#8: DAMIÓN REID
Photograph: Emra Islek
[Abridged version hosted by Invisible Oranges; longer cut below.]
Like previous HMB subject Craig Taborn, drummer Damión Reid doesn’t wear his metal fandom on his sleeve. Jazz fans know Reid as a deadly technician, whose crisp, busy, furiously grooving style perfectly complements the high-tech prog-funk aesthetic of bandleaders such as Steve Coleman, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Steve Lehman. His playing often heats up to an aggressive boil, but it might make you think of cutting-edge electronica before metal. So I was intrigued when a friend tipped me off to Reid’s love of heavy music. As you’ll read in this wide-ranging conversation, he’s a knowledgeable and opinionated connoisseur of metal, who understands clearly the style’s various affinities with jazz.
Damión and I met in Brooklyn in May of 2012 to talk about jazz and metal.
A Damión Reid sampler:
Damión Reid: So how did you get started doing these interviews?
Hank Shteamer: Well, I grew up as a metalhead in the early ’90s, and then I got deep into jazz once I got into college. For a while now, those two styles of music have made up the majority of my listening, and I just became curious about the connections between them. I started seeing jazz musicians like Craig Taborn at metal shows and thought it would be fun to talk with other people who shared my interests. On the surface, it might seem weird to link these two styles, but there are all kinds of hidden affinities.
I don’t think it’s weird, because to be honest, I think the tradition of the drums itself is a relatively new tradition, and if you look at the technical advancements that have happened over the years to the drum set, it’s a direct ascension from the foundation that most of the jazz masters laid down. So you hear a lot of even metal drummers talk about Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham. Why is that? That’s because Billy Cobham had great technique: rudimental, extremely fast with a lot of cymbal strokes. Tony Williams, in my opinion, was the first person to ever play a blast beat, the first person to do snare and bass drum alternating going extremely fast. Nobody else did that; you can’t deny that. Extreme, ferocious technique with Tony and Billy, and the same goes for Buddy. Someone who just had hands out of this world. It was something you aspired to get when you played the drums. And then you look at what metal drummers did, also incorporating foot technique with that same prowess; the best ones at least have hands [Laughs]. Some drummers work primarily on their feet and their hands are crap. But you look at that ascension of technique getting better and better, and I think it all comes from the same source, so it’s only natural for a drummer to think that, because a lot of the drummers that play in a lot of these metal bands, a lot of them admit that they tried starting off as jazz musicians, and it just didn’t mesh in their community, or things didn’t work out the way they wanted, or they wanted to make more money and they liked playing groove stuff. And then there’s some political agendas as well, perspectives and beliefs that draw you, and you express that.
They’re both rebel musics in a way. Conceptually, where they’re coming from, the middle finger is up consistently, and I think that somebody that’s really involved in their craft, then you don’t start looking at the label of genre; you start looking at “What is your purpose as an artist?” And then this becomes universal. You respect someone that’s playing instrumental [music], music with vocals, whatever; it doesn’t matter. If someone’s saying, “Fuck you,” it resonates, and you respect that. So I think that’s the continuity; I think that’s why it would only be a natural [progression]. That’s just my opinion. I’m not saying that’s why you did it, but that’s why I wouldn’t even blink at someone that would relate the two, because that’s what happened to me.
Because I didn’t grow up listening to metal; it was the reverse for me. I grew up in a household where my mother was a classical vocalist and pianist and did a lot of chorale and played church music and stuff, and my dad played more secular music; he was playing blues and funk and jazz. So I grew up that way, and then I went to college and started studying technique, playing more jazz, playing some pocket stuff, and then I got exposed to metal and other musicians that play whatever genres you want to say. And that lately has been annoying me, the whole genre thing, because I know it’s just some corporate way to sell something. It’s really about where you come from, and that’s why you sing about the things you sing about, that’s why you play the way you play.
Where do you first remember becoming aware of metal?
I heard it in high school, but I was the weirdo, because I went to private schools and hung out in a very diverse [crowd], but still all my friends were of African-American descent. So I grew up with a lot of b-boys, like pop-lockers, breakdancers, beatboxers, MCs. I loved that culture and that community, but as a drummer, I heard Living Colour. My cousin gave me a Living Colour tape, Time’s Up, and I just remember losing my wig, because the first song was a metal groove. [Sings thrashy intro] So “Time’s Up” came on, and I was like “What the fuck?!?” And as I got older, I heard other drummers that were laying it down, and a friend gave me a Slayer record, I forget which one. I’m not really a metalhead; I just love the music, if that makes any sense, because I didn’t grow up with [Snarly voice] Napalm Death and Slayer, and the tapes and the T-shirts. I was into hip-hop culture like that, but as a drummer, I just respected the fact that, here’s a music that lets the drums be heard, because I said, “Whoa, the drums are connected to human beings; this is a human thing.” So the fact that the drums are important to the music meant a lot.
Because it seems like in Western classical music, the drums are more of this kind of lacing that makes the music demonstrative at a good point; it’s not part of the music the way you would expect it to be, whereas it’s the reverse in African music or South American music, where all of a sudden, the drums are there and the next thing you know, you’re bobbing your head. It might be two or three chords, whereas Western music might have, like, tons of chord progressions and the drums are minimal. I started seeing the difference, and I felt like jazz was a way of combining both of those concepts: a bunch of harmony with the forward motion of drums. And then the first time I heard a metal track, I was like, “Wow, this is all about the the drums,” and there was a very specific songmaking with the drums; it wasn’t just mayhem. I appreciated that. There were song formats: “You’re supposed to play this amount of 32nd notes for eight bars, and then you’re supposed to switch into this. And you’re playing 5/4 to this, while this person is playing to the triplet of this.” It was very precise, whereas jazz most people think that it’s random because there’s a lot of improvisation and people are doing those things on the fly, but it’s based off of a grid, so it’s still some of the same magic; it’s just a different spirit. But I appreciated that from a drummer’s perspective, because I like the sound of the drums and I like music that accentuates the drums, and I think that’s why I enjoy the hip-hop world that I grew up with. But then I said, “All the hip-hop drummers didn’t impress me. Who gives a fuck about you?” I don’t want to name names, but I really didn’t care for them. I said, “They’re good, but who’s playing the drums?” And I remember hearing Elvin and Tony Williams and just being like, “Whoa! Yes!” Like, now I want to play jazz—you know what I mean?
Same feeling, like these are drummers that were playing the drums, and couldn’t nobody stop them. And they made everybody around them sound better; you could hear how they were pushing the music. Like, I have records, it might have been Tony Williams with Jackie McLean and Lee Morgan, and you can hear how Lee Morgan sounds with Art Blakey. Art Blakey has this big beat, nice; he could play the drums well, and he pushes and he has a big sound and everything is strong. But there’s something very steady—you know, like a hitmaker, just “Boom!” He clocks it out. Something about Tony, he could do the same thing, but he was just ferocious with it. He was constantly playing with different ideas and rhythms. He was composing parts on the drums with the hi-hat and all these different things. So you talk about the complexity of how the drum set has evolved, he was one one of the first people who got people thinking, “You know, there’s two legs here. We could do some things with this.” People forget that: The first person I’ve ever seen with two bass drums was Sam Woodyard. Duke Ellington needed that propulsion; he wanted that strong low end. And a lot of drummers that played behind big bands, that was their job, to be this force, this strength.
