She’s the drummer at the center of the Peter Buck/Scott McCaughey/Steve Wynn axis, the super prolific group of musicians whose tentacles extend back to indie-rock legends R.E.M., the Dream Syndicate, and the Young Fresh Fellows, and forward with the Minus 5, Filthy Friends, and the Baseball Project. As such, her main dictate is to rock consistently, creatively, sometimes on a moment’s notice, and always like her life depends on it. Which is absolutely the case.
On the 1970 Velvet Underground album Loaded, Lou Reed sang about a mythical girl named Jenny, whose life, at the tender age of five, was saved by rock ’n’ roll. It’s a sentiment that many of us understood immediately upon hearing the song “Rock & Roll” for the first time. Rock isn’t just the music we most enjoy listening to or playing. It’s our belief system, our door to the mysteries of the universe, our reason to get back up when life is doing its best to knock us down, our method of communication.
If Linda Pitmon was raised in 1950s Long Island rather than 1970s Minneapolis, Reed’s song could have easily been written about her. Okay, maybe the line about Jenny’s overly materialistic parents would be off the mark; Linda seems to have a very loving and respectful relationship with her folks, who still keep one of her beloved vintage drumsets at the ready for her back home. But the part about being “saved” by the music, that’s not just metaphorical.
Growing up with her older siblings’ 45s, Pitmon—just about when she was our old pal Jenny’s age—began constructing little toy drumsets so that she could play along to her favorite songs. In high school, she was the only girl who played percussion in band and orchestra, getting good fast and hanging around the older boys who were ripping on drumsets in the practice room—but not yet playing the kit herself. Eventually she talked her mother into letting her take a couple of lessons from one of those classmates, which proved to be the only instruction she ever received on a kit. She quit band her senior year of high school (her waning interest the result of an uninspiring band director), but her love of rock music was by now baked in. Later in college, when she studied journalism and dived competitively, she also instinctively found kinship with the kind of people who spent more time reading album credits than the sports pages. “I had this modified mohawk,” Pitmon recalls. “I was the weirdo that was an athlete but also a punk.”
In her early twenties, Linda began to struggle with the symptoms of severe rheumatoid arthritis. Drumming, though painful, helped her through these tough times, and when new medications proved to be beneficial, she was able to slowly learn the craft of playing drumset in bands, eventually finding some success with the popular indie group Zuzu’s Petals.
A few years later Pitmon moved to New York to work with Steve Wynn, leader of the highly regarded psych-rock band the Dream Syndicate (and Linda’s future husband). Twenty years later, she and Steve remain part of an extended family of musicians, including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills and the Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey and Kurt Bloch, who join together in the Minus 5, Filthy Friends (featuring Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker), and/or the Baseball Project, a band that plays original compositions strictly about America’s favorite pastime.
We spoke to Pitmon soon after she returned home from a run of shows at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by invitation of Greg Harris, who also happens to be the former president of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Obviously Harris is just the kind of guy who would get the Baseball Project’s unique slant on things, though he’s by no means alone in his appreciation, as the band recently released its third well-received full-length album.
MD: Baseball players and traveling musicians would seem to have similar lifestyles: no matter how famous you are, you still have to deal with the everyday issues of travel, sleep….
Linda: Yeah, and in the end your responsibility is to make sure your fans walk away happy at the end of the night. You have to let everything else go, no matter how tired you are, what kind of crappy phone call you got from home…. Whatever it might be, you have to stay focused so that when you get there you can make it worth it for yourself. The payoff for me is to have a great time and feel like there’s a connection with the audience and to feel like we’re giving them a great night. Whatever the emotion is that you’re trying to convey—the catharsis of joy or sadness in a song— that’s the whole point for me: to be honest. So I’m not going to let anything get in the way of that.
MD: There’s a theory that all art is kind of an illusion, and that the audience shouldn’t see any of the nuts and bolts of it. Do you look at it that way?
Linda: It depends which band I’m in that we’re talking about. With some of the projects I’m involved in, I would say it’s actually about showing the process. For instance, Scott McCaughey is in a million bands, and I’m in half of them, so I can verify that he’s not afraid to really let the audience in on the process. He’s not always looking to present a polished rock show that has all the edges worn off, at least not at the expense of injecting spontaneity at any opportunity. Steve Wynn is similar, and I’ve played hundreds of shows in various projects with these two.
I don’t like to feel like I’m performing in a talent show when I’m up there, and none of the people I play with have that attitude about music. It’s all about creating a unique show every night and encouraging improvisation, not to see how perfectly we can spit out a honed set. Also, I’m on the east coast while most of my bandmates are on the west coast, so we don’t get to rehearse. We’re always playing off each other, and I sometimes change my parts pretty wildly, depending on the vibe we get going. One of us might drop out in the middle of a song for a few measures to shake things up, we might bring things down or up dynamically together. Our approach to rock music is much looser. I mean, trust me, we’re a well-oiled machine, especially if we’ve been out on the road for a while, but this isn’t a means to an end. It allows us to be really fearless with what we do, because everyone’s listening as hard as you are and will make moves with you.
