Kent Aberle grew up in Central Illinois and at a young age, a particular beat heralded his future. Finding his place in the cosmos behind a drum kit, Aberle has toured the world keeping time for Kristian Bush, James Hall, The On Fires, Larkin Poe, and dozens and dozens more. Kent calls Atlanta, GA home these days and when he’s not on tour with one of the myriad outfits that keep his number on speed dial, he teaches drums and performs with a jazz supergroup that also features fellow Atlantans, Mark Ross and William Hollifield. Known collectively as R.A.H, the trio exists to improvise and create a singular musical experience– one Kent can’t wait to bring to JBA and Macon on Friday, December 6th.
AI- I read where you said in an interview that the drums chose you. What kind of music were you playing when you first started out? Were you playing in bands early on or did that come later?
KA- No, it came later. Basically, I was at a concert for my school band, and I was about six, seven years old. I just saw a guy play drums and from then, I was just literally like beating on everything in my parents’ house. They got me a drum set, I guess when I was about seven or eight years old, and I just played every day ever since then.
And did I see that you still have that drum set?
Yes, I do. It sounds great!
What kind was it? I mean, was it like a Sears catalog special or…
Yeah, well kind of. It’s a brand called Apollo. It was an old Japanese kit in the ’60s. I think my parents paid like 30 bucks for it or something like that at a garage sale.
What was your very first professional gig? The one where you were like, “Hey, I might be able to do this for a living?”
Wow. Probably… I played in original bands in college. I went to Eastern Illinois University, which had a really great alternative scene back in the early ’90s– and in the late ’90s, even. But there was a band in Central Illinois called Dr. Wu, and it was a 9-piece R&B band with horns. That was the first band where it was like, “Hey, we’d love for you to join our band, we’re going to pay you blah, blah, blah, every show. And we’ve got a manager who’s going to start booking it.” And it was a real introduction to actually like a professional level of performance. We were all wearing suits… It was just a next level of booking– like we were starting to get flown to gigs and stuff like that. So that was probably my first experience. With the original band… I kept playing with the original band during that time because the band Dr. Wu– which was primarily an R&B cover band– that would kinda help me pay to do stuff with my original band. Then my original band started touring, and I started doing booking and all kinds of stuff. So that was definitely the introduction to the professional level of it for me.
Has jazz always been your passion?
Yeah. It’s always kind of been there. The music I grew up on was really… I would say it’s like the really heavy blues stuff from the ’60s and ’70s– Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin… But even about that same time, I guess it was probably when I was in college, I really started getting introduced to like Mahavishnu Orchestra and groups like that. I still remember the first time I heard the album Shakti by John McLaughlin, and I was just literally sitting there just going, “I don’t even know what I’m listening to!” It was amazing. That was the moment where I understood kind of what the true concept of jazz was. ‘Cause I always considered jazz… Growing up in small Midwest town, jazz to me was what the [school] jazz band did. You had jazz songs that you learned, and you had your standards and stuff like that. But then when I started getting into the more avant-garde stuff and the more expressive and risk-taking I like to say music, it really introduced me to the spiritual level of jazz, which is it’s not even about the note. It’s more about the trip that you take. And that was probably when I really started getting introduced to it when I was in college.
They ask me all the time, “What does it take to be a professional musician?” It’s literally just time management.
In addition to being a professional touring drummer, you also teach. How do you balance those two things with being on the road and in-demand as you are?
Man, I always tell people when I do clinics and stuff like that… They ask me all the time, “What does it take to be a professional musician?” It’s literally just time management. If I come home, and I’ve got a couple of days off, I try to schedule my lessons in there. I’m not teaching as much as I used to, but I still keep about a roster of five, six students a week, and it’s been great. It’s just time management.
And on your website, you have the video lessons, correct?
Correct. That’s another thing that makes it a lot easier. I can do a Skype lesson for people and stuff like that also.
Let’s talk about the show coming up this Friday at JBA and your partners Mark Ross and William Hollifield.
