If Euan Leslie isn’t on-campus at Berklee, there’s a good reason. This fifth-semester student has a lot on his plate: in addition to working on his artist visa, he’s won multiple prestigious competitions, become the drummer of the UK boy band The Shades, played with country artist Caroline Gray, and received a scholarship from the Latin Grammys—all before the age of 22. Our Editor-in-Chief Ceskie chatted with Leslie over the phone about his influences growing up, the struggles of being an international student, and his goals for the future.
Interviewed by Ceskie
How did you land your job playing with The Shades?
Their manager hit me up. I never found out how he got my email - he just sent me an email saying, “Our drummer left and we’re looking for a new recruit. Are you interested?” I was in Boston at the time and they flew me back to the UK, and I was with them for about six months or a year. We did the UK tour and a bunch of press stuff. It was cool, but I also want to get creative with my fusion and jazz and all that stuff. But it was fun, don’t get me wrong.
So what is it that you want to do?
I want to stay in the US. That’s the first goal. I had so many problems getting back in because of my student visa—it was terminated when I was here. They took it off of me when I got to the airport, because I was misinformed that I could stay in the US and work on my student visa. So the next year I applied for four visas that I didn’t get, and I ended up missing gigs until I could get one. I was supposed to be playing with these cats at a club in Hollywood. Eventually I got it, on the fifth try, but I had to beg them and tell them that the US was where I needed to be.
At the moment I’m working on my artist visa so that I can go back and forth freely with no problems. You can do it by yourself, but to obtain one correctly you have to get a lawyer. We’re basically working on a portfolio to send to the immigration authorities. You have to list everything you’ve done in your career, because they say you have to be “an alien of extraordinary ability” and all that. We’ll see what happens; I just know I need to be here for what I want to do. I want to play with the top fusion/jazz artists, do some pop tours—I just want to play as much as possible, and I also want to book my own stuff and produce it.
I do think the people in Nashville are cool—it’s obviously a country vibe, but it seems to be becoming more funky. They’ve got a lot of flair, fusion, jazz, and those kinds of jam-night sounds. If I was going to move it would be there. It’s more my vibe, because the center of everything is smaller; you can basically travel 20 minutes out of the city and be in open farmland. I grew up in a small place, so I like that.
Where are you from?
I grew up in southwest Scotland in a town called Dumfries. It’s above Carlisle—practically in England, about 20 minutes above the port. There’s nothing special about that place, but Calvin Harris did come from there. His mom was my Sunday school teacher growing up. I didn’t realize who he was until he started doing really well in America. If you see Dumfries, it’s nothing special - just a tiny, tiny town.
Do you come from a musical family? Nope. My family appreciates music and I think my mom touched on the guitar and piano as a kid, but they’re not musicians by profession. But my great uncle was a professional double bass player, and my cousin is a fiddler who studied traditional Irish and Scottish music in Belfast and is touring around Europe. We grew up together, and we used to challenge each other to see who could practice the most and all that. So that side of the family is pretty musical.
I started drumming when I was 10 or 11. My first set was from some kind of music gear kit and it lasted a few months before I destroyed it. After that I got an electric set, because I had gotten so many complaints from the neighbors! I was playing jazz-funk growing up, as well also Scottish folk; I played the bagpipes growing up, too. I was involved in that culture, but I tried really hard to get out of that and play the music I wanted to play. There was a jazz orchestra in Dumfries that didn’t make the style seem interesting or cool, but luckily I got involved with a group of young dudes that were into jazz, hip-hop, and really creative stuff, and it put me on this path. I was younger than them, so when they graduated high school there was no one else for me to play with. I’d been taking the train to play with them and still getting up to go to school the next morning.
I left high school a year early, at 16. I came over to the US with my cousin for Berklee’s 5-Week program, and while I was here I applied for their undergraduate international scholarship. I got one, luckily, but I went home to save up some money. I couldn’t be back in Dumfries after being in Boston, so I moved to Bristol (where I was actually born) because I figured their music scene would be better. I worked in construction for a few months to pay rent and was going to jam sessions trying to meet people, getting them to set up gigs, and sneaking into bars to play. The scene was so good—lots of hip-hop, R&B, and funk. That was a blast. I spent a year there before I came to Berklee.
