A Conversation With… Adrian XMonday, October 7th, 2013
Canadian Musician contributor Jeff Gunn is back with the third installment of his “A Conversation With…” series. In addition to his own solo career and a line of guitar method books called Hidden Sounds, Jeff is also the guitarist for acts such as Emmanuel Jal and Kae Sun. In this edition of “A Conversation With…”, Gunn speaks with Adrian “X” Eccleston, guitarist and musical director for Drake.
Regardless of the medium, be it athletics, science, or entertainment, every once in a while you meet an individual whose accomplishments not only make you aware of just how high the bar is really set, but leave you with the inspiring thought that through hard work you too can make it all the way to your own mountain top. For me, it was on a sunny afternoon in August at an Irish pub in Toronto when I met one such musician – Adrian “X” Eccleston.
X is a Grammy Award-winning musical director, guitarist, and artist in his own right. He has performed on the MTV Video Music Awards, JUNO Awards, Jimmy Kimmel, Ellen, Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show. He has performed with a collage of artists including Drake (with whom he won a Best Rap Album Grammy for his guitar contributions on Drake’s Take Care), Amanda Marshall, Jacksoul, Serena Ryder, The Weeknd, and Kylie Minogue, to name a few.
When talking about music with X, what immediately struck me was his attention to musical detail when describing the facets of being a professional touring and studio guitarist. X describes how he developed a strict musical discipline at a young age by practicing relentlessly in order to gain a competitive edge. He began performing in guitar competitions with the American Guild of Music at the age of 9. From grades 4-12, he went through the prestigious Claude Watson School for the Arts program at Earl Haig Secondary School in Toronto where he developed a strong sense of creative musicianship and a passion for performance, which would eventually lead him to study jazz performance at the University of Toronto.
X is clear that performing music is a life long journey – there is no short road to success. Following university, he began performing with Esthero, Divine Brown and others before landing a spot as the touring guitarist for Kylie Minogue, most notably, on her X Tour in 2008-2009. This tour would take him on a full blown global arena tour. X points out that he was asked to perform on this particular tour after receiving a call four years after first making contact with Minogue’s management – a point which encouraged him to remind guitarists and all touring musicians that “you really never know when you will get that call. So be ready for it – it could be the next day or four years later, in my case with Kylie Minogue.”
X is currently on tour with Drake as his guitarist and musical director. He joined Drake as his guitarist during the recording sessions for Thank Me Later (2010) and went on to perform on the Away from Home (2010), Lightdreams & Nightmares (2011) and Club Paradise (2012) tours.
Beyond Drake, X has the first of three solo guitar albums, Soulgazer, coming out with Universal in October 2013. I had the opportunity to ask X some questions about music, guitar, and the Toronto music scene …
X: My inspiration for playing guitar has come from many incredible solo players and band affiliated players – you know, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Slash, The Edge, Jeff Beck, Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hazel and Vernon Reid from Living Colour. In Toronto, I have been watching Kevin Breit play for years. He is an incredible guitarist. Also, on a more personal level, a local friend and musician named David “Soulfingaz” Williams was a mentor for me and has had a huge impact on my playing and understanding of music in general. I came up having the honour of playing many gigs with him and I always play as if he is listening to me to this day.
JG: How would you characterize your style of guitar performance?
X: I always strive to create and deliver emotional guitar playing. Every time I play, it is an emotional exploration of the moment, the day, the tour, the show I am in…
JG: What does your guitar warm-up entail?
X: I make sure I am both physically and mentally prepared for the show. Physically, I stretch my arms and legs – all muscles I will use during the show. It is important to be mentally prepared for a show – focused on the musical exploration about to unfold. I jam on progressions and zone in on solo passages I will be performing during a show. Also, during the sound check, I take a lot of time to consider my position on the stage relative to my amp in order to create various kinds of feedback that I will be using throughout the show.
JG: Which guitars and pedals do you primarily use live and in the studio?
X: I use my Gibson – Les Pauls and Flying Vs both live and in the studio along with Mesa Boogie amps, T-Rex Engineering, Dunlop, Empress Effects (Compression), and some Voodoo Lab pedals. I have a really cool pedalboard filled with all the sounds and tones I need for tour.
JG: What have been some of your most memorable performances?
