Kevin Stevens has been laying down beats for bands of all shapes and sizes over a twenty-year career. From his hometown of Denver, his path has led him to Miami, New York, San Francisco and finally Los Angeles. He’s the kind of drummer who’s fun to watch and listen to because of how much fun he’s having. Whether leading one of his three bands or assuming sideman duties in many other live and studio projects, he’s sure to be wearing a smile as wide as his grooves, having a blast. He is a fan of music, plain and simple, and this broad-band enthusiasm has made him open to a wide variety of opportunities. When asked how much of his career has been determined by this, he says with a laugh “My whole career.”
Kevin spent his teenage years playing in various high school ensembles and two summers in drum corps as a member of the Wyoming Troopers. His parents were not sold on the idea of a career in music, so he enrolled in college as a civil engineering major. But music already had him hooked. “I knew I’d made a huge mistake,” he recalls. “I could see my life laid out in front of me for decades…sitting behind a desk, doing whatever civil engineers do, having nothing to do with music and performing, and it just terrified me. I felt like I had to at least try [music]. If I fell on my face, if it didn’t work out, at least I could say I tried it.”
Kevin took a year off to practice and search for music schools. The first major decision of his musical career—to attend The University of Miami—was based on his desire to play as many different types of music as possible. Many of the collegiate jazz programs Kevin auditioned for were built around big band, and many still are. But Kevin was looking for a wider scope, and he found it at Miami. “There was the big band stuff, but there was also a funk-fusion ensemble, bebop stuff and ECM ensembles…it just seemed a lot more diverse. That’s where I really learned to play in an ensemble, learned about listening, the role of a drummer in a jazz setting and other styles of music, a sense of competition—having to audition for certain spots.”
While he speaks highly of his musical education, he also feels that college didn’t prepare him for some of the non-musical aspects of a career in music. “It’s training someone to be in a business, [but] there was very little about going out and earning a living as a musician. They were showing you all these [musical] skills you needed to have…but there was nothing about networking and being a working drummer. Some of the best advice I got when I moved to LA was to go out and see music and meet people every night. That’s the best advice I can offer anyone trying to get into a new scene. Go to where music is being played, where musicians are hanging out and just meet people.”
Kevin was active in many different ensembles at Miami, as well as numerous bands outside school. But he viewed it all as temporary, a jumping off point. He had his sights set on New York. “I was really into jazz at the time, and I felt like if you wanted to be serious about jazz, you had to live in New York. I still kind of feel like that.” Lots of drummers have harrowing New York stories—scarce gigs, low pay, loading drums into taxi cabs or rolling a cart onto the subway—and Kevin’s New York experience wasn’t much different. After a few months, he decided the New York scene wasn’t for him. “I felt like if I was going to compete, I’d have to devote my life to jazz, and I love all kinds of music.” His desire for variety ultimately proved too strong.
That desire was met (and then some) working a four-month stint with a cruise ship band, a type of gig that a surprising number of musicians have played, either briefly or for large parts of their careers. Musicians in these bands are called upon to play in a huge array of styles and instrumentations for many types of shows—from a jazz trio in the cocktail lounge to a full stage band in the ballroom backing that week’s featured soloist. “We’d do a rehearsal with this person and you never knew what you were going to get. They’d have this book they’d been travelling with for 20 years with some crazy charts with chicken scratch all over them.” Over the months, Kevin was put through the stylistic ringer, playing everything from Motown to Madonna to Glenn Miller.
College had equipped him with the musical skill set for that gig—styles, reading, etc.—but there were some aspects of being a professional that weren’t covered in his college curriculum. In these aspects the gig provided a crash course. “I was learning about play-ons and play-offs, how to make sense of these crazy charts, rehearsing with [new] people, how to make somebody feel comfortable, taking their cues when I just met them and we have a show that night, and the dynamics and politics of the band leader.” Navigating his way around those potential icebergs gave Kevin the on-the-job seasoning he needed to forward as a pro.
