Intention. Precision and power. Innovation. They’re qualities that Marco Buccelli has for several years been exhibiting in his beat making with Xenia Rubinos. The Brooklyn-based rock and soul singer and instrumentalist’s albums Magic Trix and Black Terry Cat feature fiery, tantalizingly nuanced rhythm tracks created by the drummer, who Rubinos has gone out of her way to credit with shaping her sound. “I love to find the balance between acoustic drums and electronics,” Buccelli says. “And I love to get to electronic sounds from sound manipulation. It can be using modular synths, or affecting the acoustic snare. Using those tools makes more sense than using prerecorded sounds on software, and it’s fun.”
Buccelli goes deep when it comes to creating his sounds, whether it’s the stacked Tibetan cymbals on Rubinos’ “Cherry Tree”; the metallic, snares-off tones on “When You Come”; the distorted snare and kick crunch on “Black Stars”; the three offbeat clave clicks on “Lonely Lover”; the one-handed brush part on “Laugh Clown” that mimics a scratchy vinyl record; or his approach on “Don’t Wanna Be,” where he’s triggering percussion and a keyboard sample of his creation while playing a dynamic drum part.
And evidence of Buccelli’s artistry extends beyond Rubinos’ discography. In 2011, under the name Hypercube, the drummer released the instrumental Le cose grandi e le cose piccole, featuring guitarist Federico Casagrande, and he has recently been working on a project with engineer/producer Benny Grotto at Mad Oak Studios in Boston. “I trigger samples using my MPC5000,” he explains. “There is no prerecorded sequence—what you hear is what I played live hitting the pads. I trigger my Eurorack modular synths with a pad and a contact mic placed on the kick. I also process the sound of the snare using a mic connected to my guitar pedal effect rig. With this piece I wanted to create an improvisation that was cohesive, had repetitions just like a song, and no resolution.”
Buccelli credits his mother with his interest in music while growing up in Naples, Italy. “My first memories of music are of her being in the kitchen and singing those beautiful old Italian songs,” he recalls. “I think that’s why I love the song form so much.” As a boy he also attended outdoor festivals, enthralled with the sounds in the air. “I remember being at one of these festivals and being extremely impressed by the drums, mainly by the kick drum. I felt it in my chest. It was then that I started playing drums.”
Marco’s parents bought him a practice pad, and he taught himself to play by listening to rock drummers like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, Stewart Copeland of the Police, Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier, and Fugazi’s Brendan Canty. At sixteen he was playing in a Zeppelin cover band. “I was listening to classic rock—Zeppelin, Deep Purple, that type of stuff—and then I started listening to Queen,” he recalls. “On those first Queen records you hear more of a hard rock or classic rock attitude—they sound a lot like Led Zeppelin. Then I started listening to grunge music. I was into Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and then I got into punk rock and became a big Fugazi fan. Then someone played Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America album and I was like, Wow, what have I just listened to? That blew me away. I was really excited, and I started to listen to jazz as well.”
Soon after, Buccelli found out that Walter Scotti, one of the best drum teachers in Italy, was living a block away from his family’s apartment. “He’d already retired and decided not to teach drums anymore,” says Buccelli. “He had a long career, playing timpani at the San Carlo theater in Naples with the symphonic orchestra, and then doing jazz gigs at night. We met, and I asked him to give me drum lessons. He said, ‘Okay, you’re going to be my last student.’ He taught me the rudiments, and he was really big on classical snare techniques. Because of him, that’s something that I absolutely love. People would study with Walter Scotti because he would apply those classical concepts and techniques, bringing them from the snare to the rest of the drumkit.”
That classical background still informs Buccelli’s drumset playing. “I rely on that—not only the techniques, but also Walter Scotti’s method,” he says. “I use it a lot, when I practice and when I play. My drum fills, everything that I do on the drums comes from a strong rudimental standpoint. I was talking with a drummer friend about practicing and warming up, and he was like, ‘Marco, what do you do?’ I’m like, ‘I make sure every day I do this page and that page from Stick Control.’ And he looks at me like, Stick Control? But I think it’s the ultimate book, and Scotti was extremely creative with it. He taught me so many different ways of practicing the same two or three pages. For example, the first three pages of Stick Control, I remember he was like, ‘Okay, practice them just like they are [written],’ and then it was, ‘Substitute the L with your kick drum.’ There were so many other combinations that I could practice for three hours just with that book.”
Buccelli toured around Italy with his own original band before deciding to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. “The foundation of my background is more in rock, post-rock, and punk rock,” Buccelli says. “But when I moved to the U.S., I went on a mission to learn jazz. I think that jazz music is probably the most interesting art form that the U.S. has created. I moved here from Italy and wanted to make sure I was taking advantage of it and learning it from the people who made the stuff.”
