Kathy Burkly, drummer and rhythmic force behind Boston-based Girls’ Night Out, says her grandmother regrets buying her a Sears snare drum 19 years ago. “She really wanted me to be a lawyer,” says Kathy. “She was very disappointed that I took up music as a profession. I told her many times, ‘You were the one who started it.'”
Well, Kathy hasn’t been studying for the bar exam, but her grandmother’s Christmas gift did start the 31-year-old drummer on her way to becoming a different kind of professional: a percussionist who has toured widely, played and recorded music from country to rock, and prides herself on her versatility and ability to handle any musical style that’s demanded. Her recording credits include percussion work for everything from jingles to country work with John Lincoln Wright & The Sourmash Review. She played and recorded with the popular, but now disbanded, Wheatstraw, and made an album with country songwriter Tom Ghent just last year.
But these days she’s a pop rocker, laying down a throaty 2 and 4 from behind a pink, handmade drumset for her six accomplices in Girls’ Night Out. The group is an all-female pop and soul band, currently breaking big in the Boston area.
The band recently released a self-produced EP, and two accompanying videos are receiving significant air play on local video channels. The media has latched onto Girls’ Night Out’s combination of energy, talent (six out of the seven members are Berklee alumnae), and ambition, and there’s every indication that this group is likely to be a real success.
In 1973, Kathy left home (at the ripe old age of 18) to play with Barbara Allen and the Tennessee Hot Pants, a country covers show-band that toured extensively in the States and abroad. “I didn’t even go to graduation or my prom or anything. My mother mailed my diploma to me a month after I started touring with the band. That band did nothing but tour. We’d tour for three months, go home for a week, and then go out again. We lived in a Winnebago. [laughs] I would never do that again, but back then, it was fun—you know, when you’re just out of high school. We even went up to Greenland, “Kathy says. Greenland? “Yeah, at the air force base that’s up there near the North Pole. We were an all-girl band: five women going to Greenland, where there were about two thousand Danish men, five hundred American Air Force men, and very little else except a lot of glaciers. We’d go up there for a month at a time and play seven nights a week. It was like a USO tour. When we were up there in the winter, it was pitch black 24 hours a day. You had to stay inside all the time, because it was 70 or 80 degrees below zero outside. It felt kind of strange with all those guys around. The first night we played there, all these guys were yelling, ‘Take it off. Take it off.’ We had no idea of what to expect from them. I don’t know what would possess a booking agent to send an all-girl band to Greenland, ” Kathy says.
Since then, Kathy has played many other genres, always striving to improve her performance capabilities. At her apartment in Somerville, west of Boston, Kathy told of her rise from musically illiterate country flogger to well-known professional percussionist.
PC: Who did you listen to when you were young? You seem to be into everything.
KB: Mostly swing stuff, because my mom was a Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw fanatic. After that, I was really interested in Buddy Rich, so my grandma bought me a couple of his records. One was Keep The Customer Satisfied and the other was Live At Ronny Scott’s in England. I listened to those a lot when I was about 15. Around that same time, I started getting into rock.
I mostly just listened to what was on the radio. I liked all the Motown stuff on the radio. The people I listened to most when I was in high school included Tower of Power—with Dave Garibaldi—and the Buckinghams—of all people. I liked their drummer; he was snappy.
I got the idea to play ambidextrously from a drummer named Michael Dawe, who played with a band called Gypsy up here. I think he plays with Robert Palmer now. He could lead with his left or his right hand. A lot of drummers cross their hands, but I play the hi-hat with my left hand and the ride cymbal with my right hand. Playing ambidextrously helps you get away from playing patterns.
When I was 19, I started listening to country music. Emmylou Harris had a drummer—John Ware—who had a really nice time feel. He was very relaxed, and he had a really beautiful sense of melody. I got a lot of ideas about how I wanted my cymbals to sound from listening to him. He had a great sense for making a cymbal sound five or six different ways.
PC: How were you playing before you went ambidextrous?
