Jim White, drummer for the noted Australian cult band the Dirty Three, explores the gray areas of instrumental indie rock with an ounce of subtlety and pounds of invention.
Do you think that people project meaning onto drums in the way they do other instruments?” poses Jim White of the Australian post-rock instrumental trio the Dirty Three, casting the image of a grizzled, bearded sage from inside his Brooklyn, New York, apartment. “People say, ‘Serve the song.’ But what is a song? Are we not part of it? There are a lot of assumptions about the drums that don’t have to be made.”
As a member of the Dirty Three for the last twenty years, White has often, and easily, subverted backbeat patterns in favor of a kind of lyrical rhythmic style. His mercurial drumming explores the nuances of the music he’s performing. Tapping a small cadre of implements, including brushes, mallets, Pro-Mark Hot Rods, and standard sticks, Jim creates a haunting, swirling “white” noise of freeflowing beats and well-placed accents, which undulate throughout the group’s hypnotic and often meditative music. In addition, White places pieces of percussion on his kit to extract a variety of textures.
“I brought tambourines, a woodblock, and a cowbell simply to produce some other sounds,” White says. “I put the tambourines and other percussion instruments on the drums and the cymbals and mounted one on the hi-hat. On some songs they’re used throughout. Sometimes I’d move them around and on and off as needed. I could have fixed them on stands, I suppose, but I like how they resonate when on the drums and cymbals. I also like the controlled chaos they bring with them by being unhinged.
Controlled chaos is an apt phrase to describe the Dirty Three’s music: The band seems to bring its songs to the tipping point but never allows them to fully derail. The sonic tension (and release) the trio builds within the framework of its compositions causes the listener to reflect on a range of emotions, from inconsolable grief and crushing homesickness to open-country joy and heroic self-empowerment. Within this context White’s drumming and Warren Ellis’s soaring and sometimes savage violin work combine to adopt the traditional role of lead vocalist in the spiraling wordless epics “Sue’s Last Ride,” “Deep Waters,” and “I Offered It Up to the Stars & the Night Sky,” from records such as 1996’s Horse Stories, 1998’s Ocean Songs, and 2000’s Whatever You Love, You Are.
And White is not shy about taking the reins in other musical settings as well. For his recent work with the Greek lute player Giorgos Xylouris (sometimes known as Psarogiorgis) and on the 2007 album You Follow Me, with singer/songwriter/ guitarist Nina Nastasia, the drummer floods the sonic foreground with a rush of rhythm, skillfully skirting backbeats and often subtly and ingeniously mirroring what’s being played on guitar.
At first blush, the listener might perceive White as circling his own orbit around the music with reckless disregard for his collaborators. Upon further inspection, however, we realize that White is really locked in, like a tractor beam, drawing our attention to various intriguing musical changes by translating to his compact kit snippets of melodic ideas and entire lead guitar/lute lines.
It’s obvious from speaking with White that he’s especially proud of the work he’s done with Nastasia, and of the important role he played in the making of You Follow Me. “I said to Nina, ‘What if the drums did all of the accompaniment for the record?’” recalls White, who plays a four-piece setup. “I knew drums wouldn’t provide the melody, but what they can provide is a kind of harmony. Nina got it, understood what I meant, and then wrote songs accordingly.”
When describing White’s difficult-to define playing, the drummer’s musical
collaborators and champions often wax poetic. “The reason Jim’s style worked so well for my record Easy Come, Easy Go is because it’s so jazzy,” says the legendary chanteuse Marianne Faithfull. “The thing is, Jim is not a jazz drummer. He’s almost a jazz drummer. Some people don’t get that about his playing. They think he’s sloppy or somebody who doesn’t really know what he’s doing. But it’s so not that at all.”
Admittedly, there’s something almost childlike, even Dada-esque, about White’s fearless creativity that has inspired influential and iconic musical figures to sing his praises. Faithfull, Nick Cave, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Glenn Kotche (Wilco), Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham), and PJ Harvey simply go nuckin’ futs over the Aussie.
