It’s 3pm on a hot Tuesday in Los Angeles, and while most people are working, Jason Hann and I are at the bar. For a touring musician like Hann it’s not an unusual hour to be drinking. Show days often start with a few drinks with friends before the set, and then maybe a few more after. Beer is of course just one of the many substances familiar to the jam band world that is Hann’s provenance.
As the percussionist for iconic jam outfit The String Cheese Incident, Hann incorporates rhythmic styles that reflect his lifelong interest in world and indigenous music and play off the variety of genres incorporated by the venerable and much-beloved band.
The Miami-born musician is, along with String Cheese drummer Michael Travis, also half of the live electronic improvisational act EOTO. Like String Cheese, EOTO – short for “end of time observatory” – tours relentlessly on the jam/electronic festival circuit. Recent EOTO and “Cheese” stops include Colorado’s iconic Red Rocks Amphitheater, space-based hippie gathering Oregon Eclipse and Electric Forest, the Michigan festival String Cheese co-created and plays each year.
Starting tomorrow, the band will headline three nights of Florida festival Hulaween, with EOTO a bit lower on the lineup. They’ll wrap the year with a run of New Year’s shows in – before taking time off in early 2018 to make a new album.
But percussion and rhythm have taken Hann far beyond concert venues and recording studios. His passion has landed him in far-flung locations including Ghana and Haiti, where he played drums as part of religious rituals traditional to both places.
Warm and gregarious, Hann strikes you as a guy who has seen some shit, and he makes for an ideal drinking partner. Today at Wurstküche, a beer hall style bar near his house on the west side of LA, Hann sips a La Chouffe golden ale while excitedly discussing a Senegalese style of music he just discovered and offering myriad music recommendations, all of which turn out to be excellent. His taste in beer turns out to be similarly low-key and eclectic.
“I’m not a stickler about beer,” he says. “If I have to lay into a Coors or a Schlitz or a Colt 45, I will.”
Here, Hann talks about drinking, inter-dimensional portals and the day he once spent with Dr. Dre.
Some musicians are really vigilant about not drinking on the road, or only having a beer after the show. What’s your drinking rhythm when you’re touring?
If I have some friends who want to pre-game, and they’re psyched, and we haven’t played there for awhile, I’ll meet them for drinks early, but I’ll usually go really light. When I’m actually playing, with our set-up in EOTO there’s a lot going on. I have three iPads and a few MIDI controllers. There’s a lot of technical aspects involved. I like to feel on my game.
There were definitely times when I was loose with that like, “We’re on the road! I haven’t slept in three days! I can take anything!” There’s definitely a sweet spot in there, and when you hit it everything flows and goes well. Lately, I’ll have a few drinks during the show. The crew guy will put something out [for me to drink], but that’s more of a cruise-along thing rather than, “I’m totally partying with you guys right now.”
I’ve heard artists say that everyone wants to party with them at the show because for the audience it’s their big night, but for the musician it’s another evening of work.
We’re going to Knoxville, Tennessee tomorrow. We haven’t been there for awhile, and it’s a great city for us. I’ve been getting texts and emails like, “We’re going to throw down like never before! It’s going to be the most epic thing ever!” and I’m thinking “Wow, it’s a Wednesday night.” It probably will be epic, but the question is whether or not I want to hit that pace on a Wednesday, although I’ll definitely go out and hang. I’m very super aware of the pacing.
When we’re on the road, at the end of the night I still deal with merch and settling with whoever we hired to do that for us, so there’s a little bit of business to deal with afterwards. You’ve gotta take care of business and then decide whether or not to go out. I usually decide to go out. [laughs]
There’s a strong relationship between the jam band and electronic music worlds, although I think some electronic fans get confused about how the two genres work together on lineups, and how the fan groups interact. As someone making both types of music, what do you make of the relationship?
