He thought he’d found “truth” with the transcendental metal band Liturgy. But activating hyperdrive and performing at light speed wasn’t the answer for this Jedi drummer. Trading hardware for software was.
In the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, Greg Fox peers through his sunglasses across the East River and up at the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. Enormous heavy construction equipment clutters the immediate foreground as the gleaming Freedom Tower pierces the
azure sky. Viewing “the bottom of the city like this,” Fox says, “affords me an unusual vantage point.”
Seeing life from different perspectives has become something of a preoccupation for Fox. At thirty-two, the adventurous drummer simultaneously juggles numerous diverse projects, unafraid to turn his musical and personal worlds upside down.
Fox has performed and recorded with a wide range of artists, from the Brooklyn-based esoteric black metal band Liturgy to the experimental/multi-genre act Guardian Alien. He’s crisscrossed the globe as a touring musician and solo artist, and, proving he’s not allergic to a structured work environment, even holds the title of director of music development at Pioneer Works, sculptor/painter Dustin Yellin’s nonprofit art space in Red Hook.
Heralded by the Village Voice as the “best drummer” in New York City for 2011, Fox reinvigorated the pulverizing polka-esque blast beat through his near-inhuman stamina and superfast Moeller techniques. Simply put, Fox was one of the fastest metal drumming dudes in the Big Apple—a Jedi-drummer-in-training tapping into some form of intangible energy and soaring to the top of the underground music universe at hyperspeed.
At least that’s the way it appeared. Public images can be deceiving, however. Despite the accolades, and countless blown minds, Fox suffered agonizing internal discontinuity. “The Force,” you could say, was out of balance. Fox took steps to remedy this situation, leaving Liturgy
in 2011 and stepping out, first with Guardian Alien.
“In a way, Guardian Alien was an attempt to find my voice, but it came out of such tension, insecurity, and fear,” says Fox, who has an on-again/off-again relationship with Liturgy. “It was endless pounding as fast and hard as I could.”
Risking irreparable career (if not psychological) damage, Fox set the controls for percussive planets unknown, pursuing collaborations with the dirge-delirious, hypno-jazz-metal horn player Colin Stetson (Ex Eye, Arcade Fire), New York-based avant-proggers Zs, and, in the Fox Millions Duo, Oneida’s post-rock drummer, John Colpitts. The New York City native also began study-ing with basement-dwelling jazzer Milford Graves to produce MIDI-controlled music based on the rhythms of his own heartbeat.
Fox further challenged himself by integrating cutting-edge Sunhouse Sensory Percussion software into his setup and exploring its endless possibilities. Through technology Fox experienced a kind of rebirth while also mapping his imagination, which author Erik Davis has coined “TechGnosis.”
Indeed, for a “durational sound installation” performance at the 2016 Moogfest, Fox played continuously for four hours, interfacing with both the Sensory Percussion program and different Moog synths as Sunhouse cofounder and developer Tlacael Esparza manned the controls. This was a victory, not in the war of man versus machine but in the evolutionary process of man as machine.
Make no mistake, though: Fox is far from cyborg. If anything, the multifaceted rhythmic dynamo applies software technology to achieve a very human form of self-awareness, even enlightenment. Sensory, then, is a mirror for Fox to evaluate and reevaluate his approach—just one of the many tools the drummer uses to examine his life and perhaps ultimately change it.
In a crowded Brooklyn lunch spot, MD sat down with Greg to discuss a wide range of topics, from material appearing on his new jazz-ish electroacoustic solo album, The Gradual Progression, to mitral-valve music and MIDI drumming.
MD: On the walk over here, you said your new solo record, The Gradual Progression, is really your voice. What did you mean?
Greg: It’s the most authentic communication I’ve been able to make professionally. It’s going to be the beginning of another phase for me.
MD: Why do you say that?
Greg: Do you know about Sensory Percussion? I’ve known Tlacael [Esparza] for a long time. I endorse Sunhouse product and was a kind of beta tester, you could say. I’ve been familiarizing myself with it for probably two years. It’s the big game changer. On my new record everything is live and I’m using Sensory with an acoustic kit. The cool thing about working with musicians who are using acoustic instruments is that it’s very clear where the electronic sound is coming from.
