Story by David Jarnstrom
Photos by Paul La Raia
Guided by Voices/Ricked Wicky leader Robert Pollard’s go-to drummer avoids cliché at every turn—even down to the way he’s managed his career. For him it’s all about living in the moment, in the studio and beyond.
When Kevin March graduated from Berklee College of Music in the early ’90s, “indie rock sideman” was likely not one of the school’s recommended occupational pursuits. But thanks to a solid mix of talent, timing, perseverance, and people skills, the now forty-seven-year-old drummer/producer has enjoyed a long and successful career working with a veritable who’s who of alternative A-listers, including Guided by Voices, Shudder to Think, the Dambuilders, Jeff Buckley, James Iha, and the Rentals, among countless others.
As a player who prides himself on understated musicality and the ability to blend in with a bevy of different bands, March doesn’t come out swinging with atomic chops or confounding polyrhythms. Rather than unload his entire toolbox, this savvy timekeeper is chiefly concerned with the nuts and bolts: feel, pulse, and supporting the song—i.e., the things that keep getting him called back for more work.
Yet March is a drummer’s drummer at heart. A balanced amalgam of Jim Keltner and Keith Moon, the guy can hold down the fort and storm the castle. For proof, look no further than his recent deluge of material with Robert Pollard, Guided by Voices’ principal creative force and impossibly prolific frontman. In 2015 alone, March played on Pollard’s excellent solo effort Faulty Superheroes and no fewer than three full-length releases by the post-GBV outfit Ricked Wicky—a self-proclaimed “sophisticated arena rock band.”
MD recently caught up with March to discuss his myriad projects new and old, his rewarding new “day job” in music education, and how studying with a legendary jazz drummer changed his life.
MD: People don’t typically equate Berklee-trained musicians with indie/alt-rock types. How did you come to find your particular niche?
Kevin: I love all kinds of music, but I always wanted to be in a rock band. I grew up on a farm in York, Pennsylvania, and my dad—who studied a little jazz—had a ’50s Gretsch kit that I started on when I was six. I’d bring out all his Miles Davis and early Chicago records and play along to them. In grade school I discovered Peter Criss, Phil Rudd, and John Bonham, and it was like, This is what I want to do with my life. And then in high school someone turned me on to R.E.M., early U2, and the Smiths, and I thought, I want to be in a band like this.
At Berklee my contemporaries were people like Jim Black, Dan Rieser, and Abe Laboriel Jr.—guys who could play jazz really well. I would do Stick Control exercises with one of my teachers, Ian Froman—another phenomenal jazz drummer—and he’d comment on how I kept excellent time. Knowing I wanted to play rock anyway, and that these other guys were so good at jazz, I decided to focus on my passion and concentrate on what I did really well.
MD: You’re a very unselfish, musical player. You rarely do anything super-flashy, yet your parts are always interesting. You always make the right choices.
Kevin: I don’t think I was ever meant to be a soloist. I understood early on that I wasn’t going to be that kind of drummer. I get most excited when I’m thinking of a drum part from a producer’s perspective. That means more to me than playing rudiments at a certain speed. I always think of Jim Keltner and Hal Blaine—those are two of my favorite drummers, and those guys work. Why? They always do right by the song. As a working drummer, you need to put your ego aside and ask yourself, What if this was my song?
MD: Your career began with the Dambuilders. Was that right after you graduated?
Kevin: Yeah, they were recording with my friend and fellow Berklee alum Rich Costey [Muse, Weezer], and they needed a drummer. They had just moved to Boston from Hawaii—Daniel Glass actually played drums on their first record. So I auditioned, joined the band, and went to Europe shortly after. It all happened really fast. It was fortunate timing, because Nirvana had just opened the door for college rock bands like ours to get signed to major labels.
MD: The Dambuilders had interesting instrumentation.
Kevin: We had a very different sound because of Joan Wasser [aka Joan as Police Woman], our electric violinist. She was very punk rock. She was friends with the guys in Shudder to Think, and we would play with them a lot, so I got to know Nathan [Larson, guitar] and Craig [Wedren, vocals] really well. That’s the story of my career, really—it’s built on the relationships I made with all these amazing artists I was meeting at that time. We toured with Weezer right when they were starting to break, and their bass player, Matt Sharp, asked me to do [his side project] the Rentals. And Guided by Voices opened for the Dambuilders when they were starting to get some notoriety, so I met Robert [Pollard] way back then.
