This Houston painter is Aerosmith’s emergency drummer
John Douglas also has sat in for the drummer of ZZ Top and painted portraits of such stars as Keith Richards, Freddie Mercury and many more.
The first time John Douglas drummed with Aerosmith, he got a call at 2:30 in the afternoon letting him know that he had six hours to learn about 16 or 17 songs before joining the band on stage.
“Time can sometimes be your enemy,” he says. “Having a lot of time can make you obsess about something like this. So having little time is an upside.”
Douglas has spent years working as a drum tech, and Aerosmith wasn’t even the first time he had to step behind the kit to help a band in need. When Frank Beard underwent an emergency appendectomy in 2002, Douglas stepped up from his work as drum tech to be the drummer in ZZ Top.
With Aerosmith, the gig ran a little longer: Drummer Joey Kramer was injured, and Douglas subbed for weeks, even playing with the band at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards.
“So that’s me,” Douglas says, “this drum tech guy from Montgomery, Texas, who played the Grammys with Aerosmith. Obviously I didn’t grow up wanting to be a drum tech. I wanted to be a drummer. So I was honored to fill some famous shoes in an iconic band.”
What: John Douglas artist appearance
When: 7 p.m. June 19
Where: Jumper Maybach Fine Art, 1131 Uptown Park, Suite 4
If Douglas’ work as a drum tech largely is visible before a concert, his work as an artist can be seen during a show. He’s designed all manner of instruments over the years, including drum kits for Beard, Kramer and Alex Van Halen. He’s painted guitars for Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. So even when he’s offstage, his work gets hit with the spotlight.
But tech work comes with tour downtime. And commissions for new instruments happen every few years when a major band tours. So Douglas found himself with a lot of time to make art — both at his Montgomery studio and in hotels while on tour.
This week, the Jumper Maybach Fine Art Boutique will host a delayed reception for “High Performance,” a collection of Douglas’ art that doesn’t make sound. Not surprisingly, Douglas’ paintings spring from his world: images of iconic musicians plying their trade and occasionally iconic movie visages.
Trading airbrush for paintbrush
“High Performance” was supposed to have its grand opening in March, plans that were scuttled due to the shelter-in-place order prompted by the coronavirus. But this Friday, they’ll try again, with a socially distant reception featuring Douglas and his work.
And even those who have seen Douglas’ art on a stage — a Swarovski crystal-covered drum kit for Kramer, a gold-leaf-covered kit for Beard, a white guitar emblazoned with an image of Perry’s wife — will find something new here, because Douglas decided to try something novel about five years ago and hit upon a striking set of canvases.
Douglas says he was “primarily known for doing freehand airbrush work on three-dimensional objects.” But even his canvases were largely done with an airbrush. He’d done a large airbrush painting of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards — 4 feet by 5 feet — and wasn’t happy with what he saw. Richards’ face is famously lined with deep grooves granted by living life a certain way.
One small crack appeared in the painting and Douglas dove into it.
“It wouldn’t crisp just right, so I took a regular paintbrush and painted to see how it would look,” he says. “Before I knew it, I painted over the entire thing with a brush. And I haven’t stopped since.”
Most of the 30 or so paintings on exhibit and for sale were made in hotel rooms. Douglas quickly found once he stopped using the airbrush, his work became more portable.
“I quite literally used to carry in my road case an air compressor,” he says. “It was a logistical nightmare. And I could only do it in the U.S. You can’t drag that rig to Europe.”
He’d roll some canvas around a piece of PVC pipe while traveling. After checking in, he’d stretch some canvas and tape it onto the hotel wall and mix paint on a 10-inch drum head.
“A dozen brushes,” he says. “It’s the least amount of stuff I can carry to do what I do. It just fits in most overhead compartments on airplanes.”
‘No time to … freak out’
He points out that some tours have days with a few hours of downtime. Others have a full day off.
“It’s become this necessity, and a way for me to remain creative,” he says. “On tour, it’s all about consistency. Repetition, routine despite new cities. That kind of routine, for a creative mind, it’s a death sentence. So I’ve filled it with these paintings. That’s what this show is about. Lots of guys have hobbies on the road. Golf is a big thing. They search out golf courses, carry their clubs. This is my thing.”
Many of the canvases in “High Performance” were done before last year, when Douglas got the call from Aerosmith letting him know he wouldn’t just be setting up Kramer’s kit; he’d be playing it.
The Richards painting is in the collection, along with pieces featuring Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Stevie Nicks, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and others.
But late last year and early this year, Douglas found himself hitting the drum heads more than mixing paint on them. He ended up doing a couple dozen shows with Aerosmith, including part of its residency in Las Vegas.
Perry, he says, told him he had “balls of steel,” to step up the way he did. He feels the band was taking the bigger risk, working with a drummer it had never played with before.
Douglas downplays his work with the band. “I listened to the last show Joey did on my laptop,” he says. “It wasn’t easy, the physicality of the drums makes it an athletic event — doing a two-hour rock show. But it’s not like I’m a first responder or anything.
“But I studied, and the curtain came up. There was no time to think about it and freak out. My brain was most exhausted when it was all over.”
But the experience wasn’t entirely new. Douglas remembered sitting in for Beard. The first night went fine, but the second night was tougher, as blisters on his hand from the first night ruptured. He also had experience sitting in with Slash, the Guns ‘n Roses guitarist, when his drummer went down on tour.
“None of this is in the job description,” Douglas says. “But it’s been pretty amazing, right? Playing with three different bands, all of them with Rock & Roll Hall of Fame members? It’s a weird story. It’s a great story. Isn’t it?”