MD: Does Sensory Percussion software work via MIDI?
Greg: Yes. It turns the drumset into an extremely sensitive, versatile, responsive MIDI controller. You’re building this sympathetic architecture that responds to the way you drum.
MD: The Gradual Progression, like so many of your projects, can best be described as a multi-genre effort. It’s jazz, but not really jazz at all. How has Sensory helped facilitate musical growth?
Greg: There’s material on the new record in which almost everything I’m controlling from the computer is tonal. In another piece [“By Virtue of Emptiness”] the snare and kick are both triggering random slices of a drum loop—of another recording of a drum loop. The kick is also controlling somewhat muted, long bass tones. When I hit the middle of the snare it makes a short, higher-pitched tone. A rimshot makes a long, ringing tone. You’re dealing with six different MIDI assignments per drum.
MD: It almost sounds as though you have infinite options.
Greg: Which is why it’s so cool. Tlacael’s big innovation is writing machine-learning algorithms.
MD: You’ve been exploring the possibilities of Sensory Percussion, but the public perception of your talents is very much as an extreme drummer.
Greg: Which was never how I used to describe myself, but it was this thing that preceded me. As a young guy, I needed validation, someone at the end of the night to say, “That was insane.” There was a time when I was deriving way too much personal satisfaction from being told my playing was awesome. At a certain point I needed to shift where I was getting my satisfaction. Now I’m not interested in pummeling people into chicken paillard. I’m just glad I’ve had the opportunity to play with guys like Colin Stetson, who appreciates some of my more subtle abilities.
MD: Can you talk about your drumming background?
Greg: I studied a little with Marvin “Bugalu” Smith and Thurman Barker. I also studied very briefly with Jojo Mayer. He gave me a few little pointers. I worked at Manny’s [Music] for about a year, in between high school and college, and I ran the drum department on Sundays when I was seventeen. I started selling harmonicas and effects pedals. Guy Licata [Bill Laswell] worked there, and he took me under his wing. I owe everything to Guy, really. He showed me the benefit of practicing seriously and the Moeller stuff and mini Moeller stuff—the “fill up the gas tank” push-pull. I took some lessons with him too, which were mostly free and informal. I was awed by his technique, and he got me into jungle and drum ’n’ bass music.
MD: How often were you applying the Moeller stuff?
Greg: In college I had a metal band and I was using some of that quick-motion reflex stuff, transferring between blast beats and triplet hits. Then I played in this drone band, Teeth Mountain, learning all of this polyrhythm stuff and using a bit of hand technique. But it wasn’t until Liturgy that I started to figure out how to apply it. I remember the moment it happened: During one Liturgy rehearsal, all of a sudden I started using the mini Moeller stuff. I said, “All of these years on the practice pad were worth it.”
MD: Let’s get back to Sensory Percussion. The software involves the use of sensors. How do they work?
Greg: Sensory Percussion sensors work similarly to microphones and mount onto the rim of a drum. That sensor is connected, via XLR cable, to an audio interface. The Sensory Percussion software interprets that XLR audio signal. The machine-learning algorithms detect the timbral zones of each drum and make MIDI assignments to those zones. It can even blend those zones. It becomes a continuous controller, and that’s where it gets magical.
MD: There’s a YouTube video of you doing a show with only a snare drum.
Greg: That was maybe the second time I’d ever done that. What you can’t see in that video real well is [Esparza] sitting behind me, manning the computer. He wasn’t controlling what was happening on the drums, but he was moving from one sound world to another. [“When I completely pulled the rug out from under him, he looked back at me and laughed,” Esparza tells us.]
Closer to the Heart
MD: You were working with avant-garde jazz drummer Milford Graves to create music based on the rhythm of your heartbeat. How?
Greg: Milford made a recording of my resting heart rate using computer medical equipment and got a very high-quality recording of my heartbeat. Data readings were done too, using EKG. He developed software to convert all of the data and the audio recording into a MIDI score, which was the basis of my record Mitral Transmission . Sensory Percussion came along pretty soon after that, so I switched gears a little.
