LADY GAGA’S LEAN, MEAN DISPLACEMENT MACHINE
Story by Ken Micallef
Photos by Alex Solca
His infamous “off time” approach has been the source of many a drummer’s woodshed frustrations. An eye-opening DVD now offers insight. But, as with so many players who live on the front lines of innovation, true understanding becomes clear only when you trace the origins of his art.
Every so often a drummer arrives who changes our conception of what we knew and what we know. Though he’s been a fixture on the scene for over ten years, with such artists as Kanye West, P. Diddy, Jill Scott, and currently Lady Gaga, not until recently has thirty-two-year-old George “Spanky” McCurdy detailed his methodology to the drumming masses, with his highly anticipated Hudson DVD, Off Time/On Time.
McCurdy groomed his groove playing in his father’s Philadelphia church, and then when barely twenty he graduated to the big leagues with gospel star Tye Tribbett. Inspired by his close friends Lil’ John Roberts and Brian Frasier-Moore, the upstart was soon knocking down doors, touring and recording with everyone from Queen Latifah, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, and Q-Tip to Bubba Sparxxx, Nas, and Brandy. Since 2002 his powerful groove, silky touch, and perfect meter have landed him session work on dozens of albums—and the steam continues to rise off Spanky’s Tama kit.
Far from a faceless meter machine or a flailing, chops-spewing speed demon, McCurdy is a thoughtful, inventive musician. Well versed in the basics after years of rudimental and orchestral study, the drummer found his own wrinkle to explore. Basing his “off time” concept to some degree on such programmers as J Dilla, who have forever changed the way we hear and perceive rhythm, McCurdy expresses beat displacement as something raw, joyful, and occasionally as mystifying as space aliens and the origin of the species.
Off Time/On Time features Spanky performing his new groove style to sequenced tracks that range from Elektric Band fusion to space-age funk and R&B. He starts off simply enough, focusing on beat 1 of each bar, then quickly flies into off-time hyperspace, performing razor-clean rolls, nearly freakish independence, and across-the-barline 8th-, 16th-, and 32nd-note triplets, deftly moving accents between each note of the phrase, all while grooving hard. Spanky speaks to off-time playing with the conviction of a minister (he is in fact a church deacon), while also treating viewers to his subversion of classic rudiments, including his “partial diddle.” Playing what’s basically a one-sided paradiddle, he maneuvers the sticking with such speed and grace that the line between single stroke and double stroke is quickly blurred.
Excellent transcriptions help explain the method to Spanky’s madness, but a hundred questions remain. Catching up with the busy drummer during a recent Lady Gaga tour, MD seeks to pin down the man whose upcoming CD, Spank Sinatra, may do for displacement what the legendary jazz vocalist did for standards, cabaret songs, and highballs.
MD: When were you hired for the Lady Gaga chair?
Spanky: I was hired in 2009, right after my father passed away. We buried him in October, then the auditions happened a month later. My mindset was to get back to work after having to leave a tour with Maxwell. I got through the Gaga auditions and got a call to play. She went crazy happy during my audition, and the next thing I know I’m on the road and never coming home! I had never been involved with a major pop artist. Everything changes. But it’s really like a home atmosphere, like a squad, like a band. It’s been four years already.
MD: Was working with a pop act like Lady Gaga a hard shift from playing with an R&B artist like Maxwell?
Spanky: I’d worked with Backstreet Boys, Queen Latifah, and other pop gigs, so I really was ready for anything.
MD: What was the audition process?
Spanky: There were hundreds of drummers. They lined us up. You had to freestyle a little bit, then play to her song “Paparazzi.” I played a little of a song I used to play with N.E.R.D., “Everyone Nose.” It’s a nice groove. I didn’t know what else to do, but they noticed the song. That groove was cool, then I went into “Paparazzi.” I was nervous because I’m not an auditioning drummer. It’s not the most comfortable situation. I don’t know how people do American Idol or America’s Got Talent. I wasn’t nervous when it came to the other drummers, but just the whole thing. It was fun, though.
MD: Did Lady Gaga participate?
Spanky: Lady Gaga came in later, during the final cuts. She had her eyes closed while I was playing, listening. I did something at the end and she said, “I really like that!” I told her my name and she said, “I know who you are.” It was like a scene in a movie. It was pretty dope.
MD: Who influenced your off-time style of playing?
