Independence might be the ruling concept of this drummer/leader’s career. It defines a common relationship not only among his hands, feet, and voice, but between his art and almost everything else in drumland.
In performance at Joe’s Pub in New York City recently, drummer/composer Sean Noonan took the stage wearing a gold lamé boxer’s robe and matching trunks. Noonan strode the small space accompanied by his mates on upright bass and acoustic piano, bowing and thanking the crowd like Sugar Ray Leonard performing a stand-up routine. But Noonan’s music and drumming are no joke.
Over the course of twenty albums, the forty-year-old Boston native has explored the outer edges of his vast creative kingdom, peering into corners, illuminating rooms, and generally visiting places no ordinary drummer would dare set foot. Noonan’s shows are equal parts jazz improvisation party and absurdist theater set in some small European town—destinations changing at will. Noonan is drummer and vocalist, composer and performance artist extraordinaire.
“It grew organically,” Noonan says from London, where he’s rehearsing with Zappanation for a debut European tour. “It wasn’t something I did self-consciously. The performance aspect began when I recorded the albums Stories to Tell and Boxing Dreams, where I explored Afro-Celtic punk jazz. It featured African vocalists; it was a large group. I thought of ways I could contribute to the project and realized I felt very comfortable just being myself. I wasn’t trying to imitate anyone. I didn’t try to replace the character of a West African singer or imitate that, but I found a way to put myself into the music and be authentic. And people can see that.”
Noonan has performed in Roman amphitheaters and Polish salt mines, in Danish jazz clubs and with European string quartets. His latest release, Memorable Sticks, features performance routines laced with wacky monologues, theatrical songs, and conversational drumming. He describes the album as “a keyboard trio that digs deep discovering folklore legends Skarbnik, salt mines apparitions from Wieliczka, Poland.” Noonan sings about a woman’s “left shoe” over roller-coaster beats in “Miata Baba.” “Hidden Treasures” recalls a relaxed Thelonious Monk tune (with Noonan singing “Olly olly oxen free”) over scattershot drum fours. And “Shaka” recalls a lost B-movie about women in chains and jungle voodoo. Noonan explains that it’s based on the concept of a kind of Irish griot: “In Africa they called them ‘Shaka.’ Shaka Zulu is the warrior king. I like the way the word sounds. In Memorable Sticks we dig through the earth and eventually come out on the other side in Africa. It’s a fun journey.”
A carnival-like atmosphere fills Noonan’s music, and his punch-drunk drumming only adds to the merriment. “I approach music as being a little bit like a tinker, an Irish gypsy—these people who collect different stuff,” Noonan says. “I’m really interested in exploring new things, and if I come across different themes and stories, it’s like folklore. I’m like a cross between a songwriter and a storyteller, and I write about absurd personal stories and experiences.”
Noonan’s ability to perform vocal rhythms that are often in direct contrast to his drumming is but one of his unique talents. “Some pieces are conceived directly off the drumset, where the melody and rhythms are all from the drums,” Noonan explains. “The first track on Memorable Sticks is derived from a Polish folk melody I only heard recently. A weird and funny story.”
How did Noonan develop the ability to sing vocals of often time-defying density that oppose his internal pulse? “It’s about developing independence between your four limbs,” he says. “I suggest working on complete independence starting simply with your two hands, then incorporating your feet. Using your voice is a fifth [element]. You can have five-way coordination. Start extremely slowly. Try playing a simple rock or bossa nova rhythm while singing to yourself. It’s about rewiring your brain, and it takes time. It’s all about practicing. Now I’m working on playing odd meters that change every measure, and singing over that, similar to what Mike Patton does in Mr. Bungle.”
Noonan’s heroes include Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich, and Louie Bellson. Once enrolled at Berklee, Sean was tutored by three important mentors: Bob Moses, Jamey Haddad, and Robert Gullotti. Summer yard work paid for further studies with George Garzone and John Lockwood of the Fringe, a longstanding Boston experimental jazz trio of legendary renown, for which Gullotti played drums. Upon graduating from Berklee in 1999, Noonan headed to New York City, but with no intention of being another cog in Manhattan’s jazz wheel. “I consciously chose to not play sideman gigs in New York,” Noonan says. “I was more interested in composing. In New York you have so much energy and only so much time, so you want to make the most out of it. I wanted to develop as a composer/drummer.
“I’m also influenced by [playwright] Samuel Beckett in the way he uses silence and repetition and rhythm,” Noonan adds. “If you listen to his plays or audio recordings, it can give you a whole other way to approach drumming. There’s a rhythmic way of using words and rhythms with combinations of different words. It made me realize that a lot can be done. My solo drumming project, Being Brewed by Noon, is inspired by Beckett. I have one story about a man trapped inside a wall. It’s philosophical. The wall is a metaphor for an obstacle. That also helped me play different rhythms while using my voice.”
In a world where drummers typically resist the leadership mantle, Sean Noonan charges forward, providing inspiration for those brave enough to follow. “Learn from your mistakes,” Noonan advises. “Use your mistakes in a way to make your own voice. One time I broke my hand before a tour. I had to change the way I played or not tour. I embraced the obstacle in front of me. I spent the next couple months using my feet more creatively. I had one hand and my two feet. You can learn from experiences like that. And don’t get caught up in copying technical drummer things. That can be a roadblock, and it will prevent you from hearing the musicians and interacting as well as you could. Find your niche, and be yourself.”
Tools of the Trade
Noonan plays one of two kits: an Eames and a Troyan Professional. The Eames set includes a 6.5×14 Master Model snare, 8×10 and 10×12 toms, a 14×14 floor tom, and a 14×18 bass drum. The Troyan set features a 6.5×14 Sean Noonan Signature snare; 8×8, 10×10, and 10×12 toms; a 14×14 floor tom; and a 16×18 bass drum. His cymbals include 12″ Tosco Super hi-hats, a 22″ Zildjian Constantinople ride, a 22″ Zildjian prototype Dark ride, a 20″ Zildjian China Boy, and an 18″ A Zildjian crash. He uses TreeWorks chimes, Vic Firth American Classic 7A sticks, Zildjian retractable wire brushes, and Remo Ambassador heads.