Interview with Deane Ogden

Deane Ogden is an inspiration to anyone who wants to make music and/or free themselves from the constraints of conventional living. In this in-depth interview, Deane provides fantastic insight into how his nomadic lifestyle enables him to express himself creatively.

Read on to learn about why he loves trains in Europe, the value of tribal culture and how life on the road has pushed him to continuously develop as an artist.

Please can you give us some background on who you are, where you’re from and what you do as a digital nomad?

My name is Deane Ogden and I am a touring and session drummer, world music recording artist, music producer, and entrepreneur. I’m based in Bali but I work everywhere else in the world, primarily Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York, London, and Nashville. I spend 220+ days a year on the road as a professional musician and speaker.

What is a typical day like for you?

If I’m home, I’m always the first out of bed, right about sunrise. I use the quiet hours of early morning to contemplate the day and prep my mind for the work ahead. A hot clay pot of oolong or Indonesian jasmine and I’m ready to hustle by 5:30 and I’m usually on the phone in meetings or knocking out emails until 7am when everyone in the West is wrapping their work day 13-15 hours behind me.

I practice my drum woodshedding regimen for two hours after my admin tasks are out of the way. The rest of the day is spent on my creative outlets — writing and producing music, recording drum sessions for other artists, hosting my podcasts, maybe working on a speaking presentation or on my book project — but I’m not romantic about assigning specific days to specific projects.

I just focus on whatever I feel compelled to create that day. No matter what, though, I’m done around 6pm for dinner with my family every night, without exception. That’s our non-negotiable sacred time.

What pushed you towards a nomadic lifestyle?

One thing, really: The pursuit of personal happiness. If you look around, everyone is peddling their model of work/life balance… 7 Habits, GTD, Four-Hour Workweek… all this stuff, and that’s great, but none of them make sense for me.

My value set is different based on the events of my own life. I don’t work the same way most other creatives do. I’m not on anyone’s time table nor am I interested in tethering myself to anybody’s financial economy or list of priorities. There are a lot of creatives working themselves into an early grave due to their poor working habits or to a lack of fundamental business acumen. I’m not interested in that kind of life. So, I came up with my own system. I call it being a “rebel creative”.

A big part of it is that I’m an essentialist at heart. I don’t have any problem getting tiny and sparse materially in order to stay agile, mobile, and option-loaded. I see many people trapping themselves by not creating any space for options in their life or business. For me, options mean freedom. I never want to be trapped by anything. We don’t have any debt. My companies are all in the black. I don’t want to work because I “have” to, but only if and when I “want” to. I’m aware of how pretentious that sounds, but I’ve learned that it’s absolutely achievable if I build options into my creative and personal lives.

What is the first thing you do when you arrive in a new place?

Make a friend. I hate having to reinvent the wheel. It’s a lot of fun to travel and see new places, but for me the “fish out of water” novelty wears thin fast. I want to get things done. If I can find someone to enlist who can help me get my footing in their country and culture, it only works in my favor.

I’ve always been much happier with my pace of productivity if I can dive deep into the heart of a place by connecting with someone right away.

What are your inspirations?

Music has been the one constant inspiration in my life since I was four or five years old. I’m also incredibly inspired by my wife. She’s the biggest driving force behind my ability to go out and do what I do. I know people who have to fight a daily battle just to get out the door every morning to show up to a job they literally hate.

I count my blessings that I don’t have to wrestle with any of that. She makes it so easy for me to make solid choices because she’s my #1 fan, confidant, and partner and I know she has my back. I just don’t make any major decisions without her opinion first considered. I really value her perspective and intuition.

What have been your favourite places so far and why?

I’ve lost my heart to Southeast Asia… Indonesia in particular. I’ve been here going on seven years now and I don’t see leaving any time soon. Indonesian people are some of the most beautifully peaceful, tranquil, and relaxed folks I’ve found on the planet. They understand and embrace global society better than anybody and they’ve always made me feel welcome and accepted.

Especially where I live, — in Bali — tribalism is a feature, not an alternative. It’s very tribal here. My father’s family are Native Americans from the Klamath Modoc tribes in the southern Oregon and northern California region of the United States, so I relate to tribalism on a molecular level. Tribal people don’t leave anyone on the trail.

How does regular travel affect your music, both positively and negatively?

