L.A. native Matt Mayhall boasts a résumé that reads like a fractured West Coast–meets–East Coast iPhone contacts app. The drummer has worked extensively with L.A. denizens Susanna Hoffs (the Bangles), Jeff Babko, John Doe (X), and Liz Phair, and in Josh Haden’s Spain. But when nimbly scrambling rhythms down below and above, Mayhall kicks it jazz style with left-coast swingers Larry Goldings, Chris Speed, and Vinny Golia, and he worked with the late master bassist Charlie Haden (father of Josh).
Like a freak brew of the Chicago post-rockers Tortoise and the famed tribute-album producer Hal Willner, Mayhall’s debut solo release, Tropes, rolls his diverse skills into one untidy, rumbling package. “Conceptually, I wrote the music at the piano,” Mayhall explains from his Hollywood home. “I’m limited to what I can actually play on the piano, so the songs are slow and spacious and drawn out. I wanted to orchestrate that idea with these slow-moving, syrupy, kind of druggy-feeling things smeared on top of a groove.”
Tropes offers a seemingly endless but somehow unified succession of these smears and sounds. “On the Ceiling” spins like a funky traffic jam flowing in reverse. “Removed” is as lazy and slow moving as asphalt melting in summer, with woozy synth and Hammond organ tones hovering over Mayhall’s simple, spacious, syncopated 2-and-4 beat. Brain-addled jazz gets a toss on “Maybe Younger,” and glimmering cymbals and textural drums nudge the senses awake on “A&A,” while “Myopic” is the album’s lone solo piano piece.
Mayhall originally conceived the tunes as performed by an acoustic piano trio, before finding ultimate expression with guitarist Jeff Parker (Tortoise, Brian Blade Fellowship) and bassist Paul Bryan (Aimee Mann, Meshell Ndegeocello), with appearances by keyboardist Jeff Babko (Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music) and tenor saxophonist Chris Speed (Human Feel, Claudia Quintet). “The music comes from that headspace of being a jazz musician,” Mayhall says, “but a lot of the work I do is elsewhere. My ideas for arrangements and instrument tones and sonic qualities come out of playing many styles of music. I wouldn’t classify this as a jazz record.”
As Mayhall toured with Aimee Mann, he casually recorded Tropes on a drumset previously tuned and set up in the studio by Jay Bellerose, Mann’s recording drummer, along with his own vintage 7×14 Leedy and WFL Pioneer mahogany snare drums. If Tropes is any guide, one assumes Mayhall’s personal drum sound is booming, atmospheric, and as woozy as beat-driven cotton balls. “I do like an open bass drum sound, especially for improvisational music,” Mayhall confirms. “And with an electric band as on the record, it makes sense to tune the drums lower in pitch.”
A graduate of Cal Arts, where he earned an MFA in jazz studies, Mayhall astutely “tunes” each of his varied gigs with different sources. “You do have to be mindful of what works in a certain context and what doesn’t work,” he says. “Certain drums and cymbals fit each gig. And they don’t cross. I keep those separated in my mind. It’s the experience of playing different styles of music and knowing the territory. But for me all these different kinds of music have happened concurrently.”
Is Tropes Mayhall’s calling card to prospective employers? “Well, a noticeable thing about the record is a lack of drum solos,” he responds. “The music wasn’t about drum solos or my approach as a drummer. The album started as me playing piano and thinking more about tonality and chords and timbres. One of the big challenges of the record was figuring out a way in as a drummer. That it’s not a real drums-centered record says that I’m more inspired by harmony and building a sonic space.”
But there’s no denying Tropes’ reverberating drum tones and atmospheric rhythms. Hollywood swinging, indeed. “It’s representative of how I hear music,” Mayhall says. “I approach all the music I’m asked to play with an ear to vibe as opposed to busy-ness. I’m more aware of everything that is going on within the music, as opposed to what hip drum shit I can play. The record showcases that aspect of my musical identity. I can play, but I wasn’t interested in showcasing that particular aspect of what I do.”
Matt Mayhall plays Gretsch drums, Sabian cymbals, Innovative Percussion sticks and mallets, and Roots EQ tone-control rings and mutes.