“Jim is one of the freest and most original musicians I’ve ever seen,” says Harvey, who invited White to record drums and percussion for her 2007 record, White Chalk. “We couldn’t take our eyes off of him. Seeing him play gave us more confidence to be freer, I think, and in turn helped the album to be very much the same.”
White’s multidimensional and sometimes cerebral approach seems closer in intent to that of an avant-garde drummer or hard bopper, yet it’s sufficiently removed from jazz drumming as to be something else altogether. (White lists a range of influences, from Coltrane foil Elvin Jones to New Orleans drummer Albert “Gentleman June” Gardner.) Jim’s wispy, sweeping, scrambling brushwork has widened the sonic scope of the songs he’s played with the Dirty Three, including pieces such as the wistful slow burner “Ashen Snow” (yes, that warbling sound you’re hearing is a real, honest-to-goodness Mellotron), “You Greet Her Ghost,” and “Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone,” from the band’s first studio effort in seven years, 2012’s Toward the Low Sun.
Undoubtedly, the ergonomics of White’s movement around (and behind) the kit have shaped his phrasing, touch, and attack. Jim twitches, twists, and turns on his throne as his right hand plays fast ostinato ride cymbal patterns and his left roams around freely. His semicircular arm movements further feed his conceptual ideas. With his limbs in constant motion, White establishes an organic sense of time, affording him the opportunity to strike (as well as easily cast off) the percussion equipment he’s laid on top of the skins and cymbals and to quickly switch back and forth between different implements without missing a beat.
“I don’t feel like I have to start playing with one implement and finish with the same one,” White says. “It gets down to this idea of the length of the notes or beats I’m playing. I don’t play, and don’t want to play, staccato notes with brushes.”
It might not be an obvious comparison, but it’s an appropriate one: Fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth has spent his career trying to remake the guitar as a “less percussive” musical tool, chasing clean, non-distorted sustain in homage to his favorite instrument, the saxophone. White operates in much the same fashion on the drumkit: His musical quest is to perform fluid rhythms and redefine the role of the drums.
“I find I can achieve a kind of sustain through brushes, because they give you a tool to build tension and then release it,” Jim says. “Mallets work in similar ways.”
Surprisingly, it was a technical glitch that sparked, in part, what White refers to as his use of “melodic phrasing” with brushes. Just prior to the recording of the Dirty Three’s 1998 album, Ocean Songs, guitarist Mick Turner was experimenting with effects pedals in his other project with White, Tren Brothers. “It was something like a delay,” the drummer says, “but because of a limitation of the pedal he was using, he couldn’t seem to catch the phrasing correctly and the timing was slightly off. When Mick and I played together, it was just the two of us and this delay sound—an uncontrollable space. You think, I wonder what that space is going to do today. What am I going to make it do? So that’s how I developed the brush fluttering. [White demonstrates how he elevates his arms and quickly turns his wrists from side to side.] With this fluttering I could play a phrase and fill in some space and not worry about the timing of the delay.”
An even earlier constraint, an actual physical limitation, similarly helped to mold White’s inimitable style. The Dirty Three, formed in the early 1990s, played regularly at a Melbourne bar, the Bakers Arms Hotel in Abbotsford, two sets a night for sixty bucks. The venue’s space, however, was so unsuited for the threepiece band that White couldn’t even fit a bass drum near the staging area. “I was only using a hi-hat, cymbal, floor tom, snare, and one cymbal,” the drummer says. “The first couple of shows we played, Warren and Mick plugged into one amp. We could fit everything for the show in the boot—or trunk—of the car. In a sense, my style has developed because of the sound of the drums and my setup. I mean, at that time I was playing with one hand what could be defined as kick patterns on the floor tom.”
The trio would create material the night before a performance and then unleash it on an unsuspecting audience. Ellis, the great showman he is, would stomp the stage with arms flailing, scream into his violin pickup, and regale crowds with bizarre, rambling monologues. Guitarist Turner performed the under appreciated but crucial role of holding the fabric of the music together, playing lulling arpeggiated notes and strumming chords. White developed a style that was at once invasive and supportive.