MD: Sometimes the most fun part of a show is when something breaks down and the band handles it in a way where they’re letting the audience in on it.
Linda: Right. How many times have you been to a show where a cable gets disconnected or something? Part of the fun is to see how the rest of the band reacts—do they look terrified, or do they turn it into a plus? And that’s happened plenty of times in the studio, too, sometimes on your favorite records— you hear this thing and think, That’s genius, and later find out it was a mistake. I’ve had that happen many times to me in the studio and live and then thought, I actually really like that. I’m going to keep it. So you can look at things like mistakes or like part of the whole fabric that you’re unrolling. Mistakes are just an opportunity for something to happen.
MD: Do you ever go through periods where you want to change up your setup?
Linda: My setup hasn’t changed drastically over the last twenty years. When I first started playing in the mid ’80s, the typical set was a five-piece, and that’s what I played. Then my band Zuzu’s Petals was on tour in England, and we were opening some shows for the Fuzztones and using their gear. This was probably the first time I had to sit at somebody else’s setup. Their drummer had just a four-piece, with one rack tom, and it kind of threw me into a panic, because I did a lot of patterns utilizing both rack toms. But at the end of three shows I was like, Yeah, this is so much cooler, the Charlie Watts setup. At that time I was very into all sorts of ’60s music, especially mod, garage, and pop stuff . So it became sort of a statement, like, “I’m more ’60s.” And let’s face it—less to pack up at the end of the night. I’ve only recently started toying with the idea of adding more. We’ll see where that goes.
To me it’s more about how I play with what I have than about “how many things are there to hit.” I’ve played plenty of cardboard boxes and overturned garbage bins for radio or in-store appearances. Of course I prefer playing one of my own kits. But when you don’t get to do that, you have to find a way to love it. You better find some common interests—you know, love the one you’re with. [laughs] And like I said earlier, nothing gets in the way of me having a good time.
MD: The only thing that still freaks me out is hardware that doesn’t allow me to move stuff at least close to the way I want it.
Linda: Yeah, that can be super annoying. If I know I’m going to have situations like that, I have some go-to things and bring as many of them as I can, including this vintage Ludwig snare stand that’s super light and goes very low. My problem is I’m pretty small and sit pretty low as well, and my biggest issue is getting the snare way down there. So I throw this stand into my cymbal case. I’ll also bring an extra snare head and tom heads, just in case I show up and the house kit is so bad that no amount of duct tape and napkins is going to save the night.
MD: Do you ever use electronics?
Linda: I added some pads for the Arthur Buck tour that I did last September, and that was fun. Joseph [Arthur] and Peter [Buck] made a record with loops and stuff before I was asked to do the American tour. I really liked that flavor of the drum loops on the record and thought all the loops really suited the songs. I did play certain songs more elastic and rockier, but other ones I really liked the rigidness of it and basically just changed my approach to playing to be more robotic. My natural place to sit is a little more behind the beat and swing a little bit, so I was concentrating on staying on top of the beat and being more “motorik.” Joe and Peter decided our touring band needed to make the next record together, so we just recorded an album in March that Jacknife Lee just mixed and should be out soon. I hope to explore where I can add more pads for some different textures.
MD: How do you approach differentiating songs that are in the same groove world or at similar tempos?
Linda: That’s a really interesting question. I think about it all the time. My minimal setup allows me to do everything that I want to do with the many bands that I play in. I’ll always try to find ways to play around the beat if I can and be surprising without taking the players or the listener out of the game. It might be as simple as a kick drum pattern that develops within the verses. I try to trust my instincts and stay out of my head too much when we’ve only got four days to track a record. No time for second-guessing yourself! Songwriters talk about this a lot. They’ll say, “I don’t write the songs; I’m just the conduit.” I get that feeling, too, where I just have to open myself up and pull from the vibes around me—not to sound too hippy about it. [laughs]
At the same time, I’m always looking for a pattern that isn’t going to be typical, something that doesn’t necessarily draw attention to itself but that is taking an unexpected approach. I always feel like my greatest accomplishment is when I can put a deceptively complex part into a simple song and have you not even realize it. I’ve always been drawn to drummers who play like that—Jody Stephens from Big Star, Stan Lynch, Jim Keltner, Dave Mattacks—I listened to him so much with Fairport Convention and XTC. Ringo’s maybe the best example. And I’m always trying to stay out of ruts with fills, trying to keep a distinct flavor, where I don’t start or end in an ordinary place. I mean, if a song is begging for the stereotypical fill, there’s nothing more satisfying than doing it once in a while. There’s a lot to be said for giving the audience a piece of candy. But what I really love is to be amazed and just laugh, like, what the hell was that? I didn’t see that coming.