MD: Did your bandmates feel threatened when you started playing with other artists?
Kevin: They couldn’t have been more supportive. Joan was actually in a couple of those side projects with me—Those Bastard Souls and Mind Science of the Mind with Nathan from Shudder to Think. The latter is how I first started working with Ted Niceley, who was producing bands like Fugazi and Jawbox and Girls Against Boys. When Shudder was recording 50,000 B.C. and needed a drummer, I was brought in because of my relationship with Nathan and Ted.
MD: Adam Wade, who played on the preceding Shudder album, Pony Express Record, told us that Ted Niceley is pretty exacting when it comes to drums.
Kevin: [laughs] I’m sure he mentioned the “Russian Dragon.” Ted had this machine that could detect if you were rushing or dragging the beat—like down to the millisecond. He had it going when we did the Mind Science record, and he was impressed at my ability to really bury the click. I’d worked hard at that kind of stuff at Berklee, and it paid off!
But yeah, we were going for perfection on 50,000 B.C. From what I understand, it’s what working with Mutt Lange must be like. I had to hit my drums the same way every time. The note values had to be consistent. And Shudder’s music is some of the most challenging stuff I’ve ever played. Craig’s vocal hooks are so amazing, but the music is all in odd times. I had to chart out the songs to learn them. That’s another thing Berklee taught me—how to write and read music—so that when I’m in the studio, I’m able to deliver with minimal rehearsal time. You can spend weeks on the drums if you have the money, but a lot of people don’t, especially nowadays.
MD: When did these bands end?
Kevin: Both were pretty much done by ’97 or ’98. It was a tough time. Our good friend Jeff Buckley had just passed away. That was a devastating blow to everyone. [Buckley and Wasser were dating at the time.] He’d brought the Dambuilders to Australia to open for him, and Shudder was the backing band on a song he sang called “I Want Someone Badly.” The shine started wearing off all the bands that had been signed in the early ’90s that weren’t really “making it.”
Ultimately, Nathan and Craig decided to pursue movie scoring, and they’ve been very successful. They both still hire me for projects all the time. I also play in a band called A Camp, which is Nathan and his wife, Nina Persson, who is the singer of the Cardigans, and I produced and played drums on Craig’s solo record Lapland. As far as the Dambuilders, I still play with Dave Derby [vocals, bass] and Joan in a project called Gramercy Arms. So even though bands break up, your friendships endure—that’s powerful stuff in this business.
You never know what’s going to happen next and who’s going to do what.
MD: Right about this time you started studying with Joe Morello.
Kevin: I’d moved from Boston to Brooklyn because I was doing so much session work in New York. I really wanted to rededicate myself to studying the drums, and lo and behold, Joe Morello actually had an ad for lessons in the back of Modern Drummer! So for a few months I would drive out to his place in New Jersey and work with him.
Nothing against the great teachers I had before, but my music education started all over again with Joe. His understanding of the physics of drumming helped me unlock the mystery of technique—how to hold the sticks properly, how to control the bounce, how to relax and not fight your own body. You can really hear the difference between somebody who’s stiff and squeezing the sticks too hard, and someone who’s loose and drawing the sound out of the drums, letting them ring out. Those lessons changed my life. Without them I never could’ve done the Guided by Voices gig, because we’d do high-energy, three-hour sets every night on tour. I was able to play these shows at full-on volume without getting tired, thanks to Joe. It was a night-and-day difference.
MD: When did the GBV opportunity come about?
Kevin: I was playing with a singer-songwriter named Leona Naess in 2001. She was great to work with, but it was the first time I truly felt like a hired gun, like music was just a job. I missed being in a band. I was thirty-three, and I’d just decided that I was going to go to school to be a chef—change my life completely. That’s when I got the call from GBV, and it reignited my whole spirit. I mean, this was one of my favorite bands of all time! They sent a set list and I immediately started learning about sixty to sixty-five songs.
MD: GBV’s live shows are legendary, not only for the length of the sets but also for the amount of alcohol consumed on stage.
Kevin: That was definitely part of the band’s identity. But honestly, there wasn’t really any time for me to drink even if I’d wanted to. [laughs] The songs just kept coming, and Robert is such a showman. It’s like those stories of James Brown just going, “One, two, three, four!”—boom—into the next song. I was the anchor of the band, and I had to have my wits about me for sure.