And for me, in modern music, I felt that all the recording and all the clichés that the industry wants to put on musicians killed jazz or the genre of jazz, because they wanted everybody to stay loyal to this fixated grid they created for sales, which catered to a certain clientele. And when it started to evolve and it started to get more aggressive, then people started to run from it in a way. And of course the things that Tony did with Lifetime, and things that Cobham did, and you’re hearing Lenny White with Chick Corea and all those different bands—everybody was really whipping ass and then the acoustic bass players had to plug in, or you just get electric bass. The sound and everything started to grow. So when I started listening to metal a little bit through high school, just little flashes of it, I started thinking, “Wow, these drummers are really, really playing the shit out of the drums.”
But then the social aspect around the scene made me leery because being one of the few guys that was into that type of stuff, you got ostracized by your people and by the people that you were trying to go and hang with. You know what I mean? So it was this conundrum; you were sitting there like, “What the fuck am I doing here?” I’m over here trying to hang and check out this music, and they’re like, “Who the fuck are you, and why are you…?” You feel that energy; you know what that energy is. I’m like, [Perplexed] “Damn, well, alright.” And your boys go through your tape case and they see the Slayer tape, and ask, “What are you, a devil worshipper?” “No, you douche, it’s not that!” So I just felt like I would be a lover of the instrument and just respect those that I felt really showed up to crush the instrument, and that became who I was a fan of: Those who showed up to crush. I don’t care what genre you were in, what they said you were: You were country? if you showed up and smacked the shit out of a country song and you were clean and your drums sounded good and you got a good sound—oh, man, I would love you! I didn’t care if you played with, you know, Tim McGraw. It didn’t matter to me! And people thought I was crazy for that. When I say people, I mean my close friends that I grew up with. So I just kept it kind of as a quiet little thing, like [keeping my] tape case under the bed, all the tapes that had the Parental Advisory sticker on there, that you could peel off. Remember that shit? Where you could peel it off and come home and say, “Mom, this is the tape.…” You couldn’t do that with, like, Slayer, because the album cover itself was just as bad! [Laughs] So you had to get a dub.
I remember falling in love with Dave Lombardo just because I thought that what he did on the kit, there was some rebellion on there, but it was clean as day, and I am a fan of those types of technicians that hear the spaces in between their rhythms, the rests, if that makes any sense. Not just sheets of sound and shit. Because I heard Cobham get up to 16th notes and whip ass, and his hands just [Roars], and I’m just like, “Whoo! That’s sick.” But then Lombardo, his feet were just flying, and it was just clean flurries… I didn’t understand why Metallica was so big. I didn’t even get it. Because I felt like, “Wow, the drummer is the guy that’s usually pushing…” But once again, that’s the beast. That’s this machine, and it forces people to buy into a certain thing, when your ears and your heart really lead.
So when I moved [to New York], another group that I fell in love with that finally took me over into total drum geekdom was when I heard Meshuggah. I just lost my shit. I’m going to see them this month; I’ll be there. I gotta go, just because… And I saw Slayer the last time they were here with Megadeth, at the island. Not the one with Metallica, but the one before that. I was about to go to the one at Yankee Stadium, because I wanted to see Lombardo whip on Lars. I just wanted to see that happen. [Laughs] I just wanted to see it go down. How are you going to get onstage…? Okay, you’ve got more hits, whatever. But how are you going to physically get on that stage? And then, [Lombardo’s] still the only guy that doesn’t really use triggers! Fucking awesome, and it still sounds meaty, because you’re still getting the articulation because of how he plays, technique, and also how he tunes, the type of beaters he probably goes into, multiple mics—mic in, mic out, resonant side… That’s how you do it in the studio to get articulation, so why wouldn’t it work live? But the triggers are just this new phenomenon. The guitar players show up with their programmed sequences for you to learn and then they want to hear it back live, so it’s just a way for them to get what they gave you on a computer sequence live. I remember hearing—I forget the drummer that plays for Megadeth now; he’s a young guy. He’s a real clean cat: plays his parts very well. I had no arguments, but when Lombardo came up there, Lombardo was playing all these fills, just whipping on the kit. And I was just arguing with a bass player before the gig came on. He was telling me that [ex–Mars Volta drummer] Thomas Pridgen played too many fills, right? And I said, “Yeah, but Thomas Pridgen has a great facility and he has a good beat, and I feel like even when he does lay into it, the shit feels sick and his fills feel like they’re in the pocket.” I feel like that’s why you play a fill. It’s when a fill is out of the pocket that it feels annoying, you know what I mean? He’s like, “Yeah, but you’re supposed to play the song and do all this.” After Slayer’s set, I’m sitting there looking at him, like, “What did Lombardo just do?” It didn’t sound nothing like the record. He played his parts from the record, but he was just whipping on the kit. I love it. And he seems to be an open-minded guy because of the collaborations he’s done with other musicians that are improvisers and stuff, and that really opened my heart too.
But when I heard Meshuggah, the first thing I thought was, “Okay, here’s this ferocious band”—Cookie Monster vocals is the joke that me and my friends [have]. But the rhythm, right? It just reminded me of almost like some Steve Coleman–esque stuff, and I said, “Damn! This is ridiculous.” But they’re playing it hard. So I started to get into Thomas Haake, and I started to really check his stuff out and just see what he was up to, and he just seemed like a cool dude, loved playing the kit, real technical, and it just opened my mind up. The community has changed within the jazz drum circuit, where it used to be about that. I would hear about how all these drummers talked about one another, how they all subbed for each other’s bands, I was like, “Wow, it’s still all music to everybody.” I’ve always wanted to be a part of a community that was kind of like that, so I started having some second-guessing about whether I was in the right genre, because I just didn’t feel the camaraderie in a way. I felt like the love for being with a group of people and making music is what it’s about. I feel like that’s the utopia, and I didn’t feel like that’s what was really occurring as much [in jazz].
But the music came out of social conditions, and I feel like metal came out of a social condition, out of “Damn this; I won’t do it; it doesn’t make any sense to me.” And people that were writing about these existential things, and nothingness and very high philosophical concepts about “Who are we?” and “What is this?” and things like that, and atheists and agnostics and things like that, which makes sense. And then I was like, “Okay, these are the same questions that people were having playing [jazz] in the ’60s and ’50s, because there was so much bullshit going on with civil rights.” That’s why the music had so much depth and energy to it. It wasn’t just because of the fact that these guys were brilliant artists, it was because of the shit that they had to deal with before they got onstage. And I feel like when you hear about some of these metal bands, these guys go and work in machine shops and lumber yards just to make rent, and then they show up, practice together because they love each other as a squad, get onstage and you feel that. That is lacking, I feel. And that’s why I started keeping an ear to the ground about what was happening in metal.
So you think that camaraderie is lacking in jazz?