When I was young I thought, If I ever play drums, that’s what I’m going to do. And so when I finally did start playing, that was my approach. And maybe I wasn’t always super successful in my early attempts. [laughs] I can remember doing preproduction for a Zuzu’s Petals record, and we were doing it with Albhy Galuten, who’s a really famous producer. I was doing a song where I intentionally put the snare on 1 and 3 rather than 2 and 4, and he kept looking at me like, “No, it’s here,” and I was like, “Yeah, I know, but I don’t want to do that.” I capitulated, but I always wanted to do things my own way.
MD: I sort of half-kidded with you backstage after the Filthy Friends show that we should open the interview just with the words “rock ’n’ roll.” The band was just spectacular, and was rocking in such a primal but pro way. It got me thinking about how profound a thing this idea of “rocking” is.
Linda: It is profound. [pause] I’m actually going to get choked up, because this subject is so emotional to me.
It’s life or death. Our lives were literally saved by rock ’n’ roll. I hear it constantly from fans my age and older, whose reaction to our shows is so visceral. I think it’s objectively true that in our culture, music doesn’t hold the importance that it once held. It was revolutionary. People were moved by the messages and by the sounds. All of us worked in record shops…Steve and I were both DJs. Before I started playing in bands, I worked in all sorts of aspects of the music business. So I was a listener, a consumer of the sound and the feeling. We all grew up with it in our blood. It’s hard to describe this to someone younger.
MD: There seems to be less true weirdness in music today, even in areas like progressive rock. Compare a band like Gong to a typical neo-prog band today.
Linda: There are no flying teapots! [laughs]
Linda: Today, whatever music you listen to, nobody is a freak; you’re not an outcast for playing it. There is a niche and a business model attached to all of it. When we were growing up, most of the people who had bands…you were a freak, an outcast. A lot of us were pretty nerdy music head types. But even the ones who seemed like dum-dums weren’t…those Ramones were no dipshits, you know what I mean? The Stooges? Please!
MD: Getting back to the drumming…do you think to yourself, My priorities as a rock drummer are A, B, C…?
Linda: To move and groove the song, to support the story, and to find the right voice for the song. Sometimes it’s to be almost invisible in what I do and other times to make a spectacle of myself. Like any good party. My priorities are as a musician. Yeah, I’m a drummer, but I like to think I play melodically within the context of the limited kit that I have. And I’ve purposefully kept my tools limited, as do most of the people I play with. You don’t see gigantic pedal boards with most of them. We color with our ideas more than with the technology. I’m always trying to make the most impact with the fewest number of hits, the least amount of density, because I think it allows other things to be heard. But then at times I’ll throw restraint and taste out the window, because sometimes you just have to put the throttle down, which I have no problem doing.
MD: Choosing your spots.
Linda: Choosing your spots. And I don’t think volume is the answer to the challenge of “rocking.” My pet peeve is watching players who just pound. I mean, I hit hard, but you have to have feel. That’s my goal: to get a good sound out of the drum, whether you’re hitting it hard or soft. Cymbals as well. You have to know how to get a sound out of your instrument. That’s the difference between being a musician and not.
MD: Tell me about when you started playing in bands.
Linda: All my friends in college were in bands, playing out, some pretty successfully. Some had records out; I would help them glue the singles together. I was always the number-one fan—that person—but not playing. But eventually I started sneaking down to the basement while everyone was upstairs, maybe getting someone to play guitar with me. Eventually one of the band’s leaders came down and said, “Hey, that’s not bad. We should talk, because our drummer’s leaving.” Eventually I got asked to join his really cool punk-rock/ Mersey beat band called the Funseekers, who are on the Children of Nuggets compilation. The first shows I ever did were with them, but it didn’t last long and I was replaced.
After that I quit university and moved to London for a year in 1985 and worked at the Beggars Banquet record store in Kingston-upon-Thames. When I moved back to Minneapolis, I figured I’d go back to journalism school. I’d kind of sowed my wild oats, and now I was ready to buckle down. But around this time I got really sick, and it turned out I have rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease. I was completely incapacitated for a couple of years, because I have it in every joint in my body. I had to quit going to school, quit playing music. Obviously diving was out, though I’d already stopped just prior to that. But it gave me a lot of opportunity to think, Well, what is it you really want to do with your life? What are you even going to be able to do? It was a very confusing time. I made a decision at that point that if I could ever get back to doing physical things, I needed something to kind of replace diving, something that was more about performance, which diving really is. And I had this sneaking suspicion that playing drums could be that thing that gave me a spark and made me happy. So I bought a drumset. I was living with friends, and I had a friend who would basically carry me down to the basement to play.
