Looked at a certain way, a drummer’s job is about organizing sound into interesting beats—a role Moses Archuleta does with great musicality, idiosyncrasy, and glee. But his affinity for organization goes well beyond the bandstand—in fact, his big-picture approach is a prime reason Deerhunter has become one of the most highly regarded and recognizable indie-rock bands of our time.
Moses Archuleta cuts a contradictory figure. He’s tall and thin, with an almost gentle bearing. But onstage and in the studio, Moses exudes power and strength. At a recent performance at Brooklyn Steel in support of Deerhunter’s latest album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, Archuleta performed with a supreme confidence, in the spirit of St. Vincent’s Matt Johnson. His clarity and finesse were reminiscent of the movements of a master chef preparing a simple and aesthetically pleasing meal. There was no wasted motion.
“The way he approached drumming,” says Deerhunter singer, songwriter, and guitarist Bradford Cox, “he just developed his own language. I wanted to rock. Moses didn’t care about rocking. He wanted to organize sound. Moses is the real [Brian] Eno of today. He’s a non-musician who organizes sound.”
Archuleta’s extreme modesty about his drumming skills has started to abate only recently, so this was a perfect time to talk with him about the ways he has curated and shaped the sound and career of Deerhunter. He’s an intrinsic part of the band’s overall creative enterprise—from their music to their engagement with the wider public. “Moses has a hand in everything,” says Cox. “He’s as much a leader of the band as I am; he’s just more economical with his touch. He’s like a Japanese ceramist. If something breaks, they repair it [with] gold. There’s a certain wabi-sabi to Moses’s drumming, and I try to emphasize that in the recording process.”
I asked my friend Shinji Masuko, the guitarist in DMBQ and Boredoms, to elaborate on this Japanese concept of wabi-sabi as it might apply to music. It’s difficult to translate for Westerners, but it illuminates Archuleta’s playing. The concept emerged from the ancient tradition of the tea ceremony, wherein a close attention to the mundane preparations of tea would stand in opposition to the chaos and deleterious aspects of normal life. It’s thought to be a precursor to Zen Buddhism. Masuko wrote to me, “Originally, wabi means sadness, loneliness, a dreary feeling, and sabi means to age, fade, or wither. Combined this feels negative, but it’s important to catch the delicacy, nuance, and evanescence of this concept. Natural fluctuations and irregular vibrations are prized along with the unaffected, realistic, and simple qualities. In terms of music, wabisabi might suggest giving careful attention to rests; giving silence for the next sound and applying a natural and irregular rhythmic movement—very close to the concept of groove—while removing flashy playing.”
Archuleta’s style is simple—but deceptively so. He gives Deerhunter’s music a rich anchor, grounding the noisiest passages. His vision for the band helped them move beyond the confines of the Atlanta punk scene in the early 2000s, and his steady hand with songcraft has firmly shaped the band from behind the scenes.
MD: There seems to be a Mick Avory/Kinks-style drumming approach on the new album. Lots of clean playing with clear adornments, and unfussy grooves. It’s very satisfying aesthetically. Can you talk a little bit about your approach on Why Hasn’t Everything Disappeared?
Moses: Good catch with the Kinks! That was a distinct reference point in early discussions about the material that ended up on the album. As for the approach, there were several rallying points. Messing with pitch à la [producer] Tony Visconti, but via a more cheap method on a small Yamaha mixer. Getting a big, raw drum sound through use of hot recording on a tiny practice drumkit with light sticks. A lot of the playing on the record is physically dainty despite how it may sound on the recording.
MD: What’s the Visconti production trick?
Moses: He used an Eventide Harmonizer to create a pitched-down effect on drums on David Bowie’s Low.
MD: What kind of sticks were you using during the recording, 7As?
Moses: Possibly lighter. I just grabbed the lightest reasonably paired but mismatched sticks I could find in a grab bag at the studio.
MD: What sizes were those tiny drums? How many toms, and how were they tuned?
Moses: Basically it was a Taye GK518F-DS five-piece GoKit with two toms, and they were not tuned at all.
MD: What was your introduction to drums? I know you studied some percussion in military school—did you study rudiments?
Moses: I was first introduced to a full-on drumkit via a combo of my friend having a drumkit at his house and Deerhunter in 2001/2002. Prior to that, I had only been exposed to percussion via marching and concert band in military school during my junior and senior years. I did some studying of rudiments.
MD: Have you had lessons beyond those early years in marching band?
Moses: No, I tend to practice only with bands. It’s tricky describing what I work on. I feel that my skills develop with a combination of kit experience and life maturity.