Heck, yeah! Just the sense of brotherhood and camaraderie—why we play music. And I feel like groups aren’t really honored anymore; nobody lives and dies with each other’s problems. But when you hear about these bands, you hear about them hating each other, loving each other, going through problems with one another, letting each other go through their problems as men and coming out. You hear about corporations doing the same shit, men that started firms and shit. Falling out with your wife, getting a divorce, selling the house, dealing with it, still keeping you on as partner, changing, getting bought out, all this stuff that happens. It’s the same concept. What happened to the fact that when you have a group of people and you believe in each other, you roll out as fam; you let each other go through whatever you’re going through because you know that that person, when they do their thing, they’re brilliant at it. And sometimes, we go through our shit, but I feel like the academia aspect that has plagued this social music…
See, people went to college to learn how to play the instrument; they didn’t go to learn how to play the music. That’s the problem. And that’s one thing I dug about hip-hop: You read books; you learn how to conjugate verbs; you learn imagery; you learn that in school. But when you rhyme, it’s about the knowledge that you’ve acquired that makes you a good MC, not about the fact that you went to school and someone told you how to rap. You see? You go to school and you learn your rudiments; you learn how to play the kit; you develop some technique. And then when you show up and somebody says, “Let’s play,” you use all your knowledge to create. That’s lacking; there’s all of the sudden now a school about creating, therefore some things are getting stifled and we have expectations that either get exceeded or never get met because we think this is what it is, instead of listening to what that artist really wants to do within his community. And I feel like the academic element about how to play this music, jazz, has really killed it. Because now if someone like Craig Taborn wants to do something completely off the cuff, do something with electronics or something, there’s a purist that only wants to hear piano that’s saying that he’s crazy. Someone who thinks he’s ridiculous with electronics is mad because he’s not playing with a drummer, and he’s playing solo. You can’t win out here, right? It’s only because the expectations have been somehow manufactured. And I’m using these terms because I really do feel like there’s a machine, and it’s all about sales. So if the sales tell you, “This is what you need to be,” then that’s what you’ll be.
Speaking of the lack of camaraderie, have you heard about the problems with the Black Sabbath reunion?
[Discussion of the details]
So please don’t tell me they’re going to get another drummer…
No, they are! And Bill wrote this whole thing about how, “This is for all the drummers that got stiffed out of their royalty payments…”
Whoo, Bill! Because there’s so much of this shit going on, man. There’s this hierarchy out there, and the reason I laugh is because what we do, Hank, is actually the helm. We are the helm; we are the throne; that’s where the buck is; that’s where it stops. But they want us to be the maid of the band; no, no, no—we’re actually the motherfuckin’ boss. But the thing is, is that, “Well, some drummers don’t learn their harmony; they don’t learn the craft of the music.” Okay, so they put the technicality on you. Some guitar players don’t either! Some bass players don’t! They just learn a few riffs and that’s their shit! Like, what the fuck are we talking about out here? The fact of the matter is that the drums were the first instrument, over the voice. That’s it: drums and voice. So that’s why vocalists and drummers are so important in a band—rock or whatever it is. Well, in jazz, whoever’s playing the lead up front is treated as a vocalist, and when they continue to make a lot of money, whether they’re composing the songs or whatever, they get the credit. The humility of the drummer… We are the samurai; we are the reason why you sleep at night; we are the reason why people say your name, and we are the reason why people don’t come test you. Believe this. And I know it might sound Old World, but it is! And in a very true sense, the drummer has to know all the parts; the drummer has to know what’s happening in order to be so insane and so supportive. People think that it’s a just a job; we’re just flailing. We’re just back there doing our thing and sweating and the next thing you know, that’s it. Oh, and then it’s a big deal when we ask somebody, “Can you help me carry this?”
Some drummers don’t even ask; they just show up, set their shit up, blast, break the shit down, throw it in the truck, go get a beer, fuck two girls, go to sleep, wake up, do it again, then what? Then you mad at ‘em! Then you don’t want to talk to them because you’re like, “Damn, how’d you do that?” He’s a soldier, man. There’s something to that, and there’s something lacking when the drums are disrespected. To me it says a lot about where your mind is in terms of playing any type of groove-based music. It says a lot; it really does. And it’s not to take away from the prowess of all these other instrumentalists that are great technicians and writers and composers. I’m not trying to say that they’re bad. I’m just trying to say that there has to be this relationship of respect between both. And I don’t think most people look at the drummer with that reverence. You understand the corporations are going to come for you, but if you don’t look out… Because the corporations are only going to come for a drummer if a drummer is bombastic—I’m talking about in his personality—wanting to get all the attention and become the frontman and say, “I’m the leader,” and you can’t deny him. But there’s a lot of people that just aren’t like that, that are geniuses. And, like, let them have their shine! You know that your record sold because of them; you know that people come to your shows because they know that that drummer’s going to bring it. You know that that’s why they showed up. So why do you treat them like a second-class citizen, and why do you try to give them even less money?
The reason why I said samurai is most of the time, respected soldiers are usually taken care of, because [people] understand your value. And in that society, they were the aristocrats, even though they were the warriors. They picked flowers. There’s something manly about knowing how to grow something and about knowing what’s beautiful in nature. There’s something manly about knowing how to take care of your body and your family and crops. There’s something manly about knowing what tastes good—[being a] cultivated individual. A lot of drummers that I know are usually like that. And there’s something in society that tells you to treat the drummer like the slave, and I think it’s really simple: The drums remind you of something African, and in this society, anything African is just considered sub-class citizen, so a drummer is just a sub-class citizen because he’s not doing anything of relevance, because [Stodgy voice], “Those Negroes do nothing of relevance.” I think it’s a direct social connect.
Like, when Lombardo left Slayer. None of those drummers can hold a fuckin’ candle to his shit. They were good, but they couldn’t hold a candle to his shit. The moment he got back in the band, “Whoop!” They went up like that. All of a sudden, [people] were like, “Oh man, have you heard Slayer’s new record?” The people that don’t know shit were just flippin’. The people that knew Lombardo joined the band were happy. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with people liking who they like on the drums and everything like that. But if somebody crushes, and somebody really has this personality, where you know they have this regal-ness about their craft, they’re the reason why you’re there. And you’re the reason why they’re there; it takes two. And I don’t feel like that give and take is something that’s usually there. People usually read the press, they see that, okay, leader of the band, Ozzy’s this and that, girls like him, he’s crazy, he’s sick, so he’s like, “I’m Black Sabbath.” I don’t think he feels that, but I’m saying that people think that that’s what it is, so if they can see his face, then they’re cool. Some people will show up to the concert and not even know that Billy’s missing, because in their mind, Black Sabbath is Ozzy. I think that that social problem has been in music for a long time.
The reason why I brought up the whole African thing is because the drummer is the leader and the master of the group. So you go to Cuba, master drummer—bang! Respect. But there’s still this weirdness that happens in these cultures, because still the musicians that play chordal instruments and do all these different things, whether they play multiple instruments or whatever it is, they get a certain type of corporate respect, because [people] feel like you’re playing music in a more advanced way. They don’t look at rhythm as something that’s advanced. They think of rhythm as something that’s innate; they don’t look at rhythm as something that you have to practice at and actually be able to execute. When other people are off, that affects the continuity of what you’re doing too. So everybody has to find a way to get good in order to keep up with someone that’s nailing shit too. So that’s why you always hear the joke: “Everything’s wrong—it’s the drummer’s fault. It’s rushing or dragging—it’s the drummer’s fault.” If you’re going to blame us, and we do hold it down, and then you’re going to get mad at that, and then your response is, “Okay, I’m going to just pay him less than everyone else, or I’m going to try to not give him shine.” Why does that happen? I feel Billy for what he says, because it happens so much in our craft as drummers.
