He’s the first to admit that playing drums while singing and working a keyboard can be looked upon as shticky. But take one listen. In no time you’ll realize that his drumming (and singing, and keyboard playing) is the real deal: the work of a highly skilled, soulful, and rare musical voice.
As drummers continue to push the independence envelope, New York-based multi-instrumentalist Josh Dion has been honing his own unique slant on the concept with Paris_Monster, his alt-rock duo with bassist Geoff Kraly. Dion’s left hand controls the group’s rhythmic pulse with sticks and mallets on the drums, delivering solid backbeats, nuanced ghost-note patterns, and one-handed cymbal rolls, while his right hand navigates bass or clavinet-like parts on keyboard. His bona-fide soul-stirring vocals rise above the atmospherics that he and Kraly stir up.
Dion has been inspired by many of history’s great singing drummers, including Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White. “Old-school players,” he says, “like Levon Helm, Phil Collins, Buddy Miles—I love Ringo. I want to be a real epic performer, so the drumming underneath is maybe more wild than the people I’m talking about. I want to be like a singing Keith Moon—like if Keith Moon and Bobby Bland were one person. When I’m playing full-on drumset, I want it to have that epic kind of energy.”
Sideman gigs over the past decade with Chuck Loeb, Bill Evans, Candy Dulfer, Wayne Krantz, Esperanza Spalding, and the Weight, and particularly an ongoing stint with guitarist Jim Campilongo, have given the drummer confidence and visibility on the kit. But it wasn’t until the founding of Paris_Monster, who’ve just released their debut album, Lamplight, that his keyboard and vocal talents saw the spotlight.
Dion grew up in Storrs, Connecticut, in the rural eastern part of the state, also home to the University of Connecticut. He took advantage of the school’s music program and the scene it generated; he was also fortunate to have good teachers—not to mention a father who played pretty good rudimental drums himself. Dion was given a kit at the age of three and never looked back. We begin our chat with the drummer by asking about those formative years.
Josh: Drumming was always a thing. My earliest musical crushes were Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Cream…. I remember my older brother introducing me to Cream’s Wheels of Fire, which I still listen to. I loved Pink Floyd too; there was something about the mood of the music. Nick Mason and Ringo Starr, their language made a lot of sense to me. It’s more melodic and kind of 8th-note-y.
I used to just practice to records. My dad never forced me. I could have used a little discipline, but I really just grew up with a huge record collection and a drumset. And I remember clues. I remember when I couldn’t do a double-stroke roll correctly, and then I remember the day when it just really clicked, and all of a sudden I’m like, Oh my god, I can play a roll. And that’s how it was with me. I would struggle with something and then I would become enlightened.
MD: Was it about reaching a certain level of muscle memory, or was it a conscious thing?
Josh: I think it was both. It’s strange—and to me almost mystic—how you can learn something at a young age, and then take it for granted when you’re older that you just know it. And that’s why I think it’s especially important for children, because when you’re a kid those are the years when those things shape in you. I know there are things in my drumming that exist because of that time in my life, and I don’t even realize it.
MD: You mentioned finding “clues.”
Josh: Yeah, clues. I enjoyed practicing to Gene Krupa stuff because it was simple and it swung and it felt great. Gene Krupa was my longtime hero. I watched that movie The Gene Krupa Story , with Sal Mineo, so many times, I think that I could recite the whole thing. I listened to Krupa’s recordings with Benny Goodman and his own band, and that was my introduction to jazz. Krupa led me to other heavyweight drummers, like Buddy Rich, Papa Jo, Cozy Cole, and Baby Dodds. I would cut out pictures of musicians and make superhero posters of, like, Baby Dodds.
MD: When did you first get to play with other people?
Josh: In the fourth grade there was a school band, and a fantastic teacher, Kathryn Niemasik. She called my house and said, “Josh is doing really good at the drums; why doesn’t he come in and play with this beginning concert band?” That was my first time playing with a conductor, and I had no clue about what it was to start and stop a song, to watch somebody, to listen. She taught me vibraphone, piano. She nurtured my talent and featured me on drum solos. She taught me about music. I know all my diminished scales because of her, and can rip the blues scale in all twelve keys. She knew I was into jazz, so we used to check out Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. She was a real advocate, so that was huge for me. And when I was going through dumb stuff that kids go through, they hooked me up with a college ensemble. Here I am, a twelve-year-old kid, and they put me in the lowest-level college jazz ensemble. I had never seen an 18“ bass drum; I had never heard bebop. I hadn’t made it to Charlie Parker yet, and I was transcribing Philly Joe, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, and trying to figure out what Elvin Jones and Tony Williams were doing.