KB: When I first started I didn’t take lessons, so I played the traditional grip. I had a drum book that had a picture of exactly how to hold your hand: “Put your hands like this, lay the stick across, and hold your fingers this way.” When I went back to Berklee College of Music in Boston after playing in Lincoln Wright’s band, my teacher told me to play matched grip. And that was a great piece of advice, because otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to play ambidextrously. At Berklee I learned to read. I graduated from Berklee three years ago, and the two best things I learned there were how to read and how to play matched grip ambidextrously.
PC: You started getting serious about your playing in high school. How did the concept of a girl drummer come across? Did you meet with some resistance?
KB: Well, yes, a little. But either I was lucky or just obnoxious. I just told anybody who gave me any grief about being a girl drummer, “I can play. Let me prove it to you.” I approached it that way, and it worked 99% of the time. One or two times, someone refused to hire me, sight unseen, because I was a woman. Some country singers can feel threatened by a female drummer, I think. But with Chuck McDermott & Wheatstraw, it worked out fine. Chuck had enough self-confidence that it didn’t bother him that some attention would be diverted away from him when people noticed that he had a female drummer. When I played with John Lincoln Wright, it was the same way. They both had strong enough self-images to over-come that. Getting shut out hasn’t happened to me very much, but it has happened to some of the other girls in Girls’ Night Out. If you get in a situation where you can’t handle what employers throw at you and you’re a female, it’s easier for them to get rid of you. That’s why I decided I wanted to be able to play all different styles of music.
PC: And that’s when you went to music school?
KB: Actually, it was while I was on leave from Berklee. I was down in Atlanta, recording with Wheatstraw. Harvey Brooks, the staff bass player at the studio, heard me play and liked my time feel. He was putting a band together, and he wanted to hire me. So I went back down there when I left Wheatstraw. But the thing was, Harvey assumed that, because I could play well in the style he’d heard me playing, I could do anything else as well. I got down there, and he threw things at me that I couldn’t handle. He was surprised, and I was embarrassed. So that’s what made me decide to go back to Berklee and learn to read, learn to play funk, and learn to do stuff I couldn’t do. That gig with Harvey Brooks would have been a good opportunity if I had been up to it. I couldn’t handle it at the time, but if he called me now, I could.
PC: What did you major in?
KB: Professional music. To get a degree, you also had to take English, literature, and other academics. I had a good time with those. I liked art history a lot; it made me sensitive to different kinds of art.
You’re more open to every side of music if you’re open to other kinds of art, like painting and poetry. It widens your perceptions. I mean, if you appreciate the different colors that one artist would use— say, dark, somber colors where someone else would use predominantly fiery colors—it makes you think. Color’s a part of music, too. I’m sure there are good musicians who don’t care about other forms of art, but for me it’s definitely part of it. However you broaden your perceptions can help your playing.
PC: So you think it’s important to step out of one’s regular genre once in a while?
KB: Oh, definitely. When I couldn’t handle the stuff Harvey Brooks threw at me, I knew I had to learn other kinds of music. When I went to Berklee, I played for one semester with a big band: full sax section, four trumpets, four trombones. I was also in a couple of smaller ensembles with this really good piano player who did a lot of Bill Evans’ material. So I had a whole semester of pretending I was in a Bill Evans band. It was great—a lot of cymbal textures and stuff. And what I learned doing those things then shows up in my playing today. For instance, in a song of ours called “Love Under Pressure,” we orchestrated the solo section. I wrote out the whole drum part, so that the drums and bass would be right together. The cymbal things were supposed to be airy and very delicate. And the bass drum and the rim click was a specific part, so that one measure would be one hit and the measure after it would be [claps two 8th notes] like that with the bass. You don’t think of things like that if all you do is bash. If you experience playing more delicate music or something that’s more orchestrated like playing in a big band, you’re aware that the drums are not a single-lined thing. You’re listening. It just makes you think on a wider scale if you’ve done a lot of different kinds of music.
PC: You have an unusual drumset. It has very large mounted toms. And I’ve never seen pink drums with a wood grain. Tell me about it.
