Interview ~ Jason Hartless

Imagine being asked to play drums with some of the greatest performers in rock history. Sit down behind the kit where only legends have gone before you. From Cozy Powell to Corky Laing and Vinnie Appice, laying down the beats to many of the songs that are musts for any “best of hard rock” anthologies. Now imagine being in your early 20’s and having done it since you were 5 years old. Jason Hartless doesn’t need to imagine it, he is living it. Having been on the kit since he was six months old Hartless has had some incredible mentors, exciting collaborations and is the God son to Richie Scarlet.  From Detroit, this hockey fanatic took the time to share his thoughts on the passing of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, what it means to play with some of the groups who’ve made rock history, why having a clear mind by staying away from the stereotypical “rock lifestyle” is important and who he feels are the great drummers, many of whom casual fans have never heard of because they are the backbone of the industry, the session drummers. Currently on a break from touring and just cutting a new album with Ted Nugent, Hartless keeps himself busy as a grad student, working on a Master’s degree in Music Business and staying in the studio – being a professional musician.

Let’s start with the bad news from last Thursday (Aug. 15, 2018), where one of the music greats, Detroit great Aretha Franklin passed. What does that mean to the city, to music and to you?

Jason Hartless: Well, you know, you can definitely feel and hear a sadness in the air and in town. You know I believe her last concert was in Detroit last summer. They were naming a street after her, that was a big deal. I believe that was her last concert, so to have it be her last concert here (Detroit) and on top of that being a big celebration I think it meant a lot. A lot of people that went down there and we’re definitely feeling it.  I personally wasn’t directly influenced by her but my favorite Aretha record was the album simply titled “Aretha” which came out in 80. It had a lot of the guys in Toto, Jeff Porcaro, Mike Porcaro, David Paich, Steve Lukather and then a couple of other tracks had James Jamerson and Bernard Purdie.  So, it was just a crazy all-star lineup of session cats. You know, it’s definitely a loss of the town and definitely a loss of music.

I’m assuming you never really had a chance to play with her?

No, unfortunately not.

Speaking of Detroit, really, what’s the deal, Hockeytown has really produced some of the greatest acts in music history?

Yeah, you know it’s always been a hotbed. What’s funny is even acts that weren’t even from here back in the day this was kind of their second home. Like Kiss and J. Geils, they weren’t’ from here but they were such huge draw in town that it helped break their careers as a whole. And it’s funny, when you kind of look back Detroit music in the late 60’s and early 70’s and to see everybody that came out of this town and being able to play with Ted Nugent, I hear all these stories of everybody playing with everybody at the Grande Ball Room, the Eastown and the bills were stacked to where it was, Ted’s told me one time there was this gig where it was the Amboy Dukes playing with The Who in a high school gymnasium in 67 or 68. Just crazy gigs like that were just everyday normal occurrences in Detroit.

Yeah, I’m from Buffalo and I remember seeing, a different genre but, Spyro Gyra in my high school gym. Things were different then.

Oh, absolutely.

Is there anybody coming out of Detroit right now that we should be keeping an eye out for?

Well, it’s kind of a shame because the town has kind of had a, not a decline in the music industry scene but there definitely has been some slowing down the last probably 10 years or so. I haven’t really seen many acts that you can see that, ‘Ok, this band is gonna go somewhere.’ The closest thing would be Greta Van Fleet. They’re from Frankenmuth, Michigan which is about an hour, hour and a half north of Detroit, but they’re not really a Detroit band. Even though their record was recorded in suburban Detroit they weren’t really a ‘Detroit band.’  But it’s kind of a shame and it links back to and interesting time in music where everything is so accessible and it’s the age of the DIY-musician that it’s just become so over saturated with bands. It’s so hard to do anything now-a-days and especially since 95% of them try to do it on their own but they don’t really know what they’re doing.

I know what you mean, it’s like authors, ‘Oh, look I can put two sentences together, let me write a book.’

Exactly.

You actually do need help. Hey, who you currently listening to?

Honestly, my musical taste is really, really broad but I’m kind of stuck in 60’s, 70’s and 80’s music, even back in the 40’s, I love big bands and 40’s jazz. But my two favorite bands are complete opposite which is The Who and Toto. I’m one of those guys who likes to listen to it all. I look at listening to music as almost market research for myself as a musician and business person because I like to see what’s going on. What trends are happening, what’s happening as a player because I like to pick up on new styles and techniques.

To transition a little bit, the info from the publicist, she right up front said that the best advice you ever got was to stay clean and sober throughout your career. Everyone always hears the old “Sex and Drugs and Rock ’n Roll” that’s absolutely, and similar to Ted Nugent, something you do not embrace.