Around the age of thirteen, I got involved in a Pentecostal church in a neighboring town. The church wasn’t heavy on drums, so I switched to piano, and it forced me to start playing piano in front of people. There was some Canadian country music, some bluegrass, and there was a very solid black gospel vibe. Those two things really spoke to me, especially the gospel singers. I remember listening to them and thinking, Could I ever sing like this? The emotion—it was so joyful, and wretched at the same time, because you’re talking about pain. And I realized, when I started to play improvisational music and epic music, that same energy flows through musicians. Music can have all those different colors and all those different emotions and moods, and we can capture that in our drumming and our writing and whatever sound we want our band to have.
MD: You’re talking about something in the music that’s beyond the talent.
Josh: Yeah, we practice, we want to play fast, but more than anything it’s like, Can I be honest and happy with myself, and can I create something with other people? It’s the unity of playing together that is stronger and makes that thing happen.
MD: So did you do the garage band thing in high school?
Josh: In high school I was listening to gospel, and then I got into funk. I was working at a pizza place doing dishes, and I remember they put on Earth, Wind & Fire’s Greatest Hits in the back. I went ballistic for funk music! I became the funk guy. I bought every record that I could. I got a funk radio show on the local college radio station. Funkadelic, Sly & the Family Stone, Tower of Power…. Earth, Wind & Fire was my favorite, because it was a bridge from spirituality to secular music. [EWF’s] Maurice White, Freddie White, Ralph Johnson, Philip Bailey—they were all drummers as well as singers. There was this heavy drum element to the music, and it was a culmination of jazz fusion and world music, which was really cool.
MD: I first heard you with the funk/fusion band ulu.
Josh: I had the drum instructional video In the Pocket, with Dennis Chambers, and I got deep into Dennis and the different things that he talked about, the Meters, Funkadelic, and Scofield. That led me to the Yellowjackets, to Weather Report. I used to watch Dave Weckl, thinking, What the hell is going on? And I was still too young to really understand what a simple, medium-greasy groove meant. My pocket was still not quite there. I didn’t have the life to really understand what a groove was, but I was doing the best I could at the time.
I started to apply to colleges to go to jazz school, and I got into William Paterson in New Jersey. It was good to be around like-minded musicians, folks like Mark Guiliana, Tyshawn Sorey, and Jaimeo Brown—so many good drummers and amazing musicians. I was doing jazz gigs, restaurant gigs, and then I got the gig with ulu. They’re a jam band, from a Herbie Hancock Headhunters kind of vibe. So I left school and went on the road. I remember being in the van, and other people in the band were writing songs. I started keeping a journal. I was about twenty-three, and I remember thinking, I’m not just a jazz drummer anymore—I want to be a songwriter who sings and plays drums.
MD: When did the idea of Paris_Monster come about, where you would be splitting yourself in half?
Josh: I always had piano skills, but I started to make these videos on Facebook, playing chords while I would sing and play drums, and people started to respond to them. The other half of Paris_Monster, Geoff Kraly, had been writing songs and was playing the bass in a really unusual way, more guitar-istic. He was into pedals and had gotten into modular synths. I’d started to mess around with playing keys and drums, and I realized that the synth bass was actually one step away from drums. I would listen to a D-Train song, and I’d be like, I can play what the rhythm section is playing. The drums are keeping a simple beat, the synth bass is playing the bass line, and it’s all syncopated. So I started to mess around with playing both parts and singing over the top. I started to feel like, This is it, man; this is a groove.
So we decided to mess around, just the two of us playing. I was really self-conscious about it. I thought everybody was going to think this is just showboat-y, which it kind of is. But people I look up to in the New York music scene…Dave Fiuczynski came to a show one time and was like, “Yo, Paris_Monster!” I remember being like, He thinks it’s cool! Okay, we’ve got to see what this is. And we started to home in on it.
MD: Was it challenging independence-wise?
Josh: The drums stay pretty simple. I’m keeping a 2 and 4 for the most part, and my ghost notes need to be strong. I’ve still got the same structure of a groove; I’m just playing a bass line instead of a complicated ride cymbal pattern or something. If you think of the way that David Garibaldi plays, he has a four-beat pattern, and you know, you’re protecting a pattern in that feel. And that’s also, I’m assuming, what a clave is: it’s this protection of the structure of a feel. So I’m doing the same thing—it’s just that my right hand is doing a bass line, or what I would like to think of as a clavinet pattern. You do kind of feel off-balance sometimes, but I’ve learned how to figure it out.
Also, I’m playing with a modular synthesizer, and that’s like playing with the world’s greatest percussionist. That’s giving me random subdivided 16th notes, so I’m listening to that, and it’s taking the place of the hi-hat. Sometimes I play the hi-hat, and sometimes I don’t, but the modular theoretically is taking the place of what the hi-hat would be. And that’s kind of how our band works. Geoff is covering the atmospherics, and I’m covering the meat and potatoes of the whole thing. And we’ll play unison bass lines. Just like all of the great riff bands of the past and present, that is sometimes your biggest sound. Sometimes being unified is more important than trying to sound like four different people. We have to just think about the music, write for what our strengths are, and not forget that it’s okay to just play one bass line together and sing on top of it. Many great songs are just that, so sometimes you have to simplify.