KB: Well, the bass drum is 16″ deep by 20″ in diameter, with a 12-ply shell. The snare is 7 1/2 x 14, with a 15-ply shell. The tom-toms are all nine-ply, and the sizes are 10 x 10, 11 x 12, and 12 x 14. There’s no floor tom, because the 12 x 14 tom sounds like a floor tom. It’s also easier to reach, being rack-mounted. All the cymbals are Sabians: 15″ hi-hats, 17″ and 18″ medium crashes, and a 22″ heavy ping ride. That’s my favorite. It’s got this great big, nasty bell that’s great for the soul stuff. The bass drum pedal’s by Sonor; most of the rest of the hardware is by Pearl. It’s a very comfortable set. Joe MacSweeney, over at Eames Drums, built it for me. I liked the idea of having handmade drums, because I could have exactly what I wanted. I could have the edges beveled sharply, the way I like them. The shells could be made of the exact number of plies that I wanted, and out of the wood that I like the sound of birch. The main thing is that the drums are very warm, very resonant, and very versa- tile. Depending on the kinds of heads I put on and how I tension them, I can tune the drums to be very punchy or I can tune them to sound very delicate and really emphasize the warmth. I’m currently using clear Emperors, which produce a very sharp attack. When you combine that with the warmth of the drums, you get the punch you associate with rock, but you don’t get that brittle or electric sound.
PC: What would you consider your style?
KB: I like to describe it as “punchy.” I don’t like my playing to be cluttered. I like to put in some nice, juicy beats, but keep it very seamless, so that if a nice roll goes whizzing by, it doesn’t seem like it’s not supposed to be there. When I hit rimshots, they all sound the same. I don’t like drummers who kind of miss the center of the drum; they hit one place on the tom-tom and then they hit another.
PC: Are there some other kinds of music that you’d like to play more of?
KB: I would really like to play in a small, acoustic trio with just piano, bass, and drums—like that Bill Evans thing I did back at Berklee—not free-form jazz, but very unrestricted jazz. I’d like to do that, I think, because it’s so opposite of what I’m doing now, and because the room for expression is so much greater. You don’t have to worry about amplification. You can strike a cymbal very delicately, you can smash it, or you can just hit the rim of the drum. In a rock band, you can’t play on the side of the drum: hit just the shell to make a “tikky-tok” sound or something like that. It doesn’t carry across when you’re fighting electric guitars and stuff. But in a small jazz group, your whole frame of reference is much more acoustic, and you don’t have to stay with a heavy 2 and 4 kind of thing. I can only do so much in a band like Girls’ Night Out, because people have to dance to it.
PC: Who are some of the drummers you admire?
KB: I admire Dave Garibaldi and Stewart Copeland. Actually, I also admire Joe Morello and that whole school of trio- and quartet-style drumming. It’s very emotional, but it’s also very precise; it’s not stuck in any kind of form. I’ve always liked Billy Cobham; he’s got wild ideas and the physical ability to carry them out.
PC: Who would you most like the chance to play with?
KB: I’d love to play with Tower of Power.
PC: Do you have a regular practice regimen that you follow?
KB: I work every day on a practice pad. Joe Morello has a book called Master Studies with a series of exercises. It doesn’t look like much at first. You start with the real easy stuff, and it never gets very hard, visually. But the thing is that you do each exercise for 15 repetitions, and only up to the speed where you can keep your arm totally relaxed. As soon as you start to tense up, you stop. It makes you very aware of when you’re tensing up. Working with Joe’s book is like doing aerobics: You build endurance by stepping up the speed of what you’re doing but keeping relaxed. The other thing I study is a reading book by Gary Chaffee called Patterns. That’s really a good book. It’s just sight reading. You just flip through it, and pick a page; you’re not supposed to spend any time looking at it. What’s good about this book is that it’s all odd times. Since I don’t read a lot with Girls’ Night Out, I try to practice it every day so my reading doesn’t go down. I practice leading with my left as well as my right hand, so I don’t get stuck playing patterns. It’s very important not to have my brain stagnate just because I’m playing pop music that’s not real demanding, mentally. What I’ll do is take one of those Billy Gladstone pads, and play my right hand on the flat part and my left hand on the middle part. Then, I’ll take one of Joe’s or Gary’s exercises, and play it hand to hand to see if it makes me think of new ideas. Or I’ll play a simple pattern with my left hand and play an exercise against it. I use things like that to stay creative.