As the guys became a more solid unit, they began recording music on a reel-toreel four-track tape machine. They’d go on to cut eight full-length studio records, including Toward the Low Sun, each one as inspirational and impressionistic as the next.
“I was at a crossroads before we formed the Dirty Three,” says White, whose success as a musician afforded him the opportunity to leave Australia in 1995 and live in different cities all over the world, including London, Chicago, and New York. “My career and playing style weren’t coming together. I thought, Oh well—music didn’t work out. You know what I mean? I was trying really hard. Then there came a point where I was letting go of all that intention, and all the intention started to come out with the Dirty Three.”
This is most evident on a couple of releases, including, quite appropriately, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s 2006 album The Letting Go (of which White says, “I tried to make small sounds, not really wanting to make the drums sound like a kit”) and Toward the Low Sun. For White, the latter is a culmination of his and the band’s work. “All of the elements that define the Dirty Three are present on the album,” Jim says. “I think it’s also a fair representation of my playing.”
Although a certain measure of elasticity is still present in the Dirty Three’s music, equating the band’s looseness with spontaneous composition, or aimless jamming, would be a huge mistake. “I think the general form of all the tunes is decided upon during writing and rehearsing the material,” says Casey Rice, who mixed and co-engineered Toward the Low Sun. “Virtually everything you hear on the album outside of overdubbed stuff is a continuous take from start to finish. There was no click used at any time during the sessions; it’s just the sound of a band playing their music.”
“There are only three instruments going on at once,” White says. “There’s no voice, which can take up an enormous part of the sound and the listener’s attention. There’s no bass player. It’s always a struggle as far as who’s going to look after that bottom end. How is it going to work?”
The bottom end is looked after quite well, it turns out, given White’s approach and his love of vintage drum equipment, which the drummer has procured over the years to help foster his resonant and ambient sound. In a very literal sense, White rummages through refuse to draw out musical magic.
“On Toward the Low Sun I used a Gretsch kit I bought at a garage sale in Chicago for $300,” Jim explains. “It’s actually one of my favorite kits, and it’s in London right now. I have different kits located in different cities, in storage. One of them is an old Ludwig from the 1960s. I have a 22″ Slingerland bass drum that still has the calfskins on it. It sounds beautiful; I think it’s from the 1920s. It has the vintage crab-shell woodblocks, you know? So cool. The bass drum pedal has this big floppy woolen ball on it. Initially I played it with a modern pedal, but it sounded horrible. When I used the original pedal against the calfskin heads, there was the sound. The vintage equipment sort of reinforces this idea I’ve developed to use a bass drum with the two heads and no holes in it. It’s very open sounding, and there’s room for that in our music.”
White explains that many of his musical choices over the years have been guided more by feel than by an overriding ambition to consciously apply his amassed knowledge of the drums. It appears he is not attempting to unlock the mysteries of the universe through playing a faster paradiddle or dissecting his work via written tablature. He’d much rather dabble in a bit of research and development than be a strict technician.
“That’s a compliment,” White says, flashing a mischievous, toothy grin that peeks through his thick thatch of facial hair. “I’ve studied drums and learned how to read, thanks to my early teacher, Frank Corniola. I’ve practiced all the rudiments. I have a good foundation. But maybe it’s sometimes detrimental to know everything about the music you’re playing. That’s not how I approach playing music and not how I approach the music we do as the Dirty Three. I don’t want to think about music in black and white.”
PROPS FROM PEERS
Jim has a very unusual style of drumming. To be honest, it’s not usually what I really like. I like real backbeat, Charlie Watts–type stuff. That’s my favorite drumming, and I’ve played with some great drummers, including Martyn Barker, the drummer in my European touring band. Then I heard Jim and I just loved it, that very relaxed, loopy sort of thing. Yet Jim doesn’t go off the beat. It’s so brilliant, and it changes the feel of the song. As a singer, I don’t like being exactly on the beat, and Jim has mastered this kind of “falling off” thing.
