Back when Brian Slawson was a student at Connecticut’s Hartt School of Music, his social life was a joke. Specifically, it was the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall (practice, practice, practice). Slawson, a would-be percussionist, was so dedicated that he’d hide in a closet when guards shut down the rehearsal rooms so that he could reemerge and continue practicing his timpani and marimba till dawn. Says Slawson, “I take pride in the fact that on Saturday night while everyone else was out partying I was in there playing away.”
Eleven years later Slawson has gone from Bach around the clock to Bach on Wood, an unusual LP that features the 29-year-old percussionist playing classical music on 50 instruments, including drums, xylophones, ratchet wrenches, a crosscut saw, an anvil and several alarm clocks. Issued last spring, the album has been on Billboard’s classical music chart for 39 weeks and earned Slawson a Grammy nomination for Best New Classical Artist. The award went to Chicago Pro Musica, but Slawson figures just getting nominated was “cool.”
It was also unexpected. Until last year Slawson, who studied classical percussion for three years at Juilliard, earned much of his living by playing his marimba on the sidewalks of New York. Patron of the arts Chevy Chase once dropped $20 into his hat. “I could make $150 on a good night,” says Slawson. “The arch in Washington Square Park is a great reverberation unit.” He also played on commercial jingles and tried to cadge cheap studio time to record his classical arrangements. During one such session he met Mikie Harris, assistant to John Hammond Sr., the legendary Columbia Records Svengali who helped launch the careers of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Harris and Hammond made the calls that eventually landed Slawson a contract.
Slawson is already at work on a second LP, but it won’t be simply a chip off the old Bach. Although classically rooted, the album may include, along with Slawson’s drums and cowbells, some guitar work by Texas blues ace Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Roll over, Johann Sebastian.