Like, I’m not even going to say the artist’s name, I told [an] artist that I was practicing the other day, and he said, “Oh, so you had a protein shake.” And I said, “Oh, wow, that’s funny.” I get your joke. Okay, ha ha. What you’re basically saying is, my practicing requires physical fitness but your practicing requires something cerebral? So what I’m doing doesn’t require my mind, it just requires my body. Oh, really? This is when I just want to hand sticks to someone and say, “Tell all four of your limbs to do this. Tell me that’s not cerebral. Do this. Just do it! Since you’re so intellectual. But you can’t. Oh, okay, so why is my mind less?” It’s really a disease man. I don’t know what it is, but it’s plaguing music. And then on the other hand, there’s people in music that love drums. They say, “That’s my guy. If you’re not eating, and you’re not living and you’re not living…”
That breeds creativity and it breeds wealth; it breeds unity.
To get back to metal, who are some other drummers in that realm that impress you?
What’s my man, Gene…?
Yep. ’Cause he’s just this huge guy. He reminds me of, like, the dentist of metal. He shows up and you’re looking at him, like, what? And there’s just nothing but technique coming out. And he’s been in multiple bands; I can’t track him. I know him when I see him. So actually I’m more interested in what he’s doing than who he’s playing with because I know everybody’s stoked to have him on the kit.
There’s this other drummer that fucking floored me, and the only reason why I’ve gotten familiar with him was because of some of the things he’s done with all the clinicians, was Thomas Lang. It’s because his technique is just insane. I love what he does on the kit. More than Marco Minnemann, more than any of these other guys. And he just has that vibe: “I show up to crush. I come to shred. I come to blow the kit up and leave. I go home to my wife and kids; I go golfing, whatever, but when I show up, I come to do my thing.” And I like that about him. He does a lot of stuff with European pop/rock stars and a lot of experimental stuff and demonstration material, but he just recently auditioned for Dream Theater. And they had Derek Roddy, Thomas Lang, Marco Minnemann and Mike Mangini, who actually got it. Mike Mangini’s a great musician; he plays guitar, he reads. And Thomas is a great musician as well. Thomas was the better drummer, by the way. Thomas showed up and crushed, but they didn’t dig Thomas. You know why they didn’t dig Thomas? ‘Cause Thomas showed up to do his job, which was crush. And they were more intimidated with Thomas, because they were like, “You know, you played all this other stuff…” He was throwing them! He was playing so much shit! And he comes from a creative, improviser perspective as well. He was kind of like, “I show up and play the way I play. If you hire me to play the way I play, then cool.” I actually think they would’ve been better off with Thomas Lang. Because I think that Thomas Lang would’ve showed up, and every night, he just would’ve been the drum god that they wanted onstage. [Mike] Portnoy is cool, and he plays that gig very well. He’s a great showman, and he has great foot technique and everything. Nobody’s taking anything from him. But I feel like Lang just showed up and played that music better than anybody else. It was this one epic song that they had, and he just played his fills, full of intensity and a lot of great technical information that he was throwing in, and I just didn’t understand why they wouldn’t pick that guy.
And I guess that’s the story of my life. Like, why isn’t Slayer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Why not? I don’t know why they shouldn’t be. They’ve got one of the best drummers of all time that was a fucking innovator on the kit, and you don’t have that band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? I don’t get it. All the guys I like, even if it goes to MCs or horn players, guys that I think are, like, the rawest, it’s like, why don’t we say it? Why don’t we embrace him? Maybe it’s because the machine doesn’t want you to. Maybe they don’t play the game in a certain way. And I felt that in [Thomas Lang’s] interview for the Dream Theater gig. Thomas was just kind of like, “If you dig it, you dig it.” And he should be like that, because he’s a badass. Because he played everything correct. He was a professional, and I feel like, why not? Some people don’t like it when you put too many whistles and bells on it. Maybe that’s what it is, a sense of taste. I don’t think he did; I think his whistles and bells were tasteful.
The reason why the buck almost started and stopped for me with Meshuggah was the rhythmic approach. I felt like it was more how I heard metal in my head. Then I started hearing all these names for the shit: mathcore, and all this other stuff. And they were saying the same thing that I would hear Steve [Coleman] or Greg [Osby] say, about doing complex rhythms over 4/4. And that new [Meshuggah] record is good, but I feel like they really wanted to make a point to people that they could just play some good stuff, you know what I mean? It’s not ObZen or Chaosphere; it’s not epic like those were, where you’re just sitting there, like, “Whoa, did they just really do that? For a whole record?”
The only reason I named Living Colour was because it was the first tape I got at 13, 12 or something, where I put it in and I heard [Will Calhoun’s] double-bass drums hit me like that. And then I went researching for it. I went through my dad’s record collection, and I found some Cobham. It just sparked some shit in my brain to look for more drums, because I heard somebody play something and then break down in the pocket, and then the next song was more in the groove, and then this song was punk. It was creative. That’s the only reason why. I’m not saying I’m a die-hard fan of everything that they’ve done, but I’m definitely a fan of the fact that they managed to pull something out of me at a young age that I would really be inclined to like. Based off of my environment and everything that I was around, I feel like I was probably going to just make beats and be a b-boy and play drums for certain situations. And then slowly I ended up moving on to playing jazz drums the more I started hanging out with Billy Higgins and getting those types of gigs, and I saw the beauty and the essence.
And I never had those elders tell me not to be myself. That’s why I mentioned academia earlier, was because when I moved to the East Coast to go to school, it was the first time I heard people say, “Play like Roy Haynes; play like Elvin; play like Tain.” And I said this at one point; people thought I had a bad attitude, but I said it: “Well, why don’t you go hire him?” And they looked at me like, “How dare you?” And I’m like, “Well, you’re asking me to be somebody; I’m not that guy.” If you want me to play a rhythm, that’s different. You want me to play some information, give me the rhythm and let’s play that. But when you’re getting into aesthetics and how I hear playing information in the cracks, and my sound, and my set-up and all that, now you’re getting into me. “Play it like Jack.” To be honest, half these [drummers], the only reason I checked them out was because people said I sounded like them, and I had not checked their shit out that much. And then you would go and check that shit and go, “Wow, okay. I see it.”
Any other drummers you’d like to mention?
[Marvin] “Smitty” [Smith], for instance, is a ridiculous drummer. He has great double-bass technique and played all that stuff with Steve Coleman. When I hear the stuff that he can do, he could easily be in a metal band and destroy it.
Mike Smith floored me, the dude from Suffocation.
Who’s not in the band anymore…
[Brief discussion of Suffocation drama]
I really dug hearing him because when I started checking out the blast-beat sound, I heard Derek Roddy and then I was researching more, and I came across Suffocation and just heard him and I thought the shit was programmed because it was so vicious. The dynamics of the bass drums and the snare and cymbals… Well, he uses Meinl cymbals as well, which are great instruments, and if you play them that way, they will project and hit the mic. And I just remember seeing a live video of him and my jaw hit the ground. I feel like what he did for that genre, I’ve never seen anybody… Ambidextrous with it too, just killing it for 45 minutes. And it’s not tense; it’s just relaxed. He has technique that gets it out. And I’ve heard engineers talk about tracking him, and that’s when you know, and they basically are like, “He is the beginning and the end of all that is blast.”