We are stoked, man! R.A.H. was basically formed… Mark and I met through both of our, uh, ex-wives (laughs). We were hanging out at his house one night, and we got together and started jamming. I was just so blown away by his organ playing that we instantly were just like, “Okay, man, we have to do something musically together.” I’ve always had this love for the really cool organ trio stuff. All the way back, even like Medeski Martin & Wood, Niacin, that type of stuff. But I was always like, “You know what? I don’t want to have a bass player. I don’t want a guitar player… I want the organ to kind of be the focus instrument.” And then [Mark] was like, “Well, what should we add?” And I’m like, “Man, if we could find like a smokin’ sax player…” And I was doing, believe it or not, I was playing a cajon on an acoustic gig outside of Atlanta with a guy named Wesley Cook– and he had Will Hollifield playin’ sax with him. And so I was playing with him, and I said, “So what are you doing, man?” He goes, “I’m just kinda like playing leads and stuff.” And when Will started playing, I was instantly like, “This is the guy!” Because I was going around and checking out sax players. I knew I wanted to put together this project. I wanted somebody who could improv, and I wanted somebody who could really speak with a reason. And a lot of sax players I would find, they would kind of almost take over the situation and go so far off in left field that it was hard to really communicate with them. But Will has this ability to play every note being the right note, and he has a feel and a concept of playing with loops and stuff that I’ve just really never experienced with any other sax player.
It’s not about necessarily coming in saying, “Hey, I love this song.” It’s like, “Hey, I love this experience.” And we’re really excited about bringing it to Macon.
It was literally just an instant attraction. Mark and Will and I got together in my studio, and we threw down some. I said, “Just come in. There’s no concept. We just want to improv.” I threw up some mics, and we recorded it, and we came home and listened to it that night. And were like, “Dang, this is kinda cool!” We put out our first single called “Beginning”, and the response was like instantaneous. I had people that were friends of mine for years, ever since I moved to Atlanta who had been following my career and had been major supporters of mine hitting me up going, “Dude, this is the best thing you have ever played on!” And I’m like, “Get outta here!” And they’re like, “Nah, man!” So we just kept doing it. It’s so fun because it is primarily focused on the idea of improv, that everything we do is spur of the moment. It’s happening right there in front of you. It’s being created right there in front of you. Our goal is to take our audience on a trip with us. It’s not about necessarily coming in saying, “Hey, I love this song.” It’s like, “Hey, I love this experience.” And we’re really excited about bringing it to Macon.
How often do you guys get together to perform? ‘Cause all three of you are busy with other bands and gigs, right?
Yeah. We try to get together once a week or at least a couple of times a month. I have a small recording set up in my rehearsal space and then our keyboardist, Mark, has a little more expansive set up at his house for recording. So every time we get together, we try to record. Lately, we’ve been doing more shows, and we’ve been getting requests by people to come perform live. We’ve been really trying hard to record every one of our live shows. So our goal is on Friday to record our show at JBA and then release it down the road. We try to get together as much as we can but like you said, I mean Mark’s really busy, Will’s definitely busy, and I’m busy. But that’s the beauty of the improv situation is that if we can get together, great. If we can’t get together, it’s okay. Tonight we’ll be getting together, and it’s more about just us really getting in a room together and just vibing with each other than it is like us in the traditional thinking of like a rehearsal where you get into a rehearsal space, and you start working on the same songs over and over and over getting super tight. It’s really more about us just getting together and vibin’ off each other and sharing each other’s energy. And then that way when we come to the show, we’re a little more comfortable and it’s not totally off the cuff– even though it is. But that way we’ve had some time together that week, and the communication’s a little bit more fluid.
I read an interview you did in which you told a story about touring in China and this epic tattoo that you got from a master artist there…
It was definitely a trip, man. That whole trip was just a life-changing experience for me. I was on the road with a band called The On Fires who are from Australia, and I had been touring with them off and on for a couple of years. We decided we were going to take on this idea of doing a tour of China. And one of our stops was performing at the Freedom House in Changsha, China, which is a small city of God knows how many millions of people a small city is in China right in the middle of mainland China. We had some time in the afternoon before we loaded in and stuff. We were staying at this really small kind of hostel-style hotel right downtown in the entertainment district of Changsha and across the street from us was a marketplace. I walked over there and one of the first stalls that I saw that drew my attention was this really small little booth. And above the booth was all these drawings– kind of like what you would consider Chinese drawings, the really fine line Asian drawings of everything from geishas to just amazing flowers to Buddhist culture.