I think world travel has been a huge boon to my musical creativity. In the last decade, I’ve literally circled the world seven times. I’ve met thousands of musicians in so many countries and I’ve learned big things from every single one of them. What I’ve really learned to do is listen. I felt like I was a great listener before — I knew how to dissect a melody, how to reverse engineer a guitar part or a drum groove. I knew how to listen critically and technically.

But, world travel adds context to all that. Yes, they sing different in the Orient and in Africa than we do in the West… but why? What is the cultural or political or religious or socio-economic context behind them doing things as they do? Context is key to so many things that inform music. You find context when you get off your couch and get out there into the world.

I used to score a lot of films and as a film composer the gig is different each time out. It’s always a new cast of characters in a new place, time and framework. There is a lot of research involved if you want to be authentic and true to the colors and tones of the narrative you’re supporting musically.

But, that’s about as deep as you have time to get with it — cursory research. You’re on someone else’s dime, so they are dictating all of the rules. When you are free, however, to take some time and chase the art to its original source, it changes everything about your approach to creating. You won’t be the same person you were. “Being there” shifts your entire understanding of artistic choice and behavior.

How has your lifestyle evolved during your time as a nomad?

I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned to trust more — both the creative process and the people I create with. I grew up admiring artists like Steve Winwood, Prince, and David Foster. Cats who could do it all themselves. Stevie Wonder. Stevie doesn’t need anyone. So, I tried that. For the longest time. Just me, in a studio, four walls and some samples or a DAW and a computer, whatever.

I like certain aspects of that, but truly, I’m a people person. I need to be with people if it’s really going to fly high. I don’t need their approval, but I do need to see their reactions to things. It’s informative. But, when you add people to the mix, then you have to be a good partner. You need to be a patient and accommodating collaborator.You have to listen. You have to adjust sometimes. You can’t roll in with a bunch of ego and attitude.

That’s a good part of why all my favorite bands have either broken up over the years or lost key members, because of ego. If you can let go of all that, you can do something great together. That’s what I’ve loved about my journey: I’ve been very lucky to find musicians of likemindedness who possess very little negative ego.

How has your lifestyle affected your relationships with people back ‘home’?

Everybody thought I was crazy until Donald Trump took office… now I’m the smartest guy in the world.

Has anything ever scared you as a digital nomad and how did you deal with it?

I’ve had a few tense moments — getting lost somewhere or reaching in my back pocket to find my wallet gone. But honestly, what I always say is that I have friends all over the world now, in just about every country. I can get on Twitter and have a friend rolling up inside of two hours.

I think if you are secure in knowing you’ve treated people well enough that your network would never let you be out on the street in the cold, you can handle just about anything the nomad lifestyle throws at you.

What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?

It’s where my babies are, my wife and children. And it’s a geographically agnostic thing, too. Anywhere, anytime. We are an international family, we move around as we get interested. My son Calvin was born in Indonesia and had been to four countries by the time he was two.

I left America for the first time when I was in the 5th grade, so times have changed. We are raising them to be global citizens who are used to moving around and being with people of all colors and creeds. But, my home is where they are. Always.

How do you connect with other musicians when you are traveling?

100% if you asked those who follow me or know me personally one of the things they’d say is that I’m a gold-star networker. I either know you or I’m one touch point from you. YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat, SoundCloud,… you name it, I’m there. I’m everywhere. But, I’ve worked very hard at that all my life. I don’t lose info on people. I’m meticulous and diligent about it. I have a very tried-and-true system for following up with people and staying in touch via current information.

SoundCloud to find players and singers, Twitter for initial communication, email for more permanence once I close the deal and they are in. After a project is in full swing, I use Basecamp to keep the team, our assets, and our schedule on course. My internal management team — my assistant, interns, agent, and attorney — we use Slack to stay communicating at all times. I travel so much and they are all in various countries, so we need extreme flexibility.

I don’t micromanage but I do expect progress at the end of the day and I also want people to love what they are doing. That yin and yang, that loose diligence, is how I like to run things. Social technology plays a big part in maintaining that culture for us.

Do you prefer to travel slowly or quickly and why?

I like to get there. The only caveat to that is European rail — I’ll add another two days to take the train through Europe any time I can. It’s just so beautiful and the experience is always lovely and thrilling. Technologically, Euro rail is advanced to the point where unless you’re a total slacker you can get a ridiculous amount of work done in any cabin class. It’s pretty hard to beat. But, I’m on planes so much these days that I really just can’t wait to get out once I’m in one.

