Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Beat Goes On

Preparing the last post on Ginger Baker made me realize the incredible fortune I have had recording drummers in general, and how much I owe them. I have worked with an extraordinary number of world-class drummers, drumming groups, and percussionists of all varieties.

Before getting into that, here's a well done, proper review of Beware of Mr. Baker from a link LJ posted in the comments section.

The person responsible for getting me into sound engineering is a drummer named Mark Kosman. Mark put together a band of High School friends that rehearsed in the house we both lived in. I used to hang out and watch them practice for hours on end whenever they were at it. After one rehearsal Mark asked me what I was going to do with my life. I had just quit a job as an apprentice Millwright ( heavy-duty construction) and had this idea to join the Peace Corps or something like that, and work in Africa. That would have combined two of my interests at the time, traveling and helping to save the world. "No, no, no," was Mark's reply, " we've got something better for you." His band, which they named White Alice - some kind of telecommunications term they found by opening a reference book at random - finally got a gig in Okotoks, a suburb of Calgary. Would I help out running their sound and lights? It meant that I could add a third primary interest, listening to music AND get paid for it ... eventually. Quite an epiphany. I never looked back. Mark was also an incredibly good drummer. You could feel the electricity in his playing even in some of the top-40 songs I didn't particularly like. White Alice only lasted a few months but he soon found his way to a hot, up and coming " new wave" (this is late '70s) band called The Models and recorded an album with them at the famous Le Studio facility north of Montreal. The album sounded good and did well in Canada.

My education into all the intricacies of the drum kit, the heads, the tuning, the type of shell wood, etc really began in earnest when I started mixing for Frantic and met Joel Anderson, a very polyrhythmic, agile, dexterous drummer with above average talent and a great love and passion for his chosen craft. Joel was pretty obsessed with drums in a good way and loved to talk with great enthusiasm about all the detailed things that made them sound the way they did. He once showed me the difference between Paiste and Zildjian cymbals in a drum shop, talked about what made them different, and why he preferred Zildjian. I took it all in and quite appreciated getting this drums 101 education. Joel's drummer guru at the time was Stewart Copeland. I later worked with Stewart as a producer on a Primus record, and as a drummer/producer for a month out in Vermont. I thought Stewart and I worked well together, perhaps the early education from Joel paved the way.

When I did live sound for various bands up in the Canadian bar band circuit every drummer wanted their drums to sound like John Bonham's. I had no problem with that. Then, in the mid-80's, a drummer for a band called Blade Runner said he wanted his drums to sound like the drums from the Power Station. That album was recorded and mixed by Jason Corsaro who a few years later became a drum engineering mentor for me. That drum sound got drummer Tony Thompson a gig with Led Zeppelin at Live Aid.

Elvin Jones is a drummer I'll never forget. In my memory, it's the best I've ever seen anyone play on a trap set. A complete natural individual style, hard to describe ... authoritative without overpowering ... taking you places but you never feel rushed or lost ... out in space traveling with a time machine propelled by human passion and life-long skill. You'll just have to hear the recording - it's called Ask the Ages.

Elvin's drums were tracked at Sorcerer Sound in New York by Jason Corsaro with a quartet that included Sonny Sharrock on guitar, Pharoah Saunders on sax, and Charnett Moffett on uprite bass. I was brought in by Bill Laswell to help out Jason but suspect it was also to give me the opportunity of working with those musicians. It wasn't common to bring in an assistant from a different studio. I ended up being in charge of their headphone mixes.

Watching Jason work with Elvin was quite interesting. I didn't ever hear Jason ask Elvin to do anything for a soundcheck. Jones somehow knew when to start playing and Jason got the sound on the fly, as he was playing. There wasn't any individual checking of each drum like you normally do. The respect Jason showed toward Elvin Jones, and the band as a whole, was really quite apparent and good for me to see. He stayed out of the way and did his work transparently to capture the moment.

Those Sorcerer sessions were on two consecutive nights. Each night I left the studio feeling wired to the max on nothing more than incredible music. Seemed like I'd just been through an intensive in some invisible college of higher learning. I was buzzing with energy. Ask the Ages is now considered a jazz classic masterwork by many people who write reviews on Amazon, and just about everybody who hears it.

