Voices Behind the Music Podcast Episode 3 Taku Hirano
Behind every favorite artist, song, or lyric, is a story you've never heard. Music is highly personal, and our experiences with it shape our memories, thoughts, and desires. So much goes into every note and lyric behind the scenes, which is why we’re bringing you Voices Behind the Music to share untold music business tales. Our guests range from artists, producers, and managers to tech creators and more, each sharing their unique past experiences, current projects, and visions for the future. Voices Behind The Music is presented by Feed Media Group, the leading B2B music licensing platform.
Hosted by Jeff Yasuda, CEO, Feed Media Group.
Episode 3: Touring with Fleetwood Mac, Debuting Original Music, and Music Career Advice - with Taku Hirano
As one of the most in-demand percussionists of his generation, Taku is a musical chameleon onstage and in-studio, whether supporting iconic artists or fronting his own projects. He has worked with everyone from Stevie Nicks to Stevie Wonder and Dr. Dre to Dr. John. Rock legends Mick Fleetwood - founder and drummer of Fleetwood Mac - has referred to Taku as his “Secret Weapon” and “not only a master percussionist, but an incredible musician," and Stevie Nicks has said that Taku is "the best percussion player, I think, in the world."
Straight off of Fleetwood Mac's recent world tour, Taku signed to Ropeadope Records under the Modern Icon Recordings imprint, showcasing the release of his debut album “Blu York - Live in NYC" (Fall 2021)
Taku: [00:00:00] One of my greatest memories is on tour with Whitney Houston. The venue essentially looked like a castle courtyard, so there's a stage and then you saw like lit up castle walls and it was the beginning of the song I will always love you.
And I looked out and everybody had sparklers or lighters lit. It was just a sea of lights. The whole first verse I don't play and I just kind of sat there and took it in. And I was like, wow, this is what I dreamt of doing when I was in the dorm rooms.
Jeff: Behind every favorite artist song or lyric is a story you've never heard.
In Voices Behind The Music, we go much deeper than the frontman you hear on the album or the guitarist you see on stage. People from all aspects of the music industry work together to make the business what it is and are often some of the busiest, but nicest, funniest, and smartest people out there. I'm Jeff Yasuda, CEO at Feed Media Group, the creators behind the leading B2B music licensing platform.
[00:01:00] Join me as I sit down with some of my favorite voices behind the music to hear their insider stories about what makes the music industry so exciting. All right, today I am here with the amazingly talented Taku Hirano, percussionist extraordinaire whom Mick Fleetwood describes as his secret weapon. Taku has toured with Fleetwood Mac and Whitney Houston and has performed with Lionel Richie, Dr. Dre, Ziggy Marley, Chromeo, Dr. John, and John Mayer, just to name a few.
I first met Taku at the Hong Kong International School years and years ago, but Taku later went on to graduate from the Berkeley School of Music as the college's first-hand percussion principal. He has one half of the duo Tao of Sound, which has done remixes for Kanye West and Kotaro and has released four albums for the Japanese label, Domo Music Group.[00:02:00]
Though most excitingly is also releasing his first solo album called Blue York, live in New York City as a solo artist on Modern Icon Records, but I think most importantly, in the immediate future he will be on a 30-day tour starting November 11th through December 21st, all across the US with ukulele phenom, Jake Shema Bukuto and he will be a special artist on that tour.
Taku, thank you so much for joining us buddy.
Jeff: Taku, let's kick it off with your solo album, this is a new thing. I've had a chance to listen to it. I love it. The heavy Herbie Hancock jazz elements to it.
Taku: Oh yeah.
Jeff: Tell us about it and your thinking and thesis behind the album.
Taku: Well, it started out with me getting together with a couple former schoolmates at Berkeley College of Music in New York City, and [00:03:00] us kind of reminiscing about all the great fun music that we played back in school at each other's recitals and recording sessions. The music was all of that seventies, jazz fusion era of miles' electric band, Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Billy Cobham.
And you know, we all collectively missed playing that stuff. We all had our careers going varying directions. I went more in the pop rock and R & B world, and Adrian Harper who runs Modern Icon recordings underneath the Ropeadope Records label. He is a great drummer and he went on to a career playing with a lot of funk and indie rock artists.
And then a third friend of ours, Bruce Flowers, a great keyboardist. He went more in the jazz route being the keyboard for Marcus Miller and David Sanborn. So all of us went in completely different directions, but we all used to play each other's recitals, and had a love for that era of jazz and jazz fusion.