How have advances in technology empowered you to live as a digital nomad?

The fact that we are inching ever forward toward not only 100% mobility but also 100% automaton, in many ways, is the creative person’s panacea. I’m always going to root for forward progress, but I understand how that could also strike fear into a person. I think it depends on your skill set. I did my first two solo records out of a backpack. Literally. I stuffed as much gear into my Eiger as it would hold and roamed East Asia for eight months making “Eastern Chronicle“.

When it came time go to South Africa to do my second album,”Kwela“, I streamlined the process even more. I’m writing my third record now and by the time I’m ready to board the plane to go record that process will be down to an iPad, my drumsticks, and a couple of microphones. Things just keep getting smaller, more cloud-based, more ethereal in terms of us not having to haul around these big ugly hardware pieces around everywhere. It’s glorious for a guy like me.

….And as a follow up to the last question, as a musician how do you balance digital and analogue approaches to creating music?

That distinction is an easier one – If I’m co-writing or producing someone else’s project, unless we’ve agreed otherwise, I use whatever helps us create a hit song. If MIDI sounds better, then I’ll break out Kontakt or Omnisphere and my sample drives and we’ll go down that rabbit hole. But, if it’s my own project, I still record direct to digital, but I use real players with actual instruments in actual rooms through actual microphones.

It’s that “people” thing, again. Being with people. Being in a band. Sometimes that means a remote session on the off-chance I can’t be there in person, but it’s still an actual human singing or playing the part. I rarely use MIDI in my own music until I get to the mixing stage and need it for effects and post-processing.

What have you found challenging about the digital nomad lifestyle?

For me, I think the biggest challenge has been educating colleagues that my lifestyle actually makes life easier for them. I’m actually freer than they are, in many ways, to do business. If I decide I want to do something, I have the options and the resources, because of how I live, to go further down the road of crazy to make it happen. In other words, I can safely risk far more than the average creative person in order to accomplish the things I really desire to do. I will fly to LA and back in a single day to do a drum session if I really want to do the session for that person.

The artist and producer don’t even know I’m flying in half the time. Because I live over the International Date Line, I can land in Los Angeles the same day I left Bali. And I’m not greedy — I don’t mind taking $1,000 out of my fee to make that flight. Why not? If I’m still making ten grand, then who cares? What’s 10% to a guy who lives in pineapple paradise? But, again, I’ve built those options into my life so I can enjoy the freedom to make those kinds of choices.

People mostly are only concerned with their financial advantage — “But, how will I make money doing this?” — so they don’t understand the economics of time and investment of value and how I apply those to work in my favor financially and otherwise. I have to educate them. I have to remind them that there is a thing called an “airplane”. I have to remind them that they can open an app on their phone and a dude will literally pull up in his own car and drive them to wherever they want to go.

A lot of people take our flat world for granted and a smaller faction still conflate availability and proximity, which is a pain point that I think digital nomads just have to deal with through education. While we are waiting on the world to change we have to educate.

How do you choose where to go next?

Most times it’s musically driven. The project I’m writing for now was supposed to be my second record, but I started writing and what came out sounded so much more in the vein of post-war African kwela music, so I switched course and spent 18 months making “Kwela” in Johannesburg and Cape Town instead. Other times, I go somewhere and end up falling in love with the place.

That’s what happened in Japan, which led me to start writing “Eastern Chronicle” in 2011. I went there just to “see”, and I saw much more than I ever thought I would. Same thing with this new project I’m working on. I went there three years ago and something just clicked inside like a switch. I had the album title and even some of the standout melodies the first night I was there. Logistically, the whole thing fell together in a month — the musicians, the singers, the mastering engineer… all of it. Those are the best projects, the ones you can see the entirety of, A to Z, right from the beginning.

What is the most important piece of advice you can give to someone involved in a creative pursuit while traveling from place to place?

Be open to the wind blowing you around a bit. Many people have said it, but I first heard Paul Stanley of KISS say, “If you wanna make god laugh, tell him your plans.” I think that’s wise, so I don’t make many plans. Life doesn’t care about your itinerary.

I think about it like I think about people who go on vacation. There are really two types of vacationers: Those who have zero agenda and those who have every single minute of every single hour of every single day planned out. I hate vacationing that way and I won’t do it. I’d honestly rather stay home. I’m a nomad for a reason: I have a terrific case of wanderlust. I hate maps. I want to discover a place, not tour it. I don’t want a chain restaurant, I want to eat street food with the locals. I want to see the stuff off the beaten path.

