Interview with Zack Kirk Olsen from Slow Gherkin

My latest interview is with the fabulous and extremely talented drummer, Mr. Zack Kirk Olsen. Here is a little background on this man’s impressive career! He is the drummer for the Santa Cruz, Ca. based Ska / Punk band Slow Gherkin. This highly popular and successful band toured the USA nine times with the exception on N. Dakota, Hawaii and Alaska. They also toured extensively in Europe and Japan as well.
Olsen also became a drum instructor early on in his career. He now has a full roster of private students. He is also an instructor at the annual Kuumbwa Jazz Center jazz camp. He plays in the pit for the Cabrillo College stage as well as Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Olsen also is a drum tech for the renowned Monterey Jazz Festival. Olsen is a freelance musician “drummer for hire” and he plays in projects all over the Bay Area. In this interview, Olsen reveals the pro’s and con’s of touring, his approach to playing and teaching the drums and how perspectives and priorities change for musicians as they grow older. I want to thank Zack for taking time out of his very busy schedule to do this interview.

Ash Andersen ( At what age did you first develop an interest in learning how to play the drums? Do you play any other instruments?

Zack Kirk Olsen: I first developed an interest very early on in my life. Probably around the second grade. I really enjoyed music and rhythm but, it didn’t culminate until I was in the seventh grade. There was a group of eighth graders, who had a punk rock band. I think that they were pretty horrible but, I thought that they were the coolest thing in the world.

It looked like so much fun to be in a band. To me, the drums looked like they were really fun to play. I bought a drum set for fifty bucks. It was a bass drum and the snare drum was a trash can lid. An actual trash can lid… I soon found that I had no knack for putting beats together on the drum set. I took some lessons while I was living in Seattle.

 All I wanted to do was learn how to play a simple beat so I could jam to the bands I was listening to. I remember that my instructor told me that I wasn’t ready to play on a full drum kit. He asked me to play a simple beat and I couldn’t do it. He said to me, “See, you’re not ready.” It totally turned me off to receiving any more lessons. I wound up giving my drum kit to a friend of mine. I did not revisit the drums again until almost the end of high school. I was around 16 or 17 years old. I tried guitar briefly and for chords, I learned “Green Sleeves.” For power chords, I learned “Smoke on the Water.” Later on, while I was attending college, I studied piano and mallet percussion.

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Ash Andersen: ( How did you master such a diverse array of drumming styles and genres? I.E. Punk, Ska, Jazz, Latin Jazz Rock? Do you have a favorite genre within drumming that is your absolute favorite? What do you like best about teaching? What are your least favorite aspects about it?

Zack Kirk Olsen: Well, thanks. But, I’d say have not mastered anything and I’m still a student of all of it. But, I choose to remain optimistic and never give up! Back when I first started playing, I’d say,, “yes” to anything. Jamming, gigs, whatever. I was totally out of my comfort zone most of the time. This helped grow as a musician. It helped me understand what was required in the genre of music that I was playing.

I love playing pretty much any style of music! When I was in Slow Gherkin, it was always a driving, fast beat. I enjoyed watching everyone dance, and get into it! It was also extremely physical! I had to constantly focus and make sure I was always on my game!  It is such an amazing feeling when you know people are loving what your playing! 

I completely fell in love with jazz. I really love the “bounce” of it. I love the creativity with it and what you get to apply to the drums. It has always been my personal dream to be a great jazz drummer. At first, I thought I could never get there… But, over time, I’m beginning to see that the dream is attainable. I love the “conversations” that go on musically between all the musicians when you are paying jazz.

What is my favorite style to play… That is a tuff one! I really love playing all styles. But, I would say that I love jazz the most lately. As far as teaching, I love whenever my students “light up,” when they get something they’ve been working on. I love guiding students on the personal track to reach whatever their goals are on the drums. I just truly love sharing my experience and knowledge with my students!

The things about teaching I don’t like… Scheduling, also when students do not listen. Fortunately, with the aid of technology, this has gotten a lot easier! Some students just come in and want to beat on the drums and do not listen to my instruction. I try to let then “work out” before we begin the lesson. But, sometimes, I swear. I feel like I just am sitting there for an hour…

Ash Andersen ( How did you meet your bandmates in Slow Gherkin? What were the most positive and negative aspects of touring? Would you go on an extensive tour again at this stage in your career?