It came about [00:04:00] as why don't we just book some gigs and play all that stuff that we used to play together before and just have fun. And I spearheaded it with our blessing and it became my project and we started booking gigs around New York and that eventually turned into a live album.
I signed a deal through Modern Icon Recordings with Ropeadope Records. The original idea was to do a studio album, but once the lockdown happened I decided to use the recordings of the live shows and mix and master and put out a live album as my debut release.
Jeff: Well, it is truly remarkable. The technical complexity and your virtuosity is very apparent and it was a joy to listen to.
Taku: Thank you.
Jeff: Yeah. Well, what would you say what is your genre? What is your style? I mean, you've played jazz, funk, you've done rock. I want to hear all about the Fleetwood Mac tour [00:05:00] in a second, which of course is the last time I saw you performing live. But where are you gravitating towards, you know, you are multi genre, multitalented, but what is your center?
Taku: You know, I think my center is more of a jazz bass which I like to say with this debut album, that's my return to jazz because when I went to Berkeley College of Music, that was my focus. I went there for a jazz drum set and studying Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian traditional and popular music and Afro-Cuban jazz. So after I left Hong Kong International School, I moved back to California for 11th and 12th grade, and the school of the arts that I went to had a salsa band and a Latin jazz combo.
And that's where I first learned how to play what they call hand percussion, basically like congas and bongos, so I fell in love with that. So by the time I went to college for a jazz drum set, I brought along all of my hand percussion instruments with me. And I was able to eventually halfway through college, switch [00:06:00] over to hand percussion being my principal instrument. So that's really what my training is in, is learning Latin jazz, Brazilian jazz, jazz fusion, and traditional jazz. So that's kind of my first love in terms of non-classical Western popular music.
Jeff: So I gotta ask you man touring with Fleetwood Mac, Mick Fleet, what I remember at the concert described you as his secret weapon.
Taku: Yeah. Yeah. That's a stick name for me.
Jeff: How did you meet these guys? How did this happen? I mean, were you star struck at every moment? You know, even rehearsing with them?
Taku: First of all is being star struck. The funny thing is every major artist I've played for, I feel like I was not necessarily a fan of their music before I worked with them. I mean like a lot of the major artists I've worked for, I saw their videos on MTV, or I listened to their stuff on the radio, but I had never owned a Fleetwood Mac album.
I'd never owned a Whitney [00:07:00] Houston album. I think the one artist that I worked for for a short stint who's albums I own who I was a fan of was John Mayer. But besides him, I think every other artist, like I actually had to do my homework.
So when I got the call, I was like, okay, game on. I got to learn their whole repertoire of music and buy all their albums and learn inside out. So I think that when those calls came, I didn't have time to be starstruck. I would just like, like I said, game on, I got to get my act together.
And then you asked me how, how did Fleetwood Mac come about? I was doing the Lionel Richie gig and a tour manager, actually an Asian-American guy from the bay area.
Marty Hum, he recommended me for a one-off corporate gig was Stevie Nicks. Her regular percussionist was busy, the sub that had been doing the handful of corporate dates that she had was busy for that one show in San Diego. And so he recommended me and it was on a tour break from Lionel Richie.
And so I went down and I did the gig. [00:08:00]
It went really well. She asked to see me after the show, and that was in 2000 and then nothing. Just kept working with Lionel Richie, heard nothing from that camp. And then Lionel had a corporate show in Maui and Stevie Nicks came and brought Mick Fleetwood and it was like a corporate show for like Lexus or something like that.
And they were just backstage and then that tour manager, Marty, he said, Hey, Stevie Nicks is here. You should go say hi. I was like, Okay cool. I just said, Oh, it's really good to see you. She remembered me. And she introduced me to Mick and then Mick and I just talk drums for a while. And I did not realize that I was auditioning for the upcoming Fleetwood Mac tour.
Taku: Because Stevie Nicks' percussionists also did the Fleetwood Mac gig. I remember kind of putting it into the universe back then three years prior, like, Wow that Stevie Nicks one-off gig was fun. I would never get a gig, that particular gig, but one day I'm just putting it out [00:09:00] there in the universe that I would love to get a gig like Fleetwood Mac. Because I had such a good time. So fast forward three years later I actually got the call for it.
Jeff: That is crazy. Now I said something that kind of threw me. So you did a show with Stevie Nicks, you'd probably have to do a couple of rehearsals before that show.
Taku: Yeah. A few days, like maybe two, three days of rehearsal in Los Angeles.
Jeff: But did you really interact with her? I mean, why is it that she requested to meet with you after? Can she have just walked over and said, Hey, Taku, let's talk right now.