That’s what I feel you should do when you are in a new place to be creative, too. Don’t be afraid to get into some trouble. Have some adventures. Talk to the people at the next table over. I’ve done that so many times and ended up playing music that night on some beach or cafe with a group of strangers I never could have known about and never would have met otherwise.

But you have to have a mindset that allows you to live a little dangerously. It certainly can be adventuresome, but there’s also a lot of fear-mongering out there because many people have just never bothered to venture out of their own zip code. People read some headline on a website and then, all of a sudden, they are “never going to Myanmar!” They’re just not speaking from experience. They’re speaking out of a lack of understanding, which, really, is just fear.

What are the main aspects of your personality that have allowed you to live as a digital nomad?

I guess that was it in the last question — I’m not fearful. I’m not scared of people, places, animals, religions, rules, laws, planes, food, poverty, jerks, theft, sickness, authority, weather, isolation, criminals, death… I’ve learned to embrace it all as just part of the adventure of life. That’s all it is. It’s just what life is made of.

The other aspect of that is that I know how to make money and I know that’s what holds a lot of people back from venturing out there. These drumsticks in my back pocket have been the biggest blessing in my life. As long as I have them and I have the capacity to use them, I’ll never go hungry. I could flip over a trashcan on a street corner and make $100 in an hour blowing people’s minds. I just can. I have.

It’s bananas what you can do with the convergence of a specialized skill and even the most mild aptitude for creative business. Like I said, I can get small fast and that means with ego and pride, too. If I need to bash buckets on the street and pass a hat around for dinner money, I’ll damn sure do it. I’ve been gainfully employed as a musician since I was twelve years old. I have the skill and I have the knowhow and because of that I don’t have to be afraid of anything.

Do you have any daily routines or habits that help you stay productive and focused?

Not really. I just try and get after it as hard as I can every day.

I will say this, though: I recently ditched my personal Facebook profile. I only use my public page now to communicate with my fans and followers. That’s been one of the most important things I’ve done in a decade to boost my productivity. 100%. I had no idea how much time I was spending getting involved in conversations that added no significant value to my life.

There is so much negativity and complaining on Facebook, it really has turned into a terrible place to congregate, in my opinion. I’m having much more of a productive time focusing on creating music and content for my followers rather than consuming anything out there from other people’s Facebook streams.

How do you stay healthy on the road?

This is my downfall. I’ve always had a hard time remembering to take time to eat and drink regularly on the road. I get too into what we are doing and I simply forget. What I’ve done to fix that lately is to put out on Twitter which city we are in next and choose a follower native to that city to shadow me, their only job being shove a banana down my throat every hour and make me slam a liter of water every 90 minutes.

Whatever works for you is whatever works for you, but you have to stay healthy and that’s how I’m doing it. Plus, I get to meet a fan and give them an experience, too.

Are there any places you would recommend against traveling to? If so where and why?

No, I think you should go everywhere you can. I really do believe that. Of course you have to be careful and you shouldn’t make foolish decisions “just because”. YOLO and all that nonsense. You have to be smart. But, for example, I was recently on a trip where I had a serendipitous encounter with a young man from Afghanistan who is a self-described militant Islamist. We had an amazing discussion.

Guess what? We want the same things in life: Peace, security for our families, financial freedom, respect, creative independence, just all of it. Now, we obviously have different cultural ways of going about obtaining those things for ourselves and I’m not interested in joining his club or anything. Nor is he interested in my way of life. But, understanding his perspective was enlightening. People are people. Everywhere. They are worth exploring. It’s a precious planet.

What is an issue that you feel especially passionate about?

I’m very involved in the education of artists about the realities of commercial creativity. Most artists are terrible business people, which is actually great because that means you’ve identified something you definitely should not be doing. But, someone needs to. If it’s not going to be you running the business, it needs to be someone you trust and have no issues overseeing.

My podcast “Rebel Creative” is my way to provide some help with that. I cover every aspect of business in regards to owning and operating your own creative shop, whether you are a musician, an actor or director, a novelist, a performance artist, a painter, a cartoonist… whatever. People call in to the show and I answer their questions based on my own personal experience of 35+ years as a professional creative.

