He’s spent years simultaneously developing his jazz drumming concept and accompanying a lively selection of rock artists. Now he’s found a unique way to marry both aesthetics
by Ken Micallef
In 1976, rock chameleon David Bowie escaped the public eye by moving into a small apartment in West Berlin. Peering out the window of the nearby recording studio where he worked, Bowie could see the infamous Berlin Wall, its armed sentries and barbed wire reflecting Cold War animosities. When not writing or recording, the singer spent his days listening to such nascent German acts as Neu!, Cluster, and Harmonia, groups then in the vanguard of analog synthesizer technology that channeled the country’s violent past into space-rock sounds. Often referred to as Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy,” the resulting albums, Low, Heroes, and Lodger, have proven vastly influential. Consisting of churning rock and darkly ambient, synth-drenched minimalism, the trilogy is the sound of self-appointed solitary confinement.
Nearly four decades later, drummer/composer Dylan Howe frees these eerie Krautrock visions in Subterranean: New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin. Covering such tracks as “Neuköln—Night,” “Warszawa,” and “Art Decade,” Howe follows an expansive approach set aloft by spiraling, Roy Haynes–inspired playing. Subterranean frames Bowie’s Berlin in metallic guitar, woozy synths, free-ish drumming, and wide-open arrangements.
Subterranean is the latest effort by Howe, who has worked as a session player with Paul McCartney, David Gilmour, Nick Cave, Roger Daltrey, and his illustrious father, Yes guitarist Steve Howe. Following multiple hard-bop and experimental recordings, Subterranean has put Howe on the map, drawing praise from new fans and the Thin White Duke himself.
MD: Your solo work is generally in a jazz vein. How did you come to cover music from Bowie’s Berlin period?
Dylan: When I first heard those albums they seemed austere and spooky. But then I realized I could arrange the songs and turn them into something else. With some tracks, like “Warszawa,” we played it as a Coltrane, modal thing. It’s atmospheric and very dramatic. Bowie got flak when he did those records originally; he was ahead of the curve. And everyone thought I was crazy to do this. After we released it, Bowie sent me a message that he really liked it.
MD: Bowie contacted you?
Dylan: After the album was out a few months, I got an email with the subject line “from David Bowie.” He wrote, “Dylan, that’s a top-notch album you’ve got there. Really. David Bowie.” I was ecstatic. It was really important to get his approval. Then they shared the record on Bowie’s website, and suddenly we sold thousands of albums. It’s incredible. It’s totally new territory for me.
I wanted to change the grooves from the original songs and go into other areas. The source material is simple, melodically and structurally; it’s very malleable. And it’s comfortable to solo with because it has that openness.
MD: Did you extend Bowie’s melodies for soloing?
Dylan: The more you listen to these Bowie tracks, smaller themes and overlying motifs appear. Some of our tracks are faithful to the originals, as with “Subterraneans”—we used an orchestral score of that as our template. Other tunes are essentially AABA, but we might go into double time or change the feel. The music is faithful architecturally in some ways; in other ways it isn’t. All of the melodies are quoted, and the keys are the same. We went for a cinematic approach, a kind of landscape where it feels like you’re going somewhere in the music. We’ve been performing it all over England, with a movie about Berlin in the ’70s playing behind us on a scrim. Everyone gets transported.
MD: Bill Bruford was your first teacher.
Dylan: I took my first lessons from Bruford; he’s been a mentor. He wrote the liner notes on one of my albums.
MD: What jazz drummers have you focused on?
Dylan: I was a Tony Williams freak for years. Elvin Jones, of course. Latterly I was into Roy Haynes on Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. Elvin took a lot from Roy and adapted it for himself. You can hear that with Tony as well. Roy didn’t get his due until recently. And he is so advanced with Charlie Parker and Lester Young. He played quite avant-garde drum stuff in the ’40s and ’50s. He adapted to everyone he played with because he has his own beat, his own feel, and all of his language is so unique. That’s why everybody wanted to play with him. He has such a buoyant beat. Such an important drummer.
MD: Who did you study with after Bruford?