Taku: Oh well, at the end of the gig, after the show you generally don't see the artist again, they walk off stage, the band is still playing the music and playing them off stage and then the show ends. And then the band goes there, you go to your dressing room. And in a case like in San Diego, she could easily be already on the road going back to her home in LA by the time we were back in our dressing room.
So there's oftentimes you don't see the [00:10:00] artist until the next city or the next gig if you're on tour because they leave the stage before the band does.
On a Fleetwood Mac tour, I don't necessarily see Stevie until the next soundcheck.
Jeff: Wow. That is so crazy. So it's really a siloed experience where you're in to do your part and people just disperse.
Taku: Yeah. Especially with a big artist like that. I'm sure it's like that for somebody backing up Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift. They walk off the stage and they may possibly get straight into a car and go straight to their jet and fly to the next city.
Jeff: Wow. That blows my mind. The reason it blows my mind is so much about performing live is the connection, so much about the music period. But particularly performing live and particularly as you get more and more technical, in a word, communication is so critical, right? There's that comradery, there's that element of being in the moment together, making a [00:11:00] connection maybe is a better way of saying it.
Taku: But there's that connection in sound checks and pre-show, it's just that after the shows everyone tends to get out and get to the next city.
Jeff: But during the process though, there's a lot of that connection and you can go through ideas. I see.
Taku: Oh definitely. Yeah. I mean, and like with Fleetwood Mac, we rehearsed, the first Fleetwood Mac tour I ever did in 03, we rehearsed for three months. So we saw each other every day or Monday through Friday for three months.
Jeff: I see. So you did spend a lot of time and there was a real close rapport.
Taku: Oh yeah, definitely. Definitely. And then in each city, like you do have a soundcheck and so you physically see each other before you hit the stage.
Jeff: So let's talk about this, particularly as a master percussionist, everyone makes mistakes. What was your worst mistake that you made either on tour, in a recording and how did you recover?
Taku: There was one really funny [00:12:00] thing that happened. It was on the Whitney Houston tour and it's a period in the show where Whitney walks off stage to do a wardrobe change, and during the wardrobe change a screen comes down and there's a whole video montage, but the music is being played live by the band.
And it's a medley of songs so it's like probably four different songs, snippets of songs that flow one into another. And it was a video montage of music from The Body Guard. So I had footage from the movie and this and that, the other, and we'd played like four different songs that segwayed one into each other.
And I was surrounded by all these electronic pads and generally like from song to song, to song, I have a whole different setup. I click a button and all of a sudden all my electronic pads, all the sounds will change per song and I decided to make a montage kit. So that means that all my electronic pads encompassed four songs worth of sounds. There were a lot of ballads and it [00:13:00] was the ballad run to you was happening and it was like sweeping strings and I motioned over to my tech because I was trying to hit this one pad and it wasn't working for some reason.
What I didn't realize was the cord had pulled out halfway, but the thing is when you pop the cord in, it triggers whatever's on the pad. This is getting really technical, but it's a two-zone pad. Meaning, that if you picture an electronic pad that you hit, the center of the pad is one sound and the rim of the pad is another sound.
I had put the last note of the entire medley, the last song of the entire medley was the song Queen of the Night, which is like a rocking song with distortion, guitar, last notes and explosion. But the center of the pad was something delicate, like finger snaps or something like a ballad, like Run to You.
I'm like hitting on the ballad part of the song, I'm hitting the pads and it's not working. Like I motioned over to my tech come over here, and he's like oh, it's not plugged in all the way. So he plugs it in and it [00:14:00] triggers this gigantic explosion sample in the middle of the ballad.
And thank God she wasn't onstage. But all the stage hands, all the crew, everyone ran to the wings because they actually thought the sound was like either the screen or a lighting truss falling on top of the band. Like onstage, they thought it was like an actual physical accident that was happening on stage.
Jeff: Oh, my God.
Taku: It was literally just a sample of an explosion for the last note of the entire medley. That would just kind of masked and melded in with distortion guitars and, you know, the drummer hitting the symbols and whatnot, but in the middle of a ballad. So the lesson was, first of all, check all your electronics, do a dummy check even if you have a tech that takes care of that stuff, and also compartmentalize your sounds per kit so that you have no cross-pollination. I learned that definitely the hard way.
Jeff: Wow. That is a crazy story. That is a crazy story. So Taku, as [00:15:00] you developed yourself as a young musician, talk to us about your parents. Were they supportive? Did they push you away from music? What was their involvement in helping you develop as a young musician?