Spanky: I would always practice and get these ideas for off-time stuff, things I never heard anybody else do. There wasn’t a particular source for inspiration. I would always joke around with it, and my friends would laugh. “You’re crazy! Go back to the 1!” Then with Tye Tribbett and the band, they understood everything, and once I incorporated it into my playing, it was amazing. This is not a joke—this is serious, I thought. The only drummer I knew then who did it was Deantoni Parks from KUDU. He’s great. And of course, Chris Dave is abstract. The first time I heard him I was blown away. The things he did…I understood everything. Before that I felt like an alien—then I heard Chris and I thought, There’s more of us? I just had these weird ideas with all this crazy off-time, abstract stuff. I was happy to see Chris Dave, a supreme legend, really going that route.
MD: Had you heard Dave Weckl’s style of displacement?
Spanky: Oh, yeah. He’s super-clean. You take a little from each drummer. That’s what your ears do. Dave Weckl is super-finesse, and I love how he plays his cymbals.
MD: There are many concepts in your DVD. On the song “Silk,” for example, you play snare drags, snare drum and hi-hat combinations, and broken 8th- and 16th-note triplets around the kit, often over the barline. What advice can you give to generally understand your off-time approach and not be overwhelmed by the complexity of the concept?
Spanky: Don’t take what I am doing verbatim. In my DVD I’m showing different avenues—or bridges, I call them. I might do something little, like the echo system. It’s something you can do, but it’s not exactly what I do. You can place it anywhere. Most of the things I’m showing, I want drummers to be able to do them anywhere, to have different avenues to create more exciting things. So it’s not verbatim playing; it’s taking little bits of what I do. Like when you see a gymnast running to do a somersault but he has to hit the springboard first, I’m offering springboards—little grooves and exercises that can add to what you already do. But if drummers want to learn everything verbatim, it might be a lot.
MD: How do you play broken 8th- and 16th-note triplets over the barline so freely?
Spanky: It’s about getting comfortable. I remember I would slow down certain rolls to get comfortable playing them and to get them tight. Then you can play them faster and faster. Eventually you have so much control that you will be able to execute them better. I always slowed everything down, then sped it up.
I’m always focused on where my snare hits land; I make sure they’re hitting in the middle. Often with rolls you might catch a little bit of the rim or your hits may not be directly in the middle of the drum. That can make drumrolls sound kind of iffy. If I’m taking a tour around the kit and I hit the rim just a little bit, I think, Oh, no!
So the comfort starts with doing everything slow and making sure your drums are set up correctly. A lot of drummers play the toms flat, for instance. It’s hard to roll around the kit if your toms are flat; it’s about making little adjustments and making it easier to execute certain stickings.
MD: Your playing is very clean. Everything is pronounced. How do you get that clarity on the kit? You get a great sound on the drums.
Spanky: I think it comes from practicing. Sit down and get to know yourself musically. Focus on all your disadvantages first. Don’t practice only what you do well. Work on what you need to perfect, whether it’s timing or playing to a metronome. Practice playing time—practice makes perfect.
MD: What were your disadvantages? What were you not good at?
Spanky: I remember playing basketball; I couldn’t dribble with my left hand. So I started playing grooves that stressed my left hand, to see how much I could keep it up. Of course it was hard. But eventually my left hand got stronger, and that definitely increased my playing. And one night I broke my right big toe, and I couldn’t hit the bass drum at all. So I had to turn the kit around and play bass drum with my left foot. That helped me.
MD: Now your left hand is so strong you sometimes seem ambidextrous.
Spanky: That’s one of the goals. Even writing your signature with your left hand will strengthen it. It all helps.
MD: Also, while keeping a groove, you often come far off the snare head with your sticks. Why do that?
Spanky: Maybe it’s just what I’m feeling at the time. I like to move—maybe it’s stage presence. I don’t want to chill all the time; I want to be more drastic sometimes.
MD: Did you practice the rudiments growing up?
Spanky: Yes, I practiced out of the Podemski book [Standard Snare Drum Method]. It’s mostly rudiments. Paradiddles were my favorite. I worked out of Podemski when I was nine years old. All the RRLL sticking was crazy. To a lot of drummers, it might seem easy. But I have a new mindset now and I want to revisit it.
MD: Throughout the DVD you’re very adept at playing odd-meter phrases and accenting within them. You also accent the second and fourth notes of 16th-note patterns on practically any source in the kit. How did you master that?
Spanky: First, you have to pay attention to the foundation of the music and what’s coming next—that will determine what you do. And you have to know where the 1 is before you can play off it. It’s not about going crazy and coming back when you want. It’s cool to play over the barline, depending on what else is happening musically. But if we’re going into a bridge and that requires a fill, you know not to do anything crazy. Don’t go over the barline a bar before the bridge—you have to do a fill there. It’s little stuff, but it all matters. It’s a placement thing.
MD: How would you begin playing odd phrases?
