Going blue

On the Record with Lucas Gillan

Lucas Gillan never thought he’d be wearing brightly colored neon face paint for a drumming gig.

But then again, before auditioning for the role in January, Gillan never thought he’d be part of the comic musical and artistic show, Blue Man Group.

Gillan is a drummer in Blue Man Group, part of the band that accompanies the blue-faced percussionists. Although not painted blue, Gillan applies his own face paint when he plays the drum set above the group’s stage in the band loft.

Blue Man Group has multiple shows a week at the Briar Street Theater, 3133 N. Halsted St. in Chicago. For information on the show or to purchase tickets, visit www.blueman.com/chicago.

Gillan, a 2007 graduate of Northern Illinois University, also is a member of The Right Now, a soul-pop band, and the leader and composer of Lucas Gillan Many Blessings, an original jazz group. He also teaches at Fenwick High School and Wheaton College and directs a jazz combo at Benet Academy in Lisle.

Gillan resides in Forest Park with his wife, Anna, who is a violinist and vocalist, and their 1-year-old son, Jonah.

Gillan spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about his love of music, the influence his time at NIU had on his career and how he came to be a drummer with Blue Man Group.

Milton: How would you describe your role with Blue Man Group?

Gillan: I am a drummer with the Blue Man Group, one of the few part-time drummers that accompany the Blue Men. We have a team of drummers, there are many people involved. The band performs in the band loft, above the stage where the Blue Men perform. It’s accessed by a spiral staircase. I would describe us as a hard rock band that accompanies the Blue Man Group. We even paint our faces in bright, crazy colors so that we also stand out in the darkness and black lights.

Milton: When do you perform?

Gillan: During a typical season, I will play three to six shows a month, but during the busy season, around the holidays of Christmas and the New Year, I’ll play three to six shows a week. One of the other part-time drummers, Thomas Benko, is also an NIU grad. One of the full-time drummers, Jeff Quay, has been doing the show since it opened in 1997. He helped train me and has been really inspirational and a great help since I’ve joined the show.

Milton: Are you from DeKalb?

Gillan: I’m not originally from the area. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona. I started playing the drums at age 9. My mom was a drummer. I haven’t met another drummer that also had a drummer mom, there are usually dad or uncle drummers, but never a mom. When I was growing up, she played the drums at church, and when she brought her drum set out, I knew I wanted to be a drummer, too. I moved to the area in 2004, when I started at NIU. You might wonder why an 18 year old chose to move out to DeKalb and the cornfields, but there was just something special about NIU’s jazz and percussion programs. They were performing at insanely high levels. When I visited campus and learned about the programs, I loved it. I attended NIU and was a jazz studies percussion major.

Milton: How would you describe your time at NIU?

Gillan: I learned a lot at NIU. I spent a lot of time practicing. It prepared me to be a hard-working musician. I also met my wife there and a lot of good friends. For the first five years after graduation, I think every gig I had was somehow related back to someone I knew at NIU. Through the years, I’ve met plenty of musicians associated with NIU, had plenty of gigs recommended by people from NIU. It’s been like six degrees of separation from NIU. I’m a member of the band The Right Now with a few other NIU graduates. We tour, play festivals and have created albums. I’m 33, and over a decade [after graduation], I’m still playing with them. The connections and experience I gained at NIU were completely central to who I am today. There is no way I would be the musician I am today if I hadn’t gone to NIU. I graduated NIU in December 2007 with a jazz studies percussion major and a minor in journalism.

Milton: How did you learn about the job opening?

Gillan: I saw a posting online, maybe it was through a music job email listing that I subscribe to. I remember when there were auditions a few years ago. I didn’t participate, but I remember people talking about it. I heard about Tom Benko from NIU joining the show. When I mentioned the January auditions to my wife, she said, “You’ll totally regret it if you don’t audition.” I had never seen the show before, but my wife had gone with her school when she was younger.

Milton: What happened after the first audition?

Gillan: The next day, I had a call back with seven or eight drummers. We performed specific parts with the other musicians. That’s when I thought I definitely didn’t make it. Maybe someone else was better, some other guy was stronger and would get the job. But then I got a call from Jeff saying they wanted to go forward with me.

Milton: What happened after that?

Gillan: The first thing I did was watch the show from the band loft. Then I started drum lessons, learning the grooves and parts for the show. I had training for four months, and it was unlike anything else I have done in my drumming career. I learned each part of the show little by little.

Milton: Tell me more about the show.

Gillan: It’s super fun and unlike anything else to be part of the show’s amazing experience. There’s a lot of lights and music, comedy, it’s completely different from anything else I’ve ever done. There are microphones pointed at the audience, and we can hear their reactions better. We can see them from the band loft, and we can read the audience’s energy. There’s a huge amount of audience participation. No two shows are the same, every show is different.

Milton: What happens after the show?

Gillan: After the show, there’s a meet-and-greet in the lobby with audience members. Once that’s over, we go over the show’s notes with the stage manager. Every show has an official show report and every show is recorded. We go through the report, study it, make changes and listen to the recordings of past shows. We want to make sure the show is never lackluster, that it’s constantly getting better and improving. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to perform, I love the show.