I think it’s one of the absolute successes of [many festivals.] String Cheese has, for a long time, been pretty close to the DJ culture even if it hasn’t flaunted it, especially from a Burning Man perspective. [String Cheese violinist Michael] Kang and [drummer Michael] Travis have been going to Burning Man since ’98. I would say Kang in particular got very active with Burning Man and setting up the Abraxas [art car] and became very good friends with Bassnectar, who wasn’t really doing anything outside of the Burning Man culture [at that point.] He kind of was the music of Burning Man culture.
Kang would come back from Burning Man psyched that this alternative society thing was happening. String Cheese had Bassnectar open up for them for the first time in 2003. I joined the band a year later. In 2001 String Cheese had STS9 open for them at Red Rocks.
When I joined the band, they knew I could play all different types of percussion from around the world, but they asked me if I knew anything about electronic music. I had been around electronic music since the early ‘90s when I took a course at San Diego City College. You couldn’t even record audio into a computer yet. They had a thing called a sequencer, where you could play on a keyboard and the notes would be represented in the computer.
From that I’ve just always been interested in electronic music and indigenous tribal music. For me they’re actually really close, having been in both worlds.
Close in what way?
I was mostly learning things from West Africa and Cuba and Brazil. Very drum and rhythmic-oriented music. When I was learning in West Africa, I went to Ghana and was part of a three day festival for this village. It was three days of non-stop music and singing. There were maybe five drums being played at any given time, and when someone needed to tap out or needed a drink or were tired, they’d tap ‘em on the shoulder and the next drummer would sit down.
I was part of it and played for four hours straight. Considering a word like “trance,” a situation like this sets up a rhythmic cycle that has rhythm information, and it’s not about chords like a traditional song. It puts a different [force] on the body that makes the body want to keep dancing.
After awhile, the music is actually helping you dance.
In different parts of the world they describe it as time travel. If you go to Haiti and are learning the rhythms of Voodoo, I’ve had it explained to me that your body is used to 60 seconds in a minute, and so much trance and house music is at 120 BPMs, which is double 60 seconds in a minute. But if you set your body up to be at one tempo and then do something so hard to the rhythm that it just cuts it, at least in Haiti they believe that that cuts a sort of vortex or portal that then allows the invisible world to communicate with the visible world.
That’s when I first got to see a voodoo ceremony on this hill that no white people had ever been up to see.”
Have you experienced that?
I’ve played during ceremonies. I can’t say that I would be the one that knew what the hell I was doing, beyond playing the correct part, but you have people, either the master drummer or the priest leading the ceremony, who knows exactly what they’re doing. One will signal to the drummers or the drummers might give a signal in the form of a sound to the dancers, saying “here it comes” and then all the sudden the tempo changes so sharp and hard that it creates sort of a cut.
In Haiti they would say that it allows the deity to change positions with a soul that’s dancing. That’s one of the reasons you have to keep playing the music – they have to find their way back to their original positions, because people can get lost and lose themselves and go crazy.
How do you end up in these situations?
When I was younger it was a passion of mine to learn music from different places. I’m half Columbian and growing up in Miami I was exposed to lots of music. All the Caribbean music: Cuba, Jamaica, Soca music from Trinidad, the music of Martinique and Venezuela. When you dive into the indigenous music of any of those places, there’s a religion there. In my quest to just learn about music, I came across African musicians who knew I could play drums. I got more interested in it and ended up going to Ghana.
In the case of Haiti, there was a group called Boukman Eksperyans in the ‘90s that came to play in San Diego. Their hotel information got messed up, and a friend of mine was from Haiti and knew about them. They were a huge deal in Haiti at the time. We offered to let them stay with us. At the time I had four roommates, and we all put our mattresses on the floor. We had a great time hanging that weekend and they said, “If you every want to visit Haiti you stay with us.” I was like, “Cool.”