MD: No kidding.
Linda: Yup. And then carry me back up. I had to wear big mittens because I couldn’t grip the sticks. I would really gently tap out beats, because I could barely move. It was almost meditative and healing in some way. As time went on, they got me on some medication that helped, and I started getting back until I was able to mess around a little more, and ended up joining a couple more bands.
Eventually I joined Zuzu’s Petals with two women who I’m still super good friends with. They were beginning musicians but amazing songwriters, just naturals, and we ended up touring around and putting out singles on our own. We were a part of a gang of bands in town that were friends and played shows together—Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, Run Westy Run, Nova Mob, Babes in Toyland. Twin Tone/Restless Records signed us and we put out two records with them. We toured a lot in the States and a little in England. I did that for five years, and then when we finally brokeup, I hung around for another six months, but then I was like, “I gotta shake it up. I’m twenty-nine. I don’t want to be living here when I’m thirty. It’s now or never.”
I’d started talking to Steve Wynn a little bit. He’d just moved to New York from L.A. Zuzu’s Petals had played a show with him about three years earlier at [the famous Hoboken club] Maxwell’s. I stayed in touch, and then he came through town and suggested I move to New York because he might need a drummer soon. He didn’t have to ask twice. “I might need” was enough for me. I was a huge fan of his, and I figured that even if I didn’t get that job, something else might happen in New York. So I moved in with my sister and ended up getting the job after an audition with him. My first show with him was in New York, the second was in L.A., and the third was in front of 8,000 people in Brussels. So I went from playing punk-rock clubs to making a big leap with Steve. We were on the road about five months out of the year.
Then I started branching off and doing work with other singer-songwriters in New York, great people like Freedy Johnston and Amy Rigby, both of whom I think are genius songwriters. The Baseball Project started in 2007, and from there I started doing a lot more with Scott and Peter.
MD: Are you still suffering with arthritis?
Linda: Yeah, I mean, it’s real obvious if you watch me try to get out of a van after I’ve been driving all day. [laughs] I’ve had surgeries, which have helped, but I have very limited mobility in my right elbow and my wrists, so my playing style is probably a little unorthodox. It’s funny, I’ve been told I look fluid when I play….
MD: I have to say, having seen you play a number of times, I’m shocked by what you’re saying.
Linda: Yeah, I think I use my shoulders more to compensate. I used to use big motions when I was younger. I used to love to watch Lori Barbero of Babes in Toyland—I liked her sense of drama. I still have a little of that in my style, but I’m definitely more controlled. But it’s amazing how the human body will adapt to limitations. Every drummer I know has some kind of physical thing they’re living with.
MD: I guess rock ’n’ roll can save your life, but it kind of beats the hell out of you as it’s doing it.
Linda: [laughs] That’s right! And as much fun as we have together—and we do have a great time in the van—but we’re not flying in a private plane, and we’re humping our own gear. And I’m pretty sure there’s a knee replacement on my horizon. I’m just figuring out when I can get that done so it doesn’t affect my touring schedule. But it’s not going to stop me. I might end up being the world’s first bionic drummer. The show’s gotta go on. And hey, it’s the most fun thing in my life. I’m not going to give it up.
Filthy Friends Emerald Valley /// The Baseball Project Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, Volume 2: High and Inside, 3rd /// Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 Sweetness and Light, My Midnight, Here Come the Miracles, Static Transmission, …Tick…Tick…Tick, Northern Aggression /// Golden Smog Another Fine Day /// The Fauntleroys Below the Pink Pony (with Alejandro Escovedo, Ivan Julian, and Nicholas Tremulis) /// Zuzu’s Petals When No One’s Looking, The Music of Your Life /// Luke Haines upcoming album featuring Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey /// Arthur Buck (Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck) upcoming album
Tools of the Trade
Pitmon plays one of several vintage kits that she keeps in various locations, including a 1961 red sparkle Slingerland, a 1976 red, white, and blue sparkle bicentennial-stripe Ludwig, circa- ’70s blue Ludwig Vistalites, and a mid-’60s Slingerland set that she recently had wrapped in green sparkle for the Filthy Friends Emerald Valley tour. Additional Ludwig snares include a ’70s-era Acrolite and a 1964 Supraphonic. Her cymbals of choice include 20″ or 24″ vintage Paiste 602s, an 18″ Zildjian Kerope, an 18″ A. Zildjian & CIE “Vintage” reissue, 15″ Paiste Giant Beat hi-hats (“I won’t gig without them”), and a 16″ model from the Cymbal & Gong company of Portland, Oregon. She also uses lightweight single-braced Yamaha or DW stands, a DW 9000 bass drum pedal, Vic Firth 8D wood-tip sticks, and Remo heads, including Ambassador Vintage and Emperor Vintage models.