Tools of the Trade
Buccelli’s acoustic drums include a 6×14 Pork Pie Pig Lite acrylic snare, a 5×12 Ludwig remote snare, and a vintage Ludwig Standard 16×16 floor tom and 16×22 bass drum. His cymbals include a set of hi-hats made up of two 16″ Zildjian A Custom crashes; a Zildjian 22″ medium Constantinople ride; a stack made up of a Zildjian 18″ Breakbeat ride and a 17″ “chopped” Paiste Sound Formula thin crash; and a stack of two Tibetan cymbals.
Marco attaches “DIY” piezo pickups to his bass drum, an Evans SoundOff pad, and a mini spring clamp applied to his hi-hat and other cymbals. Those pickups are connected to Eurorack modular synthesizers: a Malekko Mute 4 unity mixer with mute switches; a Make Noise MATHS function generator module (“I primarily use it as an envelope generator when playing live with triggers”); a Doepfer A-135-1 QVCA/VCMIX mixer; a Tiptop Audio Z3000 oscillator; a Make Noise cue
system; a Mutable Instruments Ears envelope follower; a Pittsburgh Lifeforms System interface mixer; an ALM Pip Slope envelope generator; a Doepfer A-145 LFO; and a Keith McMillen QuNexus keyboard.
Buccelli’s snare is fitted with a Sennheiser E604 mic, sent through a DBX 166 compressor/limiter/gate and to the following pedals: an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Nano reverb; a BOSS DD-7 delay; an MXR bass D.I.+; a Hermida Audio spring reverb; an MXR Carbon Copy analog delay; a TC Electronic Thunderstorm flanger; and a Boss PSM-5 power supply and master switch.
After finishing school, Buccelli got an offer to do a tour with Geoff Farina and his band Glorytellers. The drummer jumped at the chance—Farina’s band Karate had been one of Buccelli’s favorite groups while growing up. “I asked questions about Karate that I’d always wanted to ask: ‘How did you guys do such and such a song? Where did you record it?’ We were talking once, and he said something like, ‘You know, when I was your age, all I wanted to do was be in a band and make my own music.’ I couldn’t stop thinking about that. I realized that I don’t really care much about being a session player, about playing on three million records or with seven thousand different artists. The thing I like to do most in music is to be creatively involved in a project from the beginning and try to develop it.
“That’s how the production aspect became more and more clear in my mind,” Buccelli continues. “I was thinking about starting a band or being a collaborator for projects, and that’s what happened with Xenia. I produced her first and second records, and then essentially became her musical director. Xenia and I found the right formula. She is an artist with a very strong personality, so it took us a second to tune. Four years ago we were able to see the thing in a more focused way, and we started collaborating the way we have been.”
Buccelli has come to understand Rubinos’ sometimes deceptive songwriting style. “Xenia’s incredible,” he enthuses. “She naturally plays something, and I’m not sure what time signature we’re in. Oftentimes it’s actually in four, it’s just that she’s putting an accent where you wouldn’t expect one to be. She very naturally comes up with interesting patterns. They always sound hard, but if you listen, Xenia is very organic. If you listen to the melody, everything will all of a sudden make sense. Every time I have a problem, I listen to the melody, and I’m like, Okay.”
The drummer, who in addition to Rubinos and his own work has also produced albums by Neopolitan multi-instrumentalist Giovanni Truppi (Giovanni Truppi, Il mondo e come te lo metti in testa) and American singer-songwriter Lady Lamb (After), says he’s influenced by all kinds of musicians. “Very often I start being obsessed with a piano player or trumpeter or producer, more than drummers,” he says. “That happened with J Dilla. What he did with samples is incredible. I definitely got into his idea of collage, which is very well represented on his album Donuts. That gave me inspiration for working effects on the drums.
“I’ve been effecting my snare with guitar pedals for a while now,” Buccelli says. “I’ve also been using modular synths to create kick drum sounds. I trigger the modular synths with a trigger on a kick drum, or a pad that’s connected to the synth. That idea was prompted by Donuts—this idea of layers and having sounds that you would not expect, in places that you would not expect them to happen. That’s why I started developing the effects part, effecting my drumset to create another layer I could play with and superimpose over the music I’m playing.”
Buccelli makes the mashed-up grooves all happen in the live performance with Rubinos. “I approach the application of effects to the drums with a very live mindset,” he explains. “I know all these things can be done in post-production, but I like to think of them as a part of my drumming. It puts you in a different mindset and gives you different limitations having to do that stuff live. It triggers ideas and helps you develop techniques because of those limitations that you would not have developed otherwise.
“I play with two snares,” Buccelli goes on. “I’ll figure out a particular reverb, delay, distortion, or EQ, and I’m able to play around with the chain. It’s triggered only when I want it and how I want it, just like a guitar player. I have a master switch between my hi-hat and main snare to turn the effects on and off with my left foot. That allows me to chain effects in very creative ways. I’m constantly reworking it.
“Essentially, I affect the snare using analog guitar pedals, and create a synthetic kick drum using piezo pickups or pads and modular rack synthesizers,” Buccelli explains. “I also do work with samples. Near the hi-hat I have an Akai MPC5000, and I like to trigger samples using my fingers. I don’t use sticks on the pads; I’d rather find a way to put one stick [down] so that I can play the little pads on the MPC with my hand.”