Taku: My parents are really supportive and I feel like early on I was pretty serious about it. I started percussion at the age of nine in fifth grade, and my earliest recollection of wanting to play some kind of drum was at the age of four. I don't really recall telling my parents this, but I know that my mother told me whatever instrument I want to play, I have to have two years of piano prior to that.
So by the age of seven, I started piano. So I got to figure that at age six or seven, I said I wanted to play percussion. And then it was like, okay, let me start taking piano lessons so I can study what I want to two years from now. So early on, I felt like I was pretty focused at least for a kid of that age.[00:16:00]
And then immediately at age nine, I was living in Fresno, California. They had a really good music program and a really great percussion teacher. So I had played an orchestra as concert bands, a percussion ensemble, and I went to her home every week for a private lesson.
And then fast forward, I moved to Hong Kong in seventh grade, and the first thing was like, find a percussion teacher. And I ended up studying with the principal percussionist at the Hong Kong Philharmonic. And then later with the principal timpanist of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. And that during that whole period was like training for Julliard.
I want to go to Julliard and be a classical percussionist. So all that to say, my parents saw me, like I had the drive and the interest in it. It was just kind of like, all right, well, let's see how far he goes with it. And then I think that by deciding to go to music school for my undergrad, by then they knew that I wanted to pursue music as a vocation, as opposed to a hobby.
Jeff: Got it. So what advice would you give to a young musician about potentially choosing [00:17:00] music as a career vocation and really developing yourself as a musician and trying to figure out what choices to make. Whether to pursue this full time, or as my parents had suggested to keep it as a hobby.
Taku: I think the most important thing is to seek out teachers, and hopefully that teacher is, or has been a professional to some degree so that you can kind of see firsthand what it's like. And if that's for you, the lifestyles for you.
And then as far as music in general, it's just no matter what instrument it is, embrace music. You know, you have to love music. You have to be into all various styles of music. If you want to be a working musician, you can't just be like, I am a funk drummer, and I'm only gonna play funk music.
It's like, that's great, but you may not be able to make a living doing that. Being a working musician, you definitely have to have an understanding of various genres and various techniques.
Jeff: Got it. Well, you seem to have nerves of steel, but before some of these huge gigs in [00:18:00] in front of arenas, in front of tens of thousands of people.
Taku: I mean, I had the luxury of backing up the artist who, the pressure's really on them. Right. So short of me being worried about executing some crucial parts, I'm not too worried. Most of the time on a major, major tour, we've already rehearsed for a month or two months, and so I'm already ready to go.
There are some nerve-wracking moments, depending on what tour it is. Where my role is super crucial for a specific moment in the show, or maybe the whole show and that's when I'm kind of, I won't say I'm nervous walking on stage, but at the moment where I have to execute something like I'm hyper-focused, so it doesn't screw up. Case in point, like I'm on tour with Beth Midler who I've worked with since 2004, and part of our show is skits.
There are moments where I'm like, there is some gag or skit that's supposed to happen where the phone rings. She picks it up and she says something and I'm in charge of the phone ring. [00:19:00] And I have to wait for her to say a line I'm watching a video screen cause it's slightly different every night, I'm about to hit an electronic pad with a phone ring on it, you know?
Yes, I'm just like waiting, so that kind of stuff is severely nerve-wracking.
Jeff: You've got to make sure the explosion doesn't happen.
Taku: Yeah, exactly. And then one other thing is like I went on tour with Lindsey Buckingham, the guitarist for Fleetwood Mac. What started out with him saying, oh, I'm looking to do an acoustic unplugged tour and not really looking for you to play any drum kit but you play Cahone and little handheld instruments.
I'm like, okay, that's easy. And then little by little, it's like, oh, I'm thinking of adding this Fleetwood Mac tune so it definitely needs some drum set in it, you know? So then like all of a sudden my little percussion kits started morphing into like a drum set. And then I'm really out of my comfort zone there where I'm like, okay, this is not necessarily what I signed up for, it was like to be the drummer on tour dealing with tempos and count-offs and cutoffs and [00:20:00] endings and stuff like that. I'm kind of like, oh, okay. This is like a lot more responsibility.
Jeff: So you did morph into the drummer on that show
Taku: Oh yeah, yeah. I was sitting on a Cahone which is like the box drum that you sit on and playing shakers and Cahone. But then like a whole other half of the show, the Cahone was essentially a drum stool because I had like electronic pedals, I was paying kick-snare and hat and cymbals and Toms. Yeah, I was playing a drum kit, I was driving the ship and I was just in my own head, just making sure things wouldn't fall apart.
