by Michael Parillo
In Modern Drummer’s November 2013 issue, our Portraits piece tells the story of David Langlois, who began his musical life in France as a drummer but found a chance meeting in his teenage years begin to push him toward creating a unique washboard-based percussion outfit that would become the focus of his career, which is now set in New York City. His tale is a fascinating one, but David’s style must be seen and heard to be properly appreciated. (If you haven’t already, check out the clip above.)
Langlois’ washboard is outfitted with heirloom family items you won’t find in any music store, including his grandfather’s trowel and his grandmother’s fondue pot and food-mill sieve. Roughly speaking, the trowel and sieve produce sharp cymbal-like tones, while a dishpan—the rig’s main element—serves as the snare, complete with brushing sounds, and the fondue pot is a sort of cowbell. The homespun nature of the instrument, along with Langlois’ natural stylistic interests, has found David playing lots of rootsy throwback styles, such as old-time jazz and R&B, along with guitar-based, Django Reinhardt–type “Gypsy jazz.” Of course, he’s always up for a challenge and can find a way to fit into any musical setting that comes into view. Langlois’ career has included a long association with guitarist Stephane Wrembel and work with, among others, David Grisman, Bette Midler, Chapman Stick player Steve Adelson, and the Blue Vipers of Brooklyn.
MD: For somebody isn’t so familiar, how would you describe the difference between old-time New Orleans–style jazz and Gypsy jazz?
David: The instruments are different. In old-time jazz you have a lot of horns, and it’s way louder. And in New Orleans music I really enjoy the singers. By learning English now I get the storytelling point of view, which is huge in America. In France we pretty much enjoy music through melodies. Most music is in English, and we don’t know what they’re talking about, but we like the melodies.
With New Orleans jazz, it’s about the singing and the storytelling and the horn playing. In Gypsy jazz, it’s more about the guitars—it’s all about the guitars, to be honest. But those guys can be very percussive, so it’s very pleasant to interact with them. Even in their melodies, there’s a big pulse and a lot of percussion in their playing. It comes from the oud, so it’s very punchy. I would say that’s the main difference.
MD: And I recall you saying Gypsy jazz historically didn’t include percussion.
David: Usually not. Django Reinhardt, at the end of his life, had a drummer. But it was very criticized, and it was just at the end. The rhythm guitar is so percussive in Gypsy jazz that he didn’t need a drummer. So I’m a good compromise—it doesn’t overpower the guitar, and they don’t have to comp that aggressively, because I would take care of the aggressive part, or the percussive part.
MD: Do you practice a lot?
David: I try to not practice so much, actually. I like it when it’s fresh. So my practice would be to go into the woods. That’s how I get inspired. Most of the time when I get off a concert and I’m like, “Wow, tonight went well and I had lots of ideas,” it was after a day in nature, or with friends having fun. It’s not after my four-hour daily routine. I’m too lazy and unorganized and not disciplined enough. I’m not like Stephane, who can practice three, four hours a day.
MD: Was there ever a period where you practiced?
David: Yeah, I did in the beginning. I really needed to find some sound and some technique. But in New York you play three hours a day just with your regular gigs. So that’s my practice. To me it’s more about finding sounds—I discover the different sounds that an object would propose to me. So that’s probably why nature inspires me more than just practice exercises, which I did with the drumset for many years, like paradiddles and all that stuff.
I guess I don’t like routine. That’s a big element of it. Like my dishpan just cracked two or three days ago. So I won’t have my harmonics [in the same spot], so I have to go somewhere else to find them. I could have fixed it up again, but I like chance somehow, and I like the fact that [the sound] is always evolving. I’ll eventually have to change the dishpan. From the first time I banged on it until the last one, there are never two days where it sounds the same or where my harmonic is exactly [in the same spot]. It’s kind of masochist—it’s like having your toms moving from set to set or song to song. I thought the cymbal was there, and now it’s here! That pushes my limits.
I remember an article where Gregory Isaac, the reggae singer, was explaining how he works on his melodies, which are beautiful. He used to start singing something, and then in the middle of it he would just play a random chord that wouldn’t be in the key he was singing in. And he would have to bend whatever he was singing to get to the chord, and that bend—the accident—would be the melody that he was going to work on. And somehow that’s what I like in music. It’s not when everything goes well. It’s when “Oh, shit, [the fondue pot] is upside-down, so it doesn’t sound as full as it was, so I have to use something else.” Or “The band is too loud, so I can’t use [the sieve] anymore.”
That’s why the sound engineers, they get crazy. It’s not like a guitar, where every string has the same volume and you put a mic here. Here it’s like you have a very loud E string and a very soft A, so it doesn’t make any sense. So they gotta go with condenser mics, or they’ll need five mics. It’s tough, because I understand their problem. Everybody who invented an instrument tried to have the different elements be at the same volume or be balanced, and here it’s not balanced at all. So it’s up to me.