As a Web-exclusive addendum to his July MD feature, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer pontificates on listening, sounding how you want to sound, and working with a click.
Listening And Language (Or Hearing With Your Tongue)
Finding the words to describe music can be tricky; the way we listen and process what we hear does not always translate directly into language. If I’m ever searching for the words or need a fresh perspective, a tool that I use is to think about music as if it were food. What are its qualities and overall character? What kind of food would it be? Sweet, spicy, buttery, bland, bitter, chewy, soft, fresh, warm, cold, prepackaged, processed, organic, raw, crunchy, homemade? Some meals are simple and wholesome, and others are complex and ornate. Some meals make our bodies feel soothed and comforted, like the qualities of sugar and butter, and others make us feel excited and agitated, like the qualities of chilies and caffeine.
Sometimes I get stuck in relying too much on the “ingredient list” of music, or its physical and technical attributes. In the same way that I can list all of the ingredients that go into a dish and the recipe used to make it, I can analyze what I’m hearing based on its technical terms: the music theory of the composition, the rudiments used in a snare drum solo, or the syncopations of a drumbeat. This description of physical form is very different from one of character. I generally find it much more informative and useful to think about music in terms of taste, texture, and style.
For an example, let’s take Buddy Rich, one of the most revered drummers in history. How would we describe him? Well, he played very, very fast–we know that much. To my ears, there is one key word that comes to mind when I hear Buddy Rich: fire. For me, the reason he played so fast is because he had a big fireball built up inside, and it needed to be let out. His playing, and the character of his playing, is the release of that heat, as it is sharp, ferocious (spicy!), and almost angry; it is the opposite of cool.
For another example, let’s make a comparison between two other legendary drummers, Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. We can compare their “ingredient list”: a main innovation of Tony’s is his polyrhythmic cymbal playing as a way of adding layers of rhythmic complexity; a main innovation of Elvin’s is his breaking up of the triplet subdivision between the limbs as a means of propelling the beat. Then how would we understand their playing in terms of character and style? To me, Tony sounds drier, tighter, and more astringent, with an emphasis on exactness and a fascination with the scientific. I hear Elvin’s style as being wetter, looser, and more oily, with an emphasis on broadness and a fascination with the primal.
We can also compare their ride cymbal sounds. Tony’s is all about sharpness and precision, like a needle, with a very flat, almost duplet feel. Elvin’s is all about roundness and wobble, like a circle, with a robust triplet feel. That is not to say that each does not possess qualities of the other, but in terms of style they have very distinct dominant features. Looking back historically from Tony and Elvin, I see this comparison as also being suitable for Max Roach and Art Blakey, respectively.
Inside And Outside
In my experience of being a musician I’ve noticed there’s a difference between what I play and the sound I make. When I’m playing, I am me, and when I’m me there are emotions being felt and thoughts being “thunk.” These emotions and thoughts motivate and inspire my playing and are often the source of the music of the moment. But what I’ve learned is that there is not always an identical relationship between what I imagine I’m playing and the sound that’s being made.
Sometimes when I’m feeling that what I’m playing is grooving and in the pocket, in actuality (thanks to listening to recordings) it is lagging behind and weighing the music down, despite the “groove party” I’m experiencing internally. And sometimes the fills or exploratory ideas that I hear as perfectly complementing the music in actuality are awkward and out of place.
So where does the line exist between the internal experience of the performing musician and the outside experience of the objective listener? Or perhaps a more relevant question would be this: How do we go about discovering this line, because the journey and the way we go about our life is in many ways more important than the end result.
The most helpful tool that I have found in this situation is listening. It is crucial for me to always be listening to myself from an outside perspective. This gives me the balance I’m searching for, between what’s going on within me (emotions, passions, ideas) and how I’m relating to the outside world (bandmates on stage, listeners in the audience, microphone in the studio).
Singing is another helpful tool. I’ve found that vocalizing what my hands and feet are doing gives it a renewed purpose, saves me from going on autopilot, and prevents what I’m doing from becoming a mindless activity. The singing or vocalization doesn’t need to be loud or even audible; just a whisper or even the intention could be enough. (There are many recordings in which one can hear Elvin grunting underneath the drums.)
Being mindful of my breath and body is also very helpful. It’s useful to check in with your breath: Is it steady and even or erratic and labored? Slow or fast? Deep or shallow? The same goes for posture and feeling where the emotions are sitting internally. All of this leads to greater awareness of you, what is being played, and your music. The ideal is a sense of objective and detached listening, as if you’re standing outside yourself and listening to what you’re playing in an effortless unification with you, the performing musician.
The Metronome And Measuring Time
Measuring time, generating rhythm, and establishing pulse: These are three of our most basic roles to fill as drummers. There are many flexible boundaries to how we describe marking time, but one of the most common definitions is that of “metronomic time.” In this case, there is an even spacing between the beats. And this evenness generates a specific energy. When there is steadiness and symmetry, a special energy is unlocked. This energy is at the root of most dance music. It is very natural.
The metronome is a drummer’s greatest tool in being able to play with this steadiness. And when playing with a metronome, I find it essential to always keep in mind that I am the beat. It’s easy to become absorbed in the task of following the metronome, so I practice forgetting about the metronome while still playing tightly with it. I am the heartbeat, and my internal rhythm is what drives the music. I listen to the metronome as a guide, lock in with it–and have it disappear. I internalize it and have the time, the rhythm, and the pulse come from within. The metronome is my friend, but the music is happening beyond those clicks.
As someone who performs with metronomes regularly, I often find myself in the situation of trying to follow the click, and hence I stop listening to the rest of the band. But when I listen to the band as my primary focus, I find myself locking in nicely with the click, and it all seems to flow. It requires some courage and faith to take the first steps, but once it’s done I realize that it’s easy and it was there for me from the beginning–the point being that the beat comes from me. Internalize the metronome rather than following it, as if in an effortless unification.