Zack Kirk Olsen: I was playing in the “big band” at Cabrillo College. A member of Slow Gherkin approached me and asked if I’d be interested in trying out for a band that he was in. I said, “sure!” I went in for the audition and all the guys were really great! Before I even played a song, they all wanted me to join the group. Their big thing was the “bro factor.” It was much more important for them to have a member that they liked rather than some amazing drummer they could not get along with. They were absolutely certain that I could get up to speed and learn all of their material. Man! My arms were falling off! They enjoyed playing everything fast!

For me, the most positive aspects of touring was touring the world! We played in every state in the USA except for Alaska and N. Dakota. We played all over Europe and Japan too. I got a whole new perspective about the world. I met so many wonderful and supportive people. It made me grateful that I did not go to college! I almost quit the band to go back to school. But, after much though, I decided to stick with them. It really pushes you and makes you grow as a musician.

As far as the negative aspects of touring, there are no breaks. Its really true, “the show must go on…” lYou have to keep on going no matter how sick you feel. You’re “run down” tired and sometimes there can be a lot of bickering.  It’s very easy to get on each other’s nerves (band mates) you wind up fighting over the stupidest things. For us, it was a grind! We had A LOT of band members. At times, we eid not have a place to stay. Unless, a venue booked us hotel. 

Often, we found ourselves asking someone if we could crash at their pad. We’d assure them that we were all very nice guys and that we would cook them breakfast and clean up after ourselves the next day. Sometimes these places were great and other times they were just nasty… Other times, we just had to drive through the night to the next venue.

I’d love to tour again in some kind of capacity. I really love traveling. But, I don’t think I could do a long, extensive tour. I’d miss my wife and kids too much. Plus, it really does not pay that much typically. But, I could see myself going out for a week or two at a time.

Ash Andersen ( What would you say is the hardest thing to learn as far as starting out on the drums? When did you begin your journey as a drum instructor?

Zack Kirk Olsen: For me, the most difficult aspect of learning drums was learning how to practice efficiently. Once I understood how to do that, it made it much easier to make progress. But, as I mentioned before, I’m an optimist and I never give up. Another challenge for me was developing my technique. I’ve always enjoyed playing with people and it makes it easier when I’m learning new techniques.I used to have a very difficult time sitting by myself and practicing. Now, I’m very excited that my technique is finally catching up to my musicianship.

I began teaching early on in my career. I think that I had only been playing drums for like two years before I became an instructor. I was around 19 or 20. It was probably too early but, it was a good way to make some money and I enjoyed what I was doing. A kid that lived up the street from me in the early days really wanted to learn the drums. His mom approached me asked me if I could teach him and I jumped at the chance!

Zack Kirk Olsen: I’m fortunate to have my dream drum kit. I have two Craviotto drum kits that are just amazing. One of them has four rack toms, three floor toms and two bass drums. I like to have a lot of options so, I can play all types of musical genres. I’d die to have a Round Badge Gretch Jazz Bop kit, or a Ludwig champagne sparkle drum kit. Love me some sparkle finishes!

I recommend to all my students that they start out with a used kit. So, that they can literally get the biggest bang for their buck. One you gain experience, that’s when they can start experimenting with different woods,  construction,  sizes, etc. This all helps you to find your specific sound.

So many options these days! Usually, my students can acquire a nice used drum kit for $500 – $700 dollars, including hardware. Obviously, Craviotto’s are not usually for beginners. My favorite beginner drum kits are Sonor, Tama and Yamaha. But, there are many other brands out there to choose from. Even if you have a cheap drum kit, you can always tune it up and make it sound decent.

.Ash Andersen (Rock-n- What in your opinion is the hardest thing about learning the drums? Would you say that it is time signatures? Coordination? How does one even begin ?

Zack Kirk Olsen: In my opinion, the hardest thing about learning the drums is playing in time! Playing a consistent groove or beat can be very challenging at first for beginners. You are what you listen to and practice. In my case, I had a very hard time learning “fives” and “sevens.” I think  that’s because I was not hearing music that incorporated those rhythms growing up. When I first began practicing those  rhythms, they always sounded rushed and uneven.

The best way in my opinion, is to go slow and methodically through beats. Like counting and using your hands first and then going to the kit is a great way to learn. Find some music with odd time signatures and just put it on repeat. Try to absorb the beat in your mind first and then apply that to the drums.

Mastering coordination is always a constant challenge! It just takes time, no matter what level you are at. That being said, there’s plenty of music you can make or create without mastering it… The goal is ultimately to be able to play anything in your head without coordination getting in the way.