Rubinos’ debut album, 2013’s Magic Trix, was recorded at Buccelli’s home studio with engineer Jeremy Loucas. The team went for big, raw drum sounds. “We wanted a drum sound that had a lot of room,” Marco says. “My basement has nice gear and a great vibe, but it’s not a great-sounding room. So Jeremy and I were trying to figure out how to make that drum sound roomy without using plugins. So he came up with this idea. We were looking around, and I had another kick drum. And he was like, ‘What if we place that kick drum in the middle of the room and mike it? What would you hear? Let’s try it.’ So I got the kick drum, tuned the heads really high, and placed it in the middle of the room, about four or five feet from the kit that I was playing. We put one mic inside the kick drum and one right outside it, and that did the trick. All of a sudden it sounded like I was playing in a big room. That’s how those drums in Magic Trix sound reverby and roomy, and kind of rough. It’s a particular reverberation that’s kind of weird, so we went for it, and we enhanced it by distorting it a little with compression and with saturating the channels of the board. That’s how you get that dirty, punchy drum sound.”
Black Terry Cat, Rubinos’ 2016 sophomore album, was also recorded at Buccelli’s home studio, but sound-wise they went in the opposite direction. “I built acoustic panels and put them all around the drumkit to dampen the reflection as much as I could, and I muffled all of the drums,” he recalls. “I muffled my snare a lot. At some point I even put a carpenter’s clamp on it, so that the head would be completely muffled. Not only is the head muffled, but by applying pressure I can also get a different pitch out of the snare.
“Then we wanted to experiment by adding reverbs and gated reverbs to the snare and kick, so again, the opposite of what we did with Magic Trix. We tracked the drums super dry, being extremely picky about the way we would place the mics. Once it took nine hours to get the right sound for a snare. Xenia wanted to kill me—she couldn’t believe that after nine hours we were still placing mics on the snare. But Jeremy and I come from the philosophy that the first step in a recording is placing the mic. When you start EQing stuff too much, it means that the mic wasn’t placed correctly.
“The post-production was done in Sear Sound here in New York,” Buccelli adds. “We did plate reverbs and tape echo, and sometimes I ran the snares through my effects. In Black Terry Cat we were going more for a hip-hop type of sound. We wanted the kick and snare to sound super punchy and dry, so that we could treat the snare with reverb later.
“The tracking, mixing, and pre-production of Black Terry Cat was about trying to find a balance between elegance and roughness,” Buccelli continues. “We wanted to retain certain rough elements that would connect the music to the previous record, but on top of that we wanted to use some high-end and super elegant things, [like] an Oberheim OB-X synth. We used gear that gives the sound a taste that is the opposite of roughness, but we like to mix the two things and find the sweet spot in between.”
Following a performance with Rubinos at New York’s Museum of Modern Art this past August, Buccelli told Modern Drummer that he was looking forward to beginning work on her next record, anticipated for an early 2019 release. “As far as the drums go, I predict experimenting more with the blend of acoustic and electronic, as well as walking the line between live recorded drums and samples, either of prerecorded takes of mine or of other records. I’ll keep incorporating different types of technology in my setup, moving from analog devices such as Eurorack and effects pedals to digital ones like computers and samplers. The quest remains the same: to forge a unique and innovative sound
Queen “Dragon Attack,” “Now I’m Here,” “Brighton Rock,” “You’re My Best Friend,” “Innuendo” (Roger Taylor) /// Lucio Dalla “Anna e Marco” (Giovanni Pezzoli) /// Led Zeppelin “Black Dog” (John Bonham) /// the Police “Demolition Man,” “Walking on the Moon” (Stewart Copeland) /// Pearl Jam “Porch” (Dave Krusen), “Present Tense” (Jack Irons) /// Fugazi “Smallpox Champion” (Brendan Canty) /// Bad Brains “You’re a Migraine” (Earl Hudson) /// Ornette Coleman Skies of America (no drumset) /// J Dilla “The New Stop” (J Dilla: programming) /// Max Roach “The Drum Also Waltzes” (Max Roach) /// Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique (Mike D, samples) /// Busta Rhymes “Gimme Some More” (DJ Scratch: programming) /// Autechre Untitled (Rob Brown and Sean Booth: programming) /// Battles “Tonto” (John Stanier) /// Deerhoof “The Perfect Me” (Greg Saunier) /// Brian Eno “St. Elmo’s Fire” (Eno: “synthetic percussion”) /// Portishead “Silence” (Geoff Barrow, Clive Deamer, samples) /// Tom Waits Mule Variations (Andrew Borger, Brain Mantia, Christopher Marvin, Stephen Hodges, Tom Waits, Jeff Sloan) ///Burial “Archangel” (William Emmanuel Bevan: programming) /// plus various recordings featuring La Monte Young, David Tronzo, Tony Allen, and Elvin Jones