When I got there I found out that they were legitimate super rock stars of Haiti. That’s when I first got to see a voodoo ceremony on this hill that no white people had ever been up to see. But they respected the leader of this band so much because he had done so much to bring the indigenous culture out into the open. [Voodoo] is just this beautiful artful religion that people don’t’ know a lot about.
That sounds incredible.
You go there and see some shit like, “Whoa.” I’m for the most part not cynical, but I see a magic trick and I want to know how it’s done. I had to really question a lot of things about myself after that experience. I continue to see, at these little places that don’t have an agenda except to celebrate their own life, something in common in terms of a relationship with the invisible world.
Have you had an experience where you got into or really understand more modern electronic music?
When we started doing [Canadian festival] Shambhala, it was like being in the future. That festival is just one of my favorites. You would hear stuff there that you wouldn’t hear for another two years in the US. This was in the mid-2000s, so the internet still wasn’t as “here’s everything!” as it is now.
At one of those Shambhalas we heard this DJ called SPL, and he had a dubstep mix that was three hours long that we heard on our way into the festival. It was like, “how the fuck are they getting these sounds?” Then we get to Shambhala and heard Skream, who was still doing dubstep at the time, and his set was so unbelievable.
By the time we got out of Shambhala, with the nature of us being an improv band, we got to our next stop in Whitefish, Montana and were like, “Let’s try that.” We did our best version of what we had heard, and the people in Montana were like, “What fucking spaceship just landed?” That felt like, “Wow, we just hit a little nerve.”
It reminds me of what you were saying about your experiences in Haiti and Ghana, where you open a portal for people who are like, “I don’t know what that was, but I really felt it.”
Absolutely. It had that same eye-opening thing. Like, “I don’t know what you’re doing but my face is starting to twist and I’m starting to dance and I don’t usually dance.” In a village situation there is an actual belief system and a religion and a relationship with that music that’s way different, but I equate those situations, because from a mind-opening perspective it allows this other thing to sort of take over.
You’ve had a lot of incredible collaborations. You also worked with Dr. Dre, right?
Just for a day. It was an intense ten hours. It was on The Chronic 2001. I was probably third in line to get the call for that particular session. The guy who played on most of his productions wasn’t in town. They tried to get Sheila E. to come play and she wasn’t around, but there was a keyboard player who was working with them that I had just started playing with around town who recommended me for the session. I hadn’t worked on hip-hop record before, but I was down.
So what happened?
I go to do the session in my beat up old Honda Civic hatchback. Usually a studio session player would come with what’s called cartage, where a truck would pull up with all their gear that they keep in storage in big cases that someone pushes into the studio for you. I just had everything in the back of my Honda.
I get to the front door and knock, and when it opens there’s this 6’4 super muscular guy with a gun strap on like, “What do you want?” Really mean. I was like, “I was sent here for the Dr. Dre session.” He was like, “Hold on” and shuts the door, and I was like, “Oh my god. What just happened?” The next time he opens the door and he’s all smiles like, “You’ve come to the right place!” and helps me with my gear. Then I met Dre, and he was ready to go to work. Scott Storch, the big hip-hop producer, was in that session and one of the keyboard players from The Roots. I wasn’t in that scene, so I had no idea. That probably helped so I wasn’t like “Oh my god I love your shit!”
They set me up in the main recording area because I had a lot of shit, and Dre just got to work. We did one ten hour session. When any of us had a good idea that caught his ear, he’d say “that,” play it back for us and say ,“Remember what you did, start from that idea and go forward.” It was a constant session of that on every track we worked on. A couple of rappers came by, but they’d stay in the control room and we’d be out in the studio working. It was really inspirational, because I had been doing a lot of studio session work for commercials and movie trailers, and it was a different approach to making music.
That’s really cool.
It was great. His ear just knew when something was good. When I’d go back into the control room to hear it, and the sounds he got out of my drums were just, wow. When I listen back to that record I can barely hear any of it. It’s like, “I think I hit that tambourine there. He kept it!”