X: Drake’s OVO Fest – in fact every Drake show since 2010! Performing for over 100,000 people at Glastonbury in 2004, the Hollywood Bowl with Kylie Minogue, playing on Kylie’s 2008/09 X tour, and this past spring performing with Leona Lewis at the Royal Albert Hall for two nights. I have also had the pleasure of sharing the stage with some great artists alongside Drake including Eminen, Jay-Z, Nas, Justin Timberlake, and I am so speechless still to have performed for Stevie Wonder and Sade.
JG: How important is music education to you?
X: I am a huge supporter of music in schools. I attended the Claude Watson School for Performing Arts and got used to the whole arts scene early. Music education should also mean studying sounds and songs that you like and figuring out how the guitarist would make those sounds – what pedals they used, what amps, what techniques, etc. The biggest part of music education is LISTENING. You should really listen to a song and decipher the sound on each part – studying the way the guitarist played his/her part in the recording. Also, as a guitarist, I want to connect with young guitarists and share my knowledge with them through workshops, which I plan to do at music stores during my free days on Drake’s fall tour.
JG: Tell us about your new solo album, Soulgazer.
X: Soulgazer is an instrumental album with 11 tracks. Let me start by saying that this album is not what you would expect from a solo guitar album. It is a mix of rock n roll, hip hop, and reggae. The album plays sort of like a movie soundtrack. I wanted to make the melodies something singable. The name Soulgazer is in tribute to my friend and mentor David “Soulfingaz” Williams. I received a FACTOR grant to make the album and it comes out with Universal Records in October 2013.
X: I have achieved many of my goals the past few years. One of my future goals is to create and release three solo albums. The first of the trilogy, Soulgazer, comes out in October as I mentioned. Another goal is to start talking to younger musicians and share my musical knowledge and experience with them through a series of guitar workshops – this is something I hope to do more of in the future.
JG: What advice do you have for up-and-coming guitarists?
X: Always prepare and be at your best at any show because you never know who may be in the room listening. Play like Prince is walking into the room to listen to you – something that actually happened to me once here in Toronto. Learn and practice as many different genres of music as you can. The more versatile you are as a guitarist, the better off you will end up because you will be open to more opportunities. And punctuality is a big one – be on time for rehearsals and meetings. Lastly, be aware of your energy level – keep it light and positive.
JG: What is it about Toronto that is currently churning out so many great guitarists who are landing big arena or stadium tours?
X: In order to survive in Toronto’s music scene you have to play many different styles of music. There isn’t much racial feedback here in Toronto compared to other cities in the US and elsewhere. Toronto is very multicultural and this means you get to play and be accepted in any genre of music – you are not contained in one style or the other. Right now it is an exciting time to be a musician in Toronto. It is the right time right now. In other words, yes – you can be from Canada and thrive as a professional touring guitarist.
As all good things do, our conversation and the pints before us came to end but my last question has lingered in my mind since. Is there something truly special about Toronto? Does the multicultural nature of Toronto cultivate a creative environment where musicians and audiences alike will inevitably be exposed to worlds of music right here at home? Based on my world travels and musical experience, I can quite confidently say “yes.” All of the guitarists interviewed in this series so far have been guitarists from or currently living in Toronto – Adrian X, Dan Kanter, and Kat Lucas (coming soon), not to mention Ricky Tillo and Donna Grantis. They all immersed themselves in Toronto’s music scenes and eventually landed the cream of the crop gigs. Like X expressed to me, I also look forward to the next generation of Torontonian guitarists who will blow up the world stage.
Adrian X is not just a great musician to watch perform, but he is what I would call a musician’s musician in that he conveys both in conversation and musical performance the most important elements of being a musician – to be ever creative, ever expressive, and ever emotional. Be sure to check out X’s new album Soulgazer and look out for X on tour with Drake from late 2013 into early 2014.
Jeff Gunn is a Toronto-based guitarist who has toured with Emmanuel Jal, performed with DMC, Swizz Beatz, and Kae Sun, and opened for Peter Gabriel, K’naan, and Feist. His new series, Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method On Guitar (Book 1-4) with Mayfair Music Publications is now available for purchase in hardcopy and eBook formats at www.jeffgunn.ca and www.mayfairmusic.com. Jeff is endorsed by D’Addario Canada, Godin Guitars, Levy’s Leathers Guitar Straps, and Planet Waves. Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffgunn1.