For the past five years Wilco has been the ideal forum for Ken Coomer’s experimentation. Within the band’s swirling mix, which touches on The Beatles, Hank Williams, and many points between, Coomer’s ability to play just what’s required – and always make it unique – is what sets him apart.
Take “She’s A Jar” from Wilco’s latest album, Summer Teeth. Coomer enhances the laid-back feel with an odd, boomy bass drum. “That’s a 16″ floor tom laying on its side,” Ken explains. “I barely tapped it with an old Ludwig & Ludwig felt beater.” Coomer insists that anything goes on Wilco albums: sticks, brushes – even chopsticks. (At a Chinese restaurant recently, Ken dropped thirty bucks on four hundred pair.)
It’s the small details that make Coomer’s playing so interesting. This fact is verified by drummer Charlie Cooley, who joined the Canadian band Prairie Oyster after Coomer had recorded their latest CD. Says Charlie, “They flew Ken up from Nashville to do the record, and I had to learn his parts, which were deceiving. In certain places, instead of just riding on the floor tom, Ken played these slick ruffs and drags between the main beats.”
Coomer’s left-field style can also be heard on a new release by Swag, featuring members of Cheap Trick and The Mavericks. He’s also on the latest album by ex-Crowded House singer/songwriter Tim Finn. “There’s the pop thing people would expect,” Ken explains, “plus a Neil Young sort of thing that sounds like an outtake from After The Gold Rush.” Strange as it seems, given the gigs he’s known for today, maybe Coomer’s unusual style is in part the result of his tenure in…a fusion band” “I really did play in one!” he laughs. “We had all these time signatures that would change on a dime.” These days, Coomer couldn’t be bothered with such clutter. Don’t think, he advises; just play: “Sometimes I’ll ask myself, ‘Didn’t I do that same fill three songs earlier?”; In the studio, we call that “The thinking man’s take,’ and that’s never the one we choose. It could be dead on, but it’s never the one with heart, soul, and feel.”
Despite his emphasis on feel versus complexity, Coomer admits he’s still “a drum geek,” though these days that’s exhibited in his affection for old drums. Well-known in vintage circles, Ken incorporates classic snare drums into his Slingerland/Paiste setup’that would be Paiste Traditionals, of course!
Ken says the secret is to always have fun behind the kit, even if you’re recording a jingle. “I did this thing for Kelly Tires,” he recalls. “It was 29.3 seconds. I overdubbed a crash when an actor’s hand fell on the steering wheel. I only get called when they want weird stuff. But that’s okay. All I want to do is left-of-center stuff anyway.”