Drummer and educator Blake Fleming recently self-published The Book of Rhythm, an encyclopedic compendium of rhythmic permutations. The book, which the author hopes will become a reference and creative inspiration for all types of creative musicians, is fascinating and well worth your time. You can read more about in the August issue’s Inside Methods column. Here we take the opportunity to delve into Fleming’s twenty-plus-year playing career, during which he’s made a mark in the world of creative underground music, including the revered modern rock band the Mars Volta.
MD: In your hometown of Alton, Illinois, at a pretty young age, you had experience with rudimental drumming and Scottish pipe and drum bands.
Blake: My neighbor, Sarah Greer, was a snare drummer in the local fife and drum corps. After talking about drums, it was decided that I’d start taking snare lessons from her. I was eight and she was sixteen. Lucky for me, she was a great teacher. It was Haskell Harr’s Drum Method Book One, counting out loud and rudiments from the get-go. A year or two later I joined the fife and drum corps.
There were six snare drummers who had to sound like one, plus two or three bass drummers, fifteen or twenty fifers, a color guard, and a drum major. The bass drum parts for a lot of rudimental-style playing are pretty funky and syncopated, hitting on the “e” of the beat when accenting under the flamacue, for instance. These early syncopations and the snare drum/bass drum relationship of rudimental music definitely shaped my playing, especially early on. It was easy to make the connection to big band drummers, as they were coming from a similar rudimental style and translating that to the kit.
A couple years later, when I joined the John Ford Highland Bagpipe Band, my translation of military drumming to the kit solidified, because the pipe band drumming swung. It was funky, used buzz rolls, and was heavily syncopated in the snare parts. I had already been listening to jazz for a couple years by that point and studying out of the Jim Chapin book [Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer], so there was definite overlap.
On drumset I mainly mimicked what I heard from the fife and drum corps, playing rudimental-style cadences with syncopated bass drum accents. Not too long after that I was adding my hi-hat foot to the mix and moving those cadences to the toms, trying to utilize the whole kit.
MD: Who were your teachers?
Blake: Aside from Sarah Greer when I was eight, it was Marc Waters for drumset when I was twelve. Then I took from a variety of people. There was Roger Guth, who still is Jimmy Buffet’s drummer, the amazing bassist Tom Kennedy, and John Williams, who started off on the chitlin’ circuit. Joe Charles, who was a local St. Louis legend and also the first original choice for Coltrane’s classic quartet, was like the Ornette Coleman of the drums—so completely original and unyielding. When I met [John Coltrane drummer] Elvin Jones, we talked about Joe for a minute. Not many people know about Joe. He had a family and was a baker, and so he turned down offers for roadwork. I only went to his little cinder-block, corrugated-tin-roof house a few times, but Joe left an unforgettable impression.
MD: You’ve spoken about meeting Darin Gray, with whom you went on to form Dazzling Killmen [1990-95]. How would you explain your connection and the creation of your music together?
Blake: Darin and I met when we were both playing in a community college jazz band. I was a sophomore or junior in high school, and Darin had started taking some classes at the college. We used to get together on weekend nights and improvise for five or six hours, sometimes straight without stopping.
Between meeting Darin and Nick Sakes, who are five and ten years older than me [respectively] and starting college a couple years later, my tastes began to seek out the fringe. I really got into 20th-century classical music such as Harry Partch, Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and Krzysztof Penderecki, along with more avant-garde and free jazz music like Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Alice Coltrane, Sonny Sharrock, Peter Brötzmann, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. All of this went into a blender with military rudimental drumming, punk rock, classic rock, jazz, free jazz, and 20th-century classical, and informs my playing style to this day.
MD: Laddio Bolocko [1996-2001] was an incredible band. We’ve talked about that experience for the liner notes on Live and Unreleased, but I want to focus on the time period late in the band’s life, when you guys were experiencing musical ESP. How did you get there?
Blake: First, on top of touring for almost the entire life of the band, in 1997 Ben Armstrong, Drew St. Ivany, and I lived together in our practice space in a pre-gentrified DUMBO in Brooklyn, New York. Marcus DeGrazia had his own apartment at the time but would still spend many nights with us in our practice space. Drew and I slept head to toe on a shared futon mattress. We hardly had to work regular jobs because Ben, Drew, and I split the $450 rent three ways, so it was $150 a month for me to be living in New York City in 1997.
Not working much and having the freedom and space to be loud meant that we just played and listened to music together for hours upon hours every single day. We improvised constantly and over time developed our own language.
The other important element of our practice routine came from repetitive rhythm exercises, kind of like rhythmic calisthenics. We would each have one part to play and wouldn’t be allowed to deviate from that in the slightest. We got to the point where we were doing this for about three and a half hours straight. When you repeat something for that long, you begin to understand everything you’re doing on a much deeper micro-level. After keeping the band in a repetitive holding pattern for hours at a time, the improvised music became more explosive and controlled.
MD: Do you think there will come a time when Laddio will play a reunion show?
Blake: Three of us were ready to do some reunion shows around the time the Live and Unreleased box set was coming out , but unfortunately it never happened. I don’t know if it ever will.
MD: You had two short stints with the Mars Volta, one when they started and one after your replacement, Jon Theodore, quit. What were some positives you took from that experience?
Blake: Being in the Mars Volta definitely gave me more exposure and introduced me to a bigger audience. After my second stint with the band, I was able to come back to New York and make my living from playing live, teaching, and doing session work. Fortunately that continues to this day.
MD: Talk a little bit about your 2013 solo album, Time’s Up.
Blake: In February of 2008 I moved up to the northwestern part of the Catskills. We eventually got our own house to rent right across the road from where we had landed initially. After twelve years in New York, I was taking a bit of break and getting into the pace of rural life. There was an old country church right down the road from my house that sat empty most of the time because the congregation moved between a few different churches. I ended up being a bit of a caretaker for it, just keeping an eye on things, and was then allowed to use the gigantic, one-room, concrete-floor and wooden-walled basement. It sounded kickass in there from the start. Once again I was able to unpack all of my gear, have it all set up and ready to go, and be able to access it and be loud 24/7. I had a few different kits set up and a bunch of percussion laying around. With my laptop, a two-input Mbox, and my old Fostex 4-track, I set about to make a record on my own.
Any time I went down to my studio at the church I’d be recording. I’d be improvising on a drumkit and land upon an idea I thought I was cool. I would then record that idea to a click. Then usually afterward I would start to hear some kind of accompanying counter or cross rhythm, either on another kit, the same kit, or auxiliary percussion of some sort, and I’d start overdubbing. Time’s Up is still available for digital download from my bandcamp page, blakefleming.bandcamp.com.
MD: Your wife, Caroline, looms large on Time’s Up and on The Book of Rhythm.
Blake: Caroline is just one of those people that you’re grateful for every single day. I truly believe that without her love, support, hard work, understanding, and ability to clear the darkness, The Book of Rhythm would never have made it out of my two notebooks. Any fans of the book can thank her for making it so.
For more on Blake Flemming, go to blakethedrummer.com.