The first thing to do is just start doing it… Getting a fantastic teacher always helps.Great teachers all have their own, unique way of unlocking coordination challenges. It just takes time and there are no short cuts around that. Some people excel more quickly than others. Start with a rhythm, a rudiment, a beat, learn it well and then move on to the next one. There are lots of ways to achieve this. You have to find out what works best for you. You need guidance from someone, who is experienced and who can help you.

Ash Andersen (Rock How after more than twenty years as a professional drummer / instructor do you continue to challenge yourself personally?

Zack Kirk Olsen: I try to practice everyday, keep an open mind and try new things. I challenge myself to work on the things for me on the drums, which are the most difficult. I look back on what I’ve accomplished and I feel good about It. But, I always try and remain optimistic. I go and see live music whenever possible to gain more inspiration. Over the years I’ve created a wonderful compilation of transcriptions, notes, books, videos, etc. I try and pick something out of that and work on it each day that I practice.

Ash Andersen (Rock -n How has your perspective changed as you’ve gotten older compared to when you were younger and first starting your career as a musician I.E. like the Slow Gherkin early days?

Zack Kirk Olsen: I feel like I have become more open minded musically. The goal is not to “make it,” it is to be happy with where I’m at and to have integrity with my craft. I’m just starting to feel confident with my skills as a drummer. I’ve been doing this a long time and I know what I’m talking about! 

Now, I do not have to take every gig that comes my way. I will turn down projects,  if they do not sound fun, or if the money does not add up. In the past, I felt like I could not turn down a gig or a musical opportunity. I feel like I’ve gotten better at taking criticism, its now fuel for me to improve as a drummer. It used to feel like a stab to the heart…

Ash Andersen: ( How have you personally had to change and adapt to changes within the music business?

Zack Kirk Olsen: Personally, I feel like I have not had to change that much. Perhaps, I may have decided to not teach as much If gigs paid better. Most of my income comes from private teaching. I don’t expect that to ever really change. 

I have expanded what I do as an instructor. I try to use all my skills to generate income. I do some drum teaching, rent out beginning drum sets to my private students and rent out my teaching studio for rehearsals or for practicing. Recently, I helped a friend write an instructional book. I put on master classes and clinics, etc.

Ash Andersen ( What advice would you give to aspiring drummers?

Zack Kirk Olsen: Practice your craft and listen to lots of music. Play with others as much as possible. Work on your weaknesses. Show up on time and be nice. Find mentors and teachers, who are going to challenge you! Call people back. Do not let intimidating gigs or projects scare you. Do not let your ego get in the way. Work hard and have fun!

Ash Andersen: ( What are your current projects, that you are doing currently?

Zack Kirk Olsen: During the summer, I play for the Cabrillo College Stage for their musical productions. I have been playing a lot with the Steve Abrams Trio. He is a great piano player in the Bay Area and does a lot of Latin Jazz stuff! He writes fantastic arrangements and we have a blast playing together. I frequently play with Preacher Boy, we did a Duo album a few years back, which was a lot of fun. There is talk of starting another project with some friends of mine that doesn’t have a name yet. It’s going to be a Funk project.

I’m a “drummer for hire.” So, I’m constantly doing a lot of fill in gigs and one offs. I’m a drum tech for the Monterey Jazz Festival. I also drum tech for the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. Two years ago, I did a stand up special on Netflix with Fred Armisen. The book I’m working on is with Ulysses Owens Jr. It is going to be about jazz brushes. It will be released in January by Hal Publishing. I’m very excited about this and hoping that we will be doing more things like this in the future.

I organize clinics and master classes here at my personal teaching studio and also at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. For the last few years, I’ve also done clinics with Stanton Moore, Mark Guiliana, and Thomas Lang there. As far as participating in drum circles or hand percussion, I play some mallets and percussion whenever I do the Cabrillo College Stage shows. 

A few times a month, I get together with some other local drummers to do some Afro – Cuban stuff. As far as other drum circles around Santa Cruz, it is not really my thing. I own a set of bongos and congas. I don’t really ever just do percussion solely when I’m playing gigs.

Ash Andersen ( Can you please let our viewers know how to find links to what projects you’re involved in?

Zack Kirk Olsen: Sure! Gherkin



I want to thank Zack Kirk Olsen again! As you are reading, he is a very busy man.

All I can say… As someone, who is a beginning  / advanced drummer. If I still lived in Santa Cruz, Ca. I would be giving this man a call and I’d get on his mailing

Zack – may you always rock steady, you’re the best!

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