Words by Kyle Kelly-Yahner
Instagram is ripe with technically proficient but robotically performed drum videos. These videos are typically high-production endeavors. You see a drummer casually fire off a torrent of notes over a chord change as if they haven’t played that exact fill 15 times in the past 10 minutes. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a monstrous fill. It’s expertly executed. It’s also the kind that will get you immediately fired from a gig if you were to, as the video suggests, learn how to play it by clicking the link in the bio.
On a good day, when the Instagram algorithm is just right, you come across a drummer offering something fundamentally different than air-tight, yet impractical, chops videos. Taylor Gordon is one of those drummers and more. Taylor has played with major artists like Michelle Williams, Beyoncé, Fifth Harmony, and Daya; most recently sitting in as the drummer for a week-long stint with the 8G band on Late Night with Seth Meyers. When she’s not on the road, Taylor covers canonical beats like Outkast’s frenetic and still exacting “Spread,” Aretha Franklin’s swaggering “Rock Steady,” or James Brown’s slow motion strut, “The Payback.” Taylor knows every note of each phrase, showing reverence for the role those notes serve in the song.
“Simply playing the record can be enough and actually add more to the record than filling it up too much with different notes,” says Taylor. Taylor’s not the first to cover some of these beloved grooves. But, she stands out from other drummers who pick a groove just to be the first to take it apart, dissect it, transcribe it, and mount it as a trophy on their Instagram feed. Taylor celebrates songs earnestly, carefully choosing her spots, and doing so without hesitation.
In a video from 2017, Taylor fires off a cluster of double strokes on her hi-hat before crashing into the first hook of The Time’s “777-9311.” “777 9311” clocks in at just over eight minutes, and nonetheless expresses a type of urgency. The bass line features a George Clinton level of funk, while the radiating synth pads remind you that the song was composed by an otherworldly being: Prince. In the video, Taylor is in lock step with the song’s intricately woven hi-hat patterns, darting in and out of the gaps between the bass drum’s stabs and snare backbeat. The beat she’s playing is actually the only part of the song that was not penned by Prince. Legendary Tower of Power drummer, David Garibaldi, programmed the drum track on one of the first drum machines ever created, a Linn LM-1. Maybe it’s the fact that the beat was programmed that tricks so many other drummers into taking a clinical approach to “777-9311.”
There are more than a few videos of drummers playing all of the notes in the right place. Still, those drummers seem as though they’re adjacent to the song and not in it. They’re peering through a window to see what makes the song tick, and get distracted by their own reflection. Taylor doesn’t fall for that trap. She’s squarely rooted in the song itself.
Before another fill, she angles a smile towards the camera almost as a tacit acknowledgement that she too sees the challenge of improvising over such a complex pattern. Taylor lands a backbeat right in the pocket after the fill, and it’s hard not to smile, too. Her ability to play both empathetically and earnestly has led Taylor to international tours, national television appearances, and a rapidly growing online fanbase.
This is the power of The Pocket Queen, aka Taylor Gordon.
Taylor remembers playing to her Dad’s records on an old Fisher Price drum set. She was two years old with sticks in hand, drumming along to Earth, Wind & Fire, Toto and Daryl Coley. Taylor’s parents quickly realized that while the Fisher Price drum kit was marketed as a toy, it was something more serious to Taylor. It was her first drum set ever.
By age seven, Taylor was playing at church on Sundays in front of audiences for the first time. She got over her initial stage fright quickly and settled into the drum throne. At a young age, she fed off of the audience and learned how to survey their energy in real time. Through playing in the church, Taylor learned how to spark audiences to life. A seven-year-old drumming in church doesn’t tie themselves up in knots debating how to please an audience without sacrificing their artistic voice or getting boxed in by audience expectations. A 17-year-old might.
Taylor doesn’t know when she started grappling with those questions. By the time she was auditioning at Berklee College of Music, she was confident in her answers. “I want to remain true to my own voice and my own interests as a musician and make choices that I think are musical regardless of whether the audience likes them or not,” says Taylor. She picked a drumless track, “Arachnidiot,” for her audition, shifting seamlessly between hip-hop, latin, and jazz grooves. Playing something that she believed in, not a piece reverse-engineered for optimal audition grading, helped Taylor show Berklee the player she was outside of the audition room. “Through that musicality and being a timekeeper, they [Berklee] were able to see my personality and who I am. And I think that’s what they became more connected with,” says Taylor.
Taylor got a Presidential Scholarship that year.
“Simply playing the record can be enough and actually add more to the record than filling it up too much with different notes”
At Berklee, Taylor saw that students studied differently. Walking through one of Berklee’s practice complexes, Taylor could hear her classmates ironing out kinks in new material. No one should feel pressure to sound perfect while practicing. Still, the pressure was there, and it changed the way everyone practiced.
When the practice space was busy, drummers would drill material they had down pat, knowing others might be listening in on their semi-public practice. At night, those drummers would return to tackle the material that was out of their grasp, hoping no one was listening. This open secret didn’t sit right with Taylor. You’re in school to get better at your craft. What’s the point of trying to sweep the process of getting better under the rug? In response, Taylor started a YouTube series called “Road to Chops” that documented her practice regimen. In every video, she’s reaching for ideas that are slightly outside her grasp, inching closer to them with each drill before finally mastering a new idea.
