Joe Tomino

Launching improvisational music into the largely unexplored territory of dubmetal, Dub Trio’s diverse drummer has learned to speak in rhythmic tongues.

Dub-metal drummer Joe Tomino, the engine powering the reggae acts Dub Trio and Matisyahu, is fluent in several musical languages. Tomino, thirty-four, is a classically trained percussionist who grew up listening to hard rock. He immerses himself in different styles, from pop to hiphop, to learn their rhythmic vocabulary and to accent and flavor his double-kick-propelled, hybridized playing approach. It’s an attitude that has served him well for fifteen years.

In 2000, after generating a buzz with the Cleveland-based avant-garde jazz/electronica band Birth, Tomino moved to New York City, where he met his future Dub Trio bandmates, bassist/keyboardist Stu Brooks and guitarist/keyboardist Dave Holmes, then members of Actual Proof. As Dub Trio, Tomino and his cohorts began mixing reggae with rock and metal in instrumental improv settings. For the next decade, the Brooklyn-based skinsman continually pushed himself to become an in-demand recording and touring drummer, performing in the studio and/or live with a variety of artists, including Lady Gaga, Fugees, Wyclef Jean, Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom, and the Hasidic reggae-rap sensation Matisyahu.

Unsurprisingly, to achieve a global (some might say cosmic) understanding of rhythm, Tomino has had to remain open to many influences. The cover art for Dub Trio’s 2011 album, IV, created by Kostas Seremetis, seems to speak to this. Intended to be a graphic interpretation of the band’s deep, dirge-y dub music, the tri-panel composite image, featuring pictorial slices of the moon, Minuteman missile guidance-system circuitry, and a metallic motorcycle wheel, could also represent Tomino’s propulsive, amalgamated, Space Echo– and electronics-inflected style. “I never wanted to be in a band that had to play a certain way,” Joe says. “That’s the magic of what we do: We can create without boundaries.”


MD: With each successive Dub Trio studio album, your music becomes progressively more aggressive.

Joe: I agree. I remember we were in rehearsal one day for our second record [New Heavy], and we were playing a dub/reggae riff. We decided to add distortion to the riff, and then I thought, I’ll beat the hell out of the drums as if I were in a punk or metal band. It seemed to work.

MD: Did you have to sharpen your technique to play metal?

Joe: I had to build up my chops a bit, yeah. If I had to analyze what I’m doing, I’d say I’m using more of my fingers with the faster stuff. I continue to practice a lot more finger exercises on the pad.

MD: What exercises specifically?

Joe: Nothing too crazy. Basically it’s going back and forth between singles, doubles, and inversions while using wrists and then fingers, then back again, on my drum pad.

MD: You attended Cleveland State University and the New England Conservatory. How did your musical education and training prepare you for later gigs?

Joe: Technique has always been an important part of what I am as a player, and I still love classical music. But once I discovered jazz, everything changed. I couldn’t see practicing xylophone etudes eight hours a day with a metronome blaring. I essentially learned that nothing is perfect. I think technique is vital, but I don’t let it hinder my playing in any way.

MD: Would you say that musicality is just as important as technique?

Joe: Yeah, definitely. Technique will only take you so far. For me it’s about learning the vocabulary of the style in which I’m playing. I’m all about breaking rules, but I wouldn’t play a swing pattern in a Dub Trio metal section. Well, I could, but I probably wouldn’t. So doing my homework is important. Plus I approach different songs from different perspectives. You know: How would Tony Williams play this figure, as opposed to, say, Phil Rudd of AC/DC?

MD: Is it true that you change cymbal and drum sizes depending on the gig you’re playing?

Joe: Yes. That’s mainly because Dub Trio’s music is heavier and has more space than, say, Matisyahu’s music. I need the weight and resonance of the larger sizes to give more body to what I play. On the dubby to something doomy. A 16″ crash isn’t going to work in that situation.

MD: How do you overcome that?

Joe: It’s tricky. Some of it is in how I choose to actually hit the cymbal. If I’m hitting it with the tip of the stick, or with the shoulder, or if I “play through it,” it’s more about technique than switching cymbals in the middle of a gig. Generally, though, I try to find the cymbal that has the right decay—just long enough, but not too long. And it has to be just heavy enough to cut through distorted guitars and bass, but not too heavy.

MD: Some of the effects you use add an almost psychedelic dimension to your playing. How long have you used electronics in your setup?

Joe: There came a point at which I wanted to play electronics, but not a full e-kit. That led to using my Roland SPD-S multi-pad unit. Then I began to sample all my own sounds and use a phrase sampler and effects such as an RE-20 Space Echo delay and reverb pedal. I try to make sounds that are unique to me.

MD: In what way?

Joe: Initially I had one or two pads, a trigger, and a sampler that had onboard effects. I would run a keyboard or a microphone into the sampler and process their signals and sample them on the fly. Now I can create sounds with computer software and sample those.

MD: Dub Trio’s music is so diverse. Who would you list as your main drumming influences?

Joe: I’m inspired by a lot of drummers. Tony Williams, Sly Dunbar, Carlton Barrett, classical/avant-garde percussionist Max Neuhaus, and so many others. Even nonmusicians, like chefs, inspire me.

MD: Chefs?

Joe: To me, a great meal can inspire a great show. [New York City chef] Wylie Dufresne uses extended techniques with molecular gastronomy, and a drummer like [composer/percussionist] Gerry Hemingway does something similar, using extended techniques on the kit. Chefs are like musicians: Everyone has the same ingredients to choose from, but it’s how they choose to arrange them that matters.


Tomino plays two Pearl sets. His Reference kit features a 10×13 tom, a 16×16 floor tom, a 16×20 bass drum, a 14″ Elite timbale, and a 20-ply, 51/4×14 snare, as well as a variety of other snares. His Masters MCX kit features a 9×12 tom, a 14×14 floor tom, and an 18×20 bass drum. Tomino’s electronic setup consists of a Roland SPD-S multi-pad unit, a Line 6 Verbzilla pedal, a Danelectro Spring King reverb pedal, a Roland DS-1 distortion pedal, a Roland Boss RE-20 Space Echo pedal, a Roland Boss Dr. Sample SP-303 phrase sampler and multi-effects unit, and a ddrum bass drum trigger. Joe plays Sabian cymbals. With Matisyahu he uses 14″ Paragon hi-hats, a 19″ AAX Saturation crash, a 19″ AAX X Plosion crash, a 21″ HHX Heavy Legacy ride, and a 19″ AAX China. With Dub Trio he plays 15″ X-Celerator hi-hats, a 19″ AAX Saturation Crash, a 20″ HHX Stage crash, and a 19″ AAX China. He uses Vic Firth 5B, 55A, and Peter Erskine Ride sticks. And he employs a variety of Evans heads, including an EC Reverse Dot or G Plus Coated snare batter and Hazy bottom, EC2 tom batters and G1 bottoms, a J1 Etched tom/timbale batter, and a GMAD Clear bass drum batter and EQ3 Resonant front head.


Dub Trio Exploring the Dangers Of, New Heavy, Another Sound Is Dying, IV /// Birth Find /// Peeping Tom Peeping Tom /// Lady Gaga The Fame /// Wyclef Jean Carnival, Volume II: Memoirs of an Immigrant /// Matisyahu Live at Stubb’s, Volume II /// Janita Haunted