If you ask Jason Hartless what he does, he could simply answer, “musician.” Or he could say, “touring drummer, session player, record company executive, scholar, recording artist, mentor.” Considering that Hartless is still a few months away from turning 24-years-old, there’s no telling how long his resume will be in a decade. For now, though Hartless is concentrating on drumming as he is currently on tour with the Motor City Madman himself, Ted Nugent.
We were able to catch Hartless between shows and chat a bit with him by email, and since he started playing drums while still a toddler, we started our conversation there. His commentary below is given exclusively to AXS.com.
AXS: You’ve been playing professionally since you were five-years-old, an age when most “drummers” are still beating on pots and pans. What was that first gig and those very early days like?
Jason Hartless: I started jamming with some of my dad’s musician friends around the time I was three or four. Then when I was five we started doing cover gigs around Detroit, playing tunes such as, “Nantucket Sleighride” by Mountain, “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, a few Alice Cooper tunes and a whole host of others. My dad ended up sending a video of me playing “Nantucket Sleighride” to my godfather Richie Scarlet, who was playing bass for Mountain at the time. Richie then showed the video to Mountain drummer Corky Laing. Corky called my dad up and expressed interest in working together on a record. From the time I was seven to about 10 years old, Corky would drive to Detroit from Toronto and we would sit behind two drum kits and woodshed for hours. The biggest part of our time working together was him mentoring me on what it takes to be a working professional in the studio and on the road.
Those sessions were my first experience as a working studio musician. Around that same time, I was called to come to New York and play a track on Richie Scarlet’s record Revelation Supreme. My dad and I flew in a day early, before I was to start tracking, to hang and watch legendary session drummer Anton Fig cut two songs for the same record. Watching Anton walk into the studio, hearing the songs once, and then playing them perfectly in one or two takes blew my mind. It was really at that moment that I wanted to be a session musician. During that session, Anton taught me how to chart music in a pressure studio situation, and techniques that I still use today.
AXS: Now in your early 20s, you’re a managing partner at the Detroit-based Prudential Music Group where you’re personally overseeing a host of upcoming releases. Tell us about a couple of the projects you’re working on.
JH: Being a managing partner for Prudential Music Group has been such a great opportunity for my career as an industry executive because I have been given a lot of creative and business responsibility for the company. For the past two years I have been working towards my Master’s degree in Music Business at Berklee College of Music, so being able to run a company while I am studying the field works out great for being able to use my current business situations in my class work. When I was named a partner, the company was only Prudential Records, since then we have built the company into Prudential Music Group and founded a vinyl-focused label called Rouge Records and also created Prudential Publishing to house the Prudential and Rouge publishing catalog.
Rouge Records has really taken off quickly; since we founded the brand in fall of 2017, we have already released seven releases and have four pending projects. The Rouge brand mainly focuses on vinyl re-issues of music from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and we’ve recently started to sign a few local Detroit acts to give them a jump start with a vinyl product. Prudential Music Group is lucky to be headquartered in Detroit, where Jack White just opened his Third Man Pressing plant. We were able to get our foot in the door quickly and were one of the first third-party clients that Third Man Pressing took on.
For Record Store Day 2018, we released a very special album called The Secret Sessions by Pompeii; the album was a supergroup of musicians that Corky Laing put together and recorded some material between 1976 and 1978. The album featured Corky, Ian Hunter (Mott The Hoople), Mick Ronson (David Bowie), Felix Pappalardi (Mountain/Cream's Producer), Dickey Betts (Allman Brothers), Leslie West (Mountain), Todd Rundgren, John Sebastian (The Lovin' Spoonful) and Eric Clapton. This project was special for me because on top of releasing an album with so many iconic musicians, it also was great to start a new project with my longtime mentor, Corky Laing. But this time I was in the producer chair.
On top of the Pompeii release, we recently released The Sweet’s Level Headed Tour Rehearsals and reissued the debut albums from The Rationals and Seduce. At the end of 2018, we will be releasing a live record from 1970 featuring all four Quatro sisters, before Suzi Quatro’s career hit big.
AXS: You are notably a clean and sober artist. Have you had to turn down jobs as a touring drummer because you were aware of the dissipation associated with a certain act?
JH: I have not. I almost never turn down touring or session work unless I already have a conflicting tour or session date. Since I was very young, I have seen so many extremely talented musicians throw their careers and lives away with drugs, alcohol and even egos. So, it’s just something that I have always had an awareness of, and have learned to deal with until it starts to affect the job that I have to do. I’m lucky to be one of the most active session musicians in Detroit, and over the years I have worked on a couple of hilarious sessions. I’ve been on sessions where the artist has had such a large ego, or so whacked out of their minds that it ended up creating some pretty interesting music. But I was still able to put 110% into the session.
AXS: You’re currently on tour with Ted Nugent. What are your favorite parts of the set, and why? Do you take a solo?
JH: Touring with Ted for the past three years has been an amazing experience. Ted, in my opinion, will go down in history as one of the greatest guitar players of all time, so being able to share the stage with him every night is such an honor. The biggest challenge about this gig is that we play six or seven nights a week and cram a whole year’s worth of touring into about six to eight weeks. So eating healthy and staying in shape is absolutely key to being able to give 110% every night. One of the parts of playing with Ted that makes this gig so fun, is he is so unpredictable. Even though we have a set list every night, he always changes songs around and adds songs, so you always have to keep your eye on him at all times. Playing iconic songs like “Stranglehold” and “Cat Scratch Fever” is a highlight every show, but another highlight is when Ted allows the bass player, Greg Smith, and I to stretch out and do a drum/bass solo during “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang,” which is always super fun. Even at 70-years-old, seeing Ted is like seeing James Brown on steroids. It's crazy high energy for an hour and a half.
AXS: Are you currently working on another solo album, or when might you have time to devote to that?
JH: I actually have no plans, nor any desire to do another solo record. The first one was done by Corky and I when I was very young and was really an excuse to give me my first experience of working in the studio as a musician. I love being the “hired gun” session and touring musician. Being a guy like Jeff Porcaro that can go from doing a jazz session to touring with a rock band, to doing a Latin session is so much fun and keeps the job fresh. For example, I was on tour with Joe Lynn Turner (ex-lead singer of Rainbow and Deep Purple) in January of this year. After doing a gig in St. Louis with Joe, I flew home to Detroit to jump immediately into a big band jazz session with some of Bob Seger’s horn section for a Christmas album. That’s what makes this job so much fun; being able to go from classic rock/metal to big band Christmas music in less than 24 hours.
Follow Jason Hartless here.