Absolutely. It’s funny, you know I feel it’s definitely a cliché that the Hollywood glamorization of what it really means to be a working musician has always portrayed that Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll mentality in there. And really the fact of the matter is if you’re working on any sort of real professional level it’s just not there. There’s very, very few out there that are, that are working at a high level. Kind of going back to that local DIY mentality, I see that’s where the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll comes into play more because these guys are weekend warrior musicians trying to live up to the expectation of what they think it is to be a working musician. It’s a very weird thing that I’ve been lucky to have a lot of great influences and mentors over years that when I was little kind of instilled in me to stay away from this crap because it’s complete bullshit. It’s not how it actually is and it just so happens that who I work for has been a catalyst for his whole 50 year career.

That lifestyle has probably derailed more careers than people think.

Absolutely, I’ve seen so many unbelievable musicians either kill themselves or ruin their careers because of it. It’s just such a shame.

I’ve seen you describe yourself and kind of a chameleon when it comes to playing other people’s styles and fitting in with these classic acts, how do you do that?

This kind of goes back to someone who listens to a large variety of music. I love being that ‘hired gun’ session musician. Being able to go from one extreme to the next is really what makes the job always fresh and really, really fun. I just know, every situation that I’m in I have to retool my brain and retool how I’m approaching this. Even down to the fact that when we were tracking the new Ted Nugent record I wasn’t thinking of myself as Ted Nugent’s drummer, I was thinking of myself as the session player that got hired to play on this album. Completely, live and in studio are completely different ball games. Being able to kind of switch your brain and rethink and, you know it’s funny ‘cause one of my favorite situations that happened recently, a perfect example of this happened earlier this year. I was on the road with Joe Lynn Turner for a couple of shows and we did a show in St. Louis and then the next day I had a session booked back home in Detroit for a big band Christmas album. I go from classic rock, metal, Deep Purple/Rainbow, to big band Christmas album with some of Bob Seger’s horn section.

Man, that must be fun, what a blast that must have been.

Oh absolutely! Again, that’s what makes this job so fun. Being able to go from one extreme to the next and always branching out.

When I was growing up, I listened to Nugent, Deep Purple, I listened to Rainbow, Mountain, you name it and you’ve been able to play some of their greatest songs live that must feel awesome. Really, do you grasp the history of what you’re doing, while you’re doing it?

Well, you know it’s, I’ve grown up around rock stars since I was little so I never had really, a star struck thing but there’s been points where I’m on stage with Ted and, you know, I’m sitting there and I’m playing Stranglehold or Cat Scratch Fever – these iconic songs and really being from Detroit, he’s kind of looked at like a folk legend, so you know it’s definitely, there are occasionally moments where I have an out of body experience. Like ‘what the hell am I doing?’

Exactly, it’s like ‘how did I end up here?’

Exactly, you it’s just part of the gig.

I know you and Corky Laing go way, way back. What was it like learning from one of the great hard rock drummers of all time?

It was just unbelievable and I still stay in touch and Corky and I talk all the time and we’re still working on various projects where I’m behind the producer’s chair. It’s really, really great because I was a big fan of Corky’s and Mountain before I started working with him. Kind of the story in a nutshell, my dad was a professional musician so when I started, he was a drummer, so the drums were always in the house and I kind of started playing and by the time I was three I was playing the whole kit but I really started banging away at 6 months old. At three I started jamming with some of my dad’s musician friends and at five we were, I was doing my first professional cover gigs. We would cover Mountain songs, so I was just a big fan and we did Nantucket Sleighride and a few other ones. But when my dad was playing, he’s one of those networking type guys that, he’s a salesman you know? That’s what he does for a living so he’s always talking. His band always used to tour with Ace Frehley. He became really close with Ace and his guitar player Richie Scarlet, who my dad made my Godfather when I was born. Fast forward to when I started playing, Ace had rejoined Kiss and when Ace rejoined Kiss, Richie started playing bass for Mountain. My dad took video of me playing Nantucket Sleigh Ride and sent it to Richie and Richie sent it to Corky and Corky called my dad up and said, ‘look, I gotta work with this kid.’ The core part of when we were working together was between when I was seven and 10 years old. He was living in Toronto and he’d come back and forth on the weekends and we’d just sit in studios for hours and just woodshed on two drum kits and eventually we started working on a record but really the main reason for the record was to give an excuse for me to get mentored by Corky through a recording session. Him being able to teach me how work in a studio, what it takes to be a professional in the studio and all that stuff. I never really had a aspiration to be a solo musician or have my own group throughout my whole career but that was the only time, again, it was kind of an excuse for a mentoring session. We worked on that record for about 2 years, he was always coming back and forth. I saw the other day it was the anniversary of the blackout in’03. We were actually in the studio tracking when the blackout hit. It completely fried a couple of units in the studio. But, it’s amazing and a great experience working with such a legend and it’s unfortunate because I feel Corky is extremely underrated.

