The drummer played an outsized part in bringing one of the most anticipated and well-received albums of the year to fruition.
Amy Aileen Wood is a comfortable conversationalist, modest and engaging even when she downplays her immense skill as a drummer and arranger. During our recent chat about her contributions to Fiona Apple’s new powerhouse record, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, her amazement at being a part of this project dovetailed with her humility in charming ways. Fetch the Bolt Cutters was labored over for years, and Wood not only provided much of the substantial drumkit performances but also shared in the production of the album. She spent hours editing raw and lengthy performances into the concise masterpiece that has received almost universal acclaim. Fiona Apple is more direct with her praise, telling Modern Drummer, “Every listen to every mix, I looked at Amy. I really relied on her, much more than I can express. Without Amy, I would have given up.”
Wood’s father, John Would, is a Venice, California–based engineer and musician who has worked out of his own Stanley Recordings studio for decades. Wood started playing drums at around eight years old with him, joined countless bands in her teens, and toured extensively in her twenties. Apple has worked with John Would throughout much of her career, so the collaboration with Amy felt natural.
“I can only describe Amy’s drumming by describing the feeling that she gives to music,” Apple says, “which is the loud version of the feeling she gives as a person. She is always relaxed in her body, even when her mind is on fire. There’s this heft that she carries like it weighs nothing, there’s an inherent understanding of wild emotion, and her drumming is like this lush but rocky forest [where] wild emotions can run freely.”
We spoke to Wood from her home in Los Angeles.
MD: The percussion world of Fetch the Bolt Cutters feels special.
Amy: A lot of that is Fiona and her rhythms. We would go to her house and just play percussion together, all four of us—me, Fiona, [bassist] Sebastian Steinberg, and [guitarist] David Garza. We would have these epic, hours-long jams. A lot of [the rhythms] came from her stomping or just walking. She counts as she walks and starts writing lyrics like that. When she showed me the rhythm to “On I Go,” I thought, Wow, I’m going to need to take a video of this, call my drum buddy, and be like, “Dude, how do I count this?”
The record was done differently from song to song. We started “Relay” and “On I Go” in Texas at the Sonic Ranch studio. It was just Fiona and me, and we built the rhythms together. We started with [slapping] our legs and then just added things. We had this gigantic table of every percussion instrument they had there and all the weird stuff Fiona has collected. We’d go into the live room with sticks, mallets, our hands, and do takes. There was no plan.
MD: What kinds of things did you learn during those early sessions?
Amy: Mostly the feeling of being free, trying anything, and being silly. I’d literally be playing a broom on a piece of house siding. I would have never thought, “I’m going to brush this across here, and it’s going to make an awesome sound and have rhythm in it.”
Tools of the Trade
Amy Aileen Wood chooses among three snare drums: a 5×14 Ludwig Supraphonic, a 6.5×14 Pearl Free Floating brass model, and a 6.5×14 Ludwig Black Beauty. She plays a C&C Player Date II kit with a 20″ or 24″ kick, a 12″ tom, and a 14″ floor tom. She also adds a ’70s 16″ Ludwig Vistalite floor tom. For cymbals she uses a Paiste Giant Beat 24″ ride and 19″ crash, a 19″ Istanbul Agop Mel Lewis crash ride, a Zildjian 18″ dark crash, and a set of 16″ hi-hats consisting of a Zildjian Orchestral bottom cymbal and a Zildjian Stadium series top.
The “percussion” instruments Wood used on Fetch the Bolt Cutters include a plastic horse, a wooden chair, a metal butterfly, Index HardHats and shakers, a Morfbeats Mini Marvin, a Keplinger medium shaker and cymbal, a plant stand, old bullet shells in a rusty can, plastic house siding, floors, walls, a water tower, lighters, a trampoline, dried plant pods, Fiona’s dog Janet’s bones, DEM’ Sticks, African fans, a gas can, paper towel tubes, broomsticks, branches, sticks, and various shakers, maracas, and bongos.
MD: How did you record and tune your drums?
Amy: Tape and RootsEQs and Big Fat Snare Drum [tone-control rings]! But I definitely spent some time on some drum setups, like on “Ladies,” “Shameika,” and “Under the Table.” The main kit that I used on this is my C&C Player Date II, which I got in 2012 when I was touring with her. Honestly, a lot of what you hear is just my drum sound.
MD: Did you mike each drum?
Amy: It depends. The songs that have more kit drums, like “Shameika” and “Under the Table,” have big setups: room mics, mics on every drum, a mic under the snare, overheads. But we’re not afraid of a three-mic setup—or even one mic. The loops in “Shameika” were probably just one mic.
MD: Can you talk about the song “Drumset”? I read that taking drums away from Fiona’s house for a gig inspired the lyrics.
Amy: That’s the only one where I can say we all played drums together, and she sang it at the same time. She was playing drums in a corner of her house. I think she was also playing a chair and trying to hold her dog, who was jumping on her. I was playing the floor tom and side stick. And Sebastian and David had some drums…maybe Sebastian was hitting a lighter on a Wurlitzer. We did that in one take. The story behind it is that we would always take our gear with us after a session. Fiona woke up and my drums were gone. I wasn’t like, “I’m out of here!” We’ve never had a fight; it was just a misunderstanding. The rest of the song is about a breakup that was going on at the same time, and she felt like, Why aren’t people sticking around?
MD: Can you talk about your production role?
Amy: It was never like, “Hey, Fiona, sing it like this.” I recorded a lot of the kit drums by myself. Everyone is such a great player, but the raw recordings were disorganized and too long. I whittled down some longer songs from ten minutes to three and a half or four, and I’d put together songs from different sessions. She would give me six vocal takes and say, “Can you go through these?” So I would find the good stuff. There was a lot of trust given to me.
By John Colpitts