Also, Jim has sounds in his head that are very hard to replicate within the modern sphere. I think that’s why he uses vintage drums with vintage skins. He seems very particular about that: They must be stretched at moonlight, sewn by virgins, with spells muttered over them at midnight. With Jim White, drumming is a dark, deep, delicious, esoteric art.
My first introduction to Jim’s playing was when he lived in Chicago, right at the time I moved back after college. I was lucky enough to be in this improvising collective [Boxhead Ensemble], double drumming with him, which had a huge impact on me. There were several things about his playing, and subsequently when I’ve seen him perform live, that were eureka moments for me. Seeing him play with a stick in one hand and a mallet or brush in the other, it made perfect sense. It struck me as a [Jim] Keltner approach, where he’s putting the needs of the song first. If that means you use a brush first and then go to a stick and then a mallet and back to a stick, so be it. It’s whatever the music is dictating.
The other thing that struck me is Jim’s use of motion. That just kind of walloped me. When he plays a ride cymbal, it isn’t just about the stroke. He’s using a full circular motion between beats at very slow tempos. His arms never stop moving, and that’s how he keeps time. And don’t get me started on the preparations he uses on the drums. Watching Jim do all this stuff, I’m sure it’s helped to embolden me to do the same.
POLLY JEAN HARVEY
I first encountered his playing around 1995, when I was on tour with my record To Bring You My Love. I’d gotten to know the Dirty Three a little bit and invited them to open for us. We did quite a few dates together, and I got to see Jim play night after night. All of us, my band, would watch the Dirty Three, largely because of the magnetic charisma Jim has as a player.
When I saw Jim play I knew that I’d like to record with him, but it wasn’t until I had written the album White Chalk, which was a real breakthrough for me in terms of writing, that I actually invited him to do so. The album took me into an entirely different realm as an artist, and it broke a lot of old patterns that I felt were constraining me. So I thought it was absolutely the right time to record with Jim.
If somebody asked me to describe what Jim does, I would never say he’s a drummer. The word doesn’t even come into my mind. I see him as a magician. It’s almost as if a spell is being cast when he plays. And Jim never plays the same thing twice. I remember when we were working on White Chalk and we’d tell him, “That was really great. Can you just do it again, but when you hit the chorus switch to this,” telling him to do something else. But he would never, ever play the take like he had played the one before. Jim doesn’t dwell on anything. It’s absolutely pointless for him to dwell on anything that he’s done before, and that’s why he’s so special. I think we should all live our lives, let alone play an instrument, like that.
The Dirty Three Dirty Three; Sad & Dangerous; Horse Stories; Ocean Songs; Whatever You Love, You Are; She Has No Strings Apollo; Cinder; Toward the Low Sun /// Nina Nastasia & Jim White You Follow Me /// PJ Harvey White Chalk /// Marianne Faithfull Easy Come, Easy Go /// Tren Brothers The Swimmer, Tren Brothers EP /// Nick Cave The Secret Life of the Love Song/The Flesh Made Word /// Cat Power Moon Pix, Jukebox /// Smog A River Ain’t Too Much to Love /// Bonnie “Prince” Billy The Letting Go /// White Magic Dark Stars /// Venom P. Stinger What’s Yours Is Mine /// Kim Salmon Hey Believer /// Nick Cave and Warren Ellis The Proposition soundtrack
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
White plays a variety of vintage kits, but his mainstay is a 1950s Gretsch. This setup features a 15×20 bass drum, a 9×13 tom, and a 16×16 floor tom, plus a 51/2×14 Ludwig snare. Jim plays Istanbul Agop cymbals, including a 22″ ride, an 18″ OM crash, and 15″ Special Edition Jazz hi-hats. He uses Vic Firth 5A wood-tip or 7A Rock wood-tip sticks, Pro-Mark Hot Rods (medium), Vic Firth Heritage “purple handle” brushes, and Vic Firth T1 or T3 timpani mallets.