I would agree with that.

I feel its only been recently that a lot of guys have been coming out and citing him as a big influence. Because, besides the cowbell thing, his work is just unbelievable.

Again, I would agree and was doing some reading about him and I guess he’s for Québec huh?

Yeah, he’s from Montreal.

Is he a Canadiens fan?

(laughing) Yeah.

Any difficulties getting past that Original 6 rivalry?

I’m actually a weird person. I’m a major Red Wings fan but I’m also a major Toronto Maple Leafs fan

Oh God, I’m a Sabres fan so we won’t talk about that!

(laughing)

There’s always talk in the industry and amongst fans, people want to say “who’s the best drummer’ and who’s this, and really, it’s hard to say. You have people like Corky who are just now getting the recognition they’ve deserved for so long. Who’s somebody people may not have heard of, the session guys that deserve a little more recognition?

I’m a huge Jeff Porcaro fan, but he gets the recognition that he deserves but, you know, I feel like I’ve been such a fan since I was so young, I feel like got kind of a duty to pass along to the next generation of drummers. Exposing them to  people like Jeff Porcaro and Mick Tucker from the Sweet and Vinnie Colaiuta and Corky Laing and Eric Singer and Todd Sucherman all these guys that were major influences on me that, you know, they’re not playing in new modern bands. Some of them are dead and you know, make sure their body of work carries on is key in what I try to instill in anybody that I’m mentoring or I teach.

I know you have varied interests and you’re very busy, what’s on the horizon?

I’m always working in the studio. I’m always working with various artists, whether for an album or publishing material. Even like commercial jingles, I’m always in the studio. You know I’m actually, I’m mainly a studio musician over a touring musician. Even though I tour a lot, I do more studio work. We just finished up the 2018 tour with Nugent and then, we got a new album coming out sometime this fall that we tracked earlier this year that I’m really, really excited about because we kind of took this old school, classic way of recording to do this record. You can definitely hear it and there’s something about the kind of reminiscent about Ted’s iconic records of the late 70’s. It’s funny we were slotted two weeks to go down to Waco, Texas in March to do the record. We had two days where we were gonna sit in a room and learn the tunes and woodshed them so we got an idea of what we were going to record. The plan was to record one song a day and track the drums, bass and the rhythm guitar live together and then overdub the rest. We sat down to do the first song and Ted was feeling the vibes and we ended up recording the entire record in five hours. Drums, bass and rhythm guitar, we tracked everything live in pretty much one or two takes. What was so great about it was, now we basically had a week and a half to sit back and soak in the songs a little bit more because nowadays in the studio it’s very much get in, get out. You never have the time to sit and experiment different things, try different things and again, I think that’s what really made this old school vibe. We actually took a lot of time and experimented and tried different things and it really turned out great.

That’s awesome, I’m really looking forward to it. Maybe we can chat again when it comes out.

Absolutely.

One last question, I just kind of ask everyone. What are your thoughts on the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, and is anybody missing that really deserves to be in there?

My boss, Ted Nugent. Without a doubt, you look at his body of work and, I mean, he was the highest selling artist in 78 I believe. Which to me just blows my mind ‘cause that was KISS at their peak and it’s a shame that a lot of artists, like KISS. KISS just got in after 25 years of being eligible or something like that you know? Considering how much of, in my opinion, they had not as much influence on new musicians as the Beatles but they were pretty damn close. I’ve met so many musicians that started playing drums or guitar because they’d seen KISS and it took them that long to get them in there, it was crazy. I think they need to change the name from Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame to Music Hall of Fame.

Yeah, or Record Sales Hall of Fame.

Exactly, because there’s a lot of artists that aren’t Rock ‘n Roll at all but they’re in there but a band like Journey just got in a couple years ago, and Toto’s not in there and Ted Nugent’s not in there and the Sweet’s not in there, T. Rex’s not in there. The list goes on and on and on. Again, I just think they need to change it to Music Hall of Fame.

Again, I’d agree with that; anything else you’d like to add?

No, I don’t think so.

Ok, cool. Well this has been pleasure, chatting with you good luck to you. When the new album comes out I’ll work with my publisher to see about chatting again.

Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate talking, appreciate the time.

Anytime, take care. And Go Sabres!

Go Leafs!

By Contributing Writer Don Manuszewski

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