I was just sitting there just in awe of the artwork that was done. As I’m standing there– and I’m definitely getting looked at. I might be one of the first spiked, blonde-haired, blue-eyed white boy in Changsha to ever walk into this place. I’m standing there, and this gentleman taps me on the shoulder… And I had a tattoo already with some Chinese writing on it that stood for “family, friends, and faith”. I turned around and it’s this little short Chinese guy with a goatee, a full-on black and white kung fu outfit, and I was like, “How are you doing?” And he starts speaking in Chinese. I was like, “Man, I don’t understand.” And he said, “Family, friends, and faith. So cool!”And I was like, “Yeah!” And we started kind of like communicating without knowing each other’s language. You know, using like body language and just simple, simple words and phrases. I told him I was a drummer and he said, “Ah, Master drummer.” He showed me his forearm and on his forearm, he had a portrait tattooed on his forearm of his master, who taught him how to tattoo. I instantly went, wait a minute, and I saw his forearm and I said, “Did you do that? And he goes, “Yes. Master Li Miao tattoo,” and then he pointed up at all the things that I thought were paintings and they were people’s backs! They were tattoos that he did. He said, “Come sit.”. And we sat, and we had tea at his booth, and his apprentice helped me, pulled up Google Translate. We sat there on Google Translate and had a little communication and started to learn about each other. We just instantly bonded and became like brothers. I mean, I still talk to him and his wife all the time– and she’s now tattooing, and she’s amazing.
And he unbuttoned his shirt, bared his chest, smacked himself on the chest, smacked me on the chest, and said, “Love and brotherhood.”
So basically, we sat down, had this long communication. I said goodbye and as I’m leaving, he’s apprentice chases me down and says, “Master Miao would like to tattoo you.” And I was like, “Wow. Really?” He goes, “Yeah!” And I said, “Well, you know, I’m on tour and this is an indie punk rock band… I don’t really have any money.” He was like.”650 yuan.” So 650 Chinese yuan is about 150 American bucks– and I went, “Screw it, I’m doing it!” So I withdrew about a thousand yuan and after our show, I met his apprentice down on the street and Master Miao came out of his office, and we went up to his apartment in Changsha, China. He wrote me this beautiful letter in English, which I accidentally left it there, and I hate that I left it there. But it was funny because, in the letter, he talked about the tattoo. He was like, “This tattoo that I’m going to do for you is about a 10-hour process, and my normal rate is about a 1,300 yuan an hour. I will do it for you for 600 yuan an hour.” And I went, “Oh! An hour…” I was looking at him and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m such a stupid American idiot!” And so I sat there, I was like, “I’m so sorry, man. I don’t have that much.” And we were both disappointed and then him and his apprentice go into a back room– and I’m just sitting there just like, “What do I do? I feel awful!” He comes out, and he looks at me. He stood me up, he looked me dead in the face and lit up a cigarette, and his apprentice said, “How much do you have?” I said, “I have 1,000 yuan on me. I’ll give you all of it.”And he unbuttoned his shirt, bared his chest, smacked himself on the chest, smacked me on the chest, and said, “Love and brotherhood.” I sat down at 11 o’clock at night, and he tattooed me until 7:30 in the morning.
I was the first non-Chinese person that he’d tattooed in over 15 years of tattooing. He kept his apprentice up all night long, both of his apprentices– a guy and a girl– kept them up all night long so they could see the difference in my skin compared to Chinese skin. It was just such an experience, man. And then in 2012, I went back and we actually had a day off in Changsha. So that time, I brought him and his apprentices and his master to the show, and it was just awesome. The next day we had a day off, so I was able to go there and have dinner with him and his family and his apprentices, and he tattooed me for like another four or five hours. So it was just rad man. It was just rad, you know? And to me, that’s what a tattoo should be. If you’re going to put something in ink on your body, it needs to have this meaning to where it’s like you don’t ever regret it. If anything, it just makes you beam with pride, you know? And it’s a reminder of how lucky we are to be here. It was such a great experience.