Spanky: I would definitely recommend playing with a track. At first I would play some things and people would think it was off, or wrong. Sometimes I will play four bars of straight time and then four bars of my off-time groove. When you switch back and forth, people can hear it more clearly.
MD: Did off-time playing come naturally to you? At one point in the DVD you discuss accenting a pattern and then moving the accent around within the pattern. Did you learn that slowly?
Spanky: I don’t want to say it came naturally. But when I thought about the snare pattern, for instance, I realized all I had to do was move my hands somewhere else on my drumset. The left hand can now go to the bell of my first crash, and my right hand can go to the floor tom. It’s just logic, thinking of new things to do. The same roll can be applied differently—I can switch up, spread it out over my first tom and my hi-hat, versus the snare drum and floor tom. You tell your mind to do it, then you execute it. It’s orchestrating.
Take a roll you’ve been doing for years between your snare and floor tom. Now do the same roll between the hi-hat and the first tom. It might be an adjustment, but before you know it you’ll be doing other fills in other spots. It will seem like new chops and fills, but really you’re just orchestrating differently, taking different avenues.
MD: When you’re playing long strings of 16th or even 32nd notes, do you hear them rhythmically or melodically?
Spanky: It depends on the music and what I’m playing behind it, but if I’m going fast it’s definitely a rhythmic idea.
MD: Where do you get to play off-time phrases? Backstage jams with Gaga’s band? Somewhere after hours in Philly?
Spanky: There are certain parts in the show where I can pick my spots, but I don’t take it out of the element of the song. I try to stay within the element, especially with Gaga, even though we have a lot of freedom. I don’t bust out with off-time stuff all the time. But we do jam all the time and do band shows. Generally I pick my spots to play off-time.
MD: Where do you initially place the bass drum when developing off-time phrases?
Spanky: You can start with the 1. Or the 2, the 3, or the 4.
MD: Is the sequenced keyboard pattern in the DVD’s “Switcheroo Take One” 8th notes or 16th notes? Later in the track you play a long snare roll. Does that consist of the partial diddle?
Spanky: It’s 8th notes. And yes, that’s the partial diddle. The partial diddle is a paradiddle, but only using the right-side sticking [RLRRL, RLRRL, RLRRL…]. You start the paradiddle, then start it over again. Then you can extend it into a roll and move accents around within the diddle once you’re comfortable.
MD: You barely play 2 and 4 in the section “Switcheroo Take Two.” There are full-set broken triplets, “3-&” snare accents, and unusual hesitations.
Spanky: The hesitations come from me doing something and then feeling a break or a pause coming. It’s weird, but it’s not weird. I take a small break. I call those “stutters.”
MD: I assume you’re feeling and not counting the beats in your grooves, but is the 1 always in mind?
Spanky: Always, especially from doing all these gigs where the click track is running all the time. Even when there is no click, I always hear the click in my head! Sometimes Jill Scott will say “Slow down” or “Pick it up,” and I have to say “No, it’s perfect,” in the nicest way ever. Because the click is always inside my head.
MD: What do you use as a click with Lady Gaga?
Spanky: I like a semi-high-pitched cowbell. It’s not like a Will Ferrell Saturday Night Live cowbell; it’s more subtle. But I can hear that over the track. I don’t like it loud. I want it to be like it’s a percussionist playing with you. And it never gets in the way. It runs in my in-ears. I worked on my click sound yesterday, new sounds. Our programmer puts in the slate, the count-offs. The entire show is mapped out. I am a hundred percent comfortable with that. Everything is programmed, but it’s still so organic. We have so many different interludes live. And we play live. It’s not like a regular pop show; we do stretch a whole lot. So having that foundation is good.
MD: Is there a particular spot when you get to stretch?
Spanky: Guys get to stretch in every song. Then just Lady Gaga herself, her dancing, the presentation, the dancers, the costumes. Then the band, the sound, the mix. I really like our whole presentation—it’s incredible.
MD: In “Switcheroo Take Four” you play a long string of 32nd notes. Can you break down the sticking?
Spanky: It’s really like a groove to me. It sounds like a roll, but I try to present it casually to make it sound like a groove. Usually I wouldn’t do a super-long roll. But I think that’s a bit of the partial diddle with different dynamics in certain spots.
MD: How do you get comfortable playing the partial diddle and then accenting within it as a phrase?
Spanky: For those who know the rudiments, you already know how to do it. It’s just placing it in your drumset playing versus playing [it only on the snare]. Having taken snare drum lessons for years, I already knew the partial diddle.
