I’m a drummer from Washington, D.C., who has earned a reputation for being in a million bands at once. Often bands would ask me to join after I filled in, and by 2011 I was in twelve original groups. I was performing all the time, but I was missing the creative process, as we seldom wrote new material. After playing “for the song” on a four-piece kit for years, I got this crazy idea to record an album of all drumming music. Now I’m more satisfied playing with three groups—Bellflur, We Were Kings, and Justin Jones—than I was playing with twelve.
Here’s how it all happened: After graduating with a masters in jazz studies, studying with Steve Fidyk, and spending time on the freelance circuit, I decided to only join groups that played original music. I then proceeded to join groups left and right, and left and left! (Paradiddle joke.) This pace lasted for five years and kept my playing sharp, as I’d go from a morning session to teaching lessons and then right to a gig. During that time I performed with Low Stars, featuring members of Counting Crows, and my drumming was heard on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, the WB’s The Lake, and NPR’s Deskless Concert Series. My groups opened for Ray LaMontagne, Charlie Daniels Band, Lucinda Williams, Gary Clark Jr., Josh Ritter, and many others.
My role in these bands was to play the songs—not just drums. I aim to support the vibe and lyrics and to write drum parts with hooks that move the song forward. However, as I played mostly older original material with these groups, the allure to try something other than “song playing” was growing, and I imagined improvising on a big kit backed by a massive drumming ensemble. While figuring out how to cultivate this idea, I heard a drummer that I admire say, “You create your own inner sanctum when you push yourself forward. You create a level of compassion and expectation around yourself, so when you walk into each new situation you have enough self worth, and have carried yourself with enough musical dignity, that it becomes applicable again.” This idea stuck with me, and I challenged myself to write and perform an album of drumming music.
By combining elements like Stravinsky’s asymmetry, Dudu N’Diaye Rose’s visceral power, and Sergio Mendes’ sheer charm, I recorded Photovoltaic. The album is composed of episodic pieces. I performed ostinato-based solos, improvised over a massive drum ensemble, and recorded spontaneous inventions. While this process tested my playing capabilities and strengthened my sense of self, producing the record helped me see music from the other side of the glass and refocused my song playing. Check out this free download from the record. It’s a piece called “Ensemble #2.”
These days I’m playing most often with Justin Jones, a songwriter on 930 Records. Late last year we opened for k. d. lang as part of our first international tour. Watching Fred Eltringham play every night was thrilling! Justin’s new record, Fading Light, just came out, and we’re playing all over the East Coast. You can hear Jones’ song “My Father’s Gun” as the theme to NBC’s Gun It With Benny Spies. I’m also featured this year on This Winter Room’s Losing the Paper Moon (written/performed by Chip Johnson), Adrian Krygowski’s Hope for Us, the forthcoming Twelve Vagrant Monologues From the Last Living Star by Bellflur, and Spiritia Animalia by Spirit Animal.
When I’m home, I teach lessons at Victor Litz Music in Gaithersburg, Maryland, an independent music store that’s really supportive of my playing. Visit my website, and say hello. See you out there!
For more on Mike Smirnoff, go to mikesmirnoff.com.