Watching Stewart Copeland produce a Primus track with Brain (Brian Mantia) on drums was another highlight. I loved Brain's drumming, powerful but also tight, fast, and funky, and knew it quite well from recording Praxis and mixing them live. I also knew that Stewart was a big influence on him. Naturally, Brain was at the top of his game on that song. Stewart coaxed him to go further. He came up with a particularly difficult fill for Brain to play. Brain tried several times but couldn't quite make it. You could feel that tension in the air when someone gives it their all to push beyond limits. Finally, Brain aced it, both he and Stewart knew it, no question. Stewart admitted that he didn't know if he could have played that fill. It reminded me of the saying from Tibetan Buddhism that the greatest joy for a teacher is to see a student go beyond them. That's when they know that the baton has been passed on.

Working with Stewart was great when I recorded the Oysterhead project - the band with Copeland, Claypool and Anastasio - in the Phish studio, a vintage barn with exotic ornate doors imported from India and other cool interior design accoutrements, located out in the wilds of Vermont. That studio wasn't traditional by any means. There wasn't a separate control room, all the recording gear and mixing desk was in the same large room the band recorded in. I was familiar working this way from my years at Bill Laswell's Greenpoint studio which also didn't have a separate control room.

Oysterhead composed their tracks by playing together and improvising, finding the musically interesting parts that would emerge then building those into songs. So the first two weeks recording was spent about 2o feet away from Stewart Copeland and his drums watching him play for 10 - 12 hours a day. Pretty incredible ... I don't really have words for it ... it's like being taken up into a rareified atmosphere of sound and music exploration on a daily basis ... definitely alters your sense of time. Stewart mentioned not having played the trap set for the last 10 years being busy programming drums for film and television scores (which he does extremely well, I might add) but I couldn't tell the difference.

Stewart was more of a digital guy, and I'm more of an analog guy when it comes to the recording process, especially at that time. I think we agreed to disagree about some things. We would work from about 2pm to 2am. I remember Stewart coming in a few days 3 hours earlier at 11am to work on the editing. Once, when I arrived, he was moving his snare to be more "in time." I said to him jokingly, "what are you doing, don't you know that you're messing with Stewart Copeland's drums?" The perfectionist was driving him on. My objection to changing parts excessively in the computer is that it then becomes more of a machine created performance coming from the head - i.e. thinking about how the performance should be rather than feeling/intuiting it when playing live. The electrical connection is different when editing on a computer as opposed to the circuit made with live musicians. I suspected my advice might have been heard somewhat when I later ran into Les Claypool at the airport who said he was on his way to L.A. to help Stewart "unedit" some of the songs. Also, the final product doesn't sound over-produced. I still get the feeling of those initial live jams whenever I listen to Oysterhead.

Apart from those mentioned, drummers I've recorded or mixed live include (in no particular order):

Tony Williams, Jack deJohnette, Milfred Graves, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Ziggy Modaliste, J.T. Lewis, Aiyb Dieng, Joey Baron, Steve Smith, Charles Hayward, Karsh Kale, Zakir Hussein, Hamid Drake, Jerome Brailey (Parliament/Funkadelic), Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney), Matt Chamberlain, Omar Hakim, Anton Fier, Hideo Yamaki, Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello), Jaki Liebezeit (Can), Buddy Miles (Jimi Hendrix), Mick Harris (Napalm Death, Painkiller), Guy Licata (Method of Defiance), Michael Shrieve (Santana), Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits, Mavis Staples), and Andrew Borger (Tom Waits, Norah Jones)

These are the ones that I can remember that might be known to a wider public. I'm probably leaving some out because I'm only going off of my own dodgy memory. I've also worked with a lot of excellent less well-known drummers.

Case in point, Aaron Keirbal, whom I just tracked and mixed for up and coming singer/songwriter/guitar player/sound engineer Wesley Morgan at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. Wesley writes gritty songs of brutal honesty that reach to the core; one of the musical progeny of Tom Waits but with a uniquely individual voice. Aaron was the perfect choice to get that percussive junkyard sound and slow, tension-filled groove that creates such a thick and deep atmosphere for marking time for the song he was brought in to play on, Backroom in Tulsa. I've also worked with Aaron with Rupa and the April Fishes live and in the studio and really enjoy his tasteful jazz-flavored playing whenever we get the chance to work together. One of San Francisco's finest keepers of time.

