Monster Tour: Monster Players

A Monster Tour needs monster players and that’s why Lady Gaga has drummer Charles Haynes and keyboardist Pete Kuzma in her Haus. Charles and Pete discuss the musical evolution of this year’s most talked about tour and how Roland electronic percussion and keyboards help keep it all together for them.

Monster Tour: Monster Players (Photo)

We first met Charles and Pete in Los Angeles in November, when the Fame Monster Tour was beginning rehearsals at the Sony soundstages in Culver City. Both Charles and Pete had just come from touring with Kanye West. While on the road with that tour, Charles and Pete forged a musical partnership which they carried over to Lady Gaga and The Fame Monster Tour. During the early phases of rehearsals, Charles and Pete played considerably larger drum and keyboard set-ups, but as Lady Gaga and her design Haus came up with new stage and musical concepts, Charles and Pete found song lists and sounds changing daily. Lesser musicians might have panicked at such challenges, but Charles and Pete simply looked to their Roland gear for the solutions.

Fast forward just two months and The Fame Monster Tour has come full circle back to Los Angeles, having traveled through Canada and most of the U.S. We interviewed Charles and Pete together backstage at the Nokia Theater in downtown Los Angeles, a few hours before the kick off of that night’s show.

Dan Krisher (Roland Corporation U.S.): Let’s start by getting some background on each of you. What’s your musical background, Charles?

Charles Haynes (Drummer / Percussionist): I am a musician slash drummer, I came up in church, fortunately, and was on a path of jazz. I played with artist Kenny Garrett (saxophonist) and Christian McBride (bass player). I went to Berklee College of Music and discovered this place called Willy’s Café, which completely changed my life. I met some great musicians who played there. Every night was a different night: Thursday was Latin. Weekends were straight-ahead jazz. So, I grew tremendously from that. I had the opportunity to play every night there and play these different styles. Going to Berklee you get to meet a lot of cats. A lot of artists come through and you get the chance to play with those artists.

After Boston, I played in New York for awhile. I was out with Patti LaBelle. I was with Meshell Ndegeocello. Then I got a call to go do Kanye, which was like “Can you be on a plane tomorrow?”. And between that I was also doing M.I.A. And now, I’m doing Gaga.

Dan: What about you, Pete? Can you tell us about your background?

Pete Kuzma (Keyboardist): I started playing when I was seven- or eight-years-old. I immediately went into jazz lessons. I went to school in Philadelphia for jazz and classical performance and got a Masters Degree there. All that time I cut my teeth in Philly and that scene, playing a lot of jazz clubs and meeting a lot of jazz heads, which was an amazing experience. It was a good time in Philly. The Neo-Soul movement was springing up again so everything was really popping and my timing there was amazing.

I was also in a wedding band, working my way through Grad school. People in this wedding band were like people who were getting their start who would go onto become multi-platinum producers from the likes of Jazzy Jeff’s crew to Andre Harris and Vidal Davis.

Dan: That‘s an amazing band to book for your wedding.

Pete: (laughs) It was top cats, these cats had toured with Boyz II Men. They were producing amazing music and playing for Will Smith. I was super fortunate to get with them and that opened the door for me to get into the studio. I did a lot of studio sessions. I ended up playing a lot of sessions with Jill Scott and then moved up to becoming her musical director. I did that for six years and I produced some stuff for her second record. Since then, it’s been lots of touring with various people in Philly, including other acts like Akon and Danity Kane, the list goes. Most recently last year, I got called to do Kanye West and was on that for about a year and now here we are doing Lady Gaga.

Dan: Charles, what was your involvement with Roland gear prior to Lady Gaga?

Charles: Actually, I was using the (Octapad) SPD-S when I was doing Meshell Ndegeocello. Sorry Pete (laughs), she decided she didn’t want to use a keyboard player for that run! She wanted to use two guitar players and me. So I went into the studio and I played all the keyboard chords, all the chords for the special parts and then I sampled them into the SPD-S. I was triggering the chords for the bridges and choruses in a lot of the songs with the SPD-S. So that was my first experience realistically with really using the SPD-S.

I would just plug it in and play a chord - done, next chord - done, next. Then, when I was with Kanye I used the SPD-S a lot as well.

Dan: You showed me some really intense photos of that rig – it was immense.

Charles: Yeah, I used three SPD-Ss with samples inside and triggers going through.