I think everything about the drums can be utilized. I’m looking for a xylophone now; that’s what I was taught at Settlement Music School when I was a teenager. I was just getting started on xylophone double-mallet playing. I eventually want to utilize everything I’ve learned: rudiments, cymbal techniques, timpani, everything. I played in the orchestra for years. On Kanye West’s gig I played V-Drums, a big percussion rig, two timpani, standard drumset—it was crazy. But it wasn’t crazy, because I understood everything.
MD: How long did you study?
Spanky: I studied privately for six years from age twelve at Esther Boyer College of Music in Temple University in Philadelphia, where my dad worked in the chemistry department. He was the head of the department, anything and everything to do with chemicals and equipment. I studied with Mr. Willis, the orchestra instructor of Temple’s Esther Boyer Youth Orchestra. I had a different teacher for snare drum, which I studied along with percussion. I played percussion, all types of trinkets and slapsticks and percussion instruments, everything. I hated it! “Can’t I just chill and play Nintendo?” But I had to go.
MD: Your parents knew you had talent.
Spanky: Yeah, especially my dad. It didn’t really occur to me until some years ago just how influential my parents have been, especially my dad. Growing up in the church, it wasn’t as easy to just venture off and play drums. You get ridiculed for playing with certain people, and certain religious people have their opinions; sometimes it was a lot to deal with. But my parents really supported me. That is the only reason why I am where I am. If I had listened, I would have quit this gig or that gig and I would have conformed to playing gospel music.
MD: And you played in the orchestra throughout high school?
Spanky: I stopped in ninth grade, then in eleventh grade I made it to the All-City Jazz Ensemble. In high school I was playing band, but it wasn’t that serious. Then my band teacher urged me to go to All-City. I saw my friends there, and I was reading more charts, getting back into it. I was swinging too. I did that for two years, in ’98 and ’99.
MD: And you played drums in church?
Spanky: I still play in church, the Open Door Mission church in Philadelphia. I started when I was eight or nine. I began with the youth choir, and then I played every Sunday. Then my dad left and started his own ministry, Greater Love Temple of Faith, and I played drums there. Now my sister has taken over since my dad passed.
MD: Your drumset heroes were Brian Frasier-Moore and Lil’ John Roberts, right? Which albums did you listen to for drumset technique?
Spanky: Oh, man, I love the records by a local Philadelphia choir, Tony Moore and Jehovah’s Chosen. Just to give you a little history, Tony Moore came to my church when I was thirteen. His choir had the baddest musicians, like James Poyser on keyboards and Andre Harris on drums, who played on Usher’s “Caught Up” and Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies.” And Lil’ John and Brian, who were playing double drums sometimes. Back then, they only played in the choir.
MD: Was it more about seeing those drummers perform live than about hearing them record?
Spanky: Both. I was a sponge. Love Lifted Me by Jehovah’s Chosen—Lil’ John Roberts destroys on that album. Steve Middleton with Brian Frasier-Moore on Praises From the Soul. Those guys would come home and do sessions, and seeing them accomplish what I wanted to do was so encouraging. To now be in that position, it’s amazing. Also, Meshell Ndegeocello’s Comfort Woman and The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel, with Chris Dave. He’s like a modern-day Tony Williams. Not only is he a drummer I look up to and am totally inspired by, but we’re friends. We’re homies; we can sit down and chill. I let people know Chris Dave is a supreme legend, like Lil’ John and Brian, or Questlove.
MD: Have programmers like J Dilla been a big influence on your drumming?
Spanky: Yes, sir. I remember Tony Moore from Jehovah’s Chosen brought me into the studio once and made me play to a Slum Village CD, with J Dilla, from top to bottom. It was like boot camp. I’m recording my album at Tony Moore’s studio. It’s almost done.
MD: What’s the title?
Spanky: It’s called Spank Sinatra. I might sing a little on it, but I’m not a concert vocalist. I have a couple star vocalists, including Jill Scott and Q-Tip. It’s very atmospheric, and the singers bring the songs to life. I want it to be songs, not jamming. It’s somewhat like the songs on the DVD; we do “Silk” on the album with vocals.
MD: How did J Dilla influence you?
Spanky: I had never heard so much feel in a programmed track before J Dilla. It felt better than a drummer playing it. He’s just the nucleus of hip-hop for me—the beats, the dynamics. He’d program multiple kick drums, multiple snare drums, little stuff like that. My teachers wanted to show me the dynamics, how he would just tap a hi-hat a little bit on top. I improved dynamically just from hearing Dilla’s beats and trying to mimic them. He’s hall of fame.
MD: Are you a fan of the Gospel Chops videos?