On a subsequent trip to San Francisco to visit a college friend, Kevin fell in love with the city’s lifestyle and vibrant music scene, and decided to move there. But once he did, he suddenly found himself without the specific daily marching orders he had been receiving in school and on the cruise ship. “All of a sudden it was like ‘and now you’re starting your career.’ It felt so open-ended that I felt kind of paralyzed. I wasn’t really good at the hustle and the self-promotion.” He got a job waiting tables and soon started working with a swing band called The Riff Rats. “I didn’t know much about that kind of 40s jump-blues…but I was learning on the fly and that band was playing around town right when the whole swing thing was really big. From that band, I got a gig with a band called the New Morty Show, which was the biggest swing band in San Francisco at the time. That band allowed me to quit waiting tables. We had steady gigs in Las Vegas for a few weeks at a time and then we went out on tour in ’98.”
It is worth noting here that this opportunity (and many others) came to Kevin because of his openness and versatility. He didn’t enter music school hoping to land a cruise ship gig. He didn’t move to San Francisco with the specific goal of playing in a swing band. They probably weren’t even opportunities he had considered until they arose. But when they did, he was able to take advantage of them because he didn’t look down on those styles or gigs (which some college-trained musicians do), and because he was able to learn quickly. “I’ve kind of fallen into these different situations because I’m versatile and because I really get into researching and figuring out the essence of what the sound and feel of a style is about. If I’m going to play [it], I want it to sound like that’s all I do.”
San Francisco had, as he puts it “a very talented, very cool, creative music scene,” but he eventually decided Los Angeles was where his career could expand onward and upward. Even though his parents initially didn’t see music as a serious career, it was a phone call with his dad that cemented Kevin’s LA plans. “I told him I was going to try to come down here [from San Francisco] every few weeks and try to get my name out, and he was like ‘no man, you gotta just go. Don’t dabble with it, don’t tiptoe back and forth, just pick up and head down there.’ So much of what we’re talking about has to do with self-confidence. I vowed, coming to LA, that I was going to self-promote more and be out, and I did and it’s paid off. When I look at the people I play with now or cool situations I’ve been in, I can often trace them back to a certain night when I met a certain person.”
LA made him focus on the basics of the working drummer’s role, the essential skills and qualities he needed to bring to almost any musical situation. “In a town like Los Angeles with so many great drummers, if you don’t have solid time, good-sounding gear, big ears, make good musical choices, and have a positive and professional attitude, it is going to be tough to find work. I have moments of being in a pure creative state, both in the studio and in live situations, but most of the time I am providing a service—groove, generate energy, inspire/support the rest of the band, give the song some shape arrangement-wise, make people move, etc.” Whether he’s playing for a singer/songwriter, a jazz trio, a burlesque show, an electro-pop band, or any other act he may find himself supporting, these over-arching ideas drive his choices behind the drums.
Like many musicians who come to LA, Kevin had to reckon with feelings of insecurity and impatience. “I feel like my career path has been a very slow, steady burn. It has been tough sometimes—‘when am I gonna get my break, when am I gonna have my chance?’ I’ve gone through moments of that. We all have that little kid inside of us that dreamed of being on the cover of Modern Drummer. I’ve released a lot of care or concern [about] whether I reach certain marks as far as popularity or exposure. I love playing drums, I’m getting paid to play drums, and I’m playing music I like.”
That perspective, he says, is due largely to his family. Although Kevin plays many musical roles as a drummer and educator, he views his primary role as that of husband and father of two. “It puts everything into perspective…what really matters. I like to live life outside of music. Sometimes you can get so wrapped up in the instrument or the music that you can have a lot of your self-worth tied up in it, which is really dangerous.” Both on stage and off, he has achieved what has eluded so many other professionals—balance.
Kevin Stevens is the leader of The Rumproller Organ Trio, The Deep Cuts, and The Brass Monkey Brass Band, and is a frequent collaborator on various projects with producer Kirk Hellie. His many other performance credits include Duane Eddie, Neon Neon, Bobby McFerrin, and Minnie Driver. He teaches from his private studio and is on the faculty at Musicians Institute in Hollywood. He is an endorser for Sabian Cymbals, Remo Drumheads, Vic Firth Drumsticks and Protection Racket Cases.