Pete: That was a large set up. The drum chair was really huge.

Dan: And both of you were playing on that show, correct?

Charles: Yeah, I started first and then Pete came about four months after. That was a very intense setup.

Pete: Everything about that tour was large. Every chair was a large chair, even the DJ chair.

Dan: Pete what was your experience with Roland gear prior to this tour?

Pete: Dan you’re going to like this: My first tour was with Les Nubians, in 1999 I believe, right when I graduated college. Up until that point I had a pretty trusty JV-2080 that I carted around to all my gigs. As I sort of gigged and got more money I would buy a new SRX Expansion Card. I used the 2080 and programmed the whole show for that Les Nubians gig. At the same time as I was in Philly doing jazz gigs, I purchased my first Roland VK-7. I started doing a bunch of jazz gigs around Philly. And I never had used an organ before, but the Roland helped me familiarize myself with drawbars and the mechanics of an organ through that Roland VK-7. And that sprouted my organ jazz career in Philly and New York.

Dan: And what about beyond that and gigging with Kanye West?

Pete: Roland has been with me with Kanye and Jill Scott. I had an XP-88 that I used and loved because the action was so amazing. That was before the Fantoms and G-Series. I used the Fantom-X7 and a 2080 in those days as well. But for the Kanye thing, I had a bunch of vocoder stuff I was doing, so I used the VP-550, which was my introduction to a vocoder. So that was amazing. As that tour progressed, I did this thing with a V-Synth®, connected by MIDI to the VP-550 and was using one microphone to control both of them. I was using a select number of five sounds from the V-Synth along with some of my favorite patches on the VP-550 and mixing it together for a gigantic vocoder sound.

Dan: You mentioned drawbar organ playing. Is that an important part of your signature sound?

Pete: Oh sure. I have found Roland’s organs blend so well in a big arena setting. They have all the right tones that cut.

D: Charles, what gear are you using with The Fame Monster Tour?

Charles: I have now progressed to actually using the V-Drums®. I’m using the TD-20X. It’s like every other day we are adding something on it. Just yesterday, I programmed some new sounds. I would say on at least half the songs, I’m using the V-Drums.

Dan: And you’re playing a hybrid kit of V-Drums and other percussion?
Charles Haynes Drummer Charles Haynes behind his current drum rig featuring the TD-20X drum module.

Charles: For the verses of the songs I’m playing the V-Drums and then I play the acoustic kit on the choruses. What’s been happening though is that I have been playing the V-Drums more and playing just fills on the acoustic toms, then back to the madness, then I’m playing between the four V-Drums pads that I’m playing.

Pete: And for awhile, you had an 808 sound hooked up to a kick trigger.

Charles: That’s right, but some things have changed and shifted, like a 100% since we first started (laughs).

Pete: This is the shift and change tour!

Dan: And you have the (Octapad) SPD-S, too?

Charles: That’s right, but I haven’t fully used it this tour because I’ve been getting great use from the V-Drums. Like the stuff I thought I needed to sample, I have found in the TD-20X – like if they want to be using the claps from the record – just give me a couple of minutes and I tweak, and you know, I can get them in the TD-20X. Like yesterday we got this idea – an explosion – so I went to the TD and, “let’s put the low-end here and the decay here and we’ll make the explosion drop down in pitch when I hit it.” So, I haven’t used the SPD-S as much as I thought, but I have been finding my way with the TD-20X. It’s really good...really good.

Dan: And Pete what about your keyboard rig on The Fame Monster tour?

Pete: The keyboards I have been using on the tour are a Fantom-G7 and a Fantom-G8, and was using a V-Synth also. But we have a big emphasis on consolidating. There’s a lack of space on the stage and a lack of inputs on the board. And that’s because of how the tour is structured – for theaters. I probably could use two more keyboards, but my main are the G8 and the G7. I would really like the VP-550 and other keyboards to be in my arsenal to be comfortable.

Pete Kuzma Keyboardist Pete Kuzma and his Fantom-G powered keyboard rig.

But, I can say the G-Series are super, super user-friendly and just so super functional in this type of setting. I say that because I don’t even need a set list because I have all the songs programmed in, my favorites assigned to the pads or dials, or whatever Fantom controller. Whatever I need to control is there. There are so many knobs and sliders that you control virtually anything you want – effects, cutoff envelope filters, you name it, which I do make a lot of use of during the show.