MD: I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about your time interning at the Echo Lounge venue in Atlanta and your transition into playing.
Moses: I was at the Echo Lounge in 2001 and 2002. It involved listening to demo CDs and putting flyers up around town and absorbing the business of booking shows through osmosis. At the same time, I naturally transitioned into playing drums. Deerhunter were already playing shows, but I was just playing bass and organ. Drumming started to happen naturally through jamming in the early days. The initial success was largely dictated by my playing stupid, simple, and loud.
MD: Your transition to drums actually had a huge effect on the band.
Moses: Yes. Originally we had a jazzy drummer, and he played softly. Early on we would make a real racket, and he struggled to nail us down. One day after we’d been a band for about six months, the drummer didn’t show up to rehearsal. So I just started playing the drums. I’d never actually sat at a kit, so I had no kit coordination. When I started playing caveman drums, it just worked. We established foundations for five songs that night.
MD: Did that jamming approach to writing songs last?
Moses: For the first five years we did it that way, through Halcyon Digest . That album was a transition out of that. Personal lives, relationships, and living in different cities made the albums that followed more about demoing.
MD: What was happening in the Atlanta punk scene at the time?
Moses: The city’s music scene was definitely thriving, but in a transitional phase leading into bands such as Black Lips, the Lids, and the Alphabets. It was a ripe musical period for the city’s underground at the time, because the general appetite was there for something new and refreshing.
MD: Were there cool drummers in Atlanta at the time?
Moses: Yeah, and every time I saw a drummer I’d say, “Oh, wow, that’s a drummer—unlike me.” An observation that ran parallel to that was that some of these drummers couldn’t tone it down—everything was crammed in; they could never chill. Sometimes I thought that these bands could write better songs if these guys weren’t such great drummers!
MD: Simplicity can bear fruit.
Moses: It’s important to figure out the intent of the music. An overemphasis on technical ability can sometimes hinder the working spirit of material or songwriting. In popular music, technique is often transparent. The average listener might not hear this kind of stuff. If it’s sticking out then it might be an issue.
MD: What is the Deerhunter writing process like?
Moses: Every album is different. For this latest one, the group ended up poring over demos that Bradford had roughly sequenced into a concept for an album. So a lot of effort was put forth to retain certain unique quirks and spooky qualities to the tracks. A funny detail to mention about the drumming on the album: all the songs on the record follow a click except for “Death in Midsummer.” That one naturally went off the grid and sped up as the song went along. We decided that it was appropriate for the feeling of the song.
MD: How do you see your musical role in Deerhunter?
Moses: A manicured, curatorial backbone; ultimately always trying to serve the material.
MD: Can you talk about how this role might have expressed itself over the years?
Moses: I don’t lend any overt gestures or signatures to anything I play. I don’t want to get in the way of the music and only want to highlight what works best for the song. I’m in a band where the drums provide a minimal but strong framework around which the more chromatic instruments can exist.
MD: I know you consider yourself an idiosyncratic drummer, but one that fits well within the context of Deerhunter.
Moses: I often don’t feel like a real drummer per se. I don’t know when that feeling will ever come! I know that I love playing drums and that I’ve been fortunate to be able to develop at my own rate and in my own way. I’m not a highly technical drummer, but one who gets by much more out of intuition and simplicity. That’s as much an extension of my skill level as it is what I truly like to hear myself.
MD: I’ve always seen your playing as practical, unfussy, and direct. What are some of your musical touchstones?
Moses: Roughly: Krautrock, female drummers, and electronic music.
MD: Why do you say “female drummers”—are you saying there’s a particular aesthetic to female drumming that you’re modeling? Are there some specific drummers you’re talking about?
Moses: Yeah, I suppose it’s an aesthetic that’s tricky to completely put my finger on, but it’s a style and touch that resonates with me. The priorities tend to be less flamboyant. As for specific drummers, I’m inspired by Ikue Mori, Sara Lund, Palmolive [Paloma McLardy of the Raincoats and the Slits], YoshimiO, and Moe Tucker.
MD: When you say less flamboyant, I’m guessing you mean less assertive or grandstanding or extroverted, perhaps less concerned with technique and ego and more subsumed within the song?
MD: Can you talk a bit about the beat on “Plains”? There are polyrhythms and counter rhythms going on. How did this come about?
Moses: As a matter of fact, a lot of the baseline drumming in the song came about through a pageant of Bradford trying to write something that he thought I would write and naturally play. Then that was reflected back at me and further interpreted, and then a late-stage fascination with ’80s Whitney Houston came about, and…voilà!