I hadn’t gone to Bristol I wouldn’t have done myself any favors musically. But I definitely was very lucky to have that small group of people in Dumfries. We wouldn’t have gotten to that path of creating music otherwise. Playing all the time with so many different musicians, you grow even if you don't realize it. If I wasn’t around that culture there’s no way I would have gathered all that knowledge.
Who were your role models growing up?
My granddad wasn’t a musician, but he enjoyed music. He had a funny upbringing - he was born in Jerusalem, moved to Trinidad as a toddler, and then to Scotland as a teenager, so he grew up with calypso music and would always be interested in rhythm and what I was drumming. He would push me a lot. I would go over to his house and he’d say “you sound rusty—keep practicing those drums.” And so many drummers—all the funk drummers like James Brown, Clyde Stubblefield, and John “Jabo” Starks, fusion drummers like Vinnie Colaiuta, and all of the jazz pioneers. But I wouldn’t consider myself a “jazz drummer.” I would describe myself as fusion, because I do many different types of music.
What were the last three songs you listened to?
“Nite Sprite” by Chick Corea, “Lose Yourself to Dance” by Daft Punk with Pharrell Williams, and this cool track called “London” by a fusion band called Void.
Let’s talk about the Yamaha Young Performing Arts Competition you recently won!
It was kind of unexpected, I guess! I was just doing one credit at Berklee last semester, but my friend had to go home because he was ill, and needed a sub for his ensemble. I did that for a whole semester free of charge, and if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have found out about the competition. Tiger Okoshi, this trumpeter and jazz legend, worked with the ensemble and recommended for all of us to enter it. I did it because I thought it would be good for my artist visa.
What does the award entail?
I think I get a plaque, and we have to go down south for a three-day celebration with masterclasses and performances. It’s bringing me some good relationships with people who work for Yamaha, and it’s a good opportunity to start relationships for my career in the long run. But I’ve actually wanted to get in contact with Yamaha US for a while, because they sponsored this competition I won back home—Young Drummer of the Year. I got to know the UK guys and they helped me out with equipment here in the States, but it’s been hard with shipments and stuff. I’ve wanted to get in touch with the US people somehow—we’ll see if they’ll sponsor me.
Are you sponsored right now?
Yes: by Meinl cymbals, D’addario, and Roland as well. Yamaha back home helped me here and there, but it’s just been more difficult since I moved to the US. I actually got these sponsorships after the competition—I had entered before, and different companies sponsor the competition every year, so all of these companies who had previously been sponsors heard me play. It was good to connect with those people in the industry.
What have been your best experiences at Berklee?
Playing with Jesus Molina—we connected a couple years ago and toured quite a bit in the Caribbean—and just playing with the musicians I always wanted to play with. I haven’t really done much at Berklee other than perform. I’ve done all the core classes, but after that I was just playing as much as possible - one semester I did seven labs! I entered a competition that I head about from Berklee’s social media and was lucky enough to win that, and I got to go to Japan. If I wasn’t here I never would have known about it. It’s the opportunities that have been the best thing from Berklee.
Do you have music out?
It’s all a work in progress right now. Up until now I’ve been playing a lot of other peoples’ music, which is great especially when it’s new, because you get to create your parts in a way. For example, we had to create our parts for Jesus’ album. It’s handy staying here—it’s going to help me put some stuff together like keys and all that. I’ve been on Logic the last couple of years, and I’m thinking of getting some stuff down for good, solid forms. It’s like fusion, a lot of funk. I think funk was definitely a huge part of my style as I was growing up, but Bristol also did that to me and changed me. It’s a really funky city. I don’t know what it is, but the music ambassador of Bristol is this guy James Morton, a funk saxophonist. I played with him a lot and he was a mentor of mine going through the Bristol scene. He used to play with Prince’s horn section and was mentored by Alfred “PeeWee” Ellis. Those guys definitely changed my style and now it’s very funk oriented, along those jazz-fusion lines.
How do you 'get in the groove'?
Just playing - drumming. It's kind of freeing. When you’re really in the moment and playing in the band, or even by yourself, you’re not thinking of anything else. It’s like a creative outlet—I’m always finding new ways to do things. Even now as I’m writing music, it’s always from the drums. I sit down at the drums and it always gets the creative juices flowing. It’s my comfortable space because I’ve been playing for a while now.