Watch Pete explain how he organizes the show using the Fantom-G’s Favorite mode:

The other thing I can say is that with pop music, the music today is a very dance, Trance, House kind of vibe. Those are the kinds of singles that are getting a lot of attention on the charts now. And so in addition to having amazing pianos and strings, and organic sounds for the show available in the Fantom, these Trance, House, Club sounds are there and there are an amazing amount of them, and they all fit right into the set and to the music. So I can’t imagine any current pop gig right now that the Fantom wouldn’t be an amazing tool and a must have.

Charles: Definitely. I definitely agree with that.

Pete: I use a lot of patches, too, from the Techno category. You know things like trance synths and many of the big polyphonic sounds. Coffee Bee is a pretty hardcore bassy, gritty lead I use to fill all the frequencies that haven’t been filled in from all the stuff from the other players.

And I can say specifically for pianos on the show I use the Manhattan Grand. Maybe that’s a little homage to the New York Jazz scene (laughs).

Lady Gaga’s AX-Synths and RG-7 Digital Piano

Lady Gaga is also no stranger to Roland gear. She herself is an accomplished pianist and keyboard player. She obtained some of the first AX Shoulder Synths when they were released, quickly turning them over to her design team, “Haus,” for customizing.

AX-Synth One of Lady Gaga’s many customized AX-Synths. This particular AX-Synth is featured on the song, “Just Dance.”

Check out Lady Gaga live with her AX-Synth, opening the show with “Just Dance”:

Not since Elton John has a new performer been more associated with playing a piano then Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga owns a rare white, RG-7 Digital Grand Piano, which she often plays on special live performances and television appearances:

Here, Lady Gaga performs “Speechless” on the Ellen DeGeneres on her Roland RG-7 Digital Grand:

I have to also put in a little disclaimer. Most of the sounds I have programmed in the Fantom have been tweaked.

Dan: Well, we encourage that!

Pete: (laughs) And that is something else about Roland: You can basically alter the sound easily to exactly fit your needs. The Roland gear is an amazing place to either end or to start with. Once you have that, and once you get into how easy Roland makes it to tweak these sounds, to make them so available real time is just amazing. Everything is tweaked and Roland makes it super easy to do that.

Dan: Are you controlling any external devices with the Fantom-G?

Pete: I run a laptop mainly for sounds that are completely native to the Lady Gaga songs, sounds that are specifically from the records. So, some of those I trigger from a laptop from the Fantom. The Fantom is used both as an internal machine and a super controller. I do all of my control from the Fantom. The Fantom controls the entire rig, including switching sounds on the laptop.

Dan: That’s awesome. Do you guys have any other projects scheduled after The Fame Monster Tour?

Charles: Well actually, I am doing a lot of production work and I actually I have a new production partner in a cat named Pete Kuzma (laughs).

In a couple of months we’ve been called to do a ton of things. I play some keys, not great, I can kill you in two keys (laughs). So I’d rather work with someone like Pete who is incredible and who can play in five seconds as opposed to what would take me in 20 minutes. So, it’s a good match. So, we are in the studio working on projects. We are working on some Indie projects. And I can’t wait to get the time to get back to my V-Synth. I have one in Boston. I have a GT. I have been having a good time with that and I am looking forward to digging into the Fantom-G, too.

Pete: In order to survive as musicians, producers and songwriters in this business you have to have your irons in a lot of fires so to speak. We have our hands in so many things. Charles and I are developing a production company together, which is definitely important. Secondly, I have been working on an homage to soul music, a personal record. It’s all instrumental. It will cover songs that have no business being soul music. It’s a cover album that is cross genre – I am not remaking Stevie. It’s some rock stuff like Stones, Oasis, just songs that have hit me in a creative way over many years. It will be done with the Neo Soul vibe. I’m from Philly, so I want to do something that is really me.

(At this point, the tour’s manager comes in to begin rounding up the musicians for the show.)

Dan: Well, it looks like we need to end it here so you can get ready for tonight’s show. It’s been really great speaking to you both. Before I go, are there any current pieces of Roland gear you haven’t checked out that you would like to?

Pete: Of course! The V-Piano! I am dying to get my fingers on one of those. And anything that has more draw bars on it from Roland.

Charles: And more V-Drums…can’t have too many of those.