Mark Z. Stevens is a long time drummer, a consummate studio musician, from a musical family. He’s played with Barbara Streisand among many others. We caught up with Mark at Desert Rose in Los Feliz, CA where he was performing with his Mark Z. Stevens Trio.
KIM: Did you choose music or did music choose you?
MARK: Absolutely, music chose me. My dad was a studio musician and a phenomenal trumpet player. I never realized that everyone didn’t grow up in a musical environment. It never occurred to me until I was in my 20s. From the time I was conceived, I heard music all the time. My dad was always practicing, my mom was a piano player; there was always music in my home. I was always surrounded by it. Again, it never occurred to me that everyone else did not share that experience.
KIM: Who were your mentors; who inspired you?
MARK: In the very, very beginning I was self-taught, so I did a lot of listening. There were a few clubs I could get into, being young in high school, I used to go. There’s a place Les McCann used to play. Because it was a coffee house, I could get in when I was 16 or 17-years-old. I loved going to hear live music. I went to hear the LA Phil a lot. My background is fairly deep, in terms of different kinds of music. I grew up listening to different kinds of music in my home. Both my parents listened to classical music, obviously jazz, and Latin stuff.
I used to go with my dad to recording sessions. A lot of the drummers people never even heard of were in their own way, very influential in what I heard, what I saw. I got to see a side of music that most people don’t see. All the studio guys were just amazing. They are craftspeople. The demand is that you play anything that is put in front of you. Having watched that kind of stuff, I would have to say that was my earliest mentoring. At the time I didn’t play drums. I studied classical piano and I studied trumpet with my dad. I was always fascinated by the drummers on the sessions. I was magnetically drawn to that. That is kind of how things came to be.
KIM: Who or what is most important in the recording studio?
MARK: I would have to say you have a combination of two things: You have fantastic studio players that really can play anything. The other side of the glass is if you don’t have a really good engineer that really understands music. The guys that were my favorite engineers were all musicians, all came from a musical background, know what instruments sound like. The buck stops there. You can be the best player, you can have the best orchestra, if you don’t have an engineer in the booth that can capture that, it’s useless, it’s a waste. It’s really two things: It’s got to be a great performance and it has to really be a good recording.
I’m lucky to have worked with some fantastic engineers who have great ears. They walk around; they see how things sound in real life. Then that’s translated to hearing it in the booth. It ideally should sound just like what it sounded like out on the floor. I have a tremendous respect for engineers because my drums can sounds great, but if they don’t record that way and the engineer isn’t savvy, I’m up the creek with no paddle.
KIM: Today’s music: evolution or de-evolution?
MARK: No, I think music is constantly in a state of evolution, in a state of change, and in a state of historically significant things that came before. In a sense, everything that I’ve ever listened to and anything anyone else that plays an instrument has ever listened to is a tremendous influence on
what they produce.
KIM: What’s the coolest thing that ever happened to you because you were a musician?
MARK: Oh, God. I don’t think I could pick one coolest thing. I think beginning at a tremendously early age, when I used to go with my dad to sessions; just being in the room and near a brass section with all this stuff going on just made the hair at the back of my neck stand up. It’s so exciting to be just surrounded by live music. From then on, I’ve had so many experiences that are peak experiences. There are so many, we could be here for days. I worked with Barbara Streisand live, when Claus Ogerman was conducting and it’s was a huge orchestra. Again, because the drums were center stage, Barbara was right in front of me. Every night she’d just sing one tune with just Claus Ogerman playing piano. Honest to God, the hair on my arms and the back of my neck . . . I never heard anything that magical. It’s just one of those magic moments where you could hear a pin drop. She nailed it night after night. Every night it would be the same thing. I’d just lose my breath, it’s just breathtaking.
I’ve had a lot of experiences like that where everything . . . for lack of a better term, there’s a magic that happens and you can’t make it happen, it’ just when you become one with what is going on; everybody’s listening. It just happens. For lack of a better word, it is a chemistry thing or magic thing. I think if you talk to other musicians, that moment, that feeling is going to come up. It’s not anything that anyone plans on or makes happen. It’s just when everyone is functioning and listening, and the unit becomes a whole. Those are just fantastic moments. I’m very fortunate because they happen all the time, and you never know when it’s going to happen.
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