MD: Is that a hang drum on “It’s OK”?
Greg: It’s a sampled pan drum—same basic thing. That track is two or four EBowed acoustic guitars and a couple of pan drums interpreting the heart score. There’s no actual drumming on Mitral Transmission. I processed data that I got from Milford; I told the computer what to do, and it did it. I made a score of “It’s OK” and there was talk of actually trying to stage it, but I never followed through.
MD: How did you hook up with Graves?
Greg: A bunch of people told me I should reach out to him. Then I had a synchronistic event where I was at the Strand [bookstore], browsing in the weirdo/UFO section. I was looking for new alien books and I pulled out a copy of Arcana II: Musicians on Music, the John Zorn book, and opened it randomly to the Milford page. That’s what Taoists and people who use I Ching call an outer sign. Through a friend I got in touch with Milford. Before proceeding he said he would do some detective work on me and get back to me.
MD: Detective work?
Greg: I think he searched me on the computer. He watched online videos and said, “What is this Liturgy shit?” He wasn’t feelin’ it, but he got a sense of the total energy of the music. I guess I passed the test. He decided that I was worthy of his time. I seem to pick up on certain energies, and in some ways Milford’s the combination of both of my grandfathers. My dad’s dad was a chemist and had a lab in his basement. My mom’s father was a drummer and he had drumset in his basement. I go into Milford’s basement [in Queens, New York], and he has a lab and a drumset.
MD: As far as technique, what have you learned from Milford?
Greg: Nothing. It’s more about championing the thought process behind or the emotional approach to playing than actual hand techniques. One time we sat at the drums and we played Swiss Army triplets as fast as we could. He played triplets very, very fast. Then I did it and it was fast. He was like, “Not bad.” I’ve watched him play piano and tabla. I got a fair amount of helpful criticism in my playing from him but also a lot of encouragement and good advice.
MD: You created music from a heartbeat rhythm with the Fox Millions Duo.
Greg: Well, sort of. We did and we didn’t. We put contact mics up to our hearts and amplified our heartbeats. We used a recording of the heartbeats for our record.
MD: It’s interesting that the human heartbeat resembles a triplet.
Greg: Right. The mini Moeller thing, the Jojo thing, is like the heart valve opening and closing. It feels better to play a heartbeat pattern as a triplet than a two-beat pattern.
Infinity and Beyond
MD: You once described a vision you had of an extraterrestrial being handing you a copy of Guardian Alien’s See the World Given to a One Love Entity. The cover of the record depicts this scene, a representation of infinity.
Greg: That’s the Droste effect. At the time there were not a lot of boundaries, emotionally and psychically. I was sitting in the back of Liturgy’s tour van, trying to cool out because of tension and nerves. I closed my eyes and was doing some breathing exercises when all of a sudden I had a really vivid image of the title and cover. Sometimes when you’re doing those kinds of meditation exercises it’s like going to sleep. That was one of those moments that I dropped really deep, really fast. It had a lot to do with my emotional state at
MD: Were you dealing with personal or professional stuff?
Greg: Both. It’s really personal stuff that gets projected. Certain things I thought were true weren’t, and I was becoming disillusioned.
MD: Relating to your career?
Greg: Career, music stuff, relationship stuff. I find a lot of tension between two life approaches. There’s the “lazy river ride” approach, which I conflate to a degree with a Taoist philosophy of allowing things to just happen. But there’s the other approach of seeing what you want and going to get it. Maybe ultimately we’re all in the lazy river. Maybe if you’re striving to make your own destiny you’re actually relaxing on the lazy river. I don’t know. I’m still learning.
Greg Fox The Gradual Progression, Mitral Transmission (digital, released as limited run with plantable “seed paper”) /// Ex Eye Ex Eye ///Colin Stetson Sorrow: A Reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony /// Liturgy The Ark Work, Aesthethica, Renihilation /// Zs Xe /// Guardian Alien Spiritual Emergency, See the World Given to a One Love Entity /// Man Forever Pansophical Cataract /// Fox Millions Duo Lost Time /// Ben Frost Aurora