Have you ever tried playing blast beats? I have friends who love certain elements of extreme metal, but who can’t get into the blast beat. It’s kind of like an anti-groove. It’s static; you can’t really headbang to it.
I’ve used a little bit of it. I used a little bit of it on Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut record. There’s a song called “This Ain’t in Book 3,” and he specifically came to me and said, “I want you to use a blast beat, but I want you to manipulate it according to my phrases and improvise with it as I phrase the melody.” So I learned the melody; I learned the harmonic rhythm. And he was, like, “Basically blast through it, but arc it with the music.” And I said, “That’s kind of raw! You’re sure about this?!?” [Laughs] And he said, “Yeah, man—I want you to blast!”
For me, that’s why I dig it, as a technical [tool]. I’ve tried playing it, and I like playing it, but the thing is, it is static and it does take endurance and a certain technique to really pull it off effectively and also consistently, but I could see people’s musical quarrel with it, because it’s not as musical as obviously hearing some sort of polyrhythmic things coming from the kick and the snare and the cymbal, and different things that make me headbang. I think most people would nod their head to that stuff more. Whereas the blast beat is just kind of like, you’re leaning back and your eyes are bugged out, and you’re sitting there in shock. But I like it because it’s rebellion; it’s a straight “F— you” to the whole thing. But I think there’s a technical element about it that just floors me, because you’re consistently keeping these notes on this grid. It’s not like you’re just playing some free roll until you run out of steam. You’re holding that until a certain part, and then you have to shift and shift, so it’s technical, and I get it, but I also understand why it forces some people to lose concentration, and also it gets boring. Just me personally, I can’t listen to an entire record of blast. I have to hear some drummers give me some shit. Come on, now! That’s why I’ve named the drummers I’ve been naming, because they’re bringing those technical elements, but mixed with the ability to lay some things in the pocket. And I don’t know what Mike [Smith] can do, but I like him because I feel like the sound he’s going for is clean and strong. He does his fills around the kit. He has all these different cymbals for different sections; he’s orchestrating in his own musical way with the blast beat.
But I feel it’s more what the blast beat represents, and that’s why I said that Tony was the first person to do it. I feel like it was more a sound that he was going for. Because he obviously likes the sound of a clean roll, and to hear it oscillating like that between snare, kick, snare, kick, and then the cymbal that accentuates it, it brings this effect to maybe propel a song, or push a song to another level. That’s why I like it, for the effect. But as the actual essence of your band? That’s rough to me, which is why I couldn’t listen to Suffocation’s music the whole way through. I would listen to a few songs, and just be sitting there like, “He’s really playing this!” I have to think it’s just the wow factor for me. But it’s not the same as other albums that I would listen to from top to bottom, just because I know each song has this… Chaosphere, today I could put that shit on and let it rock from top to bottom, even to that little weird, backwards interlude that they have at they end. You know something really epic is about to come. The band doesn’t come back in, but it’s like a complete backwards, or fast forward of every song that they played meshing together. I thought it was brilliant. I can listen to that all the way to the end, and sometimes I’m even patient enough on the train ride to listen through that static, but sometimes it’s annoying, and I turn it off.
But I feel like maybe that’s people’s problem with the blast beat, that it’s just technical ability, and that’s true; it’s just one technique. It’s like someone that can jump really high and dunk the ball. Can you make a jump shot? Do you have footwork? Can you play the post? Can you make free throws? Can you do a lay-up with your left hand? After a while you’re like, “Okay, you can dunk.” And somebody that does that is obviously someone that can jump 45 inches vertically and has the windmill or whatever. That’s how I look at the blast beat; their legs are extremely gifted in holding this rhythm, and they’ve trained their fingers and their forms and wrists just to stay… It’s almost like a nervous twitch that they control. It’s like a knockout punch. It’s like, you know how to do it, but can you box? But I’m curious to hear Mike Smith in another band where he’s forced to play some other music. If he has that technique, I feel like him playing other rhythms and cadences would just be ridiculous, because of the amount of power that he can produce just on that. Imagine what that would turn into.
Do you think it’s possible for a single drummer to be great at playing both jazz and metal or heavy rock?
Yes, I think it is possible because it requires discipline to do both. Like, the gig [I played] last night was a piano trio gig but it was in a room that had 20 foot high ceilings. So a drum set in there is going to obviously swallow up the piano if I played like I’m playing with some rock band. But the constraint, having the proper tools, playing brushes—I can play brushes and get a good sound out of these broom sticks or bundles, which have some attack but give you a brushy sound as well, and then being able to have a light sensitive touch with sticks. There are certain things that you obviously would not do at that volume; certain things just require a little more intensity. Just like running fast has more force; you’re not going to hit somebody soft when you’re running fast. But you can control it; it can be contained. I think that’s the challenge. Playing with Robert Glasper for all those years, that was the biggest challenge is, he likes drums; he likes a lot of it, but he plays the piano. And his touch isn’t really that strong, so that’s also something that he’s working with. So he needed me to give what he wants rhythmically and technically from the kit but be able to have a dynamic range that was extremely broad with sticks, because he wants to hear that. So I think it’s possible.
I just think the problem is that we pigeonhole ourselves and genres do it too. If a drummer shows up playing with a jazz quartet and rock drummer sees him doing it, he’s going to immediately think he’s not capable of doing this thing. Vice versa: If a jazz drummer sees a metal drummer crushing at a show onstage with people moshing in the pit, going crazy, he’s just going to immediately assume that that drummer does not have the ability to go and do what he just did at the Vanguard last night or something. It’s not true; it’s not fucking true. I think it’s really disrespectful to all drummers that work hard. Some people just aesthetically don’t play that way, so that’s who they are. But I think if people have the presence of mind to know the nuances of a genre, then they can play. There’s certain subtleties in playing acoustic music that let other musicians feel that you’re sensitive. There’s just certain little tricks that drummers learn all the time; it’s how to hit the cymbal, how to play the snare; it’s knowing where the pianissimo range is on the snare. It’s not in the middle; it’s toward the rim. If you know these things, you’re just playing with them. And you might feel like a douche all night, because you’re not hitting. You might think, “Goddammit, all this light shit…” But then you get with another band where [the leader] actually wants you to kind of play, and he has the ability to keep up with you technically. And then you get into this weird area where people start saying, “Wait a minute, that’s aggressive, but it’s dynamic, but it’s rhythmic.” Those are the areas I like because there’s no way you can pigeonhole it.
But I think it’s possible [to play both]. Your subtleties change; it’s your decision-making. It’s like if you’ve been playing one game and then you have to go and compete and play another game. It’s like the athletes that play football and baseball, or the athletes that play basketball and football coming up in high school. You can do it, but it [depends on] your decision-making, the technique that it takes to execute what that group of musicians wants to hear. That’s why these hybrid forms of music are perfect for certain drummers, because they can improvise but still rock out, so they feel like they’re getting both. But that’s why I feel like we wouldn’t have had Tony Williams if there wasn’t a guy that understood music, because there’s records where he’s playing strictly hi-hat. What’s that record, In a Silent Way? Time was killing; he’s in the pocket. I feel like anybody’s capable of doing it. I feel like if someone has the ability to be ferocious, they definitely have the ability to be sensitive. It’s just, have they trained themselves or do they want to do it?