“I wanted to let people see that it’s okay to not be familiar with everything, and also to grow in front of people. A lot of people don’t know as well and are interested. So, it was a way for me to be vulnerable with where I was, instead of hiding and waiting to improve before anyone else saw me,” says Taylor. If you pay attention to the opening seconds of Taylor’s “Spread” cover, you’ll see this transparency on display today. Moments before the take, she rolls her eyes in frustration. Taylor recalls being 30 or so takes deep at this point, thinking, “I don’t know if I’m going to get this one, maybe I should do another one.” Then she got it. Hiding this part of the work takes away from the reward. Road to Chops served to put that work in the spotlight.
Taylor published 10 Road to Chops videos in total, finishing the series in 2010. She graduated from Berklee in 2011 and moved to LA in 2013.
In LA, Taylor started playing with artists like Michelle Williams, Robert Glasper, and (drum roll please) Stevie Wonder at One Church International. In the midst of diving into a career as a live and session drummer, Taylor thought nothing of her former role as part-educator, part-purveyor-of-realness in Road to Chops — until someone reminded her of that series one fateful afternoon in a Hollywood Chick-fil-A; Taylor was sitting, eating lunch when a man recognized her.
“Are you Taylor Gordon?” he asked.
He goes on to tell Taylor that he watched all of her Road to Chops videos in college and would love to exchange information. This man was Derek Dixie, music director for Beyoncé. “You never know how far the video’s going, or who’s watching or what they can do, even if it doesn’t have that many views. It’s all about putting yourself out there and being fearless with your gift,” says Taylor, remembering that encounter. A year after their Chick-fil-A encounter, Derek called Taylor. “I was laying on the floor of my practice space trying to figure out the chorus to a song, and my phone rings. Derek says, “I need you to play for a big event.”
The gig was scheduled for February. Doing some cursory process of elimination, Taylor figured it’d be one of the two big February events — the Grammy Awards or the Super Bowl. It was the latter.
“You never know how far the video’s going, or who’s watching or what they can do; even if it doesn’t have that many views. It’s all about putting yourself out there and being fearless with your gift”
Taylor stood on the field at Super Bowl 50 with drum sticks in hand and a golden marching snare in front of her. With fellow drummers Venzella Joy Williams, Patty Anne Miller, and Michelle Baptiste, they formed Beyoncé’s marching band for her performance of “Formation.” The marching band was split into two parallel drum lines facing each other, their snare drums inches apart. As the two flanks march backwards, Beyoncé struts through the gap. If she happens to look like an angelic being parting a sea of drums, that’s likely intentional.
“We see her on TV and she looks magical with her hair blowing in the wind. We don’t think of that as intentional or at least we don’t go so far to think, ‘She purposefully put a camera here,’ says Taylor. Beyoncé has a crystal clear view of her identity as an artist, and therefore knows exactly how she wants to present herself to her audience. From there, every camera angle is an extension of an artistic choice. So, when Beyoncé diplomatically tells a cameraman to be in one position for a shot, it’s not because she has the power to make that call. It’s because making those calls is what keeps her at the top of her game.
“Working with Beyoncé taught me that you can be very intentional with how you come across to people, that you can be intentional with your success and how you want things to go.” When Taylor arrived back in L.A after the Super Bowl, she adjusted her camera angles.
Earlier in the day, Taylor had an audition with a major label artist. “I didn’t do bad, but after it was over, I knew I didn’t get the job,” Taylor remembers. Afterwards, in her rehearsal space, Taylor set up to record a cover with Beyoncé’s lessons in mind, knowing every detail represents a decision. She filmed a cover and posted it with the expectation that a few music friends would enjoy it. The next morning, Taylor’s rendition of “777-9311” had 100,000 views on Instagram. Today, it has over a million views on Facebook. Building her own audience using her own voice has brought Taylor to larger and larger stages.
Wrapping up 2018, Taylor toured Asia for the second time in a year, performing with Fifth Harmony. Shortly after, she got the call to sit in as the house drummer with the 8G Band for Late Night with Seth Meyers. “I was shocked and excited to say the least. They have created an amazing platform for drummers by featuring who I consider some of the best drummers in the world. So I am beyond honored to be in that number,” says Taylor.
When Taylor got the call, it wasn’t completely unexpected. She had been in the running for the position of house drummer in the 8G Band six years before she appeared on the show. The roster of drummers who have graced the 8G Band’s drum throne reads like the Drum Hall of Fame, including Janet Weiss, Matt Cameron, Nate Smith, Joey Castillo, and Vinnie Colaiuta, to name a few.
The path that allowed Taylor to be a part of that list winds through the living room where she played on a Fisher Price kit, the Berklee practice rooms where she rehearsed in earnest, the 50-yard line of Super Bowl 50, and finally back to her rehearsal space in LA, where she’s building her fanbase. Taylor wasn’t chasing an audience per se, but she’s found one by presenting herself without pretense.
So, maybe Seth Meyers’ official record of drummers to sit in with the 8G Band will list Taylor by her given name. To anyone in the know, you can hear that it’s The Pocket Queen.
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