MD: So the modular synth is used like a click?
Josh: Yeah, it’s set to a metronome, and I just put it in the monitors. It’s foolproof. I start my “1” wherever I want. It’s random, though, and it’s an analog piece of gear, not a sequencer. It could spit out three notes and then not play a note for three beats. I love it because I’m forced to listen. I’m keeping my pocket within that, and it completes what I’m doing. And then Geoff is free to play his colors and what I like to refer to as the “out” stuff on top of what I’m doing. Harmonically, for the most part, I’m “inside.” I’m playing pentatonic scales, I’m ripping the blues and funk, and if I am interacting harmonically, it’s in an almost always purely diatonic fashion. And this brings us into the pop-music realm, like alternative pop. For the most part I’m just trying to find interesting bass notes to play underneath him. We’re writing songs, and I’m singing them. It’s really that simple.
MD: You mentioned being influenced by Pink Floyd, and I can hear that in the moods of the music.
Josh: I really want Paris_Monster to be groove-based music that has an appeal, but that somehow is twisted. Something slightly off. I’m always searching for these tones, little outside stuff to put on top of something that’s already accessible.
MD: You also mentioned David Garibaldi.
Josh: Yeah, if you listen to late-’70s or early-’80s funk, the drums are big, gated sounds, and there’s maybe one tom that’s involved in the groove. That’s like my motto for the drumming in Paris_Monster. Sometimes I get really into the ghost notes. I don’t displace the snare a lot. The Garibaldi thing is the fact that my right hand is doing so much subdividing because I’m playing bass lines. You’re kind of holding down the left side of your body, and your right side is playing different subdivisions against that. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I’m keeping it simple, man, I’m keeping it old-school. That’s my role in the band. I’m not saying that I’m not going to expand on that, because you never know, but that’s where we are right now.
There are moments when I play drums with two hands in the band, and sometimes the modular can play bass. So there will be sections where we’ll go completely out, and I just have to listen to the modular, and I’ll find my way back. Sometimes I’m completely off tempo, and I love it, and I just want to turn into Paul Motian or Milford Graves or something.
MD: I heard you playing “Hot ’Lanta” on a video with Jim Campilongo, and you were definitely taking it out.
Josh: I love playing with those guys. In a Jim Campilongo concert you will play a song like that, a burner, a swampy, slow, strange song…. You’ll play a ballad that absolutely breathes, and you’ll need brushes and a riveted cymbal, you’ll play absolutely crazy psychedelic free jazz, and then you’ll play a two-step, all in the same day. In one gig, my mind will flash Joey Baron, Earl Palmer, Ronnie Tutt, Jay Bellerose, all of these different drummers, and then I’ll turn into Al Jackson and lay it down on one song. The Jim Campilongo gig was a huge part of my musical growth over the past five years.
MD: You were using one stick and one mallet in a video with Campilongo.
Josh: It’s textures. I’m just trying to find different sounds. One song might need the snare to be tuned up, and the next song might need it flat. The Jim Campilongo gig is really “anything goes,” and I feel happy to finally understand what it is to make a commitment in free music. To really just hear something and put yourself out there.
Ultimate freedom is, I’m saying this right now. I’m making a choice, and I’m listening. And more often than not, when you find that little space in your brain, then the band starts rolling. The next thing you know you’re playing, but there’s not necessarily a tempo. But you’re playing time and you’re moving. I feel like that’s what those Ornette Coleman records had, and that’s what Paul Motian had with Keith Jarrett. And to me, that was the “next level” shit.
And the thing that’s so funny about life and music is that once I learned how to do that, I appreciated the pocket so much more. I realized how important it is—how I have to work on that. And it’s kind of funny how it’s the same thing with jazz. You don’t play jazz for years, you play all kinds of other music, but your musicality continues to grow. The next time you play a standard, you feel so free, like, “Oh, I understand this more now.”
Drums: Yamaha Maple Custom
A. custom 5.5×14 snare
B. 8×12 tom
C. 16×16 tom
D. 14×20 bass drum
1. 17“ hi-hats (two Byzance Dark crashes)
2. 20“ Byzance Extra Dry Thin crash
3. 22“ Big Apple Dark ride (alternate: 22“ Sand crash/ride with three rivets)
Sticks: Vic Firth 5A wood-tip
Heads: Evans G1 Coated snare batter, Reso 7 tom batter, UV1 floor tom batter, and Level 360 G1 Coated bass drum batter
Keyboard: Dave Smith Mopho synth mounted on a snare drum stand with one claw sawed off and run through an Electro-Harmonix Memory Toy delay pedal