Photo by Jack Geebelen

He works without the aid of repeatable systems or even written notation. Yet the veteran art-rock drummer still manages to lead his  distinctive ensemble through unique and demanding musical terrain.

 

One day, when the alternate, secret history of jazz-rock and fusion is written, Daniel Denis and Univers Zero will receive high marks for their inventive material, unique arrangements, and bold musicianship. Fusion but not fusion, Univers Zero continues to draw on a wealth of diverse influences not typically heard in popular music, much less in the shrinking genre known as fusion (or in this case, art rock). A prolific Belgian group with nine albums to its credit, UZ plays music redolent of such iconic ’70s acts as Soft Machine and Tony Williams Lifetime as well as the classical composers Stravinsky and Bartók.

“Univers Zero’s music forced me to develop my own language, with unconventional drum patterns,” says drummer, composer, and bandleader Daniel Denis via email. “I got ideas from listening to contemporary music and composers such as Penderecki, Varèse, and Charles Ives. My drumming evolved over a long period of time. The atmosphere of the late 1960s, when anything seemed possible, was crucial for my awareness that drums could have a very important role in music. You only have to listen to the drummers of that era to realize what a creative time it was.”

Often taking an orchestral approach to drumset performance, Denis never plays the expected, never bothers with anything bordering on the common. Often overdubbing his parts to prerecorded accompaniment consisting of oboe, bassoon, and other acoustic instruments, Denis also writes all of Univers Zero’s music, though he doesn’t read or write standard notation. Indeed, he is that rare musician who has literally created his own genre, his own sound, in both his music and his drumming.

Denis, who’s also worked with the prog stalwarts Magma and Art Zoyd, founded Univers Zero in 1974. From the beginning the band was on to something fresh and novel— avant pop meets progressive rock—with jazz- and classical-inspired technique. Most of UZ’s albums have been reissued by Cuneiform, including the group’s 1977 debut, 1313.

Joining an original lineup of violin, harmonium, guitar, bassoon, and bass, Denis brought his orchestral drumming approach to bear, which can be heard in high relief on 1313’s opening track, “Ronde,” which, with its pensive pizzicato violins and obtuse bassoon figures, recalls an alternate version of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” To the acoustic intro Denis adds dancing snare drum rolls, which flagellate and collapse inward, followed by a pointed bell-driven beat. The other instruments chirp and chat like caterwauling birds, the drummer adding contrast with agitated hi-hat and snare punctuations, weird pummeling tom accents, and Bill Bruford-ish snare slaps. At times Denis sounds like three drummers at once, hitting temple blocks, oddly tuned unidentified percussion, and orchestral hand cymbals.

Experimental yet grounded in tradition, inventive but consistently listenable and accessible, Daniel Denis and Univers Zero defy easy categorization and provide supreme inspiration in this era of cookie-cutter music.

 

MD: You don’t read or write standard notation, yet you’ve created the very complex music of Univers Zero. Do you write personalized charts for yourself and the other musicians?

Daniel: Indeed, I don’t write or read music. This may seem surprising for someone who plays with musicians who do. Maybe there is laziness on my part, but I’ve always wished to approach music in the same way a folk/traditional musician would and perform in a spontaneous, instinctive manner.

When ideas for compositions began appearing in my head, I taught myself to play keyboards. I used a couple of crappy cassette recorders to overdub myself playing the various parts. I’d record the basic keyboard structure on one, then add the other parts with the other, and so on. Once I’d finished you could barely hear the original track. Still, it kind of worked, and I used that antiquated process for many years, until I was finally able to afford a Tascam four-track tape recorder about ten years later. Once I was satisfied with what I’d recorded, I’d play the tape to the other musicians and indicate which part each would have to play. I also wrote some of the music down in my own self-taught way, which they would then convert to proper scores.

The music I wrote for UZ became more and more precise over time. Of course, some of the parts were later enriched and improved by the group—a good example being the intro to “La Faulx,” which got better with every concert.

For many years now I’ve been using a computer. It’s the ideal tool for me. Thanks to the sampled sounds of the various instruments heard in the group, I can immediately get a very clear idea of how the music will eventually sound. Once I’m pleased with a piece, I send the MIDI file to Michel Berckmans, who turns it into a proper score, which is then forwarded to each musician. The rest of the work is done in rehearsal.


DANIEL’s SETUP
DRUMS: Gretsch 1975 kit in “black nitron” finish: 8×12 tom, 16×16 floor tom, 18×20 gong tom, 16×18 bass drum; Gretsch 5×14 chrome snare; Sonor Signature 8×14 wood snare
CYMBALS: 1960s-era K Zildjian: 14″ hihats, 20″ dark crash, 20″ heavy ride, and 22″ ride; 26″ Wuhan China
HEADS: Evans Genera HD Dry snare batter, coated Genera G2 on toms, coated Ambassador on gong tom, CAD/CAM UNO 58 1000 on bass drum
HARDWARE: DW bass drum pedal with hard cork beater
STICKS: Vic Firth 5A sticks and brushes


 

MD: No matter what odd meter or groove you’re playing, you always sound utterly relaxed. How do you achieve such a natural state while playing complex music? Are there specific exercises you follow for relaxation?