Spanky: Not so much. We shared that stuff, but our thing was about the vibe while you’re jamming. I’m not into a showcase, going from drummer to drummer. I like to communicate while I play. I like to look at you while I’m playing, and I might piggyback off what you’re doing. That’s how we play. Gospel Chops is cool, but I notice that the drummers don’t get much out of it. It’s a free-for-all. I don’t like to do that, though I can.
MD: What is a day in the life of Lady Gaga’s band? How does it differ from other tours?
Spanky: I’m in a band with some awesome players. There’s no load to pull. Everyone carries their weight. They all do their job. It’s so easy playing with professionals and the best of the best. It’s really a career. I wake up, exercise, make sure I eat right and that my body is conditioned. You can’t be out of shape on tour. I do over 250 push-ups, sets of twenty-five over a couple hours. Then I eat breakfast. I listen to music all day. I love to shop; I have a clothing line coming out, called StarstruK. I love to go to the barbershop; I want to look fresh and nice. I’m single, man! The possibilities—I’m there! That is definitely another side of touring that nobody talks about: the girls. Pray my strength. It’s been crazy. It’s a journey, drumming, touring; it’s mind-blowing. I am so grateful.
MD: When does the band rehearse?
Spanky: We don’t rehearse all day long. We focus on what we have to do and get it done. If we say, “We’re going to do four bars in a bridge, not eight, and we’re only going to do one verse,” that’s it. It’s locked in; we have it. We play the song and it’s all cool. Lady Gaga comes for the rehearsals. She sits down and builds the music with us. She takes time, and she plays as well. When she says she’s going to do something, she does it.
MD: Do you make your own charts?
Spanky: No. I memorize everything.
MD: What do you practice on the road?
Spanky: When I practice I just groove. I like to groove a lot, but not regular grooves. I’m so random. Yesterday I sat at the kit and worked on my rimshot sound, just perfecting it. I really want a cracking rimshot sound. I was flipping the stick from butt end to tip, playing snare head to rimshot. Lil’ John showed me that when I was a kid, so I was working on that. Flip the stick to the side, bring it back, rimshot. Flip the stick to the side, bring it back, snare head, all within a song.
MD: Why do you think so many musicians want to hire you?
Spanky: First of all, it’s a blessing. It’s amazing. I think it’s because I’m comfortable with myself. And my focus is always to push the artist higher, every single night. You will never get a night from me where I’m complaining, “Oh, I don’t feel like playing.” I’m always aware of what the fans need and what the artist is trying to do and what our job is as a band. That’s what I’m focused on. If I’m coming in, it’s time to go higher, time to upgrade, time to go forth. And I always want to push myself and be the heartbeat of every band I work with. I’m honored. Being a musician is like being a missionary, minus the altar call and the laying on of hands.
Justin Timberlake Justified /// Bubba Sparxxx Deliverance /// Tye Tribbett & G.A. Stand Out, Life, Victory Live /// Men of Standard Surrounded //// Jill Scott Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2, The Real Thing: Words and Sounds Vol. 3 /// Vikter Duplaix Bold and Beautiful /// various artists The Very Best of Praise and Worship
Vol. 2 /// Musiq Soulchild Luvanmusiq /// various artists Songs 4 Worship: Friend of God /// Lady Gaga Born This Way: The Collection /// George “Spanky” McCurdy
Off Time/On Time (DVD)
Tony Moore & Jehovah’s Chosen Love Lifted Me (Lil’ John Roberts) /// Steve Middleton Praises From the Soul (Brian Frasier-Moore) /// Meshell Ndegeocello Comfort Woman (Chris Dave), The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel (Chris Dave, Jack DeJohnette, Gene Lake) /// The Roots The Tipping Point (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson) /// Slum Village Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 (J Dilla, programming)
SPANKY’S LADY GAGA SETUP
Spanky’s rig feature a Tama Starclassic Performer Bubinga/Birch series drumset in custom molten blue/purple burst finish, including a 6.5×14 matching snare; 5×10, 6×10, and 6×12 rack toms; 12×15 and 12×16 floor toms; and an 18×20 bass drum. His Sabian cymbals include 13″ HHX Evolution hi-hats, a 19″ HHX X-Treme crash, a 20″ AAX Metal ride, an 18″ O-Zone crash stacked on top of a 17″ AAX X-Plosion Fast crash, and a 16″ AAX X-Plosion crash. His Evans heads include PC Reverse Dot snare batters, Onyx tom batters, and an EMAD bass drum batter. He uses an LP Ridge Rider Classic cowbell, a Roland Octapad and SPD-SX, and Agner/Swiss Percussion George “Spanky” McCurdy Go 4 Blood Signature sticks. Spanky’s drum tech is Raegan Wexler.