MD: What is your style? What do you think Bradford was trying to capture?
Moses: I’m not sure…not very ornamental, slightly quirky but straight-ahead and steady, I suppose.
MD: You’ve talked a lot about your curatorial role in the band and the way you shepherd ideas into their best form.
Moses: It was my role from the very beginning. I was the catalyst. I was the one who was encouraging us to play that first show. Even before we were ready.
MD: Why was that coming from you?
Moses: I have a thread in my life of trying to organize things, so it happened naturally. I was the worst musician by far in the band, but I was the one putting the most effort into trying to create a roadmap, push us to play shows, record, and to get out of Atlanta. I had a pretty strong grasp what the landscape seemed like and what I wanted us to be. The rest of the guys were in their personal Atlanta and listening bubble. I wanted us to be part of a broader scene. We got signed to Kranky because I sent a bunch of mailers out.
MD: It seems like you helped make things happen in a significant way.
Moses: I think that’s fair. I don’t have any doubt that Bradford, Lockett [Pundt, guitar] or Josh [Fauver, bass] would still have played music, but I was the person who pulled all these pieces together.
MD: I wonder if there’s a way we can talk about this in a broader way—to see it as an alternate path for a drummer.
Moses: It’s hard to know how to manifest it and apply it day to day, but I used to study cultural happenings critically. From a really young age I would get video game magazines, car magazines, and music magazines, and watch lots of films. I started to become hawk-eyed about learning how critics would read and think. I spent a lot of time reading when I was younger. I would go through half the magazine rack every month. Through a long exposure I developed a good instinct about how to read the room, so to speak. In Atlanta I felt like the scene was not the ceiling.
I’m comfortable with my playing now, but I have not always felt this way. In Atlanta people used to talk about us initially, “Oh that’s that band that can’t play their instruments.”
MD: You told me you were the most hated band in Atlanta for a while.
Moses: You gotta go through that to get outside of it. I cared about the local scene, but I quickly realized that we did not need to be the most liked or the best local band. I always felt we would be more appreciated outside of Atlanta.
MD: How do those other disciplines you mentioned earlier feed into your drumming?
Moses: When I think about drums and drumming and literally how it functions in music physically, to me it makes total sense that a drummer can be more of that subtle or invisible hand that can create the framework to make things happen.
I’m not the front person. For me and my personality, that suits me just fine. I don’t want to be in the foreground. I’m very happy to have a different kind of influence that might be less visible. I’ve always enjoyed bringing a bunch of threads together but not being the person the whole thing is about. But I love putting it together, winding it up, and seeing where it goes. I’m not really the technical or proficient songwriter, I’m not a graphic artist, and I’m not a great recordist. But I get to influence a lot of things in a subtle way—I’m constantly feeding things [to creative people in the band]. There’s not a field or qualification for it.
MD: Let’s say you were talking to a room full of drummers. What could you share with them that has nothing to do with technical drumming but could be applied to their creative endeavors?
Moses: It’s not just about drumming. And even when it is about the drumming, it’s not about the drumming entirely. What is serving the whole thing best? Think about the personalities, the song, the entire project. What do those areas want out of you? Read that and focus on that.
If someone is young and feeling insufficient…I managed to survive those feelings and thrive because I focused on those other elements. I discovered what was needed in my role, as a drummer and organizer. Don’t focus on self-doubt. Don’t focus on the negatives or comparing yourself to people in a negative way.
Even now I still feel weird about my drumming. But I know I can play the way I want, and no one else can play this way. I take power from that. It’s been an interesting journey because I never expected to play drums. When it’s all together and it’s happening, there’s nothing like it. It’s the only thing under the sun that I do that shuts everything out.
Archuleta’s Tour Setup
Drums: C&C Coke Bottle Green acrylic
A. 8×14 Ludwig Supraphonic snare
B. 9×12 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 16×20 bass drum
Cymbals: Istanbul Agop Mel Lewis line
1. 13″ hi-hats
2. 20″ “1982” ride
3. 22″ ride
Sticks: Vic Firth Buddy Rich signature model
Heads: Remo Emperor snare batter, Ludwig Weather Master Silver Dot tom batters (“I really love these with acrylics”), Aquarian Super Kick II bass drum batter
Hardware: DW stands, Tama hi-hat pedal and Iron Cobra bass drum pedal
Electronics: Roland TM-6 Pro module and BT-1 bar trigger, Strymon TimeLine Multidimensional Delay