Me: How was the switch from the Dixie Chicks to Robert Earl Keen?

Tom: To put it plainly, I was burned out. I was the Dixie Chick’s first drummer back when there were still four girls in the band. On the road, it was the four girls and me. Not all that bad but I was also road managing at the time and often having to handle business matters and then focus on my playing. Sometimes a show would be starting in thirty minutes and I was just getting done with the road business. I often had to make playing my second priority. Those girls were, and still are, my sisters but it became somewhat of a double edged sword. It was time for a change, so I left the Chicks and was teaching at a music oriented magnet school in Dallas as well as a Junior College when I got a call from Lloyd Maines, an incredible producer and pedal steel player, who knew me through playing with the Chicks. He said Robert Earl Keen needed a drummer for a gig in the Northeast and he recommended me. A day or two later I got a call from Robert and he sent me his albums and lead sheets and by the end of the week, I had played my first show with Robert. That was 16 years ago and we’ve been making music together ever since.

Me: Do you approach playing with Robert with a different strategy than the Chicks?

Tom: Not really, the goal for me is always to lay the most solid foundation for each song. Playing with Robert, I really try to stay out of the way of his lyrics. He’s such a talented lyricist and performer that each time you listen to him it’s like hearing his life story. I don’t ever want anything I do to get in the way of his storytelling. It’s a very simplistic approach. Nothin’ fancy or too busy, just the ultimate supporting role so Robert and the rest of the band can layer a rich sound over top. The challenge is coming up with something new and to sound different. Robert doesn’t want that typical Nashville drum sound, and I am more than happy about it. It’s fun coming up with new sounds.

Me: So when your recording with Robert do you play each song how you want, or how Robert wants you to play it?

Tom: The whole process is organic. Robert usually comes in with a song that he has written on his guitar, he plays it the way that he hears it and then passes out a chord sheet and a lyric sheet to the band and we come up with a part that’s natural for our individual playing. We can try anything we want and if it doesn’t work, we throw it out and start over. Suggestions are always welcome and considered. Cooperation and respect within the band makes the process very enjoyable and smooth. Having a good relationship with a laid back, incredibly talented producer like Lloyd Maines helps a lot too.

Me: When you’re not in the studio, the band travels 6 months out of the year and plays a lot of cities and town, how do you like traveling to Jackson for gigs compared to other places?

Tom: Jackson is always fun, we all appreciate the beauty of the place and the audiences are always very responsive and loose. It’s surprising sometimes to come to a small town like Jackson and see people in the audience singing every word, sometimes they know the song better than you do, it’s an awesome feeling. The only time I didn’t enjoy Jackson as much as usual was 4 or 5 years ago when we played a gig over the winter and it was -40 on the thermometer. After loading in, I had to keep my drums in their cases so they could thaw out and acclimate to the room temperature without cracking. It was quite a shocker.

Me: I heard last time y’all were in town the 307 Live boys took you rafting and you were screaming like a girl, is that true?

Tom: Oh no! That was our road manager Toby, wink wink.

See Tom play with Robert Earl Keen, this Sunday, June 3rd at the Center Theater at Center For The Arts in Jackson, Wyomng. Presented by 307 Live. Tickets available at www.307live.com
-JWH

Levon Helm Tribute “Man Behind the Drums”