Working Drummer Spotlight: Christopher Allis – The Invisible Signature

by Zack Albetta 

Over the course of nearly 20 years in Los Angeles, Christopher Allis has made a name for himself as the first call for a long list of singer/songwriters, producers and recording engineers. From the time he was a toddler and would fall asleep to The Who’s “Live at Leeds,” it was obvious that music would be central in his life, but he was well into his 30’s by the time he devoted himself solely to playing. In 2010, he found himself split between two separate but parallel career paths. By day, he worked at UCLA as a telecommunications expert. By night, he was a working drummer—gigging, rehearsing and recording. A stress-induced visit to the emergency room made it clear that his double life was unsustainable. Many in the arts are advised not to quit their day job, but Christopher did just that. The result? “I’m making half the bread and I’m ten times happier.”

Christopher grew up in Syracuse, NY in a musical family. Both parents were semi-pro performers, his father a drummer and percussionist and his mother a singer and actress. “With the demands of having a family, they worked whatever jobs they needed to, and they did their art whenever they were able to.” Christopher began playing at age four and studied with a series of private teachers through middle school and high school. Among them was Frank Briggs, author of the acclaimed method book The Complete Modern Drumset.

His dad joined the staff at Syracuse University, doing academic computing and audio/visual work. “Since he worked there, I got a free ride. I decided to go there as opposed to somewhere like North Texas or Berklee because I was already out playing.” This marked the beginning of Christopher’s parallel paths. To satisfy his parents’ desire for a back-up plan, he earned an English degree from Syracuse. To satisfy his own need to be connected to music, he played in various bands outside of school. “One of them was called Zoo Trip, a 9-piece funk extravaganza that was fronted by the actor Taye Diggs…he was a theatre major at Syracuse.” He started a ska band with the guitarist from that group and also got the call to join a fusion trio called Heavy Metal Bebop, named after the Brecker Brothers album. “At that point, Chad Wackerman’s solo album 40 Reasons had also come out. They were playing a few of those tunes and I’m a huge Wackerman fan. We had a weekly steady at this place called Café Margot. It was a great experience for an 18-year old, just getting your ass handed to you until you felt comfortable.”

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After graduating, Christopher continued playing around town and took a day job in customer service and fraud prevention with a cellular company. “Eventually I started thinking about what my next move would be. I talked a lot with other musicians. A friend of mine told me ‘You have to go. If you don’t leave, you’re going to turn into us.’ Given that he was 25 years older than me, I think what he meant was I wasn’t going to be interested in growing on my instrument or innovating because Syracuse is a small market and it is what it is. It resonated with me because I didn’t see an awful lot happening for me beyond a certain point in Syracuse.” With his car packed full of drums and clothes (and two bikes on the roof) Christopher made the cross-country drive to LA in 1995. “I moved out here with no expectation to play, I basically just had a couple of phone numbers. I knew the drummer from a band called The Boxing Ghandis and within six or seven months, he had recommended me to a couple of people. I was basically picking up the gigs he didn’t want. He recommended me to a band called Jenna & The Weeping Buddhas, which eventually was renamed Jenna Music. I recorded with her, played a bunch of shows, and it fell away. So I just became a sideman, working with a bunch of different songwriters and producers. That’s essentially what I’ve been doing since then.”

Not long after moving to LA, Christopher continued his non-musical work life, taking the job at UCLA. “I was training their faculty and staff on how to use their telephone equipment and call processing applications. That’s when the English degree really came in handy, because your ability to communicate is paramount in everything that you do, but especially when you’re on the phone with a 90-year old professor who never leaves his office. You have to be calm and patient and clear, but it’s a clarity based on your audience. And that’s huge in music as well…It’s all about communication, [whether] you’re communicating a particular lyric or emotion, or communicating information about setting up a voice mailbox. It’s the same vibrations, it’s just organized in different ways and it’s always audience-dependent.”

Some artists view a day job as a hindrance to what they really want to be doing, but Christopher actually viewed it as an enabler. His day job allowed his musical career to follow a very patient and organic trajectory. UCLA provided stability, so he didn’t feel the pressure to hustle gigs and try to make things happen overnight. “There is very little that’s forceful about my personality. I figured out early on that both in music and in relationships, if I don’t impose myself, it’s gonna be cool. If I’m too heavy-handed with my approach, it’s always going to feel forced.” He took gigs as they came and let his playing speak for itself. Word-of-mouth among those he worked with gradually resulted in a long list of clients and colleagues.