Vinnie Colaiuta, he’s an example of someone that can play it all. He can play with a singer; he can play in a jazz trio; he can play in a fusion band, a rock band; he can play funk. Smitty, same type of cat. These are guys that in my opinion have the technical ability to pull it off. And I’ve heard people complain about them in the more sensitive genres because they have so much to say. Okay, well, then, so then people feel like they want to call a drummer that doesn’t have a lot to say but then you’re missing out on certain things. If you want somebody that can put it in the fifth gear…
I would love to show up one summer and go on tour with a rock band and play my heart out and crush, and then show up and play the Vanguard in the fall. That would be my quintessential dream. Hell, yeah! Because it’s all music to me. I would put it all on the radio; I would listen to it all. I listen to Gonzalo Rubalcaba play solo piano, and then I listen to Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and then I’ll turn around and listen to Meshuggah. Why shouldn’t I be able to enjoy all that shit? That means that my musical tastebuds are diverse; that’s it. I think it’s possible. And anybody that says it’s not, I just don’t think that they’ve exhausted the possibilities.
What’s your history playing rock or metal?
I haven’t played metal. I’ve only gotten some calls to do some rock stuff with some kind of fringe guys. I’ve done some hip-hop and R&B type of gigs with Lauryn Hill and Meshell Ndegeocello and stuff like that. Those are, like, the biggest stages I’ve played on—playing for a slew of people, hitting hard and being dynamic and all that. But playing a rock show in a rock band, it’s something I really would love to do, and I actually haven’t had any opportunity to really exhaust that, because I feel like people call me to play complex, deep music. And I’m honored! I don’t want to stop playing it, but I feel like another part of me just wants to groove and lay into something and play it. And I’m not saying loud and shit. That’s not what I’m saying, because some of the baddest metal drummers aren’t extremely fucking loud, let’s be clear, because that shit is hard! You can’t play that fast if you’re playing that fucking loud! [Laughs] You have to choose. But they are strong drummers; they do get a big full sound.
I was in Germany, and I was doing a gig with Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green, and the whole tech staff were all metalheads. They were all tatted up, all black, boots, the haircuts. They were all metalheads, but they were cool, because they saw the gear that I was using: Sonor drums and my custom snare and Meinl cymbals. They liked the gear because they were like, “Man, it sounds good in this situation,” and they gave me dap. After the show, I guess [due to] different elements that I was playing in my solo, the dude walked up and says, “Man, I’ve got a metal band. I would love to fly you over here to do stuff. Would you be down to do it?” And I was just honored, because he saw once again, “You’re playing this jazz show, but I could tell that you would be down to play a metal show if you got the chance. Would you want to do it?” And I was like, “Okay.” I just wanted to be with a group of cool individuals, just real cool stuff. And also, it would be another push. You’re expanding your repertoire; it’s more techniques that you’re refining. Sometimes if you don’t use those techniques, you don’t refine them as much. So it’s one of those things that I would definitely like to do more of, or just play in a real rock situation; I love playing pocket, for anything. But you know, we’ll see.
I wanted to talk more about the nuts and bolts of your drumming: the sounds you choose—the really big, dry, precise sound of your snare and kick—and also your rhythmic feel, which reminds me more of turbo-speed electronica than jazz. Also, though, I was listening to an earlier record you played on, Robert Hurst’s Unrehurst, Volume 1, which was probably the most straightforwardly jazzy thing I’d heard you do.
That is early me. That is under my dad’s wing and keepin’ it true, but still the way that I was hearing even drum sound was coming from—I’m glad you were talking about turbo-speed electronica, which is the same even with the metal influence, which is why I dug some of that stuff: same information just played faster, and clean and all that. It came from the fact that I would hear even, like, Batá drums, and the Iyá is this low… You know, because it comes from the ngoma, which is three drums—low, medium and small, and the low is always the master drummer, because you can feel it. It’s this sense, which is why the bass and the drums have so much connection, because the bass anchors the low end of the harmony and is playing the tonic or root. But it’s the fact that you’re hearing the bottom of the chord, and same thing with the kit; you’re hearing the bottom pitch of the rhythm. So it takes your brain to where one’s going to be, but it also stimulates where you’re going to nod, somehow, because you’re hearing those low frequencies. You could have all this complex going on, but when you figure out where that low end is… That’s one thing I got from Billy Higgins, because I would listen to him and he always have this nice, snappy snare, and he had a 16” [bass drum], but it was tuned low as fuck. So the 16” kept him out of maybe the bass range, for playing a 22” or 20”, which might have been even more beefy or more round, and might have got in the way, frequency-wise. So that’s one thing I learned from that about getting some articulation.
But then with all the hip-hop production and stuff that I was into, I started checking out frequencies, and when you start talking to a lot of great engineers that mix rock records, they always talk about where stuff lies in the mix. They always talk about drummers that would show up with sounds that they could easily manipulate to put it in the mix. You could push it and everything around that sound didn’t get in the way—the overtones, the frequencies that you tune at.
So on that record with Robert Hurst, I was playing snare drums that were 4” deep, but then I started to get into orchestral snare drums with cable snares, and I started noticing that they were more articulate, more sensitive at every volume level and unforgiving technically. It was like, “Oh man, I suck!’ If you hear the old marching snares, it’s just a gut snare, so that’s why you hear more of that tom-tom sound, but you get a little bit of snare. The buzz of the modern wire masks sometimes the actual stroke, so things may sound faster than they really are. So I started checking out [cable snares] and then I said, “Man, this sounds good when you play pocket.” So I said, “Okay, let me up the ante.” So on that Robert Hurst record, I hadn’t gotten to that yet, and it’s funny that you’re talking about it, because it does sound more traditional in a sense, because the information is more cross-sticks, and I was playing all this stuff that I had been learning in college, guys forcing me to have this certain sound. But the more I got into the technical sound of the kit and where it lays in the mix, that’s why I’m honored that you hear that the gear is specific, because it is. The tuning is something that I try to do to cater to fitting it into the mix so that the engineer and the artist will say, “Oh man, that’s like a velvet cushion.” And also there’s the aesthetic thing, because live, I like good-sounding bass drums and good cracking snares, and I like to hear the contrast: The toms just kind of fill in, and the cymbals, I like the articulate sound. I used to play a lot more rivets early, because that was the Higgins influence. A lot of pianists like shimmer. But the older I got, I just felt rivets got in the way. Because if I wanted to hit a crash, I was worried about something sizzling out of control. And I like dryer-sounding drum heads. If your drums are ringing that much, if you play a lot of notes, you can’t hear them. That’s why a lot of rock drummers tune everything so dead, so you can hear all of those strokes, but the response isn’t always the best, so you’re working harder than you need to.
I’m glad you hear that [my sound is deliberate], because that’s something I’m still figuring out today: how to obtain a clearer sound that’s unique and also something that I feel caters to all musics, something that I feel will allow me to get a call from Joni Mitchell or Steely Dan. I would love to collaborate with different types of musicians, and that’s one thing I tried to think about also in the sound that I create from the drums. I feel like thereare certain [drum] sounds that make you feel good. When you hear an Elvin Jones drum kit, there’s something about it; it’s his snare sound, and his high-pitched kick and his toms, and the way that he hits everything, and then you hear Bonham with this huge kick drum, but he’s smacking everything like a fucking giant, it’s like, “Oh, wait a minute—that’s ridiculous!” You’re hearing these different things. Both guys hit hard, when they need to. Bonham was just crushing extremely hard, but he had this loose sound. These are things that stay with you; sound stays with you. It really does. It’s what makes you keep a record on; it’s the mix of a record. A lot of that has to do with the drums and how they’re tuned, and also with the timbre of all the other instruments. That’s what makes you leave a record on. The great engineering is obviously half the battle, but most of it I feel is that these musicians really get a certain sound, and that’s what makes you leave it on.