I have also been quite lucky to have mixed and recorded a number of drumming groups, almost all of them in North or West Africa except when mixing North Africans in Japan or Europe. The most well-known of these is The Master Musicians of Jajouka from Morocco. I'll have to write up a full account, I don't think it's been done yet, or at least not published. For now I'll just mention setting up the recording for the first day. We left Tangier in the early afternoon for what I thought was going to be a 50 or 60 mile drive to Jajouka. For some reason it took all afternoon to get to where you leave the road and climb up the mountain to Jajouka. At that time, maybe still is, Jajouka was completely off the grid in every way, no electricity, no roads going to it, no telephones, nothing resembling anything of modern civilization except a battery operated P.A. system used for prayer calls. There wasn't even a sign from the road we drove in on to indicate how to get to Jajouka. You have to know someone who knows or you would never get there. It was dusk when we arrived at the spot to climb the mountain. We rode up on horses which they had waiting for us. The equipment was put on a large flatbed trailer and pulled up the mountain by a huge, ancient-looking tractor via a rocky, treeless ravine that served as a road.

It was completely dark when we reached Jajouka, but still early, 7 or 8 pm maybe. We enjoyed a simple meal of lamb, fresh bread and mint tea before unpacking and setting up the gear. The plan was to get it set up, make sure it all worked so it would be ready to start recording the next day. The film crew had arrived earlier in the day, driving down from France the past few days, and had their lighting and generator all set up providing ample illumination in the Moroccan night. The musicians were hanging about so ... no better way to test the gear than do a run through with the actual players. Everything worked fine, much to my relief. The musicians kept playing and playing, they didn't want to stop, and we didn't want them to stop. I was surprised to hear the 5 am prayer calls sound off. We had worked all night though it only seemed a few hours, and I had a tremendous amount of energy. The musicians ignored the calls, they wanted to keep playing. We told them we had to wait because they would bleed onto the tracks. The group had about 6 drummers and and about the same number of rhaita (a simple double reed horn with a very bright timbre) players. Their music definitely warped consciousness in interesting ways. You can get some idea here:

For about the last 6 - 7 years I've enjoyed a productive association with the KSK record label which features much traditional West African music. I've been to Mali four times for 2 - 5 weeks at a time making field recordings, recording in a local studio, and mixing for concerts. I've been exposed to quite a bit of masterful drumming in that time. I wrote about one of the more powerful experiences here. In Mali, music functions as much more than entertainment. Certain rhythms are designed to serve specific purposes. In the West we might go to a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst to help deal with emotional or mental issues affecting us. In Mali, they might play a certain drum rhythm to appease or drive away the evil spirits. I'll let you decide which is more civilized. I do know which one appears more cost effective.

Another drummer, Dru Kristel, helped me out a lot about 7 - 8 years ago when I was experiencing some shamanic difficulties which I'll call wave interference. It was suggested I talk to Dru because he was one of the few people who could relate to what I was going through. I barely knew him at the time, and heard that he could be difficult to reach but when I told him the situation, he understood right away and became very generous with his time and energy for me. He passed on a technique to me called The Medicine Wheel which helped immensely. I felt very fortunate to have made that contact when I did because he died about a year later. I wrote up a memorial tribute to him which led to his daughter, Ami, passing on to me a small dumbek (African drum) Dru had made.

Dru also wrote one of the best books on drums and drumming I've seen called, Breath Was the First Drummer. Here's a good review of it. It's roughly divided into two parts, practical and metaphysical. This is what he says regarding the magick of drumming. He sets it up by quoting an existential statement: The essential self does not have an electrical field, it is an electrical field which is from The Human Biological Machine as a Transformational Apparatus by E.J. Gold. Followers of Tim Leary's 8 circuit model will recognize Gold's quote as referring to the 6th circuit of consciousness. Here's Dru from his book:

Drum rhythms set up muscle rhythms which set up breathing rhythms which set up heartbeat rhythms which set up electromagnetic rhythms ( this is the "evocational" part) which set up corresponding electromagnetic rhythms in the environment which feedback by reflex to the muscles, to the oxygen, to the blood, to the eliminative and respiratory systems. This reciprocating feedback( this is the "invocational" part), leaves reverberating effects up to 48 - 72 hours after a session.

In other words, from essential self, through the body into the environment, from the environment through the body by reflex, back to the essential self is the whole crux of the process known as self-initiation.

The emphasis is Dru's


  1. as always, a joy to read your words!

  2. Yes, I remember those sessions with Jason, Elvin, Sonny & Sanders. I was the house assistant, later Head, engineer at Sorcerer at that time. Great memory Oz. I also remember Bill's place in Brooklyn with the Gobo's that where copies of the ones from Sorcerer.