Dylan: I’m self-taught, really. I had a series of lessons with other teachers, but that didn’t last. It took me until my twenties to learn how to practice properly. I got by on feel and enthusiasm. I didn’t go to school for drumming. I studied different books, including The Jazz Drummer’s Workshop by John Riley, Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments, and George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control.
I also played along with records. Playing along to your favorite albums is such a good way to learn. You get to know how it’s supposed to feel, and you learn the ride cymbal beat. I played with all of the Blue Note albums with Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Roy Haynes. I began with Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb—that’s a good way in. Jimmy and Philly Joe’s right-hand rhythms are quite immovable time centers. Then I got into the modal era and the mid-’60s Blue Note stuff, which is a lot more open. I found that really inspiring. I focused on understanding that feel and thinking, How do I do that?
MD: Did you work on the twenty-six rudiments and Ted Reed’s Syncopation?
Dylan: I did that all the time, especially after I got my own practice studio. I gradually found all the connections between the books. And practicing Alan Dawson’s Rudimental Ritual was important. That’s good because it has everything in this musical four-bar looping pattern.
One book that really turned me around was Peter Erskine’s Time Awareness, where he breaks everything down into understandable chunks. He covered a lot of styles. Finding my way from that into John Riley’s books was good…understanding how to propel a group with the ride cymbal and that it’s all about the quarter note. I spent untold hours in the practice room. It’s not really about playing drum solos—everything is about your time feel. If that works, everything will work.
I saw Buddy Rich when I was thirteen, and that was really inspiring. And all that music from the ’60s, that’s what I go to for inspiration. Also, all the great session drummers of the ’70s who were coming from a jazz thing but applying it in the backbeat era. [I got from them] how to make the time feel good and how to be tasteful—hundreds of subtleties that come from those guys.
MD: What’s made the biggest difference to your drumming?
Dylan: It sounds stupid, but I remember in my early twenties reading the Erskine book and understanding the value of the quarter note. It sounds basic, but Erskine made that understandable in such a powerful way. The quarter note is going through everything, and the moment you count a song off, that’s the train track that everything has to wrap itself around, and it’s up to you to keep that clear and steady. That hit me. Then understanding how to phrase properly with the ride cymbal beat and on to soloing.
Now I’m working on three or four books at the same time. I have Danny Gottlieb’s The Evolution of Jazz Drumming, which has history and transcriptions and comping studies. That’s helped me understand Mel Lewis’s playing and the way he glued everything together. Also, John Riley’s The Art of Bop Drumming and Beyond Bop Drumming. Everything is about improving the fundamentals. I set the metronome low, at around twenty-five, and subdivide up and down. And I do the same with the rudiments—soloing over ostinatos and trying to get really comfortable with all the language. Just trying to get better!
Tools Of The Trade
Howe plays a ’60s-era Gretsch kit with an 8×12 tom, a 14×14 floor tom, and a 14×18 bass
drum, with a 5×14 Ludwig Supraphonic Ludalloy snare. His Zildjian cymbals include 14″
K Constantinople hi-hats, a 21″ K Custom Special Dry ride, a 20″ K Constantinople Flat ride, an 18″ K Constantinople crash, and a 22″ ’60s-era K ride, and he plays a 20″ ’60s-era Zyn crash/ride with one rivet. His Remo heads include a Coated Ambassador snare batter and Hazy snare-side, Fiberskyn 3 tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and a Coated Ambassador bass drum batter and Smooth White front head. He plays Zildjian Bill Stewart signature or Vic Firth American Jazz 5 or 8D sticks, Vic Firth Jazz wire brushes and T1 timpani mallets, and Chalklin MS22 hard sewn-felt timpani mallets.
Dylan Howe The Way I Hear It, This Is It, Subterranean: New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin /// Dylan Howe Quintet Translation: Recorded Live in Soho Volume 1, Translation 2: Standards & Previews /// Dylan Howe/Will Butterworth Duo Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring Part 1 /// Steve Howe The Grand Scheme of Things, Quantum Guitar, Natural Timbre, Spectrum /// Steve Howe Trio The Haunted Melody /// Steve Howe’s Remedy Elements /// Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey Going Back Home /// Ian Dury and the Blockheads Ten More Turnips From the Tip /// The Blockheads Staring Down the Barrel