It’s funny that you mention Elvin and Bonham. I feel like I always associate their sounds in my mind. They’re both really weighty, almost sluggish-feeling drummers.
You know what’s funny is that I’ve heard passages in Bonham’s solos that are direct quotes of Elvin and Max. Not saying he sounded like them verbatim, but it’s obvious that Bonham was aware of these two guys and respected them. But then his own thing with that information, this whole thing, coming from the lowest floor tom all the way to the highest floor tom, this ascending sound, which is more what a lot of horn players do… Whereas most drummers play in a descending fashion because it always goes from high to low, Elvin would play ascending from low to high. That’s why you would always freak out when you hear Elvin, because he would raise the pitches. He would end on the snare and smack the shit out of it. Haynes, same thing; he would have a lot of that high-low control. Those guys influenced a lot of how I hear the kick-snare thing, how they’re supposed to speak in their own way.
It’s just something about the power that both [Elvin and Bonham] had, rest in peace, that propelled those bands that they were in to stardom. Elvin basically pushed Trane to superstardom. I don’t care what nobody says. Trane was ridiculous; we get it. But without Elvin Jones, you would not be a superstar. I don’t care. Elvin Jones was the guy that pushed you to that point. Same goes to what Bonham did for Zeppelin. It’s a good group: great chords, they had nice little bluesy themes. But Bonham put this sludge, this feel to it that was just big and felt like a giant walking down the street. You just feel it, every time. There’s something to that. He pushed y’all to superstardom. So that’s why I think about them both in that same way, because I think they both have a lot of power and a lot of presence. A lot of musicality too. They both did. But I feel like what their sounds did to the band is what made the band. Even though all the musicians were great, it was what their sound did to that.
Fortunately history has been kind to both.
I think it was because they were so much of a super power, how could you contain that? I remember there was an interview where Ozzy said he hated to see Bonham come jam because Bonham broke drums! [Laughs] Shit had me on the floor. He said he loved him, but that guy would break drums. How do you break the drums?!? That guy was that much of a super power, man. That’s what he was hearing. And back then, they didn’t have all the technology. Guys had like two or three amps plugged into one ax and they were just sitting up there looking pretty, and the drummer had to essentially compete. And Bonham was like, “I’m going to make sure that people know that we are up here crushing.” And he brought it physically, and he was able to make that feel good, which a lot of people can’t do.
Can you imagine those two drummers today? Bonham would succeed in rock, but I’m not sure Elvin would succeed in the jazz industry. We would run from that guy today, because most of the musicians today wouldn’t have a sound to compete. Back then, Stanley Turrentine had a sound that would reach the bar, Eddie Lockjaw reached the bar, Trane reached the bar.
We’ve talked a lot about jazz and metal, but we haven’t gotten into the long tradition of music that combines those two aesthetics. Do you think that those kinds of fusions are worthwhile?
Sometimes the testosterone element of it, we get away from playing some real classic… Jimi Hendrix played good ballads. We talk about Trane and Zeppelin; they all played good ballads. And now I feel like the technical elements, being complex with your compositions, has taken away from people being able to be melodic, and say heartfelt statements. Because we all mourn; we’ve all lost someone special; we all hopefully have loved someone. Being able to tap into that a little bit just eases the playing field to make things more palatable. And I think sometimes with these hybrids, we move away from things being obtainable. I’m not saying dumb down; I’m saying give something that invokes that emotion. I think that’s something that happens even at metal shows. People go to get hit hard, but I feel like some of the best metal bands have some of those songs that break down a little bit. They might give you a minute of it. Or maybe a couple beautiful chord progressions and they go back to the vicious shit.
That kind of goes back to your question of why is Metallica more popular than Slayer? In the end, Metallica has the more dynamic songs. As far as fusion goes, I always think of early Mahavishnu as the band that was able to really capture both the grit and the beauty.
For me, the guy that made me think that it was possible was Miles. Miles had the ability to play a ballad and play something serenading better than most of the people of his generations; he was better than some vocalists. But he embraced the drums; he wanted the music to kick ass. But then he would immediately take control and out of nowhere go into some ballad. When you watch his live performances, that’s one of the first things I noticed. Right after this happens, this happens. It might be burnin’, and then it’ll come down to a grooving tempo that’s so bad, and then he takes it up a notch and then back to a ballad and then takes you out on a nice groove. And the next thing you know, you’ve had an experience. I feel like that’s what great bands do; they take you on journeys.
That’s why I like ObZen so much, because there’s so much shit on that record that breaks down, and you’re just like, “Whoo!” Because those guys are great guitarists. I think that’s the best way to do it, to bring the beauty and the aggression together. I draw from martial arts with my craft. It’s about being smooth and technical at the same time. When you become offensive, it’s because you’re defending yourself. And you’re supposed to look good when you practice. That’s why so many things from the Asian culture have influenced me because there is this dynamic of being able to chop somebody’s head off in the most beautiful way. They sit there and practice the perfect sword swing. It looks beautiful; it sounds beautiful; it has the perfect stroke, in order to cut your head off though. But they’re spending hours and hours to make it look perfect and look good, so that when it comes time to kill someone, it’s a beautiful kill. So if we have that perspective in music, we’ll be more deadly. Some people are just about the blood; they’re not about the beauty.
I wanted to get back to electronica, which we touched on earlier.
It influenced me a lot. I was noticing that it was a lot of drum breaks and things that you’ve heard sped up. So it was like, “Oh, you just take rudiments and speed them up to the 32nd where you’d been doing the 16th.” The duple effect. It was something I was already starting to do anyway with rhythms. So then I started studying Boards of Canada, Photek, Squarepusher, Plaid, Venetian Snares. I was, like, “Wow, these sounds are things that are hard to execute as cleanly because it’s a [machine],” but if a human being can become a machine, that was the fixation, was being able to make my hands and my body move like a machine. And then getting those sounds, experimenting with different kinds of hats and cracked cymbals and splashes on the snare. Which are things that people used to do around different neighborhoods to get, like, clap sounds. And then I started to see guys like Johnny Rabb getting a lot of love for playing drum & bass.
It wasn’t like, “Okay, this is the music I’m going to do.” I just liked the sound of the information and felt like it reminded me of almost what was probably the contrast when Charlie Parker came on the scene and started playing information in double time, and very clean and articulate, like, “Man, he just played my shit back to me twice as fast and then put some other shit on top of it.” So the element that I grew up in, this competitive drummer element, it was kind of that same mentality. That type of mindset is what led me to appreciate electronica. And just how creative they would be with forms, and how they weren’t so fixated on 16, 8, 32 bars. Everything was more open. It was more about taking these sounds and these textures and creating them. That was more impressive to me than the rhythms itself. It was more about how they put songs together, morphed these sounds and textures together.