Daniel: Rhythmic settings that are a little complex can, with the right amount of work, be felt and performed exactly as would a basic 4/4. You just have to feel the pulse, playing over the metrics, not thinking too much about divisions the same way musicians from Eastern Europe do, for instance.

I can’t really explain why I am drawn to odd meters. I was probably fascinated by the apparent chaos they introduced, which isn’t so present in the more basic jazz or rock rhythms. In my first group, Arkham, in the early 1970s, we were using quite complex meters. Again, these rhythms only work if you play them with the same rhythmic feel as you’d play traditional music. Whenever the rhythmic structures of a piece become too intellectualized or arithmetic, the music becomes artificial and lifeless.

MD: While somewhat conventional backbeats appear on later UZ records, you often play a more orchestral style. Does your snare drum play the lead role in that case? Bass drum and cymbals seem to take a secondary, more complementary role.

Daniel: I try to integrate the drums in the same way a percussion set would be used in a classical orchestra. But it’s not systematic. It depends on the pieces.

This happens when the piece seems to require certain sounds or tone colors and not necessarily “conventional” drum parts. So I try to find something that fits, basically adapting my part to the music, using only cymbals and bass drum, or only snare drum sometimes. “Conventional” drumming would distort or weigh down the whole thing.

Also, this may seem absurd, but often I have no idea for drum parts when I write a new piece. I never start with a drum part but rather with the other instruments. Even recently, when recording our new CD, Clivages, at the last minute I was still trying out various ideas to finalize the drum parts for the piece “Soubresauts.”

MD: In earlier UZ music, your snare typically seems to maintain the primary rhythm with, again, bass drum and hi-hat providing complementary accents. Can you give a few examples of how the snare/bass/hi-hat relationship works in your early music? What is your process for creating these unusual patterns?

Daniel: My wish is to place and compose my parts based on the music, not the reverse. So I use the various elements of the kit, trying different combinations and retaining those I think best fit the atmospheres or parts of each piece. There is nothing systematic about this. I simply try to find what works best.

In the early days of Magma, Christian Vander liked to use the “military” aspect of the snare drum in his music. This opened some doors for me and pointed to a new way of using the snare drum within the drumkit.

MD: You play more standard grooves on later UZ recordings, but typically with unusual accents and phrasing. What dictates where you accent within a particular groove or pattern?

Daniel: Once you’ve found your own kind of language, the difficulty lies in not repeating yourself. You need to continue to search and evolve. Even when you’re playing more conventional grooves, it’s interesting to apply your own spirit to them. When I listen to a piece I’ve never heard before and, after only a few bars, I recognize who’s playing, I consider it a success. This is what I’m trying to achieve.

MD: As drummers we’re used to hearing other drummers playing with electric instruments, but you often play with bassoon, oboe, harmonium…. How does this allow you to play more acoustically and draw different timbres from the drums?

Daniel: It isn’t easy not to drown out the bassoon, English horn, or clarinet when the music gets really wild in the triple fortes. This is something that you have to keep under control. I believe there is no alternative in Univers Zero to thinking in terms of percussion rather than drums. Again, this depends on each piece.

MD: Drummers typically crash a cymbal and bass drum together, but you don’t always do that.

Daniel: There should be no method, no principles, no systematic approaches in drumming. That’s precisely what allows drummers to remain inventive and find their own language. I think the richness of the instrument lies in exploring and exploiting all the possibilities and amalgams of sound it offers. What you must do is conceive intelligent and imaginative parts that fit the music. Adding accents where one least expects them, or devising backwards patterns and unusual divisions—Tony Williams demonstrated this type of thing admirably. Although UZ’s music is very precise, I do allow myself to play quite freely on most of these structures, which produces different, non-set results.

MD: How do you record drums?

Daniel: I’ve always overdubbed my drum parts after the other instruments have been recorded, so I could best adapt them. This is a good thing for precision and tightness, but sadly it can affect the spontaneity and energy of the playing. This also requires one to play to a click track, which is a bit constraining and impacts the music. For Clivages we decided to perform live together in order to make the music as lively as possible. It was a wise decision.

MD: “Docteur Petiot,” from 1313, is a very orchestral track. How did you decide what to accent in your accompaniment in this song?

Daniel: This was a very long time ago, thirty-two years, in 1977! What was interesting with this repetitive 7/4 pattern was to find a drum part with a weird and obsessive riff to link the bass and guitar. The use of toms and cymbals is unusual. It’s something you can find in Captain Beefheart’s music, which has always been an inspiration for me. Nowadays I would probably play differently on this piece.

MD: Your solo piece “Falling Rain Dance,” from Live, is very contemporary sounding. How do you plan a solo? What elements dictate its direction?

Daniel: No patterns were planned in advance. I begin playing with no idea of what I’m going to play. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If I structure my solo mentally before playing, it always fails. Or it has nothing to do with what I’d intended to play!

MD: Can you break down the amazing pattern in “Ronde”?