MD: What is it like to work with such a prolific songwriter as Pollard?
Kevin: He’s the most professional person I know in terms of work ethic. He does it every day. It’s who he is—he’s so creative. When he has an idea, it’s all encompassing. He has a title, he writes lyrics and melodies and chords, he does all the artwork for all the albums. I don’t know anybody else like that. And he’s always pushing forward to the next thing. It’s inspiring to be around—he makes you want to work that much harder yourself.
MD: When recording with GBV and now Ricked Wicky, are you tracking most everything live?
Kevin: Yeah, it’s like the old way of making records. It’s human beings playing music together. I was used to the more clinical way of doing things, being hyper-focused on just the drums. On the Rentals record I did, I literally recorded to nothing but click track. It’s such a different feeling when you’re actually playing a song live as a band. There’s natural movement, some speeding up and slowing down, like on the records from the ’60s and ’70s. It’s very loose sounding, but that’s what’s so great about it.
I mean, basics for the Ricked Wicky records are done over the course of a weekend. Most songs are one take. It’s a very fast process. Bob sends out acoustic demos, I learn the song form, drive out to Ohio, set up my drums, mike them up, and we just try to capture the band in that moment. It’s exciting. You’re actually playing along to the music that people are going to hear, you know?
MD: Do you ever worry about making mistakes in those situations?
Kevin: You’re definitely on the edge of your seat, like, Are we going to make it through this next part? But I find when you get proficient enough with your instrument, even mistakes—like the right hand stays on the rack tom but you meant to move it to the floor tom—you’re able to move with those things and make them part of the music, like jazz players do with improvisation. Those can be happy accidents. They make the music even better, because you’re in it—you’re alive. I’d rather do something that’s expressive than try to re-create something I may have done on a demo or whatever.
MD: You’ve had a pretty cool “day job” in recent years, first as a teacher and now as creative director at the School of Rock.
Kevin: I was a drum instructor at the Brooklyn location back in the GBV days, and I was just blown away by how cool it was. School of Rock is all about getting kids to perform music together. They can play individually, but put them together and they don’t always jibe rhythmically. I grew up in a rural area, so I remember how different it was playing with people for the first time after playing along to records for years. I’m like, Wow, I wish I’d had this! [laughs]
My involvement with SOR led to me producing and managing a band of teenage alums called the NowhereNauts. I coached them up, put them in a real studio with a real engineer [Carl Glanville, U2], and they made a couple of really awesome records before they split up and went to college. Right about the time that ended, I’d moved to Montclair, New Jersey, and started working at the School of Rock here.
MD: What’s it like coming full circle on your career and passing on all your knowledge and experiences to these kids?
Kevin: It’s so rewarding when you see the smiles on their faces when they’ve succeeded in doing something, even if it’s just playing quarter notes. Or when they come off stage for the first time and say, “I want to keep doing this!” I’m like, “I know exactly how that feels.”
The Dambuilders Encendedor, Ruby Red, Against the Stars /// The Rentals Seven More Minutes /// Shudder to Think 50,000 B.C., Velvet Goldmine soundtrack and film score, Live From Home /// Those Bastard Souls Debt & Departure /// A Camp A Camp, Colonia /// Craig Wedren Lapland /// Guided by Voices Earthquake Glue, Half Smiles of the Decomposed, Live From Austin TX (CD and DVD), Cool Planet /// NowhereNauts NowhereNauts, Warned You /// James Iha Look to the Sky /// Robert Pollard Faulty Superheroes /// Ricked Wicky I Sell the Circus, King Heavy Metal, Swimmer to a Liquid Armchair
Tools of the Trade
March owns a number of kits, but his go-to drumset is a 1965 charcoal-sparkle Gretsch, featuring a 14×22 bass drum, a 9×13 rack tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 5×14 snare. His preferred cymbals include 15″ ’70s Zildjian A Medium Thin hi-hats, 16″ Sabian Paragon and 18″ Sabian Evolution crashes, and a 22″ Sabian prototype medium-heavy ride. He uses a DW 5000 kick pedal and an assortment of DW, Pearl, and Yamaha hardware, plus Remo heads (Pinstripes, Coated Ambassadors, or Coated Emperors on top, depending on the project, and Clear Ambassadors on the bottom). His stick of choice is Vic Firth’s SD1 General wood tip.