Six members of the University of Lethbridge’s Global Drum percussion ensemble, under the direction of Adam Mason, were hand-selected to participate in a ground-breaking Pan Rocks recording at Ocean Studios in Burbank, CA alongside a jaw-dropping list of rock and roll alumni.
University of Lethbridge alumni Matt Groenheide (BMus ’11), Jodi Groenheide (BMus ’11), Alya Jeraj (BMus ’13), Matt Thiessen (BMus ’16), and current students Theo Lysyk and Owen Francis were the only Canadian artists to join a 25-piece steel drum orchestra, Pan Rocks, to record a six-song EP and video documentary.
Internationally renowned steel pannist and founder of Pan Rocks, Tracy Thornton, brought in rock heavy hitters including Stephen Perkins on drumset (Jane’s Addiction, Porno for Pyros), Tracii Guns on guitar (LA Guns; Guns & Roses), and Billy Sheehan on bass (Mr. Big; David Lee Roth). The project is being produced by Thornton and Matt Starr (Mr. Big; Ace Frehley) and will be mastered by Dave Collins (Metallica, The Police, Soundgarden). They will also be adding tracks from Bruce Kulick (KISS, Grand Funk Railroad), and a cello duo from America’s Got Talent.
“It was a huge honour to be invited to be part of such a ground-breaking project,” says Matt Groenheide. “I don’t think anyone has ever bridged the gap between the worlds of steel pan and rock in such a big way.”
The group recorded six songs including an original piece by Thornton and covers of rock classics from Jane’s Addiction, Led Zeppelin, KISS and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The recording took place in May at famed Ocean Studios that has seen the likes of Evanescense, Jimmy Eat World, the Ataris and more.
“Ocean Studios was mind blowing,” exclaims Jeraj. “The studio was cozy and not intimidating at all. Walking down the hallway to record we saw platinum and gold records from Avril Lavigne, Fall Out Boy, and so many more. I can't even describe the feeling I got when we were setting up and recording, knowing so many great musicians had used the space.”
The percussionists had a chance to rub elbows with rock legends, not something they get to do every day in Lethbridge.
“I wasn't sure what to expect when meeting these rock and roll legends. I didn't know if we would actually get to work with them directly or even talk to them. It was amazing. They were hanging out with us and wanted to know more about what we did back home and if we were having a good time.”
There were also steel plan players from across the US who are teachers at universities, inner city schools, or freelance musicians. Learning from them and playing alongside was an unforgettable experience.
“They were all extremely well prepared and talented beyond belief. Learning about their history with steel pan and percussion, and who they have toured and played with was so inspiring,” shares Jeraj. “Billy, Stephen, Matt and Tracii may have played with famous rock stars, but many of the percussionists have traveled to Trinidad to play with the most iconic steel pan players in the world. One of the tenor pan players, Bryan Garbe, just came back from opening up for Bon Jovi at Madison Square Garden with his band Oak and Ash.”
Thornton is no stranger to the Global Drums ensemble, working with Global Drums and director Adam Mason over the years, travelling with them to Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, the Netherlands, England and the US.
“He’s really Global Drums’ best friend,” says Groenheide. “We’ve been playing Tracy’s music for years. It was incredible to hear it brought to life by the combination of steel pans and rock instruments.”
“This project has been a dreamlike experience for our students,” says Mason. “They have worked hard and persevered to be counted among the best of the best. I could not be more proud of them.”
Pan Rocks is the brainchild of Thornton, a professional steel pan performer, composer, arranger, recorder and clinician.
“One of his ongoing missions is to put rock and roll music on steel pan in order to expose the instrument to people who haven't heard of it before,” shares Groenheide. “He wants to prove that the steel pan is not just a novelty instrument playing Caribbean folk tunes at a poolside bar. It's a versatile, fully-chromatic instrument that can play any style of music.”
The result of their hard work will be a documentary and EP to be released in the future.
“Tracy Thornton is so passionate about steel pan that he wants to reach a wider audience,” says Jeraj. “I hope it reaches younger kids and youth who may look at the pan as ‘light and fluffy.’ Hopefully this will get kids and others wanting to take up pan and become musicians.”