I also founded”SCOREcast” in 2006, which is the largest worldwide physical network of media composers on the Internet. My goal with that organization has always been to promote community and camaraderie within film, television, game, and trailer music composing circles. We have chapters in ten countries and this year we surpassed 63,000 active members.

What do you wish you had known when you started?

I started vlogging my escapades as a creative nomad in March of 2016. I wish I would have realized the power of documenting my journey sooner. It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done. My YouTube channel isn’t massive, it’s slowly gaining subs, but it’s not even about that… It’s about the journey. Every day is a banner day of some sort. I don’t mean for that to sound hifalutin or all Tony Robbins-y or whatever, I just mean that when you can look back at every single day and view it as more of a chapter in your life as opposed to “just another day”… I don’t know. Something switched on for me about how to use my time more effectively in the areas that matter most.

I used to think, “Man, I didn’t do anything today! It was a total waste!” But, I can look back on a day of my vlog and it’s measurable now, my time. Since I started vlogging, I can maybe count on one hand the number days I really didn’t get much done. It’s pretty rare.

You can find it all on my YouTube channel.

What is the best food you have eaten as a digital nomad?

Man, that’s tough. I was recently in Germany visiting a close friend and musician who is originally from Greece. He took me to a Greek place, the kind of hidden away place where all of the Greek locals go to and I had octopus for the first time in my life.

Octopus is everywhere in Asia but it never appealed to me until I saw how the Greeks prepare it. It might have been some of the best food I’ve tasted. Fresh albacore sashimi at the Tsukiji Shijō market in Tokyo is hard to beat too, though. I’d have to say that still might be my all-time favorite.

How do you define success?

It just all comes back to happiness for me. If you are not happy, you cannot create your best life. Period. End of story. Money and fame and access or materialism… those things aren’t evil things, they’re not bad. And, look, for some people, maybe those things do mean “success” for them, I don’t know. I don’t judge what makes people tick. But, to me, those things are just tools to get me started on the journey toward success. But, I don’t think they’ll necessarily make me successful, in essence.

They just don’t have the leverage or the longevity to accomplish that for me. I need to be personally happy in life. So, I focus on remembering who I am, knowing what I’m great at, knowing what I’m not so great at, and staying away from those things so that other people who are great at them can do them. I just do my thing and I don’t care what anyone thinks about it. It makes me happy and that’s all I need to keep me going.

Please can you recommend us some great music you have discovered from around the world?

I’ll give you three from different regions:

– Papa Wemba (Congo) — Sadly, he’s gone now, but his legacy is massive. He is most known for being called the King of Rumba Rock. He was so good. “Bravo Cathy” is one of my favorites of his later works.

– Gayatri Geetanjali (India) — There is an old Sanskrit mantra called the Gayatri mantra, or “Om Bhoordhuwa Swaha”. It’s one of the oldest mantras in Hinduism, adopted from a collection of hymns from the 1300 BC period. It is a beautiful prose about honoring the sun and the warmth and light it gives all of life. Set to music in this Geetanjali collection, it has such a happy and hypnotic refrain. It’s an earworm if there ever was one. Just three beautiful female voices in harmony with a couple of tablas and a bansuri.

– Wes Madiko (Cameroon) — I love “Awa Awa” the most, but “Alane” is awesome too, along with many other tunes of his. He crossed-over internationally in 1997-98 when one of his album’s was produced by Michel Sanchez of Deep Forest which also led to him having a popular cut on the Lion King II: Simba’s Pride soundtrack.

Which books have had a big impact on you?

“Essentialism” by Greg McKeown is close to what I would call a perfect book for a nomadic creative person. It really is one I would recommend everyone read who is considering hitting the road or who just wants to simplify their life in general. It’s a book I wish would have been out when I started down this path.

I also love a book called “The Thank You Economy” by a great dude named Gary Vaynerchuk. It’s a brilliant treatise on the power of giving versus taking. It has served me well. I’ve gifted that book to more people than any other and I’ve not had a single person come back telling me it didn’t touch them deeply. The trick is that if you actually follow-through on and do what Gary’s saying in that book to do, then the concepts will be game-changing.

What are the creature comforts can you not live without?

Just my iPhone and my Bose noise-cancelling headphones. Everything else is replaceable. Well, those are too… but I would cry for a minute first!

Massive thanks to Deane for such great, insightful answers. Please check out Deane’s website to see what he’s up to and hear his latest musical projects. You can also follow him on Facebook, SoundcloudYouTube and Twitter.

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