Jeff: That's amazing for Lindsey Buckingham.
Incredible. So your list of performers with whom you've played is incredible, it's also incredibly long. Do you have a favorite?
Taku: I don't know. It's hard to say. But I would say, Fleetwood Mac, I mean, that's the most recent, and that's the most fun. I'm looking forward to this upcoming tour I'm about to do with Jake Shimabukuro. It's going to be on the flip side, you know, I'm literally just going to be going on tour [00:21:00] with the Cahone. So it's like super bare-bones, but like just able to just like jam every night. I think the qualifier for fun gigs for me is like low stress at least on stage. So yeah.
Jeff: Awesome. So a couple rapid-fire fast questions, what was your first album that you purchased?
Taku: First album that I purchased was probably also the first live concert I went to which was Toto four.
Taku: My drum teacher took me when I was probably in fifth grade shortly after I started. She was a huge Jeff Bacaro fan, who was the drummer for Toto, and Toto came to Fresno. That was the album with Rosanna and Africa.
And so I think that was, I probably bought that on cassette, like either right before the concert or right after.
Jeff: Awesome. Awesome. The next question is, what was the favorite concert that you attended as a listener, and what was the favorite [00:22:00] concert performance that you performed in?
Taku: Favorite concert that I have attended, probably hands down, was Paul McCartney, 2004 back in the US tour. I was living in Atlanta and I'd already worked with Lionel Richie for four years and Lionel's manager at the time was based in the UK and he was Paul McCartney's business manager. And so they came into town, we had dinner with the manager and he invited us to the show. I was like, okay, this is fantastic, get to see Paul McCartney. Didn't really know what to expect, but it was like, okay, this is going to be really fun. And I was absolutely blown away. Yeah, definitely.
Jeff: And then what about the favorite show that you have performed in?
Taku: Favorite show that I performed in, wow. One of my greatest memories is on tour with Whitney Houston, because that was the first major, major tour I'd ever done. It was my first time in Europe and we toured Europe for four months straight. So I got to really live on the road and have days off where I did all the [00:23:00] sightseeing and just kind of hung out all over Europe.
There was that one show in Mannheim, Germany, and the venue essentially looked like a castle courtyard. So there's a stage and then you see lit up castle walls and the entire audience was in front of us. In that show, I kind of sat back, it was the beginning of the song I Will Always Love You. And basically Whitney sings that just with like piano accompaniment and I looked out and everybody had sparklers or lighters lit and it was just a sea of lights. The whole first verse I don't play, and I just kind of sat there and took it in and I was like, wow, this is what I dreamt of doing when I was in the dorm rooms.
That was the first moment I can remember where I just actually kind of took it in. I can't say I have arrived or anything like that.
Jeff: Well, I'll say you have arrived.
Taku: So that was that moment, I'll never forget that moment. I was like, wow. I just sat there. And where I was situated on stage was pretty much directly behind her, [00:24:00] so I just saw a spotlight on her. So I see her silhouette and white spotlight in a sea of lighters and castle walls lit up in Amber lights. And I just like, okay, let me just enjoy this moment until I have to play the next verse.
Jeff: That's incredible. I gotta ask, give me a star struck moment that you had when you were just blown away meeting someone.
Taku: Definitely the first time I've only met this person twice, but Barack Obama playing at the White House. I played twice, but the first time we played for the Obama Biden administration's first State Dinner.
And I was working with the Indian composer, AAR Ramond who won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. And it was early on of me working with AR and yeah, he got the call to do the first state dinner because the guest was the Prime Minister of India.
And so I think it was just the four of us, it was a four piece with playback music. I flew to [00:25:00] DC and it was like getting to play The White House was insane obviously. But it was the first time I finally saw him in the flesh, I was like, oh my God, that's him.
And then after the concert, they ushered us back and they put us in a line. They're like, oh yeah, this is to take a photo with the President and the First Lady. I didn't even know we were going to get to take a photo with them so that was definitely like, wow.
Jeff: Incredible. Incredible. Well, that is a great note to end on and once again, Taku, so great to see you. As always, great to chat with you. So Taku, how do fans find out more about your upcoming album and your upcoming 30-day tour?
Taku: I think that the easiest way is just to go to my website, I have all tour dates and all appearances and all info and whatnot on me there. My website is www.taku.ninja.
Jeff: I love it.
I love it. Those stories [00:26:00] just blew my mind. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Taku: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
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