As usual, it was a dame that turned my drumming all topsy-turvy….
Sorry, I’ve been watching too many Humphrey Bogart movies during this lockdown. But that lead is actually true. Besides overdosing on Bogey, I also recently started binge-watching Outlander, a Netflix series involving a woman who finds herself transported back in time after touching the standing stones at a megalithic site in Scotland. This led me to rereading this fascinating ancient-monuments study by Paul Devereux called Earth Memory, revisiting records by British-Isle folk bands like Planxty and Clannad, and eventually following hashtags on Instagram like #sacreddrumming.
Now, I’m not generally the new-age type, and things like drum circles usually bum me out—it just seems so far removed from the flash and angst that drew me to drumming in the first place. But, I think maybe because this COVID-19 thing has me feeling a bit unmoored from the world, I’ve started to look at my drums a bit differently. I’ve found myself wanting to find some kind of…wisdom through the instrument. And that desire has amplified my passion.
Up until recently I’d been going down a path that many of us have been exploring, using various forms of muffling, close-miking, compression, and other tools in an effort to get a more intimate “bedroom” sound to build tracks around. There’s a certain appeal to that sound. But the thing that you lose, or at least diminish, is the drum’s natural sustain, it’s vibration. And I’ve come to believe that this is more than an aesthetic issue. I’ve got lots more reading to do on the subject, but it’s generally acknowledged that the universe is made up of objects that vibrate, and that to function properly alone and in concert with the rest of the objects in the world, those vibrations should be free to happen in their most natural way.
You don’t have to be a mystic or a scientist to consider these ideas. Have you ever put your ear right up to a lightly tapped, quality ride cymbal, or a well-tuned floor tom? It’s like a different world! And it’s hugely satisfying to do that sort of “deep listening.” While the drums are usually considered a “loud” instrument—and of course they are; it’s why many of us fell in love with them in the first place—in the right hands they can also be played as quietly as any other instrument. And even though technical wonders like this month’s cover star, Thomas Lang, rightly rank at the top of our obsession list, sparse, slow drumming can also be compelling. (And let’s be fair, Thomas and most other “shredders” are usually extremely capable of absolutely killing it in stripped-down scenarios too—their ceiling for complexity is just way higher than most of ours.)
Anyway, so I kind of started from scratch, and followed my insticts. I pulled all the tape and felt strips off, tuned my toms to their most resonant notes, and started playing. Slowly. And quietly. With subtle changes over long periods of time. Patiently. And it felt right, like my mind and my hands and my feet needed to go there. It’s not exactly meditation, but it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to it.
Of course, the day will surely come when I want to play loud and fast again. It might even be tomorrow. But whenever it is, until then…here’s looking at you, kid.