Daniel: It’s difficult for me to analyze this. I simply start with an idea for a weird “binary” dance. The skeleton for this particular piece is mostly based on a left-hand harmonium part. The tempo is interrupted and broken at various points, with rhythms that morph into eleven, nine, and other odd meters, reinforced by dissonant and obsessive chords. The result is the kind of dance that I believe would have been well liked by the yokels from the Middle Ages. The broken, sometimes obsessive structure of the tempo and the use of non-conventional harmonies are meant to underline the pathetic, deceptively festive atmosphere of the piece.

“Ronde” was the first extended composition I began to write for UZ, around 1975, and it was the starting point and gears for the other similar pieces that followed.


RECORDINGS
Univers Zero Heresie, Ceux Du Dehors, Crawling Wind, Uzed, Heatwave, The Hard Quest, Rhythmix, Implosion, Live, Relaps: Archives 1984–1986 /// Daniel Denis Sirius And The Ghosts, Les Eaux Troubles /// Art Zoyd Faust, Ubique, Häxan

FAVORITES
Captain Beefheart Trout Mask Replica (John “Drumbo” French) /// Miles Davis Live-Evil (Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham) /// Jimi Hendrix Experience Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love (Mitch Mitchell) /// King Crimson In The Court Of The Crimson King, In The Wake Of Poseidon (Michael Giles) /// Magma 1001 Degrees Centigrade, Kohntarkhosz (Christian Vander) /// Soft Machine Volume Two, Third (Robert Wyatt) /// Tony Williams Lifetime Emergency (Tony Williams)


MD: You often get unusual timbres and resonances from your kit. Can you explain the different ways that you extract sound from the drums?

Daniel: The way you strike the drums is extremely important. I’d say it accounts for 80 percent of your sound. I’ve never been able to determine whether it’s the striking that changes the kit’s sound, or the instrument itself. The quality of the cymbals you use is also essential. Among the cymbals I own, I use old K Zildjians from the 1960s: heavy ride, hi-hats, and ride. As for the bass drum, I leave a little resonance by using the damper only partially. This way I get a rather “cracking” sound, not too high pitched.

MD: How did you originally develop your snare drum technique?

Daniel: I am completely self-taught. I never took a single lesson. Around age fifteen, I played to records by Hendrix and Cream, trying to imitate Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker. My learning process was very much guided by instinct, and as regards technique, I worked mostly on patterns that I felt were the most important—rolls and independence—to realize the ideas I had in mind.

MD: What practice element made the biggest difference in your technique? Did you practice long hours of playing rolls on snare drum?

Daniel: Obviously I spent a huge amount of time practicing the instrument, not to develop an amazing technique but to achieve the greatest possible freedom in my playing. The first time I heard Hendrix I was extremely impressed by Mitch Mitchell’s playing. I tried to understand his “rolling” playing technique. I really think drummers of this caliber, with that kind of spirit, don’t exist anymore. He and Hendrix were a perfect example of absolute fusion between two musicians.

When I met Christian Vander during my brief stint in Magma in 1972, I was able to observe how the suppleness of wrists and ankles was extremely crucial. I worked on that much more after that. However, I never tried to achieve amazing technique. I find it boring. To see and hear a drummer with amazing technique showing off bores me to tears. Only the greatest drummers, like Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Mitch Mitchell, and Christian Vander, to name a few, understood this and used technique intelligently to serve the music and maximize energy.

I started out as essentially a rock drummer, but I soon found out that if I worked on jazz patterns—without necessarily playing jazz—I could give my drumming more suppleness and musicality.

MD: What tips can you give on developing a more orchestral drumming style or approach?

Daniel: First and foremost, look at the drumkit as a full-fledged instrument with its own potential for musicality, and not as merely a “rhythm machine.” The main elements that one should seek to acquire and balance in order to be a complete musician are imagination, energy, subtlety, and great musicality. Technique, for me, is a secondary concern.

MD: Your drumming has evolved since Univers Zero’s debut album. What has contributed to your growth?

Daniel: Outside influences impact less than they did in the early days. What I did was try to enrich my own playing style according to the evolution of UZ’s music. I have always been, and still am, drawn to 1960s/’70s drummers like Tony Williams, who for me remains the greatest of them all.

MD: How have you developed the artistic courage to follow your own path for so long? What vision has driven you through the years?

Daniel: It’s always been arduous and thankless, but despite moments of discouragement, the satisfactions can be enormous. What I find particularly saddening is the sense of isolation and exclusion I find compared with other musical styles that are better accepted by the media. I see UZ’s music as accessible to everyone, but sadly it’s filtered from all existing media: radio, TV, press— except MD!—and concert promoters. This means that, without choosing to be, we remain within a very confined network.

Whenever you create music that is off the beaten track, there is an additional motivation, that of struggling to keep it alive in spite of everything. There is no recipe. A lot of enthusiasm and pleasure can be derived from simply trying to create works of art with sincerity and sharing them with others. Music remains an exceptional means of communication and transmission.

Thanks to Aymeric Leroy for translation assistance.