When discussing his approach to playing, Christopher keeps coming back to the word “transparency.” It seems counterintuitive, since most drummers’ goals include developing a signature sound and being instantly recognizable. But he points out that this is not always in the interest of the music. “Do you want a personality behind the drum kit, or do you want the music to have personality? I’d rather be the guy that helps give the music a certain personality. Part of the idea of being transparent is not being recognized. You don’t always know when it’s Aaron Sterling or Jim Keltner. I know when it’s Steve Jordan, but only because of the snare drum. My signature is a lack of signature. It’s almost like invisible ink—it’s there, but you need to shine a light on it to see it. I think the people I play with like that because I’m not trying to impose my will, I’m trying to tease out what’s really going on and add to that foundation.”

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This defines Christopher’s appeal—it’s as much about his process as his results. He is an articulate speaker and an intent listener.  He is inquisitive and intellectual by nature and those qualities serve him well professionally. “I try to meet with the people I work with ahead of time and ask them what their writing tendencies are, who they listen to, what they’re inspired by. If I find out they like a certain kind of music, film or literature, I can see a particular aesthetic that will put me in the ballpark and we can tweak from there. Once you work with someone long enough, that becomes second nature. I’ve literally had someone ask me, ‘Can you make it sound more purple?’ I’m willing to ask questions and try stuff out in order to figure out what that means and when I do, I say ‘ok, that’s what purple sounds like for that person.’ You have to be willing to indulge that at least a little bit. You develop a shorthand both for yourself and the person you’re working with, and that pays dividends because you wind up getting called back.”

After 12 years at UCLA, the stress of working all day and playing all night finally caught up with him. “I was at work on a Friday and I thought I was having a heart attack. They kept me [in the hospital] all night to monitor me. They came in Saturday and told me my heart was fine and that I had to ratchet back the stress.” The decision to quit and focus on music was easy given that he knew his stress level was unsustainable, but difficult given that it made the future very uncertain. “I was making a good living at UCLA. I knew I would get a little bit of a severance and then I had a three-week tour with a band. So between those two things, I figured, ‘ok, I’ll be cool through June. But what then?’” Christopher took a leap of faith and found that the musical network he had so gradually and organically cultivated was there to catch him. His transition to being a full-time working drummer was nearly seamless. A wide variety of artists have kept him consistently busy playing live gigs and recording sessions in LA, as well as national and international tour dates. Highlights include singer Deana Carter, jazz cellist Jacob Szekely, and Spencer Lee with whom he recorded the single “Still I Fly” for the Disney movie Planes Fire & Rescue.

Like many session drummers, Christopher has recently created his own remote drum-tracking studio. He rents a small space near his home in West LA and has invested in an arsenal of microphones and other audio equipment. This enables him to work remotely when a client can’t afford to bring him into a full-size studio. “If the budget’s there, I’ve got buddies who engineer a great session and have great-sounding rooms, and I want to give them the work because they’ve been so kind in getting me work. But if the bread ain’t there, I can still do that work and send [the client] a really high-quality-sounding product within a budgetary constraint that a lot of people have now.”

In addition to the financial investment, he also had to invest time and effort in learning how to engineer his own sessions. “I had to put on my big boy pants and figure out how to use ProTools and Logic and make sure that all those questions I asked engineers about how to mic a drum kit really stuck.” His investments are beginning to pay off—his new-found expertise is resulting in more work and very happy clients. “I’ve got a dossier on everyone I’ve worked with. I keep notes on the gear and mics we used, so I can say ‘we used this bass drum with this mic on it, so if you want to go for that again, let’s do that.’ I give the client more than they need. It’s like ‘here are three takes of this song, with a bunch of different mics in a bunch of different places. Mix as you will, have fun, send me a copy, here’s my PayPal account.’”

Even though his career move resulted in an overall pay cut, he hasn’t regretted it for a second. “It’s tough to have a dream and then actually choose to live it. If you defer that dream, you can always delude yourself into blaming something or someone else. If you chase after that dream, the onus is on you to make it happen. And I guess I had had enough of deluding myself. I was terrified and miserable walking into UCLA. I haven’t been terrified or miserable one day since I left. I can’t tell you how many lawyers or doctors have come up to me after gigs and said ‘I used to play, I wish I’d stuck with it!’ You never hear a musician say ‘I wish I’d stuck with being a lawyer.’”

Christopher Allis is an artist endorser for Ludwig Drums, Istanbul Agop Cymbals, Attack Drumheads, Vater Drumsticks, SKB Cases, Popercussion Cajons, Toontrack, and Ableton.

Zack Albetta is a working drummer and writer based in Los Angeles. He is an artist endorser for UFIP Cymbals and Aquarian Drumheads.

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