Electronica has been as important to the hands as metal has been to the kick. It’s funny how these two modern genres that came along are essentially almost the same rhythmic information that came before us but sped up. Are our brains now forcing us to play information faster and cleaner within the same grid, to be able to play that information twice as fast, or triple time? Some of these metal guys are playing ridiculous tempos, effortless, at like 200. That’s incredible. There were maybe only a couple guys that might’ve been able to execute that 20 years ago; now it’s standard. It’s an honor to be able to play with [people like Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthappa] and try to advance yourself to a certain point that you didn’t even know was possible, to get to that machine level, when you feel like you’re literally a machine, where somebody could press “Play” on you. It’s fun, man.
Do you ever talk about metal with other jazz musicians?
No, only the guys that are very open-minded. I think some people think that metal is actually simplistic because of its harmonic density, because its not as dense. So I feel like a lot of musicians look at it as just a drummer’s haven. They’re like, “Oh yeah, you drummers like that.” Or [Nerdy voice], “Oh yeah, I liked metal when I was in high school.” A lot of people say that. But I think the reason why I leaned toward liking it a little more is that I just respected what was being executed on the kit. I feel like so many people would talk about the word musicality, and it always meant playing something in a very sensitive, light way. And that’s not what musicality meant to me; musicality meant playing what’s needed for the moment, and if it means that you need to play something sensitive and light, cool; if it means you need to whip ass, cool. But why is it that the person that can’t even do what’s needed for the music when you need to go aggressive, why isn’t that called unmusical? [Laughs] That’s not called called unmusical. [Mock-serious] “That’s still musical, because he couldn’t get there.” It doesn’t make any sense. So these are the same people that dissociate themselves from the music because they feel like what these musicians are doing, they’re not working towards being musical.
So there’s something unmusical about having good time? I’ve played with musicians that are talking about music and everything being musical, and the quarter note is a fucking catastrophe. It’s just simple! Just click-click. And then you do something like a dotted-quarter pattern against it and the time starts to shift. And you’re like, “Musicality seems to be subjective here.” I feel like it’s harder to talk about today still because people look at you as if you’re crazy, or they look at you as if you want to play aggressively and loudly all the time. That’s not the case! I’m just basically saying, I appreciate the fact that these [metal] guys are executing in a very proper fashion. They’re clean; they have their songs; they have a message, some of them, and they mean it. I’m for that, rather than somebody who’s half-assing and pussyfooting around, and that’s called extremely musical, But when you’re asking them to do something that is musical in a very strong way, they can’t even step up to the plate? I feel like musical came to mean someone that couldn’t get to any kind of meat and potatoes in their playing, any kind of aggression or density. The guy that creates density, it’s like, “Oh, he’s a good drummer; he’s technical.” Why isn’t he musical? You’re just mad because he’s able to do more, and he might push you to do more. Some people can’t deal with the fact that somebody could push them even further. There’s people that respect it from a rhythmic standpoint, but most people just think it’s a bunch of satanists and yelling like buffoons, and they feel it’s for high school people.
What’s your take on satanism in metal? Did you ever pay any attention to that?
I was raised in a very religious family. it’s more about the congregation—the unity and the concept of church. But I’m not into any titles about who has what religion. I feel like that’s half the problems in the world today. I don’t feel any way about it at all. When I show up at church and my mom wants me to play, I just play. It’s just a social thing. I feel like they’re actually one and the same: When people show up to that metal concert, they’re showing up to congregate. That’s church for them, to me. They show up and express themselves, and the world has got a foot on their neck; somebody’s oppressing them; they don’t like the fact that this is happening and that’s happening. And they come to that concert to let it out; that’s why people mosh. Same physical human reaction; I think it’s directly connected. We’re all humans. So if people in the church want to shout and dance, that was a social haven for the African-American community because there was no other place where you could be free and talk freely about stuff because you would be on a fucking tree tomorrow. So that’s where you went to talk and express yourself and let the stress of the world leave your shoulders. So now, okay, we might not end up on trees as often but we still need a place.
Anybody that’s playing music, you’re playing a language that everybody understands. There’s not a culture on the planet that doesn’t understand rhythm and notes and vibration; they all understand it; it’s physics. So to me, that’s my religion, playing these damn drums, because I know that I can step into any situation and somebody is going to feel what it is. A good person is a good person, and somebody who’s malicious is malicious. So judging somebody because they put beads around their wrist and chant, or they put beads around their neck and pray, it doesn’t mean anything to me. We’re all reaching for the same thing, enlightenment and peace.
There are religious ceremonies even in Africa where there are human sacrifices, animal sacrifices. It’s a certain thing that’s been in human beings for a long time: human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, blood, the drinking of it, the preservation of it, what it means. I just think when people think about what satanism is, it’s just a counter to what you see… If you see people that are supposed to be doing right by you killing more kids and more families, it’s only going to make you say, what’s the counter reality? More so than the counter perspective is the liberation. So when you break away from the confinement and find freedom and peace, maybe people might call you a rebel. That’s why they always say counterculture. Whenever I would hear those [metal] bands, I wouldn’t actually go in that dark way; I wouldn’t get scared. Unless… See some of the audiences were [behaving] in a way that I knew that me showing up, just who I was, it was going to be mayhem. But what I saw was a certain willingness to try and be something that you weren’t seeing every day with folks. You were seeing people that were living this perfect life, doing what they were told. And this group of people were just finally saying, “No, I don’t agree; it doesn’t make sense.” And what’s wrong with people that say that? Because most of the time, it doesn’t make sense.
That was the message I would get from the music. In high school, I went to a Catholic school. And I remember my religion teacher… In Catholic schools, they talk more about Satan than anything else. It’s deep. I went to Protestant schools coming up in elementary school and junior high; we never talked about Satan like that. Went to a Catholic school; every single year we would have an entire almost month dedicated to Satan[Laughs]. Learning everything, talking about actual occurrences of people that gave their life over to Satan and feeling his touch. I’ve never heard anything like that in any other Protestant school. I’ve even talked to other friends who went to normal Protestant schools. But Catholic schools? Now the academics were great; the women were great; lots of All-American athletes in and out of there.
But it was deep, and I was checking it out, and I remember this one religion teacher, she loved me, like as a person. She would come to some of my performances; she was a genuine supporter of who I was, and I remember she saw me really paying attention closely to some of the details of Satanic symbols and certain things. They show you shit! I mean, they’ve got it right there. If you want to learn anything about it, just go to a Catholic school. I said, “Oh, this is interesting.” And she said, “Be careful.” That was here thing: “Be careful, because you could dive into it.” Think about it. So they’re studying the adversary, but if you study the adversary, you have to be careful; that’s what they teach you. Every single year, almost by the month, dedicated to learning about demonic possession. As you got older, you got deeper into talking about more mature things. When they start you off freshman year, you learn all the symbols. It’s crazy, right?
So when I started checking this stuff out, I just was sitting there like, “Okay, interesting. This is just a counter thing.” So when I went to Lithuania, there was a museum dedicated to Satan. And I remember saying, “You guys have got a museum dedicated to Satan?” And you know what they told me? I found it very interesting. They said, “We don’t look at Satan as evil; we just look at Satan as someone that you have to outsmart.” And I said, “But you’ve got a whole museum dedicated to him.” Every picture, every bust, everything in that museum was dedicated to his existence and his evolution throughout the minds of human beings.
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